iPhone 11 Plus Wi-Fi 6 Equals Undefined?

I read a curious story this weekend based on a supposed leak about the next iPhone, currently dubbed the iPhone 111. There’s a report that the next iPhone will have support for the forthcoming 802.11ax standard. The article refers to 802.11ax as Wi-Fi 6, which is a catch branding exercise that absolutely no one in the tech community is going to adhere to.

In case you aren’t familiar with 802.11ax, it’s essentially an upgrade of the existing wireless protocols to support better client performance and management across both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Unlike 802.11ac, which was rebranded to be called Wi-Fi 5 or 802.11n, which curiously wasn’t rebranded as Wi-Fi 4, 802.11ax works in both bands. There’s a lot of great things on the drawing board for 11ax coming soon.

Why did I say soon? Because, as of this writing, 11ax isn’t a ratified standard. According to this FAQ from Aerohive, the standard isn’t set to be voted on for final ratification until Q3 of 2019. And if anyone wants to see the standard pushed along faster it would be Aerohive. They were one of, if not the, first company to bring a 802.11ax access point to the market. So they want to see a standard piece of equipment for sure.

Making pre-standard access points isn’t anything new to the market. Manufacturers have been trying to get ahead of the trends for a while now. I can distinctly remember being involved in IT when 802.11n was still in the pre-standard days. One of our employees brought in a Belkin Pre-N AP and client card and wanted us to get it working because, in his words, “It will cover my whole house with Wi-Fi!”

Sadly, we ended up having to ditch this device once the 802.11n standard was finalized. Why? Because Belkin had rushed it to the market and tried to capitalize on the fervor of people wanting fast connection speeds. The AP only worked with the PCMCIA client card sold by Belkin. Once you started to see ratified 802.11n devices they were incompatible with the Belkin AP and fell back to 802.11g speeds.

Belkin wasn’t the only manufacturer that was trying to get ahead of the curve. Cisco also pushed out the Aironet 1250, which had detachable lobes that could be pulled off and replaced. Why? Because they were shipping a draft 802.11n piece of hardware. They claimed that anyone purchasing the draft spec hardware could send in the lobes and get an upgrade to ratified hardware as soon as it was finalized. Except, as a rushed product the 1250 also consumed lots of power, ran hot, and generally had very low performance compared to the APs that came out after the ratification process was completed.

We’re seeing the same rush again with 802.11ax. Everyone wants to have something new when the next refresh cycle comes up. Instead of pushing people toward the stable performance of 802.11ac Wave 2 with proper design they are going out on a limb. Manufacturers are betting on the fact that their designs are going to be software-upgradable in the end. Which assumes there won’t be any major changes during the ratification process.

Cupertino Doesn’t Guess

One of the major criticism points of 802.11ax is that there is not any widespread adoption of clients out there to push us to need 802.11ax APs. The client vs. infrastructure argument is always a tough one. Do you make the client adapter and hope that someone will eventually come out with hardware to support it? Or do you choose to instead wait for the infrastructure to jump up in speed and then buy a client adapter to support it?

I’m usually one revision behind in most cases. My home hardware is running 802.11ac Wave 2 currently, but my devices were 11ac capable long before I installed any Meraki or Ubiquiti equipment. So my infrastructure was playing catchup with my clients. But not everyone runs the same gear that I do.

One of the areas where this is more apparent is not in the Wi-Fi realm but instead in the carrier space. We’re starting to hear that carriers like AT&T are deploying 5G in many cities even though there aren’t many 5G capable handsets. And, even when the first 5G handsets start hitting the market, the smart money says to avoid the first generation. Because the first generation is almost always hot, power hungry, and low performing. Sound familiar?

You want to know who doesn’t bet on non-standard technology? Apple. Time and again, Apple has chosen to take a very conservative approach to introducing new chipsets into their devices. And while their Wi-Fi chipsets often seen upgrades long before their cellular modems do, you can guarantee that they aren’t going to make a bet on non-standard technology that could potentially hamper adoption of their flagship mobile device.

A Logical Approach

Let’s look at it logically for a moment. Let’s assume that the standards bodies get off their laurels and kick into high gear to get 802.11ax ratified at the end of Q2. That’s just after Apple’s WWDC. Do you think Apple is going to wait until post-WWDC to decide what chipsets are going to be in the new iPhone? You bet your sweet bandwidth they aren’t!

