An Apple a Day

Here we are at Apple Announcement Day again. Ready for my usual cynical take on the latest hype out of Cupertino? Too bad, you’re getting it anyway.

Apple had three and a half things to announce. Let’s take them in order. For the record, all quotes are from Apple’s “Event” as reported by Ars Technica. If there are any misquotes, please blame Ars, not me. I’ll take responsibility for my misinterpretations, though.

As everyone expected, we’ve got two new iPhones, the 6 and the 6 Plus. They’re bigger than any previous iPhone and have have higher resolution screens than any previous iPhone. Will someone please wake me up when the size wars are over?

Apps written specifically for the new phones can use the extra screen space to display more information, while apps written for the iPhone 5 (and presumably older phones as well) will automatically scale up and just look larger. I’m not sure how well that’s actually going to work out. The aspect ratios on the new phones are slightly different, and neither one is the same as the iPhone 5, let alone earlier devices. Given Apple’s horror of visual sloppiness, I suspect they’ll work around it by turning off a few pixels at the edge of the display.

The new phones will support landscape orientation. With the capability there, users are going to demand that apps use it. That means developers who support the new phones’ screens will have to code for four new resolutions, not two. Lucky them! More new icons, more new screen layouts, more QA engineers trying to figure out how to do more testing in less time. And, of course, more new customer complaints. Fun!

Hey, here’s a new feature that actually is innovative, as far as I can tell. Apple designed the new phones with an eye towards one-handed operation (and I’ll skip the obvious jokes here). One of the key aspects is “Reachability”: double-tap the TouchID button and the screen will scroll down to bring the top half into reach. Nice idea, but I wonder how easy it will be to double-tap the button with the same hand you’re holding the phone with.

Nor do I envy Apple’s QA team, who have to explore the interaction of Reachability with landscape orientation. One hopes that when the phone is rotated, the screen slides horizontally, not vertically… For the sake of the poor third-party developers and QA, I really, really, hope that the OS handles this functionality transparently. If it needs to be coded and tested in every app, there are going to be a lot of missed shipping dates.

There are, of course, tweaks to the camera. Most of them sound incremental, but I do like the sound of the optical stabilization on the 6 Plus: the lens will actually move to counter your hand jiggle. Should make for a whole new level of sharpness in drunken selfies.

The new phones will be up for pre-order this Friday at prices ranging from $199 for a 16GB 6 to $499 for a fully-loaded 128GB 6 Plus. After the obligatory crash of Apple’s servers, expect scam sales to show up on eBay Saturday. Actual shipments will start the following Friday.

Oh, and iOS 8 will start going out to customers a week from tomorrow. Developers and QA folks who want to see how your apps behave under the GM build*, keep waiting. It’s not available yet. Have fun with your last-minute checkouts.

* For those of you who are not steeped in the technological tea, “GM” has nothing to do with the auto maker. It stands for “Golden Master,” and it’s the final beta release, which is supposed to be identical to what actually goes to customers. Sort of the software equivalent of showing the final draft of an e-mail to a friend before you send it to your boss. Apple hopes the developers examining the GM build will find the show-stopper bugs, just like you hope your friend will find the typo that changes your purchase request into a grievous insult.

Moving on.

Announcement Number Two is “Apple Pay”. Apple reminds us that credit cards are insecure and inconvenient. Instead, use your new iPhone 6 to store all of your credit cards and bank accounts, and pay by tapping the phone against a kiosk.

That’s gotta be more secure, right? Especially because Apple has been “working with retailers like Target” to enable Apple Pay for online purchases too!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the security of your information is only as good as (a) the security of your phone (we all know that there are never any security vulnerabilities in Apple’s software, right) and (b) the retailers and credit card processors (nobody could possibly crack the security on Target’s servers. Or Home Depot’s. Or Visa’s.)

Seriously, all this does is remove one point of vulnerability (the card reader) in exchange for adding a new one (the phone and its secure storage) while increasing the attractiveness of the credit card processors as targets for hacking.

Moving on again.

Then we have Apple’s most-eagerly awaited announcement. The iWatch. Oh, wait. It’s the “Apple Watch”. Kudos to Tim Cook and the gang for not forcing another “capital letter in the middle of the name” name on our long-suffering spell-checkers.

Regardless of the name, it’s coming in early 2015 at prices “starting at $349”–we’ll find out what the upper range is later. Don’t expect it to be cheap: one version of the Apple Watch has an 18K gold case, “designed to be twice as hard as standard gold”. Apparently Apple’s signed some kind of deal with Mother Nature to produce unusually hard gold. Nice!

While your figuring out how to finance your watch, don’t forget to budget for a new phone. Unless you’ve got an iPhone 5 or newer, you’ll need to pick up an iPhone, because the Apple Watch isn’t a standalone. It needs the phone to do anything, apparently. Fortunately, when the 6 and 6 Plus go on sale, the price of a 5s will drop to $99, and for the real cheapskates among us, the 5c will drop to $0–with the usual two-year contract, of course.

Even if you’re a cheapskate and get the entry-level Apple Watch and a free 5c, expect to experience “new intimate ways to communicate with your wrist”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t let my wrist speak on my behalf.

There also a “new way for you to connect intimately with others.” Tap your watches together to share information. Lovely. So much more intimate than talking…

It’s got a new paradigm for interaction: you twist the crown! Never mind that people have been interacting with their watches by twisting the crown for at least 150 years. It’s no longer about setting the time. Now the crown is for scrolling and zooming! Oh, and clicking to return to the home screen. A revolution in UI! There’s a lot of twisting involved, it seems. No word from Apple on how (or even if) the Apple Watch accommodates lefties, or anyone who prefers to wear their watch on their right arm.

