What’s significant about the new iPhone

This morning’s Observer column.

Tuesday would be – so the hype machine assured us – iPhone 5 day. But Tuesday came and went and it turned out to be only iPhone 4S day, and the assembled chorus drawn from the Apple-obsessed region of the blogosphere and the “analysts” of Wall Street howled their frustration. Which made one wonder what these people expected – an iPhone 5 that did teleportation? It also made one wonder if anyone on Wall Street has ever heard of the sigmoid function, the universal s-shaped learning curve that shows a progression from small beginnings and accelerates rapidly before creeping slowly towards its maximum point.

The point is that the iPhone has been through the acceleration phase and is now at the point where it can only get incrementally better. What CEO Tim Cook and his colleagues announced on Tuesday represented an implicit acknowledgment of that reality: they announced an incrementally improved product…

BlackBerry: a smouldering platform

Not quite burning yet. But emitting smoke. Sobering assessment of what RIM’s latest results tell us. Excerpt:

When reporting its fourth quarter in March, RIM had forecast revenues in the range of $5.2-$5.6bn and profits of between $770-812m.

Instead, they both came in lower. Now, you might look at that and say that revenues are up, and shipments are up – so what’s the worry?

First, it’s in the gap between those two – which led to the fall in profits. Basically, you can see clearly from those numbers that RIM must be getting less money per phone. Quite substantially less, if you take into account the average cost of a PlayBook (which is going to be a lot more than a BlackBerry).

We would have been able to tell you exactly how much it was getting per handset – but following its results last time, RIM said it would stop giving out both average selling prices (ASPs) for handsets and the total number of BlackBerry subscribers, which it had been doing since the beginning of 2002. And another financial point: the company is to buy back 5% of the outstanding shares. I won’t go into the mechanics of why share buybacks are bad (two quick reasons: the company should have better things to spend its cash on, such as R&D, and buybacks featherbed executive share options). But when a company circles the wagons by reducing the amount of data it gives out and does a buyback, something is wrong.

Here’s what’s wrong: RIM’s platform is burning. Except that this isn’t the fully-fledged conflagration that Stephen Elop perceived at Nokia. It’s more of a smouldering. But it’s happening nonetheless, and it’s been happening for a long time: RIM hasn’t released a major new phone since August 2010. (Yes, that’s nearly as long as Apple.) It sort-of showed off a new version of the Torch in May; that will actually be released in September. (Way to kill the sales, people.)

RIM’s management knows it has a problem, but doesn’t seem to be able to make the shift – the very difficult shift, it should be noted – from the old BlackBerry OS to the new QNX platform that is going to power forthcoming BlackBerrys (and already powers the PlayBook).

QNX-based phones have been much promised; RIM hasn’t however delivered.

That figures. I’ve noticed how almost all my corporate contacts — the people who once had BlackBerrys to a man or woman — now have iPhones.

The Apple spyPhone (contd.)

It’s fascinating to see what happened overnight on this story. Firstly, lots of people began posting maps of where their iPhones had been, which is a clear demonstration of the First Law of Technology — which says that if something can be done then it will be done, irrespective of whether it makes sense or not. Personally I’ve always been baffled by how untroubled geeks are about revealing location data. I remember one dinner party of ours which was completely ruined when one guest, a friend who had been GPS-tracking his location for three years, was asked by another guest, the late, lamented Karen Spärck Jones, if he wasn’t bothered by the way this compromised his privacy. He replied in the negative because he had “nothing to hide”. There then followed two hours of vigorous argument which touched on, among other things, the naivete of geeks, the ease with which the punctiliousness of Dutch bureaucracy made it easy to round up Dutch Jews after the Germans invaded Holland in the Second World War, the uses to which location data might be put by unsavoury characters and governments, Karl Popper and the Open Society, etc. etc.

Michael Dales has a couple of interesting blog posts (here and here) about the iPhone data-gathering facility. And, like all geeks, he’s totally unsurprised by the whole affair.

It seems rather than worry geeks, most of us find the data amazing. I suspect that’s because most of us know that this data could be got otherhow anyway – all it really shows is where your phone has been, and the phone operators know that anyway – and I typically trust them a lot less than I trust Apple (not that I think Apple is angelic, it’s a shareholder owned company, but I generally have a more antagonistic relationship with phone companies than I do Apple). So the fact the data resides on my phone is handy – if I was worried about people tracking where my phone goes then I’d never turn it on.

