eXtensions - Sunday 24 March 2024

Sunday Notes: Merrick Garland Takes a Stab at Apple - Remember Bell Labs; Encryption Weakness on M1 and M2 chips; Rumors disagree on iPad announcements

By Graham K. Rogers


The US Justice Department has begun the process to deal with Apple using some outdated thinking, questionable figures and weak examples. When AT&T was dismembered the result was not as intended, particularly when the Bell Labs patents are considered. Researchers have found a vulnerability on some Apple silicon, as well as Intel Raptor Lake chips. Confusion among the rumor mongers sugests that no one (apart from Apple) knows when new iPads will appear.

There were updates at the end of the week for iOS and iPadOS (17.4.1) that address some bugs. Not that it will affect anyone here (as far as I know) but there was a release of visionOS 1.1.1 as well. One bug that has been fixed, Juli Clover (MacRumors) writes, is one that stopped some iPads from scanning QR codes. I usually use the iPhone, rather than the iPad and had no trouble with that.

Writing about Sonoma, Howard Oakley (Eclectic Light Company) discovered a bug in the way versions of documents saved to iCloud are saved (or rather not saved) for those using version 14.4 when Optimize Mac Storage is in use. The versions, which are not just useful, but essential in some situations, disappear. He has tested this extensively and submitted a report to Apple. This was widely reported by other sources.

Also commenting on Sonoma, Ankur Thakur on iDownload Blog, writes on 14 Sonoma issues and how to fix them. I had not experienced any of these as far as I know, but when I read the section, "Some Markup tools crash the Preview app, leading to data loss" I sat up. This seems similar to the problems I have experienced on the iPad when marking up PDF documents in Files.

iOS 17.4.1 update fixing PDF size

This only began when iOS was updated to version 17.0 and has remained a feature since. If I save frequently, I can avoid the problem; but I am not sure if the automatic saves (a gear wheel appears on the screen) are part of the cause or a solution. I still lose too many comments on academic files that I have to re-do, taking time. I noted at the end of last year that with the many saves (myself and automatic) a file can grow to an abnormal size. I did find a solution: either opening the file in Preview on a Mac; or using the Optimize File Size item in "More" after a file is Selected.

I am still running the last Airport WiFi router that Apple sold. Fortunately my need for speed is not great and I can limp along with the 802.11n standard instead of the latest WiFi 6E. I do have a router capable of WiFi 6 speeds, but the login and security problems I experienced with that, as well as negative online reports, had me dust off the Airport after a couple of weeks and return to some sanity. Like Aperture for photo workflows, I still do not fully understand why Apple decided to stop selling this. I am not alone and have linked to comments from others before who want Apple to get back into this game.

Most recently, Joe Rosensteel (Six Colors) has commented on this: It's time for a new Airport. He begins with the new capabilities of the latest MacBook Air and the problems that Jason Snell had setting up a router to produce those speeds on the out of the box Mac. As I have found, it is a brief task to connect any new device (including those of trusted friends) to the Airport router I use. It was painful to connect my own devices to the WiFi 6 router I still have, but do not use.

Apple Airport router
Apple Airport router with Philips Hue Bridge on top

A major story on Apple finally hatched this week when the US Justice Department announced that it was to sue Apple for some of its practices, listing several that made me blink, including references to the iPod. I have been using the iPhone and other Apple devices for a while and far prefer the closed nature of the devices, although Macs are less secure than iOS devices partly because of history. It is not hard to install software on a Mac that does not come via Apple, while the only way to do that (except in the EU now) is to jail-break the device, opening the doors to all manner of potential problems. No thank you.

Merrick Garland Merrick Garland and his investigators never asked me, but like the EU and the UK examinations of Apple, may have some preconceived ideas that may not suit many users. As I noted in the past, the EU investigation did note comments by Apple regarding the security aspects that could be affected, but in their report stated that they chose to ignore them. As with many politicians, who are less familiar with technology than most prepubertal teenagers, these investigators have their own ideas about Big Tech (Apple, Google, Microsoft, AT&T) and how it must be controlled.

I often cite American Telephone & Telegraph, as I was in the USA when the first effects of the breakup of the company began to take effect. It was possible to make cheaper calls but only if the user subscribed to other services which might lead to entering a confusing series of numbers to enter the service then dial a number (we still used dials then). Thank goodness that fast dial was developed. However, my main criticisms of the breakup concerns Bell Labs that developed a lot of the technology that we have now come to rely on, like lasers, solar cells, transistors, the telephone cell system, UNIX, superconductivity (John Bardeen's second Noble Prize in Physics) and many more (sometimes mundane) developments, like the optimum distance between telegraph poles (Gertner, J. The Idea Factory). Bell Labs lost its soul.

This part was sold off and ended up in the hands of the French company Lucent, but Nokia picked that up when it took over Alcatel Lucent so all those patents now belong to a Finnish company. That was probably not what was intended when Judge Harold H. Greene set in motion the breakup of American Telephone and Telegraph, but it is what amoral big business does. It's just numbers, not culture or history.

The current Justice Department needs to be careful what they wish for. Some commentators are not sure that they are taking the right approach as given in the Attorney General's statement of a broad, sustained and illegal iPhone monopoly (Nick Robinson-Early, Guardian). I look around here and most people use Android phones. Ask many teens, however, and they would certainly like to have an iPhone, if only for the cachet. As above, I prefer the iPhone for the sense of security and because of the way it integrates with all my other devices. I do not want to lose that. Joe Rossignol (MacRumors) outlines some of Apple's response - We believe this lawsuit is wrong on the facts and the law - along with a link to the statement, plus an outline of the Justice Department allegations.

