iOS Grows Up Part 1

In a few short years, mobile operating systems have transformed modern society. The younger generations have for the most part skipped laptop and desktop computers and rely on mobile devices for all their online activities. From social media to messaging to watching hours of video, the small screen is the focus of their attention. Of course, voice calling is reserved for parents and emergencies while, depending on the country, SMS Messaging (and iMessage), Facebook (and Messenger), WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat, Instagram, Kik, etc. dominate their online lives. Written words replace spoken conversations, photos (selfies) convey more complex emotions, and short ephemeral videos entertain and inform. On a larger scale, YouTube has replaced network television, streaming music has replaced radio, and personalized recommendations from “influencers” trumps traditional advertising.

In this brave new world, the debate between iOS and Android rages on. How can Apple survive when 80% of the smartphone market is Android? It’s a classic question asked of every premium brand that exists successfully in the marketplace. Why buy a BMW when a Camry is excellent, reliable transportation? Why buy designer clothes when Target has great styles for less? It boils down to a few things that Apple does extremely well. First is excellent hardware, especially the iPhone camera. The second is a fanatical attention to software details including usability, security, a constant stream of innovations, and a massive, high quality App Store. They are also able to appeal a wide range of users. Millennials love advanced iMessage features such as group messaging, stickers, apps, emoji, and now the animated Animoji feature of the iPhoneX. Casual users find the default iPhone setup out of the box easy to adapt to. Add the Facebook app and email account information and they are happy. Photos (and the iPhone in general) get backed up to iCloud, messaging just works, and emailing is painless. To be fair, these features of Android are also easy to setup, but the experience is tainted by a wide variety of strange problems even with the most popular phones. Samsung phones ($849 for the S8) have the controversial “TouchWiz” user interface, Google Pixel ($949 for the XL 2) features a “clean, bloat-free experience with no unwanted apps” (a feature?!, a reaction to Samsung?), and even flagship phones like LG V30 ($800) get released with major flaws (a bad screen).

So to answer the question posed at the end of the last post, “How can Apple possibly survive giving something this valuable away for free?” The answer is simple, free iOS upgrades are one of the primary reasons people choose iOS over Android. It’s like getting a new phone every year without the cost of purchasing new hardware.

iOS users can rely on the fact that their product will be supported at no extra charge for at least three years. That means new features, security updates, and compatibility with other Apple products as soon as the update is released. By contrast, even flagship Android phones cannot be upgraded until the carrier “approves” the update which is sometimes several months later (if ever). Google Pixel phones are guaranteed to get updates immediately, but that’s a small part of the Android world.

So what did iOS users get with iOS 11 that demonstrates that it is growing up? Hang tight, that’s the topic of the next post and it straddles a different line, the blurring line between the desktop and mobile worlds.

My First Week Not Using the New iPhone X

Nope, that is not a typo. I’m really not using the new iPhone X and it really is an unusual event because I’ve purchased a new iPhone every year since the 3G. I remember it like it was yesterday. In 2008, while waiting in line at the Apple Store in Santa Monica for hours to buy my first iPhone, I spoke to several people near me. One was a neurosurgeon, another was a musician covered in tattoos, and a couple were computer science students from nearby UCLA. Despite our differences, we all agreed that the iPhone was going to conquer the mobile world which then consisted of horrible phones like the Blackberry and Windows Mobile based devices. At the time I was using a state of the art Samsung “Blackjack” which I nicknamed the “Crapjack” because it was so bad.

Then, like now, the release of a new iPhone’s was met with immediate criticism. Blackberry wrote it off as an “expensive toy” and Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer laughed at the $500 price tag. The video of him laughing out loud almost has three million views on YouTube.

Fast forward almost 10 years and the iPhone has been a great ride for Apple. It has transformed computing, spawned numerous imitators such as Android, and has brought the Internet to the masses around the world. Personally, working with Apple catapulted my career and transformed the company I worked for. It was certainly no fun visiting them before Steve Jobs returned, but afterwards it was a high octane trip in the Silicon’s Valley’s version of the Autobahn. Each new iPhone model added irresistible features: better cameras, better (and bigger) displays, faster processors, better industrial design, higher WiFi speeds, better security through TouchID, etc.

So why didn’t I buy the biggest and baddest iPhone ever when it was released this week? It has a bigger, better display (OLED!), FaceID, a faster processor, two cameras that are both optically image stabilized, and a whole host of other improvements including a special “image signal processor” in the main A11 CPU that creates special effects like the one below. I took this with an iPhone X in the Apple Store in Phoenix. No special lighting, no special background, in broad daylight just using Apple’s “Stage Light” effect.

The answer is complex. Part of it has to do with the idea that at some point, the iPhone 7+ is “good enough” for 90% of the tasks I use it for. In fact, my phone sometimes sits on my desk the whole day lonely and neglected because the Apple Watch has taken over some tasks and the iPad others. Also, TouchID is still great, the camera is excellent, it has not slowed down with iOS 11, and is not too big for my pockets. It’s a similar story as to why I only recently upgraded my 2012 MacBook Pro (explained at the end of this post). Other reasons include the price. While 64GB for $999 is not unreasonable, it is not enough storage for me, but the next step up is 256 GB for $1,149 which feels like a waste of money because it is definitely too much space. Like Goldilocks, 128 GB is “just right.”

