Weeknote 2024/06: more playing with NFC; thoughts on QR code uses; and a trip to AWS’ UK HQ

Last week’s weeknote taught me one of two things. Either I’m getting boring now; or AI fatigue has reached a level where people just read past anything with ChatGPT in the title. Or maybe it was just that the Clippy meme put people off…

Whilst engagement is always nice, I write these weeknotes for mindful reflection. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m writing them. There’s also a part of me that says “you’ve done six weeks now… don’t stop and undo all that work”. Hmm, Sunk Cost Fallacy anyone?

So, let’s get stuck into what’s been happening in week 6 of 2024… there seems to be quite a lot here (or at least it took me a few hours to write!)

This week at work

Even with the input from ChatGPT that I mentioned last week, I’m still struggling to write data sheets. Maybe this is me holding myself back with my own expectations around the output. It’s also become a task that I simply must complete – even in draft – and then hand over to others to critique. Perfection is the enemy of good, and all that!

I’m also preparing to engage with a new client to assist with their strategy and innovation. One challenge is balancing the expectations of key client stakeholders, the Account Director, and the Service Delivery Manager with my own capabilities. In part, this is because expectations have been based on the Technical Architect who is aligned to the account. He’s been great on the technical side but I’m less hands-on and the value I will add is more high-level. And this is a problem of our own making – everyone has a different definition of what an (IT) Architect is. I wrote about this previously:

What’s needed are two things – a really solid Technical Architect with domain expertise, and someone who can act as a client side “CTO”. Those are generally different skillsets.

My work week ended with a day at Amazon Web Services (AWS). I spend a lot of time talking about Microsoft Azure, but my AWS knowledge is more patchy. With a multi-cloud mindset (and not just hybrid with Node4), I wanted to explore what’s happening in the world of AWS. More on that in a bit…

This week in tech

Let’s break this up into sections as we look at a few different subjects…

More fun with NFC tags

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NFC tags I’d been experimenting with. This week I took it a bit further with:

  1. Programming tags using the NFC Tools app. This means the tag action doesn’t rely on an iOS Shortcut and so isn’t limited to one user/device. Instead, the tag has a record stored in its memory that corresponds to an action – for example it might open a website. I was going to have a tag for guests to automatically connect to the guest Wi-Fi in our house but iOS doesn’t support reading Wi-Fi details from NFC (it’s fine with a QR code though… as I’ll discuss in a moment).
  2. Using a tag and an automation to help me work out which bins to put out each week. Others have said “why not just set a recurring reminder?” and that is what I do behind the scenes. The trouble with reminders is notifications. Instead of the phone reminding me because it’s the right day (but perhaps I’m in the wrong place), I can scan and check which actions are needed this week.

QR codes are not the answer to sharing every link…

Yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice how many QR codes featured in my day. Unlike most of my recent journeys, my train ticket didn’t have a code. This is because Thameslink (the train operating company for my train from Bedford to London) appears to be stuck on an old technology stack. Their app is pretty useless and sends me to their website to buy tickets, which I then have to collect from a machine at the station. If I need to collect a ticket I might as well buy it on the day from the same machine (there are no Advance discounts available on my journey). So, paper train tickets with magnetic stripes it was.

Then, I was networking with some of the other delegates at the AWS re:Invent re:Cap event and found that people share QR codes from the LinkedIn app now. How did I not know this was a thing? (And to think I am playing with programming NFC tags to do cool things.) To be fair, I haven’t got out much recently – far too much of my post-pandemic work for risual was online. I even have paper business cards in my work bag. I don’t think I’ve given one to anyone in a long time though…

But QR codes were everywhere at AWS. They were In every presentation for links to product information, feedback links, even for the Wi-Fi in the room. And that’s the problem – QR codes are wonderful on a mobile device. But all too often someone creates a code and says “let’s share this – it will be cool”, without thinking of the use case.