The chipset decisions for the iPhone 11 are being made right now in Q1. They want to know they can get sufficient quantities of SoCs and modems by the time manufacturing has to ramp up to have them ready for stores in October. That means you can’t guess whether or not a standard is going to be approved in time for launch. Q3 2019 is during the iPhone announcement season. Apple is the most conservative manufacturer out there. They aren’t going to stake their connectivity on an unproven standard.

So, let’s just state it emphatically for the search engines: The iPhone 11 will not have 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, support. And anyone trying to tell you differently is trying to sell you a load of marketing.

The Future of Connectivity

So, what about the iPhone XII or whatever we call it? That’s a more interesting discussion. And it hinges on something I heard in a recent episode of a new wireless podcast. The Contention Window was started by my friends Tauni Odia and Scott Lester. In Episode 1, they have their big 2019 predictions. Tauni predicted that 802.11ax won’t be ratified in 2019. I agree with her assessment. Despite the optimism of the working group these things tend to take longer than expected. Which means Q4 2019 or perhaps even Q1 2020.

If 802.11ax ratification slips into 2020 you’ll see Apple taking the same conservative approach to adoption. This is especially true if the majority of deployed infrastructure APs are still pre-standard. Apple would rather take an extra year to get things right and know they won’t have any bugs than to rush something to the market in the hopes of selling a few corner-case techies on something that doesn’t have much of an impact on speeds in the long run.

However, if the standards bodies prove us all wrong and push 11ax ratification through we should see it in the iPhone X+2. A mature technology with proper support should be seen as a winner. But you should see them move telegraphed far in advance with adoption of the 11ax radios in the MacBook Pro first. Once the bigger flagship computing devices get support it will trickle down. This is just an economic concern. The MacBook has more room in the case for a first-gen 11ax chip. Looser thermal tolerances and space considerations means more room to make mistakes.

In short: Don’t expect an 11ax (or Wi-Fi 6) chip before 2020. And if you’re betting the farm on the iPhone, you may be waiting a long time.


Tom’s Take

I like the predictions of professionals with knowledge over leaks with dubious marketing value. The Contention Window has lots of good information about why 802.11ax won’t be ratified any time soon. A report about a leaked report that may or may not be accurate holds a lot less value. Don’t listen to the hype. Listen to the people who know what they’re talking about, like Scott and Tauni for example. And don’t stress about having the newest, fastest wireless devices in your house. Odds are way better that you’re going to have to buy a new AP for Christmas this year than the hope of your next iPhone support 802.11ax. But the one thing we can all agree on: Wi-Fi 6 is a terrible branding decision!


  1. Or I suppose the XI if you’re into Roman numerals ↩︎
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Apple Watch Unlock, 802.11ac, and Time

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One of the benefits of upgrading to MacOS 10.12 Sierra is the ability to unlock my Mac laptop with my Apple Watch. Yet I’m not able to do that. Why? Turns out, the answer involves some pretty cool tech.

Somebody’s Watching You

The tech specs list the 2013 MacBook and higher as the minimum model needed to enable Watch Unlock on your Mac. You also need a few other things, like Bluetooth enabled and a Watch running WatchOS 3. I checked my personal MacBook against the original specs and found everything in order. I installed Sierra and updated all my other devices and even enabled iCloud Two-Factor Authentication to be sure. Yet, when I checked the Security and Privacy section, I didn’t see the checkbox for the Watch Unlock to be enabled. What gives?

It turns out that Apple quietly modified the minimum specs during the Sierra beta period. Instead of early 2013 MacBooks being support, the shift moved support to mid-2013 MacBooks instead. I checked the spec sheets and mine is almost identical. The RAM, drive, and other features are the same. Why does Watch Unlock work on those Macs and not mine? The answer, it appears, is wireless.

Now AC The Light

The mid-2013 MacBook introduced Apple’s first 802.11ac wireless chipset. That was the major reason to upgrade over the earlier models. The Airport Extreme also supported 11ac starting in mid-2013 to increase speeds to more than 500Mbps transfer rates, or Wave 1 speeds.

