Samsung and phone companies [BBC]

This is a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. It’s based loosely on my piece about possible limits to Samsung’s impressive foray into smartphones. 

The interesting thing about covering technology for a living is that while pretty much every company within the sector is very, very different, all are, or want to be, the same.

Take a mobile phone manufacturer like Samsung. These guys are huge and have gotten huge very fast. In the first quarter of 2011 they shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but in the most recent quarter shipped more than any of them. Needless to say they’ve very happy. But actually this success presents them with a huge problem. Because it turns out that making cellphones isn’t enough.

First is the problem of the software that run Samsung phones . After all a phone is just a chip or two, a screen, a battery, a microphone, a speaker, a case. Without software they just make useful paperweights.

Nearly all Samsung’s phones run on Google’s Android operating system. Which is free. Except of course it’s not. Because Google knows that the software is in some ways more important than the hardware. Ever tried to get an Android phone going without signing up for a Google account? Can you hear the clink clink of ad revenue dropping into Google’s pocket?

Samsung is an excellent maker of things, but not very good at making software. So it saves money, time and the groans of dissatisfied users by running Android on its phones. But the company  knows that this is not a good way to go in the long run, because you may end up like one of those PC makers back in the 1990s. What we call a commodity manufacturer, indistinguishable from other PC manufacturers, with price to reflect it.

So part of the problem for Samsung is not hardware but software. Then there’s another problem.

When we used computers in the old days they pretty much stood alone. Microsoft sold us Office, maybe a game or two and the thing sat alone in the corner of the room gathering dust. Nowadays every device is connected to the Internet, and we expect to be able to use that connection to interact with other people, download software, play games andbuy stuff and generally facilitate our lives.

What supports all this is an ecosystem. Payments, catalogues, developers, marketplaces, digital goods. Think Amazon. Think Apple’s iTunes and AppStore. Every Samsung phone connects to this world but most do it without Samsung seeing a cent.

Of course Samsung is trying to fix this. It has a store, it has content, it’s even hoping people will buy a smart TV that’s connected to the Internet and will let you move stuff between a Samsung TV and a Samsung smartphone.

The trouble now is, everyone wants this. A mobile phone maker wants to be a content seller, a search engine wants to have its own cellphone and operating system, an online store wants to sell its own tablet, a tablet maker wants to own its own network. No one player with big dreams can afford not to think in terms of owning the whole nine yards—the whole chain in which we the consumer live. To settle for anything less may end up meaning you settle for nothing, as just a commodity supplier of hardware, or content, or software to the others.

This is great for me as a reporter because every step takes us into uncharted territory. There are no maps for this anymore, and it will only get more interesting. 

In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule?

A piece I wrote on potential roadbumps in Samsung’s ride to smartphone dominance. 

Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer and biggest user of Google’s Android operating system.

And, for some, that’s the problem.

Samsung’s meteoric rise – in the first quarter of 2011 it shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but is now market leader – has handed it a dilemma. Does it risk becoming a commodity manufacturer of hardware, squeezed like the PC makers of old between narrowing margins and those who control the software that makes their devices run, or does it try to break into other parts of the business – the so-called mobile ecosystem?

“It comes down to this sense of what it is they want to be,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum. “Do they really want to be one of the power players or are they happy enabling someone else’s ecosystem?”

To be sure, Samsung isn’t in any kind of trouble, and isn’t likely to be so any time soon. Later on Thursday, it will launch the Galaxy S3, the latest addition to its flagship range of smartphones. Juniper Research expects Samsung to remain the No.1 smartphone manufacturer this quarter. The next iPhone upgrade is expected around the third quarter.

“Android has done wonders for them,” says India-based Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

But still the company has its critics. They worry that Samsung has yet to address the central contradiction of it making devices that use someone else’s operating system. By licensing the free Android OS from Google, Samsung saves itself millions of dollars in software development costs and license fees, but leaves itself dependent on Google.

More at In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule? | Reuters

The Real Revolution

This is also a podcast, from my weekly BBC piece. 

