The Orange View (on hiatus) Because Apple is great but it isn't perfect

2Dec/11Off

Phone maker skinz are bad for security

Posted by Aaron Pressman

Fascinating study (PDF) by a group of computer scientists at North Carolina State University. They found that some apps pre-installed on eight popular Android phones opened security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious programs and hackers.

The paper has been summarized by Ars Technica, Android Phone Fans and a few others but maybe with not quite enough precision. Of the eight phones tested, Google's two flagships, the Nexus One and Nexus S, came through almost unscathed (one minor security leak). But the additional software and apps that phone makers HTC, Motorola and Samsung added left their handsets much more vulnerable. HTC really brought up the rear with 10 vulnerabilities on its EVO 4G phone and eight each on the Legend and Wildfire S.

This situation should provide a good case study of how well various players in the Android ecosystem respond to security threats. The NC State study wasn't even testing the most current OS versions for all of the phones. My Nexus S runs 2.3.6 versus the study phone running 2.3.3. I've defended Android in the past against overblown and inaccurate security critiques. Let's see if the Android makers get good or bad marks this time around.

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12Nov/11Off

Hey Siracusa, Steve Jobs was not the enemy of success

Posted by Aaron Pressman

Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs benefitted from the extensive cooperation given by the subject -- Jobs granted some forty on-the-record interviews and is quoted frequently. Giving everyone a view of how Jobs made his sausage, though, has led to some confusion about just how integral Jobs was to Apple's success since his return to power in 1997.

Isaacson proves time and again that Jobs was the company's final arbiter on matters large and small. Apple followed no strategy, sold no product or, seemingly, even used no color of plastic that Jobs didn't approve. He was not the source of every single good idea at Apple, nor has anyone ever argued as much. And some of the ideas he championed turned out to be flops or mistakes, like the Mac Cube or the iMac's hockey puck mouse, though the damage was limited.

The larger point is that Apple lived or died based on Jobs' judgement and intuition. And since his judgement and intuition were among the best in the history of business, Apple thrived and became one of the greatest companies in the history of business.

That point seems to be lost on John Siracusa. On this week's Hypercritical podcast, in the midst of a length rant against Isaacson and the book generally¹, Siracusa argued that it proves in many cases that Jobs was the "enemy of success." Based on a few examples, Siracusa goes on to assert that the book is "stabbing in the heart the notion that Steve Jobs knows exactly what's going on and is responsible for Apple's success."

In fact, each of Siracusa's examples prove exactly the opposite -- Jobs had near total control, he insisted on having his concerns addressed and he almost always made Apple's products and strategies stronger as a result. Without Jobs, there would have been no success. He was as responsible as could be.

The first example Siracusa cites, from pages 404 and 405 of the book, is that Jobs initially opposed making the iPod compatible with Windows. Jobs had a legitimate concern -- having the iPod only available on Macs was driving higher Mac sales. He insisted that his team prove him wrong. They did and he changed his mind. He made the correct call. So there's no evidence here that he was an "enemy of success," just that he had high standards and legitimate concerns. Isaacson even relates further evidence that Jobs was integral to the success of iPods on Windows as he demanded an Apple-written version of iTunes that didn't suck and renegotiated contracts with all the record labels to allow music sales to Windows users.

Siracusa's second example, from page 409, is a throw-away, half line that Jobs "at one point" opposed making the iPod Mini, a smaller iPod with much less memory than the original sold at almost the same price. Again, ultimately, Jobs made the correct call as he approved the Mini and it went on to become the best-selling device in the line up. There's almost no detail or background about Jobs' opposition and the incident is reminiscent of one of Jobs' most common management and motivational techniques: reject and reject and reject until a product team met his standards.