  • A QR code for exchanging details in person. Yep, I get that.
  • A QR code on physical marketing materials to direct people to find out more. That works.
  • A QR code on an email. Get real. I’m reading it on one device – do you really want me to get another one to scan the code?
  • A QR code on the back of a van. Nice in principle but it’s a moving vehicle. Sometimes it won’t work so better to have a URL and phone number too. In which case what purpose does the QR code serve?
  • Multiple QR codes on a presentation slide. Hmm… tricky now. The camera app’s AI doesn’t know which one to use. What’s wrong with a short URL? Camera apps can usually recognise and scan URLs too.
  • QR codes for in-room Wi-Fi. Seems great at first, and worked flawlessly on my phone but I couldn’t get them to work on a Windows laptop. Well, I could read them in the camera app but it wouldn’t let me open the URL (or copy it to examine and find the password). For that I needed an app from the Microsoft Store. And I was offline. Catch 22. Luckily, someone wrote the password on a white board. Old skool. That works for me.

More of my tech life

  • I think Apple might have launched a VR headset. This is the meme that keeps on giving…

That visit to the AWS offices that I mentioned earlier…

I started writing this on the train home, thinking there’s a lot of information to share. So it’s a brief summary rather than trying to include all the details:

  • The AWS event I attended was a recap of the big re:Invent conference that took place a few months ago. It took place at AWS’s UK HQ in London (Holborn). I’ve missed events like this. I used to regularly be at Microsoft’s Thames Valley Park (Reading) campus, or at a regional Microsoft TechNet or MSDN event. They were really good, and I knew many of the evangelists personally. These days, I generally can’t get past the waitlist for Microsoft events and it seems much of their budget is for pre-recorded virtual events that have huge audiences (but terrible engagement).
  • It was a long day – good to remind me why I don’t regularly commute – let alone to London. But it was great to carve out the time and dedicate it to learning.
  • Most of the day was split into tracks. I could only be in one place at one time so I skipped a lot of the data topics and the dedicated AI/ML ones (though AI is in everything). I focused on the “Every App” track.
  • A lot of the future looking themes are similar to those I know with Microsoft. GenAI, Quantum. The product names are different, the implementation concepts vary a little. There may be some services that one has and the other doesn’t. But it’s all very relatable. AWS seems a little more mature on the cost control front. But maybe that’s just my perception from what I heard in the keynote.
  • The session on innovating faster with Generative AI was interesting – if only to understand some of the concepts around choosing models and the pitfalls to avoid.
  • AWS Step Functions seem useful and I liked the demo with entertaining a friend’s child by getting ChatGPT to write a story then asking Dall-E to illustrate it.
  • One particularly interesting session for me was about application modernisation for Microsoft workloads. I’m not a developer, but even I could appreciate the challenges (e.g. legacy .NET Framework apps), and the concepts and patterns that can help (e.g strangler fig to avoid big bang replacement of a monolith). Some of the tools that can help looked pretty cool to.
  • DeepRacer is something I’d previously ignored – I have enough hobbies without getting into using AI to drive cars. But I get it now. It’s a great way to learn about cloud, data analysis, programming and machine learning through play. (Some people doing like the idea of “play” at work, so let’s call it “experimentation”).
  • There’s some new stuff happening in containers. AWS has EKS and ECS. Microsoft has AKS and ACS. Kubernetes (K8s) is an orchestration framework for containers. Yawn. I mean, I get it, and I can see why they are transformative but it seems every time I meet someone who talks about K8s they are evangelical. Sometimes containers are the solution. Sometimes they are not. Many of my clients don’t even have a software development capability. Saying to an ISV “we’re going to containerise your app” is often not entertained. OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
  • One thing AWS has that I’ve never heard Azure folks talk about is the ability to deliberately inject chaos into your app or infrastructure – so the session on the AWS Fault Injection Service was very interesting. I particularly like the ideas of simulating an availability zone outage or a region outage to test how your app will really perform.
  • Amazon has a contact centre platform called Connect. I did not know that. Now I do. It sounds quite interesting, but I’m unlikely to need to do anything more with it at Node4 – Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx are our chosen platforms.
  • The security recap was… a load of security enhancements. I get it. And they seem to make sense but they are also exactly what I would expect to see.
  • Amazon Security Lake is an interesting concept, but I had to step out of that session. It did make me wonder if it’s just SIEM (like Microsoft Sentinel). Apparently not. ASL is a data lake/log management system not a SIEM service, so bring your own security analytics.

