Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Apple having to Think Different again

Fifteen years ago Apple launched a campaign in which it proclaimed the company had a different approach to its business model than other technology companies. The "Think Different" advertising campaign paid homage to "the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes," and the "ones who see things differently."

Whilst many saw such individuals as crazy, Apple claimed they saw genius, "because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Apple have certainly changed the face of technology and how individuals interact with it. But can the technology giant that brought the world the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad really be considered to be as innovative as it once claimed?

Innovation and imitation

Before the smartphone came into being Apple was certainly a force to be reckoned with. While not overtaking PC sales the Apple Macintosh and iMac brought good design to the office with functionality beyond what many PCs could do at the time.

The creative industry particularly focused on the Mac for its graphics and photo editing systems and its simple user interface.

But Microsoft soon caught up and were providing computers with just as powerful tools for a far smaller price tag.

While no-one could doubt the strength of Apple's products both in design and functionality, consumers were ultimately drawn on price.

iPods and MP3 players

Apple carved another niche with its launch of the iPod, a line of portable media players which surfaced just as the popularity in the cassette based Walkman was waning.

The ease of storing music, digitally on a small device was very attractive to consumers. Apple developed their iPod in tandem with iTunes in order to draw people into their ecosystem. iTunes facilitated the purchase of music or other content which could then be transferred to a portable device from their Mac or PC.

This innovation too was scuppered to some extent by the generic MP3 player where users could transfer their own music, ripped from a CD, to the device.

iPhones and smartphones

The real breakthrough for Apple was its highly innovative iPhone, a smartphone which was in essence a small handheld computer. Users could download apps, or applications, from iTunes and access any number of services including maps, email, weather or news as well, of course, as making conventional phone calls.

At its launch WAP was the only way of accessing the Internet by a mobile device with many smartphone competitors using the often less than stable Symbian operating system.

One popular device had been the Sony Ericsson P900 and its successors. However, the 2007 release of the iPhone changed the whole nature of the smartphone market and what people might expect of such a device.

Apple had brought simplicity to the smartphone market. In fact to coin a phrase "it just worked". Browsing the web was much easier on the iPhone than it had ever been before with its forebears. Checking email was also much easier, as was the sending of a message.


But Apple soon faced some stiff competition from another tech giant. Within months of the release of the first iPhone, Google launched its Android operating system running on the G1.

While the G1 was a rather clunky smartphone compared to the iPhone's sleek design and features, Google soon built upon Android's versatility, pulling in a variety of manufacturers and soon cornered the market with devices that easily rivalled the iPhone.

Symbian had certainly lost its way by the turn of the decade, and popularity of Windows Mobile operating system that had been flag-shipped on devices like the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 had been dropped in favour of Android.

The iPhone, while still popular was becoming stagnant with its market share paling into insignificance compared to Android [Wikipedia]. Even while many sales of Android devices are in China where they are stripped of Google Play, from which the Internet giant makes much of its money through the Android ecosystem, the revenue drawn from devices sold elsewhere is still highly significant compared to that of iOS devices [Fool.com].

Failing functionality

By 2013 the iPhone had begun to fall flat on many functionalities now readily available in most modern Android handsets and devices.

Android possessed a simple file manager system with the ability to plug the device into a PC or Mac to browse, move or delete files. Music, video content, PDFs and other files could be easily transferred to or from an Android device. This was far less easy with the iPhone which by nature of its set up was tied to the iTunes ecosystem.

Sharing with Android with its intuitive infrastructure was also much easier than the iPhone. Indeed the iPhone, and later the iPad, often came up with inappropriate programs through which a file might be shared or manipulated.

Even with its 2012 release of the iPhone 6, Apple had failed to incorporate NFC [Near Field Communication] which, given both devices had the function turned on, facilitated the sending of information or files from one device to another simply by touching them together.

The iPhone also restricted users concerning certain defaults such as the type of browser, forcing users to browse with Safari, even if other browsers were installed. Android, on the other hand allowed users to set a particular browser as a default.

Android was also becoming far more customizable. Whereas iPhones were simply a five by four grid of icons, the Android operating system allowed users to install widgets such as a world clock or weather app and ones that even worked with the screen locked such as Google Now, Twitter/Plume etc., or the "What's this song?" app.

Think Different

Until the launch of the most recent model, the iPhone was not truly multitasking. If downloading something for example it would pause when opening up say YouTube. In Android both applications worked in tandem.

In fact despite Apple's consistent criticism that Google had based its Android system on "stolen" ideas, the two, iOS and Android, were a world apart.

