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Review: Apple shines up OS X with ‘El Capitan’

In Mac OS X 10.11, most of the improvements are under the hood

Apple’s new Macintosh operating system, OS X 10.11 “El Capitan,” is named after a prominent rock formation in Yosemite National Park. That’s fitting because the new OS is designed with rock-solid stability in mind. El Capitan is the 12th iteration of the OS powering Apple’s desktop computer lineup, and as the name implies, it on the shoulders of its predecessor.

Just as iOS 9 was built on the foundation laid by iOS 8 for mobile devices, El Capitan improves on the many changes introduced in 2014’s Yosemite — which included new features such as Continuity and a smarter Spotlight search tool. El Capitan adds more polish than features, though there are quite a few of those to explore, as well.

Among the changes made to apps and sprinkled throughout the operating system are better security and a move to Apple’s Metal graphics technology (which debuted in iOS) for the system and apps. (Metal replaces OpenGL.) El Capitan also cements in place the adoption of Apple’s home-grown programming language, Swift, which allows developers to write apps with smaller latency and more efficient performance.

Like other recent OS X releases, El Capitan is a free download from the App Store. The system requirements are 2GB of RAM and 8GB of available storage. El Capitan will run on Macs that date as far back as mid-2007. (If you’re still using a Mac from 2007, though, you should really look into upgrading your hard drive to an SSD for more 2015-like performance.)

But while older Macs can run El Capitan, those systems can’t take advantage of all of its features. For instance, although El Capitan is designed to take advantage of both the CPU and the GPU for processing power, only Macs with modern graphics cards — basically, those released since 2012 — will be able to utilize this feature. (More on this below.)

Metal and Swift

The addition of Apple’s Metal graphics technology is good news for gamers and other users. Metal is a set of application program interfaces (APIs) designed to supplant OpenGL. The Metal API is actually an Apple-designed combination of OpenGL and OpenCL, which debuted last year in iOS 8. (OpenCL is used to take advantage of every processor on a computer, CPU and graphics card included.)

Metal was designed for efficiency — a requirement for mobile devices that need long battery life — and is a much lighter API for graphics compared to OpenGL, letting the graphics card be used more effectively and freeing up the CPU for other tasks. For desktops and laptops, Apple rewrote OS X system software (like the Graphics stack) to take advantage of Metal, resulting in a 50% improvement in rendering performance system-wide and 40% better efficiency (the latter will help laptop users by prolonging battery-charge life).

Apple boasts that El Capitan is 1.4 times faster than previous OS X versions for app launching, twice as fast at switching apps and four times faster at opening PDFs. At the same time, Apple claims a 70% reduction in CPU usage compared to apps written using OpenGL.

Adobe representatives on stage during Apple’s September 9th event claimed an eight-fold improvement in using the Adobe After Effects graphics software. Users should find that their systems are more responsive with smoother animations and faster application launches. There is also the promise of future improvements for games and other apps; however, those games and apps must first be rewritten to take advantage of Metal.

Another under-the-hood technology available to developers is Swift 2.0, which is designed to simplify coding (relatively speaking) while making it easy for OS X software to take advantage of the built-in hardware — such as using the graphics card for data processing when possible. I’m not a programmer, but anything that allows developers to streamline their software is a good thing.

Not everything in El Capitan is behind the scenes and waiting for developers. There are some user-facing features as well.

The first thing astute users may notice is that El Capitan uses a new system font: San Francisco. This font is designed to make text more legible for Apple’s high-definition Retina displays. It works as intended, but the difference will probably be overlooked by any but the most fastidious font fanatics.

OS X gets a new enhanced-for-Retina system font: San Francisco.
The updated Finder builds on Yosemite’s improvements by applying a new split-screen app mode in addition to the full-screen mode that debuted in Yosemite. The split-screen mode can be enabled in a couple of ways. First, you can drag a Finder window to the top of the menu bar and then drop that window on an existing full-screen app space in Mission Control. Or you can press and hold the green button on an app window — doing so will make that app fill up half the screen and any open windows display in miniature, letting you select one to fill the other side of the screen.

A clear divider separates the two apps, and each operates independently. The divider can be dragged from side to side to adjust each app’s window size. The menu bar at the top of the display automatically changes to accommodate the front-most app, which is normal app behavior Mac users are accustomed to.

It’s an elegant solution, one I like a lot, but it’s not necessarily obvious to new users. Of course, it’s also very similar to Microsoft’s implementation in Windows 10.

Managing windows via Mission Control also received attention in El Capitan. Any window dragged to the title bar will activate Mission Control, which lets you move apps to different virtual desktops. Dragging an app window into any existing Space automatically places the window there; dragging the window into a Dpace occupied by a full screen app activates a split-screen view; and dragging a window to the upper right of the display creates a new Space with that window in it.

Spotlight, now with more Siri

Spotlight receives some really useful upgrades in El Capitan. Yes, you can move around the search field and results window; they’re no longer locked in place at the center of your display. There’s also added functionality in search results: Spotlight can check sports data (such as information about favorite athletes or scores, team schedules and standings); it can check weather conditions and forecasts; and when you search for a company’s ticker symbol, it can look up stock prices.

The biggest improvement comes in the form of queries, similar to the ones you can ask Siri on iOS. Spotlight now supports natural language search, which generally means Spotlight is as useful as Siri, even though the searches have to be manually typed rather than spoken aloud as you would with an iPhone.

At the iPhone 6S launch event, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, demonstrated this function by typing a search for emails from Phil Schiller that had been ignored. The search results showed unread messages from Schiller. I’ve used Spotlight to search for documents and videos created during certain time periods, as well as to search for New England Patriot game scores and standings.

There is one minor caveat: When you type a Spotlight search query, you can’t press Enter; you have to wait for the results to display after you finish typing them in, even if that takes a while. While this is taking place, there’s no obvious indicator that a search is in progress. It’s a little annoying, because many users will be inclined to press the Enter key to make sure a search is in progress. That effectively selects the first result and closes the Spotlight search window. That could result in, say, an app launch you didn’t intend. Big deal? No. Annoying? Usually.