In all, it was a really worthwhile investment of a day. I will follow up on some of the concepts in more detail – and I plan to write about them here. But I think the summary above is enough, for now.

This week’s reading, writing, watching and listening

I enjoy Jono Hey’s Sketchplanations. Unfortunately. when I was looking for one to illustrate the Sunk Cost Fallacy at the top of this post, I couldn’t find one. I did see there’s I see he has a book coming out in a few months’ time though. You can pre-order it at the place that does everything from A-Z.

What I did find though, is a sketch that could help me use less passive voice in these blog posts:

Inspired by something I saw on the TV, and after I found my previous notes, some of my thoughts here grew into a post of their own: Anti-social media.

My wife and I finished watching Lessons In Chemistry on Apple TV this week. I commented previously that one of my observations was we still have a long way to go on diversity, inclusion and equality but we’ve come a long way since the 1950s. And then I read this, from the LA Times Archive, reporting on how a woman was jailed for contempt of court after the Judge took offence to her wearing “slacks”, in 1938.

This week in photos

  • Only one from my instragram this week:
  • This isn’t mine, but I love it…
  • Also:
  • And what about this?

This week at home

Putting home (and therefore family) at the end seems wrong, but the blog is about tech first, business second, and my personal life arguably shouldn’t feature so often.

The positive side of trying to be in the office at least a day or two a week is that I can do the school run. I may only have one “child” still at school but he’s learning to drive, so he can drive to school and I’ll continue to drive to work afterwards. He’s also driving to his hockey training and matches so its a good way to build experience before his driving test in a few months’ time.

Next week, my adult son (Matt) heads back to Greece for a couple of months’ cycle training. He’s also building new gravel/cyclocross bikes for later in the year, so “bits of bike” keep on appearing in the dining room… including some new wheels from one of the team sponsors, FFWD Wheels.

Meanwhile, my wife is very excited because Matt will be invited to Buckingham Palace to receive his Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. He can take a guest, hence Mrs W’s excitement. Let’s just hope he’s in the country at the time.

I really should try and use the time whilst he’s away to get out on my own bike as my own fitness is not where it should be.

That’s all for this week. See you all around the same time next week?

Featured image: author’s own.

Short takes: running apps from unidentified developers on a Mac; Dropbox stuck importing photos on a Mac; and virtual card numbers in Apple Wallet

This content is 7 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A collection of snippets that don’t make a full blog post on their own…

Mac apps that won’t open because the developer is unidentified

Every now and again, I’ll download an app on my Mac that gets flagged as unsigned on my Mac (“can’t be opened because it is from an unidentified developer”. It turns out that, if you hold down the Control key at the same time as clicking its icon, you can open it.

Dropbox (Mac) stuck importing photos

I use Dropbox to upload my photos from my phone (it names them nicely for me by date!) and then copy them across to OneDrive (where I have more storage). A few months ago, I had a problem where I couldn’t upload my photos to DropBox. I’d plug my phone into a Mac, and the import would never finish. It showed a camera icon and said it was importing photos but didn’t show any progress, as though the DropBox app had hung. Looking around on the ‘net this is a common issue – but there’s no sign of DropBox fixing it…

In the end, my workaround was to upload the images directly from my iPhone, which seemed to clear the bottleneck, whatever it was…

Virtual card numbers in an Apple Wallet

Those who use their mobile phone for contactless payments (Apple Pay, etc.) may not be aware that each registered card has a virtual card number – the 16-digit card number used is not the same number as the physical card. That’s why (for example), if you touch in to pay for travel in London using contactless on a card but finish the journey with contactless on your phone, Transport for London won’t realise that the two transactions are linked.

I’m not sure how to find the full card number for the device, but you can find the last 4 digits of the virtual card number by pressing the “information icon in the lower right of Apple Wallet. That will give a whole host of information, as well as transaction history.