Michael also sees positive angles to this.

If you have a Mac and want to see where your iPhone has been (and then, like most people, post it to the Internet :) then you can get the tool to do so here. What I think is potentially really exciting is what you can do with the data now that you have access to it, not just your phone company. Quentin has already had the idea that you could use it to geotag your photos, which would be awesome, but how about things like carbon calculators, trip reports, and so on?

This post attracted a useful comment from ScaredyCat which gets to the heart of the problem:

The brouhaha isn’t just about the data being stored, it’s about the data being stored unencrypted. I love data like any geek but you do have to wonder why the data is being collected in the first place.

Precisely. What the data-logging and storage facility means is that your iPhone is potentially a source of useful confidential information for people who would have no hope of obtaining that information legally from a mobile phone network.

This point is neatly encapsulated by Rory Cellan-Jones in his blog post:

This obviously has intriguing implications for anyone who possesses one of these devices. What, for instance, if you had told your wife that you were off on a business trip – when in fact you had slipped off to the slopes with some mates – and she then managed to track down your iPhone location file? (I should stress that this is an imaginary scenario).

For divorce lawyers, particularly in the United States, the first question when taking on a new client could be “does your spouse own an iPhone?” And law enforcement agencies will also be taking a great interest in the iPhones – or iPads – of anyone they are tracking.

The other interesting thing about the spyPhone story is that, according to Alex Levinson, it’s an old story. He says that

Back in 2010 when the iPad first came out, I did a research project at the Rochester Institute of Technology on Apple forensics. Professor Bill Stackpole of the Networking, Security, & Systems Administration Department was teaching a computer forensics course and pitched the idea of doing forensic analysis on my recently acquired iPad. We purchased a few utilities and began studying the various components of apple mobile devices. We discovered three things:

* Third Party Application data can contain usernames, passwords, and interpersonal communication data, usually in plain text.
* Apple configurations and logs contain lots of network and communication related data.
* Geolocational Artifacts were one of the single most important forensic vectors found on these devices.

After presenting that project to Professor Stackpole’s forensic class, I began work last summer with Sean Morrissey, managing director of Katana Forensics on it’s iOS Forensic Software utility, Lantern. While developing with Sean, I continued to work with Professor Stackpole an academic paper outlining our findings in the Apple Forensic field. This paper was accepted for publication into the Hawaii International Conference for System Sciences 44 and is now an IEEE Publication. I presented on it in January in Hawaii and during my presentation discussed consolidated.db and it’s contents with my audience – my paper was written prior to iOS 4 coming out, but my presentation was updated to include iOS 4 artifacts.

Thanks to David Smith for passing on the link to the Levinson post.

The Apple spyPhone

Oxford to Cambridge and then London from Alasdair Allan on Vimeo.

Fascinating video of location data routinely and covertly gathered by an iPhone belonging to research Alasdair Allen. I came on it via an intriguing Guardian story which reported that

Security researchers have discovered that Apple’s iPhone keeps track of where you go – and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronised.

The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program.

For some phones, there could be almost a year’s worth of data stored, as the recording of data seems to have started with Apple’s iOS 4 update to the phone’s operating system, released in June 2010.

“Apple has made it possible for almost anybody – a jealous spouse, a private detective – with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you’ve been,” said Pete Warden, one of the researchers.

Only the iPhone records the user’s location in this way, say Warden and Alasdair Allan, the data scientists who discovered the file and are presenting their findings at the Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. “Alasdair has looked for similar tracking code in [Google’s] Android phones and couldn’t find any,” said Warden. “We haven’t come across any instances of other phone manufacturers doing this.”

Lots more information (plus a downloadable open source application that enables you to locate the file containing your location data history) on Pete Warden’s site. He’s got some helpful FAQs, including these:

What can I do to remove this data?

This database of your locations is stored on your iPhone as well as in any of the automatic backups that are made when you sync it with iTunes. One thing that will help is choosing encrypted backups, since that will prevent other users or programs on your machine from viewing the data, but there will still be a copy on your device.

Why is Apple collecting this information?

It’s unclear. One guess might be that they have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s pure speculation. The fact that it’s transferred across devices when you restore or migrate is evidence the data-gathering isn’t accidental.

