Alson Kaw Reviews, thoughts and portfolio Tue, 14 Nov 2023 16:30:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Alson Kaw 32 32 223297639 Symbiotic Relationships in Tech Mon, 13 Nov 2023 19:25:06 +0000 Preamble

You know those parasitic fishes that stick themselves onto sharks and eat their leftovers? They are called the remora fish, and the relationship between the sharks and these fishes are called a symbiotic relationship. The parasites usually spends the most of their lives being close to or attached to the host, usually benefiting while harming the host in some way and usually having a higher reproductive potential than the host.

In the case of the remora fish, they eat the leftover food, and other parasites on the shark and keeps it clean in return. This is a win-win symbiotic relationship.

Now, in the tech world, Apple is definitely the shark, commanding a valuation of $3 Trillion for the first time in Jun 2023. So, then you ask, where are the remora fishes? There used to be none. Until Apple recently released the Find My Network API under the MFi program.

What is the MFi Program

MFi stands for “Made for iOS/iPadOS”. It is a certification from Apple that basically guarantees that the certified accessory has been acknowledged by Apple and they are 100% supported by their devices, and is safe for use. (Granted, there are certain limitations, for example iOS/iPadOS versions or product models to take note of.)

The MFi certification is only exclusive to Apple product users, and it is an assurance laid upon them that ensures the accessory consumers are buying is made of quality materials and compatible with their devices. You can be sure of the items’ quality you are getting.

As we are all aware—Apple products have long been considered a luxury and a status symbol. But besides the prestige of owning a prominent brand, their devices like the Macintosh, iPhone, iPad, and various accessories like an MFi charger and MFi lightning to 3.5mm audio adapter are reliable, and they will last for many years.

Lastly, an MFI certified accessory puts your devices at less risk of potential damage. Some counterfeit accessories may still work on your Apple products, but you have to bear in mind, for example, a non-MFi charger’s flow of electric currents is not regulated, which would potentially wear out, or even break down your device.

The certification basically tells the consumer that the accessory that they’re shopping for was approved by the Apple brand. And that they no longer have to worry about compatibility issues when pairing them to your iOS device or safety concerns. The good news, however, is that MFi certification is not limited to Apple products. As long as third-party brands have conformed to the standard of Apple, they are authorized to sell accessories for their brand.

Symbiotic Companies

Now, let’s get back to the topic at hand. There are many companies — including popular ones that you may have heard of while shopping for accessories — that operate like remora fish (or at least part of their SKUs revolve around being like one) around the shark named Apple.

Anker, Belkin, Spigen, Moshi, MOFT just to name a few.

Many of the above companies’ primary business function happens to be manufacturing an accessory that attaches itself to something Apple made, and that is a dangerous place to live. So this is a whole dynamic and it’s so fascinating to watch, because there are so many examples of it.

And of course, the Apple AirTags being one of the items that has been making me think a lot about lately. But really, anytime Apple enters a new product category, they get a lot of attention because everyone is curious about how Apple will implement the product the Apple-way. How will they separate themselves from the competitors or do anything technically different? And AirTags, they definitely have some very legitimate features, like the precision find feature, that points an arrow to where the tracker is, which is a cool demo.

Bluetooth® Trackers

However, Bluetooth® trackers are not a new space. Take for example, Tile, has been making these things since 2013, and they do fundamentally the same thing, helping you find whatever you attach it to by pinging other phones around that have it’s app installed. Creating a community mesh network, to help you find your things. There are other brands too, with, or without the mesh network that functions exactly the same.

But for the core function of finding your missing items, the AirTags have a massive advantage over all the other brands. And that is market-share. It is no longer just people using whatever brand’s app on their mobile phones. It’s now the entire Apple’s mobile product range, from iPhones, to iPads and Macbooks. And they all now passively update the position of something near it anytimes it’s around a device on that network. It’s frictionless and it happens silently and effortlessly in the background. You don’t even know it’s happening and the network is massive, Apple recently revealed that it now has 2 billion active devices all over the world in February 2023.

Comparing to Tile, after being acquired by Life360, the 47 million users of the app were added to the 50 million existing Tile users, totalling the active network to almost 100 millions active users. That’s 1/20th the number of active Apple users. See where I’m going with this?