Of course, the Apple Watch has a variety of sensors built in to monitor your health. Apple wants to keep you healthy so you can continue to buy their merchandise. The watch will monitor your activity, estimate calories burned, track how often you stand up, and suggest “personal, realistic, achievable [exercise] goals”. Oh, and share the information it gathers with the Health app on your phone so that your health-care provider can stay informed about your progress.

I’d be the first to admit that I could stand to lose some weight, but I don’t want my watch nagging me to get more exercise. I’m a lazy slug, yes, but if my watch starts interrupting my thought processes to remind me to stand up and walk around the office, it’s the watch that’s going to get sprinkled with salt.

Apple also took pains to talk about third-party apps that are already in development for the Apple Watch. First on their list: Starwood Hotels. Their app will let your watch work as your room key. Um. Yay? What’s the range of this thing, anyway? I’d prefer that my door not get unlocked every time I walk to the bathroom.

Oh, and don’t forget that Apple Pay works with your Apple Watch. Twirl that crown to select your credit card, and tap the watch against the payment kiosk to pay for your groceries. Careful! Don’t get too close to the kiosk while you’re bagging. Wouldn’t want to pay for the next guy’s groceries too!

Hey, can I tap my watch against yours on the subway to share credit card information?

Moving along, one last time.

The half announcement was, of course, music-related. Because “music is in Apple’s DNA.” U2’s new album, “Sounds of Innocence”, is an iTunes exclusive from now until mid-October. And it’s free. Or it will be whenever they put it up. Despite the statement that it will be “available throughout the day” I’m not seeing it yet. No worries, it sounds like it’ll be free at least until the Apple exclusive expires. Whether it’s worth the price is another question, but I’ll leave that to fans of the band.

WWDC ’14

It’s June again, and you know what that means. No, not time for nude horseback riding. I mean, I guess you could do that if you want, but it’s not what I had in mind. No, it’s June, and that means the world’s attention is squarely on WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference. For those of you who don’t care about Apple or Apple products, WWDC is when Apple typically announces what’s coming in the next major release of their computer and mobile operating systems.

Last year, the big news for OS X was that Apple had run out of big cats, and new versions of the operating system would be named for locations. I went out on a limb, and predicted that this year’s release would be “Emeryville”. I’m delighted to announce that I was absolutely… What? Oh, darn. Sorry, this year’s release is “Yosemite”. Note that the version number is 10.10, meaning this release is officially known as “oh ess ten ten dot ten”. It’s got a nice beat, but I don’t think you can dance to it.

Moving on.

Aside from the new name, what is Yosemite bringing to the desktop and laptop user? Lots of visual cues taken from last year’s iOS 7 release. Transparency. Slimmer fonts. Flattened icons. Other than that, most of the changes seem to be aimed at users who also have an iPhone. Apple is touting “Continuity,” a package of enhancements to help integrate iOS with OS X: text messages can be relayed from an iOS device to your desktop, and the desktop can now place phone calls over an iPhone, as long as the iPhone is on the same local network. Handy, maybe, but not exactly earthshaking–which may be just as well, given ongoing concerns about seismic activity in California…

As has become the case in recent years, most of the excitement is over on the iOS side. Apple is billing the upcoming enhancements to iOS 8 as being focused on “inclusion”. Let’s take a quick look.

Users can respond to notifications without leaving their current app. The keyboard is now context-sensitive, learning words and phrases that users frequently use and offering them as suggestions. Great, not only will I still have auto-correct changing my emails to gibberish, the keyboard will be learning the gibberish and writing incoherent messages for me. A great time saver: I won’t have to do any work to confuse the heck out people. Oh, and apparently Apple is opening up the keyboard API to allow third-party keyboards to replace the default keyboard. Fans of Android “swipe” and “chording” keyboards can look forward to Apple ports.

Hey, there’s a new public API called “Healthkit”! (I keep reading it as “Heathkit”–talk about a blast from the past…) The intent of Healthkit is to allow manufacturers of fitness apps and gadgets to easily integrate their products with iOS and share date between apps. Nice, especially if you have multiple health-related devices and/or want your iPhone to nag you about your lack of exercise and high blood pressure.

In addition to “Healthkit,” we’re also getting “HomeKit,” an Apple-designed set of protocols for home automation. We talked about this last November. I had some serious concerns about the desirability of hooking all of my gadgets, including the home security system, into my smartphone. By making the functionality part of the OS and opening it up to third parties, Apple is doing nothing to make me feel better about the whole process. Remember that security is only as good as its weakest link. If an attacker can compromise any of the devices linked this way, they’ve got a path to everything else on the system. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that HomeKit is going to be a very popular target for attackers.

More inter-app communication. Currently, apps can register themselves as able to open specific kinds of files (for example, an app can register as handling pdf files, and other apps can then offer to open pdf files in that app). There aren’t a lot of details on the new functionality so far, but it sounds like apps will be able to register kinds of actions, such as “upload file” or “share image” to be included in the existing context menu.

Oh, hey, another new API! This one is for the TouchID sensor. Third-party apps will be able to use the 5s fingerprint sensor for logins. Hey, former cow-orkers, I’m betting that the first negative review of your apps complaining that you don’t support the sensor will show up about five minutes after iOS 8 is released. (Now that I think about it, given how easy it is to get a beta these days, you may start seeing the complaints even before the release.)

I said Apple is positioning the iOS 8 release as being about inclusion, and that’s arguably true. It’s also about “catch-up”. Many of the non-Continuity features are things that Android and Windows Phone have had for some time already. I’m more impressed with what’s coming in iOS 8 than I was about what we got in iOS 7, but that’s not saying a lot.

