AMITIAE - Monday 30 January 2012

Cassandra - Monday Review: It will soon be Friday

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Opening Gambit:

Responses to the NYTimes article on Apple and Foxconn problems. Chinese commentators rather like what Apple is doing. Siri is not burning bits and bytes, we are. Madison Wisconsin to buy 1,400 iPads with Microsoft money. Patent wins for Apple in Germany and the US. Apple may be edging closer to Android but the Googlish platform is leading in the malware stakes. Major development as new RIM chief looks at other phones. In Singapore, an exploding iPhone that cannot be found and an iPhone app for the SMRT.

Technical Problems

Late on Sunday night, the eXtensions site went down and had not come back by Monday morning. As the bill for hosting is not due until 1 February, I had not been cut off because of that. I sent email late Sunday, but the recipient was out of the office on Monday, so after a reader left a message on Facebook, I phoned. Normal service was resumed soon after, so I should have done that earlier. OK, let's rock and roll. . . .

Apple, Foxconn, NYTimes and Pundits

On Friday we made comment about an article that had been in the NYTimes damning Apple for the practices of Foxconn and making much of the death of one young Chinese worker. While any single death is a waste, this was referred to so many times that as support for Apple's responsibilities at a factory belonging to another major company, it began to look a bit thin. Hon Hai precision is a company with headquarters not in China but in Taiwan, but they have managed to enter the Chinese manufacturing base quite well. Along the way, the facilities surrounding the factories -- dormitories, cafeterias, cinemas, shops -- have served this growing factory community.

That was not good enough for the NYTimes. It should be noted here that some of these problems have been highlighted before, which may be why Apple instigated its own Supplier Responsibility program and reports, which we reported on earlier this month, when the latest issue was released. As was pointed out (I saw this first in MacDaily News on Friday in this context, but it has been aired before) other companies also use Foxconn. The list reads like a Who's Who of Tech: Amazon, Apple, Dell, HP, HTC, IBM, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony and others. The NYTimes article mentioned some of those (not Microsoft at all, despite a mass suicide threat at a Foxconn factory early in the month), but Apple was named over 100 times.

Initially, most news sources followed the "Apple is Ba-a-a-ad" mantra (some still are), although one or two picked up on some discrepancies in the article. Come Saturday there were two developments with a robust response from Tim Cook, CEO of Apple and similarly outraged comments from Chinese in a newspaper there as reported by Daniel Eran Dilger on AppleInsider. The NYTimes managed to find these, translate them and then "bury" them in The Lede, a blog. With all the news surrounding this, I started to write something for Cassandra, but it took on a life of its own and ended up as a separate online comment at the end of which I suggested that Charles Duhigg, David Barboza and the New York Times owe the public and those involved some clarification, if not an apology. There were other comments along the same lines from Jim Dalrymple at The Loop and he linked to a good comment by Devin Coldewey on TechCrunch. While Steven Musil reported on the Tim Cook memo to the staff, many of the other commentators on CNET failed to pick up on the point that this was not an Apple-only problem and that the NYTimes was targeting Apple when others have their products made in exactly the same factories.

In the roundup that CNET put out late Sunday (my time) the only pro-Apple item was on Tim Cook's memo. I guess they must have missed all the others I found. However, Brooke Crothers expanded the idea that if a suggestion that had been made that US consumers should boycott Apple products, they would also have to consider a whole lot more; and he includes some other countries' production histories. A boycott might make the NYTimes liable if there were to be litigation. Mike Elgan looks at some of the problems facing Apple with the fallout from this article in a different light and offers solutions some of which he writes are not practical, so his approach is a balanced analysis.

A further comment came from BSR who were cited in the NYTimes article we are told by Paul Miller on The Verge. They dispute some of the claims that were made in print and praised Apple in a statement. BSR denies the claims made by the unnamed BSR consultant who was cited in the article and report that the denial and other clarifications were sent to the NYT before publication [My italics]. Miller also mentions the unnamed former Apple executives whom the NYTimes article cited, but there is a danger here in that a former exec, may be "former" for a variety of reasons and may actually have a rather large axe to grind. Indeed, try a Google search for "Executives who have left Apple in the last 5 years" and see what comes up.

What particularly annoyed some people (and I am one of course) was the clear aim of the article directly at Apple despite its clear policies and public statements on the problems that are to an extent out of its control. It cannot buy Foxconn, although that was something that has been suggested with that pile of cash it has, because laws in China will not allow such ownership arrangements, as in many other countries (including Thailand).