Due to Apple’s ability to plug things into the ecosystem, especially with the iPhone, Apple can easily kill entire companies, but they dont do it manacingly, they do it nicely by presenting it as a choice on a silver platter.

In April 2021, Apple opened up the find my network to allow third-party accessories to take advantage of this incredible network. Right out of the gate, there were already e-bikes and earbuds and other Bluetooth® trackers that you can find based on nearby devices, like some Chipolo trackers.

I’ve also recently bought an off-brand Bluetooth® tracker from Anston and Friends (m2i) on TikTok and was pleasantly surprised by the quality and functionality. Granted, it’s not an AirTag replacement. However, it has most of the features of an AirTag, minus the beautiful arrow in the Find My UI that points you to the last known location of the AirTag. But it definitely functions good enough to be classed as a Bluetooth® tracker. It helps that it’s alert beeps are louder than the authentic AirTags as well, so I guess that’s it’s differentiator from AirTags, to compensate for the missing arrow.

The Choice

With that single move, Apple forced all the companies whose primary business is making trackers using mesh networks to make a choice. It’s a pretty simple choice, but it’s really a bit of a paradox. Because either way, no matter which choice you choose, Apple wins.

Let’s say Tile chooses to make a compatible tracker to use the Find My ecosystem. It seems great at first. Their users immediately can take advantage of the better network but now it means a portion of new Tile customers who were going to buy the regular tile that plugs into and improves the existing TIle network will actually be plugging into and improving Apple’s network instead. Selling a device that encourage a user to plug into another companies’ infrastructure instead of your own actively hurts your own business and will make your own network less desirable over time.

The other choice is to not participate in the Find My Network, and not offer a tile that works with it. Which just means you’re missing out on those sales. Tile’s existing network will become less appealing and slowly dies over time as people just buy the ones with the more deeply compatible iPhone.

Photograph of Tim Cook, with the Apple HQ in the background

But hey, that’s still technically a choice, Right? Look how friendly this guy is, he would never force you to do anything you didn’t want to. You can just choose to work with the iPhone or not, it’s up to you. You can choose to swim off into the rest of the ocean or you can stay swimming with me. the shark. Makes sense right?

I’d actually say the paradox of choice happens twice with AirTags. Once with Tile’s decision to become MFi certified, and another with the consumers. If you’re an iPhone user now, technically you have a choice between 2 different options. One is going to require a separate app and has a much smaller network and the other just kind of plugs right in and seamlessly work in the background. They are around the same price.

See where I’m getting at again? Apple will always repeat day-in and day-out that there are compeition, you can always choose their competitor’s product over their own. But Apple is smart too, they know they have deep market penetration with the iPhone. When they want to leverage that to jump into a new product category, they’ll do it. It’s not the first time too. With the iPad (tablet), and the Apple Watch (smart watch), they have demonstrated and made it abundantly clear that they have no problem entering a new market and then dominate that market easily by making use of their ecosystem. The AirPods are also one of the most popular earbuds among iPhone users.

Yet by doing this, they actively kill entire companies like when the shark decides to close it’s mouth and eat the fish that was cleaning it’s teeth, Apple’s done this so many times. Some of the best examples are early jailbreak-only apps for the iPhone, like f.lux, the app that lets you change color temperature of your screen by adjusting the blue light output. iPhones integrated this into the iOS and pretty much made the company obsolete. Album Cover display on the iPhones were also a jailbreak-only paid app, which Apple developed their own and released in a later iOS version.

The next examples are styluses. Before the Apple Pencil, you could get styluses of all price-points that worked with the iPads. Effectively letting you do the same thing. Later on, Apple dropped in at the high end with the Apple pencil, and then locked these third-party styluses out of some features. And guess what? Apple Pencil are now the only pencil you can use if you want the full features of a stylus with the entire iPad range. No other styluses are able to magnetically attach itself to the iPads and charge the stylus at the same time. Not to mention the automatic pairing. It just works.

I believe eventually, Apple would release a pencil with a chip that allows it to tap into the Find My Network too, and allow you to find the pencil you lost (which is not uncommon). There’s just no way to justify buying a different stylus for the iPad anymore, even though there are still abundant of choice for the consumers.

