Apple's mysterious WWDC 2016 announcement: What does it mean?

Apr 21, 2016 - 2:32 PM - by sparkyscott21

For as long as Apple has designed creative invitations to its media events, geeks have treated them as the technical equivalent of a Rorschach test. What secret clues might Apple have hidden in the latest WWDC missive? Probably nothing.

This year's Worldwide Developers Conference announcement is somewhat more subdued than a typical Apple invitation. Instead of a fancy graphic, Apple has made liberal use of its new Swift language to highlight successful apps.

Tinder, Crossy Road, Uber, MLB At Bat, Instagram — "double tap heart" is a personal favorite — and Snapchat are among those singled out.

It's the mysterious 11th line, though, that has many people perplexed. It simply says "Hello big idea."

As it's the 11th line, some argue that it prefaces a plan to bump OS X to OS XI. The word "big" is thought by others to represent "the next big thing," perhaps a new product line or unforeseen Mac hardware updates.

In reality, it probably doesn't mean anything.

WWDC is nearly as important for Apple as a marketing event as it is as a technical conference. With mobile devices increasingly becoming "good enough," the app ecosystem is one of the primary things keeping customers loyal to a single platform.

This means that Apple needs developers to continue developing for iOS — which is now Apple's core product — in order to keep its competitive advantage over Android.

Thus, the meaning of "line 11" is probably exactly what it seems like to a rational human being: Apple's attempt to convince developers that they might just have the next Vine on their hands, if only they release a nicely polished iPhone app.


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Walmart Pay begins trickling out to iPhone users via app update

Apr 21, 2016 - 2:30 PM - by sparkyscott21

The latest update to retail colossus Walmart's first-party iOS app included a significant new feature — support for Walmart Pay, the company's in-house mobile payments effort.

Walmart Pay is a QR-code based payment system, similar to the stillborn CurrentC option in which Walmart was a partner. The most significant difference comes in payment methods — Walmart Pay does not support direct debit, a tentpole CurrentC feature.

Users are required to create an account on and link a credit or debit card or add a Walmart Gift Card. Subsequently logging in on their mobile device will make that payment method available in the store.

Payment within the app is protected by a four-digit security code, and owners of supported iPhones can choose to boost that protection to include Touch ID. After authenticating, users will be asked to scan the QR code at the register — they will receive an electronic receipt when payment is successful.

In practice, this approach is similar to the long-running Starbucks in-app payment system. Though the coffee chain uses pre-filled wallets and a different variety of barcode, the checkout flow is the same.

Walmart Pay is available in select Walmart stores throughout the U.S., and continues to expand. There is no word yet on exactly which stores are compatible, but the company expects to have full coverage in the U.S. by the end of 2016.

The Walmart app is a free, 48.9-megabyte download from the App Store.


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Average iPhone user unlocks device 80 times per day, 89% use Touch ID, Apple says

Apr 20, 2016 - 1:17 PM - by sparkyscott21

While reports covered the broad strokes of Apple's conference call on encryption last Friday, bits of information are still surfacing, including an interesting statistic that reveals an average iPhone user unlocks their device about 80 times a day.

The tidbit was aired Monday by Ben Bajarin, head of primary research at industry analyst Creative Strategies, who in a post to Techpinions said Apple executives revealed the figure during a deep-dive into iOS device security. As previously reported, Apple last week offered a closer look at its advanced consumer safeguards during an expository conference call meant to coincide with a court filing resisting an FBI iPhone access request in New York.

As Bajarin notes, much of what was discussed can be found in Apple's security white paper, but executives and senior engineers did provide new details on the inner workings of key features like the Secure Enclave. Company executives, who have not been identified, also peppered in a few choice statistics to bolster the case against weak encryption.

For example, Apple said 89 percent of customers with Touch ID-enabled iPhones and iPads set up and used the fingerprint recognizing feature to unlock their device. This compares to Bajarin's own research, which shows about 85 percent of iOS device owners protect their hardware with Touch ID or a passcode.

The analyst argues Apple's easy-to-use security systems are driving consumer protection to new heights, an important consideration given the amount of sensitive information stored digitally. Whereas consumers just a few years ago left devices unlocked, either due to user apathy or lack of security features, a vast majority of iPhone and iPad owners are now protecting their devices with Touch ID and iOS passcode locks. This theory is borne out by Apple's numbers.

Bajarin said Apple mentioned the phrase "balancing security with ease of use" multiple times throughout the presentation, a statement that speaks to the company's security mantra. Apple has seen great success in an area of tech where many have tried — and failed — to innovate. While OEMs roll out security protocols, fingerprint readers and other mechanisms in the name of customer privacy, Apple realizes the only effective system is one easily accessed by the end user.

In the case of modern iPhones and iPads, encryption is embedded at the silicon level with a Secure Enclave coprocessor, itself gated by a consumer-facing technology — Touch ID — so seamless as to be almost transparent to the user experience. Apple molded its low friction interface around normal device interactions, meaning iPhone and iPad owners can enjoy maximum security with a minimum investment.


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Apple denied Chinese government requests for source code twice in last 2 years

Apr 20, 2016 - 1:11 PM - by sparkyscott21

Chinese authorities have asked Apple to turn over source code twice in the past two years, but the company refused in both cases, Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell told a hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday.