Still waiting for Apple to bring us another truly revolutionary innovation.

Eat Hearty!

I think it’s time for another spam post. Sorry, no recipes involving toilet bowl cleaner this time, but we’ve got a few things almost as tasty.

Most of the spam comments showing up these days seem to be pushing designer goods. Or, more likely, counterfeit designer goods. One has to admire their creativity. Today, for example, somebody posted this message: “which are a part of every room because Various spaceships will attack you as you move between planets. and a gorgeous goody bag to take home. Until that happens,.” I’m sure I don’t need to explain that he was selling Michael Kors merchandise. What, you mean it’s not obvious? I thought everyone knew that Michael Kors purses were the perfect shipping container for whatever is left of your body after a spaceship attack.

Then there’s a delightful ode to Jimmy Choo shoes and wallets. Most of it seems to be a paragraph about Supercross motorcycle racing that has been run through an automatic translation a few times too many. This sentence is perhaps most telling:

Anyone new to race cars, in particular bicycles as well as the menstrual cycles, you will have Jimmy Choo store trouble distinguishing forwards and backwards.

Indeed, if you have trouble distinguishing “bi” from “menstrual” when it comes to cycles, you will indeed have trouble. What it all has to do with shoes remains unclear to me.

There was a period of about a week when the spam was dominated by come-ons for payday loans. My favorite? Easy!

Amazon’s too kinda inexplicably stirred the sliding force where the almost ravening ebook readers bouncy?

Ravening ebook readers? Sign me up! Can I borrow enough money to get bouncy with Amazon too?

I admire the honesty of the loan arranger who wanted to assure us that “Loans are the poor-term immediate it’s very casual, rock-steady and identical libertine.” I decided not to refinance the house with him when he went on to note that “The primary borrower along with the co-signer, who is required to be borrowed.” Somehow, I just didn’t think Maggie would appreciate being loaned out.

Loan pitches were followed by online gambling ads. One of the first was from somebody who had a very interesting notion of how gambling works:

Certainly Blackjack will Facilitate the Arse transmission line of the Racetrack operators […] that will wreak them to their terminus.

Well, yes, I can sort of see where he’s going with this. But then he continues:

So cross your fingers, say of sexually abusing his daughter from ages 10 to 11. paypal casino Read the all right incentive is referred to as a tally bonus.

Really? I wonder if Google’s child porn filter team is onto this one.

I think this ad sums up the state of online gambling very well. It read, in its entirety:

Enligt mig är det inte ens värt jobbet att läsa resten av argumenten, det sket sig ju liksom i början.

Translated from the Swedish, that’s “According to me it is not even worth the job to read the rest of the arguments, it crapped out after all, as in the beginning.”

Moving on.

Apparently lip balm is wonderful stuff. “Say good-bye to test anxiety be sure to use a lip balm or chapstick to protect them from cancer.” It protects against cancer and test anxiety? Nice! Where can I get some? Not from this seller, it seems. He’s actually pushing his line of acne removal products. Priorities, man, priorities! Save the world from test anxiety first, then worry about pimples.

Fortunately, there are some advertisers who understand that you catch more flies sell more product with honey than vinegar. This enterprising entrepreneur demonstrates:

You will be truly a beneficial web marketer. Your website filling quickness will be awesome. It seems that you are carrying out every special technique. Furthermore, This belongings tend to be must-see. you must have done an excellent course of action with this theme!

I’m not quite sure what my awesome writing and web marketing skills have to do with the “iPhone app building info” he’s selling, but I’m almost flattered enough to overlook the fact that the sample information on his website is obviously taken straight out of Apple’s iOS development kit.

Finally, as we move deep into the holiday gift-giving season, remember to buy plenty of Ugg boots. After all:

In this, a virus that also causes chicken pox affects the skin and creates bands of blisters which are full of liquid, pus, etc.

I know I want a pair, and I’m sure all of my friends will too!

Open Sesame

I’ve been more than mildly disdainful about biometric security systems (i.e. fingerprint readers such as the one on the Apple 5s) and the security of home automation systems in the past. I’d like to take a couple of minutes to continue that line of thought.

The reason? Apple has just been awarded a patent for a “System and method of determining location of wireless communication devices/persons for controlling/adjusting operation of devices based on the location” Say what? According to the abstract, it’s a method by which multiple servers can sense the position of a phone, tablet, badge, or other such device; the servers can coordinate their information to deduce the location of a particular person, and use that location information to automatically take actions such as turning on lights, unlocking doors, changing thermostats. Such a boon to humanity, who will be freed of the intolerable burden of flipping light switches, turning keys, and pushing buttons!

I’m not even going to start on the idiocy of awarding this patent; let’s just take it as given that the patent system is irretrievably broken at this point. Instead, let’s talk about the idiocy of the patent itself. At least with existing home automation/security systems, the user has to take an affirmative action to make something happen (in other words, they have to hit a button in an app to turn off the alarm and open the garage door). In a system using Apple’s patented technology, they just have to have their iPhone in their pocket when the drive up to the house. So now if I want to break into your house, I don’t need to hack your security system, I just need to steal your phone. In case you hadn’t heard, phone theft is right up at the top of the charts for petty crimes these days.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “Doesn’t the phone need to be unlocked?” Nope. According to the patent, the “…devices are instructed to send… data… upon satisfaction of particular conditions. For example, a phone can transmit a detection signal each time that its communications are routed to a new cell tower”. Nothing in there about unlocking; to the contrary, in fact: nobody is going to unlock their phone every time they switch towers; chances are they don’t even know when they switch towers (I don’t, certainly, and I’ll bet significant quantities of pretzels that you don’t either.)