While folks at the annual tech show in Vegas are getting all excited about a glass-encased laptop, the world’s thinnest 55″ TV and a washing machine you can control from your phone, they may be forgiven for missing the quiet sound of a milestone being crossed: there are now more smartphones in the world than there are ordinary phones.

According to New York-based ABI Research, 3G and 4G handsets now account for more than half of the total mobile phone market. Those old ‘dumb phones’ and the so-called feature phones–poor relations to the computer-type iPhone or Android device can–are now officially in decline.

This is, in the words of ABI Research’s Jake Saunders, “an historic moment.” While IDC, another analyst company, noticed that this happened in Western Europe in the second quarter of last year, Saunders points out: “It means not just mobile phone users in Developed Markets but also Emerging Market end-users are purchasing 3G handsets.”

So why is this a big issue? Well, a few years back it would have been hard to convince someone in an emerging market to shell out several hundred bucks for a phone. A phone for these folks was good for talking and sending text messages. That was a lot. And enough for most people–especially when the handset cost $20 and the monthly bill was even less.

Now, with prices falling and connectivity improving in the developing world a cellphone is so much more: It’s a computer. It’s an Internet device. It’s a portable office and shop front. It’s a music player. A TV. A video player. A way to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for the industry these people in emerging markets are a life saver. For example: The developed world is pretty much saturated with smartphones. People aren’t buying them in the numbers they used to.

But that’s not to say the feature phone is dead. In fact, for some companies it’s still an important part of their business. Visionmobile, a UK based mobile phone research company, says that Nokia–busy launching its new Windows Lumia phones in Vegas–is still the king of feature phones, accounting for more than a quarter of the market.

And they just bought a small company called, confusingly, Smarterphone, which makes a feature phone interface look more like a smartphone interface. So clearly at least one company sees a future in this non-smartphone world. In a place like Indonesia, where the BlackBerry leads the smartphone pack, nearly 90% of phones sold in the third quarter of last year were feature phones, according to IDC.

So companies see a big chance for growth in these parts of the world. But they also need the spectrum. If you’re a mobile operator your biggest problem now is that smartphone users do a lot of downloading. That means bandwidth. The problem is that one piece of spectrum is for that 3G smartphone, and another is for your old-style 2G phone. The sooner you can get all your customers to upgrade their handset to 3G, the sooner you can switch that part of the spectrum you own to 3G.

So this is a big moment. We’re seeing a tipping point in the world’s use of cellphone use, from a simple, dumb communication device to something vastly more useful, vastly more exciting, vastly more lucrative. All those people moving over to smartphones

ABI Research reckons there’ll be 1.67 billion handsets sold this year. That’s one in four people buying a new device. Forget fancy Vegas. The real revolution just started.

Carrier IQ Bits and Pieces

Some background about Carrier IQ before the hullabaloo started.

  • People had found about this before
  • Some in the industry questioned why such an expensive solution for a relatively simple problem
  • Data was available to ‘market researchers’
  • Software was installed on modems too
  • A lot of carriers were involved

This is not new. Several people have pointed this out before. This from December 2010: xda-developers – View Single Post – **warning** you can get your phone to a unrecoverable state:

On whether or not it’s possible for Sprint to dig up data after a complete Odin wipe may be debatable, but I lean toward supporting the “yes, they can” side. Sprint has been, for – as far as I can tell – a while, since the Moment at least, been including Carrier IQ in Android ROMs. Carrier IQ – which you can get more info on here (browse around there) is highly invasive, to the level of being spyware. It tracks signal data, application usage, and much else – its services and libraries are tied deeply into the system, to the point that killing just the client (not the server) will destroy the battery meter.

And this, even earlier, from a potential rival: Carrier IQ: Mobile Service Intelligence ?’s – DeadZones.com. They point out that Carrier IQ is very expensive, and has raised a lot of money, for something that is supposedly very simple (finding dropout zones). Commenters point out the pitfalls (lower battery life, data in the hands of faceless corporations):

I did not give consent for this and see the use of such software unethical. I can see no positive effect this can have for the end user. I can see many scenarios in which these corporations could heinously profit from it, though.

