Apple Comes In Like a Lion
The week was a busy one for Apple. Besides releasing its new operating system -- OS X Lion -- and a set of new Mac products, Cupertino also posted record quarterly figures, watched its stock reach new heights, and scored a win against rival HTC. Meanwhile, AT&T adjusted to life after iPhone exclusivity, NATO and Anonymous went head to head, and News Corp. hackers became the hackees.
07/23/11 5:00 AM PT
Apple finally pushed out a much-anticipated raft of new products this week. Its new desktop OS, OS X Lion, had been promised for a July release last month at the Worldwide Developers Conference, and some Mac followers had been getting downright antsy for a new MacBook Air, which also touched down. Meanwhile, Apple's little Mac mini is still going strong, and Cupertino also showed off an enormous display that'll set you back about as much as a new Apple computer.
First up, Mac OS X Lion: It's the company's brand-new OS, and the only way to get it is by downloading it through the Mac App Store. I've seen a report or two saying that if you walk into a real Apple Store and get on your knees and beg and work up a few tears, they might sell it to you on a thumb drive eventually, for more than twice the App Store amount of $30.
This will be the first edition of OS X that Apple doesn't serve on a silver platter -- there will be no official Lion discs. That's not so surprising, though, because yet another Mac has dropped the optical drive.
Back to the OS itself: Lion will support a new level of multitouch gestures, and it adds features like Mission Control, which gives you a full-system vantage point; Resume, which picks a program back up from where you last left it; and AirDrop, which assists in the sharing of data from one Mac to another.
Conceptually, Lion is meant to meld aspects of Apple's desktop OS lineage with a few attributes picked up from iOS, its mobile device operating system. This has the potential to simplify key elements for the benefit of the overall user experience, but there's disagreement on whether it succeeds. Critics on one side of the debate say it occasionally crosses the line from simple to simplistic, and that certain parts of a desktop OS really should be more complex than a mobile OS. Others argue that its new features are welcome improvements, even though the transition to Lion can be a little disorienting.
Apple also let fly with some new hardware this week, finally taking its MacBook Air up a notch or two. The newest versions of the ultra-thin notebooks come in 11- and 13-inch sizes, and they'll pack Intel Sandy Bridge processors, along with 4 GB of memory. Other improvements include backlit keyboards and ports for Thunderbolt, the new double-wide data pipes Apple's been building into its latest hardware.
But the arrival of the Air spells doom for another Apple product: the humble MacBook. The pale little notebook's been dangling sadly from Apple's roster for a couple of years now, and the floor models are usually relegated to the dustiest and worst-lit corner of whatever Apple Store you happen to find one in. They used to be the company's consumer-grade laptop, but that role now seems to be split between the 13-inch MacBook SemiPro and these new skinny little MacBook Airs. So it seems the white MacBook is now set to be shuffled off to the Mac museum.
The Mac mini's till going strong, though. It caught an upgrade to Intel's Core i5 and i7 dual-core chips, but just like the MacBook Air, there is no optical drive. It makes sense enough, at least for the company's lower-priced computers. Between iTunes, other media download services and the built-in Mac App Store, the CD slot is starting to serve about the same function as an appendix on a lot of computers. If you still need one, though, there's always Super Drive.
Listen to the podcast (12:32 minutes).
New products were just one part of what turned out to be an especially good week for Apple. Earlier it released its latest quarterly fiscal report and posted record-high revenues. Its stock also hit record highs, closing in on US$400 per share. And it even rang up a legal win against one of its favorite punching bags, HTC.
Many months ago, Apple hauled HTC in front of the U.S. International Trade Commission and claimed that the Android operating system found on the phones HTC sells in the U.S. violates a number of Apple patents.
Of course, Android does not belong to HTC. Google is Android's parent. But Google doesn't technically sell Android; it's phone makers that sell phones containing the Android OS -- phone makers like HTC, Samsung and Motorola. So why is HTC the one that's being taken to task in front of the ITC?
Possibly because compared to those other two, HTC is a relatively small newcomer to the U.S. mobile scene, and it might not have as big a patent arsenal. Often, when one company sues another for patent violations, it can expect the defendant to whip out its own portfolio and start rattling off patents it owns that the plaintiff might be violating. And once both sides agree that they're both equally awful in their own way, everyone goes home peacefully.
But HTC might not be in a great position to threaten Apple into a stand-down before a final ruling is made and some kind of precedent is put on the record. For now, Apple has scored a preliminary ruling. It's not a final judgment, but it does mean the case will get closer scrutiny.
If Apple gets a final ruling in its favor, then interesting results could occur. The ITC has the power to ban the importation of HTC handsets into the U.S., though it's more likely Apple and HTC would manage to come to some sort of licensing agreement before that would happen. But that licensing agreement would make it that much more expensive for HTC to make Android phones. Then perhaps Apple would use that judgment to lean on other companies like Motorola and Samsung, and before you know it, Apple's pocketing money each time anyone in the U.S. buys a Droid.
That's just one outcome in a universe of possibilities, though; there are lots of ways this could turn out very differently. However, it does kind of resemble a scenario that really is playing out elsewhere in the Android world. Microsoft is using its own portfolio to lean on certain Android device makers, essentially claiming that Android violates Redmond patents as well. The implication there is that by refusing to sign a licensing agreement with Microsoft, those targeted companies could find themselves in a pricey legal tug of war like the one HTC is in right now. So far, Microsoft's found some success with that strategy .