It gets even better worse. The patent specifically mentions using the technology to control music players and “any other device for which different types of operation are desired based on whether a person is nearby or not.” I know I always want to have the radio come on to the classic rock station when I walk into the living room — even if Maggie is napping on the couch.

Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Perhaps you’ve heard that Tesco is installing facial scanning technology to allow it to target video advertising to customers based on their age and gender. What if we combine the two technologies? We’ll put a camera in ever room and give the servers the ability to detect who’s there, even if they’re not carrying their phone. Now when I walk into the living room, if Maggie is napping on the couch, the radio doesn’t turn on! Hooray!

Of course, the wireless streams from those cameras can’t possibly be picked up outside the house. No way is anyone going to hack the highly-secure wifi signal and share the hilarious home video of me tripping on the footstool because the system was smart enough not to turn on the lights either.

Other handy features: the system can use calendar events as triggers. If it sees I’ve been invited to a party, it can assume I’m at the party location. Too bad the party sucked and I went home early. If I’m at the party, I can’t be trying to get into the house. Better trigger the alarm! It also learns from past behavior. If it normally takes 15 minutes for me to get home,* and I usually turn the oven on when I get there, it can start pre-heating the oven five minutes after I leave work (yes, our oven does take a while to pre-heat). Too bad I’m going out to dinner tonight (or, since it probably checks my location in transit to be sure I’m coming home, too bad I’m just nuking leftovers tonight.)

* Apparently Apple is not targeting this technology at its own employees. Do you know anyone in the Bay Area whose commute is 15 minutes from logging off the computer to arriving at the front door?

My favorite learned action: “If a person is likely to activate a security system every time he leaves the house, the security system… can be activated upon determination that the person has moved from inside the house to an adjacent area such as a front porch or a garage.” Because of course I want to set the alarm when I step outside in the morning to get the newspaper. Because of course, I’m old-fashioned and still read a newspaper.

Sorry, guys. I’ll stick with flipping light switches and all that primitive nonsense. If nothing else, I can use the exercise.

The Alphabet Post

A Is For Apple

As promised, a few thoughts on Apple’s “a lot to cover” show.

Taking things more or less in the same order Apple announced them, let’s start with OS X Mavericks, the latest iteration of the other operating system: the one that doesn’t run on mobile devices. I can’t comment on the content changes to the OS, as I just don’t use OS X enough, but the early reviews do seem positive. What I found interesting about the announcement was the price. The price of an OS X upgrade has been dropping for the past few years, and now it’s hit bottom. Well, technically, I suppose Apple could start paying users to upgrade, but I’m having trouble coming up with a business model where that would make sense for them. I’m sure the price would have hit zero eventually, but I suspect their hand was pushed a bit by Microsoft releasing Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade. Apple has gone one better than Microsoft by making it a free upgrade for anyone using OS X; Microsoft is still charging those using XP, Vista, and Windows 7 for the upgrade. Granted that the situations aren’t exactly parallel (for one thing, you have to do a clean install, not an upgrade from XP and Vista to Windows 8), but it’s definitely a selling point for Apple that will help them push users to upgrade; historically OS X migration has moved much more slowly than iOS upgrades.

Moving on, we’ve got the new MacBooks. New CPU, longer battery life, slightly lower prices, Retina screens across almost the entire product line. Nothing even close to earthshaking here. This is all about keeping up with the Windows laptop world.

The fancy, redesigned Mac Pro announced back in June will finally go on sale in December. Good news for those wedded to the workstation line, but largely irrelevant to the rest of the world — other than anyone who can’t resist the case design, which Ars has correctly noted is more than a bit reminiscent of a Dalek.

The iLife and iWork software suites have been updated and are now free with the purchase of new Apple hardware. Not a big surprise, considering that they’ve been giving iWork to all purchasers of new iOS devices since last month’s iPhone launches. Apple is moving more and more toward giving away the software and making their money on the add-ons. And why not? It worked well with iTunes: give away the software, make your money selling music, videos, books, and apps. So now they’re pushing the strategy down one level. Expect other developers to follow suit, dropping the purchase price for apps and pushing in-app sales. This is going to bite some of them in the ass, though. Apple has a solid policy against in-app sales for physical items or anything that can be used outside of the app. They’re currently in “discussions” with British media retailer HMV over their iOS app which enabled MP3 downloads that could be used by any app on the device. Look for more such “discussions” in the future.

And then there are the iPads. Much to everyone’s surprise, the new iPads got a new name: iPad Air. Way to simplify things, Apple. More importantly, the new models are much lighter. If you’re interested in a tablet somewhere around the ten-inch mark where weight is a serious concern, it’s well worth a look at the iPad Air. It’s clearly the lightest device in that class. Add in that very high resolution screen, and it makes a good case for being worth the usual price premium over the Samsungs and Nexuses (Nexii?).

The other big surprise was the iPad Mini finally getting a Retina screen. Oh, wait. That wasn’t much of a surprise. But it’s now official, so moving on. The Mini isn’t as much of a contender in its class (7-8 inch tablets) as the Air is in the larger tablet space. It does take the resolution lead, albeit only by a small margin over the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7. But it’s also the heaviest small tablet out there and this is a niche where one-handed operation is the rule. 1.4 ounces may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to read on the subway, you notice the difference surprisingly quickly. The A7 processor should make it competitively fast, but the price tag, almost twice that of the Nexus 7 and HDX 7, is going to drag it back.