Sewell was defending the company against accusations that the company is willing to hand data over to the Chinese government for business reasons, but unwilling to help U.S. law enforcement access private data, Reuters reported. Today's hearing is related to a House Judiciary Committee gathering in March, where Sewell also spoke to defend Apple's encryption practices.

The company's dealings with China became contentious earlier in the hearing, when Captain Charles Cohen — a commander with the Indiana State Police — brought up the idea that Apple is willing to give data to Chinese officials. His position was attacked by Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, who forced Cohen to admit that his only source of information was media reports.

In Apple's latest Report on Government Information Requests, released Monday, the company said that China filed 32 requests for information relating to 6,724 accounts, up from 24 requests tied to 85 accounts six months earlier. It's not clear how many of these Apple complied with.

In a separate Tuesday panel, also in front of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Sewell contended that building any backdoor into Apple products would create problems for "one hundred percent" of its users.

Calling attention to potential usefulness of accessing private data, however, Thomas Galati — the chief of intelligence for the New York Police Department — told the hearing that between October 2015 and March 2016, investigators had been unable to open 67 Apple devices. These were linked to 44 violent crimes, include 10 homicides, two rapes, and the shooting of an on-duty officer.

New York is now the focus of the conflict between Apple and the U.S. government over encryption, following the Justice Department withdrawing an order asking Apple to help break into the iPhone of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. An anonymous third party helped the government instead.

The Justice Department is appealing a March ruling by New York Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, who argued that Apple can't be forced to undermine its own security in the instance of an iPhone linked to a local drug case. On Friday, lawyers for Apple suggested that the government has failed to prove it needs Apple's help in extracting data.


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AMD's New 400-Series 'Polaris' Graphics Chips Headed for 2016 Macs

Apr 20, 2016 - 1:04 PM - by sparkyscott21

Following up on its rumor of a major AMD design win reported last October, WCCFtech has confirmed via multiple sources that the customer in question is indeed Apple. The latest design win follows Apple's use of AMD 200/300 series GPUs in the top-end 27-inch Retina iMac and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and is a boon for the chipmaker that has seen its share of the graphics market dwindle over the past several years.

The design wins make mention of two graphics processor families, Polaris 10 and Polaris 11. The former carries a code name "Ellesmere" and is believed to be in the power range that would make it suitable for an upgrade to the iMac. Polaris 11 has the code name "Baffin" and it is believed to be in the power range suitable for an upgrade to the Retina MacBook Pro.

While Apple has limited discrete graphics chips to the top of its MacBook Pro and iMac lines, there would be suitable chips for all but the smallest form factors of Apple notebooks, should the company choose to embrace discrete graphics on a broader array of models.

As we previously noted, the switch to the new Polaris line of GPUs is set to be a significant performance upgrade over the previous 28nm GPUs. Announced by AMD at Computex, the lower-power AMD GPUs are set to be built on Global Foundries' 14nm process. Through an agreement between multiple foundries, the process is equivalent to Samsung's own second-generation 14nm FinFET process, which is the successor of the process used for the A9 and A9X featured in the latest iPhones and iPads.

Performance of these new graphics chips from AMD is expected to be double that of their predecessors, measured on a per-watt basis. This is thanks to the large size reduction and performance gains in going from the 28nm node first seen in 2011 for graphics processors to the new 16/14nm FinFET processes. This would certainly be welcome to the Mac lineup due to the increased graphics demands of the high-resolution Retina screens featured in both the iMac and MacBook Pro computers. It is reasonable to expect that Apple would allocate roughly the same power budget as on current models, meaning the 2x performance could be seen by users in some cases.

According to earlier reports, the chips should be ready to ship in consumer products in time for the back-to-school shopping season. It is not unheard of for Apple to receive priority on new chip designs, though WWDC would be the most logical time to expect these new Macs to debut. The future of the Mac Pro is less certain, though there will certainly be suitable high-end chips from AMD manufactured on TSMC's 16nm process this year.


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It was shockingly easy for ’60 Minutes’ to hack a congressman’s iPhone

Apr 18, 2016 - 12:39 PM - by sparkyscott21

Mobile security is obviously a major topic these days but it seems very few of us know just how vulnerable our phones are to hacking. 60 Minutes this week decided to give a new iPhone to Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and then challenge researchers at Security Research Labs to hack it. It goes without saying that the hackers were frighteningly successful in this endeavor and managed to retrieve a lot of sensitive information from the congressman’s device after only learning his phone number.

Seriously, that’s all it took: As soon as they had the device’s phone number, they were able to listen to and record all his phone calls, to read his text messages and to track his location.

The problem here isn’t with Apple’s security policies but the way that mobile networks around the world connect to one another. The team at Security Research Labs have discovered a major flaw in Signaling System 7 (SS7), a series of protocols first developed way back in 1975 to connect phone carriers around the world. This is a vulnerability that literally affects every single person who owns a cellphone, which is why we should hope that knowledge of this flaw with SS7 is not yet widespread.

That said, 60 Minutes also points out that most hackers don’t go through SS7 to hack your device — the program interviews Lookout Security cofounder John Hering, who details some of the other ways that hackers can get access to your phone.

The full 60 Minutes segment is very interesting and can be found at this link.


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