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…

Read on

Mobile phones: huge industry, no new ideas

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…

Before visiting the UK, reset your phone to factory settings

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.

The Facebook pathogen

This morning’s Observer column.

Infectious diseases, says the World Health Organisation, “are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi; the diseases can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another.” Quite so. Just like Facebook addiction, which also spreads from person to person and has now reached pandemic proportions, with more than a billion sufferers worldwide.

The Facebook pathogen doesn’t kill people, of course, for the good reason that dead people don’t buy stuff. But it does seem to affect victims’ brains. For example, it reduces normally articulate and sophisticated people to gibbering in the online equivalent of grunts. Likewise, it obliges them to coalesce all the varieties of human relationships into a simply binary pair: “friends” v everyone else…

Hackers and casuals

Fascinating blog post by Ajay Kulkarni, a developer. He argues that Android users fall into two categories — Hackers and Casuals.

First, there are the Hackers, the original Android users. The ones who bought the G1, the Droid 1, the Nexus 1, who invested in the platform because they believed in its fundamental philosophy: openness.

And this is who we normally imagine when we think of Android.

But in the last two years, Android devices have gotten cheaper, prolific in every carrier store.

As a result, there’s a new immigrant population in the Android community: the Casuals. These are the individuals upgrading from their feature phones, drawn to Android because of price.

Why is this interesting? Because the two groups approach — and use — their phones differently.

Hackers customize. They install their own keyboards, dialers, messaging apps, even home screens. Many are developers. They explore, they tinker. They love settings, settings, and more settings.

Casuals personalize. They like wallpapers and custom ringtones. But they don’t tinker. Many are late adopters to smartphones. They use Facebook, Twitter, and other popular apps, but they don’t explore new apps or technologies.

If you’re a developer, you have to approach each group differently. The post goes on to illustrate what that means in design terms.

Terrific post. HT to @charlesarthur for pointing me to it.

The hidden ironies of a Firefox OS

The news that there is going to be a Firefox Operating System has set the cat among the pigeons. GigaOm has an interesting take on it which is refreshingly alert to the irony of the carriers’ response to the development.

The fact that the carriers are lapping this up represents a moment of supreme irony: these are the same companies – largely former monopolies – that were all about walled gardens, the companies that wanted to replicate the portal-first, AOL model in the wireless world. And what happened to stymie that scenario? Apple happened.

It was the iPhone that really loosened the carriers’ grip on their product. Suddenly they were just providers of voice and SMS and data, not suppliers of value-added services. The revenue cut from app sales now went to Apple and Google, not to the operators. The walls to their gardens had been obliterated, and someone had set up much more attractive walled gardens elsewhere.

So back we come to this idea of the open mobile web. This is an area where luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee have been on the warpath, pointing out very real problems with the iOS/Android model. These include the inability to share app-based content in a standardized way, and the inability to search across apps. In short: the loss of the level playing field that web technologies represent.

Firefox OS is designed to solve those problems. Weirdly, we can now witness the former walled garden proprietors genuinely extol the virtues of openness. By promoting Firefox OS, they cannot regain control – however, they hope to prise some control from the hands of Google and Apple.

The future’s mobile. It might also be bleak

This morning’s Observer column.

But it’s when one sees how all these people access the net that the data leap into life. Meeker claims that the world now has 1.1 billion smartphone users, ie people who can access the internet and use the web via a handheld device. This trend is reinforced by other developments. A third of US adults now own a tablet or e-reader (up from 2% less than three years ago). And Apple’s iPad is the fastest-selling mobile device of all time (which, in the internet world, means “until the next Big Thing”). There’s a serious trend here.

The really staggering figures, however, are those relating to how people use their mobile devices. They already account for 13% of all internet traffic. This year, 24% of all online shopping on “black Friday” in the US was done via mobiles (up from 6% two years ago). And Meeker claims that in May this year mobile internet traffic in India overtook PC-based traffic.

What do these statistics mean? Well, basically they imply that the future’s mobile. We’re heading for a world in which most people will access the internet via handheld devices – phones and tablets. And this is a really big deal. On the one hand, it will make it easy for billions of people to integrate the net into their daily lives, with all the benefits that that can bring. On the other hand, it will greatly enhance the powers of corporations that few of us have any reason to trust.