While the majority of the communication that the Apple Watch uses with your phone and your MacBook is via Bluetooth, it’s not the only way it communicates. The Apple Watch has a built-in wireless radio as well. It’s a 2.4GHz b/g/n radio. Normally, the 11ac card on the MacBook can’t talk to the Watch directly because of the frequency mismatch. But the 11ac card in the 2013 MacBook enables a different protocol that is the basis for the unlocking feature.

802.11v has been used for a while as a fast roaming feature for mobile devices. Support for it has been spotty before wider adoption of 802.11ac Wave 1 access points. 802.11v allows client devices to exchange information about network topology. 11v also allows for clients to measure network latency information by timing the arrival of packets. That means that a client can ping an access point or another client and get a precise timestamp of the arrival of that packet. This can be used for a variety of things, most commonly location services.

Time Is On Your Side

The 802.11v timestamp has been proposed to be used as a “time of flight” calculation all the back since 2008. Apple has decided to use Time of Flight as a security mechanism for the Watch Unlock feature. Rather than just assume that the Watch is in range because it’s communicating over Bluetooth, Apple wanted to increase the security of the Watch/Mac connection. When the Mac detects that the Watch is within 3 meters of the Mac it is connected to via Handoff it is in the right range to trigger an unlock. This is where the 11ac card works magic.

When the Watch sends a Bluetooth signal to trigger the unlock, the Mac sends an additional 802.11v request to the watch via wireless. This request is then timed for arrival. Since the Mac knows the watch has to be within 3 meters, the timestamp on the packet has a very tight tolerance for delay. If the delay is within the acceptable parameters, the Watch unlock request is approved and your Mac is unlocked. If there is more than the acceptable deviation, such as when used via a Bluetooth repeater or some other kind of nefarious mechanism, the unlock request will fail because the system realizes the Watch is outside the “safe” zone for unlocking the Mac.

Why does the Mac require an 802.11ac card for 802.11v support? The simple answer is because the Broadcom BCM43xx card in the early 2013 MacBooks and before doesn’t support the 802.11v time stamp field (page 5). Without support for the timestamp field, the 802.11v Time of Flight packet won’t work. The newer Broadcom 802.11ac compliant BCM43xx card in the mid-2013 MacBooks does support the time stamp field, thus allowing the security measure to work.


Tom’s Take

All cool tech needs a minimum supported level. No one could have guess 3-4 years ago that Apple would need support for 802.11v time stamp fields in their laptop Airport cards. So when they finally implemented it in mid-2013 with the 802.11ac refresh, they created a boundary for support for a feature on a device that was in the early development stages. Am I disappointed that my Mac doesn’t support watch unlock? Yes. But I also understand why now that I’ve done the research. Unforeseen consequences of adoption decisions really can reach far into the future. But the technology that Apple is building into their security platform is cool no matter whether it’s support on my devices or not.

Don’t Track My MAC!

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The latest technology in mobile seems to be identification.  It has nothing to do with credentials.  Instead, it has everything to do with creating a database of who you are and where you are.  Location-based identification is the new holy grail for marketing people.  And the privacy implications are frightening.

Who Are You?

The trend now is to get your device MAC address and store it in a database.  This allows the location tracking systems, like Aruba Meridian or Cisco CMX, to know that they’ve seen you in the past.  They can see where you’ve been in the store with a resolution of a couple of feet (much better than GPS).  They now know which shelf you are standing in front of.  Coupled with new technologies like Apple iBeacon, the retailer can push information to your mobile device like a coupon or a price comparison with competitors.

It’s a fine use of mobile technology.  Provided I wanted that in the first place.  The model should be opt-in.  If I download your store’s app and connect to your wifi then I clicked the little “agree” box that allows you to send me that information.  If I opt-in, feel free to track me and email me coupons.  Or even to pop them up on store displays when my device gets close to a shelf that contains a featured item.  I knew what I was getting into when I opted in.  But what happens when you didn’t?

Wifi, Can You Hear Me?

The problem comes when the tracking system is listening to devices when it shouldn’t be. When my mobile device walks into a store, it will start beaconing for available wifi access points.  It will interrogate them about the SSIDs that they have and whether my device has associated with them.  That’s the way wifi works.  You can’t stop that unless you shut off your wireless.

