Security in Tech and Life

So much has been written lately about security and privacy, particularly because of the Apple vs. FBI feud. It scares me that so many people with the potential to influence the final outcome don't seem to understand the technical issues, nor the long term implications. The same technology that protects my family and me also protects the US President and any Americans overseas in scary countries without many civil liberty protections. 

Blake Ross' excellent wise-guy summary gives some great real world examples of security that everyone can understand, but also does a great job of giving a cliff notes overview of why building secure software is so difficult. Also, I had somehow never known the details of how they secure airplanes now:

 "For as much money and time as we’ve wasted on printer-powered air security, only one innovation has prevented another 9/11: Locked, reinforced cockpit doors. These doors can withstand gunfire and even small grenades.

But sometimes, 6 hours into a Cancun flight, 3 helpings into Delta’s Cargo-Class Seafood, a pilot needs to deposit a few small grenades of his own. So there’s a handshake protocol:

  1. When the pooping pilot wants to reenter the cockpit, he calls the flying pilot on the intercom to buzz him in.
  2. If there’s no answer, the outside pilot enters an emergency keycode. If the flying pilot doesn’t deny the request within 30 seconds, the door unlocks.
  3. The flying pilot can flip a switch to disable the emergency keypad for 5 to 20 minutes (repeatedly)."



Apple needs to eat its own dog food more

I am an owner of an  embarrassing number of very expensive Apple products.  I've also been a big fan of the massive changes iOS 7 brought to hundreds of million mobile devices this past fall.  However, as a vocal supporter of everything Apple gets right, I am beginning to question more and more if the people designing and building some of their products/apps actually use them in the real world.  In other words, Apple needs to eat its own dog food.

The most striking example of this is the Reminders app.  I use this on an iPhone, an iPad, a MacBook Air running Mavericks, and via  Each version of this app has noticeable bugs and questionable design issues.  Let's be honest, this app is designed to do only one very basic thing:  let a user record something they wish to be reminded of.  This is not rocket science now, is it?

I build software for a living and I understand quite well the challenges many teams face in the prioritization of features and fixing bugs.  However, for a company with more than a hundred billion dollars of cash, there is no excuse for the number of issues with this app.  I'm not talking about the design of the new icon or flat vs. skeuomorphic design, just basic things like being able to see what one is typing while they type it, trust that their data won't mysteriosly vanish, and avoid duplicating data.  I find it hard to believe that the team responsible for these apps actually uses them, because if they did I'm sure they would be much improved.

iOS 7 multi-task view that crashes multiple times a week for me

This is just one example of many others I can think of that show a complete lack of empathy for many owners of Apple products.  I could also have written about the terrible lag for the keyboard on my older iPad 3, the sorry state of iTunes Match playlists on iOS, or the poor memory handling on my iPhone 5s that results in springboard crashes.  I'd have to guess that most working at Apple headquarters have the latest devices and  access to unreleased versions of iOS months before the general public can.  As a result, they are likely unaware just how painful these issues can be to millions of their customers.  It's been over four months since iOS 7 has been released and Apple still has not released a substantial update addressing its many common bugs.  I'd expect a 4+ month release cycle from car manufacturers, not a company like Apple.

So what am I asking from Apple?

They need to show more empathy for their users.  Publicly acknowledge issues and let the public know they are working hard to fix them.  Release fixes more often like app store apps, not bundling them up into a massive release.  Finally, they need to reduce some of the secrecy around new products or updates so that real users can work out the kinks before being released to the general public.

Competition is awesome (see iPhone Google Maps saga)

Google released the much anticipated Google Maps iPhone app yesterday and the reviews so far are pretty good.  I personally didn't think that the Apple Maps were as bad as they were made out to be, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  What this whole saga shows is the importance of competition and why so much focus on monopolies is paid by governments around the world. First, a little background:  the original maps application on the iphone was developed at the very last minute before the original iPhone launch by an Apple/Google team back in 2008.  That just goes to show you how important maps have become, in  2008 it was an afterthought .  Four years later and nothing had changed, Google actually refused to license their maps data to Apple so that it could be enhanced with new features such as spoken driving directions.  For many reasons, this being one of them, Apple decided to venture out on their own.  We all know what happened next:  huge uproar, people almost dying in deserts in Australia, apple execs were fired, and a written apology was given from the Apple CEO.

Fast forward to today.  Customers now have the choice between Apple Maps (and their advantages) and the new Google maps application.  There is no doubt that what Google just deployed is significantly better than what was available in iOS 5, it includes a slicker UI, better transit map integration, and voice driving directions.  I'm willing to bet Google would not have created this app in such a quick timeline if Apple hadn't upped the anti by putting out their own app.

One of the things that doesn't seem to get any press is the neat stuff now supported by iOS 6 for transit directions.  Sure, Apple doesn't have them integrated, but they do provide a means for 3rd party app developers to tie into the iPhone maps.  When I use the Rover app (link), it not only gives me transit directions but also pulls in real-time transit data telling me when buses and subway cars are going to arrive in San Francisco (and I assume other cities as well, like Boston).  This is better than what I had in the iOS 5 Google maps and as far as I can tell it's better than what Google released yesterday in their new app.  Publishing a schedule of when buses are supposed to arrive is signficantly less useful than knowing when exactly they will actually arrive.

Bottom line:  yes, Apple has looked awful through this whole mess, but because they took a gamble and pushed for innovation, iPhone owners are no doubt in a better spot than they were previously.  There is now an all out war between these two companies to keep innovating.  For me, companies going at each other's throats is a good thing and is why capitalism has become THE economic system in the world today.