B Is For BART

Looks like I was a bit off in my predictions about the length of a BART strike: I was expecting something closer to a week than the four days we actually got. Not that I’m complaining. Having BART out of operation is a royal pain, especially for anyone who normally uses it to go someplace other than downtown San Francisco. None of the alternatives are of use if you’re commuting between two points in the East Bay. Fortunately, Maggie was able to telecommute, but I’m sure she was in a minority. The newspaper was full of reports of people who slept at their desks in San Francisco or had their normal hour commute stretch to three or four hours.

So now there’s a settlement. Of course, the proposed contract still needs to be ratified by the unions and BART management. My gut reaction is that all parties will accept the deal, but it’s not exactly a sure thing. One BART director has already gone on record as opposing the deal, and nobody is offering odds one way or the other on the union membership’s opinion. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, calls for a legal ban on transit strikes (which would presumably also cover AC Transit, who are just beginning their 60 day cooling-off period). Even if legislation passes, it’s not going to remove the possibility of a BART shutdown. Workers could still strike illegally. It’s happened in New York; it could happen here. Even without a strike, a “work slow-down” could be just as devastating. BART’s rather elderly computer systems struggle to cope on busy commute days. Imagine how badly they could be snarled if even a few drivers called in requests for maintenance checks at every stop, or took their trains out of automatic control, citing “safety concerns”.

Still, the current system clearly isn’t working. As several commentators have pointed out, the previous contract included as “no strike” clause. The unions ignored it on the grounds that the contract was expired, although they insisted that all other provisions, especially those related to pay, should remain in effect. It’s a wonder management didn’t retaliate in kind and ignore the clause that forbids them from hiring replacement workers until the unions go on strike. Heck, for all we know, they might have. Reports on Saturday’s fatal accident are that the train was being used to train replacement drivers. Rumor has it that the trainees were managers who had previously been drivers, but BART hasn’t confirmed that. Could they have been new hires?

I don’t know how to fix it, but let me suggest one place to start: The contract is 470 pages long. Four hundred seventy. Most of that is apparently what they refer to as “work rules”, the codification of thirty years of “how we do it here”. Those rules were a major point of contention in the negotiations, and the incorporation into the contract has limited both sides’ ability to propose changes. According to ExecuRead, the average reading speed for technical material is approximately five minutes per page. That means that the typical BART worker is going to need around 40 hours — a full work week — to absorb the contents of the contract he’s signing. Estimates of average salaries for BART employees vary wildly. I’ve seen as low as $60,000 and as high as $80,000. Even by going by the lowest value, that’s $1100 per employee, or — very conservatively — $2,750,000. Does that sound like overkill to anyone else? OK, I’ll grant you that we can amortize the amount across the four years of the proposed contract, but that’s still almost $700,000 a year being spent just on reading the damned document.

Cynically, I doubt anyone is actually reading what they’re committing themselves to — that’s what lawyers are for, right? — but maybe I’m pessimistic.

My advice, and take it for what it’s worth, is to amend the contract to remove the work rules and replace them with a notation that employees are subject to the rules as documented separately. This is the same process by which other businesses include employee dress codes and similar organizational practices and procedures. The potential gains are clear: contract negotiations can focus on pay and benefits, which are quite contentious enough; meanwhile the work rules can be updated independently of the contract, making it easier to keep them in sync with a rapidly-changing technical and regulatory environment.

C Is For Critters

The last item for today is a heads-up for those of you who enjoy the Friday Cute Critter posts. For the next month or so, I’ll be taking a break from posting pictures of our crew and bringing you a special feature: “Meet the Neighbors”. Join me tomorrow, won’t you?

You’re Searching For What?

Well, that’s no surprise.

The number one search on Google today is for iOS 7. Because there’s such a small number of sites with any information about Apple’s latest OS, and there’s been little, if any, public discussion of the new features, the release date, or how to install it, the public has an insatiable need for all the details today.

Seriously, WTF? IOS 7 articles have been swamping the Web for weeks, and it’s only now that it’s available to install that people are searching for it? Over five million searches today and it didn’t even make 50,000 yesterday to crack the top searches list.

Can we add procrastination to the list of society’s ills, along with short attention spans and leaving baseball games before they end?

In other search-related news, yesterday “Grand Theft Auto 5” was number four on Google’s list — and “GTA 5 Cheats” was number six, with nearly as many searches.* Today, “GTA 5 Cheats” has moved up to number five, but the game itself has dropped off of the list. I conclude that the people who don’t cheat at video games are busy downloading iOS 7 today. Presumably the cheaters are Android users.

* Am I the only one who finds it amusing that the number five search was another automotive simulation: “NASCAR”?

What else is going on in the wacky world of searching?

The number two search today is “Scott Eastwood”. Clearly, there’s great interest in topless males — more than in topless females, as January Jones is well behind at number seven. Maybe it’s just breast exhaustion? Yesterday searchers were deeply into Christina Milian’s nipple-revealing tank top, after all. They were also eagerly hunting for intel on Emily Ratajkowski, nude star of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video.

It looks like the world’s interest in the Washington Navy Yard shooting has faded. Yesterday’s number one search, “Aaron Alexis”, has fallen off of the list completely today. Did I mention “short attention spans”? I did? Oh, good.

Now that I think about it, three of today’s top ten searches are for specific celebrities, and another three are for movies and TV shows. Can we also add “celebrity obsession” to the list?

I was hoping that the above were American problems, but unfortunately not. The top three searches in the UK are “iOS 7”, “GTA 5 cheats”, and “Tour of Britain”. At least the British are interested in a bicycle race. That’s something.

Canadians: “iOS 7”, “OC Transpo”, and “Ottawa Citizen”. Apple leads a bus/train accident and a murder by an order of magnitude. And Scott Eastwood is in there at number five. Scott, pleas put your shirt back on, so Canadians can get back to cheating on video games.

