App Development… my newest hobby

Posted May 25, 2013 by Greg
Categories: Tech

This has been under wraps for a while, but it’s now public: I just released OneTrip, my first app for the Apple iPhone.

Why did I do it?  Simple: I do the grocery shopping for the family, and I depend on apps to organize and save time: an app can remember what you buy and where you buy it, so that you can plan and shop faster. However, I was dissatisfied with the different apps I tried, so I figured I could write one that perfectly met my needs.

Well, almost perfect: I still have a number of features I want to add to OneTrip, but I have been using this initial version for the last few months, and it already fits my needs much better than anything else I’ve tried.

You can download OneTrip from iTunes, or read about OneTrip on its website.

Meantime, now you understand why I have much less time for writing on this blog.

Apple: Killing the Killer App

Posted September 21, 2012 by Greg
Categories: Tech

For me, what makes an iPhone invaluable is that it gives me instant information, everywhere. Practically anything I need to know can be found through a quick search – weather, schedules, store hours, a phone number, etc. Location information is especially important since I take the iPhone when I’m heading to an unfamiliar place. And I find the iPhone is better than my GPS since it can find an up-to-date address when I don’t have a clear idea where I need to go.

Case in point: the other day, I needed to meet someone halfway between Seattle and Tacoma. One easy meeting spot is Southcenter Mall, so I took out my iPad, opened up the maps app, and typed: starbucks southcenter. In a flash, it figured out that I was looking for a Starbucks store near Southcenter Mall, and it reminded me that there is one just next to our favorite soup-and-salad restaurant. Perfect!

Apple iOS 6 was released this week, and I heard that the updated maps app had serious problems. So I tried the same test in the updated maps app. Here was the result:

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A complete failure! On my computer, I tried the same search on Google Maps and Bing Maps:

Image

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Both did a good job of guiding me towards what I wanted.  In fact, they suggested that I wanted to search for Starbucks near Southcenter Mall. Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted, and good job anticipating my needs. Much better than the new maps app, which finds nothing and suggests nothing, either.

Apple apologists are saying “Give it time, Google Maps wasn’t that good when it was new.” Who cares today what Google Maps was like when it was released in 2005? Apple has to complete with Google Maps in 2012. And Google – and Bing and Mapquest – have a product that works great.  Afterwards, I learned that I could find a Starbucks near Southcenter if I first search for Southcenter, then, while looking at that map, search for Starbucks.  That’s twice as many steps for something I need to do quickly while I’m on-the-go.

At first, I thought that this isn’t such a big deal, since Google or Mapquest could release an app, and in the meantime, we could use web-based maps. On second thought, a 3rd party map app is only a partial fix: many other apps will continue to rely on MapKit.framework, the native mapping API inside iOS. Which is still stuck with Apple’s half-baked new maps.

Yes, I know very well that geolocation data is hard to get right. That’s why it was a huge mistake for Apple to try to build fresh when there are great solutions available today.

Misunderstanding the iPhone

Posted July 3, 2012 by Greg
Categories: Tech

This past week was the 5 year anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. A number of Apple blogs celebrated by reporting critical quotes from the iPhone launch. The message was anything but subtle: look how foolish these people were for grossly underestimating the potential of the Apple iPhone.

However, this week’s bloggers showed similar foolishness by putting all the quotes Into the same category. You can’t put critical quotes from a writer or analyst in the same category as from an executive at a competing company.

It’s fair to point out how some analysts were completely wrong about the iPhone: their job is to provide expertise. Considering these colossally wrong predictions, it questions their other forecasts, too. Fair enough.

But competing executives? Honestly, what do you expect Microsoft or RIM (Blackberry) to say publicly upon the release of the iPhone in 2007? “We’re worried that Apple could drive us out of the matket in 5 years”? Sure, someone might say that in a private internal meeting, but there is no way an executive would say that publicly. To say so publicly would kill sales and the stock price. It would be grounds for termination. The best praise a competing executive could give is something like: “We welcome the competition – let the best company win!” More likely, they’ll say that their company has market share and that the new competitor needs to be ready for a battle.

For pundits today to poke fun at partisan quotes from competing executives shows that these pundits are just as ignorant as the so-called analysts who completely underestimated the iPhone 5 years ago.