The spy in your pocket

Intriguing (and scary) research paper entitled “PlaceRaider: Virtual Theft in Physical Spaces with Smartphones”. Abstract reads:

As smartphones become more pervasive, they are increasingly targeted by malware. At the same time, each new generation of smartphone features increasingly powerful onboard sensor suites. A new strain of sensor malware has been developing that leverages these sensors to steal information from the physical environment (e.g., researchers have recently demonstrated how malware can listen for spoken credit card numbers through the microphone, or feel keystroke vibrations using the accelerometer). Yet the possibilities of what malware can see through a camera have been understudied. This paper introduces a novel visual malware called PlaceRaider, which allows remote attackers to engage in remote reconnaissance and what we call virtual theft. Through completely opportunistic use of the camera on the phone and other sensors, PlaceRaider constructs rich, three dimensional models of indoor environments. Remote burglars can thus download the physical space, study the environment carefully, and steal virtual objects from the environment (such as financial documents, information on computer monitors, and personally identifiable information). Through two human subject studies we demonstrate the effectiveness of using mobile devices as powerful surveillance and virtual theft platforms, and we suggest several possible defenses against visual malware.

PetaPixel has a useful summary of the essence of the idea:

The app, designed by Robert Templeman of the US Naval Surface Warfare Center and scientists at Indiana University, can run secretly in the background of any smartphone running Android 2.3 (after an unsuspecting “victim” launches the app, of course). It makes decisions on when to surreptitiously snap photos based on things like time, location, and orientation.

Useless images (ones that are too blurry or dark) are filtered out, while the rest are beamed to a central server, which creates virtual 3D spaces based on the content of the images. These 3D spaces can then be browsed by the person behind the malicious “hack”.

The whole thing isn’t just conceptual: the scientists actually gave infected phones to 20 oblivious test subjects, who were asked to use the devices like they normally would in office environments. The results were pretty crazy: 3D models were successfully obtained from every one of the 20 subjects, and it was easier to glean sensitive information from the 3D models than from the original photos.

Our new software monoculture

This morning’s Observer column.

Apple has to date authorised 500,000 [Apps] for its iPhone. The corresponding number for the Android platform is 600,000. These numbers provide ample justification for the late Steve Jobs’s great insight: phones were really powerful hand-held computers that could run useful applications. And so it proved. Jobs unleashed an explosion in creativity as programmers raced to create apps that people would buy in huge volumes. The result is a world in which smartphones are basically app-running devices that can also make voice calls. Ditto for tablets, except that they don’t bother with the calls.

So that’s all right, then? Not quite. Look closer at this explosion of creativity and you find that much of what it has created is either trivial or downright crap. You can, for example, get an app to put an image of bubblewrap on your iPhone screen. Then there’s the Halloween Sound Machine (“Sneak up on your mates with the sounds of a rusty chainsaw, go on, you know you want to!”). Or how about iBeer (“turns the iPhone’s screen into a showy pint of the foamy stuff”)? And gentlemen trying to decide between a walrus moustache, Victorian sidewhiskers or a goatee beard will doubtless find Beard Booth invaluable.

I could go on, but you get the point. A large proportion of smartphone apps are the contemporary equivalent of those plastic gee-gaws my kids bought all those years ago: impulse purchases that provide a moment’s entertainment – or even delight – and are then forgotten…

Finally, a derivative that is actually useful

As every mathematics student knows, what’s most interesting about variables is the rate at which they are changing — the derivative. This graph — from Business Insider — plots the derivative of smartphone sales in the US. As you can see, the rate of change has apparently peaked, which means that sales are slowing. So does this mean that the smartphone explosion is over?

Henry Blodget, with his customary certitude thinks that it is. The peak of annual unit gains, he says, occurs around the halfway mark of adoption and US smartphone penetration is now around 50 per cent. If true, this means that smartphone sales in that market will “become more dependent on replacements and upgrades than attracting new users”. And of course networks will have to find ways of screwing more revenue out of existing users.

I suppose we will reach a point in developed countries where nearly everybody has a smartphone — though having recently seen the old-style Nokia phones my kids got for going to music festivals, I wonder. After all, these ancient devices have amazing battery life, in addition to being tiny and robust.

Even if Business Insider and Blodget are right about the saturation of the US market, there are huge markets in the rest of the world where the smartphone invasion is just beginning.

Given the banking crisis brought about by complex ‘derivatives’, it’s nice to find a derivative that’s actually useful.