Device Account Number in Apple Wallet on iOS

Apple finally recognises European consumer laws

This content is 9 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Back in 2012, I wrote about my poor experiences with Apple and consumer law. I wasn’t alone either – the comments on that post showed that others had similar issues, including taking Apple to the small claims court…

…for that reason, I was surprised last Friday to hear a “Genius” in my local Apple Store telling someone they had two years cover for their device under EU consumer law. That was particularly interesting as I’d just been quoted £94 for a new 1TB hard disk in my own Mac which was 367 days old at the time! (I had corrected the Genius by saying a) that my call was logged with Apple Support whilst the device was less than a year old and b) that’s about twice what a 1TB 2.5″ SATA HDD should cost at current market prices). In my case, it was a genuine mistake, but I did ask about the “2 years European Consumer Law” cover that had been quoted to the other customer.

Well, it seems that a while ago (possibly around 2013, based on copyright notice for the leaflet I was given), Apple finally recognised that their warranty cover didn’t comply with European consumer legislation.  Apple’s UK Statutory Warranty page details what’s available under the Apple On-Year Limited Warranty, under European Consumer Law, and with an AppleCare Protection Plan. Significantly:

“Under consumer laws in the UK, consumers are entitled to a free of charge repair or replacement, discount or refund by the seller, of defective goods or goods which do not conform with the contract of sale. For goods purchased in England or Wales, these rights expire six years from delivery of the goods and for goods purchased in Scotland, these rights expire five years from delivery of the goods.”

It may be late, but it’s good to see Apple finally recognises European consumer laws.

Stuck in the wrong App Store with iOS 6

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Account Not in This Store Your account is not valid for use in the U.S. store. You must switch to the U.K. store before purchasing. Earlier this evening, I tried to download an app that’s only available in the US App Store. iOS helpfully redirected me, where the store said my account was no use to it…

But, after that, I seemed to be stuck in the States with an account that doesn’t work in the US store and a load of apps that need to be updated from the UK App Store.

This Apple ID is only valid for purchased in the UK iTunes Store. You will be switched to that Store.But there is a fix. It seems it’s a problem in iOS 6 (has there ever been a release of iOS as problematic as this? Or is it just that the major bugs in iOS 6 have been related to ActiveSync and have all affected me*).

There is a fix though – as described by Apurva Tripathi, the resolution is to switch to the Featured tab, then scroll down to the bottom of the page. Click on your Apple ID  and select Sign Out. Then sign back in to be redirected to the correct store.  Reading around on the ‘net suggests this is not just a UK/US thing – it could affect users in various geographies.

*because Apple stuff “Just Works”

Does Apple consider itself to be above the law?

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Those who were watching my Twitter stream last Friday and Saturday will have followed my saga with Apple and their apparent disregard for customer service or the law when my iPad developed a fault… “Apple?” you say, “but aren’t they renowned for their fantastic customer service?”. Well, they do have a reputation but my experience suggests it’s not deserved, at least not here in the UK…

I waited a few days before writing this post as anyone who criticises Apple is laid open to a barrage of abuse. Even so, I thought it was appropriate to share – and, by “cooling off”, I’m hoping to be objective.

What’s the problem?

A few months ago, I noticed a greenish glow on a small portion of the screen on my iPad, which I purchased in July 2010. It was particularly visible on dark areas, when the brightness is turned up (e.g. when using the iPad in a dark room). So, I booked an appointment at the Genius Bar in the Milton Keynes Apple Store to see what could be done to repair/replace the defective screen. I arrived on time and, whilst it was certainly busy, there were lots of blue t-shirts doing what, to a bystander, appeared to be very little. I’m sure they all had their own jobs but, after waiting 20 minutes past my appointment, I was seen, not by one of the staff who were at the Genius Bar, but by the guy who had been performing some kind of co-ordination role on the shop floor until that point. He took my iPad away, then came back to say that it was over a year old and so out of warranty – repair wasn’t an option and a refurbished replacement would cost £199. I was given the option of speaking to a Manager and I did, but he was equally unhelpful – and apparently unwilling to move an inch, even when I pointed out that the UK’s Sale of Goods Act gives me some rights here…

More support required

I went home and found a statement on the Apple website about Apple Products and EU Statutory Warranty, which directed me to call AppleCare. I opened a support case and, the next morning, I spoke to an Apple representative who listened, logged the call details, but ultimately advised me to contact the point of purchase (the Apple Store in Solihull). Solihull is an hour’s drive away so I called the store, who said I could visit any Apple Retail location and I headed to Milton Keynes, where I had made a Genius Bar appointment in anticipation.