For developers, Apple has designed a new API that can display search results of in-app content, which means better search results when developers incorporate this feature in their apps.
Apple app changes

Safari gets a number of useful additions this year, but they’re mostly tweaks, such as pinned sites, audio muting and — Apple TV users will welcome this — built-in AirPlay support for videos.

About that last feature: Videos will now get an additional control icon; tapping the AirPlay icon lets you choose any Apple TV in range so that the video plays through it instead of in the browser window. Previously, this was only possible via third-party plugins, such as ClickToFlash.

While the built-in functionality lacks advanced features found in third-party plugins (ClickToFlash lets you download content instead of simply playing it, for instance), Apple’s addition to Safari is stable and works well enough for most people who just want a no-fuss way to stream content to Apple TV. Safari also supports HTML 5 picture-in-picture to enable custom controls for HTML 5 videos and streaming of FairPlay content.

Pinned Sites, which keeps a small, active tab of any website you wish to keep in the Tab section of the app, just to the left; these tabs stay open, yet out of the way, for quick access to frequently visited sites.

A load-blocking API for extensions, which lets Web developers block content from loading from a large collection of sources, using minimal resources without hindering Safari performance — and perhaps actually improving it.

Force Touch mouse events support, which will enable developers to add interactivity based on the amount of pressure exerted in a tap on supported laptops, as well as haptic feedback.
And better audio/video content control: You can now easily silence sudden audio/video from a background or foreground tab, such as when a video or ad loads that you didn’t really want to play/hear. From within the Web address bar, clicking on the speaker icon will instantly mute all Safari content. Then Safari will show you which tab has the offending content when you click and hold on that speaker icon. Super simple and super useful.

Mail snags a feature from iOS by gaining more gesture support in the Mail list; the gestures perform different behaviors, depending on whether you swipe left or right with two fingers. These gestures can trigger events like deleting, flagging or marking mail as read (without actually opening the message).

Mail also fixes a problem inherent to full-screen apps that require multiple windows. In Yosemite, when a new message was created while Mail was running in full-screen mode, it wasn’t possible to view other messages; they resided in the main window behind the message being composed. In El Capitan, it’s now possible to minimize the message window and access other emails and mailboxes; and if you’re writing more than one email, they show up in tabs, similar to tabs in the Safari browser.

While iOS 9 offers improvements aimed at predicting what a user will do or what information will be needed, there are now aspects of Mail in El Capitan that offer this, too. For instance, data detectors have been improved, offering suggestions at the top of an email body when they detect phrases in a message that could yield calendar entries, like “Let’s go out for dinner at five.” This is called suggested events; the same proactive behavior also accounts for potential contacts.

Notes

Notes has been updated to bring feature parity with its iOS 9 counterpart, including instant checklist creation, support for inline video and images, and URL snippets with preview. There’s a new button that triggers an Attachments view, which organizes attachments from across all of your notes into one area, split into categories like Photos & Video, Sketches, Map Locations, Websites, Audio and Documents.

All of the new Notes features are accessible via the app’s toolbar. And beyond the Notes app itself, there is now an extension in the Share button of supported apps that lets you add content from within that app to a new or existing note. Of course, any addition, subtraction or modification to your notes is synced across every device signed in with that Apple ID.

Maps

Like Notes, Maps has been improved in El Capitan to create functional parity with iOS 9. Specifically, you can plan routes using public transportation with Transit view, which supports walking directions as well as subway, train, ferry and bus information. Like iOS 9’s Maps, Transit data has been surveyed so that Maps shows you the most efficient routes, exits and drop off stops to get to where you’re going. As before, you can send those directions to the iPhone from your Mac.

Security

Behind the scenes improvements include security additions, with the most important one in El Capitan called System Integrity Protection (SIP). At its core, System Integrity Protection is a security policy that is applied to every running process. This process protects system files and only allows modifications from the system’s installer app and software updates. Code injection and runtime attachments to system binaries are no longer permitted.

What this basically means is that SIP does not allow unauthorized manipulation of important system files, which should help prevent security breaches.

Bottom line

There’s a wealth of new features in El Capitan that seem minor — until you need them. (You can, for instance, find a lost cursor on the screen by shaking your mouse back and forth rapidly, and you’ll be able to eventually download extensions to the Photos app for manipulating your images.)

These may not be ground-breaking changes to apps and the operating system, but this collection of small additions makes using El Capitan a little faster, smoother, easier and better. And the under-the-hood technologies lay the groundwork for richer apps down the road. It’s these usability iterations found throughout El Capitan that make the biggest difference.

As with any major software upgrade, make sure your apps are supported before moving to El Capitan. If you’re hesitant about upgrading, it isn’t a bad idea to hold off a while and see if any major bugs are discovered. But because this version was vetted throughout the summer with a public beta program, I’m not expecting any showstoppers now that the final version has arrived.

In a nutshell: El Capitan does what it is designed to — streamline OS X across the board, making it more efficient to run and flat-out easier to use. It’s free, it runs well and I recommend it.

Installation advice

If you’ve decided to take the OS X 10.11 plunge, make sure to back up your system before upgrading. Apple’s built-in Time Machine feature works well — all you have to do to turn it on in System Preferences and plug in an external hard drive; the Mac will automatically ask if you want to use it to start a backup. (Alternatively, there are other third-party utilities like SuperDuper that offer more control if you’re more technically minded.)

This is also a good time to run a diagnostic on your Mac’s file system. To do this, restart your computer holding down the Command and R keys at startup and then use Disk Utility to check for unseen problems. You can also use Alsoft’s DiskWarrior, a much better third-party alternative. My feeling is that DiskWarrior is the rare piece of software that should be in everyone’s arsenal, regardless of experience level.

OS X 10.11 installer

Once backups and diagnostics are out of the way, El Capitan can be obtained from the Mac App Store and will download to your Applications folder. To manually install it, double-click the installer icon, enter your username and password and select your target destination. The installer does the rest.