Other examples include:

I encourage you to pay more attention to the symbiotic relationship in the tech world right now. With this much discussion on the whole Anti-Trust and Walled Garden talks. Tile actually testified in front of Congress to accuse Apple of leveraging an unfair advantage to enter the market the day after AirTags were released. And funny enough, Apple would argue that they did not dominate the market. They let people choose. They gave people a choice. Every company had a choice to plug into the Find My network. The choice was on the table.

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Server Screw-Up Wed, 01 Nov 2023 16:41:49 +0000 Preamble

Yesterday, I thought I should add a new 1TB drive to my home server as a backup for the photos stored within Immich. Since I have a couple users there, I’d like to at least have backup of the photos in case my docker SSD dies.

After plugging in the new disk and rebooting. I did a quick df -h to see all disk. Regrettably, I forgot I should be using lsblk -e7 instead for a clearer view without all the loopbacks.

I quickly read it and looked at the return. Hmm, I had 3 disks. Added the forth, so it should be /dev/sdd right. Right?

Well f**k me sideways, because /dev/sdd is the Docker SSD. I then immediate do a gdisk, and typed in /dev/sdd while thinking of the cron script I was gonna write.

Act II: Panic

Immediately, my NTFY server and all my notifications started going off. “Service Down” messages are coming in from everywhere. F**K! Something’s wrong, I thought.

I quickly loaded up my webmin, and lo and behold. My mounted drives on the homepage shows only 2 mount points, boot and the main OS LVM. My docker mount points are now missing.

Holy Batman! I quickly go back to my terminal and check. The docker folder I keep all my compose, empty. What about /var/lib/docker? Empty.

Shit. I screwed up. My immediate reaction is to shut down the server right now, and find something that I can do to recover the data from the disk. Luckily, I noticed it quickly before I even mount the disk somewhere and start copying the files over. Granted I won’t be able to do that since the docker SDD is now empty. But I count my blessings.

I felt my heart immediately dropped lower than my balls. Blood went cold. Full-on panic mode. My girlfriend was also panicking with me.

Act III: Disk Recovery

I unplugged the SSD from the server and ran into my room. Plugged it into my external disk dock and immediately started to google for disk recovery for EXT3 FS. Found a few Stack Overflow threads recommending TestDisk for recovery. Downloaded and ran it.

Started up the application while feeling every single beat of my heart. Lo and behold! Both partitions on the disk showed up. Followed the documentation to re-write the partition table back to the disk. Success! Mounted the disk to my ubuntu VM and did a quick scan. All my files are back!

Happily skipped to the server, plugged everything in. Pressed the power button with my fingers crossed. Watched the HP logo appear. Good, good.

GOD DAMMIT. Maybe if I wait, it’ll work? 5 minutes passed. Same screen. Great, OS corrupted. Back to the standard power down, unplug disk, run to my room, plug into external disk dock.

Act IV: Operating System Operation

Back to Googling. Found a few Stack Overflow threads again with users facing the same issue. Solution: Download Ubuntu live disk, run boot-repair, righto. Got down to it. I have a ubuntu VM, no need for live disk. Booted the VM up once again. Downloaded and installed boot-repair. Met with an issue. Can’t repair while Ubuntu is running. What?

Turns out you have to run it via a live disc before you can repair an attached disk. Fine, downloaded the live boot iso. Attached to my VM’s virtual DVD. Doesn’t work. At this point, I’m prepared to not sleep at all to fix this.

Dug and found a few USB thumb drives. Plugged in and flashed the ISO into one of them using balenoEtcher. Plugged it into the server and booted into live. Repeat the process and yay! It worked.

Unplugged the USB, started the server again. and finally. It booted into the system.

Act V: Mounting Confusion

Quickly SSH’d into the server and realized that apart from the /boot and the system, the drives were all jumbled up with the mount points. My /dev/sdd1 mounted to the right place at /var/lib/docker, but my docker compose partition is not mounting to it’s original point.

Messed with it for about 10 minutes while scratching my head. Tried Googled but to no avail. I tried mounting to another folder and it worked, files are all there. Just as I was about to give up. I thought to check Webmin to see how the mount points are being set. And guess what, the disks mount points were still reserved at boot but couldn’t find the drive. Found the issue.