Facebook privacy: broken by design

Posted May 15, 2012 by Greg
Categories: Business

The big story of the week is the Facebook IPO, the largest public offering since Google. Facebook makes a huge profit off the social network of millions. Unfortunately, I think Facebook does this by exploiting private, personal details.

About a month ago, I bid farewell to Facebook. My outrage was over Facebook’s support for CISPA legislation. More broadly, my problem with Facebook comes from its approach to privacy.

It’s easy to see that Facebook privacy is a total failure. A Google search for Facebook privacy settings claims 700 million links. Why should it take that many documents to explain how to maintain control over your privacy? And Wikipedia’s Criticism of Facebook has 13 sections on “privacy concerns”.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that privacy in Facebook is a contradiction. Facebook wants to reassure its users that it cares about privacy. In fact, you can’t view most personal updates and pictures from your friends and family until you sign up for a Facebook account. And I agree that this helps protect Facebook against pedophiles and other criminals that essentially killed MySpace.

But I don’t think that Facebook is altruistic when it comes to privacy. Facebook privacy is really a very clever marketing strategy that helped Facebook to grow: to see personal information, you have to sign up for a Facebook account. And remember that Facebook’s real customers aren’t you and me. It’s the advertisers, and they are paying for personal information about Facebook users. What music do you Like? What restaurants do you Like? What do you Like to do with your spare time? What phone do you Like to use to post on Facebook? All so that Facebook can tailor specific ads for you.

So there’s a fundamental conflict between the needs of its paying advertisers and the desires of its users. And this will only get worse once Facebook must answer to Wall Street.

In short, Facebook privacy is broken by design.

I wish this were only about ads. If so, I could simply not Like anything on Facebook, and simply post tiny details for my close friends and family. But when Facebook pledged its support for CISPA, I realized that Facebook has little respect for its users. If CISPA is enacted, a government employee can ask – without court order – for personal information from Facebook or other online services. Suppose you post that you’re frustrated that a police officer just stopped you for speeding on such-and-so street, and then the police start to harass you for posting about their speed trap. Or if you post pictures of your brand new car, and a tax agent decides to scrutinize your tax records. Or you post how TSA screening makes you feel uncomfortable, so the TSA singles you out for porno screening for the rest of the year.

Some may think that I’m just being paranoid. I simply want to be in control over what is private and what is public. And I have little trust for what Facebook will do with my private information.

I suppose I will have to login again to Facebook, since too many close friends and family use Facebook to post important personal news. But when I do, I’m going to really limit what I share, because I think that Facebook and I have very different views on privacy.

Big brother is watching you – online

Posted April 30, 2012 by Greg
Categories: Business, Tech

Tags: ,

That’s what we can expect if CISPA becomes law.

CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, sounds reasonable at first glance: let’s fight crime and prevent terrorists from using online systems as a safe haven to gather and devise their next plan.

However, the law is far too broad and lacks key checks-and-balances that can prevent abuse.

The ACLU: “The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act would create a cybersecurity exception to all privacy laws and allow companies to share the private and personal data they hold on their American customers with the government for cybersecurity purposes. The bill would not limit the companies to sharing only technical, non-personal data. Instead, it would give the companies discretion to decide the type and amount of information to turn over to the government. If shared in good faith compliance with the statute, these entities would receive full liability protection and would be immune from criminal or civil liability, even after an egregious breach of privacy. Further, once an individual’s information is shared with the government, there would be no restriction on the use of that information. It could be used for any purpose whatsoever and shared with any agency. While such data might be used for cybersecurity purposes, there would be no bar on the government also using it to conduct fishing expeditions for criminal, immigration or other purposes.”

In contrast, a court order is required for a wiretap. From my perspective, that seems to have been effective. So why aren’t there similar safeguards in CISPA?

Unfortunately, CISPA isn’t a theoretical issue. Major tech companies AT&T, Facebook and Verizon pledged allegiance to CISPA. Do AT&T, Facebook or Verizon have personal information about you? Don’t expect that to remain private if CISPA becomes law.

At least Microsoft came to its senses by backing away from its initial support of CISPA.

Meantime, the government has adopted the most hypocritical double standard. On the one hand, the US government celebrates how the internet brings freedom across the world. Just this week, Obama announced new sanctions for Iran and Syria, which are using electronic surveillance to crack down on their citizens: “These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them.”

