No matter what you think about Google, it’s an astonishing project. Also I can’t think of another company that could — or would — attempt it.
This morning’s Observer column:
The implication of these latest revelations is stark: the capabilities and ambitions of the intelligence services mean that no electronic communications device can now be regarded as trustworthy. It’s not only your mobile phone that might betray you: your hard disk could harbour a snake in the grass, too.
No wonder Andy Grove, the former boss of Intel, used to say that “only the paranoid survive” in the technology business. Given that we have become totally dependent on his industry’s products, that knowledge may not provide much consolation. But we now know where we stand. And we have Edward Snowden to thank for that.
This morning’s Observer column:
If a year is a long time in politics (and it is), then it’s an eternity in communications technology. Fourteen years ago, about 400 million people were using the internet. Today, the number of net users is pushing the 3 billion mark. But that’s not the really big news. What’s truly startling is that 2 billion of these folks are getting their internet connections primarily via smartphones, ie, handheld computers that can access the internet as well as make voice calls, send text messages and do the other things that old-fashioned “feature phones” could do.
This is startling because smartphones are a relatively new development, and when they first appeared less than a decade ago, most of us thought that they would remain an elite consumer product for a long time to come, staples of affluent professionals in the industrialised world, perhaps, but of no relevance to poor people in the developing world who would continue to be delighted with crude feature phones that could just about do SMS.
How wrong can you be? We underestimated both the power of Moore’s law and human nature…
Wading through the throng in an Apple store the other day, I had a look at the new iPhones. The iPhone 6 didn’t seem much of an advance on my 5s, but the even-bigger one, the 6 plus, seems odd. It’s far too big to be a credible phone, but too small to be a useable tablet. So why, one wonders, will people buy it?
One answer, I suppose, is that people buy preposterously large Samsung phones, even if they do wind up holding something the size of a dinner plate to their ears. (Or making calls surreptitiously, using headphones.)
Ages ago, I bought an iPad Mini with a SIM card for writing on the move, and kept my phone for texts and the occasional voice call. The Mini has turned out to be one of the most useful gadgets I’ve ever owned. Just big enough to be useful; just small enough to slip into a jacket pocket. The new iPhone isn’t a persuasive argument for abandoning that system. It ain’t broken, so I won’t be fixing it.
This morning’s Observer column.
To the technology trade, I am what is known as an “early adopter” (translation: gadget freak, mug, sucker). I had a mobile phone in the mid-1980s, for example, when they were still regarded as weird. It was the size of a brick, cost the best part of a grand and exposed me to ridicule whenever I took it out in public. But I didn’t care because the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, used the same phone and he was cool in those days. Besides, it had always seemed absurd to me that phones should be tethered to the wall, like goats. I still have that Nokia handset, by the way: it sits at the bottom of a drawer and I sometimes take it out to show my grandchildren what phones used to be like.
Over the decades since, I have always had latest-model phones – just like all the other early adopters. And of course I used them to make phone calls because basically that’s all you could do with those devices. (Well, almost all: one of mine had an FM radio built in.) And then in 2007 Steve Jobs launched the iPhone and the game changed. Why? Because the Apple device was really just a powerful computer that you could hold in your hand. And it was a real computer; its operating system was a derivative of BSD, the derivative of Unix developed by Bill Joy when he was a graduate student at Berkeley. (Note for non-techies: Unix is to Windows as a JCB is to a garden trowel.)
The fact that the iPhone could also make voice calls seemed, suddenly, a trivial afterthought. What mattered was that it provided mobile access to the internet. And that it could run programs, though it called them apps…
This morning’s Observer column
In the long view of history, though, the innovation that may be seen as really significant is Apple Pay – an ingenious blend of contactless payment technology with security features that are baked into the new iPhones. Apple Pay will, burbled Tim Cook, “forever change the way all of us buy things… it’s what makes the iPhone 6 the biggest advancement in the history of iPhones”.
The idea is to do away with the rigmarole of having to pull out a credit/debit card, insert in a store’s card reader, type a pin, etc. Instead, you simply bump your iPhone (and, eventually, your Apple Watch) against the store’s contactless reader and – bingo! – you’ve paid, and the store never gets to see your card. Why? Because Apple has stored the card details in heavily encrypted form on your device and assigned each card a unique, device-specific number, which is accepted by the retailer’s contactless reader.
This only works, of course, if the retailer has already signed up with Apple. Cook claimed that 220,000 US retailers have already opted in to the system, as well as six major banks, plus MasterCard, Visa and American Express – which means that 83% of all US credit card payment volume can theoretically already be handled by Apple Pay.
If true, this is a really big deal, because it puts Apple at the heart of an unimaginable volume of financial transactions. In a way, the company is now doing to the card payment business what it did to the music business with the iTunes store…
This morning’s Observer column.
Leave aside the fact that it was Apple that triggered the most recent explosion in the mobile industry – the smartphone revolution – and ponder what was actually on show in Barcelona. The answer, in the words of one astute and unsentimental observer, Professor Barry Avery, was: “Many phones, little innovation.” (Shades of Yeats’s pithy description of his – and my – native land: “Great hatred, little room.”)
“The message coming out of this year’s event,” wrote Avery, “is that while there are lots of new phones coming, we shouldn’t expect a great technological leap from any of them. Most of the phones are incremental updates, running the latest version of Android’s mobile phone operating system KitKat.”
Avery is too polite. The truth is that the mobile phone industry has run out of ideas. Every single smartphone in the market is basically just a variation on the Apple iPhone theme. And the variations, such as they are, are looking increasingly – and desperately – baroque…
Visitors may not know this, but maybe they should.
Officers use counter-terrorism laws to remove a mobile phone from any passenger they wish coming through UK air, sea and international rail ports and then scour their data.
The blanket power is so broad they do not even have to show reasonable suspicion for seizing the device and can retain the information for “as long as is necessary”.
Data can include call history, contact books, photos and who the person is texting or emailing, although not the contents of messages.
David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism laws, is expected to raise concerns over the power in his annual report this week.
He will call for proper checks and balances to ensure it is not being abused.