Did what’s necessary and cleaned up the mount points. Now it’s mounting successfully. Everything’s doing well. Time to reboot.

Act VI: Finally at Ease

Server booted, managed to SSH in. Had to manually start Apache, MySQL and a few other services, but docker was working and started automatically with all my containers and compose files in place.

Finally breathed a sigh of relief and did a quick check on all my services to ensure there are no database corruption as well. Took an hour to ensure everything seems to be in order. Enough excitement for a day, I left the new disk in the server and didn’t want to touch it until the weekends.

Morale of the Story

Don’t do sensitive stuff to your server at night when you’re already chilled and relaxed. Not worth the panic. Also, always double check the disks before you do anything stupid. From now onwards I’ll be preparing the disk on my desk instead of directly on the server. Minimizies screw ups this way.

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Kindnessas a Signifier of intelligence Thu, 14 Sep 2023 08:12:00 +0000 This excerpt from Governor J.B. Pritzker’s commencement address at Northwestern University deeply resonates with me. As I grow older, my thoughts align increasingly with this perspective. While I recommend watching the entire speech, here’s the essence of it that particularly stands out to me:

The best way to spot an idiot? Look for the person who is cruel. When we see someone who doesn’t look like us, or sound like us, or act like us, or love like us, or live like us — the first thought that crosses almost everyone’s brain is rooted in either fear or judgment or both. That’s evolution. We survived as a species by being suspicious of things we aren’t familiar with.

In order to be kind, we have to shut down that animal instinct and force our brain to travel a different pathway. Empathy and compassion are evolved states of being. They require the mental capacity to step past our most primal urges. I’m here to tell you that when someone’s path through this world is marked with acts of cruelty, they have failed the first test of an advanced society. They never forced their animal brain to evolve past its first instinct. They never forged new mental pathways to overcome their own instinctual fears. And so, their thinking and problem-solving will lack the imagination and creativity that the kindest people have in spades.

Over my many years in politics and business, I have found one thing to be universally true: the kindest person in the room is often the smartest.

— J.B. Pritzker, Governor of Illinois, at Northwestern’s graduation

Embracing the notion of countering acts of cruelty with a simple yet impactful response – “Idiot.”

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Jon Prosser on Marques Brownlee Thu, 14 Sep 2023 05:01:59 +0000 0 17172 Atlas VPN Linux Zero-Day Vulnerability Leaked Thu, 07 Sep 2023 16:15:18 +0000

A Reddit user named ‘Educational-Map-8145’ published a PoC exploit on Reddit that abuses the Atlas VPN Linux API to reveal a user’s real IP addresses.

This PoC creates a hidden form that is automatically submitted by JavaScript to connect to the API endpoint URL.

When this API endpoint is accessed, it automatically terminates any active Atlas VPN sessions that hide a user’s IP address.

Once the VPN connection is disconnected, the PoC will connect to the URL to log the visitor’s actual IP address.

This is a severe privacy breach for any VPN user as it exposes their approximate physical location and actual IP address, allowing them to be tracked and nullifying one of the core reasons for using a VPN provider.

Bill Toulas, writing for BleepingComputer

As mentioned many times, VPN services are great for hopping to other countries to circumvent geo-fencing websites.

However, if you’re relying on these services for privacy, you’re SOL.

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Apple Acquires Classical Music Specialty Label BIS Records Thu, 07 Sep 2023 16:00:58 +0000

A few days ago BIS Records turned 50 years old and I am immensely proud of what our small team of people has accomplished during this half-century. BIS’s specialty, while paying our dues to the core repertoire, has been to nurture young classical artists and interesting living composers and to safeguard the musical treasure that we all represent long into the future. It is to that end that, after much careful consideration, and having just turned 80, I am excited to announce the rather momentous news that we have made the decision to become part of the Apple family.

We thought long and hard on how to maintain and build upon our prestigious history and looked for a partner who would further our mission, as well as an increased global platform to bring classical music to new audiences all over the world. Apple, with its own storied history of innovation and love of music, is the ideal home to usher in the next era of classical and has shown true commitment towards building a future in which classical music and technology work in harmony. It is my vision and my sincerest dream that we are all a part of this future.