If the location system is listening to the devices beaconing for wifi, it could be enabled to track those MAC addresses that are beaconing for connectivity even if they don’t connect.  So now, my opt-in is worthless.  If the location system knows about my MAC address even when I don’t connect, they can push information to iBeacon displays without my consent.  I would see a coupon for a camping tent based on the fact that I stood next to the camp stoves last week for five minutes.  It doesn’t matter that I was on a phone call and don’t have the slightest care about camping.  Now the system has started building a profile of me based on erroneous information it gathered when it shouldn’t have been listening.

Think about Minority Report.  When Tom Cruise is walking through the subway, retinal scanners read his print and start showing him very directed advertising.  While we’re still years away from that technology, being able to fingerprint a mobile device when it enters the store is the next best thing.  If I look down to text my wife about which milk to buy, I could get a full screen coupon telling me about a sale on bread.

My (MAC) Generation

This is such a huge issue that Apple has taken a step to “fix” the problem in the beta release for iOS 8.  As reported by The Verge, iOS 8 randomizes the MAC address used when probing for wifi SSIDs.  This means that the MAC used to probe for wifi requests won’t be the same as the one used to connect to the actual AP.  That’s huge for location tracking.  It means that the only way people will know who I am for sure is for me to connect to the wifi network.  Only then will my true MAC address be revealed.  It also means that I have to opt-in to the location tracking.  That’s a great relief for privacy advocates and tin foil hat aficionados everywhere.

It does make iBeacon configuration a bit more time consuming.  But you’ll find that customers will be happier overall knowing their information isn’t being stored without consent.  Because there’s never been a situation where customer data was leaked, right? Not more than once, right?  Oh, who am I kidding.  If you are a retailer, you don’t want that kind of liability on your hands.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

If you’re one of the retailers deploying location based solutions for applications like iBeacon, now is the time to take a look at what you’re doing.  If you’re collecting MAC address information from probing mobile devices you should turn it off now.  Yes, privacy is a concern.  But so is your database.  Assuming iOS randomizes the entire MAC address string including the OUI and not just the 24-bit NIC at the end, your database is going to fill up quickly with bogus entries.  Sure, there may be a duplicate here and there from the random iOS strings, but they will be few and far between.

More likely, your database will overflow from the sheer number of MACs being reported by iOS 8 devices.  And since iOS7 adoption was at 87% of compatible devices just 8 months after release, you can guarantee there will be a large number of iOS devices coming into your environment running with obfuscated MAC addresses.


Tom’s Take

I don’t like the idea of being tracked when I’m not opted in to a program.  Sure, I realize that my usage statistics are being used for research.  I know that clicking those boxes in the EULA gives my data to parties unknown for any purpose they choose.  And I’m okay with it.  Provided that box is checked.

When I find out my data is being collected without my consent, it gives me the creeps.  When I learned about the new trends in data collection for the grand purposes of marketing and sales, I wanted to scream from the rooftops that the vendors needs to put a halt to this right away.  Thankfully, Apple must have heard my silent screams.  We can only hope that other manufacturers start following suit and giving us a method to prevent this from happening.  This tweet from Jan Dawson sums it up nicely:

The Compost-PC Era

Generic Mobile Devices

I realized the other day that the vibration motor in my iPhone 5s had gone out.  Thankfully, my device was still covered under warranty.  I set up an appointment to have it fixed at the nearest Apple store.  I figured I’d go in and they’d just pop in a new motor.  It is a simple repair according to iFixit.  I backed my phone up one last time as a precaution.  When I arrived at the store, it took no time to determine what was wrong.

What shocked me was that the Genius tech told me, “We’re just going to replace your whole phone.  We’ll send the old one off to get repaired.”  I was taken aback.  This was a $20 part that should have taken all of five minutes to pop in.  Instead, I got my phone completely replaced after just three months.  As the new phone synced from my last iClould backup, I started thinking about what this means for the future of devices.

Bring Your Own Disposable

Most mobile devices are a wonder of space engineering.  Cramming an extra long battery in with a vibrant color screen and enough storage to satisfy users is a challenge in any device.  Making it small enough and light enough to hold in the palm of your hand is even more difficult.  Compromises must be made.  Devices today are held together as much by glue and adhesive as they are nuts and bolts and screws.  Gaining access to a device to repair a broken part is becoming more and more impossible with each new generation.