But isn't it really all about that pile of cash? The number of analysts and commentators that claim Apple must spend it or pay a dividend or otherwise make some extravagant use of it. Almost $100 billion, much of it stuck overseas, is tempting, and like the holders of lottery tickets that never come up, other people have some imaginative ways to spend it. They just cannot bear the idea that Apple keeps being successful.

Apple Stuff

I may have been wrong about Siri. When I first saw the demonstration by Scott Forestall at the Apple event back in October, I could see the gear wheel spinning away when he used the voice system and presumed that data was being sent and received. Mel Martin on TUAW suggests that this is not as serious as some thought it was, for example the Washington Post's Paul Farhi. It may be true that us users of the iPhone 4S use much more data than those with earlier iPhones, but this is because we can, but also recent Android phones similarly use more data. Smartphones by definition use data.

One use of data is the Find my iPhone app that has had some interesting publicity since it was released and got back more than a few missing phones and iPads. This week we read in an item by Dave Caolo on TUAW about a cop in New York who has his own iPhone (heavens they usually have such bad publicity that this makes a real change). A woman had her handbag snatched in the city and when reporting it the policeman decided to give FMI a try. I guess from the report that the policeman sent a signal as well as tried tracking it as the thief walked past with it beeping in his boot. Almost 4 years ago a tourist here had an iPod touch snatched from a bag and back at the hotel tried FMI, sending a signal and a message. Within a few minutes, the police phoned the hotel. They had been sitting at a table with an arrested suspect and a pile of loot when the iPod touch began to make a noise. . . .

A writer of articles that I take quite seriously, Federico Vittici of MacStories, has a beef with the iPhone home screen. So if someone as partisan as he has criticisms, it is worth paying attention. It is a rather tentative examination of what the screen is as opposed to what it wants to be: virtual and real. It is inconsistent, but most of us don't think of the contradictions that Federico debates in his lengthy article.

There was a major panic this week when all the bloggers who found out about it were in a tizzy that the Apple Store was down. Was this an unexpected new product release, price changes (we had just commented on discrepancies in the different stores round the world). None of the above. Apple was adding a Valentine's Day gift guide which starts about halfway down the page and looks to me like an iPad promotion.

As much as I am able to get work done in Lion, the current version of OS X, there are one or two annoyances. A particular infuriation is that when I open an app, the OS also opens all the other files that I had been using the last time, and the time before that and the time before that, so I end up with a desktop full of clutter before I can start work on the file I want, or even just open a new file. A solution is suggested by OS X Daily who write that we may simply hold down the Shift key and -- magic -- we have a clean slate. But be careful I suggest you only use this with apps that appear in the Dock. I accidentally highlighted all the applications from A to Text Edit -- 114 applications in all -- and they opened one by one (or actually all tried to open together). It took rather a long time before I could gain control of the computer again and on the way I had to take some severe Force Quit action with some of the apps. Each has its own problems these days with attempts to access the internet, link with the libraries of other apps, and even the use of a Tips panel which got buried several layers deep gave me problems quitting one app. Be careful what you wish for.

As a lot of readers will know, I rather like apps for the iPhone that assist with the photography aspects of the device, which gets better as each iPhone comes out. Kristy Korcz on Geek Sugar has a selection chosen by Paul Pierson who is a designer and photographer, but he missed out on iWatermark, one of my essentials.

Half and Half

Love this. . . . a while back, Microsoft agreed to pay Wisconsin almost $80 million to settle claims that it has systematically cheated consumers into paying too much for its software we are told by Daniel Eran Dilger on AppleInsider. Of that $80 million, some $3.4 million is to be used by authorities in Madison for a total of 1,400 iPads for the schools. The tablets are cheaper, more portable and easier to use than conventional computers and "will enable students to wirelessly share their work and enable schools to replace textbooks with digital apps or ebooks. . ." which I bet no one this side of the Pacific has thought about in its "one child, one tablet computer" promotion that was in English on election posters.

A successful deployment of iPads was made by the city council in Austin, Texas and the results of their use of FileMaker were presented recently at the MacWorld Expo IT Conference (not just a show, remember) we are told by Daniel Eran Dilger on AppleInsider. The audience was told howFileMaker is used to turn work order forms in the billing system into a touch-driven iPad app that allows employees to navigate orders and floor diagrams for city's convention center. But some will never get this and just see that the iPad costs more and the Indian made, Aakash that politicians here say is all that is needed will be just fine.