Back in 2008, it could claim, according to Company 2008: FierceWireless, Fierce 15 – FierceWireless, that

Carrier IQ’s client list includes Sprint and Sierra Wireless. CEO Quinlivan says the firm works with at least seven of the top 10 major OEMs. Look for the firm to increase its scale in the coming year through more vendor and carrier deals.

Huawei is a customer, not only for handsets, but also for modems: Huawei to Embed Network Diagnostic Tools into 3G Modems in 2009 says:

Announcing the partnership, Carrier IQ CEO, Mark Quinlivan, said: “These new cards will make for smoother delivery of Mobile Data services, improvements in Customer Care services, identification of network coverage gaps and increased awareness of actual user behavior.”

This from Sept 2010 Carrier IQ Powers Android Platform with Mobile Service Intelligence makes clear a number of things.

Experience = behavior for Carrier IQ, so this is not just about logging dropouts:

On-device measurement of the mobile user experience is the key to better understanding user behavior and ultimately optimizing product offerings to match market demands.

This data was not just available to the telcos. The press release also includes an unlikely end-user:

Carrier IQ enables mobile operators, device manufacturers, application developers and market researchers to improve their offerings based on direct insight into the customer experience.

As of last year, 12 leading vendors were using Carrier IQ:

Deployed on over 90M devices from 12 leading vendors worldwide, Carrier IQ is the leading provider of Mobile Service Intelligence solutions that use mobile devices to provide detailed metrics in a highly secure environment.

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

How Long Was the iPhone Location Vulnerability Known?

I’m very intrigued by the Guardian’s piece iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go | Technology | guardian.co.uk but I’m wondering how new this information is, and whether other less transparent folk have already been using this gaping hole. Charles Arthur writes:

Security researchers have discovered that Apple‘s iPhone keeps track of where you go – and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronised.

The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program.

For some phones, there could be almost a year’s worth of data stored, as the recording of data seems to have started with Apple’s iOS 4 update to the phone’s operating system, released in June 2010.

But it seems that folk on a forum have already been talking about it since January: Convert Iphone 4 Consolidated.db file to Google earth:

Someone called Gangstageek asked on Jan 6:

Is there a way to, or a program (for the PC) that can read the Consolidated.db file from the Iphone 4 backup folder and accurately translate the cell locations and timestamps into Google earth?

Other forum members helped him out. Indeed, an earlier forum, from November 2010, looked at the same file. kexan wrote on Nov 26:

We are currently investigating an iphone used during a crime, and we have extracted the geopositions located within consilidated.db for analysis. During this we noticed that multiple points have the same unix datestamp. We are unsure what to make of this. Its kind of impossible to be on several locations at once, and the points are sometimes all over town.

Going back even further, Paul Courbis wrote on his site (translated from the French), including a demo:

Makes it relatively easy to draw the data on a card to get an idea of ​​places visited by the owner of the iPhone..

I don’t have an iPhone so I’ve not been able to test this. But I’m guessing that this issue may have already been known for some time by some kind of folk. Indeed, there are tools in use by police and others that may have already exploited this kind of vulnerability.

The Phantom Threats We Face

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We fear what we don’t know, even if it’s a guy in Shenzhen trying to make an honest living developing software that changes the background color of your mobile phone display.

Here’s what happened. I’ll save the lessons for the end of this piece.

A guy who prefers to go by the name Jackeey found a  niche for himself developing programs—usually called apps—for the Android cellphone operating system.

They were wallpaper applications—basically changing the background to the display.

That was until an online news site, VentureBeat, reported on July 28 that a security company, Lookout, had told a conference of security geeks that  that some downloadable applications to phones running the Android operating system would “collect a user’s browsing history, their text messages, the phone’s SIM card number and subscriber identification, voicemail phone number password” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China.

Yikes! Someone in China is listening to our conversations! Figuring out what we’re doing on our phone! Sending all this info to Shenzhen! Sound the alarum!