Here’s an important point: If you have more than one Mac in your home and/or limited bandwidth for downloads, you can use the same installer on multiple machines. Copy the file from the Applications folder to another Mac via AirDrop in a Finder window or transfer it to an external disk. Just sure to do this before running the El Capitan installer. If you don’t, when the installation is complete, the Installer will delete itself.

 

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iPhone sales are about to explode

A new report from the Wall Street Journal points to iPhone sales exploding over the next few months.

It’s a song and dance that’s become somewhat of a routine: just as analysts believe iPhone sales are on the verge of peaking, new evidence suggests that the iPhone is about to become more popular than ever.

According to a report published on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, Apple recently asked its suppliers overseas to gear up for a production run of about 85 to 90 million iPhone units. By way of contrast, Apple during the build-up to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus release anticipated orders in the 70 to 75 million unit range. In other words, Apple’s iPhone sales during the company’s next refresh cycle could skyrocket by upwards of 28%.

As for what features the iPhone 6s will bring to the table, it’s been widely reported that Apple’s new iPhone models will include a Force Touch display. It remains to be seen, however, how such a feature will translate into real-world usage on a smartphone. As for other features, users can look forward to faster internals, 2GB of RAM, and an improved Touch ID sensor.

Additionally, the Journal adds that the iPhone 6s may come in an additional color to the current lineup of silver, gold, and space gray. While this remains to be seen, some previous rumors on this topic have suggested that Apple is exploring both Rose Gold and Pink color options.

So while Apple Watch sales may be lagging, according to some reports, Apple’s primary revenue generator — the iPhone — appears to be healthier than ever before.
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Twitter may turn to Apple to help distribute tweets

Twitter may turn to Apple to help distribute tweets

Tweets might appear in Spotlight searches on Apple devices, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo says

Soon, when you do a search on your iPhone for someone’s contact info, a recent tweet from them might also pop up.

Twitter is working with Apple to incorporate Twitter content and accounts into Apple’s Spotlight search feature, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said during the company’s quarterly earnings call on Tuesday. Spotlight search is a feature in Apple’s iOS mobile system, and OS X on Macs, that generates results from content stored on the devices and from other content such as Safari Web results and mail from Apple’s Mail app.

Representatives from Twitter and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Should such a deal come to fruition, it could help Twitter distribute its content to a wider audience, which would align with the company’s larger efforts to attract new users and thus improve Twitter’s ability to serve them ads.

Apple’s Spotlight search pulls much of its data from Apple-owned products and services, but also from outside sources like Wikipedia and Microsoft’s Bing.

Tweets are already appearing in more places outside of Twitter, like in Google’s search results. Earlier this year, Twitter struck a new deal with Google to give the search giant access to Twitter’s firehose of content, making relevant tweets appear in people’s Google search results.

Tweets will start appearing in Google search results next month, Twitter’s Costolo said during the call.

Twitter reported on Tuesday it had 302 million users who log in monthly as of the end of last quarter. That’s up 18 percent from a year earlier, but still less than a quarter of the size of Facebook.

Twitter’s monthly user count is only one piece of how it views its potential user base. The company is also going after people who may not be logged in to Twitter or even have accounts, but who may see Twitter content like tweets elsewhere on the Web or in mobile apps. That’s where deals like the one with Google, or conceivably one with Apple, would come into play.

Twitter syndication efforts also include publishing tweets from advertisers in Flipboard, a mobile news app.

Twitter faces challenges in growing its ads business among people who do not hold Twitter accounts. Currently, much of Twitter’s ability to deliver targeted ads comes from the data it holds on how people use its site, and it tries to divine what they’re interested in through their activities on Twitter.


 

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Microsoft expands anti-MacBook campaign with switching tips

Microsoft expands anti-MacBook campaign with switching tips

Illustrates the underdog position of its Surface Pro 3 2-in-1

Microsoft recently expanded its campaign against Apple’s MacBook Air with a website that offers practical advice to people who have switched or are thinking of switching to a Surface Pro 3.

The site resembled other ditch-a-rival-OS efforts that have long been a part of the personal computing landscape, including those Apple has used to convince consumers that switching from a Windows PC to a Mac is not difficult.

Microsoft’s MacBook-to-Surface Pro 3 switching site includes general tips on using Windows, descriptions of navigation and operation equivalents of the former on the latter, an explanation of moving content from the Mac to the Surface, and advice on using Apple’s iPhone, iCloud and iTunes on Windows for those who own other Apple devices.

Microsoft has pitted its Surface Pro against Apple’s MacBook Air — the Cupertino, Calif. firm’s lightest and thinnest laptop — since the Surface Pro first hit the market in early 2013, early on arguing that the device is a replacement for both a MacBook Air and an iPad. Later, as tablet sales stalled, Microsoft dropped the iPad comparisons and focused solely on the MacBook Air, contending that the Surface Pro 3 is a better laptop both at the tablet-no-it’s-a-notebook May 2014 debut and in a string of humorous ads on television and YouTube. The Redmond, Wash. company has also run MacBook Air buyback and Surface Pro 3 back-to-school promotions aimed at owners or potential owners of the laptop.

The switchers’ advice website was simply a pragmatic expansion of those marketing efforts.

But it was also a stark reminder that Microsoft’s devices strategy operates from a position of weakness: Only an OS or device maker with a minority stake has reason to admit it must convince people to switch from a dominant player.

Apple, for example, has long offered tips on how to switch from Windows to OS X because its Macs have been a puny part of the overall personal computer market. If Apple is to grow its market share, it’s best bet is to steal customers from the Windows world.

Not surprisingly, Apple’s Windows-to-OS X switching site has the same kind of advice as Microsoft’s newer MacBook Air-to-Surface collection, including keyboard shortcut equivalents.

Yet until the debut of its Surface line in 2012, Microsoft had not seen the need to dip into the switchers market.

Microsoft has never disclosed unit sales of the Surface, but most analysts believe it sold fewer than one million in the most recently-reported quarter, its best ever revenue-wise. Nor does Apple reveal the numbers of its MacBook Air notebooks sold; instead, it publicizes sales of Macs overall, which in the September quarter totaled 5.5 million, a record.

