Nick Bryner, a high school senior in Los Angeles, spent hours completing his AP English Literature and Composition test last week. But when he snapped a photo of a written answer with his iPhone and attempted to upload it to the testing portal, it stopped responding.
The website got stuck on the loading screen until Bryner’s time ran out. Bryner failed the test. He’s retaking it in a few weeks.
Bryner is among the many high school students around the country who completed Advanced Placement tests online last week but were unable to submit them at the end. The culprit: image formats.
For the uninitiated: AP exams require longform answers. Students can either type their response or upload a photo of handwritten work. Students who choose the latter option can do so as a JPG, JPEG, or PNG format according to the College Board’s coronavirus FAQ.
But the testing portal doesn’t support the default format on iOS devices and some newer Android phones, HEIC files. HEIC files are smaller than JPEGs and other formats, thus allowing you to store a lot more photos on an iPhone. Basically, only Apple (and, more recently, Samsung) use the HEIC format — most other websites and platforms don’t support it. Even popular Silicon Valley-based services, such as Slack, don’t treat HEICs the same way as standard JPEGs.
Bryner says many of his classmates also tried to submit iPhone photos and experienced the same problem. The issue was so common that his school’s AP program forwarded an email from the College Board to students on Sunday including tidbits of advice to prevent submission errors.
“What’s devastating is that thousands of students now have an additional three weeks of stressful studying for retakes,” Bryner said.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, the College Board said that “the vast majority of students successfully completed their exams” in the first few days of online testing, “with less than 1 percent unable to submit their responses.” The company also noted that “We share the deep disappointment of students who were unable to submit responses.”
The email Bryner received doesn’t mention the HEIC format, though it does link to the College Board’s website, which instructs students with iPhones to change their camera settings so that photos save as JPEGs rather than HEICs. The company also linked to that information in a tweet early last week.
If you want to submit a photo of a handwritten AP Exam answer from an iPhone or iPad, make sure to change your camera settings so your photos are saved as JPEGs, not HEICs. Go to Settings > Camera > Formats > Select “Most Compatible.”
— The College Board (@CollegeBoard) May 12, 2020
The advice, however, was too late for many students. One senior, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions from school, said that the College Board’s tweet went out just a few minutes before his Physics C test began. “No one taking the AP Physics test would have been able to see it because we were already logged into the test,” he said.
Senior Dave Spencer took a demo test before his Calculus AB exam to make sure he understood the process for uploading photos. He Airdropped an iPhone image of his responses to his Mac and tried to convert it by renaming the HEIC file to PNG. Changing a file’s extension does not guarantee that it will be converted, but Spencer was still able to submit the demo test with no problem.
Spencer used the same process on the real exam and thought it went through, but he received an email the next day saying the files were corrupted and that he needed to retake the test. The College Board’s tweet went out just a few hours before Spencer’s scheduled exam; he doesn’t have a Twitter account and didn’t see it.
“This is absolutely unacceptable, as some kids may not have Twitter like me,” Spencer said in a text message. “That nuance was not addressed anywhere in the demo.”
Everly Kai, a senior in British Columbia, had the same problem with Computer Science A last week — she attempted to rename the file to JPEG and received the same email a few hours after submitting her test.
“It was honestly a bit devastating,” Kai said in a text. “I studied almost the entirety of the previous week and feel I did quite well, only to realize it was for nothing and I’d have to go through the entire stressful process again.”
Bryner thinks the clarification isn’t enough, even for students who are taking the test later. “Most students are probably going to continue to run into this,” he said. Bryner doesn’t think the company should have expected him and his classmates to jump through so many hoops. “To flip the switch from HEIC to JPEG is buried in settings, and something that no one is thinking about going into the test,” he said.
Even students who knew about the HEIC problem have had trouble figuring out how to fix it, especially in the high-pressure testing environment. Sean S., a junior from Chicago who took Calculus AB, used OneDrive to port a photo to his Windows desktop from his iPhone, then attempted to convert the file with Windows Photo. Due to the photo’s size, the conversion took over five minutes. Then, before the JPEG had fully submitted, his time ran out. (Sean requested to be identified only by his first name and last initial because his parents didn’t want his name in the news.)
Luckily, it sounds like students will have more recourse in the future. The College Board is now allowing test-takers who have issues submitting their tests to email them instead — iPhones convert HEICs to JPEGs automatically when they’re attached to emails in the Mail app. If you fail to submit, you’ll immediately receive a notification and a unique email address to use. This option is only available for future exams, however — it won’t help Bryner and others who failed their tests last week.
Tens of thousands of students are demanding that the College Board do more. Following technical issues with her own test last week, Los Angeles senior Eliana Sisman created a petition calling on the company to allow her and fellow students to resubmit their previous work. The petition has collected over 23,000 signatures.
“I thank the College Board for setting up a re-submission channel for students taking APs this year,” Sisman said in a statement to The Verge. “I urge them to be fair to students who’ve already taken the APs and can’t submit them. Many students will be in the military or working at summer jobs by June 1st and won’t be able to take the makeup test.”