I can still remember opening the case on my first PC to add a sound card and an Overdrive processor.  It was a bit scary but led to a career in repairing computers.  I’ve downright terrified to pop open an iPhone.  The ribbon cables are so fragile that it doesn’t take much to render the phone unusable.  Even Apple knows this.  They are much more likely to have the repairs done in a separate facility rather than at the store.  Other than screen replacements, the majority of broken parts result in a new phone being given to the customer.  After all, it’s very easy to replace devices when the data is safe somewhere.

The Cloud Will Save It All

Use of cloud storage and backup is the key to the disposable device trend.  If you tell me that I’m going to lose my laptop and all the data on it I’m going to get a little concerned.  If you tell me that I’m going to lose my phone, I don’t mind as much thanks to the cloud backup I have configured.  In the above case, my data was synced back to my phone as I shopped for a new screen protector.  Just like a corporate system, data loss is the biggest concern on a device.  Cloud storage is a lot like a roaming profile.  I can sync that data back to a fresh device and keep going after a short interruption.  Gone are the wasted hours of reinstallation of operating system and software.

Why repair devices when they can easily be replaced at little cost?  Why should you pay someone to spend their time diagnosing a bad CPU or bad RAM when you can just unwrap a new mobile device, sync your profile and data, and move on with your project?  The implications for PC repair techs are legion.  As are the implications for manufacturers that create products that are easy to open and contain field replaceable parts.

Why go to all the extra effort of making a device that can be easily repaired if it’s much cheaper to just glue it together and recycle what parts you can after it breaks?  Customers have already shown their propensity to upgrade devices with every new cycle each year.  They’d rather buy everything new instead of upgrading the old to match.  That means making the device field repairable (or upgradable) is extra cost you don’t need.  Making devices that aren’t easily fixed in the field means you need to spend less of your budgets training people how to repair them.  In fact, it’s just easier to have the customer send the device back to the manufacturing plant.


Tom’s Take

The cloud has enabled us to keep our data consistent between devices.  While it has helped blur the lines between desktop and mobile device, it has also helped blur the lines tying people to a specific device.  If I can have my phone or tablet replaced with almost no impact, I’m going to elect to have than done rather than finding replacement parts to keep the old one running just a bit longer.  It also means that after pulling the useful parts out of those mildly broken devices that they will end up in the same landfill that analysts are saying will be filled with rejected desktop PCs.

FaceTime Audio: The Beginning or The End?

BlackApple

The world of mobile devices is a curious one. Handset manufacturers are always raising the bar for features in both hardware and software in order to convince customers to use their device. Yet, no matter how much innovation goes into the handset the vendors are still very reliant upon the whims of the carriers. Apple knows this perhaps better than anyone

In Your FaceTime

FaceTime was the first protocol to feel the wrath of the carriers. Apple developed it as a way to facilitate video communication between parties. The idea was that face-to-face video communications could be simplified to create a seamless experience. And it did, for the most part. Except that AT&T decided that using FaceTime over 3G would put too much strain on their network. At first, they forced Apple to limit FaceTime to only work with wireless connections. That severely inhibited the utility of the protocol. If the only place that a you can video call someone is at home or in a coffee shop (or on crappy hotel wireless) that makes the video call much less useful.

Apple finally allowed FaceTime to operate over cellular networks in iOS 6, yet AT&T (and other carriers) restricted the use of the protocol to those customers on the most current data plans. This eliminated those on older, unlimited data plans from utilizing the service. The carriers eventually gave in to customer pressure and started rolling out the capability to all subscribers. By then, it was too late. Apple had decided to take a different track – replace the need for a carrier.

Message For You

The first shot in this replacement battle came with iMessage. Apple created a messaging protocol like the iChat system for Mac, only it ran on iPhones and iPads (and later Macs). It was enabled by default, which was genius. The first time you sent an Short Message Service (SMS) text to a friend, the system detected you were messaging another iPhone user on a compatible version of software. The system then flipped the messaging over to use iMessage instead of SMS and the chat bubbles turned blue instead of green. Now, you could send pictures of any size as well as texts on any length with no restrictions. 160-character limits were no longer a concern. Neither was paying your carrier for an SMS plan. So long as the people you spoke with were all iDevice users the service was completely free.

iMessage was Apple’s first attempt to sideline the carriers. It removed a huge portion of their profitability. According to an article published at the launch of iMessage, carriers were making $.20 per message outside of an SMS plan for data that would cost about $.0125 on a data plan. Worse yet, that message traversed a control channel that was always present for the user. There was no additional cost to the carrier beyond flipping a switch to enable message delivery to the phone. It was a pure-profit enterprise. Apple seized on the opportunity to erode that profitability.

