Why the Apple vs. the FBI case is important

This morning’s Observer column:

No problem, thought the Feds: we’ll just get a court order forcing Apple to write a special version of the operating system that will bypass this security provision and then download it to Farook’s phone. They got the order, but Apple refused point-blank to comply – on several grounds: since computer code is speech, the order violated the first amendment because it would be “compelled speech”; because being obliged to write the code amounted to “forced labour”, it would also violate the fifth amendment; and it was too dangerous because it would create a backdoor that could be exploited by hackers and nation states and potentially put a billion users of Apple devices at risk.

The resulting public furore offers a vivid illustration of how attempting a reasoned public debate about encryption is like trying to discuss philosophy using smoke signals. Leaving aside the purely clueless contributions from clowns like Piers Morgan and Donald Trump, and the sanctimonious platitudes from Obama downwards about “no company being above the law”, there is an alarmingly widespread failure to appreciate what is at stake here. We are building a world that is becoming totally dependent on network technology. Since there is no possibility of total security in such a world, then we have to use any tool that offers at least some measure of protection, for both individual citizens and institutions. In that context, strong encryption along the lines of the stuff that Apple and some other companies are building into their products and services is the only game in town.

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The new sun in the tech universe

This morning’s Observer column:

The Christmas holidays are the time of year when different generations of the family gather around the dinner table. So it’s a perfect opportunity for a spot of tech anthropology. Here’s how to do it.

At some point, insert into the conversation a contemporary topic about which most people have strong opinions but know relatively little. Jeremy Clarkson, say. There will come a moment when someone decides that the only thing to be done to resolve the ensuing factual disputes is to “Google it”. Watch what happens next…

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The phablet controversy


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.

Why Apple Pay was the big news from Apple

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…

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That “Apple Tax”

Horse sense from Jean-Louis Gassée

Following last week’s verdict against Samsung, the kommentariat have raised the specter of an egregious new Apple Tax, one that Apple will levy on other smartphone makers who will have no choice but to pass the burden on to you. The idea is this: Samsung’s loss means it will now have to compete against Apple with its dominant hand — a lower price tag — tied behind its back. This will allow Apple to exact higher prices for its iPhones (and iPads) and thus inflict even more pain and suffering on consumers.

There seems to be a moral aspect, here, as if Apple should be held to a higher standard. Last year, Apple and Nokia settled an IP “misunderstanding” that also resulted in a “Tax”…but it was Nokia that played the T-Man role: Apple paid Nokia more than $600M plus an estimated $11.50 per iPhone sold. Where were the handwringers who now accuse Apple of abusing the patent system when the Nokia settlement took place? Where was the outrage against the “evil”, if hapless, Finnish company? (Amusingly, observers speculate that Nokia has made more money from these IP arrangements than from selling its own Lumia smartphones.)

Patent absurdity exposed at last

This morning’s Observer column about Richard Posner’s landmark ruling.

What brings Posner to mind this Sunday morning, however, is not his views on obesity but on intellectual property. You may have noticed that in the last few years the world’s biggest technology companies have become lavish patrons of the legal profession. Apple, Google, Samsung, HTC, Microsoft, Oracle, HP, Amazon and others have being suing one another in courts around the globe, alleging that they are infringing one another’s patents. The resulting bonanza for lawyers has long passed the point of insanity, but up to now the world’s courts seem powerless to make the litigants see sense. As a result, judges find themselves allocated the role of pawns in what are effectively business negotiations between global companies.

Until now. What happened is that Posner, in an unusual move, got himself assigned to a lower court to hear a case in which Apple was suing Google (which had purchased Motorola in order to get its hands on the phone company’s patent portfolio) over alleged infringement of Apple’s smartphone patents. Posner listened to the lawyers and then threw out the case. But what was really dramatic was the way he eviscerated the legal submissions. At one point, for example, Apple claimed that Google was infringing one of its patents on the process of unlocking a phone by swiping the screen. “Apple’s argument that a tap is a zero-length swipe,” said Posner, “is silly. It’s like saying that a point is a zero-length line.”

The real cost of the smartphone revolution

This morning’s Observer column.

For many years, the most assiduous provider of data about the ongoing revolution has been Mary Meeker, an industry analyst who once worked for Morgan Stanley, the investment bank that acted as lead underwriter for the Netscape IPO in August 1995 (and thereby triggered the first internet boom). She began making an annual conference presentation, “The Internet Report”, which acquired legendary status in the industry because it distilled from the froth some elements of reality.

Ms Meeker is now a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capital firms, but she has not abandoned her old habits. Last week she presented her latest annual report – now labelled “Internet Trends” – at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference in California.

It’s a whopping 112-slide presentation, which bears serious contemplation. Buried within it are some startling numbers…