Also commenting on the announcement, Brian Heater (TechCrunch) has a more detailed outline of some of the allegations and how they are linked to the current litigation with Epic Games and the earlier Justice Department actions on Microsoft, which had a minor effect in the long run. More positive change was effected by the loss of Steve Ballmer and the appointment of Satya Nadella. Also on TechCrunch, Matt Rossof presses the pause button by discussing how the Windows monopoly (97%) is not like the alleged iPhone monopoly. Far more Android devices are sold than iPhones.

Apple iPhone 15
Apple iPhone 15 range - Image courtesy of Apple

Citing US figures, the Justice Department uses revenue for its 70% claim rather than units sold. As Garland specifically mentioned Microsoft (on 97% of devices), the use of revenue as a measure of liability, is disingenuous. Heater also notes that when worldwide figures are taken into account the picture is somewhat different. Leander Kahney (Cult of Mac) has similar views when he writes on how the antitrust lawsuit is weak.

One weakness may be with regard to the Apple Watch which Garland claims is a monopoly device because it only works with the iPhone (security of my health data) so therefore Android users are disadvantaged. Note that there are similar devices that will connect to Android phones, just not quite the way the Apple Watch links to the iPhone. You may want to think back to OS X, the PowerPC and the move to Intel chips. When the switch to Intel was announced, catching many off guard, Apple commented that they had had OS X running for several years on Intel chips. This was part of the reason that the switch was relatively painless.

Apple Watch 9

As part of the early rebuttal to Justice Department allegations from Apple, Oliver Haslam (Redmond Pie) notes that Apple "did actually try to offer Android support", but "due to technical limitations" found that it was not possible. Haslam also notes that there are "plenty of wearables available for Android devices" so this seems a rather weak part of the case.

This has interested not only the technical press, but also Wall Street. Of course the share price went down: this is an opportunity to make a profit when the price goes up. Jim Cramer, however, has some strong comments about the aggressiveness of the Justice Department. Dennis Sellers (AppleWorld Today) agrees, and for some of the reasons I have outlined concerning my own use. He adds, "The meddling of the UK and US government in Apple's business is only going to cause problems in the long run". See also my comments on AT&T. Sellers also links to a useful article on AppleInsider, by Daniel Erin Dilger (which I had not seen then) in which he comments, "most governments can't balance their own budgets, so why do they think they can "fix" Apple?"

There is also some bad news regarding security on devices with the M1 and M2 chips. This has been widely reported. I am using the article by Dan Goodin on Ars Technica as this is usually a reliable and informative source. It involves end-to-end key extractions when the chips use certain cryptographic protocols. This does not make it clear how this would affect most users: many of the actions within modern computers and software may include encryption. The problem cannot be patched because of the design of the chip architecture.

M1 - Apple silicon
M1 Apple silicon - Image courtesy of Apple

The researchers who discovered the problem disclosed the information to Apple in early December and they have an easy to read explanation of the problem, as well as a link to the original paper and a video of this in action. The academic paper reveals that there is a similar problem with "Intel's latest 13th generation (Raptor Lake) architecture", noting that "the problem seemingly tran-scends specific processors and hardware vendors and thus requires dedicated hardware countermeasures."

For a week or two we have been looking at rumors that tell us that new iPads are almost certainly to be announced (or released - the difference was not really clear). An announcement at the end of March would dovetail into the earlier rumors that gave March or April as favorites. Now, as we reach the end of March another rumor tells us that the announcement will not be 26 March: a favored date of many. Despite the conviction of the rumor-mongers, who have not always been right, it is only when Apple opens the box that we can really be sure. However, MacWorld did have a stab at trying to predict a potential date, using previous Apple history of releases since 2019.

Despite their secrecy, Apple does follow certain patterns (such as announcing products after the quarterly figures are released). After showing a list that runs from January to April, Michael Simon, notes that "Apple has announced iPads on Mondays and Tuesdays but not Wednesdays", adds a best guess of 9 April partly because of the Easter holiday. He also notes that it "gives Apple plenty of time to gather stock, finish the new build of iPadOS 17.4, celebrate the Easter holiday, and generate a bit more buzz." Or in my case frustration.

M1 iPad Pro
M1 iPad Pro with battered keyboard folio case

This week I spent about 6 hours working on a paper that was about to be submitted, until someone found an error in the first sentence (I had not seen this paper at all). When I was shown a copy, I immediately found a dozen more errors and problems (word choice, phrasing). A hold was put on the submission and I was given until Tuesday to do what I do. As it was fairly well-written and readable I was able to sail through the good parts, while the problems stuck out, but were easy to mark for the writer. It was done by Friday morning.

In contrast, three half-papers by a group of graduate students took me far longer for each paper as the problems that appeared, along with questionable content (some directly copied), led me to take more time accessing online sources to track down the originals than I normally do. On one paper I was concerned that AI had been used. When I started to analyze the text, I was able to dismiss that quickly, although the use of original sources was troublesome.

Some of the text gave me the feeling that it had been paraphrased. I suspected by Quillbot, which spoils the original content, often changing words because they are there, rather than keeping the flavor of the original. This is damaging for engineering content. The students admitted to Grammerly. I would rather they copy some of the source text and clearly cite it, so that the reader is given the full sense of the ideas. The work on those three papers took so much time that could have been better used.

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 X (@extensions_th). The RSS feed for the articles is http://www.extensions.in.th/ext_link.xml - copy and paste into your feed reader.


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