The final example Siracusa notes, from page 501, was Jobs initial opposition to allowing third-party software, or apps, on the iPhone. And again, it's proof of Jobs' business acumen, not the reverse. Jobs wanted to have tight control over the user experience. That's precisely the same concern that led to Apple's biggest successes and its fundamental strategy with the Mac and the iPod. When he and his team found a way to address that concern, by making all apps go through an Apple approval process and an Apple-controlled store, Jobs agreed. The story was also a good example of Jobs' ability to focus. He banned discussion of the apps debate until after the first iPhone model was launched. Once the product was launched, it was a better time to have a free-wheeling debate.

For Siracusa, or anyone, to argue that Jobs was an "enemy of success" at Apple after becoming CEO² in 1997, they would need to provide some evidence that the ultimate decision maker made seriously wrong decisions (not just the occasional dud product extension or funky mouse). And maybe Jobs did -- he certainly did at NeXT -- but there's little mention of it in Isaacson's book.

And, as I've argued before, Jobs' importance at Apple went well beyond great product design. He was also the negotiator-in-chief, the recruiter-in-chief and the decision-maker-in-chief. He molded Apple's marketing efforts, honed its retail strategy and motivated its top employees. Look it up -- it's all in the book.

Notes:
¹I do agree with some of Siracusa's other complaints about the book and wish it was a lot better. It suffers greatly from being rushed, particularly in the final chapters.

²Right, right, "interim" CEO until 2000. But he had all the powers running the company from that moment forward.

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9Nov/11Off

Amazon is expanding, not forking, Android

Posted by Aaron Pressman

I may have to keep repeating this one until I'm blue in the face, but, once more with vigor: Amazon's Android-powered Kindle Fire tablet is a good development for Android, good for all Android users and good for the Android ecosystem.

Today's evidence comes in a press release from Amazon about the many Android apps that will be available on "Day One" for the Fire, expected November 15. Amazon says "thousands" of apps will be available including many biggies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Zillow and -- of course -- Angry Birds. Also significant to note that media apps like Netflix, Pandora and Rhapsody will be available even though they compete with Amazon's own content offerings.

But the real key is compatibility. Contrary to the claims of some pundits, Amazon has not created a new and incompatible version of Android, or in the parlance of programmers, forked the Android code. As the press release notes, any app purchased for the Fire will be available to download onto other Android devices that customers may own via the Amazon app store app.

That means the audience for Android apps will grow as the Amazon Fire catches on and, particularly given Amazon's prowess at getting people to pay for stuff, so too the audience for paid downloads.

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9Nov/11Off

Demise of flash good for iPad competitors

Posted by Aaron Pressman

There's a great Monty Python story about the making of the "Holy Grail" movie. Asked how they came up with the idea of banging coconut shells to simulate horses, the gang explained they didn't have the budget for real horses. The story explains so much about why Hollywood blockbusters stink but also applies to other creative endeavors. A lack of resources forces a certain creative pressure than can be thwarted by too much money.

I was reminded of that story today after reading that Adobe is giving up on Flash for mobile devices. Steve Jobs famously hated flash and didn't allow it on iPhones and iPads, likely sealing its doom.

But Apple competitors like Samsung and Motorola tried to make the flash video players on their tablets a key point of difference. RIMM's Playbook even used the slogan "all the Internet." The problem was consumers cared little about flash compatibility. This great advantage that all these marketing campaigns focused on was an illusion.

And that's why the demise of mobile flash is good for tablet competition. It was an easy but ridiculously weak crutch to set yourself apart from the iPad. And it's notable that Amazon barely mentions flash at all in marketing the Fire. Now some smarter innovation - like Python's coconut horses - will be required from the rest of the field.

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3Nov/11Off

Siri, how reliable are you?

Posted by Aaron Pressman

One of the big questions hanging over Apple's iCloud effort is whether the company can improve on its poor execution with prior Internet services like MobileMe. Lots of iCloud services sound great but how well will they scale as millions of users sign up?

Today came reports that the iPhone's best new "in the cloud" feature, automated assistant Siri, was offline. I just tried to show it off for my brother who's visiting and got "try again later." Not quite the impressive effect I was going for.

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