Thickening iPad Plot Piques FBI’s Curiosity

You’d think that if you were the sole U.S. wireless provider for two of the most talked-about gadgets in the world, you’d be having a pretty good time right now. iPad sales are steaming, and it’s iPhone season again, so why doesn’t AT&T look like it’s having any fun?

Well, along with the grumbling over the data cap it’s dumping on new customers, there was the perennial gripe about this year’s iPhone presentation — that it didn’t include a move to Verizon. That can’t do wonders for AT&T’s self-esteem.

And now yet another embarrassment has arrived at AT&T’s doorstep. There exists a group of security researchers — some might call them “hackers” — that goes by the moniker “Goatse Security,” and deciding not to research the etymology of that name will be the biggest favor you do for yourself all day. This group was poking around AT&T’s systems one day when it discovered a flaw that allowed it to compile a list of email addresses and device ID numbers for more than 100,000 owners of 3G-enabled iPads. Goatse reportedly shared the exploit with third parties and warned AT&T about it, but AT&T says it was never contacted by the group. It said a business customer was the one who called them out on it.

Speaking to Businessweek, a Goatse representative said his group was acting in good faith and that it gave the information to Gawker Media’s Valleywag with the understanding it wouldn’t be published. Let that sink in for a minute … gave it to Gawker … thinking it wouldn’t be published … yeah.

Well that hasn’t stopped this incident from gaining the attention of the FBI – it’s opened an investigation into the hack on AT&T’s website. The Goatse rep said nobody at his organization has heard from the FBI, so I guess nobody’s communicating very well right now.

Anyway, AT&T plugged the hole, but the damage had been done. The 3G-enabled iPad is the pricier model, and some of the people who sprang for them are high-profile types who presumably want to keep their personal email addresses known only to friends and family.

But what’s the REAL damage here? If your name’s on that list, are you royally screwed? Probably not. It was just an email, not a password, so as long as you’re not a total sucker for spam, don’t expect your world to come crashing down around you.

And that product ID number? Meh. Carl Howe at the Yankee Group told us, “You can’t do anything with the iPad serial number — it’s not terribly useful to anyone else other than AT&T. The hackers have the serial numbers of iPads and their owners’ email addresses, and that’s all.”

So maybe AT&T will wind up suffering the worst headache out this one, just from a PR standpoint. It certainly isn’t going to give Apple a boost of confidence in the carrier. David Harley at ESET told us, “AT&T is hardly a mom-and-pop operation, and it wasn’t unreasonable for Apple to expect professionalism and expertise from the partnership with AT&T.”

Listen to the podcast (12:38 minutes).

iPhone 4 Calling

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote is usually a funnygame of expectations: Everyone watching expects a new iPhone to showup, but they never really know anything about what it’ll look like orwhat it’ll do. That dynamic was a little screwed up this year thanksto a leaked protype that surfaced a few months ago, but the companystill managed to get a few oohs and ahs — as well as a heckler or two,when the auditorium’s WiFi choked in the middle of the big show.

Steve Jobs played ringmaster yet again after being out of commissionthis time last year. What he showed us was the iPhone 4 — not theiPhone 4G, because it doesn’t run on 4G cellular networks. The fourthedition of Apple’s handset line features a new design that’s supposedto be more scratch-resistant and provide a better antenna.

Another major physical difference is the camera — or cameras, because nowthere are two. The main one is still located on the back corner, butit has an LED flash, 5 megapixels, and 720p video capabilities. Thefront one is for FaceTime, Apple’s new mobile video calling feature.It’ll only work on WiFi connections, though, and for now it’s limitedto iPhone 4 users.

The iPhone 4 also has a gyroscope in addition tothe accelerometer and compass that’s already in there. Could make forsome amazing games or augmented reality apps; for now, all Apple’sready to show is some virtual Jenga.

Software was also on the docket. Jobs listed some newfeatures of iOS — the new name for its mobile operating system — like customizable backgrounds, multitasking andapp folders. We’ll also soon see a version of iBooks for iPhones andiPod touches, as well as a Netflix app that does its movie-streamingthing not just on WiFi, but on 3G as well.

And sorry, AT&T haters, but the Big Blue Ball is still iPhone’sone-and-only for the U.S., and the network is huffing and puffing likea chain-smoker trying to do the Boston Marathon, as evidenced by thelittle austerity measures it recently instituted.

You knowall that hi-def movie uploading and Netflix streaming I was talkingabout earlier? Don’t try to do that just anywhere if you’re a new AT&Tcustomer with a brand-spanking new iPhone 4. Be very careful that youeither are in a WiFi zone or have plenty of bytes left in the budgetthis month — you’re capped at 2GB, and that’s the big plan. You won’thave to worry about FaceTime — that only works on WiFi anyway. Buthey, maybe that’s AT&T’s doing too; maybe AT&T execs started to tearup a little during the meeting when Apple mentioned the words “videocalling.”

Carl Howe at Yankee group estimates that AT&T will actually give upabout US$1.3 billion in revenue with the switch to data caps, but itshould get some network congestion relief in return. Sounds like alot, but somehow I think AT&T will stay in business.

Same might not be said for small developer houses that make apps based on streaming data, like music or videos, or just a constant stream of information.They may well be able to compress their data pretty effectively, butusers with a cap will always have that little nagging voice in theirheads: “Are you close to the limit this month? Are you sure? Let’s notuse that app. Let’s not even buy it.”

Al Hilwa at IDC says the mobile app revolution has gone way beyondwhat AT&T had expected, and now it has to rethink everything. “I am expecting there is going to be a big backlash from big consumers of content down the road. I don’t see an easy way out of this except that the mobile phone providers may have to use interesting technologies to reduce bandwidth consumption. It definitely complicates the world for developers.”