Five minutes before my appointment AppleCare called and said they had spoken to store and could handle a “consumer law” complaint on my behalf, and that I didn’t need to go to store. Ten minutes after that they called again and said they couldn’t after all and 15 minutes later they said EU Consumer Law doesn’t apply in the UK (it doesn’t – but the UK Sale of Goods Act does!) and that I should contact the local Trading Standards department. By then I was at the store again, where I spent the next couple of hours (including almost an hour waiting to be seen as AppleCare’s previous advice meant I’d missed my Genius Bar appointment and I was on standby), eventually being convinced to part with money to replace my iPad (more on that in a moment).

So how is this Apple’s problem?

Those in the US and elsewhere may well be thinking, “so you wanted Apple to repair or replace a product that was out of  warranty – are you for real?” but in Europe, consumer law is on our side.

The UK hasn’t adopted this EU regulation because our own laws provide even better cover – The Sale of Goods Act gives  consumers up to six years to pursue claims. Although UK law does not specify how long a product should last (all products and manufacturers are different), a product is considered faulty if it stops working properly in less time than a reasonable person would expect the product to last. A screen defect within two years does not sound like something that Apple (or any reasonable person) would expect, and so I believe that Apple should have offered me a free repair or replacement with the same or similar product at no cost.

Instead, Apple tried to pass the buck. Initially I was batted back and forth between AppleCare (Apple’s support channel) and Apple Retail (who sold me the iPad). At one point I was advised to contact the actual store where my iPad was purchased (not my local store). Finally, Apple Retail attempted to pass me on to my local Trading Standards department and when I said that the problem was between Apple and myself, not with Milton Keynes Council (the Trading Standards authority in this case), the store manager started talking about me pursuing action in the small claims court, in a “David and Goliath” fashion, playing the part of “the small man” against the big company (and yes, those are quotes!). The arrogance of Apple’s retail management and of the company as a whole, which seems to put itself above the law is, frankly, astounding.

A compromise?

Eventually, one of the Managers in the Apple Store in Milton Keynes offered me a replacement iPad but it cost me £69 – a discount from the £199 originally quoted to the price that I would have paid for AppleCare, if I had taken it at the time of purchase. I didn’t take AppleCare because consumer law covers me against product defects, my home insurance covers me against accidental damage, and the Internet covers me against technical support. In short, I shouldn’t need to buy an extended warranty (AppleCare), and I’m still unhappy at having paid for something that should have been free of charge, if only Apple was prepared to accept the rule of law.

To use the words my friend Alex (@AlexColes):

“Apple set themselves up as the tech company that is way ahead of everyone else in the industry, but their after sales service is worse than mediocre. I used to be a fanboy.”

I think that just about sums it up!

I’m still tempted to contact the Trading Standards department at Milton Keynes Council – and maybe I will sue Apple for costs but, to be honest, my time is worth more than the £69 I paid for the replacement iPad and I’ve already spent several hours speaking to AppleCare, travelling back and forth to my local Apple Store, or hanging around waiting to be seen. Do I really need that hassle? No, I don’t, but there is a principle at stake here – the world’s largest company appears to be ignoring the rule of law – so maybe I should take this further. If I do, I’m sure you’ll read about it here…

Is Apple really encouraging me to click a link that could go anywhere?

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Earlier today I was installing an app on my iPad and the iTunes store wanted some “additional security details”.  I set up some questions and answers, feeling reasonably confident that, as I was using the App Store app, the details were actually being taken by Apple.  In addition it requested an optional email address for account recovery but it wouldn’t let me use my normal email address because that’s also used for my Apple ID (so why does that make it invalid for account recovery?)

I supplied a different email address and the App Store accepted the “additional security details” and let me complete my purchase…

Then, I got this email:

From: Apple [appleid@id.apple.com]
Sent: 27 April 2012 14:08
To: Mark Wilson
Subject: Please verify that we have the right address for you

Thank you.