Apple stopped disclosing the split between notebook and desktop sales in late 2012, but during the two years before that, the former accounted for 73% of all Macs. If that same fraction is applied to the September quarter sales, Apple sold approximately 4 million laptops. The MacBook Air is Apple’s bestselling notebook, so by that reckoning it sold more than 2 million, or at least twice the number of Microsoft’s Surface.

It’s unclear whether Microsoft’s pitch to MacBook Air owners is effective enough to tempt many to switch to Windows and the Surface Pro 3. Most analysts believe Microsoft will get few MacBook Air users to change. But some think that’s beside the point.

“Comparing yourself to something viewed as the premium device on the market is a good idea,” said Patrick Moorhead, principal analysts of Moor Insights & Strategy, in a June interview. “You want to pick on a winner, not a loser.”


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Google unseats Microsoft as the U.S. browser powerhouse

Google’s strength in mobile browsing pushes it past Microsoft’s Internet Explorer

Google has unseated rival Microsoft as the leading browser maker in the U.S. for the first time, Adobe said this week, citing data from its analytics platform.

The rise in Google’s domestic fortunes followed Microsoft’s reduction to second fiddle worldwide in May 2013.

According to the Adobe Digital Index (ADI), a measurement of browser usage based on tracking visits to the average U.S. website, Google’s desktop and mobile browsers — Chrome on both platforms, the aging Android browser on the latter only — slipped past Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), which retained its premier position on the desktop but had little to show for its effort on smartphones.
U.S. browser share chart
The U.S. browser war reached a milestone in April as Google replaced Microsoft as the No. 1 maker of Web browsers, said Adobe. (Image: Adobe.)

For April, Google accounted for 31.8% of all browser usage in the United States. Meanwhile, Microsoft owned a 30.9% share.

Apple’s Safari was in third place with a combined desktop and mobile share of 25%, while Mozilla’s Firefox, which lacks a meaningful presence in mobile, was a distant fourth with just 8.7%.

The rise of Google’s browsers, and to a lesser extent Apple’s Safari, and the corresponding declines of both IE and Firefox, can be attributed to mobile browsing, primarily that conducted on smartphones. “Today, mobile [operating systems are] more important, giving Google and Apple a leg up with default status on Android and iOS,” said ADI analyst Tyler White in a statement.

Adobe tallied visits, which in analytics parlance is synonymous with a session on a website, a period during which a user may view numerous pages before leaving, or before a time limit of inactivity expires. Adobe thus actually measures a type of “usage share,” or how active users of each browser are on the Web.

Other analytic firms count differently. California-based Net Applications uses visitors, an expression of the number of unique individuals — actually their browsers, as the tracking is done with cookies — to measure “user share,” which is analogous to the number of copies of each browser in use during a specific period.

Because Adobe drew its data only from consumer-facing sites — some 10,000 of them during April — it was little surprise that the Chrome/Android browsers outpaced IE. Microsoft’s browser has a lock in businesses, where it’s often mandated as the only allowed desktop browser, but it has a less-dedicated — some would say less-coerced — base among consumers. On mobile, IE accounted for just 1.8% of usage.

Google’s climb to the top spot in the U.S. followed its push into that place globally by almost a year: Adobe’s data had Google’s Chrome/Android passing Microsoft’s IE in May 2013 worldwide. “Outside the U.S., Google’s browser share has grown even more rapidly,” an Adobe spokesman said in an email Friday.

Adobe’s take on the desktop versus mobile contest was in line with other, earlier calculations by Net Applications, in that while IE’s strength was its desktop browser, the rise in mobile browsing caused its overall share to drop six percentage points in the last year. Meanwhile, Chrome/Android and Safari benefited from their primary positions in mobile on Android and iOS, respectively, the two most-used mobile operating systems on the planet.

Chrome’s 31% usage share on the desktop, for example, lagged behind IE’s 43%, but Google’s mobile browsers made up for that shortfall in spades. Safari’s puny 10% on the desktop — in fourth place in the U.S. — was helped out of the cellar by Safari’s 59% usage share on mobile.

Mozilla, Adobe said, was in the weakest position of the Big Four because of its lack of a viable mobile strategy. In the last two years, Mozilla has lost a steady drip of Firefox desktop users and been hit by the increasing importance of mobile browsing, with its total usage share falling from nearly 20% to its now sub-9%.

Although Net Applications’ numbers are global and not U.S. specific — the company does not publicly release the latter — the trends shown by its data are similar to Adobe’s.

But not identical.
By Net Applications’ reckoning, Microsoft remained the top browser maker worldwide in May 2014 with a desktop + mobile user share of 48%, more than double that of runner-up Google and its 21%. Apple and Mozilla continued to battle for third place, with the former making strides in its move to pass the latter. In May, Firefox accounted for 13.8%, Safari for 13.4%. Safari cut the April gap between it and Firefox by more than half in May, and may become No. 3 as early as this month.

Firefox’s decline could not come at a worse time. Mozilla’s contract with Google for making the latter’s search engine the default on Firefox comes up for renewal in November. According to Net Applications, Firefox had a combined desktop + mobile user share of 21.1% three years ago when it negotiated the current contract, which paid Mozilla approximately $300 million annually, nearly all of its revenue.

Going into this year’s tête-à-tête with Google, Mozilla will be bargaining from a much weaker position, down 35% in total share since 2011.

Net Applications had mobile gaining more ground at the expense of desktop browsing in May. By the end of the month, mobile browsing had jumped to 18% of all browsing worldwide. At the current pace, mobile should reach the 20% milestone in October, and account for more than a quarter of all browsing by this time next year.


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Even Apple and Google can’t protect users from inherent mobile app risks

To paraphrase a phrase, there is no such thing as a free app.

Yes, there are hundreds of thousands out there that won’t cost you a cent to download. But they still extract a price. The price, at a minimum, is information about you. As more than one expert has said, “You are the payment.” And that payment is not risk-free.

The large majority of mobile apps, even those vetted through Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, are (with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein) “getting to know you, getting to know all about you,” in exchange for helping you tune your instrument, see your way in the dark, find a new restaurant and any number of other services.