Today, you can barely find a cellular plan that *doesn’t* include unlimited text messaging. The carriers can no longer reap the rewards of a high profit, low cost service like SMS because of Apple and iMessage. Carriers are instead including it as a quality of life feature that they make nothing from. Cupertino has eliminated one of the sources of carrier entanglement. And they’re poised to do it again in iOS 7.

You Can Hear Me Now

FaceTime Audio was one of the features of iOS 7 that got swept under the rug in favor of talking about flat design or parallax wallpaper. FaceTime Audio uses the same audio codec from FaceTime, AAC-ELD, to initiate a phone call between two iDevice users. Only it doesn’t use the 3G/LTE radio to make the call. It’s all done via the data connection.

I tested FaceTime Audio for the first time after my wife upgraded her phone to iOS 7. The results were beyond astonishing. The audio quality of the call was as crisp and clear as any I’d every heard. In fact, I would compare it to the use of Cisco’s Wideband G.722 codec on an enterprise voice system. My wife, a non-technical person even noticed the difference by remarking, “It’s like you’re right next to me in the same room!” I specifically tried it over 3G/LTE to make sure it wasn’t blocked like FaceTime video. Amazingly, it wasn’t.

The Mean Opinion Score (MOS) rating that telephony network use to rate call clarity runs from 1 to 5. A 1 means you can’t hear them at all. A 5 means there is no difference between talking on the phone and talking in the same room. Most of the “best” calls get a MOS rating in the 4.1-4.3 range. I would rate FaceTime audio at a 4.5 or higher. Not only could I hear my wife clearly on the calls we made, but I also heard background noise clearly when she turned her head to speak to someone. The clarity was so amazing that I even tweeted about it.

FaceTime Audio calling could be poised to do the same thing to voice minutes that iMessage did to SMS. I’ve already changed the favorite for my wife’s number to dial her via FaceTime Audio instead of her mobile phone number. The clarity makes that much of a difference. It also helps that I’m not using any of my plan minutes to call her. Yes, I realize that many carriers make mobile-to-mobile calls free already. However, I was also able to call my wife via FaceTime Audio from my iPad as a test that worked perfectly. Now, I not only don’t use voice minutes but have the flexibility to call from a device that previously had no capability to do so.

Who Needs A Phone?

Think about the iPod Touch. It is a device that is very similar to the iPhone. In fact, with the exception of the cellular radio one might say they’re identical. With iMessage, I can get texts on an iPod touch using my Apple ID. So long as I’m around a wireless connection (or have a 3G MiFi device) I’m connected to the world. With FaceTime audio, the same Apple ID now allows me to take phone calls. The only thing the carriers now have to provide is a data connection. You still can’t text or call non-Apple devices with iMessage and FaceTime. However, you can reduce the amount of money you are paying for their services due to a reduction in the amount of minutes and/or texts you are sending. That should have the mobile carriers running scared.


Tom’s Take

I once said I would never own a cellular phone because sometimes I didn’t want to be found. Today, I get nervous if mine isn’t with me at all times. I also didn’t get SMS messaging at first. Now I spend more time doing that than anything else. Mobile technology has changed our lives. We’ve spent far too much time chained to the carriers, however. They have dictated what when can do with our phones. They have enforced how much data we use and how much we can talk. With protocols like FaceTime Audio, the handset manufacturers are going to start deciding how best to use their own devices. No carrier will be able to institute limits on minutes or texts. I think that if FaceTime Audio takes off in the same way as iMessage, you’ll see mobile carriers offering unlimited talk plans alongside the unlimited text plans within the next two years. If 50% of your userbase is making calls on their data plans, they need for all those “rollover” minutes becomes spurious. People will start reducing their plans down to the minimum necessary to get good data coverage. And if a carrier decides to start gouging for data service? Just take your device to another carrier. Or drop you contact in favor of a MiFi or similar data-only connection. FaceTime Audio is the beginning of easy Voice over IP (VoIP) calling. It’s the end of the road for carrier dominance.