Robert von Bahr, Founder of BIS Records

Those who love classical music knows it’s a pain to find a service that streams this genre. And this isn’t Apple’s first attempt at acquiring Classical Music rights either.

In 2021, it acquired classical streaming specialist Primephonic. It then used Primephonic to launch, earlier this year, a whole new Apple Music Classical app experience. It also has built out high-end tools for listening to music, namely in the form of its hardware and audio software.

Ingrid Lunden, writing for TechCrunch

Now this is an Apple-style acquisition.

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Misbehavior in Robot Taxis Fri, 01 Sep 2023 06:04:00 +0000

Ever thought about getting down and dirty in a robotaxi? Want to light up a cig or a joint on the drive home from the club? You’re not alone.

As autonomous vehicles become increasingly popular in San Francisco, some riders are wondering just how far they can push the vehicles’ limits — especially with no front-seat driver or chaperone to discourage them from questionable behavior.

For some, that’s a welcome invitation to test the autonomous vehicles’ limits. Megan, a woman in her 20s, took her first robotaxi ride on a recent late-night excursion. It was also her first time having sex in a driverless vehicle. The Standard is not providing exact dates of the riders’ debauchery to protect their privacy but has verified the rides took place through documentation. Names have been changed because of the riders’ privacy concerns.

Liz Lindqwister, writing for The San Francisco Standard

Putting aside any debates about their driving skills, self-driving taxis are like an intriguing playground for human behavior. We’re left wondering about their cleanliness. What’s the game plan for preventing folks from smoking, leaving food and crumbs behind, taking a piss, puking, or even getting a little too cozy and comfortable on the back seats? If around 95 percent of riders keep it as classy as they would in a regular human-driven taxi or a ride-share, it’s the troublesome remaining 5 percent that could throw a wrench in the cogs (pun intended). Things could go downhill faster than a roller coaster. The trick is to design for how people actually behave, not how they’re supposed to.

These robotaxis come decked out with an array of cameras, and the passenger footing the bill is easily identifiable through their accounts. However, the more you surveil the passenger’s every move during the ride, the closer you inch toward invading their personal space.

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Todd Vaziri on Corridor Crew “VFX Artists React” Thu, 31 Aug 2023 09:27:43 +0000 My favorite segment was on the three different ways — all utterly different — ILM made lava for the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith.

The next was how to get the lightsaber’s brightness to translate on the screen against the bright lava.

Watch the video before reading Vaziri’s notes. (Nice socks on Vaziri, too.)

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Threads Web App Launch Sat, 26 Aug 2023 10:19:12 +0000 Rolled out earlier this week, but by yesterday, I believe it’s now available to everyone. Missing some features from the native iPhone/Android apps (no access to the chronological “following” feed yet), but quite solid overall — and there are some very nice touches on the features that are present.

MG Siegler has a post comparing the web app vs. the native app on an iPad. Just as with Threads’s older sibling Instagram, the native iOS app only runs with an iPhone screen layout on iPad. The web app (again, just like with Instagram) looks and feels very much like a native app would.

MacOS 14 Sonoma — currently in public beta, set for release this fall — adds built-in support for saving web apps as standalone apps, like the “Add to Home Screen” feature that’s been in iOS since even before the App Store. I’m not yet running Sonoma, but those who are report being pleased with Threads as a web app. Parker Ortolani has a nice tip for making the icon look better, too.

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Name Change Tanked X App Downloads Wed, 23 Aug 2023 10:01:50 +0000

Twitter has seen a dramatic decrease in its Top Downloaded chart position across both platforms since the app was renamed to X. Why? The situation presents a fascinating case study at the intersection of brand equity and mobile platform dynamics.

The case is somewhat unprecedented: Twitter built a ubiquitous, household-name brand over the course of nearly 2 decades and then simply abandoned it, leaving it to be exploited by competitors, unopposed, through the mobile platforms’ branded search ads. […]

My hypothesis is that, while the terminally-online are entirely aware of Twitter’s rebrand to X, most consumers aren’t, and their searches for “Twitter” on platform stores surface ads and genuine search results that are in no way redolent of Twitter.

