Weekend Roundup: Top Secret Spy iPod; Uber’s California Armageddon

It’s the weekend! Here are some of the other big stories in tech you might have missed, including one former Apple engineer’s cool recollection of the time an iPod was converted into some kind of espionage device. 

iPod = Top Secret Spy Device 

David Shayer, who was an Apple engineer for 18 years, has an incredible story in TidBITS about building a one-off iPod for the U.S. government back in 2005. It was an under-the-table project with no paper trail—so secret, in fact, that even Shayer’s boss wasn’t looped in. 

What did that very special iPod do? The men who visited Shayer at Apple’s old headquarters, he wrote, “wanted to add some custom hardware to an iPod and record data from this custom hardware to the iPod’s disk in a way that couldn’t be easily detected. But it still had to look and work like a normal iPod.”

In other words, spy stuff. We won’t spoil the whole story, which ends with Shayer hypothesizing what the government wanted that very special iPod for; but even if you’re not interested in the espionage aspect, it’s well worth reading for the breakdown of the original iPod’s software, which Apple cobbled together via acquisitions and some ingenious customization. 

Uber and Lyft Play Chicken with California

This week, Uber and Lyft almost shut down completely in the state of California. As we reported previously, a California court demanded that the ride-hailing services classify their drivers as full-time employees or risk shutdown. 

Most of the time, giant companies find compromises with governments to keep operating in some fashion, even if governments do things that threaten those companies’ core business models. But we’re in 2020, which means that everything automatically goes as extreme as possible. After spending a couple of days trying to win in the court of public opinion, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, realizing that the court of California wasn’t playing around, began saying that Uber could shut down in the state until at least November

With 12 hours before the court-ordered suspension went into effect, though, Uber and Lyft won a delay. A Lyft spokesperson wrote in response:

While we won’t have to suspend operations tonight, we do need to continue fighting for independence plus benefits for drivers. That’s the solution on the ballot in November, and it’s the solution drivers want because it preserves their ability to earn and to use the platform as they do now — whenever they want — while also getting historic new benefits. Without it, 80-90% of Californians who earn on app-based platforms will lose that opportunity.”

If the shutdown eventually goes into effect, Uber has one big advantage over Lyft in this scenario: Uber Eats, its food-delivery service, can continue even after the ride-sharing aspect of the business is shut down. If you’re interested in the gig economy at all, this is a key situation to watch, as the decisions made by the involved companies and governments in coming months could have a seismic effect on how gig-based tech firms look and operate for years to come.    

Facebook Radically Changes Oculus Sign-Ins

Facebook has announced a major change to the Oculus VR platform. Starting in October 2020, everyone who buys an Oculus device will need a Facebook account to log in. Facebook will grandfather existing Oculus accounts through the end of 2022 before deactivating them altogether.

“After January 1, 2023, we will end support for Oculus accounts,” mentioned the official Oculus blog. “If you choose not to merge your accounts at that time, you can continue using your device, but full functionality will require a Facebook account. We will take steps to allow you to keep using content you have purchased, though we expect some games and apps may no longer work.”

This is a bigger deal than it might seem at first, especially if you haven’t been following the VR world closely. Over the past few years, Facebook has exerted tighter control over its subsidiaries, which include Instagram and WhatsApp. Chafing at the additional oversight, the founders of those subsidiaries (all of which were, at one point, hot startups) have left. However, Facebook tightening the leash hasn’t dissuaded users (or advertisers) from using these services.

With Oculus, though, things could be different. The hardcore gamers who constitute Oculus’s core audience seem unhappy about the move, because many distrust Facebook’s data-gathering operations or its ethics. “I am already getting heat from users and media outlets who say this policy change proves I was lying when I consistently said this wouldn’t happen, or at least that it was a guarantee I wasn’t in a position to make,” Oculus founder Palmer Luckey wrote on Reddit. “I want to make clear that those promises were approved by Facebook in that moment and on an ongoing basis, and I really believed it would continue to be the case for a variety of reasons.”

But will those gamers abandon Oculus altogether? That’s the multi-billion-dollar question. They don’t seem happy over Facebook’s move, but where will they go instead?

Have a great weekend, everyone! Stay safe!