She added, “If the college board does this, they will make it clear to everyone that they are a responsible and caring community institution.”
You can no longer subscribe to HBO via Apple TV Channels
HBO is no longer available as an Apple TV Channel for people who want to subscribe to it though the Apple TV app (via 9to5Mac). The change follows today’s launch of the new streaming service HBO Max.
Apple TV Channels first launched last year as a way to watch content from many different service providers all in one app, meaning you wouldn’t have to bounce around between different third-party apps to watch different content. Now, though, it seems HBO wants to push users to watch HBO Max content on the HBO Max app instead of through Apple’s.
If you already subscribe to HBO through Apple TV’s Channels, you can apparently still see it in the Apple TV app, but it won’t be updated to include content that’s exclusive to HBO Max, according to 9to5Mac. You also have free access to HBO Max thanks to a deal that was struck between Apple and WarnerMedia last month. When that deal was struck, Deadline reported that HBO Max would be integrated into the Apple TV app, but it appears that hasn’t happened yet.
There are a number of ways to access HBO Max, and my colleague Chaim Gartenberg has put together a handy guide on how you can stream HBO Max and how to know if you may already have access to it without needing to pay.
If you want to subscribe to HBO Max through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels portal, however, you can’t just yet. The issue, it seems, is due to contract negotiations, reports The Wall Street Journal, which is why the HBO Max app is not available on either Amazon Fire devices or Roku ones. Amazon is blaming the dispute on AT&T, which owns HBO Max operator WarnerMedia, in a statement provided to The Verge:
With a seamless customer experience, nearly 5 million HBO streamers currently access their subscription through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels. Unfortunately, with the launch of HBO Max, AT&T is choosing to deny these loyal HBO customers access to the expanded catalog. We believe that if you’re paying for HBO, you’re entitled to the new programming through the method you’re already using. That’s just good customer service and that’s a priority for us.
WarnerMedia defended itself in this statement given to Engadget:
We are thrilled that HBO Max is widely available at launch to customers through a variety of devices and distribution partners as well as HBOMax.com. Our goal is to make HBO Max available on every platform possible to as many viewers globally as possible so they can enjoy beloved shows from HBO, the Warner Bros. movie and TV library and a diversity of hit programming exclusive to HBO Max. We look forward to reaching agreements with the few outstanding distribution partners left, including with Amazon and on par with how they provide customers access to Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu on Fire devices.
Apple TV Plus acquires past Fraggle Rock seasons ahead of reboot
Apple is acquiring Fraggle Rock’s past TV seasons ahead of a new reboot set to land on Apple TV Plus, signaling a potential strategy shift for a service that has thus far relied entirely on original content.
The new Fraggle Rock reboot is being created in partnership with the Jim Henson Company and will bring back characters from the original series “for new songs and adventures, with the same spirit as the classic,” according to a press release. Apple doesn’t mention the licensing deal, but all 96 episodes that aired between 1983 and 1987 are currently available to stream. Vulture first reported the addition on Tuesday.
A Fraggle Rock reboot isn’t too surprising; Apple cited the “global fandom” around its Fraggle Rock: Rock On! shorts as proof that people were interested in the show, but that’s hard to prove without viewership numbers, which Apple hasn’t released. Still, having a show with a recognizable name like Fraggle Rock as part of its entertainment lineup makes sense for Apple.
Acquiring the rights to past seasons also makes sense. Apple bringing licensed content onto Apple TV Plus — something the company adamantly didn’t incorporate into its original strategy — could help solve some of the streaming service’s issues. Having that additional content gives people more of a reason to stick around instead of relying on a sparser offering built on the backs of originals. Plus, being able to bring in recognizable franchise names helps Apple build its IP offerings, similar to what HBO Max, Disney Plus, and Peacock are doing.
The question is how far Apple’s acquisition strategy will go. Recent reports from Bloomberg and Vulture suggest that Apple is interested in acquiring titles that directly relate to new projects it’s developing. As Josef Adalian reported in Vulture this week, with big studios like Disney, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal “looking to keep their best and biggest titles for their own streaming platforms, there simply aren’t enough great titles around” to justify making a play for a traditional library of licensed content. Instead, it makes more sense for Apple to look at acquiring full libraries for shows it wants to reboot — keeping everything in one place makes for a better consumer experience.
“So were Apple to end up doing a deal for the rights to the James Bond franchise (something which has been buzzed about since at least 2017), the company would also likely try to get the back library of Bond films so it could market itself as the home for all things 007,” Adalian wrote.
Apple, like all streaming players right now, is making licensing bets where they make sense. Apple isn’t about to try to use Netflix’s licensing strategy, which helped the general entertainment platform catapult into a behemoth, for its own gain. As Apple figures out which properties make the most sense to either resurrect, remake, or reboot, building out full collections is a smart play.
Apple isn’t calling this a strategy shift — but it is one. Apple TV Plus launched without any licensed content, and CEO Tim Cook reiterated at a shareholders meeting in February that Apple TV Plus wasn’t about hosting older series or films, specifically saying that’s “not what Apple TV Plus is about.” Cook restated that Apple TV Plus is “about original programming.”