Eric Seufert speaking about Twitter/X on Threads

If you didn’t know that Twitter is now called X, and you search for “Twitter,” the first thing you’ll see is an ad from a rival company like Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram. The new X doesn’t look anything like the old Twitter. It doesn’t have the name “Twitter” anymore, doesn’t mention that it used to be Twitter, and it’s not even blue like before. It just has a weird X symbol and a boring slogan saying “Blaze your glory!”

Right now, Threads is the second most popular free app in the App Store, while X is way down at 51st place. On the Play Store, Threads is at number 6, but X is way, way down at 66. If the person who came up with this big change didn’t own the company, they might have been in big trouble. (Looks like Threads isn’t the one struggling after all.)

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Twitter Threatens to Sue Meta Over Threads Fri, 07 Jul 2023 06:41:33 +0000 Meta Executives Threaten to Piss Their Pants Laughing

On Wednesday, Instagram parent company Meta introduced Threads, a text-based companion to Instagram that resembles Twitter and other text-based social platforms. Just hours later, a lawyer for Twitter, Alex Spiro, sent a letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg accusing the company of engaging in “systematic, willful, and unlawful misappropriation of Twitter’s trade secrets and other intellectual property.”

Max Tani, reporting for Semafor

Good luck with that.

Spiro accused Meta of hiring dozens of former Twitter employees who “had and continue to have access to Twitter’s trade secrets and other highly confidential information.”

He also alleged that Meta assigned those employees to develop “Meta’s copycat ‘Threads’ app with the specific intent that they use Twitter’s trade secrets and other intellectual property in order to accelerate the development of Meta’s competing app, in violation of both state and federal law as well as those employees’ ongoing obligations to Twitter.”

It’s comical to think that Meta needed engineers from Twitter to build Threads. Like Twitter is a model of reliability and stability, and Meta’s platforms don’t serve an entire order of magnitude more users. Even more hilarious:

Andy Stone, Meta’s communications director, told Semafor that Twitter’s accusations are baseless. “No one on the Threads engineering team is a former Twitter employee — that’s just not a thing,” he said.

Even if ex-Twitter employees were working on Threads, Elon Musk fired them. It’s not illegal to hire people fired by competitors. Would be absurd if it were. This letter is so transparent: Musk is threatened by Threads and jealous of the mountain of media attention it’s getting, so he’s lashing out. Commanding his lawyer to send a silly letter like this legit feels like a Trump move.

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The Staggering Cost of Reddit’s API Mon, 05 Jun 2023 07:30:26 +0000 Christian Selig, developer of the splendid Reddit client Apollo:

I’ll cut to the chase: 50 million requests costs $12,000, a figure far more than I ever could have imagined.

Apollo made 7 billion requests last month, which would put it at about 1.7 million dollars per month, or 20 million US dollars per year. Even if I only kept subscription users, the average Apollo user uses 344 requests per day, which would cost $2.50 per month, which is over double what the subscription currently costs, so I’d be in the red every month.

I’m deeply disappointed in this price. Reddit iterated that the price would be A) reasonable and based in reality, and B) they would not operate like Twitter. Twitter’s pricing was publicly ridiculed for its obscene price of $42,000 for 50 million tweets. Reddit’s is still $12,000. For reference, I pay Imgur, a site similar to Reddit in userbase and media, $166 for the same 50 million API calls.

Christian Selig — Reddit

Reddit assured us that the pricing would be reasonable and rooted in reality, yet it surpasses even the infamous Twitter pricing debacle, where 50 million tweets cost a staggering $42,000. In comparison, Imgur, a platform similar to Reddit in terms of user base and media, charges me a mere $166 for the same volume of API calls.

Selig does some ballpark math and estimates that Reddit currently generates about $0.12 in revenue per month per active user. The average Apollo user would cost $2.50 per month in API fees — 20× higher.

Right now Apollo is free to use, but offers a Pro tier with a slew of additional features and fun stuff for a one-time payment of $5, and an Ultra tier with even more for a $13/year subscription. If Reddit goes through with this API pricing, Apollo’s free and Pro tiers would be unsustainable, and the Ultra subscription would have to cost at least $50 or $60 per year.

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