You’ve taken the added security step and provided a rescue email address. Now all you need to do is verify that it belongs to you.

The rescue email address that you gave us is [email address removed] . Just click the link below to verify, sign in using your Apple ID and password, then follow the prompts.

Verify Now >

The rescue email address is dedicated to your security and allows Apple to get in touch if any account questions come up, such as the need to reset your password or change your security questions. As promised, Apple will never send any announcements or marketing messages to this address.

When using Apple products and services, you’ll still sign in with your primary email address as your Apple ID.

It’s about protecting your identity. 
Just so you know, Apple sends out an email whenever someone adds or changes a rescue email address associated with an existing Apple ID. If you received this email in error, don’t worry. It’s likely someone just mistyped their own email address when creating a new Apple ID.

If you have questions or need help, visit the Apple ID Support site.

Thanks again,

Apple Support

(The actual email was prettier than this, for example it contained graphics with Apple logos, and an Apple footer, but the words are reproduced here almost verbatim – in addition to removing my email address, I’ve also edited the verification link to make it invalid, but otherwise that’s the way it was presented).

This email annoys me for two reasons.

  1. I hate security theatre. Real security should involve something I have and something I know. All of Apple’s questions are just about something I know. In effect, it’s just multiple passwords…
  2. Apple have sent me an email asking me to confirm an email address but with no personally identifying information (no “Dear Mark”; no “Dear Mr Wilson”, nothing that confirms my relationship with them), asking me to click a link that could go anywhere. If this were from PayPal we’d be saying “noooo – don’t do it, it’s a phishing attack!”.

I was very careful about checking out the link in the email and it does appear to have been genuine, but Apple has an enormous market of largely unsuspecting and trusting consumers, not all of whom could be described as “IT literate”. By not encouraging any from of “safe computing” Apple is setting a very bad example – and is re-enforcing practices that consumers should be avoiding.  Microsoft has some good advice on their site for symptoms of phishing and several of the symptoms are present in the email I received from Apple.

Earlier today I dismissed an article that quoted Eugene Kaspersky as saying Apple was 10 years behind Microsoft in terms of security [awareness] – too many vested interests at play, I thought. On the other hand, if this afternoon’s email really does represent Apple’s corporate culture towards security, they do have some serious catching up to do…

Installing iLife applications from a Mac OS X restore DVD

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last night’s blog post should have had a video with it, except I didn’t get it ready in time… so it doesn’t (yet).  I want to cut together a few scenes and iMovie will probably do the job for me without too much codec hassle but when I last rebuilt my MacBook I didn’t bother with any of the iLife apps (except iPhoto – and I only use that for photo books/calendars).

As it turns out it’s easy enough to install iLife apps without resorting to a complete restore – Apple Support Article HT2604 has the details and, after grovelling around in the loft for a few minutes, I found the OS X install discs that came with my MacBook, inserted disc 1, double-clicked the Install Bundled Software icon and, one customised installation later, iMovie is ready for me to use…

Finding the SIM serial number for my iPad, without taking the SIM out

This content is 13 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Earlier this afternoon, I was searching for my iPad’s cellular data number (CDN) and Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) serial number (I needed the last 6 digits for a password reset on my carrier’s billing portal).   The cellular data number is fairly straightforward (looking in the About screen in the General Settings) but the SIM is a little less so. My carrier (Three) advises taking the SIM out and physically inspecting it but I thought there had to be a way to do this in software…

…it turns out that there is: the SIM serial number is also known as the Integrated Circuit Card ID (ICCID) and Apple support article HT4061 details several ways to find this information, along with the device serial number, Universal Device Identifier (UDID), International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) and CDN.

Keeping Windows alive with curated computing

This content is 14 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Like it or loath it, there’s no denying that the walled garden approach Apple has adopted for application development on iOS (the operating system used for the iPhone, iPad and now new iPods) has been successful. Forrester Research talk about this approach using the term “Curated Computing” – a general term for an environment where there is a gatekeeper controlling the availability of applications for a given platform. So, does this reflect a fundamental shift in the way that we buy applications? I believe it does.