Why An iPhone Fingerprint Scanner Makes Sense

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It’s hype season again for the Cupertino Fruit and Phone Company.  We are mere days away from a press conference that should reveal the specs of a new iPhone, likely to be named the iPhone 5S.  As is customary before these events, the public is treated to all manner of Wild Mass Guessing as to what will be contained in the device.  WIll it have dual flashes?  Will it have a slow-motion camera?  NFC? 802.11ac?  The list goes on and on.  One of the most spectacular rumors comes in a package the size of your thumb.

Apple quietly bought a company called AuthenTec last year.  AuthentTec made fingerprint scanners for a variety of companies, including those that included the technology in some Android devices.  After the $365 million acquisition, AuthenTec disappeared into a black hole.  No one (including Apple) said much of anything about them.  Then a few weeks ago, a patent application was revealed that came from Apple and included fingerprint technology from AuthenTec.  This sent the rumor mill into overdrive.  Now all signs point to a convex sapphire home button that contains a fingerprint scanner that will allow iPhones to use biometrics for security.  A developer even managed to ferret out a link to a BiometrickKitUI bundle in one of the iOS 7 beta releases (which was quickly removed in the next beta).

Giving Security The Finger

I think adding a fingerprint scanner to the hardware of an iDevice is an awesome idea.  Passcode locks are good for a certain amount of basic device security, but the usefulness of a passcode is inversely proportional to it’s security level.  People don’t make complex passcodes because they take far too long to type in.  If you make a complex alphanumeric code, typing the code in quickly one-handed isn’t easy.  That leaves most people choosing to use a 4-digit code or forgoing it altogether.  That doesn’t bode well for people whose phones are lost or stolen.

Apple has already publicly revealed that it will include enhanced security in iOS 7 in the form of an activation lock that prevents a thief from erasing the phone and reactivating it for themselves.  This makes sense in that Apple wants to discourage thieves.  But that step only makes sense if you consider that Apple wants to beef up the device security as well.  Biometric fingerprint scanners are a quick method of inputting a unique unlock code quickly.  Enabling this technology on a new phone should show a sharp increase in the number of users that have enabled an unlock code (or finger, in this case).

Not all people thing fingerprint scanners are a good idea.  A link from Angelbeat says that Apple should forget about the finger and instead use a combination of picture and voice to unlock the phone.  The writer says that this would provide more security because it requires your face as well as your voice.  The writer also says that it’s more convenient than taking a glove off to use a finger in cold weather.  I happen to disagree on a couple of points.

A Face For Radio

Facial recognition unlock for phones isn’t new.  It’s been in Android since the release of Ice Cream Sandwich.  It’s also very easy to defeat.  This article from last year talks about how flaky the system is unless you provide it several pictures to reference from many different angles.  This video shows how snapping a picture on a different phone can easily fool the facial recognition.  And that’s only the first video of several that I found on a cursory search for “Android Facial Recognition”.  I could see this working against the user if the phone is stolen by someone that knows their target.  Especially if there is a large repository of face pictures online somewhere.  Perhaps in a “book” of “faces”.

Another issue I have is Siri.  As far as I know, Siri can’t be trained to recognize a users voice.  In fact, I don’t believe Siri can distinguish one user from another at all.  To prove my point, go pick up a friend’s phone and ask Siri to find something.  Odds are good Siri will comply even though you aren’t the phone’s owner.  In order to defeat the old, unreliable voice command systems that have been around forever, Apple made Siri able to recognize a wide variety of voices and accents.  In order to cover that wide use case, Apple had to sacrifice resolution of a specific voice.  Apple would have to build in a completely new set of Siri APIs that query a user to speak a specific set of phrases in order to build a custom unlock code.  Based on my experience with those kinds of old systems, if you didn’t utter the phrase exactly the way it was originally recorded it would fail spectacularly.  What happens if you have a cold?  Or there is background noise?  Not exactly easier that putting your thumb on a sensor.

Don’t think that means that fingerprints are infallible.  The Mythbusters managed to defeat an unbeatable fingerprint scanner in one episode.  Of course, they had access to things like ballistics gel, which isn’t something you can pick up at the corner store.  Biometrics are only as good as the sensors that power them.  They also serve as a deterrent, not a complete barrier.  Lifting someone’s fingerprints isn’t easy and neither is scanning them into a computer to produce a sharp enough image to fool the average scanner.  The idea is that a stolen phone with a biometric lock will simply be discarded and a different, more vulnerable phone would be exploited instead.