RSS: Real Sticky Situation

There once was (or maybe is — you’ll have to check iTunes at the moment you hear this just to be sure) an iPad application in the app store called “Pulse.” Pulse aggregates content from various online sources into an attractive news feed with photos and text. So it’s basically just an RSS ticker with a prettier face. The concept’s been around for years, so there’s nothing there to get anyone’s liver in an uproar, right?

But if there was no uproar we wouldn’t be talking about it now, would we?

For app developers, sharing the stage with or even just getting a shout-out from Steve Jobs at one of these keynotes is like getting a nod from Oprah if you’ve just written a book. It can knock you straight to the top of the bestseller list, but sometimes the added notoriety brings a few problems. Jobs mentioned Pulse during the speech, but when people tried to look it up on iTunes just a few moments later, they found it had been taken down from the App Store.

When it was learned that The New York Times was actually behind that disappearance, it looked as though Pulse had had a James Frey moment of its own. But the Times didn’t actually learn about Pulse from watching the speech; executives there had been trying to get it pulled from the store for several days after they’d read a review of the app — in their own newspaper.

Their problem with Pulse, they said, was that it violated the terms of the Times’ RSS feed because Pulse is a commercial application. It costs four bucks. Plus, the fact that it combines articles from several publications allegedly rubs the Times the wrong way. If that’s true, I wonder how they feel about Google News.

Anyway, the app returned to the store a day later, and the magnified publicity around it gave Pulse a big boost in popularity. According to All Things D, the new version is kosher because it doesn’t automatically wrangle in content from The New York Times — now you have to specifically set it to do that. Now that the dust is presumably settled, it looks like the developers got a big payday and the Times got fewer readers, so I suppose everyone got what they were after.

Start-Page Sacrilege

Lots of corporations have what you might call sacred cultural fetishes — maybe it’s a logo that will never be changed no matter what the marketers say; maybe it’s the founder’s office that nobody’s set foot in since 1929; or perhaps it’s a product’s secret formula that’s locked away in a safe somewhere.

For Google, it’s the start page. Since pretty much Day 1, it’s been a clean white background with an input field, a search button, and very little else. No distractions. Daily doodles yes; anything else no. At first maybe it was a reaction to the cluttered look over at Yahoo, but it took on a life of its own. Even when Google was being ripped by privacy advocates for making its written privacy policies too hard to find, it took an awful lot of grumbling to get Google to budge. All they wanted was an extra link on the start page, but even that was apparently a whole lot to ask.

That’s why it was so strange to visit Google this week and see its start page befouled, right before your very eyes, by a collection of beautiful photography. The white background would fade in with images of sunsets, misty mountains and green fields.

Reactions ranged from pleased to shocked, and Google tried to make it clear that you could revert to the old look if you really wanted to — just as long as you signed in with a Google account. But within a day, it backed away from its photography experiment and reverted to the basic look as its default. Now users who sign in can make their pages fussy if they want to, but Google is no longer thrusting all that lavishness in everyone’s face.

So what the hell was that all about? Were they trying to look like Bing? That’s the first thing that popped into my mind, and I’m not the only one. The photos are pretty — they’re a collection of interesting art and nice, scenic landscapes — what you might call a VISTA — but that’s Bing’s thing. The Google doodles are funny, though — keep those.

Dumping Decaf

Who knew that for all this time Google’s been doing all this work forus before even getting its morning cuppa? Well Google engineers havefinally changed that and served the search engine a triple-vente doseof Caffeine, which is what its calling its new page indexing system.

Caffeine is all about speed, but not the speed between the moment youhit “Search” and the moment results pop on the page. That’d beridiculous — it only takes a half a second anyway, and if that’senough to make you impatient, you’ve probably had a double-shot toomany yourself.

The speed that Caffeine is supposed to kick in with is page indexingspeed. The point is to be able to search the absolute most recentversion of every page that Google indexes at any time. That’s billionsof pages, any of which could be updated at any moment, so Google hadto take a new approach to the job.

Here’s how Google’s Jake Hubert explained it to us: Previously, Google would index pages in largebatches that often ran to billions of documents because it wouldanalyze the entire Web each time it updated the index. With Caffeine,it now analyzes the Web in small portions and updates the indexcontinuously.

This speed boost comes around the same time that Google seems to be slipping justa little bit to its biggest competitors Bing and Yahoo, at leastaccording to Nielsen data. Google’s still by far and away the leader,but the other two each gained a fraction of a percent on it in March.Perhaps some performance-enhancing drugs like this one will widen itslead a little.

All in the Timing

It probably couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Adobe: Just as its Flash technology had gone through a fierce round of roasting at the hands of Apple and Microsoft and the like, Adobe had to alert the public to a critical vulnerability in some of its software products — and of course one of the products affected was indeed Flash Player itself.

Adobe came out with a fix a few days later.

In the last few months, the battle over Flash has come to a head, due to both the development of alternatives like HTML5 and Apple’s refusal to support Flash on its iPad. The iPhone has never supported it, and in years past it seems the sticking point has been battery drain.

But more recently, Apple CEO Steve Jobs nailed a laundry list of complaints about Flash to Adobe’s door. Security was among his top concerns, Microsoft more or less took his side, and Adobe could only shrug its shoulders.

But while the flaw was out ther unpatched, security vendors like Trend Micro and McAfee saw malicious hackers picking at the Flash flaw, sending infected emails, linking victims to website traps and planting Trojans.

And the smug are just getting smugger.

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