Except the goal of that knowledge is commercial, not romantic. The developers of those apps are selling information about you to analysts and marketers information that, knowingly or not, you are volunteering to give them.

That, in the view of many mobile users, is not necessarily risky if all it means is getting some targeted ads for things that already interest them. And there are apps available that are even designed to protect your privacy among them Telegram, Wickr and Confide for text messages and Snapchat for photos that delete what you sent in seconds or minutes.

But users may not be aware of how much more interested purveyors of malware are in them than they were even a couple of years ago.

The Mobile Security Threat Report from Sophos, released at this week’s Mobile World Congress, reports that while the first mobile malware appeared 10 years ago, it has exploded in the past two years, responding to mobile subscriptions now totaling about 7 billion and app downloads of about 110 billion just from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.

The company, which has tracked Android malware samples since 2004, reported that they remained relatively negligible until 2012, and since then have grown to more than 650,000.

And even with apps free of malware, users may not know how deep the collection goes, and how their information (about friends and business associates, their identity and their financial transactions) can fall into the wrong hands.

Domingo Guerra, cofounder and president of mobile app risk management vendor Appthority, contends that this is a greater risk than malware right now. While he agrees that malware is “growing exponentially,” he said it remains, “a sliver of the app ecosystem. Having analyzed over 2.3 million apps for our customers, we have found that less than 0.4% of apps have malware, while 79% had other kinds of enterprise risk.

In its Winter 2014 App Reputation Report, Appthority analyzed 400 apps the top 100 free and top 100 paid for each of the two most most popular mobile platforms, iOS and Android ndash; and reported multiple “risky” behaviors, most involving the privacy of users.

Of the free apps analyzed from both platforms, 70% allow location tracking, 56% identify the user’s ID (UDID), 31% access users’ contact list or address book, 69% use single sign-on, 53% share data with ad networks and analytics and 51% offer in-app purchasing.

That last item in-app purchasing can be especially risky, and expensive. Guerra said a growing trend is for apps to, “leverage in-app purchasing to monetize. For example, Candy Crush Saga, one of the most popular free apps, is also one of the top-grossing apps.”

Guerra said Apple recently settled a case with the Federal Trade Commission about in-app purchases specifically for children’s apps. “Parents thought they were authorizing one in-app-purchase transaction, but instead authorized any transaction during a 30-minute window,” he said.

“This resulted in many ‘unauthorized’ charges, as kids used in-app-purchases to buy additional content, features, virtual goods etc. And in-app-purchases can be as high as $99 per transaction.”

That does not mean paid apps are not invasive. “While 95% of free apps exhibited at least one risky behavior, so did 80% of the top paid apps,” Appthority reported. “Developers of paid and free apps are seeking new methods of generating revenue and unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the user’s privacy.”

Security vendor McAfee reported similar findings recently. In a recent post on the McAfee Blog, Lianne Caetano wrote that company researchers, “found that privacy-invading apps are more common than ever before, and beyond violating your digital space, some even contain malware and other suspicious characteristics.”

According to the report, 82% of the apps read the UDID; 64% know the wireless carrier; 59% track the last known location; 55% continuously track location; 26% read the apps used; 26% know the SIM card number; and 36% know the user’s account information.

While some tracking is inevitable, given that users expect certain apps to guide them to specific locations, “the real question is: What are these apps doing with all of the information that they collect? … some of these apps may be oversharing that information with third parties or using it to inform more nefarious groups,” Caetano wrote.

And some of the promises made about privacy may not be rigorously enforced. Among Apple’s latest rules for developers is that they should not request a UDID as a method of user tracking.

“However, 26% of top iOS apps still make requests for UDID, and on any device that is running an older OS than iOS7, the apps are still able to get the UDID directly from the device,” said Guerra.

Beyond the privacy risks, Guerra said many apps, “are communicating without encryption, so intercepting this data in motion is also easy.” A hacker doesn’t need to hack a device to get this data; they could simply sniff the network.

In spite of such multiple warnings about both privacy invasion and malware from mobile apps, there is so far no perceptible consumer backlash about the risks of mobile apps. That may be in large measure because, as Scott Matsumoto, principal consultant at Cigital, puts it, “there is no backlash because people don’t know it’s happening.”

But Matsumoto also said data collection on users is not a black-and-white issue. Some free apps, like those from a bank, collect information so they know users’ typical habits and can tell more easily if someone is trying to impersonate them.

Dan Dearing, vice president of marketing at MobileSpaces, agreed. “The problem is complicated,” he said. “You might want apps to see your contacts, to make your life easier, but not upload them to their server. But then the policy choices that a user needs to make get too complicated.”

There are things consumers and enterprises do to improve their privacy. Among the most basic are to buy apps only from reliable sources that have been vetted by companies like Google and Apple, and to take the time to limit the amount of tracking an app can do, through privacy and/or preference settings.

“Apps are generally collecting more information than they need,” Guerra said. “Why does a flashlight app need my location, calendar, and address book? The issue this creates is that these databases are not always built securely and can become targets for criminals or governments recall NSA’s comments about using Angry Birds data to track user data.”

Strong passwords and strong encryption also help, especially with handheld devices that can be lost or stolen.

Bogdan “Bob” Botezatu, senior e-threat analyst at Bitdefender, said encryption is crucial, since, “mobile phones and tablets spend the bulk of their time on unsecure, untrusted networks.”

Botezatu also said users should, “limit themselves to installing the applications they need, most of which come from trustworthy publishers. The smaller the number of applications installed, the smaller the attack surface.”


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Microsoft to face computer makers’ rebellion at CES

Microsoft to face computer makers’ rebellion at CES
Windows 8.1 PCs that also run Android should ‘scare the heck’ out of Microsoft, says analyst

Microsoft will face a rebellion of long-time partners at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) when OEMs introduce Windows personal computers also able to run Android mobile apps.

According to two analysts, multiple OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will roll out what one called “PC Plus” at CES, the massive Las Vegas trade show slated for early January.

Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies mentioned PC Plus in passing in a Dec. 16 piece he authored for Time. “A PC Plus machine will run Windows 8.1 but will also run Android apps as well,” Bajarin wrote, adding that the initiative would be backed by chip maker Intel. “They are doing this through software emulation. I’m not sure what kind of performance you can expect, but this is their way to try and bring more touch-based apps to the Windows ecosystem.”

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, confirmed the project. “This is going to make buzz at CES,” said Moorhead in an interview. “OEMs will be trumpeting this … it’s going to be a very hot topic [at the trade show].”
Concept isn’t new

The concept of Android apps running on Windows isn’t new.
BlueStacks, which both Bajarin and Moorhead mentioned, launched its App Player software for Windows in March 2012, added a Mac version in June of that year, and rolled out a Surface Pro-specific version in March 2013. The App Player, offered both as a free download from BlueStacks’ website and through agreements with several OEMs bundled with some Windows-powered PCs and tablets, relies on virtualization — dubbed “LayerCake” by BlueStacks — to run Android apps on other OSes.

In July 2013, Taiwan OEM Asus introduced the Transformer Book Trio, a convertible device that, as a laptop, could execute both Android apps and Windows 8 programs, including the latter’s “Modern,” nee “Metro” apps. More recently, reports circulated that Samsung is developing a dual-boot tablet that could launch into either Android or Windows RT 8.1, Microsoft’s touch-centric operating system.

The PC Plus project, however, is aimed at personal computers, most likely traditional “clamshell” notebooks, not tablets. And it doesn’t rely on BlueStacks’ technology, even though Intel invested in the Palo Alto, Calif. company in March. “This is very different from BlueStacks,” Moorhead said.

While Bajarin vouched for some kind of emulation that would make Android apps possible on Windows 8.1, Moorhead posited several technologies OEMs could deploy.

“There are three [possible] implementations, including dual-boot, which would be a fast-switch mode where you press a button and within seconds you’re in Android,” Moorhead said. Others would include software emulation of Android within Windows, and some type of virtualization-based solution that would run an instance of Android in a virtual machine, just as OS X users can run Windows on their Macs through VMware’s Fusion or Parallels’ Desktop for Mac.

Ideally, the Android apps would run in full-screen mode after the user clicked on its tile within Windows 8.1.

While some have mocked the idea — previously, Bajarin called Asus’ Trio “gimmicky” — Moorhead said that the maneuver is legitimate. “Tactically, this is a way for OEMs to differentiate their products, and build out the amount of apps on their devices,” he said. Focus on mobile apps

The latter is among OEMs’ biggest concerns about its software partner. Microsoft has been criticized by customers, analysts and even computer makers for the small size, relative to Apple and Google, of its Metro app store. Selling touch-enabled laptops has not been easy for OEMs because consumers have balked at paying the higher prices when they see little in return from Windows and its app arena.

By adding Android apps to the available inventory, the computer makers can promote their wares as able to handle not just legacy Windows software but also Google’s OS and its enormous ecosystem.

If that smacks of some desperation, well, OEMs are desperate. They’ve watched their PC business shrink over the last 24 months as consumers worldwide have postponed upgrades or forgone new purchases, instead spending their technology dollars on smartphones, tablets and hybrid “phablets” — large-screen phones that double as a diminutive tablet for basic tasks like watching video.

Also, many OEMs who depended for decades on Microsoft and each iteration of Windows to bump up sales have been critical of the Redmond, Wash. company’s Windows 8 implementation and strategy, and with the firm’s decision to enter the hardware business and directly compete with them.

“OEMs are throwing some real deep passes as they see double-digit declines in the PC market,” Moorhead observed. “This is one of the long balls that they’re throwing, hoping something sticks.”

For Moorhead, PC Plus is also another sign that OEMs are, in the face of Windows 8’s sluggish start and shaky reputation, willing to desert Microsoft and enlist alternate OSes, even if those moves are experimental in scale.

“Strategically, [PC Plus] could get millions of consumers more comfortable with Android on PCs,” said Moorhead. “The gamble is coincident with OEMs’ interest in alternative operating systems. Just imagine for a second what happens when Android gets an improved large-screen experience.”

Some computer makers, including Windows stalwarts like Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, have already introduced laptops powered by Google’s browser-based Chrome OS as a way to circumvent Windows on screens larger than tablet-sized displays.
Limited options

Android and, to a much lesser extent, Chrome OS, are the only alternate games in town for OEMs. Linux has failed to spark interest except among a tiny fraction of technology’s cognoscenti. Apple’s iOS and OS X are out of bounds, as Apple restricts them to its own hardware.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft reacts to the double dipping of these OEMs. While a PC with Windows 8.1 still means Microsoft has been paid for the operating system’s license, the company will not be happy with PC Plus and its implications.

“This should scare the heck out of Microsoft,” said Moorhead. “They should be very, very afraid because if goes widespread, it demotivates developers to create native Windows apps.”

As evidenced by the size of the Windows Store’s app stock and the rushed quality of some apps, including many from top brands, Microsoft already has a hard time convincing developers to invest in a platform that has yet to gain a significant portion of the OS market. In addition, it’s a platform in which many users seem comfortable sticking with the traditional desktop half and its familiar mouse-and-keyboard applications.

“Google does not actually sanction this and Microsoft has not taken a position on this dual-OS integration idea yet,” said Bajarin. “It will be interesting to see if this takes off and, if so, how Google and Microsoft will feel about it once it hits the market.”

If Microsoft isn’t able to convince OEMs to drop the PC Plus idea, Moorhead said, it has carrots and sticks for more serious arm-twisting.
How Microsoft could respond

“I think what Microsoft will do is pull co-marketing funds from any SKU that offers Android,” said Moorhead, referring to “stock-keeping units,” or each individual PC model that hews to PC Plus. That would effectively raise the OEMs’ cost of doing business for those PCs that support Android apps.

And if, as Bajarin said, Intel is behind PC Plus, then Microsoft faces another defection from the partnership that brought in billions for each company over the last two decades. Intel already makes processors able to run Android, and if its support for PC Plus relies on customized silicon it offers OEMs, the backing will further fragment the Wintel oligarchy.