The two operating systems were different, but iOS was failing its users in so many respects. Apple, with sales of the iPhone falling in comparison to world wide Android sales, had to change its strategy.

iOS 7 copies Android

With iOS 7, Apple has brought with it features which Android users had been using for years [Phandroid]. The iOS 7 lockscreen and wallpaper were eerily similar to Android, but beyond the surface there were other strong similarities. Apple's iOS 7 now supported lock screen notifications and for the first time simple toggles to easily turn off and on features of the phone such as WiFi, Bluetooth, Flashlight, Camera, or adjust volume.

With iOS 7 Apple introduced iTunes Radio which looked very similar to Google Play Music. Users could now create their own playlists and take advantage of recommended stations. However, Google Play Music All Access allows users to save full albums or tracks to their library where iTunes Radio doesn't.

Many Apple apps also now feature navigation drawers something which has been a part of Android for a while. In addition some of the new iOS 7 interface looks very similar to its arch rival with both Calendar and Mail app bearing a striking resemblance to Google's Calendar app and GMail respectively.

Of course there are those within the Apple camp, and particularly so-called Apple fanboys, who will say that Apple's iOS is simpler and more intuitive.

In essence this is partly true. Android does require some fiddling to get certain things to work, and not all Android devices work the same, partly due to what is known as fragmentation. While some Android users may be using Jelly Bean [Android 4.1+], there are many still using older operating systems such as Ice Cream Sandwich [Android  4.0+], Gingerbread [2.3+] or even Froyo [2.2+] which all have less functionality than the latest build. Nonetheless there are many features even in Froyo that are unavailable on iOS devices.

Changing strategy

But all said and done, Apple is having to rethink its strategy and "Think Different", not so much to win back Android users but in order to stop losing users to Android.

Given Apple is particularly increasing its focus on the Chinese market it is unlikely to rekindle its 1998 "Think Different" campaign which featured notable characters as CNN's founder Ted Turner, rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, the radical poet and songwriter Bob Dylan and even the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Even at the time Apple decided to eventually dropped the Dalai Lama from its campaign due to political sensitivities, and it is likely that the company would not wish to draw attention to such past campaigns.

Even without such sensitivities the iPhone is losing ground in China primarily because of price [Tech In Asia / NYT]. There is some evidence that Apple is still holding its own in the rest of the world, though in terms of actual numbers iPhone usage falls way below Android [Aquarius.biz].

The 1998 campaign however does bring into sharp focus the way the company has changed, both in terms of its philosophical strategy and how much the company has digressed. Indeed Apple has, instead of continuing to be an innovator, become an imitator of rivals inspired by its own innovation.

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Friday, September 13, 2013

"You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile."

Ever since Edward Snowden blew a whistle on the NSA's surveillance operations there has been a backlash from many people in the online community. Some have called on more openness while others have begun campaigns against the big tech giants and posted alternatives to online services such as this list on Prism Break. The claims about the NSA's snooping have also raised the bar concerning encryption, the use of VPNs and prompted discussions as to whether their use is really effective.

By using encryption one is more likely to attract attention from the authorities, though they may take longer to sift through the data and decrypt it. However, not using techniques to evade scrutiny potentially leaves one open to NSA snooping, especially if the allegations that they have 'back doors' to Google, Facebook, Skype and Microsoft servers are to be believed.

Denials and anger

Of course, all the big Internet giants deny having being directly complicit in handing user data over to the NSA or other governmental organisations. In fact Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google are among several firms who have filed a lawsuit against the US government to allow them to explain what data they have disclosed to the NSA and why. US law forbids anyone saying how much data they have provided after an Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) request by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Furthermore some have expressed anger that the unproven revelations, yet believed by many, have damaged US tech companies' reputations, and in turn could cost them users and ultimately affect their share price. So far, however, there has been no apparent post-PRISM effect [DailyDot]. There has also been concern expressed that the NSA have compromised security throughout the tech industry through trying to protect its ability to eavesdrop [Reuters].

Given the very size of the online community it is hard to see a significant number switching to alternative email services, turning from Skype in favour of other VOIP services or using VPNs for everyday web browsing. Nonetheless there have been some responses from the major tech firms.

Some companies have responded to the fears surrounding online surveillance by rolling out encryption. Google, which already uses https on all its signed in pages, has begun to encrypt user data stored in Google Drive, though cynics dismiss the move saying that either the data would still be open to the likes of the NSA or that encryption could all too easily be broken [Telegraph / Daily Mail / CNET]. Indeed there is only one encryption method considered to be unbreakable an that is the so-called Vernam Cipher or One-Time Pad, though it is considered impractical for everyday use [Pro-Technix].

