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.

My tests of the iPhone 4 antenna

Posted July 13, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

After nearly a week with my iPhone 4, I can say that it is a great device. It’s very fast, the display is great, and the camera is very nice. It does virtually anything I want to do while on-the-go.

But much has been said about the antenna design flaw. And it is a real problem. But I want to set the record straight. It isn’t an issue of gripping the iPhone too tight. It isn’t an issue of the signal meter. It is a problem where bridging one external antenna to the next causes interference. And it is an issue in areas where the signal is weaker.

Although I don’t have access to test equipment like Consumer Reports used, I did some simple and informal testing using the signal strength indicator on the iPhone. I realize that this is not an accurate gauge, but it does give a rough indication of the signal strength.

If I put my iPhone on the table, it reports “5 bars” of signal strength. Next, I put my metal Leatherman Micra pocketknife next to the iPhone, touching the gap between the antennas in the lower left area. If I wait about a minute, the signal strength drops by 1-3 bars. And if I pull the pocketknife away from the iPhone just slightly so that it is close but not touching the iPhone, the signal strength returns to 5 bars. No sweaty fingers required. No “strong grip” needed. I don’t have a video camera handy, or else I would record a demonstration.

But what does this mean in the real world? For me, it simply means that I need to touch the phone in such a way that I don’t bridge this gap between the two antennas. This is only a minor issue for me, and I’m considering a small hack – like applying a small amount of clear material like nail polish to prevent this problem.

While I’m willing to live with this inconvenience, I must say that I do not like how Apple is handling the problem. According to reports, they have passed the buck, saying:

  • hold it differently
  • all phones have issues with signal attenuation
  • get a case
  • it’s simply an issue of how it reports signal strength

Hogwash! This was disproven by the rigorous testing by Consumer Reports.

I agree with Consumer Reports and MG Siegler of TechCrunch: Apple needs to fix this. Granted, this isn’t life-or-death like a design flaw in a major appliance or automobile, but an iPhone is an expensive device when you consider the pricey long-term service agreement. There are many things Apple can do to make this problem go away. They could give away the so-called bumpers. Even a recall would be relatively simple – they could do a retrofit at the Apple stores. But shame on Apple for failing to acknowledge the problem or promising to fix it.

iPhone customers shouldn’t need to use a workaround, even if I personally am willing to do so.

Cheaper eBook readers? Meh.

Posted June 21, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Business, Tech

Today, there was a big price drop in two eBook readers: first the Nook, then the Kindle.

Even at the current prices, I see a dim future for dedicated eBook readers like the Kindle or Nook. First, they are too expensive – both in terms of the devices and the content. As I wrote a few months ago, electronic books have many disadvantages thanks to Digital Rights Management: there are few ways to share electronic books, a device is locked to a single online store, and it is nearly impossible to convert your existing library to electronic books. (All of these problems are solved on digital music players).

Furthermore, dedicated eBook readers like the Kindle or Nook lack the versatility of an Apple iPad. With an iPad, not only can you read books, but you can watch movies, play games and browse the web. And with an iPad, you can buy electronic books from multiple sources besides Apple. In fact, you can use an iPad to read electronic books from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Amazon touts that you can subscribe to electronic magazines on the Kindle. Sorry, but no magazine we get is available electronically on the Kindle.

Earlier, I said that there was a big price drop in two eBook readers. I didn’t say “two popular eBook readers” because I doubt that either one would make the bestseller list.

Sleazebook

Posted May 24, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

Currently, there is an outcry over privacy in Facebook. Some minor celebrities have announced that they’re quitting Facebook over privacy. And as evidence that Facebook has gone mainstream, traditional media is running stories on how to protect your privacy in Facebook.

Even today, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted an apology for the confusing privacy settings, without addressing the fundamental privacy issues.

One apologist on TechCrunch wrote that one should not share any private information in Facebook. That’s not bad advice, but it doesn’t exonerate Facebook.

Through most of the internet, it’s clear what information is private and what is public. If you write a blog, it’s public. On Twitter, all posts are global unless you ‘protect’ your account. In email from your home computer, the information is mostly private (though it’s important to avoid sensitive information like passwords).

Facebook promotes itself as the premier site to build a ‘social network’. Share your stories and pictures. Reconnect with distant friends and family. In principle, these should be people you would trust with private information, like when you’re away from home, your birthdate, or your pet’s name. (And personal information like that is frequently used for ‘security questions’ in personal banking and commerce).

The problem is that it’s difficult to keep up with the changing privacy policy from Facebook. They keep pushing the boundaries in order to attract more users and to win more advertising revenue. And each time, I wonder how much personal information they’re sharing with advertisers. I don’t like being ‘marketed to’, and I doubt you do, either. Joining a Farm or a Mafia War seems innocent enough, but I don’t want to be pestered about where I shop or what products I buy. Will my travel or shopping affect my insurance rates? What if a church group decides to badger me about my religious beliefs? Or a political candidate decides to hound me about some political comments?

I fully appreciate that Facebook is in business to make money. I’m willing to pay for a service that will help me connect with friends and family, if they wouldn’t sell out my personal details to the highest bidder. Exploiting my personal relationships is a sleazy move.

I have never liked Facebook, but I reluctantly joined because many of my friends and family participate. I’m hoping for an alternative that doesn’t pay lip-service to privacy – that doesn’t think my personal information is just another bit of marketing data. And hopefully my family and friends will join me so that we can keep the personal conversations private.

Have it our way, fanboys

Posted April 17, 2010 by Greg
Categories: Tech

This Tuesday, Apple released updates to the MacBook Pro computers. Since then, there has been constant complaining among fanboys on Mac discussion sites such as Mac Rumors. People have complained bitterly that Apple didn’t make more aggressive upgrades, such as not offering the 13″ Mac Pro with a Core i5 chip, or not updating the MacBook Air.

I’m quite tired of this complaining. No one is forcing you to purchase an Apple computer. There are many other choices.

I think these fanboys fail to understand how Apple works. Apple offers an end-to-end experience. Their systems – the Mac computer, the iPhone, the iPod – are not open systems. There is no mix-and-match with Apple. The upside with Apple is that things basically work as advertised. The downside with Apple is that you don’t have much choice, and discounts are limited.

In contrast, if you buy a traditional PC from a vendor like Dell or HP, you can configure practically every component. You have access to the latest and greatest chips, cards, drives. But multiple times, I’ve purchased these custom systems and been disappointed when things don’t work as promised. Especially with graphics drivers and ‘sleep’ mode.

Think of Apple like a cruise vacation. With a cruise, you pay one price that includes your room, meals, and transportation while on the ship. But there isn’t much choice. You can’t change the ship’s itinerary in order to skip one port and spend an extra day at another. If you don’t like the shows or movies on board, you can’t drive to another theater.

You might get a better deal if you book a vacation a la carte. You can eat where you want. You can spend time where you want and not where you don’t. And you can find the deals that fit your taste and budget.

I’ve been on the bleeding edge of technology before. And I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to configure broken drivers on Windows or Linux. Trying to figure out why some program keeps crashing. Or simply trying to field phone calls from out-of-town relatives who need help with Windows.

As they say in the movies, “I’m getting too old for this”.

There are other areas where Apple could do better. This isn’t one of them.