Sliding out of the Apple ecosystem?
A recent post on CNet describing the author’s Hackintosh build made me reflect on a few things that I’ve done lately that are slowly sliding me away from Apple’s ecosystem. Let me start by saying that I’ve been an Apple fanboy for many years; pretty much every piece of tech I use is either an Apple product or created by an ex-Apple employee. Though I do use a fair number of Linux machines for server-side work, there’s a big fat apple on everything else. Heck, I was the Technical Editor of inCider Magazine back in the mid-80s, writing articles about how to homebrew Apple II add-ons. I completely bought in to the Apple-centric world view of the past 8 to 10 years.
That said, I feel like the hold that Apple has on me is slipping. Here are three events in the past month that make me wonder what’s coming next:
Like Ian Sherr of CNet, I watched the October Apple product announcement very closely. I was ready to spend money on a new office computer and wanted to see what the new Macbook Pros and iMacs looked like before making a decision. To say that I was disappointed is an understatement. The touchbar on the new MacBook is interesting, but the rest of the specs are horrific given the price point. If you separate out the operating system, MacBooks look a lot like laptops from other manufacturers, except that the MacBooks use very conservative CPUs, graphic cards, memory, and the like.
After watching the announcement I order the parts I needed for a high-end Hackintosh, which was still $1,000 to $1,500 less than the MacBook. I tend to build a lot of Hackintoshes, but in this case I was willing to see what Apple had in mind. There was no upgrade to the iMac, no upgrade to the Pro, no upgrade to the Mini. Hackintosh it was.
Next up was the Amazon Echo Dot and the Alexa service. Now, I love using Siri on my phone and watch (and now my Mac) but it only took a few days of using Alexa to realize that Amazon had completely eaten Apple’s lunch on voice-enabled apps. There’s just no comparison; Alexa is a generation ahead of Apple’s Siri. There are a lot of things that Alexa can’t yet do, but once those few things are in place Amazon will own this space. I’m using Siri less and less and finding ways to replace Siri with Alexa in my daily workflow. As an example, I used to use Siri as the primary way to manage my grocery list. Now, Alexa handles creation of the list because it is so much more efficient, and Siri (via IFTTT) is just used to display the list on my watch at the store. At this point Siri is nearly unused.
The final bit was today. I wanted to be able to query Alexa about my schedule, but my calendars were hosted on iCloud. I couldn’t sync the iCloud calendars with Google Calendar, which is what Alexa needs. I just spent about 15 minutes moving all of my calendars (about a dozen) to Google, off of iCloud, which is one more step away from Apple’s ecosystem.
I’m not abandoning MacS or iOS (or WatchOS or tvOS or any other Apple OS); I really do believe that they are technically superior, and I trust them more from a privacy standpoint than any other solution outside Linux. And I do understand that by handing Google my calendars I’m also handing them any personal information that might be in those appointments. (Which is why I keep a non-shared calendar locally for sensitive items). But I’m also not going to blindly follow Apple down whatever path they are heading when there are better solutions available.
Why FBI vs Apple is so important
On the face of it, the situation is pretty straightforward: The FBI has an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, it is currently locked with a passcode, and they want Apple to assist in unlocking the phone. Apple has stated that they don't have that capability, and that to comply with the order they would have to engineer a custom version of iOS that turns off certain security features, allowing the FBI to brute-force the passcode. It comes down to the federal government forcing a private company to create a product that they wouldn't normally have made.
We can reasonably expect the FBI and Department of Justice to push back on Apple, which has not only provided assistance to the bureau in similar cases in the past, but has also provided assistance in this case in the form of technical advice and data available from iCloud backups. What's interesting about recent events, though, is that they have taken the form of a court order under the authority of the All Writs Act of 1789, which gives federal courts the authority, in certain narrow circumstances, to issue an order that requires the recipient to do whatever it is the court deems necessary to prosecute a case.
Apple has spent months negotiating with the federal government in this matter and requested that the order be issued under seal, which means that it would have in effect been a secret order; the public would not have known about it. It's also a possibility that the order could have been issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a secret court, with no representation for the accused, used by the government to carry out covert surveillance against both foreign and domestic targets. Such an order would have included a gag order precluding Apple from divulging that they had even received it.
Instead, the FBI and DoJ went public with the nuclear option...the All Writs Act. The only reasonable explanation is that they expect this matter to be appealed, and that a federal court will side with the government, setting a landmark precedent. The FBI administrators are not fools; they expect to prevail in this. They picked this specific case, out of all of the similar cases over the past few years, to move their agenda forward.
Apple's position isn't that they can't create a custom version of iOS to accomplish what the FBI wants. It is that to do so would be an invitation to any law enforcement agency to ask for similar orders in any case that came up involving an Apple product. Privacy would be permanently back-doored. And it wouldn't stop with American law enforcement; it isn't a far leap to see China demanding such a tool for Apple to continue to do business in the country.