Whilst iOS, Android (Google’s competing mobile operating system) and Windows Phone 7 (the new arrival from Microsoft) have adopted the curated computing approach (albeit with tighter controls over entry to Apple’s AppStore) the majority of the world’s computers are slightly less mobile. And they run Windows. Unfortunately, Windows’ biggest strength (its massive ecosystem of compatible hardware and software) is also its nemesis – a whole load of the applications that run on Windows are, to put it bluntly, a bit crap!

This is a problem for Microsoft. One the one hand, it gives their operating system a bad name (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion, Windows is associated with it’s infamous “Blue Screen of Death” yet we rarely hear about Linux/Mac OS X kernel panics or iOS lockups); but, on the other hand, it’s the same broad device and application support that has made Windows such a success over the last 20 years.

What we’re starting to see is a shift in the way that people approach personal computing. Over the next few years there will be an explosion in the number of mobile devices (smart phones and tablets) used to access corporate infrastructure, along with a general acceptance of bring your own computer (BYOC) schemes – maybe not for all organisations but for a significant number. And that shift gives us the opportunity to tidy things up a bit.

Remove the apps at the left side of the diagram and only the good ones will be left...A few weeks ago, Jon Honeyball was explaining a concept to me and, like many of the concepts that Jon puts forward, it makes perfect sense (and infuriates me that I’d never looked at things this way before). If we think of the quality of software applications, we can consider that, statistically, they follow a normal distribution. That is to say that, the applications on the left of the curve tend towards the software that we don’t want on our systems – from malware through to poorly-coded applications. Meanwhile, on the right of the curve are the better applications, right through to the Microsoft and Adobe applications that are in broad use and generally set a high standard in terms of quality.  The peak on the curve represents the point with the most apps – basically, most application can be described as “okay”. What Microsoft has to do is lose the leftmost 50% of applications from this curve, instantly raising the quality bar for Windows applications. One way to do this is curated computing.

Whilst Apple have been criticised for the lack of transparency in their application approval process (and there are some bad applications available for iOS too), this is basically what they have managed to achieve through their AppStore.

If Microsoft can do the same with Windows Phone 7, and then take that operating system and apply it to other device types (say, a tablet – or even the next version of their PC client operating system) they might well manage to save their share of the personal computing marketplace as we enter the brave new world of user-specific, rather than device-specific computing.

At the moment, the corporate line is that Windows 7 is Microsoft’s client operating system but, even though some Windows 7 tablets can be expected, they miss the mark by some way.

Time after time, we’ve seen Microsoft stick to their message (i.e. that their way is the best and that everyone else is wrong), right up to the point when they announce a new product or feature that seems like a complete U-turn.  That’s why I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them come up with a new approach to tablets in the medium term… one that uses an application store model and a new user interface. One can only live in hope.

Lies, damn lies, and Apple marketing

This content is 14 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Earlier today I retweeted The Guardian’s technology editor, Charles Arthur’s tweet about a Sophos blog post highlighting an undocumented change to Mac OS X, that appears to guard against a particular malware exploit.

The response I got was accusation of having a half-empty iGlass and being an iHater. To be fair, the “accuser” was a friend of mine, and the comments were probably tongue in cheek (maybe not, based on the number of follow-up tweets…) but I was sure I’d read something on the Apple website about Macs not getting viruses, so I had a quick look…

Here is a quote from the Apple website, on why you’ll love a Mac:

It doesn’t get PC viruses.
A Mac isn’t susceptible to the thousands of viruses plaguing Windows-based computers. That’s thanks to built-in defenses in Mac OS X that keep you safe, without any work on your part.”

Of course not – Macs (which these days have almost nothing, other than design aesthetics and operating system to distinguish them from any other PC – i.e. a personal computer running Windows, Linux or something else) don’t get the same viruses as Windows machines.  No, they have their own “special” sort of (admittedly rare) malware, that Apple is fortunate enough to be able to patch within the operating system.  That will be the “built-in defenses” (sic) they talk about then.  So why not be transparent and mention them in the release notes for the updates?

