All posts in “Tim Cook”

Apple ad focuses on iPhone’s most marketable feature — privacy

Apple is airing a new ad spot in primetime today. Focused on privacy, the spot is visually cued, with no dialog and a simple tagline: Privacy. That’s iPhone.

In a series of humorous vignettes, the message is driven home that sometimes you just want a little privacy. The spot has only one line of text otherwise, and it’s in keeping with Apple’s messaging on privacy over the long and short term. “If privacy matters in your life, it should matter to the phone your life is on.”

The spot will air tonight in primetime in the U.S. and extend through March Madness. It will then air in select other countries.

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You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to have noticed Apple positioning privacy as a differentiating factor between itself and other companies. Beginning a few years ago, CEO Tim Cook began taking more and more public stances on what the company felt to be your “rights” to privacy on their platform and how that differed from other companies. The undercurrent being that Apple was able to take this stance because its first-party business relies on a relatively direct relationship with customers who purchase its hardware and, increasingly, its services.

This stands in contrast to the model of other tech giants like Google or Facebook that insert an interstitial layer of monetization strategy on top of that relationship in the forms of application of personal information about you (in somewhat anonymized fashion) to sell their platform to advertisers that in turn can sell to you better.

Turning the ethical high ground into a marketing strategy is not without its pitfalls, though, as Apple has discovered recently with a (now patched) high-profile FaceTime bug that allowed people to turn your phone into a listening device, Facebook’s manipulation of App Store permissions and the revelation that there was some long overdue house cleaning needed in its Enterprise Certificate program.

I did find it interesting that the iconography of the “Private Side” spot very, very closely associates the concepts of privacy and security. They are separate, but interrelated, obviously. This spot says these are one and the same. It’s hard to enforce privacy without security, of course, but in the mind of the public I think there is very little difference between the two.

The App Store itself, of course, still hosts apps from Google and Facebook among thousands of others that use personal data of yours in one form or another. Apple’s argument is that it protects the data you give to your phone aggressively by processing on the device, collecting minimal data, disconnecting that data from the user as much as possible and giving users as transparent a control interface as possible. All true. All far, far better efforts than the competition.

Still, there is room to run, I feel, when it comes to Apple adjudicating what should be considered a societal norm when it comes to the use of personal data on its platform. If it’s going to be the absolute arbiter of what flies on the world’s most profitable application marketplace, it might as well use that power to get a little more feisty with the bigcos (and littlecos) that make their living on our data.

I mention the issues Apple has had above not as a dig, though some might be inclined to view Apple integrating privacy with marketing as boldness bordering on hubris. I, personally, think there’s still a major difference between a company that has situational loss of privacy while having a systemic dedication to privacy and, well, most of the rest of the ecosystem which exists because they operate an “invasion of privacy as a service” business.

Basically, I think stating privacy is your mission is still supportable, even if you have bugs. But attempting to ignore that you host the data platforms that thrive on it is a tasty bit of prestidigitation.

But that might be a little too verbose as a tagline.

Tim Cook-backed shower startup Nebia shows off a warmer, water-saving shower head

I’m not in the habit of getting naked during meetings at startup offices, but this time it felt appropriate.

Nebia, a shower startup that has attracted investments from the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook and former Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s foundation is back with some new cash (though it won’t divulge how much) and a new generation of its thoughtfully designed shower heads that aim to dramatically reduce the amount of water people use while cleaning up.

After a lengthy chat with Nebia CEO Philip Winter, who discussed all of the nuances of the Nebia’s second-gen “Spa Shower” for which they just launched a crowdfunding campaign today, he asked whether I’d like to try it out. With a couple hours of empty space in my calendar, I said “Why not?” and wandered over to the startup office’s shower showroom.

Shower thoughts

This was probably the most analytical thinking I’ve done in the shower about the process of showering itself.

The shower head in my bathroom at home is pretty standard and basically concentrates the water into a couple dozen streams organized in a circle that are firing at an even pace. It’s nothing fancy, and I couldn’t tell you the brand, but I can say that I spend at least 20-30 minutes in there everyday without exception.

Nebia’s shower is wildly more complicated — as a $499 shower should be — but it’s the combination of different techniques that leads to a shower that feels full and refreshing but is using significantly less water than you’re used to. The customer for this is probably placing a healthier premium on the fact that it’s great for the environment rather than that it’s a spa-type experience; the shower head uses 65 percent less water than your average shower head, the company says.