Microsoft declined to comment on PC Plus and OEM plans.

Neither Bajarin or Moorhead had seen PC Plus in action, and Moorhead refused to offer an opinion on its chances until he did.

“I have to see the experience before I can weigh in,” said Moorhead. “It could be completely transparent [the switch from Windows to Android and back], or it could really screw up the experience. There are a lot of ways you can confuse customers, and this has the potential to confuse people who use it.”

The jarring discontinuity of Windows 8.1 — which boasts not only a traditional desktop but also the tile-based, touch-enabled Metro user interface (UI) — could be trivial compared to a disastrous combination of Android and Windows UIs.

PC Plus also has the potential to alienate Google, Moorhead noted. “I don’t think Google will like this either,” he said. “I think they’d be okay with dual booting and toggling between OSes, but I don’t think they would like Android apps being used full-screen.”

Google could retaliate by barring such hardware from obtaining apps from the Google Play e-market, speculated Moorhead, because it would see a full-screen implementation as threatening its revenue if the PCs aren’t tied — as are brand-name Android smartphones and tablets — to the services, like search and mapping, that bind customers to its ecosystem of behavioral and location tracking.

CES will run Jan. 7-10, and Moorhead is looking forward to the trade show because of PC Plus and its impact on Microsoft-OEM relationships.

“This is a gift that will keep on giving,” said Moorhead, predicting not only a splash of coverage next month, but after those initial shots of rebellion, months more ripples from PC Plus’ impact.


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With reorg, Microsoft bets big on home-grown hardware

New group dedicated to devices means a head-to-head battle with OEMs, analysts argue

Microsoft’s reorganization is the biggest shot yet fired against the company’s core partners, the computer makers who have made the software developer a technology giant, analysts said today.

“There were clear lines of demarcation where Microsoft’s efforts ended and OEMs’ started, but this could challenge OEMs down the road,” said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, in an interview Thursday.

Moorhead was referring to the corporate reshuffling announced earlier today by CEO Steve Ballmer — specifically the creation of a hardware group within the company.

The Devices and Studios Engineering Group will be led by Julie Larson-Green, who will oversee all hardware development, from the Xbox and Surface to mice and keyboards. In his memo to employees today, Ballmer said that she would also assume responsibility for the “supply chain, from the smallest to the largest devices we build.”

Larson-Green, a former lieutenant to Steven Sinofsky, who until he was ousted last fall ran the Windows division, was most recently head of Windows engineering, and shared responsibilities for desktop and tablet OS team with Tami Reller, former Windows CFO.

Because Devices and Studio Engineering will be one of just four engineering groups — the others focus on operating systems, applications and services, and cloud and enterprise — and because Microsoft has never had a unit at that level dedicated to devices, Moorhead interpreted the reorg results as a major change in direction for Redmond.

“This is the first time they have ever had a division called ‘Devices,'” said Moorhead. “To me, that means Microsoft is very, very serious about hardware, as serious as Apple is about tablets.”

Unless Larson-Green’s fiefdom ends up smaller than the weight the new structure seems to assign it, and unless Ballmer’s mantra of “devices and services” is a smokescreen, the company must expand its hardware offerings.

Moorhead certainly expects that to happen. “One of the first things they’ll do is a Surface notebook,” Moorhead predicted. “Second, they’ll do a smart watch or some kind of wearable [computer].”

And because turning a profit on hardware, PCs included, requires a large-scale commitment — necessary to purchase components at reasonable prices — Microsoft will, in effect, become a direct competitor with its OEM (original equipment manufacturing) partners, the Dells, the HPs, the Lenovos of the world.

“PCs require scale, and are just not suitable to niches,” said Moorhead, a former executive with AMD, the chip-making rival to Intel. “They were acting this way before [with the Surface tablets] but this is whole new level. This is such a big change that I’d argue it’s a reinvention of Microsoft.”

Another analyst agreed.
“Microsoft doesn’t have an incredible track record on hardware,” said Bob O’Donnell of IDC. “Surface isn’t exactly tearing up the charts. For [hardware] to become a core focus, I just don’t know, it seems odd to me. But they will expand their hardware. I expect a Surface phone, more Surface tablets, including a smaller tablet, and more.

“Microsoft has taken shots at OEMs before,” O’Donnell added, referring to the surprise debut a year ago of the Surface tablet line. “But the [Devices and Studio Engineering] group reinforces that. This is another shot at the OEMs, no question.”

But two other analysts rejected that line of reasoning, believing that, corporate revamping aside, Microsoft is not about to alienate its OEMs, which produce the overwhelming bulk of all PCs, tablets and smartphones, and those device categories’ countless accessories and peripherals.

“The fact that Microsoft has a ‘devices’ group says nothing about its relationships with OEMs, whether [Microsoft] will be more competitive with OEMs,” said Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a research firm that focuses exclusively on tracking its target’s every move.

David Cearley, Gartner’s lead Microsoft analyst, echoed Helm, but in even stronger terms. “They’ve been very clear that they’re committed to targeting specific areas, high-value niches only, that can demonstrate the capabilities of their operating systems,” said Cearley, essentially repeating the positioning Microsoft took last year when it raised a ruckus among OEMs by moving into hardware.

“But Microsoft competing head-to-head with OEMs? No,” Cearley said. “They’ll expand Surface with different screen sizes and smaller tablets, but the market for those devices will still be targeted.

“Microsoft still needs to work with a broad set of OEMs” to have scores, or even hundreds, of different device designs on the market, Cearley continued. That breadth of choice has been a decades-long selling point Microsoft has relied on to tout its software, and it’s not about to walk away from that philosophy.

But the recasting of the company — the recounting, over and over, that Microsoft is now “devices” as well as “services” — was too dramatic for Moorhead to believe it wouldn’t change Microsoft and how it interacts with OEM partners.

“They’re going after an end-to-end experience,” said Moorhead. “They started off and spent most of their lives in a time where OS was king. But when OSes are free, as it relates to mobile, for example, things have to change.”