What specifically is targeted here? Iran is “identifying Internet users through their IP address, monitoring e-mail and online activity of individuals critical of the regime; requiring owners of Internet cafes in Iran to install equipment to aid the government in monitoring the activities of the Iranian public.”

Exactly the same privileges the US government wants through the CISPA law. Shameful.

[In fairness, I do realize that Obama has announced his intention to veto CISPA. Yet, I’m sure there are supporters of CISPA who also agree with Obama’s speech and executive order against Iran and Syria.]

Please, contact your Senators and tell them that

  1. The scope of CISPA must be narrowed
  2. CISPA requires checks-and-balances to prevent abuse of power

In the meantime, don’t look for me to post personal information on Facebook. If that’s not clear already, wait for an upcoming post.

CISPA
Created by: Paralegal.net

It’s alive!

Posted April 30, 2012 by Greg
Categories: Tech

I have plans to bring my blog back to life.  Stay tuned!

Et tu, eBay?

Posted May 10, 2011 by Greg
Categories: Business, Tech

Today, one of the biggest technology acquisitions was announced: Microsoft buys Skype for $8.5 billion. I have read conflicting analyses of the deal: some people applaud it as a way to improve Microsoft’s offerings in internet communications, while others say that Microsoft grossly overpaid.

I have just one question: how will Microsoft make a success out of Skype when eBay failed?

Yes: eBay previously bought Skype, then later sold it off at a loss. At the time eBay bought Skype, people said that eBay would get great value from synergies: buyers could chat instantly with sellers online and improve the online shopping experience. Except these so-called synergies didn’t materialize, and eBay sold Skype at a loss.

So what’s new now? Ah yes, more promises of ‘synergies’ with Microsoft’s Windows Messenger, Xbox, Windows Phone 7, Lync and a number of other technologies that few have heard of. Except, Microsoft already has chat, voice and video calling in these products today. In other words, Skype is redundant with a wide range of existing Microsoft technologies.

So what did Microsoft buy, exactly? A brand? $8.5 billion seems like a lot to pay for a brand that’s not exactly a household name.

And why will Microsoft make Skype profitable when eBay couldn’t? At least eBay didn’t have the technology; with Microsoft, it seems like they spent a fortune to buy technology they already had.

(I am aware that Skype had a patent issue that was resolved after eBay sold them. Again, if Skype was so valuable after the patent issue was resolved, eBay could have bought them back.)

Developing iPhone Apps is risky business

Posted February 6, 2011 by Greg
Categories: Tech

This week, the New York Times reported that Apple rejected Sony’s e-book app from the iTunes Store. This basically blocks the Sony e-book reader from the iPhone, iPad and other iOS devices since the iTunes Store is the only way to put software on a device without hacking its operating system.

Few consumers care since the Sony e-book system has very little market share. But as a software developer, this is a sobering reminder that it is very risky to develop software for the iOS platform.

If you manufacture a traditional product like a shirt or a toothbrush, you have a variety of retailers that can sell your product. If Wal-Mart refuses to sell your product, you can still sell it at Target or at a department store. But for the iPhone, iPad and other iOS devices, the only place to sell your software application is through the Apple iTunes Store. If Apple rejects your application, you have nowhere else to go. You can modify the software and try again, but ultimately you have no choice besides Apple.

Apple apologists argue that it’s Apple’s product and they can control the marketplace. Some may claim that Apple might want to block a Sony application because it competes directly with Apple’s own iBookstore. This argument is absurd: in fact, Apple tolerates other forms of channel conflict. For instance, Apple retail stores sell Microsoft Office for Mac even though it competes directly with Apple’s own iWork. And Apple really needs Microsoft Office for Mac – there’s no way I could make the Mac my primary computer without Microsoft Office for Mac.

A more interesting issue is the question of revenue: Apple supposedly rejects any application that has an embedded store. This is logical, since Apple gets commissions both on the sale of applications through the iTunes Store as well as “in-app purchases”: add-on functionality that can be purchased for an existing application. Amazon’s Kindle application sidesteps this issue by making book purchases from a web browser, but the New York Times article suggests that Apple plans to forbid this as well.

If you take this idea to the extreme, then Apple’s policy is to reject any application that accesses external content that was not purchased through Apple. For instance, suppose you have a subscription to a service like Netflix – that would be blocked because Netflix doesn’t sell subscriptions through Apple’s iTunes Store.

