Bans, passcode thieves and Beeper — December 2023 in review

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It would be cruel to describe this Apple Watch Ultra as “red faced” about the ban

In December 2023, Apple couldn’t prevent an Apple Watch ban, but it could block Beeper’s hijacking of its iMessage, and it did have a go at stopping more iPhone thefts.

Never before has an Apple product been taken off sale over legal issues — although it has come close — so no one really believed it would happen to the Apple Watch. But it did, and December was a rollercoaster because of it.

Right back in January 2023, the ban was mooted and rather ignored because Apple’s always being sued, always countersuing, always going to court, and regardless of the result, someone is always appealing. So yes, for a year it’s officially been the case that medical firm Masimo’s allegations of patent infringement could mean a ban one day, eventually.

But also for about 11 months it’s been the case that surely Apple would buy its way out — Masimo says it’s up for that — or perhaps the Biden Administration would block any ban during its legally mandated Presidential Review of such cases. Even as Apple voluntarily removed the Apple Watch from sale slightly ahead of it then being forced to, the company must’ve hoped President Biden would step in.

The ban affected the Apple Watch Series 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2

The ban affected the Apple Watch Series 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2

But when the Administration chose not to intervene in the case between Apple and the International Trade Commission (ITC), Apple had an appeal ready to file against the ban. It also filed a request for a stay of the ban while this appeal is underway, citing “irreparable harm.”

As December reached its last few days, that Apple appeal for a stay was granted. It meant that US Apple Stores could immediately stock the Watch again, and it also means that the case is going to continue on well into 2024.

The Apple Watch ban revolves around its blood oxygen health feature

The Apple Watch ban revolves around its blood oxygen health feature

Passcode thieves

One legal issue that has been settled concerns Aaron Johnson who, along with around 11 co-conspirators, is currently serving up to 8 years in the Minnesota Correctional Facility. Johnson claims to have been behind at least $2 million in theft, first from scamming iPhone users out of their savings, and then from selling their phones.

Johnson says that he was able to do it because of how easy it is to get mens’ passcodes out of them. It did tend to be men, too, as he says women were too wary to be fooled.

It also did tend to be iPhones, as well, with just the occasional Android phone stolen, possibly for the hell of it.

If someone gets your passcode, they have everything

If someone gets your passcode, they have everything

With iPhones and slightly tipsy men in bars, Johnson would get their passcodes, then add himself to their Face ID. Before they have realized their phones are missing, Johnson will have turned off Find My, transferred all cash from all accounts he could, and then going shopping with Apple Pay.

His process shows up what in retrospect seems like a clear vulnerability in iPhones, but by chance, he explained how he did it just a week after Apple introduced new steps to combat exactly this.

Apple’s new system is called Stolen Device Protection, and it works by enforcing a delay on changing key settings such as Apple ID. It means thieves can’t opportunistically take advantage of a moment’s distraction, because the iPhone won’t allow a change for an hour — and also not without another Face ID verification.

Apple introduced Stolen Device Protection

Apple introduced Stolen Device Protection

That’s a clever idea because it doesn’t add extra steps for the genuine user, it just slows things down to thwart thieves.

Even so, Johnson’s process can still work, and he has simple advice for anyone. It isn’t paranoid to be wary, and if someone asks, just “don’t give your passcode out.”

Paranoia can be real

There was a full-on tin-foil hat example of paranoia this month, though — except, astoundingly, it turned out to be justified.

Senator Ron Wyden wrote an open letter to the Department of Justice claiming that foreign governments were spying on people’s iPhone push notifications. As all heads turned toward Apple, looking forward to the company saying this was first-degree nuts, it didn’t.

While the amount of personal or location information that can be gleaned from knowing someone gets an AppleInsider news alert is fantastically small, it isn’t nothing. And what would give you pause in December 2023 was why Apple thanked the Senator.

Push notifications can actually be used in spying, even if they don't provide much information

Push notifications can actually be used in spying, even if they don’t provide much information

For you can forget all about foreign governments, it turns out that the US itself forbade Apple from even mentioning the possibility of such spying. Once Wyden put it out there in a public letter, Apple immediately added details to its support documentation about the issue.

It doesn’t mean the spying is now blocked, but Wyden wanted it discussed, Apple wanted it known, and they got their wish.

Speaking of the Department of Justice

The DOJ briefly popped up in another of December’s rollercoaster stories, but possibly also decided that yeah, no, let’s leave this one alone. We may never know that for sure, but it’s claimed that DOJ lawyers met with the CEO of Beeper for what should have been a really short meeting.

If you need iMesssage this much, and you can afford to, then buy an iPhone

If you need iMesssage this much, and you can afford to, then buy an iPhone

From the DOJ’s side, it was to do with antitrust issues — and the department is already investigating Apple — but they must have seen that Beeper was an open and shut case.

Or at least for the whole month it was open, shut, open, shut, rinse, repeat, as Beeper started out seriously and got progressively more ridiculous.

The short version is that the Beeper Mini app allowed Android users to get iMessage’s green or blue bubbles, or whichever it is. Suddenly an Android user was able to take part in iPhone iMessage conversations without standing out, and with the ability to send and receive more than just text messages.

There is no inalienable right to iMessage

There is no inalienable right to iMessage

But even at the start of the month, it was a fiddly process to let an Android user have an iPhone feature, and it required regular fiddling to keep it working. By the end, Beeper’s instructions for how to make this work began with telling users to — this is completely true — buy an iPhone.

At every stage throughout December, Apple blocked Beeper on security grounds because it was faking credentials to get onto the iMessage network. At most stages, Beeper basically tried claiming it was the civic right of all Americans to have iMessage.