Any method to avoid surveillance would ultimately be pointless, and as one web user suggested this week as Apple released a new iPhone complete with fingerprint scanner, "You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile" [Guardian]. 

"All your data is belong to us"

There have been particularly strong protests coming from outside the United States, especially given the claims by the US that it does not conduct online surveillance upon its own citizens, thus inferring that foreigners elsewhere in the world were free game.

In Berlin earlier this year demonstrators took to the streets holding placards depicting President Barack Obama sporting a pair of headphones and the slogan "All your data is belong to us" [Yahoo News] a reference to a much used Internet meme "All your base are belong to us" which has its roots in a Japanese video game in which an alien invader declares his takeover of the enemy's territory [Know Your Meme / Wikipedia].


There is an irony in the use of such a phrase given the accusation that Google have been widely criticised for being complicit in handing over user data to the NSA, something that the Internet giant denies except where obliged by court order. A few years ago Google baffled Internet users, bloggers, Twitter users and others by their use of a UFO in their logo.

On Saturday September 5th 2009 Google incorporated a UFO apparently pulling the second O of Google into its tractor beam and created a flurry of Internet discussions, tweets and blogs.

Some suggested it was a hacking attempt by aliens while others suggested Google was itself an alien organisation! However there was also the suggestion that the UFO logo was a veiled comment on Google losing its China head Kai Fu Lee and having its "bases" taken by "Federation Government Forces" or "CATS"; the Chinese word of which is Mao.

Indeed, given the logo was released at the time that Google's Chrome browser was celebrating its tenth birthday, that Google was inferring that all users' data belonged to the Internet giant [tvnewswatch - All your O are belong to us - Sept 2009]

By another eerie coincidence, the mysterious logo was posted on the 43rd anniversary of the first broadcast of Star Trek the original series on NBC which aired on September 8th, 1966. And for those unfamiliar with the phrase "You will be assimilated. Resistance is Futile," it was popularised by Star Trek the Next Generation and the alien race the Borg which assimilated all lifeforms into its collective.


By way of technology we are all perhaps being seduced and assimilated into a vast collective where all voices are known by the 'collective'. Mobile phones are for most people a third arm. In fact nomophobia, the fear of not being in possession of a mobile phone, is said to be on the rise [Daily Mail].

There is a sense of growing anxiety, especially amongst the young, of not having the latest device, something which companies like Apple exploit with their carefully timed releases of upgraded iPhones and tablets.

Fear of social isolation

With the increased use of social networks there is, amongst many, a need to belong. By not being a part of a particular social network, be it Facebook, Google+ or Twitter, people can often feel left out of the group. Being social animals by nature, humans are thus seduced into joining such networks.

Even in countries where these western social networks are blocked, there is still a growing need to be a part of the virtual community. In China, for example, there has been a massive rise in users joining WeChat, a similar service to WhatsApp in the west.

All this data can potentially be collected, stored and scrutinised by the state. In China such surveillance has been going on for years. The revelations concerning PRISM and other surveillance techniques that organisations such as the NSA are conducting suggest that citizens in the 'free' west too are being monitored. In essence, anyone with an online presence cannot help but leave digital footprints which can be followed. To not be a part of the digital soup would obviously thwart such surveillance, however by not having such a presence could in the future create just as much suspicion as trying to hide behind encryption, VPNs and hidden networks.

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

US senators' draft backs limited action against Syria

Putting his case before congress, John Kerry warned that US inaction concerning Syria and its use of chemical weapons would be a grave mistake and send the wrong message to the likes of Iran, Hezbollah and North Korea.

Kerry made a further appeal to those who had doubts especially after the fiasco surrounding the false intelligence connected with Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the ''dodgy dossiers' that were put before both the British parliament and US Senate.

The Secretary of State insisted that the intelligence bore out and the facts were indeed clear. "Our intelligence community has scrubbed and re-scrubbed the evidence," Kerry said, in his statement.

Continuing he said that there were many who would be hoping that Congress would turn down the President's "very limited request" for military action.

"Iran is hoping you'll look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not put it to the test," Kerry declared. "Hezbollah is hoping isolation will prevail. North Korea is hoping ambivalence carries the day."

"They are all listening for our silence." [The Age / Telegraph / Daily Mail / BBC]

Russia, China call for calm

There certainly have been many calling for America to back down. There have been anti-war protests in the US and several European countries as well as across parts of the Middle East. Several countries have also called for the US to hold off from military action.

Russia's president Putin said it would be a "mistake" to launch an attack on Bashir al Assad's regime and disputed the claims that his army had used chemical weapons [BBC]. Earlier Moscow had already warned that any intervention would have "catastrophic consequences" for the region.