Holding Its Own
Remember back when U.S. iPhone users could only fantasize about the day when a second carrier, probably Verizon, would come to deliver them from the AT&T Dead Zone? There was a lot of venom for AT&T back then, and a lot of customers bitterly predicted, or maybe just hoped, that the carrier's wireless business would shrivel up and die the day an alternate carrier showed up on the scene.
Well, AT&T just finished its first full fiscal quarter with Verizon as an iPhone competitor, and while it's clear AT&T's iPhone gold rush is over and gone, the company isn't anywhere close to keeling over due to the Verizon threat.
Profits for AT&T were down 10 percent from last year, though overall revenue was up 2.2 percent year over year. Revenue relating to wireless specifically was up even more, and AT&T gained more than a million new subscribers.
This is all despite the fact that last year's Q2 ended with the release of the iPhone 4, which was a huge seller, contributing a nice end-of-the-quarter boost to pad the numbers. There has been no new iPhone this year for AT&T, yet it still made gains.
But you also have to take into account the anticipation factor -- in the months leading up to the release of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS sales fell off a cliff because everyone knew the new model was right around the corner. This year, Apple's apparently skipping out on a summer release for its next iPhone, so last year's model has still been selling decently through the quarter, especially compared to last year's Q2 numbers.
Also, there are still a lot of AT&T customers who want to defect to Verizon but are still tied up in contracts. They might really hate AT&T, but not enough to pay an early termination fee.
Finally, now that the iPhone is off seeing other carriers, AT&T has decided it can fool around a little on the side as well, and it's tried to expand its portfolio with a wider variety of Android phones. For example, this weekend, it'll start selling the Nexus S from Samsung.
So it seems AT&T's dealing with whatever slow bleed Verizon's iPhone has caused for it, but the carrier has much larger considerations on the horizon. Its proposed buyout of T-Mobile has kicked up a lot of controversy, and it's still very much up in the air. A clearer picture might begin forming early next year.
Hacker Hacks Hacked
The ongoing News Corp. phone hacking scandal has been at turns shocking, infuriating, and once in a while even kind of amusing, when you don't think too deeply about it for too long. But for the hackers formerly known as LulzSec, the Murdoch regime's meltdown has been inspiring. The whole awful mess has motivated them to apparently come out of retirement in order to wreak havoc on News Corp. in their own twisted little way.
LulzSec officially called it quits weeks ago -- but technically, it might not be accurate to say the individuals that make up LulzSec ever retired from the hacking game. They may have actually just stopped doing their thing under the LulzSec banner, opting instead to mess around through a much more general association with Anonymous.
And honestly, it's really hard to say whether the people who attacked News Corp. recently are the same people behind the original LulzSec at all, because their true identities were never publicly revealed. All we know is, they say they're LulzSec, they're tweeting as LulzSec, and they're doing the kind of thing LulzSec does: latching onto a notorious news event, piling on the perceived bad guy, and splattering the organization's private affairs all over the Web.
First, the group grappled for control of a few News Corp.-owned newspaper websites, tied in a few redirects, hacked a couple of landing pages, and treated visitors to a false front-page report that News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch had committed suicide.
No LulzSec hack job would be complete without a good data leak, though, and that angle's been covered. Email passwords of various company execs have been bandied about, and the group's boasted that it's been able to steal a substantial number of actual email documents. It's sitting on them for now, but it may eventually opt to make them public. With the scandal deepening almost by the day, curiosity as to what's contained in those emails has most definitely been piqued.
Meanwhile, it's been a wild ride this week for fellow hackers associated with Anonymous.
At least 16 suspected hackers were arrested in states on both U.S. coasts earlier in the week, though it's unknown whether these guys are real masterminds or whether they're just small-timers who weren't crafty enough to avoid getting caught. And to imply that Anonymous even has masterminds might not be accurate -- the group's more like a loosely joined blob of hackers sometimes associated only by their common use of the word.
But just days after that, Anons struck back, apparently with the help of the LulzSec reunion tour. They tweeted a link to a document they held up as proof they'd broken into servers belonging to NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- the guys who know where the UFOs are buried. They claim to have taken about a gigabyte of data in all.
Several weeks ago, Anonymous and LulzSec together launched AntiSec, an operation that invited hackers everywhere to attack government-run computer systems, and putting NATO in the crosshairs would seem to fall under that directive.
In targeting systems seemingly for the sheer hell of it -- or at least, not to draw a direct monetary profit, hackers undertaking operations like these are driving security operators crazy, since there's no good way to predict where they'll strike. A common thief will go after profitable targets, so that's what you pay attention to. With an attacker who does it for the fame, an ideal, or just for the lulz, you never really know where the next strike will be, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that a lot of systems out there aren't very well-protected.
You might be relieved to know that the information Anonymous managed to pluck out of NATO's servers appears to be labeled "Restricted" -- the lowest level of classification available. Or it might scare the hell out of you to know that hackers managed to steal classified data of any kind from NATO's servers. Take your pick!