Beeper’s CEO even Eric Migicovsky hinted that his firm might take legal action against Apple for blocking it. Sometimes it seems as if Apple must have more lawyers than engineers, but this month they may only have had to spare one from the Apple Watch ban to take a look at the case.

Uh-huh, he or she would’ve said, reading the details while taking a minute to get a coffee. Firm fakes credentials to get onto our servers, doesn’t pay for use of those servers, I think I’ll get a Danish.

United we stand

It would be good if Apple’s lawyers spent as little time as that on fighting accusations of union-bashing. Especially since that is exactly what the company keeps doing, as now repeatedly shown by the National Labor Relations Board.

Apple Southampton, UK (Source: Apple)

Apple Southampton, UK (Source: Apple)

This month’s corporate embarrassment saw Apple reportedly refusing to recognize the unionization of Apple Southampton in the UK. The union involved, the United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) one, is just going ahead anyway, and is seeking arbitration.

They would. A union is not going to take a refusal, say terribly sorry to Apple, and let the firm continue — in this case — “eroding the service” of Apple Stores.

Maybe Apple is assuming, not unreasonably, that consumers won’t be paying attention to its anti-union measures. And then while this was more public, Apple isn’t likely to be hurt very much by how staff at the Passeig de Gracia Apple Store in Barcelona voted to strike for 24 hours on December 23.

Passeig de Gracia Apple Store (Source: Apple)

Passeig de Gracia Apple Store (Source: Apple)

Yet this all adds up, it all rather soils the reputation Apple wants for itself and for such a long time has actually had.

Plus it’s all entirely self-inflicted.

Whereas the basic tenet of the App Store that Apple charges up to 30% for sales made through it, is also being challenged even though it’s quite reasonable. Any developer who doesn’t want to pay 30% for worldwide distribution and Apple handling all of the tax implications, has never released software on CD-ROM and tried to get it into retail stores.

Just as 2023 was coming to a close, though, Japanese authorities let it be known that the country was going to be looking at the App Store next year. And while details are not yet decided, its regulators will also be looking into search and operating system antitrust activities.

Apple Ginza, Tokyo, at night

Apple Ginza, Tokyo, at night

If the proposed legislation makes it into law, the Japanese Fair Trade Commission will be allowed to fine firms like Apple up to 6% of revenue earned from these activities.

And it is also going to be Japan’s government that will decide which firms its laws apply to. It’s not expected to fine any Japanese firms, for instance.

There was a more positive development for Apple outside the US in December 2023, though, with iPhone maker Foxconn investing a further $1 billion into India.

Then depending on your perspective, Apple itself moving at least some iPad development work from China to Vietnam was good or bad news. It was certainly good and significant news for India, which is increasingly more than just another manufacturing supplier.

Mumbai

Mumbai

It means that Apple engineers will be working in India as they do at least some of the initial work on designing future iPads.

As for Apple’s own development this month, December 2023 saw the release of the long-promised Journal app for iPhone. Despite it coming months after the rest of iOS 17, Journal still feels a little incomplete, and certainly basic.

But while you might expect it to do more — such as having any kind of search feature at all — what it does do, it does very well.

Journal came out with iOS 17.2 and there must be more than one Apple engineer whose diary for that day includes mention of a certain other new iPhone feature. It’s going to prove more useful, perhaps compellingly so, once Apple Vision Pro is out, but as of iOS 17.2, it is possible to use an iPhone 15 Pro to record Spatial Video.

Watching a Spatial Video recording on Vision Pro (Source: Apple)

Watching a Spatial Video recording on Vision Pro (Source: Apple)

That’s a feature for the future, and it will get more attention when these Spatial Videos are being played back in a Vision Pro.

It’s startling just how often Apple does what dramatists call laying pipe. Big or small, there are continually new features and changes that we eventually learn were there to support something huge, like Vision Pro, even years and years ahead of time.

Vision Pro is the poster child for that approach, with what we now know were literally hundreds of patents applied for and granted in plain sight, for what turned out to be the headset.

Apple has researching AI generated avatars

Apple has researching AI generated avatars

But despite this and Apple’s long history of just not talking about anything until it is ready, 2023 saw the firm being criticized for lagging behind the industry. It’s still being described as that because it hasn’t released a ChatGPT clone like everyone else, but December should have quietened the critics.

For what it did release this month was a trio of research efforts about AI. One was a research paper called HUGS was about generating digital avatars of humans.

And the second was a paper about how to get AI’s enormous Large Language Models (LLM) into devices with limited memory, such as smartphones.

The whole industry went LLM mad in 2023, but none of them publicly explored how to leverage this vital tool in consumer devices.

Then in the last weeks of the year, the third research release called Ferret came to light. Not just a paper, this was executable code, released as open source.

Hopefully, perhaps even presumably, the industry was working on all of this. But here’s Apple, accused of being at worst behind and at best secretive, now openly publishing deep research into the field for everyone.

Even, if they want it, the OpenAI company which previously commissioned a collaboration with Jony Ive’s LoveFrom company to work on some unknown AI devices. In December 2023, Ive hired Tang Tan away from Apple to head up the hardware side of the project.

Jony Ive

Jony Ive

Tan is due to depart Apple in February 2024, but reportedly his duties as design head for the iPhone and Apple Watch have already been reassigned to others who are staying.

They’re going to be busy. As well as the obvious iPhone 16 range coming in 2024, and presumably also the obvious Apple Watch Series X, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicts that there will be new Mac.



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