That’s the big text… then we get:

Safeguard your data. By doing nothing.
With virtually no effort on your part, Mac OS X defends against viruses and other malicious applications, or malware. For example, it thwarts hackers through a technique called “sandboxing” — restricting what actions programs can perform on your Mac, what files they can access, and what other programs they can launch. Other automatic security features include Library Randomization, which prevents malicious commands from finding their targets, and Execute Disable, which protects the memory in your Mac from attacks.

Download with peace of mind.
Innocent-looking files downloaded over the Internet may contain dangerous malware in disguise. That’s why files you download using Safari, Mail, and iChat are screened to determine if they contain applications. If they do, Mac OS X alerts you, then warns you the first time you open one.

Stay up to date, automatically.
When a potential security threat arises, Apple responds quickly by providing software updates and security enhancements you can download automatically and install with a click. So you’re not tasked with tracking down updates yourself and installing all of them one by one.

Protect what’s important.
Mac OS X makes it easy to stay safe online, whether you’re checking your bank account, sending confidential email, or sharing files with friends and coworkers. Features such as Password Assistant help you lock out identity thieves who are after personal data, while built-in encryption technologies protect your private information and communications. Safari also uses antiphishing technology to protect you from fraudulent websites. If you visit a suspicious site, Safari disables the page and displays an alert warning you about its suspect nature.

As a parent, you want your kids to have a safe and happy experience on the computer. Mac OS X keeps an eye out even when you can’t. With a simple setup in Parental Controls preferences, you can manage, monitor, and control the time your kids spend on the Mac, the sites they visit, and the people they chat with.”

Now, to be fair to Apple, with the exception of the bit about viruses (and let’s put aside the point that viruses are only one potential form of malware), they don’t suggest that they are unique in any of this… but the page does infer this, and talks about how Macs are built on the world’s most advanced operating system (really?). So let’s take a look at Apple’s bold claims:

  • Safeguard your data by doing nothing.  “Sandboxing” – Windows has that too.  It prevents malicious applications from accessing sensitive areas of the file system and the registry using something called User Access Control (UAC).  You may have heard about it – generally from people getting upset because their badly-written legacy applications didn’t work with Windows Vista.  Thankfully, these days things are much better.  And I’m sure my developer colleagues could comment on the various sandboxes that .NET and Java applications use – I can’t, so I won’t, but let’s just say OS X is not alone in this regard.
  • Download with peace of mind.  Internet Explorer warns me when I attempt to download an application from a website too.  And recent versions of Windows and Office recognise when a file has originated from the Internet.  I have to admit that the Safari/OS X solution is more elegant – but, if Macs don’t get viruses, why would I care?
  • Stay up to date, automatically.  Windows has Automatic Updates – and the update cycle is predictable: Once a month, generally, on the second Tuesday; with lots of options for whether to apply updates automatically, to download and notify, or just to notify.  Of course, if you want to patch the OS manually, then you can – but why would you start “tracking down updates yourself and installing all of them one by one”?
  • Protect what’s important.  I’ll admit that Windows doesn’t have a password manager but it does have all the rest of the features Apple mentions: encryption (check); anti-phishing (check); warnings of malicious websites (check); parental controls (check).

I’m sure that a Linux user could list similar functionality – Apple is not unique – this is run-of-the-mill stuff that any modern operating system should include.  The trouble is that many people are still comparing against Windows XP – an operating system that’s approaching its tenth anniversary, rather than any of the improvements in Vista (yes, there were many – even if they were not universally adored) and 7.

So, back to the point:

“@markwilsonit Seriously? We needed confirmation?! Apple often patches security holes. Your iGlass is still half empty, then? #ihater

[@alexcoles on Twitter, 18 June 2010]

Patching security holes in software (e.g. a potential buffer overflow attack) is not the same as writing signature code to address specific malware.  I’m not an iHater: I think it’s good that Apple is writing AV signatures in their OS – I’d just like them to be more open about it; and, as for the criticism that I don’t write much that’s positive about Apple, I see it as having an ability to see past the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field and to apply my technical knowledge to look at what’s really there underneath the glossy exterior.

I should add that I own two Macs, three iPods and a iPhone (I also owned another iPhone previously) and hope to soon have the use of an iPad. In general, I like my Apple products – but they’re far from perfect, despite what the fanboys and Apple’s own marketing machine might suggest.