The Nebia shower is all a very strange feat of engineering and involves the water being “atomized” as they called it, with water droplets being significantly smaller when it exits some nozzles, leading to an enveloping mist, and larger and warmer jets being shot out of the shower head’s center. The big improvement in this generation is that the water is about 29 percent warmer.

How does the shower head even control warmth? Isn’t all the water coming from the same heater? As Winter explained to me, things are a lot more complicated when it comes to how Nebia handles thermodynamics. Smaller water droplets means increased surface area exposed to the room temperature, which means greatly sped up heat dissipation. In practice, this means that the distance the water can travel from the shower head before getting chilly is a much shorter journey than your current shower. To adjust that, Nebia fires the water droplets three times quicker and maintains some larger droplet streams to maintain the heat for longer.

Nebia does a bit of cheating by also having a second shower head firing from the hip. The wand adds to the water being used but still keeps the system using about half of the amount of water that the average shower head uses.

Thankfully, there was also room for a side-by-side comparison as I was able to try out both the gen-1 and gen-2 Spa Shower in the same bathroom. The shower experience didn’t feel wildly distinct, but the difference in water heat when cranked to full blast was notable; my own temperature sensing isn’t quite finely tuned enough to confirm the 29 percent figure, but that doesn’t seem off.

Ultimately, it was the best shower I’ve had in a startup’s office to date, but it was also a shower that didn’t feel as though I was resting my head under a light trickle of cold water like other low-flow showers. It’s a real product, though at this point it’s also a decidedly premium product, even with the $100 crowdfunding discount of the $499 retail price. Beyond the warmer water, the new shower’s easy-install system is now compatible with about 95 percent of American homes, the company says. There’s also a new matte black color option and a little matching shower shelf you can add to keep that high-design look.

The company, which launched out of Y Combinator, has attracted some top investors who seem to be intrigued by the water-saving impact. The company says they’ve already shipped more than 16,000 shower heads and that more than 100 million gallons of water have been saved.

This Series A investment was led by Moen, the faucet and shower head maker that also announced a partnership with the startup. The latest round also boasts follow-on investment from Tim Cook and The Schmidt Family Foundation, as well as some new investors like Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, Starwood Hotels co-founder Barry Sternlicht, Fitbit co-founder James Park and Stanford StartX.

The crowdfunding campaign kicked off today and has already blown past $300,000 in pre-orders (they’ve already sold most of the $349 early-bird deals); the company hopes to ship the first 2.0 shower heads in June.

Apple releases fix for disastrous group FaceTime bug

Better late than never.

Apple has finally released an update for iOS that fixes a serious bug in group FaceTime which allowed callers to spy on those they were calling — even if the intended recipient never answered. The update, iOS 12.1.4, was made available for download on Feb. 7 and follows shortly on the heels of two Congressional lawmakers publicly demanding answers from Apple CEO Tim Cook about the major privacy screw up. 

According to Apple the update is for all iPhones newer than the 5s, the iPad Air and later iPads, as well as the iPod touch 6th generation. It mitigates what the company describes as a “logic issue [that] existed in the handling of Group FaceTime calls.”

That so-called logic issue, discovered by a teenager in mid-January, burst into the public eye on Jan. 28 and forced Apple to disable the group FaceTime service altogether (it has now been turned back on). News of the vulnerability was met with shock by the security community, which correctly pointed out how big out a deal this really was. 

And it turns out that the group FaceTime bug was only one of a few problems lurking under the surface. 

“In addition to addressing the bug that was reported, our team conducted a thorough security audit of the FaceTime service and made additional updates to both the FaceTime app and server to improve security,” reads a Feb. 7 statement from an Apple spokesperson. “This includes a previously unidentified vulnerability in the Live Photos feature of FaceTime.”

Notably, Apple will compensate Grant Thompson, the teen who discovered the bug, as well as make some form of contribution to his future education. 

With this fix finally released, you should immediately update your iOS. And, having done so, go back to listening to Apple brag about how what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone. 

UPDATE: Feb. 7, 2019, 12:58 p.m. PST: This story has been updated to note that Apple will compensate Grant Thompson, and to include a statement from the company. 

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Apple bans Facebook’s Research app that paid users for data

In the wake of TechCrunch’s investigation yesterday, Apple blocked Facebook’s Research VPN app before the social network could voluntarily shut it down. The Research app asked users for root network access to all data passing through their phone in exchange for $20 per month. Apple tells TechCrunch that yesterday evening it pulled the certificate that allows Facebook to distribute the Research app through Apple’s Enterprise Certificate system.