Word did indeed spread quickly. About 800 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Daily Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. Firstly, VentureBeat had the story wrong: The applications in question only transmitted a portion of this data. No browsing history was transmitted, no text messages, no voicemail password.

VentureBeat corrected the story—sort of; the incorrect bits are crossed out, but there’s no big CORRECTION message across the top of the story—but the damage was done. Google suspended Jackeey’s apps. Everyone considered Jackeey evil and confirmed suspicions that a) Android was flakey on security and b) stuff from China was dodgy.

All kind of sad. Especially when you find that actually Jackeey himself is not exactly unreachable. A few keyword searches and his email address appears and, voila! he’s around to answer your questions. Very keen to, in fact, given the blogosphere has just ruined his life.

Here’s what he told me: He needed the user’s phone number and subscriber ID because people complained that when they change their phone they lose all their settings.

That’s it. That’s the only stuff that’s saved.

Needless to say he is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had most of the bloggers and journalists who dissed his applications.

“I am just an Android developer,” he said. “I love wallpapers and I use different wallpaper every day. All I want is to make the greatest Android apps.”

Now of course he could be lying through his teeth, but I see no evidence in the Lookout report or anything that has appeared subsequently that seems to suggest the developer has done anything underhand. (The developer has posted some screenshots of his app’s download page which show that they do not request permission to access text message content, nor of browsing history.)

In fact, he seemed to be doing a pretty good job: His apps had been downloaded several million times. He declined to give his name, but acknowledged that he was behind both apps provided under the name Jackeey, and under the name iceskysl@1sters.

The story sort of ends happily. After investigating them Google has reinstated the apps to their app store and will issue a statement sometime soon. It told Jackeey in an email that “Our investigation has concluded that there’s no obvious malicious code in your apps, though the implementation accesses data that it doesn’t need to.”

VentureBeat hasn’t written an apology but they have acknowledged that: “The controversy grew in part because we incorrectly reported in our initial post that the app also sent your text messages and browser history to the website.”

For his part Jackeey is redesigning his apps to take into account Google’s suggestions. He points out that to do so will require him to have users set up an account and enter a password, which some users may be reluctant to do. And the Google suggestion is not entirely secure either.

Obviously this is all very unsatisfactory, in several ways.

Firstly, the journalism was a tad sloppy. No attempt was made to contact the developer of the app for comment before publishing—how would you feel if it was your livelihood on the line?—and the correction was no real correction at all.

Secondly, the internet doesn’t have a way to propagate corrections, so all the other websites that happily picked up the story didn’t update theirs to reflect the correction.

Thirdly, Google maybe should have contacted Jackeey before suspending the apps. It would have been kinder, and, given they’ve not found anything suspicious, the right thing to do.

Fourthly, us. We don’t come out of this well. We are somehow more ready to believe a story that includes a) security issues (which we don’t understand well) and b) China, where we’re perhaps used to hearing stories that fit a certain formula. Suspicious?

And lastly, perhaps we should look a little harder at the source of these reports.  We seem very quick to attribute suspicious behavior to someone we don’t know much about, in some scary far-off place, but less to those we do closer to home: Lookout’s main business, after all, is prominently displayed on their homepage: an application to, in its words, “protect yourself from mobile viruses and malware. Stop hackers in their tracks.”

So spare a thought for Jackeey. If you do a keyword search for him, the first hit is the story “’Suspicious’ Android wallpaper app nabs user data”, and links to 863 related articles. Below—a week after the hoo-ha, and after Google has sort of put things right–are headlines like: “Jackeey Wallpaper for Android steals your personal info”, “Your Rotten App, Jackeey Wallpaper” and “Jackeey steeling [sic] info on Android devices”.

In other words, anyone who checks out Jackeey’s wares on Google will find they don’t, well, check out.

I got back in touch with Jackeey to see how he’s holding up, a week after the storm broke. I’m in some pain, he says, “because mass negative press said that I steal users’ text messages, contacts and even passwords.” People have removed his applications from their phone, and people have been blasting him by email and instant messaging, calling him “thief”, “evil person” and other epithets.