Tom’s Take

I hope that Apple includes a fingerprint scanner in the new iPhone.  I hope it has enough accuracy and resolution to make biometric access easy and simple.  That kind of implementation across so many devices will drive the access control industry to take a new look at biometrics and being integrating them into more products.  Hopefully that will spur things like home door locks, vehicle locks, and other personal devices to being using these same kind of sensors to increase security.  Fingerprints aren’t perfect by any stretch, but they are the best option of the current generation of technology.  One day we may reach the stage of retinal scanners or brainwave pattern matches for security locks.  For now, a fingerprint scanner on my phone will get a “thumbs up” from me.

iOS 7 and Labels

wwdc-13-apple-reveals-ios-7

Apple is prepping the release of iOS 7 to their users sometime in the next couple of months. The developers are already testing it out to find bugs and polish their apps in anticipation of the user base adopting Jonathan Ive‘s vision for a mobile operating system. In many ways, it’s still the same core software we’ve been using for many years now with a few radical changes to the look and feel. The icons and lack of skeumorphism are getting the most press. But I found something that I think has the ability to be even bigger than that.

The user interface (UI) elements in the previous iOS builds all look very similar. This is no doubt due to the influence of Scott Forestall, the now departed manager of iOS. The dearth of glossy buttons and switches looked gorgeous back in 2007 when the iPhone was first released. But all UI evolves over time. Some evolve faster than others. Apple hit a roadblock because of those very same buttons. They were all baked into the core UI. Changing them was like trying to correct a misspelled word in a stone carving.  It takes months of planning to make even the smallest of changes.  And those changes have to be looked at on a massive scale to avoid causing issues in the rest of the OS.

iOS 7 is different to me.  Look at this pic of an incoming call and compare it with the same screen in iOS 6:

iOS 7

iOS 7

iOS 6

iOS 6

The iOS 6 picture has buttons.  The iOS 7 picture is different.  Instead of have chiseled buttons, it looks like the Answer and Decline buttons have been stuck to the screen with labels.  That’s not the only place in the UI that has a label-like appearance.  Sending a new  iMessage or text to someone in the Messages app looks like applying a stamp to a piece of paper.  Taking all that into consideration, I think I finally understand what Ive is trying to do with this UI shift in iOS 7

Labels are easy to reapply.  You just peel them off and stick them back on.  Unlike the chiseled-in-stone button UI, a label can quickly and easily be reconfigured or replaced if it starts to look dated.  Apple made mention of this in Ive’s iOS 7 video where he talked about creating “hierarchical layers (to) establish order“.  Ive commented that this approach gives depth to the OS.  I think he’s holding back on us.

Jonathan Ive created UI layers in the OS so he can change them out more quickly.  Think about it.  If you only have to change a label in an app or change the way they are presented on screen, it allows you to make more rapid changes to the way the OS looks.  If the layers are consistent and draw from the same pool of resources, it allows you to skin the OS however you want with minimal effort.  Ive wasn’t just trying to scrub away the accumulation of Scott Forrestal’s ideas about the UI.  He wanted to change them and make the UI so flexible that the look can be updated in the blink of an eye.  That gives him the ability to change elements at will without the need to overhaul the system.  That kind of rapid configurability gives Apple the chance to keep things looking fresh and accommodate changing tastes.


Tom’s Take

I can almost hear people now saying that making future iOS releases able to be skinned is just another rip off of Android’s feature set.  In some ways, you are very right.  However, consider that Android was always designed with modularity in mind from the beginning.  Google wanted to give manufacturers and carriers the ability to install their own UI.  Think about how newsworthy the announcement of a TouchWiz-free Galaxy S4 was.  Apple has always considered the UI inviolate in all their products.  You don’t have much freedom to change things in iOS or in OS X.  Jonathan Ive is trying to set things up so that changes can be made more frequently in iOS.  Modders will likely find ways to insert their own UI elements and take these ideas in an ever more radical direction.  And all because Apple wanted to be able to peel off their UI pieces as easily as a label.