TechCrunch had reported that Facebook was breaking Apple’s policy that the Enterprise system is only for distributing internal corporate apps to employees, not paid external testers. That was actually before Facebook released a statement last night saying that it had shut down the iOS version of the Research program without mentioning that it was forced by Apple to do so.

TechCrunch’s investigation discovered that Facebook has been quietly operated the Research program on iOS and Android since 2016, recently under the name Project Atlas. It recruited 13 to 35 year olds, 5 percent of which were teenagers, with ads on Instagram and Snapchat and paid them a monthly fee plus referral bonuses to install Facebook’s Research app, the included VPN app that routes traffic to Facebook, and to ‘Trust’ the company with root network access to their phone. That lets Facebook pull in a user’s web browsing activity, what apps are on their phone and how they use them, and even decrypt their encrypted traffic. Facebook went so far as to ask users to screenshot and submit their Amazon order history. Facebook uses all this data to track competitors, assess trends, and plan its product roadmap.

Facebook was forced to remove its similar Onavo Protect app in August last year after Apple changed its policies to prohibit the VPN app’s data collection practices. But Facebook never shut down the Research app with the same functionality it was running in parallel. In fact, TechCrunch commissioned security expert Will Strafach to dig into the Facebook Research app, and we found that it featured tons of similar code and references to Onavo Protect. That means Facebook was purposefully disobeying the spirit of Apple’s 2018 privacy policy change while also abusing the Enterprise Certificate program.

Facebook’s legitimate internal-use only apps like pre-launch versions of Facebook and Instagram as well as its employee logistics apps are still functioning, a source says. That would indicate that Apple didn’t go so far as to completely shut down Facebook’s access to the Enterprise developer program.

This morning, Apple informed us it had banned Facebook’s Research app yesterday before the social network seemingly pulled it voluntarily. Apple provided us with this strongly worded statement condemning the social network’s behavior:

“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

That comes in direct contradiction to Facebook’s initial response to our investigation. Facebook claimed it was in alignment with Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy and that the program was no different than a focus group.

Seven hours later, a Facebook spokesperson said it was pulling its Research program from iOS without mentioning that Apple forced it to do so, and issued this statement disputing the characterization of our story:

“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

We refute those accusations by Facebook. As we wrote yesterday night, Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process. While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.

The situation will surely worsen the relationship between Facebook and Apple after years of mounting animosity between the tech giants. Apple’s Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized Facebook’s data collection practices, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has countered that it offers products for free for everyone rather than making products few can afford like Apple. Flared tensions could see Facebook receive less promotion in the App Store, fewer integrations into iOS, and more jabs from Cook. Meanwhile, the world sees Facebook as having been caught red-handed threatening user privacy and breaking Apple policy.

Apple finally realized that international iPhone prices are a bit ridiculous

The iPhone is about to get cheaper in some markets.
The iPhone is about to get cheaper in some markets.

Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Apple’s iPhone revenue has plunged in the December quarter, and the company is ready to make some changes. 

According to CEO Tim Cook, Apple will reduce prices of the iPhone in markets where local currencies have weakened against the dollar. 

“As we’ve gotten into January and assessed the macroeconomic condition in some of those markets, we’ve decided to go back to more commensurate with what our local prices were a year ago in hopes of helping the sales in those areas,” Cook told Reuters (via The Next Web). 

If you’ve never bought an iPhone outside of the U.S., you may not be aware of just how staggering the price difference is. I’ve been pointing it out over and over and over — it’s hard to justify spending $1,760 for a maxed-out iPhone XS (UK pricing at launch) when the exact same model costs $1,349 in the U.S. And it’s even harder in a country like Hungary, where the price is even higher and the average customer’s purchasing power is far lower than in the U.S. 

Yes, a part of the price difference is in taxes, and yes, the U.S. pricing does not reflect local taxes, and yes, Apple has additional distribution costs in markets other than the U.S. But the simple truth is that iPhone prices are too high for many international buyers, and Apple definitely can do something about it. Now, we’ve simply reached the point where the company is willing to address the issue. 

In the same interview, Cook talked about the growth of its services business. There, revenue is up 19 percent year-over-year, and the company is poised to launch new services in 2019, including (probably) a video streaming service. Cook noted that the services gross margin gets more efficient as services business gets larger, and the business gets larger when the company sells more iPhones, so reducing its price makes sense. But it’s worth noting that Cook sang a different tune in 2017, when the company launched the iPhone X, its first $1,000 phone. 

In any case, it’ll be interesting to see how new iPhones are priced internationally come September. Unfortunately, Apple does not break down iPhone unit sales in earnings reports at all, let alone by market, so assessing the potential benefits from this new strategy will be hard. 

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