O’Donnell concurred with Moorhead that the new Devices and Studios group would be much more aggressive in competing with OEMs. But he questioned whether Microsoft would, in effect, pull off an “Apple” by mimicking its Cupertino, Calif. rival, which controls much more of its ecosystem, building all its own hardware as well as crafting its own operating systems.

“Is Microsoft trying to become Apple?” O’Donnell asked. “One can certainly presume that, in fact, some of these moves are an attempt to turn them into an Apple-like company. But the key differentiator is that Microsoft has nowhere near the hardware position of Apple.”


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Enterprise IT likes what it sees in new iPad

Display, processing & LTE outfit new iPads for demanding users

The new third-generation Apple iPad is generally a hit with a sampling of enterprise users, based on quick reactions from half a dozen IT professionals and consultants. All like the greatly enhanced display, the graphics processing boost and 4G LTE wireless support.
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But a few were hoping for a bigger processing boost or one of several specific features, a number of which Apple seems unlikely to ever deliver (like support for Adobe Flash Web content). And several noted that the real locus for enterprise benefits, and problems, lies in the latest update to the iOS firmware (release 5.1 for the new iPad), about which Apple has had little to say publicly.

Dubbed simply the “new iPad,” Apple’s latest tablet features double the screen resolution of the iPad 2 and four times the pixels at 2048 x 1536, a slightly beefed up dual-core CPU (the A5X) with a new quad-core graphics processor, LTE cellular support, voice dictation, and a greatly improved rear-facing 5-megapixel camera. It will run iOS 5.1 and be available starting next week. Importantly, both pricing and battery life are unchanged.

Inside the iPad’s worldwide ubiquity

iPad announcement through the eyes of Twitter

“The processor speed, 4G, and improved screen resolutions are all big pluses for the enterprise,” says Manoj Prasad, vice president of global applications and testing for Life Technologies, a biotech products company in Carlsbad, Calif., with a growing iPad deployment. “4G, the new processor speed and improved screen resolutions will allow IT to port more backend applications like Oracle, and Siebel to iPad.”

But he still thinks the tablet can’t yet substitute for laptops. “It still lacks the capabilities to completely replace laptops, making the ROI calculation for iPad difficult,” Prasad says.

Others say Apple’s priorities for the new iPad means it can be applied in entirely new, emerging areas where laptops make no sense, or at least no sense anymore.

“For an understanding of where the iPad is going it’s critical to note the focus on processing power and resolution,” says Benjamin Levy, a principal with Solutions Consulting, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in Apple and iOS deployments for enterprise customers. “The iPad is no longer an addition to existing platforms and work structures but is now fully capable on its own and will be defining new ways of working with media in the professional space.”

“The new iPad can be seen as more of a tool for digital media than ever before, able to work with high resolution DSLRs [digital single lens reflex camera images] and video, high resolution audio files, high resolution graphics files, etc.,” Levy adds.

Although lacking the quad-core CPU that many were expecting, these users see real performance gains with the new iPad.

“The combination of the retina display, the [new A5X] chip and 4G/LTE is going to make the iPad an even more productive business device,” says Hugh Owens, director of mobile at MicroStrategy, a business intelligence and analytics software vendor with an extensive iPad 2 deployment, and with iPad customers. “4G will enable users of MicroStrategy Mobile [the company’s iOS application] to pull down analytics even faster, and our native app is already positioned to take advantage of the A5X chip for faster and more compelling rendering.”

“The iPad continues to be a great business device in consumer clothing,” he adds.

“Overall, the new iPad is a significant upgrade. Apple is going to sell a boatload of these,” says Derick Okihara, IT technician at Mid-Pacific Institute inHonolulu, where he oversees the iPad and iPhone deployments. “In our environment, having a solid camera capable of 1080p video, faster graphics for apps, and the high resolution display, make the iPad that much more useful, especially for students.”

Levy sees camera applications that go beyond snapshots and home videos. “The camera improvements will be very useful, especially in custom apps for data entry, bar code reading, situation reports and documentation,” he says. “Couple that camera with a decent custom app and many [enterprise] workflows can be changed for the better.”

The new iPad is now more clearly, and effectively, a platform for creating new kinds of apps, and content, exploiting images, video, high-definition audio, in new ways, according to Randy Saeks, network manager, Northbrook/Glenview School District 30, Northbrook, Illinois, another iPad site.

“What I see in the announcement today is really showing that an iPad isn’t just a consumption device but has the ability to create really rich, engaging content,” he says. “With a lot of the [new] app updates and announcements — iMovie, iPhoto, the iWork suite, as well as what is added to the hardware with a great display and improved camera — it opens the door for how they can be used in classrooms and creative environments.”

“Especially with looking at [the question of] what kinds of devices to put in the hands of our students, the value for what you can do with the new iPad and [its] associated cost is much more attractive than it was with the first iPad announcement,” Saeks says.

Most of these users agreed they see no IT-specific implications in the new iPad, at least yet. “I’m not seeing any challenges to support the new devices,” Saeks says.

“I’ll have to take a deeper dive into iOS 5.1,” says James Gordon, vice president of IT at Needham Bank, a small community bank in Massachusetts that has deployed iOS devices among a majority of its staff and the board of directors.

An enterprise consultant with a federal systems integrator, who requested anonymity, echoed that attitude. “I hope to see more with iOS 5.1 once that is released,” he says.

Apple’s decision to cut the price of the iPad 2 by $100, bringing the entry-level price to $399, may have a significant impact on deployments. “This opens up possibilities, especially in education markets with a lower buy-in price point,” says Okihara. “$100 x 1,000+ [units] is significant.”

Levy agrees. “By lowering the price on the iPad 2 while bringing advances into the new iPad, Apple is able to deliver new technology and features quickly to those who want them right away, while removing some of the barrier of entry to those who don’t yet have an iPad,” he says.

Gordon was hoping the rumors of a quad-core CPU were true. And at Life Technologies, where a lot of content is in Adobe Flash, the continued and apparently eternal lack of iOS support for that technology remains a complaint.

Prasad at Life Technologies also says he’d like to see direct video output for iPads.

“The bar for tablets and mobile computers has been set very high [with the new iPad],” says Gordon.

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