“It doesn’t feel right for Apple to just go out and take a rerun,” Cook said.
Now the caveat seems to be if that original programming is based on an older series or movie, it’s likely that collection will wind up on Apple TV Plus.
Apple’s butterfly keyboard failed by prioritizing form over function
In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month will look at what some of those buttons and switches are like on devices old and new to appreciate how we interact with them on a physical, tactile level.
Apple’s butterfly keyboard switches are some of the worst buttons to grace a modern device: unreliable, prone to breaking after coming in contact with a tiny bit of dust or grime, and incredibly difficult and expensive to replace.
But the deeper issue isn’t that the butterfly switches often break; it’s the flawed design goals that led Apple to make a bad button in the first place. Apple chose to make an entire keyboard full of buttons that resulted in a more aesthetically pleasing design with shorter travel and a thinner overall laptop, rather than making ones that are mechanically functional. And it nearly wrecked an entire generation of Apple’s laptops.
Most of our technology today is heavily digital, with touchscreens and software offering limitless possibilities for how we interact. That digital philosophy is the reason we have giant glass slabs as smartphones, the controversial Touch Bar on Apple’s MacBook Pros, or the customizable buttons of the Elgato Stream Deck.
When things are kept as physical buttons, it tends to be because there’s a very good reason for it — things like power buttons on phones, which need to work at a higher interaction level to enable the use of all those digital buttons; volume controls on headphones, where there’s a need to interact with something that you can’t see; or video game controllers, which demand fast and accurate commands while your attention is devoted to the action on-screen.
And of course, there’s the laptop keyboard, where the ability to type well is paramount. Digital keyboards have these issues with accuracy or correctly registering inputs all the time. It’s why our iPhones and Android phones have so many keyboard options, with different predictive text capabilities to try to smooth out those bumps. Physical keyboards aren’t supposed to have the same issue, though. When you press a key, you don’t just expect it to have pressed down; you rely on the fact that it did, without having to take time or effort to check and confirm that that’s the case.
In conflict with that is the decades-long trend in consumer technology that prizes making gadgets simpler, sleeker, and thinner at the expense of functionality. The ramifications of this trend are many and ongoing, and they impact everything from battery life to whether we have 3.5mm headphone jacks on our phones. Nearly every company in the business has followed this trend, but it’s arguably Apple that’s led it with an almost fanatical devotion to making every generation of hardware smaller and lighter than the one before it, sacrificing reliability for style along the way. It’s only in recent years that Apple’s finally started to reverse this trend, with new hardware that better finds the balance between function and form.
Apple isn’t the only company that’s fallen into this trap, however. We’ve seen plenty of examples over the years of devices that try to minimize physical hardware buttons for thinner devices or more customizable software keys. Any number of companies have tried, from Microsoft’s original Surface keyboard covers to Lenovo’s digital and E Ink Yoga Books to Apple’s digital iPad keyboard.
But the lesson that these companies keep learning is that it rarely works. Microsoft has since shifted its Surface covers to mechanical keyboards; Lenovo’s upcoming foldable laptop includes a physical keyboard accessory to type with; and Apple now offers a $350 keyboard case that’s the crown jewel of its current iPad Pro lineups. They’re thicker and heavier solutions than their predecessors, but they’re far more reliable.
Apple’s issue cuts far deeper than those other examples, though, because the butterfly keyboards weren’t on an experimental side project or a keyboard case: it gambled on a key component on its entire lineup of flagship laptops.
Maybe the company thought the failure rate was worth the risk. (After all, Apple spent years iterating on the design and shipped multiple generations of the butterfly switch before throwing in the towel.) But keyboards are an integral part of any computer, at least for how we use them now. If you can’t rely on them to input the text you typed accurately every time, any gains in aesthetics or thinness render them less useful than even a touchscreen laptop.
Good buttons can sometimes make up for bad software, but a bad button — a crumbling bridge between the user and the software — is far harder to make up for. The old-new scissor-switches aren’t my favorite to type on; while others may disagree, I find the butterfly switches far crisper and snappier to use than the softer, mushier scissor-switch. But the scissors are reliable in a way that the butterfly switches aren’t, and that makes all the difference.
It’s a balance Apple is continuing to find. The Touch Bar is a similar idea, replacing mechanical keys with software replacements that promise far more utility at the expense of physical reliability. Maybe it’ll work better: function keys aren’t as critical to daily laptop use, and maybe the benefits outweigh the risks. But Apple’s already had to fine-tune that adjustment, adding a physical Esc key to its newer Touch Bar models that the old ones lacked because some things just can’t rely on software.
The story of Apple’s reviled keyboards isn’t really about the quality of the physical part, as much as it is Apple’s motivation in trying to make the butterfly switches or the Touch Bar or any of these replacement keyboards work at all. It’s about how a single design decision can ripple out and sour the user experience for an entire product, across whole generations of hardware. A sort of… butterfly effect.
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