The defense that Apple (and a growing consortium of supporters, including the EFF) is taking is that both the first and fourth amendments prevent the federal government from compelling speech. In this context, there is legal precedence that computer software is seen as speech, and so Apple cannot be compelled to write code that it doesn't want to create. If the FBI and DoJ were to prevail, they would be able to require any company to write whatever code the government felt necessary, including backdoors or malicious software.
An analogy would be if the government decided that it would be in the public's interest to promote a particular federal program, and so compelled the Boston Globe to write favorable articles about it.
This case has nothing to do with San Bernardino. It has everything to do with the federal government attempting to establish a legal foothold in which individual privacy is at the whim of the courts. And, as Apple has stated, a backdoor swings both ways; it would be only a matter of time before such a tool would be compromised and used by criminals or other governments against us. Privacy is a fundamental right as laid out in the first, third, fourth, fifth, ninth, and fourteenth amendments to the US constitution.
Edward Snowden said, "This is the most important tech case in a decade." The outcome of this case and its appeals will help determine whether our future is one of freedom and privacy or of constant surveillance and a government that can commandeer private companies to do their bidding.
TMO, EFF, and Net Neutrality
I've been watching T-Mobile's new Binge-On (BO) offering for a few weeks now as it gains more and more headlines. Today TMO CEO John Legere went on a rant directed at the Electronic Freedom Foundation (of which I am a member) and their recent analysis of the service.
TMO and Legere say that Binge-On is a feature aimed at providing their customers with a better video experience, and saving them money by not charging data fees for video from Binge-On partners such as Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube. This sounds like a good thing, doesn't it? Free is good.
There are two issues with this. The first is that TMO is slowing down ALL video streams to mobile devices, not just streams from non-BO partners. Every HTML5 video stream is slowed to 1.5Mbps. Some sources are saying that HD video is being converted to 480p, but I haven't seen a definitive answer to this question. Frankly, reducing bandwidth to mobile devices makes a lot of sense, because on those devices a reduced-resolution image looks just fine. If you are watching a video on a 5-inch screen, you really don't need to see that stream in high-bandwidth, high-resolution. You can opt out of Binge-On, and that's really what has folks in a dither...it's turned on by default. TMO counters by pointing out that customers were inadvertently burning through their data plan by watching unnecessarily high bandwidth video.
The second, and larger issue, is net neutrality. In 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a ruling that basically said that data is data...it's illegal to differentiate among and treat differently email versus text versus video versus web browsing. TMO's Binge-On is in direct violation of this, treating video differently than other network traffic. Worse, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) showed that TMO slowed down video traffic even when the file was not explicitly identified as video (with a .mpg file extension, for example). That means that TMO is peering inside the data to see what it is...a technique called deep packet inspection. If TMO is inspecting packets, what else are they planning on doing? And who are they sharing that information with?
I'm of two minds on this issue. I'm a proponent of net neutrality, and I find it offensive that TMO is treating different kinds of data traffic in different ways. Net neutrality was hard-fought and extremely important in protecting the free exchange of ideas on the internet. As a consumer, though (and I use TMO on a tablet for audio streaming), how can I argue against free? I specifically bought a TMO tablet so that I could stream music at no charge through their Music Freedom program.
I've asked the EFF about Music Freedom and if its the same technique as Binge-On (deep packet inspection). No one complained about MF when it was launched a year ago. I have to think that TMO's competitors are lining up their lawyers to take this one to the mat. I think that my position has to be with net neutrality...it is so much more important than a bunch of TMO subscribers getting free video.
Just Let Me Cook!
Andrew Binstock, the Editor over at Dr. Dobbs, wrote an article a few months ago about how difficult it is for software engineers to focus on coding rather than all of the overhead tasks involved in building applications and systems. The article is Just Let Me Code! and is well worth the read.
Andrew makes a really good point, in a roundabout sort of way, that industrial-strength, production-quality code is less about actual programming than it is planning, architecture, testing, monitoring, and configuration. There's a big difference between a programmer — someone who can write decent code — and an engineer — someone who can produce a quality product.
You can hire a decent programmer right out of high school, but to bring up a software engineer takes time. Anyone can learn to code. Heck, even the President was seen writing a few lines during the last Code Hour. Coding is a skill, just like cooking, and you can hire a cook right out of high school.
To carry the analogy further, the cook understands how to follow a recipe. They might be an excellent cook, and honestly there's nothing wrong with that. However, a chef understands that a good meal is so much more than cooking — it's flavors and textures and pairings, along with presentation and expectation that make for a memorable meal. There's timing and long preparation involved, and the ability to juggle several tasks in just the right order to bring everything onto the plate at the perfect moment. It's an art, just like software engineering.
I expect software engineers to have a lot of skills, such as tools and languages. But I also expect them to bring so much more to the table. This is why we spend so much time on the non-coding aspects of software engineering. We don't want to create cooks, we want to create chefs.