“I am afraid that it will destroy my reputation and affect my livelihood forever,” he says.

I’m not surprised. We owe to folk like Jackeey to make apps for our phones, so we should treat him a little better.

Phantom Mobile Threats

How secure is your mobile phone?

This is an old bugaboo that folks who sell antivirus software have tried to get us scared about. But the truth is that for the past decade there’s really not much to lose sleep over.

That hasn’t stopped people getting freaked out about it.

A security conference heard that some downloadable applications to phones running the Android operating system would “collect a user’s browsing history, their text messages, the phone’s SIM card number and subscriber identification” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China. Some outlets reported that it also transmitted the user’s passwords to their voicemail.

About 700 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. It’s not clear who misreported all this—the journalists and others covering the event, or the company releasing the fruits of their research, but it gradually emerged that the applications—downloadable wallpapers—only transmitted a portion of this data. (See a corrected version of a story here.)

Indeed, the whole thing got less suspicious the more you dig.

This is what the developer told me in a text interview earlier today: “The app [recorded’] the phone number [because] Some people complained that when they change the[ir] phone, they will lose the[ir] favorite [settings]. So I [store] the phone number and subscriber ID to try to make sure that when [they] changed the phone, they have the same favorites.”

Needless to say the developer, based in Shenzhen, is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had any of the 700 or so outlets that wrote about his applications tried to contact him before writing their stories.

“I am just an Android developer,” he said. “I love wallpapers and I use different wallpaper every day. All I want is to make the greatest Android apps.”

Now of course he could be lying through his teeth, but I see no evidence in the Lookout report or anything that has appeared subsequently that seems to suggest the developer has done anything underhand. (The developer shared with me some screenshots of his app’s download page which show that they do not request permission to access text message content, nor of browsing history.)

In fact, he seemed to be doing a pretty good job: His apps had been downloaded several million times. He declined to give his name, but acknowledged that he was behind both apps provided under the name Jackeey, and under the name iceskysl@1sters!

Not much longer. One website quoted Lookout as saying “We’ve been working with Google to investigate these apps and they’re on top of it.” They have: Google has now removed the apps from their site. So I guess Jackeey, as he asked me to call him, is going to have to look for other ways to spend his time. (He told me that Lookout had contacted him by email but not, apparently, before going public.) 

Seems a shame. Obviously, there is a mobile threat out there, but I’m not sure this is the way to go about addressing it. And I don’t think a guy in Shenzhen doing wallpaper apps is, frankly, worth so much hysterical column ink.

Let’s keep some perspective guys, and not embark on a witch-hunt without some forethought.

Lookout has since been backtracking a bit from its original dramatic findings. “While this sort of data collection from a wallpaper application is certainly suspicious,” it says on its blog, “there’s no evidence of malicious behavior.”

Suspicious? We seem very quick to attribute suspicious behavior to someone we don’t know much about, in some scary far-off place, but less to those we do closer to home: Lookout’s main business, after all, is prominently displayed on their homepage: an application to, in its words, “protect yourself from mobile viruses and malware. Stop hackers in their tracks.”

Conflict of interest, anyone?

Why Google Needs China?

Playing with the AdMob data on iPhone and Android devices—which is a bit old now, the U.S., a much bigger iPhone/Android market than the rest of the world, reflects the worldwide distribution of iPhone vs Android devices (the blue is iPhone):

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The pattern seems to be mirrored elsewhere, but not evenly. In Australia, particularly, there seems little room for Android right now. Look at China, though: Almost as many Android devices as there are iPhones:

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Ironic, really, that Google is so dependent on China to make headway with its phone OS. The third tier of countries follow a similar distribution:

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The Shape of Things to Come

This is from my weekly newspaper column, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We’re all touch typists now.

Of course, the definition of touch type has had to change a little, since most of us don’t actually learn touch typing as we’re supposed to. Watch people tapping away at a keyboard and you’ll see all sorts of cobbled-together methods that would make the office secretary of yesteryear blanch.