Is Apple storing this information elsewhere?

There’s no evidence that it’s being transmitted beyond your device and any machines you sync it with.

What’s so bad about this?

The most immediate problem is that this data is stored in an easily-readable form on your machine. Any other program you run or user with access to your machine can look through it.

It’s interesting that the mobile operators also keep this data, but the cops have to get a special order to access it. (Which they often do, as we find out in evidence to murder trials, for example.) But anyone who gets access to an iPhone (or, it turns out, a 3G-enabled iPad) can get it without going through any legal palaver.

Interesting, ne c’est pas? n’est-ce pas?

(Thanks to Duncan Thomas for correcting my French.)

Apple’s Suez canal

This morning’s Observer column.

At the centre of the Appleverse sits a single, crucial piece of desktop software – iTunes. You can do very little with an Apple device without hooking it up to iTunes. Until now, this has given Apple a key strategic advantage over all other competitors. But, as Britain discovered with the Suez canal in the 1950s, being unduly dependent on a single strategic asset can also have serious downsides.

The problem is that iTunes is now a pretty ancient piece of software. When it first appeared in 2001 as a reworking of SoundJam, a program Apple bought from a Californian company in 1999, it provided an elegant way of doing just one thing: getting songs from CDs on to your computer’s hard drive. But over the years, more and more functions have been added: first the management of iPods, then the Apple online store. Then iTunes became the conduit for managing one’s iPhone. The latest addition is the Ping social-networking function.

This is what the industry calls “feature creep” on an heroic scale…

Backwards into the future

This morning’s Observer column.

It’s not often that a newspaper column can resolve a dispute that has troubled the finest minds of an abstruse academic discipline, but hey, what else is the New Review for? The field is cosmology, and the dispute concerns the issue of whether there exist parallel universes that together include “everything that physically exists: the entirety of space and time, all forms of matter, energy and momentum, and the physical laws and constants that govern them.”

Today we can reveal that at least one such parallel universe exists. It is usually found in Finland, but last week alighted on the ExCel Centre in London, where it was visited by several observers known to this columnist. It is called the Nokiaverse (though some call it Nokia World) and it is populated by people who believe that it is possible to go backwards into the future…

Growing pains

This morning’s Observer column.

Over the past two months, Apple’s market capitalisation (ie its value as measured by the stock market) averaged out at $229.8bn.

The corresponding figure for Microsoft was $215.9bn. And yes, you read those numbers correctly: Apple is now worth significantly more than Microsoft, and the difference isn’t just a flash in the Wall Street pan.

This has implications for all of us who follow these things. The mainstream media, for example, need to discard the rose-tinted spectacles through which they have viewed Apple ever since Steve Jobs returned to the helm in 1997. Apple is no longer the Lucky Little Company That Could but a looming, secretive, manipulative corporate giant.

Recent developments suggest that Apple itself also needs to adjust to its new status as just another company…

Apropos the Microsoft comparison, Randall Stross has a useful piece in today’s NYT. Microsoft continues to be a formidable company, but from the viewpoint of investors it’s become more like GE or Big Oil (excepting BP, perhaps) — a good ‘banker’ stock for a part of one’s pension portfolio.

Why Louis Grey turned In his iPhone and went for Android

Long, thoughtful post by Louis Gray.

For me, more than the over-used phrase of "open", the promise of true multitasking, and the platform's integration with Google Apps, was one word – "Choice". Choice of handsets. Choice of carriers. Choice of manufacturers. Second behind the word choice has to be "Momentum". I can see that Android has momentum in terms of improved quality, in terms of the number of devices sold and users, and yes, applications, which are growing in quantity, soon to be followed by quality. I really do believe that if Android does not already have a market share lead over Apple yet in this discussion, they soon will. It is inevitable. The growth in the number of handsets, carriers and users will drive more developers to the platform, and the holdouts who are not there will eventually make the move. And yes, third is "Cloud" – the idea that I don't need to be tied to my desktop computer to manage data on the phone, but instead, the phone is built to tap into data stored on the Web. Fourth is "Capability". The Android platform, as the Droid commercials offer, simply does more. The power of the mobile hotspot cannot be understated, and the iPhone is a zero there…

Worth reading in full.