Ralph Shills for the Internet

Hot on the heels of Ready Player One, Ralph Breaks the Internet is the latest entry in an emerging genre of nostalgic mash-up films. Remember Star Wars? Remember Iron Man? Remember The Muppets? Well, even if you don’t, they’ve been smooshed together and thrown onscreen to elicit those warm, fuzzy feelings we associate with the characters that entertained us as children. It feels egregiously cynical to jam together a bunch of things that people like, loosely thread a plot between them and serve it up as something new, but if that’s what people keep paying to see then that’s what’ll keep getting made.

My curmudgeonly attitude towards Ralph Breaks the Internet’s reliance on a hodgepodge of familiar characters aside, there’s something far more insidious at play in this trailer. Freed from the constraints of their respective arcade games and let loose on the Internet, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) gaze out over the sparkling vista of the open web. As they spot giant logos for Amazon, Facebook, Google, Snapchat and more, Vanellope sighs, “This is the most beautiful miracle I’ve ever seen”.

To treat a company like Google with this kind of reverence in a children’s film strikes me as nothing less than corporate indoctrination. It’s barely been two months since Facebook was revealed to have woefully mishandled our personal information but its logo is presented here as something to ooh and ahh at, a shining symbol of safety and familiarity. Its portrayal here is a whitewashing of its brand and all its associated issues and concerns, and it positions Facebook and its ilk as old friends, as loveable characters in your life no different than Kermit the Frog or Buzz Lightyear. That’s a powerful, dangerous message to beam into the developing mind of a child, and it honestly scares me.

Consciously or not, media like Ralph Breaks the Internet normalises the overbearing presence of enormous brands and corporations in our lives, conditioning children not to question their unethical practices and the influence they wield over our culture. Having not seen the film, it’s entirely possible that Ralph Breaks the Internet takes these companies to task and criticises their place in our world, but I doubt it. There’s a reason why Google and Snapchat and Facebook and the like have all given their permission to have their real brands featured in the film as opposed to being replaced with fictional equivalents: they’re getting something out of this, and we should be extremely suspicious as to what that is.

HomePod: If you like it, put a ring on it

Apple’s new HomePod, a smart speaker in the vein of the Amazon Echo and Google Home product lines, was released last week to mixed reviews. By all accounts, it’s a great-sounding speaker that is frustratingly limited in comparison to its more full-featured competitors, but most of that pales in comparison to the revelation that the device is damaging wooden furniture when placed upon it. From Wirecutter:

 An unhappy discovery after we placed a HomePod on an oiled butcher-block countertop and later on a wooden side table was that it left a defined white ring in the surface. Other reviewers and owners (such as Pocket-lint, and folks on Twitter) have reported the same issue as well. Apple attributes the problem to the oils diffused between the speaker’s vibration-dampening silicone base and the wood, and suggests wiping the marks with a damp or dry soft cloth, or else moving the HomePod to a different surface.

This is nothing short of an embarrassment for Apple, a company that once represented the pinnacle of product design. It seems insane that this didn’t come up at all during the development of the device, particularly when you consider that Apple employees have been testing it in their homes for almost a year. Not only that, but the Apple retail stores that HomePods are stocked and demonstrated in are full of attractive wooden tables.  How on earth did this slip by? The company has been accused of falling standards in hardware and software for a while now, and it’s not hard to see why. From an increasing abundance of iOS bugs to devices that literally damage your home, quality control at Apple clearly isn’t what it used to be.

Owning and using Apple products has always required a certain amount of sacrifice, even beyond the inflated price tags. Their phones and tablets and computers all play well together and form a well-integrated ecosystem that rewards you for fully embracing it, but entrance to that ecosystem comes with a price. You can’t ask Siri to play songs through Spotify or set default apps on your phone; Apple would much rather you stay within their walled garden for a (theoretically) better experience. Most Apple users are more-or-less okay with this, but requiring them to carefully choose where to place their HomePods lest it damage their furniture is outrageous. Judging by the reviews, the HomePod simply isn’t worth this cost; it might sound great, but Siri’s capabilities are extremely narrow when compared to those of Alexa or the Google Assistant. Apple customers are used to making concessions for the sake of simplicity, but this is one concession too far.

iPhone X gon’ give it to ya

It’s a curious strategy to announce a new product before immediately making it look like useless old garbage by revealing an even newer one, but that’s exactly what Apple did yesterday. The iPhone 8, a minor upgrade to last year’s iPhone 7, got to be the centre of attention for all of five minutes before its sleeker, sexier sibling iPhone X was brought onstage and hailed as the future of the smartphone. When the iPhone X name leaked I assumed it would be pronounced like the letter so as not to imply obvious superiority over the sister phone, which is exactly what the iPhone ‘Ten’ does. You’ve got to feel bad for the team that slaved over the iPhone 8 only to have Apple’s naming conventions instantly render their work obsolete; I, for one, probably would have taken it personally if my parents had named my younger brother ‘Better Tom’.

For all the pomp and circumstance surrounding yesterday’s product launch, I’m not sure how much the iPhone X does to justify its £999 price tag. The edge-to-edge OLED screen looks beautiful, to be sure, and the fancy front-facing camera brings with it a lot of cool features. That said, no matter how secure Face ID unlocking may be (and it seems to be very secure), a phone requires you to be looking at it to unlock it will never be as convenient as one with Touch ID. Face ID feels a little like a consolation prize, then, when one considers that the plan until very recently was to embed a Touch ID sensor right into the display, a plan that clearly proved too ambitious in the end.

I’m not used to being this underwhelmed by an Apple event. I’m a lifelong user of their products and genuinely enjoy watching their keynote addresses, but this is the first time I can remember that I’ve not felt excited about a new iPhone. Even the iPhone 7, widely regarded as offering little in the way of innovation, won me over with the faux bokeh Portrait mode made possible by the second camera on the Plus model. I love my iPhone 7 Plus, even though its battery life is tanking only a year into my owning it, and I don’t feel the overwhelming desire to replace it that a new Apple event normally instills in me. Maybe that’s just a sign of the smartphone maturing as a product category, with few radical improvements left to make. Or, hell, maybe I’m just growing up and becoming less easily swayed by shiny new toys. It’s probably not that, but in a world where your phone can turn you into a talking cartoon turd, anything seems possible.