In Japan, iOS 7 is trailing slightly behind pop group AKB48 for the public’s attention. Go, Japan, go!

And in India, iOS 7 is drawing five times as much attention as actor Dilip Kumar.

“I blame society” has become a cliché, and doesn’t really work as an excuse for aberrant behaviour today, so let’s try a different theory: clearly Google is broken. Please join me in attempting to fix it by spending the rest of the day in using it the way it was intended: searching for cat videos. Just watch out for Nyan Cat.

Apple Bites Developers and Customers

Apple is trying to throw a bone to users of its older devices. The bone is more of a boomerang that’s going to bounce back and hit users and developers in the back of the head.

A number of sites are reporting today that Apple has made a change to the iOS App Store such that if a user tries to install an app on a device that can’t support it, they’ll be offered the option of installing an older version of the app.

As an example, consider my first generation iPad. It cannot be upgraded to any version of iOS newer than 5.1.1. Now consider app X, which was originally written for iOS 4, and then was later updated to require iOS 5 in version 2.0; in version 3.0 it was again updated to require iOS 6. The latest and greatest enhancement to version 3.5 requires iOS 7, but 3.5 isn’t in the store yet, since iOS 7 won’t be released until tomorrow.

If I had tried to install X before Apple’s App Store change, I would have gotten a message telling me that it was not compatible with my device and that I needed to upgrade to iOS 6 — which I can’t do. Today, if I try to install it, I’ll get a message telling me that version 3.0 isn’t compatible with my device and offering me the option of installing version 2.0 instead.

Sounds like a nice, customer-friendly change, doesn’t it? Most of the sites reporting on the change are certainly describing it that way. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Consider that there was a reason why app X was updated. Developers don’t enforce a requirement for a particular version of iOS just because they can. They enforce it because the app uses an operating system function that isn’t available in earlier versions of the OS. So when iOS 6 came out, the developers of X started using some spiffy new feature — let’s say they started using the Passbook functionality to support gift cards. That functionality is only available to iOS 6 users, thus the restriction of X version 3.0 to iOS 6.

As a user, I may or may not understand that restriction — there’s a lot of feedback in the App Store that suggests that I don’t. So when I hear about the cool new gift card feature, I go to X’s page to install the app. I get a generic message that tells me I have to install an older version. It doesn’t explain what I don’t get by installing the older version, so I go ahead and install it, and I can’t find the gift card feature. What do I do? I immediately go back to the app store and post a one star rating, possibly with a helpful review that says “This app sucks. Gift card functionality is missing. Don’t use!”

Wait, it gets even better. Suppose I didn’t care about the gift card feature, but I like some of the features that are present in version 2.0. I keep the app on my iPad and use it for a couple of weeks, and then I discover bug: the app crashes if I try to use it after 5pm on Thursdays. (I’m assuming a lot here: most users aren’t going to go much beyond “the app crashes”. But I’m being generous.) Since I’m being generous, I report the bug to the developers directly instread of just leaving bad feedback in the App Store. Now the developers have a choice. They can:

  1. Tell me that version 2.0 isn’t supported any more. Now I’m pissed off. They lose a customer and I leave lousy feedback.
  2. Do the research to figure out why the app crashes on Thursday evenings and it turns out it’s only present in 2.0. Now they have a choice: do they fix the bug and release a version 2.1 for just those of us who can’t upgrade to 3.0? That’s going to increase development and testing time, so probably not. Again, I’m pissed off.
  3. Maybe they do the research and discover that it’s also present in version 3.0. At least now the time they spend doing the research and fixing the bug (and QA testing the fix) benefits their current customers. But they still have to decide whether to do a 2.1 release.

One more scenario: Many apps that require communication with a server turn off the communication for versions that have aged beyond a certain point. Consider our app X again. The makers were planning to turn off support for version 2.0 when 3.5 goes live in the App Store tomorrow. Apple has no way of knowing that they’ve turned it off, so when I come to the store this weekend and install the app it launches, but can’t connect to the server and I can’t use it. Hopefully the developers included a polite message in the app explaining that the version I’m trying to use is too old and I need to upgrade, but since I can’t upgrade, I’m pissed again.

What’s the poor developer going to do now? Apple pushes developers to adopt new OS functionality as quickly as possible, but this new App Store feature is going to punish them if they do.

No matter what, the result of Apple’s “customer-friendly” move is pissed off customers, and in many cases, additional work for developers.

Thanks, Apple.

Apple, Again

So Apple had its usual multimedia extravaganza to promote their forward-thinking, innovative iOS and iPhone releases. Apple’s taken a lot of hits lately for their lack of innovation, but I think today sets the record straight. Just look at what all they announced:

  • The way forward is through new sales. All of the apps in their iWork suite will be free. To anyone buying a new iOS device, anyway. Current customers don’t matter, Apple is looking forward to the new customers and rewarding them with Keynote, Pages, Numbers, iPhoto, and iMovie.
  • iOS 7 will be available to all on September 18th. Hey, they’re looking a whole week into the future! It’s got all kinds of unique features like a convenient Control Center and Notification Center. Nothing like those on any Android phone! Well, OK, maybe there is, but iOS’ versions have that futuristic “flat” look! Yeah, I’m exaggerating here, but frankly iOS has been commentated to death already. There isn’t much here that we haven’t known about since the first beta.
  • That ancient iPhone 5 is dead, dead, dead. It’s being replaced by the exciting new iPhone 5C, the even more exciting iPhone 5S, and the absolutely thrilling iPhone 4S. Wait, what?
    • The iPhone 5C is (as Ars Technica put it) essentially identical to the iPhone 5 but plastic instead of aluminum. The big excitement is that it will be available in thrilling new colors: blue, green, red, yellow, and white. Oh, and its front-facing camera will have better low-light performance than that old iPhone 5. Prices starting at $99. Pre-order starting Friday, available a week later. Again, looking forward.
    • (Turning the snark mode off for a moment. Mostly.) The 5S is where the innovation really shines. Brand new 64-bit CPU (“The only phone with a 64-bit CPU”), up to twice as fast as the previous generation. iOS 7 has, of course, been fully updated to support 64-bit code while retaining full backward compatibility with existing 32-bit apps. In the long term, this will be a big win in terms of speed and capability. In the short term, we’re going to see a flood of customer complaints about apps not being updated to 64-bit versions, even in cases where there’s no value in it. A new “motion co-processor” will handle the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass without the CPU needing to get involved. Opens up possibilities for context-sensitive and activity-aware apps. Major enhancements to the camera (bigger pixels, wider aperture, larger image sensor) combined with OS updates that pretty much boil down to “you don’t need to know a thing about photography to take pretty pictures”. A lot of the changes amount to taking multiple pictures at once and then the OS choosing the best of them, because it knows what effect you were going for better than you do. And then there’s that famous fingerprint reader in the home button. No more passcode and no more typing your password to buy something from the iTunes store. Just put your finger on the button. Very slick. Of course, if you share your phone, you’re screwed. It’s going to be a lot harder to share a finger than it was to share a passcode. Lior, I’m sure you’ll be happy to sacrifice a finger to the cause, right? Snip it off, preserve it in plastic, and pass it around to the team… At least you can use the same finger for multiple phones. Oh, and let’s not forget that you fingerprint data is encrypted and stored locally on the phone, never uploaded to Apple’s servers. That means the NSA can’t get your fingerprint. Uh… unless they arrest you and take your phone away. But they wouldn’t do that, because the fingerprint is only decryptable via the TouchID software on your phone. They can’t possibly crack that encryption, right? And if they can’t, nobody else can either! This phone is so cutting edge and futuristic that you can’t even pre-order it. It’ll be available on September 20th and you can order it then!
    • And that spiffy new iPhone 4S is free-with-contract. Because in the future, there’s still going to be a demand for a slower CPU and a lower-resolution screen. Apple’s got you covered, future retro enthusiasts!
  • The future of music is its past! The show ended with an appearance of Elvis Costello, whose long career is a clear indication that he’ll continue to produce cutting edge music for years to come. Look, Apple, I love Elvis Costello as much as the next guy, but if you’re trying to establish relevance and forward-thinking, he’s probably not the right choice. How about showcasing a new group, somebody on the edge of success, or at most just enough of a track record to show they’re not a one-hit wonder?

As you may have gathered, I wasn’t hugely wowed by Apple’s announcements. Yes, the 5S is a significant step forward, but it’s going to take some time for developers to catch up to its capabilities.

In Apple’s defense, though, I was pleased to see that they’re not following the current Android trend of ever-larger phones with ever-larger camera pixel counts. They may not be blazing new trails, but at least they’re not tramping down the same trail as everyone else.

Give Me a…

Once again Lior earns brownie points for tossing me the subject of a post. He’s concerned about Google’s new foray into cross-marketing: both that they’ve done it at all, and that they’re doing it with a Swiss company instead of keeping the $$$ in the US.

Lior and I disagree. Of course we do. If we agreed, I’d just post the rant he sent me and be done for the day…

For those of you who don’t follow obsessively follow Android news, the story is that Google surprised the heck out of the tech world yesterday with their announcement of the code name for the next version of the Android OS, due out next month. Techies had been assuming for months that the name would be “Key Lime Pie”. Google, however, went with “KitKat” and has a full cross-marketing agreement in place with the candy bar.

Let’s take the easy one first. The Kit Kat name is, as Lior notes, owned by Nestle, a Swiss company. However, Google’s licensing agreement is with Hershey, an American company that owns the brand in the U.S. So those dollars are nominally staying in the country. On the flip side, there really isn’t any such thing as a national company: with Apple saving big bucks on taxes by routing funds through Ireland, Microsoft buying Nokia’s phone business, and on and on, it’s pretty clear that one country isn’t big enough to hold a tech giant. For that matter, Google Zurich is “Google’s largest engineering office in Europe, the Middle East and Africa”, so you could also think of this deal as being between a pair of Swiss companies.

As for the larger concern, the commercialization of the Android brand, frankly I’m surprised it’s taken this long. Google has passed up a heck of a lot of previous opportunities:

  • Cupcake – The first dessert-themed release and the first public release. Nobody knew it was going to be the start of a tradition at the time, so making a big corporate tie-in would have taken away from the real core message: “Hey, Android is here!”
  • Donut – Don’t even try to tell me that Dunkin’ Donuts wouldn’t have been a good match… Actually, it wouldn’t have been a good match. DD is much better known on the East Coast than the West, and Google would want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible while trying to get global traction for the OS.
  • Éclair – Now we’re starting to get into territory where a cross-brand might have made some sense. There aren’t any well-known eclair manufacturers, though, so a different dessert would have been necessary. How about Eskimo Pie, also a name owned by Nestle?
  • Froyo – The frozen yoghurt market is rather fragmented; I’m not sure Google could have found a single purveyor with the kind of national reach they would have wanted. Fortune cookie, anyone? Wonton Food, Inc. probably would have jumped at the chance.
  • Gingerbread – Again, not a lot of strong national brand identification. Hmm. Gingersnaps? Gelato? Not much better. They might have wanted to sit this one out from a marketing perspective.
  • Honeycomb – Post probably would have killed for the chance at this one. Too bad the cereal isn’t known as a dessert. On the other hand, considering how short Honeycomb’s useful lifespan was, positioning it as a breakfast might have helped.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich – Bay Area techies would have screamed with joy if there had been a deal in place with It’s-It. Too bad the rest of the country would have said “Huh? What’s that?” Mmm, It’s-It.
  • Jelly Bean – Jelly Belly, anyone? Or if Google wanted to boost their appeal in the UK, how about Jelly Baby? Ah for the lost opportunity for Dr. Who offering up Nexus devices. Or the really big name: Jello. Need I say more?