Florian Mueller of Foss Patents had been a bit quiet of late and suddenly sprang into action on Sunday when he spotted a decision made in a US court that he had earlier missed (he was in Mannheim), concerning the cases between Apple and Motorola, but is really a decision concerning Android, with Motorola being Google's proxy here. The judge agreed that the term "realtime API" probably infringes on the patent in question. There appears to be no workaround. Mueller thinks this could have major implications with this case as well as the litigation against HTC.

While in Mannheim, Mueller had reported on another finding for Apple, this time against Samsung where the court rejected a second complaint related to the 3G/UMTS wireless telecommunications standard.

Not really related, but it fits nicely here is an item by Daniel Eran Dilger on AppleInsider about why iOS still maintains its lead in the enterprise. There has been lots of promotion of Android in the last couple of years, but while consumers are aware of the platform (and it comes on a lot of cheap phones making it appear popular), the iPhone and iPad have been consistently better thought of by higher end buyers, culminating in the rush of sales when the iPhone 4S was released, despite the critics all warning (wrongly) that this was nothing but an iPhone 4 in a new case. What has also helped this is the paradox of Apple's locked-in structure in the face of less enthusiasm for Microsoft and the openness (and insecurities) of other platforms.

Also fitting perfectly with the above item is a comment on ComputerWorld (you have to wait for the stupid Flash ad to load), by Gregg Keizer -- my original source was MacDaily News -- that the largest ever malware campaign had some 5 million users downloading infected apps. Remember all those comments about the ease of the Android store, compared with the iTunes store, and how it is better to use Open Source (paying royalties to several companies eventually) or to jailbreak our iPhones? The report makes for some stunning reading.

Other Matters

We are always aware of security and tend to keep our eyes open for problems as they come over the horizon. Normally we think of malware in terms of the virus or Trojan Horse, as well as phishing and other malign attempts to enter our computers, mercifully few on OS X. I was a bit surprised (initially) to see a report on Help Net Security (I saw the link on a Twitter feed) concerning malicious QR codes. The article comments on how this might be done. Do we now write these off as dangerous: I hope not as they are rather useful, if currently limited and have great potential. The article also looks at the persistence of rootkits.

When HP decided to dump the PC business and the TouchPad, they also signalled their intent to drop WebOS which some people thought was an error. Latterly, HP told us all that it was to be made Open Source, which some of us thought was almost as bad. We are told by Electronista that the executive in charge, Joshua Rubinstein, knew that his days were numbered and has now decided to jump ship before he is pushed.

In what might be a major development, the new head of RIM was reported on Electronista to have tried some rival devices. He is going to look at the competition and see how they work (and how BB is not). And just to make things clear, although he said there would be no major changes, he promises now that there will be a lot of change. I bet there will.

Unrelated to computer technology directly, is the news from Sam Byford on The Verge that Nikon are discontinuing the D700 and D300s but this is because the D800 is thought to be imminent.

If you can excuse the juvenile headline writing and the anti-Apple stance taken by the Register, sometimes they have something useful to say. Take for example the item written by Iain Thomson: "Blog blast births boffin boycott of publisher Elsevier" (you see what I mean about headlines?). A lot of academics are taking the online publisher Elsevier to task for the way they maximise their content. Academic writing is done for free, but the journals are not cheap, and if you want to access the articles, who said anything about knowledge being free. The academics are annoyed not just at the fees (I see these journals at work when the students are given copies that have been obtained from the library) but the way Elsevier arm-locks the libraries into bundling subscriptions they do not want and that have some dubious content.

Local Items

Back to Apple criticisms, or the denial at any rate. We read in an item by Ng Kai Ling on the Straits Times that SingTel denied on Friday that they had seen an iPhone from a Mr Z.M. Ong who tells the press that as it was being charged, he had sparks and smoke coming out of his iPhone 4 (not 4S we note) and that the 1-year old phone was replaced for free. SingTel say they have no record of this and they have no contact details for the man. While iPhones have expanded -- and the article has a photo of a bulging iPhone 4 -- there have not been any explosions.

Also down in Singapore, the Straits Times tell us that the SMRT there (a fairly complex system -- especially when compared with Bangkok's up and down plus a branch line -- have released an app for the iPhone. I have a couple of these already for systems in London and San Francisco and look forward to the day when I need one for Bangkok. SMRT Connect (version 1.02) is available in the iTunes store here.

The Bangkok Post carried a report about Twitter censorship in Thailand with the Ministry of Communications Technology permanent secretary reported as saying, "Twitter's move to censor or block content regarded as offensive in particular countries was a 'welcome development'." Another brick in the wall.
And my mother arrives from the UK this week.

Late News

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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