Of course I’m taking this to a ridiculous extreme, but I’m trying to illustrate that this policy is absurd. And the situation is exacerbated by the Apple’s notorious policy of secrecy. For example, the public doesn’t know exactly why the Sony application was banned; in researching this topic, I found that the primary source for this story was the New York Times article, which quotes Sony but not Apple. Although this story inspired many different reports, the New York Times article appears to be the one and only primary source.

Trying to see things from Apple’s perspective, there is a valid reason to ban applications that have an alternate store: if you purchase content from another store, then Apple gets no revenue from the transaction. Imagine the following scenario: a software developer creates an application and publishes it via iTunes as a free application. In its default mode, this application has limited features – it functions as a free trial. However, the developer sells the ability to upgrade the application by buying an unlock code from his own website – not from the iTunes Store or the in-app purchasing system. In this case, the application developer would be utilizing the infrastructure of Apple and its huge customer base, while circumventing commissions to Apple on purchases of the upgraded software application.

On the other hand, it’s not reasonable for Apple to expect commissions on sales of e-books purchased via Amazon or Sony.

There’s a simple policy that would fix this for everyone: Apple should allow applications to use paid content that is device-independent, while blocking the use of paid content that is solely for the iOS application. This would allow someone to use a Netflix account or a Kindle or Sony book, while preventing someone from cheating the system through a custom unlock feature.

In fact, this is exactly how music works with iTunes: you have the option to purchase music from the iTunes Store, but you can also sync music from CDs or even digital downloads purchased from other sources such as Amazon or eMusic. And I hear no outcry that Apple is losing revenues to CD sales.

But more importantly, this is an example where the App Store process is broken, and Apple’s policy of secrecy means that you don’t know exactly how or when it will be addressed. Although I don’t work on iOS applications, I have worked for software companies for most of my career. And this situation makes me very nervous: trying to develop for a platform where I cannot be sure that my software will ever be sold. In the case of Sony, they invested time and money in developing the e-book reader. Who knows if they will ever be able to recover these costs. Frankly, the risks are just too high.

There’s far less risk for a web application. So long as it conforms to standards, a web application should work on iOS devices as well as many other systems. Unfortunately, many applications like games are impractical or impossible as web applications since they need direct access to hardware. In the case of e-book readers, they need to function well offline so that you can read books on an airplane or while traveling off-network. New web technologies like HTML5 and CSS3 are very helpful, but they still cannot replace many native applications.

While a web application has lower risk for the developer, it is a worse situation for Apple. Clearly, Apple has no opportunity for commissions on the sale of web applications. And one of the advantages for Apple of native applications is that they create vendor lock. Once someone amasses a large library of paid iPhone applications, it’s more likely that that person will buy another iPhone when it’s time to upgrade. But if that person is using web applications, then there’s much less reason to stick with Apple for the next smartphone.

Until Apple opens up with its developer community, I believe there will be some backlash: some developers will decide to write web applications instead. And that can’t be good for Apple.

What’s wrong with airport security?

Posted December 4, 2010 by Greg
Categories: General

Updated airport security policies have been in the news lately. And I have experienced them first-hand: although I haven’t been flying over 100K miles like the good old days, I achieved elite airline status just based on my flights in the first six months of the year.

Before I get to the question of what’s wrong, let me make one thing clear: I think the system needs to be fixed rather than replaced. I do believe that airline security is better since the September 11 attacks. I don’t want to see the professionals of the TSA replaced with the low-bidder-contractors that were in place previously.

The basic problem with the changes in airport security is that we’re solving the wrong problem. Let’s look at the perpetrators of the high-profile incidents of the last decade:

  • September 11, 2001: Perpetrated by a group of young men who followed al-Qaeda, had pilot training, and used smuggled knives to overpower airline crews.
  • Shoe bomber: Perpetrated by a young man who followed al-Qaeda and smuggled explosives in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami.
  • Underwear bomber: Perpetrated by a young man who followed al-Qaeda and smuggled explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
  • Printer cartridge bombs: Perpetrated by al-Qaeda to smuggle explosives inside printer toner cartridges shipped from Yemen to the USA.