But for now keyboards are going to be with us for a while as the main way to get our thoughts into a computer, so some sort of touch typing is necessary.

But the mobile phone is different. After ten years most of us have gotten used to entering text using the predictive, or T9, method, where the phone figures out you’re trying to say “hello” rather than “gekko” when you tap the 4,3,5,5,6 keys.

Texting has gotten faster—Portugal’s Pedro Matias, 27, set a new world record in January by typing a 264-character text in less than 2 minutes, shaving 23 seconds off the previous record—but that’s still slower than your average touch typist, who manages 120 words-say 480 characters—in the same amount of time.

Blackberry uses have their QWERTY keyboards, each key the size of a pixie’s fingernail, and while some people seem to be quite happy with these things, I’m not.

And the iPhone has given us, or given back to us, the idea of little virtual keyboards on our screen. I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of these either.

The arrival of the Android phone hasn’t really helped matters: The keyboard is usually virtual (some of the earlier phones had physical keyboards, but most have dropped them in favor of onscreen ones) and I really didn’t enjoy typing on them.

To the point that my wife complained that she could tell when I was using the Android phone over my trusty old Nokia because she didn’t feel I was “so reachable.” By which she means my monosyllabic answers weren’t as reassuring as my long rambling Nokia, predictive text ones.

But that has changed with the arrival of software called ShapeWriter. ShapeWriter is software that provides the same virtual keyboard, but lets you swipe your words on it by dragging your fingers over the keys to, well, form a shape.

Typing “hello,” for example, is done by starting your finger on “h”, dragging it northwest to “e”, then to the far east of “l”, lingering there a second, then north a notch to “o.” No lifting of the finger off the keyboard. Your finger instead leaves a red slug-like trail on the keyboard, and, in theory, when you lift your finger off the keys that trail will be converted to the word “Hello.”

And, surprise, surprise, it actually works. Well, unless you’re demonstrating it to a skeptical spouse, in which case instead of “hello” it types “gremio” or “hemp.”

Now this isn’t the first time I’ve used ShapeWriter. It has been around a while—it was first developed by IBM Labs in the early 2000s. It’s gone through quite a few changes in the meantime, not least in the theory behind it.

But the main bit of thinking is the same as that with predictive text (and speech recognition): what is called the redundancy of language. Taking, for example, the whole body of emails written by Enron employees, the most frequent email sender wrote nearly 9,000 emails in two years, totalling about 400,000 words.

That’s a lot of words. But in fact the number of actual words was about 2.5% of that: That email sender only used 10,858 unique words.

Now of course, Enron employees might not be representative of the wider population, but researchers have to work with data, and the Enron case threw up lots of data. The Enron Email Dataset is a 400 megabyte file of about 500,000 emails from about 150 users, mostly senior management of Enron. Making it a goldmine for researchers of language, machine learning and the like.

Learning from the words used—though presumably not their morals—researchers are able to figure out what words we use and what we don’t. Thus, ShapeWriter, and T9, and speech recognition, are able to tune out all the white noise by only having to worry about a small subset of words a user is typing, or saying. Most words we either don’t use because our vocabularies aren’t that great, or because we haven’t invented those words yet.

ShapeWriter has 50,000 words in its lexicon, but it gives preference to those 10,000 or so words it considers most common (presumably

In ShapeWriter’s case, they produce a template of the shape of each word they decide to store in the software, so the shape you’re drawing—left-far right, up, down, along—is recognised.

In its latest incarnation it actually works surprisingly well, and I’d recommend anyone with an Android phone to check it out. (It’s free.) There’s a version for the iPhone too, as well as Windows Mobile and the Windows Tablet PC. Only downside: For now, at least, only five–European–languages are supported.

I am not convinced this kind of thing is going to replace the real keyboard, but it’s the first decent application I’ve come across that has gotten me back into actually enjoying tapping out messages on my device.

My wife, for one, is happy.