eXtensions - Tuesday 16 March 2021


Tuesday Notes: Industrial Espionage at Apple; AI at Facebook; EVs and Apple (Updated - caption correction)

By Graham K. Rogers


Industrial espionage at Apple alleged: long-term employee broke several rules. Despite the usual fear-mongering, Apple is still selling plenty of iPhones and other devices. Notes on Project Titan and EV developments. With AI use at Facebook, growth at any cost drives FB Number One. Icarus once had to learn a hard lesson.

Late last week my early morning reading was enlivened by several articles that covered industrial espionage allegations against a former Apple employee. Most of them drew from the same source and many included the PDF of the legal brief. Out of all, the opening sentence of the Patently Apple article caught it perfectly for me: "Every once and a while a story breaks that's a real eye opener." That was spot on.

New Apple Products
New Apple products - M1 Macs: secrets until announced - Image courtesy of Apple

Anyone who has followed or written about Apple will be aware of the secrecy involved. At one company event in Bangkok, I was in a group with some Thai journalists and they asked Tony Lee (then a director and frequent Bangkok visitor) about what could be next. He turned to me and I said, Apple does not discuss future products. Everyone laughed, but this was such a stock phrase that it was a waste of time asking such direct questions. I would still ask just in case.

In some situations, like a pre-release view of a version of OS X, I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), while with other product releases, such as iPhones that were lent to me, there was an embargo. Ignore at your peril. One famous source did. Once. They never had another invitation and are still bitter years later. There was some pragmatism with the embargo however. I was allowed to use it openly in the street, or at work where smart students would see I had something new. They could look, but no information was to be put in a public forum or similarly shared.

I kept to that and while writing my columns, reaped the rewards, which included several trips to the USA: know which side of your bread is buttered. I guess, according to the information about Simon Lancaster and his alleged use of Apple's information, he saw a different side to the slice of bread, and his priority sounds as if it was centered on leaving Apple, setting up a new venture and taking as much out of the previous job as possible.

Several of the articles have the PDF of the court filing and I read through that. Although Lancaster is named, the person with whom he communicated his privileged information is only ever referred to as the Correspondent. A point made in the report by Joe Wituschek, (iMore) is that some of the contact was discovered because Lancaster used an employee device. He also attended at least one meeting that he was not listed for and had to be told to leave, although by that time he had more important information. As he was leaving, he managed also to download lots and lots of files almost as if he wanted to be caught. While reading I was reminded of Crime and Punishment, the great Dostoevsky novel, in which the murderer, Raskolnikov, keeps putting himself in direct view of the investigator, Porfiry, which leads inevitably to his interest and the subsequent conviction.

None of the articles I read made any comment about why the Correspondent, who used information from Lancaster to write published articles, is unnamed; nor about who this might be. Not naming this person might be because he or she could be a witness, or a defendant in future litigation. I tried to use some of the breadcrumbs in the articles to bring up a potential Correspondent, but may need to dig further, although there are one or two names at the back of my mind.

New Apple Products
New Apple products - iPhone 12: a secret until announced - Image courtesy of Apple

Saying that you like something is a long way from buying it. Naturally, 5 months after the iPhone is announced there is always a drop in sales, but the iPhone mini has apparently seen a cut in parts ordered of around 20%, while the other models are seeing only the slightest reductions (Jaron Schneider, Petapixel). Katy Huberty dismisses these reports coming from Nikkei as noise. Philip Elmer-deWitt (Apple 3.0) reports on a note from Morgan Stanley that not only dismisses the Nikkei report but puts a good slant to Apple share prices.

I tend to ignore much speculation as the articles seem little more than click-bait: Apple will do this or that; or even, Apple must do this. Perhaps the most notorious example was from Trip Chowdry who wrote that if it did announce a Watch within 6 weeks, Apple would be doomed. With that a career was demoted to an eternal footnote although it is worth looking him up for entertainment value. One comment on a forum questioned what it was that he was smoking, "I've heard this guy speak on conference calls - and I'm frequently shocked by what he comes up with. But the most recent takes the biscuit, hits the ball out of the park in terms of non-sensical, over-ambitious, total inane rubbish - from a WALL STREET ANALYST."

New Apple Products
Apple Watch 6 - Not doomed just yet

Once in a while however a rumor or speculation comes along which has some potential. An article from WCCFTech (Omar Sohail), a site which I do not usually rate highly, has some estimates from researcher Luke Miani on the potential of the new M chip, which they call M1X. The researcher was quite close with his extrapolations of the a 14 X chip and he has done a similar job with the M-series. It appears that if he is correct, as many suspect, the next iteration of the M chip will outperform most of the opposition.

With that positive speculation, and bearing in mind the comments of Katy Hubert, above, another report, as outlined by Tyler Lee (ÜberGizmo), from Nikkei now has a negative look at the anticipated MacBook Pro releases. Delayed they say. We shall see, say I. The site has a habit, it seems to me, of throwing out a couple of wild speculative articles on Apple, then seasoning that with just enough negatives to throw doubt on the ability of the company. This doubt worries Wall Street analysts and selling off shares may happen. Then when the product, or a new idea is announced, share prices rise and everyone is happy, especially those who bought at a lower price. This is why I tend to ignore most speculation, especially from sources like Nikkei as they do not have access to Apple's entire supply chain so may not have the full picture.

Other analysts see Apple in a rosier light these days, especially now that Mac sales have grow with the enforced move to work at home, but the arrival of the M-series chips, with much more to come has also improved the chances of increased sales. I still have the MacBook Air I bought last June along with a Mac mini of a few years which just keeps going, but the MacBook Pro with the M1 chip is delightful. Barclays, as reported by Joe Rossignol (MacRumors) expect Apple to report record Mac shipments in the 2021.