Notice the obvious patterns:

  • All perpetrators were young men with a radical anti-American agenda
  • Since the September 11 attacks, all events involved explosives
  • Since the TSA was established, all events involved trips on US airlines from Europe, Africa or the Gulf states to the USA

So if you’re trying to stop an airline terrorist plot, it seems pretty obvious that you should focus on:

  • Radical young men with an anti-American agenda
  • Explosives
  • Flights on US airlines from Europe to the USA, particularly involving passengers or cargo originating in Africa or the Gulf states

This also implies that the visible changes that the TSA implemented in 2010 are solving the wrong problem. For example, the following people are virtually no threat to American security:

  • The family traveling from St. Louis to Disney World
  • The college sorority girl flying home for Christmas break
  • The 45-year old sales representative traveling from Silicon Valley to a trade show in Denver
  • The retired couple traveling from Boston to a Caribbean cruise

So why are we putting these people through the “full body scanner” and “enhanced pat-downs”? By doing this, we’re wasting valuable time and resources that should be used to target the real sources of terrorism. And so “the terrorists are winning” since one event – even a failed one – inflicts fear and wastes time and money. And while we focus on the past event, the terrorists are planning new tactics for the next one.

Since September 11, 2001, the major terror plots involved international flights that started outside the USA. In other words, since the TSA was created, it has been effective in maintaining safety on flights departing US airports. And it seems to me that TSA and CBP policies in place from 2002-2009 were effective without the need for offensive “full body scanners” or “enhanced pat-downs”.

What is needed instead are methods to improve security on international flights destined for the USA.

Meantime, what are we doing about other targets? Imagine the horror if terrorists struck at a bridge, a tunnel, a rush-hour subway, or a national monument. What if terrorists struck at crowds in a televised sports event? Or at an amusement park? Or holiday crowds? Are we really doing enough to protect against these threats? Or are we too busy trying to solve yesterday’s problem today – trying to protect domestic US flights against harmless grandmothers and toddlers?

P.S. I’m also annoyed by the speculation over the safety of the full-body scanners. Where are the studies to determine whether these systems are safe? This is elementary science: subject laboratory animals to the scanners, and observe whether they get cancer or other diseases. Then send the results to peer-reviewed journals for scrutiny. There is no excuse for not doing this research and making the results public. Until then, all we’re doing is speculating.

The Glory Days of Flying

Posted November 11, 2010 by Greg
Categories: General

In the last 12 months, I have done more flying than I have done in years. I also realize that my son is now at the same age as I was when I started to fly frequently. This made me recall the differences between now and when I flew as a child.

I remember when the airlines gave you a choice of hot meals. (They weren’t perfect, but they filled a need – and your belly). I remember when the ‘meal’ became a skimpy deli sandwich. Now, you’re lucky if you get a chance to buy overpriced crackers and beef jerky. Or pack a picnic meal.

I remember when the biggest worry in flying was that they’d run out of your choice of meals. Now you have to worry that some disgruntled person is looking to turn the plane into a missile. Or blow up his underwear.

I remember when you didn’t have to take off your shoes to pass through security.

I remember when security didn’t require you to submit to the “porno scanners” or to genital groping.

I remember when your friends and family could meet you at the gate.

I remember when it didn’t cost extra to check a suitcase.

I remember when carry-on liquids weren’t limited to a 1-quart zip-top bag with 100 ml bottles.

I remember when you could bring your own soft drink past security. Now we have the privilege of paying $3 for a bottle of water.

I remember when my parents and grandparents made my brother and me wear a jacket and tie when we flew. Now you’re lucky if the person next to you took a shower that day.

I remember when the pilot used to welcome children into the cockpit during the flight. (I vividly remember seeing the coast of Canada from the cockpit during a return flight from Europe).

I remember when kids could get a set of pilot ‘wings’ to wear. And you could get a deck of playing cards, just for asking.

I remember when the airline employees treated coach passengers with dignity and respect.

I remember when the airlines gave you a boarding pass. Now I get to waste paper and ink printing them at home – with a page full of ink-wasting advertisements! (Unless I remember to find the tiny link that lets me print without ads).

I remember when the airports were staffed with helpful airline personnel. Now you get an electronic kiosk and a phone to a central reservation desk.

I fear that when my son grows up, he’ll look back fondly on the glory days of flying – from the year 2010. Unless I can afford to fly by private jet – which doesn’t seem likely.