In general, the iPhone X seems to be made for a slightly different use case than mine and the iPhone 8 doesn’t seem like enough of an upgrade to justify the cost either so here I sit for the first time in 10 years without the latest greatest from Apple. Is Apple in trouble? No way! FaceID and other enhancements will probably get me to upgrade my iPad next year and there will certainly be something to lure me into the iPhone 11 eventually. In the meantime, it’s all about the software at the moment and iOS 11 is a major breakthrough for mobile operating systems. How can Apple possibly survive giving something this valuable away for free? Well, that sounds a topic for the next post. Stay tuned!

Equifax Illustrates WHY Certain Information Is Sensitive

There have been thousands of articles about the Equifax breach recently, but very few have discussed the deeper reasons why information that used to be common knowledge has become so critical to online safety and security. This blog post from AgileBits, makers of 1Password, is a great primer on why certain information is now considered sensitive. It all boils down to the fact that banks have adopted identifiers (such as Social Security Numbers) as secrets and “identifiers are bad secrets.” To illustrate the point, the author includes a fun clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the famous “Bruces Sketch.”

There might be a lot of Bruce’s in the room, but there are probably not two with the same birthday and definitely not two with the same Social Security Number (SSN). So the name Bruce can’t be used as an identifier. Bruce + SSN used to be ok, but became a secret when banks began to use them for telephone banking. Bruce + birthday is not great, but add Bruce’s address and that should be unique. However, it is not a secret because Bruce’s birthday can be found on his Facebook page and his address is probably 1,000 places online. Identifiers are clearly bad secrets.

The Equifax breach has brought the problem to a head by speeding up the process of demonstrating that identifiers are bad secrets because for hundreds of thousands of people those identifiers are now public information (for hackers). The solutions are complicated and while many people think they don’t have any “secrets” and ask themselves “Why would a hacker possibly be interested in my boring family photos?” The deeper issue is the increasing interconnectedness of online and physical identities. For a deep dive into how to protect yourself online, see my recent series, “Online Security.”

AgileBits is certainly doing their part to help people keep track of the real secrets: passwords, credit card numbers, driver’s licenses, passports, etc., but a kept secret is only as good as the privacy of the place it is stored such as a smartphone or computer. For more information on this part of the problem, take a look at Apple’s excellent new website on privacy. It presents a clear picture of  how closely related secrecy and  privacy really are.

Google Requests a Fax of an Online Form?!

Here’s a fun throwback to end the week. Google requested that I send them a fax. Really Google? How about I chisel the information into a clay tablet and send it with a tribute of grain via the next caravan going to Mountain View? Yes, Google really sent me the form below after I closed an old G Suite account.

There are thousands of major Google account maintenance tasks that can be done online with no physical paperwork necessary. With Google Fetch and Render large websites can be reindexed, organizations can open accounts to manage hundreds of email addresses, advertising can be broadcast around the world in an instant, but a $2.64 refund requires the telephonic transmission of scanned printed material through the use of a machine invented in 1843. Wow, there are apparently some gaps in the high tech world of Google.

Feedly – Because If You Are Still Starting Your Morning With a Zigzag…

“… through a standard set of Web sites (sic), you’re wasting time and energy. Feedly is what you Needly.” That corny quote is courtesy of a New York Times article from May 2013 and in terms of reading blogs, not much has changed since then.

And it’s not just blogs. Many people still visit a list of websites every day such as news, fitness, sports, celebrities, etc., quickly resulting in a deluge of information peppered with tons of intrusive ads. What they don’t know is that many websites offer one or more “RSS feeds” containing direct links to articles posted each day. For example, The Verge is an excellent source of technology news. They even break down their feeds into useful categories such as posts about “Microsoft, Apple, Google, Apps, Mobile, Science, Features, etc.”  Many companies large and small also have their own blogs with RSS feeds. National Instruments (NI) has a webpage with links to not only their own blog (with over 1,500 posts!), but the technology blogs of their partners as well.

The confusing part is that everybody from the New York Times to The Verge to NI use something called “RSS” to publish their feeds even though they are completely different sources of information published on completely different schedules. The Verge might publish more than 20 articles on a busy day while NI only publishes one article every couple weeks. So why visit multiple sites everyday, some of which might only publish occasionally? That’s where an “RSS reader” comes in. After setup and subscribing to various websites’ RSS feeds, it only displays a list of new articles. Articles in this list are marked as “read” either by being read (duh) or by skimming through headlines. Once marked as read, they do not show up again.

The easiest part is finding a good RSS reader. No need to do a Google search, just use Feedly.com. It’s free, simple to setup, and synchronizes content across its website, smartphone app, and tablet app. It is also fast, straightforward, and provides direct access to a wide variety of high quality news sites organized by topic such as Technology, Business, Design, Photography, Science, and Travel. Other websites and blogs can easily be added via the search box. Once the basic setup is complete, each time Feedly is accessed, it only displays a list of headlines from unread material.

So if you have some free time during these last few weeks of summer, setup Feedly and enjoy distraction free reading of your favorite websites and blogs. By the way, the Elephant Tech blog can be subscribed to by searching for “elephanttech.com” using the search box in the upper right corner…