Moving on…

As I said, I’m not that concerned about Google tying themselves to Hershey on this release. Competing on the merits of the OS has taken Android about as far as possible against Apple. Now, with Apple apparently poised to release a lower-cost iPhone, Google needs to start raising Android’s profile with the non-techie public. “Like an iPhone, but cheaper” isn’t going to fly. “Tasty” will.

That said, Google, please don’t tie in every release to a corporate sponsor. No more than every other release, OK? Do that, and I’ll look forward to Lollipop/Lemon Bar/Lemon Meringue Pie just as eagerly as I look forward to Mounds/Mars Bar/M&M.

Oh, and how’s about you stick with products whose owners spell them consistently? I’m not looking forward to the next year’s religious wars over whether it’s “Kit Kat” or “KitKat”.

Biting the Forbidden Fruit

Things have been getting sexy for Apple lately, and not in a good way.

There has long been a class of malware in the Windows world called “ransomware”. Once it finds its way onto a computer, it blocks functionality or encrypts data and then demands money.

Recently, this type of evil has made its way to the Mac in the form of a JavaScript program that takes over the Safari browser. It displays a web page that claims the FBI has been monitoring your computer use and has detected that “You have been viewing or distributing prohibited Pornographic content (Child Porno photos and etc were found on your computer).” The code prevents you from leaving the page until you fork over a “release fee” of $300. It also uses Safari’s ability to reload a page if the browser crashes to forcibly reload the lock page if you force-close Safari.

Other claimed violations in the warning message include violations of copyright and, amusingly enough, “your PC may be infected by malware”.

No word on whether paying the ransom actually results in returning control of your browser to you. Fortunately, you can escape very simply without paying the ransom, but you will lose your browsing history, passwords, and other browser data.

So on the one hand, we have Mac users being falsely accused of possessing kiddy porn and being given the option of paying a small “fine” to sweep it under the rug. Meanwhile, Apple itself is being sued for making pornography available.

The International Business Times is reporting that a man is blaming his porn addiction on his MacBook, and is suing Apple. Among his demands are that Apple include a porn filter on every device they make that has the ability to display pornography and to require users to read and agree to a consumer notice about the evils of pornography in order to turn the filter off.

Reports indicate that the plaintiff, a lawyer, has been barred from practicing law due to Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome-related mental illness, which could certainly explain some of the more… interesting claims made in the suit. Many people are pointing to the claim that Apple is harming the economy buy driving sex shops out of business as an indication of the plaintiff’s mental illness. Personally, I think a better example is the claim that directly equates Apple’s failure to provide porn filters as the cause of (among other things) ADHD and thrill seeking to the U.S. Government’s failure to invade Afghanistan as the cause of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

Contrary to what Trekkie Monster would have you believe, the Internet is not just for porn. Why, I’ve used my iPad for as much as five minutes at a time without seeing any pornography!

Ahem.

More seriously, the plaintiff’s suit would also require Apple to proactively seek out sites specializing in pornography and work with the FBI to shut them down. An interesting notion: privatization of the determination of what constitutes “pornography” (Mr. Sevier’s complaint helpfully provides a definition: “any picture, photograph, drawing, sculpture, motion picture film, or similar visual representation or image of a person or a portion of the human body, which depicts nudity, sexual conduct, excess violence, or sadomasochistic abuse, and which is harmful to minors and adult males.”) Apparently women cannot be harmed by such material. But I digress. Other sections of the legal filing make it clear that the last clause is redundant; in Mr. Sevier’s opinion, any depiction of such materials is harmful to adult males (and probably minors as well).

So we’re not just talking about obscenity here, nor are we talking about legal pornography, we’re talking about any depiction of the unclothed body. And apparently anywhere in the world; Mr. Sevier seems to be unaware that the Internet is global, extending far beyond the FBI’s jurisdiction.

*sigh*

I could go on for hours – the complaint is 50 pages long, and I doubt that there’s a single page that doesn’t contain an outrage against common sense.

The problem here is that if the case isn’t thrown out immediately, Apple will be in a difficult position. The publicity they would receive in fighting the suit would do grave harm to their reputation as a “Family Friendly” company. On the other hand, not fighting the suit and adopting even some of Mr. Sevier’s proposed remedies would cost millions of dollars in creating and maintaining a porn filter that wouldn’t work to Mr. Sevier’s standards anyway (a fact that’s been widely acknowledged since at least the turn of the century). And the intermediate position of paying him a settlement to withdraw the suit and go away would subject them to the same negative publicity as fighting and open them to a potential flood of nuisance suits seeking similar settlements.

Will the suit be tossed? I certainly hope so, but I’m not hugely optimistic. It was filed in Tennessee, a state with a history of prosecuting pornography and obscenity cases across state lines (see, for example, the 1994 “Amateur Action BBS” case in which BBS operators in Milpitas, California were charged with distributing obscene materials in Tennessee in part through a dial-up BBS. Let us hope that Apple meets a happier fate than the Thomases did.