Russia is not the only country to have raised its concerns. China has also been vocal in warning off the US from engaging in any show of force [BBC / ABC].

"China ... holds the belief that a political resolution is the only realistic way to solve the Syrian issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Monday this week, only hours after President Barack Obama had declared he had decided military action was "necessary".

"China is highly concerned about the relevant country's plan on taking unilateral military action," Hong said, adding that the international community must "avoid complicating the Syrian issue and dragging the Middle East down into further disaster."

China, which has strong ties to Russia, as well as good diplomatic relations with Syria, is often reticent to become embroiled in any foreign dispute not directly connected with its own country's interests. Furthermore China often repeats the mantra of not "meddling in its (or other's) internal affairs" [Washington Post].

China has consistently joined Russia in blocking any UN action that could lead to the downfall of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. And both countries have disputed recent evidence suggestion that Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria killed at least 1,429 civilians.

Risks of conflict

There are certainly risks involved in engaging in any military strike against the Assad regime.

There is the possibility, if somewhat remote, that both UN inspectors and foreign intelligence services could have been duped by rebel forces into believing Assad was responsible.

This is unlikely given the information coming from many sources. The UN have conducted investigations, and both the French and US intelligence services have released independent reports backing up their findings.

Even whilst the facts maybe clear, intervention could potentially complicate matters. Support of the rebels is not so clear cut with some believed to have ties with terrorist groups including al-Qaeda. While Assad may be overthrown, it may well transpire that another tyrannical regime replaces it rather than a more democratic government that the west desires.

There is also the risk that a wider conflict could ensue, with neighbouring countries and even Russia or China being drawn into a war.

When the British parliament last week rejected a call for military intervention there were some MPs that raised just such concerns.

David Davis, a British Conservative MP, said that it was right that Britain rejected the proposal to launch attacks saying that it could be a repeat of the same mistakes seen in the Iraq war. He pointed to intelligence that  pointed to the attacks possibly being "ordered by rogue or panicking officers without the knowledge or permission of Assad or even his senior military commanders."

Alternatively, Davis suggests, the Syrian rebels themselves could have launched gas attacks with the aim of dragging Britain and the US into the war.

While conceding that Syria was run by "a totalitarian ruler who would stop at nothing – even the massacre of his own people – to hold onto power", Davis pointed out that the rebels were far from being white knights in shining armour and they too had engaged in "torture and murder in pursuit of victory" [Yorkshire Post].

Point scoring

This was certainly not the view of everyone. Political commentator Quentin Letts poured a vitriol of criticism on those who had voted against the motion, and particularly opposition leader Ed Miliband whom he labelled a "slippery hypocrite" interested only in scoring political points.

"It was certainly not about those children whose suffocated bodies were seen wrapped in white burial shrouds after the Damascus suburbs gas attack," Letts wrote in the Daily Mail. The "Murdered innocents" were "very low on the Miliband priority list," he asserted.

Past mistakes

Labour ranks may still be reeling from the fallout concerning the mistakes made concerning Iraq, the dodgy dossiers and the reports of WMDs that never surfaces. They may not want more finger pointing accusing them of making the same mistakes again.

Conservatives too also fear a long drawn out conflict and one which like Iraq may continue for many years, drawing the west into a bloody war.

The latter is just concern, but the evidence concerning Assad's use of chemical weapons and his ruthless treatment of his people is far more clear cut than the 'evidence' put forward to justify action against Saddam Hussein's regime.

While Hussein had indeed been ruthless in his grip on power, and had himself used chemical weapons on his own people, at the time of the west making the decision to launch an invasion Iraq was relatively stable and the horror of Halabja was past history having occurred in 1988, fifteen years prior to the 2003 invasion and three years before the 1991 Gulf War.

In fact Halabja was only a passing comment concerning the reasons for launching the second Gulf War. The main focus was Saddam Hussein's supposed possession of WMD's, his ability to launch an attack on the west within 45 minutes [Daily Mail / September Dossier] and even claims he was complicit in the 9/11 attacks [YouTube / Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda link allegations] though such links were later acknowledged to be erroneous [BBC].

Attack window

President Obama has a 60 day window to launch hostile action against the Assad regime, and as yet it is unclear what targets have been drawn up. He may confine himself to limited strikes against known storage depots of chemical weapons or WMDs, though such intelligence could well be flawed. More likely the president will strike key military installations and government buildings known to still be under Assad's control.

Military strikes now seem certain, though the vote is to be held next week. What is not so certain is how Assad and his allies might respond.

tvnewswatch, Kunming, Yunnan, China