Keeping with the rumor mill, another report that also has some potential, particularly with the purchase in mid-2019 by Apple of the Intel modem unit that was having problems. A new Apple 5G modem rumor, as reported by Joe Rossignol (MacRumors) suggests that a custom-designed 5G cellular modem will likely debut in all iPhone models in the future. Apple must have done the work to make the Intel modem chip work.

Project Titan at Apple still hovers in the background. There was a comment from the head of Toyota this week warning Apple to expect a long haul. This is how Apple works anyway, but the warning is worth thinking about. There is also news regarding EV batteries this week, with VW announcing information about its solid state battery plans. It expects these to be available in 2025. VW is working with an American company and they expect the battery will be able to charge to 80% capacity in as little as 12 minutes (Viknesh Vijayenthiran, Motor Authority). That is impressive when compared to current capabilities.

Car in Bangkok
Car in a Bangkok Street - Edited in Paper Camera app

It has been rumored that Apple has had talks with VW, along with a number of Japanese and Korean manufacturers, some of which have ruled themselves out of the development. That of course may be strategic denial. Also in consideration, apparently, is Rivian, the company whose vans had a good showing in Ewan McGregor's, Long Way Up. Despite the good showing of both Harley-Davidson and Rivian, neither has made much publicity, although the help both companies provided was critical to the success of the journey. The data both gained from the trip must be highly valuable. Rivian is one of my favorites for involvement with Apple, for a number of reasons, including its versatile platform that has already been used by Amazon for a fleet of EV delivery trucks.

This week, Harley Davidson announced a new appointment to oversee its electric motorcycles (Micah Toll, Electrek). Ryan Morrisey will be its first ever chief electric vehicle officer. Over at Rivian, the company announced that every buyer of a vehicle will have a personal guide who will serve as a single point of contact and who will be able to put the user in contact with a company specialist.

That Facebook claim about Apple hurting small businesses does not stand up to much scrutiny and I have mentioned some criticism in the last few weeks, but now we hear from previous employees that the claims are weak. Juli Clover (MacRumors) looks at how some former Facebook employees confirm that, despite Facebook's own stance, most small businesses will not notice any change when Apple implements its new privacy requirements: an app must show what data it uses and the user can stop that.

I have worried about Facebook and Google for a while now because of the way they harness user data. I use these companies as examples in my Morals and Ethics classes. The way Cambridge Analytica used Facebook user data to target political ads was a line that should not have been crossed. Google also targets ads, but these are for products and services. In the light of the way advertising uses our data, it was interesting to see warnings about the way AI is being harnessed to provide disinformation. This can change people's opinions on subjects like vaccination, or has been used in some countries to sway opinions about responsibility for acts. This week a couple of articles on this came my way: by Mathew Ingram (Columbia Journalism Review); and Karen Hao (MIT Technology Review).

The former has a deep look at how AI algorithms are being weaponize through the eyes of a number of experts in the field. There are also some related links. The other item focuses on the work of Joaquin Quiñonero Candela who was in part responsible for Facebook's position as an AI powerhouse after its Cambridge Analytica problems. However, "The algorithms that underpin Facebook's business weren't created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by."

a matrix

Instead of tackling the misinformation, or being able to engage effectively with Candela, Hao realized that "The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg's relentless desire for growth." In the lengthy article (well worth reading) there is plenty of good background to the growth of AI use at Facebook and mention of Zuckerberg's concern that conservatives should not be alienated. From the looks of some of those committtee interviews, that is exactly what he has done. Candela is not really able to answer about the effects of AI use: perhaps hate speech does not need algorithms to spread; or maybe AI spreads it more easily.

An additional comment, again worth reading, and closely related to the difficulties with Facebook, comes from the respected Tim O'Reilly (MIT Technology Review). He wants the companies to shift from using our data to manipulate us, which enhances their market power, towards the use of such data to provide benefits for users

I tend to use Apple Maps for most of my navigation, but there are still some errors, particularly in Thailand. Although the vector-based information has been updated, some problems exist: like the ice factory and Bus Station No. 204, both in the middle of the river. All maps have errors, large and small, although digital maps can be improved more easily. Google is to introduce a system initially in 80 countries that allows users to amend their maps, for example if there is a new road, and these changes may find their way into the official map after a few days (checking, confirmation) according to Mitchell Clark (The Verge). This is really a good idea from Google and I hope Apple responds to this. Local knowledge can help improve maps and other systems effectively and cheaply.

Apple Maps
Apple Maps for Bangkok showing ice factory in the middle of the River

The change was outlined on several sites, but Samuel Axon (ArsTechnica) added some useful information, most notably that this is only for the desktop web version of Google Maps and not mobiles. I was drawn to this article by the use of the word, Again (in brackets) in the title, and in the URL. The content includes the point that Google had previously offered a Map Maker tool, but moderation had been an issue and it was dropped.

I was slightly taken aback this week when I read the comments about a camera-based podcast by a German who pronounced the names of German products using an English pronunciation (Michael Zhang, Petapixel). I do not understand that as I would always try (in class, or when I ran a podcast some years back) to use the correct pronunciation. A German listener had written to him (in some anger from the tone of the comments) complaining that he should pronounce the German products correctly.

I agree. I would prefer to know the right way of pronouncing the products I use. I changed the way I say Gouda (the cheese) years ago after I heard a Dutch friend pronounce it. And why would make Brie sound like Bry? I take great pains to ensure that I pronounce various foreign words correctly when I am teaching; and the BBC also has a specialist department helping those who read the news use the correct pronunciations for names and locations in broadcasts.

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. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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