Apple Wanders Into Mountain Lion Territory

Apple let OS X Lion out of its cage just last July, but the company’s already started talking up the next version of its operating system, which it’ll call “Mountain Lion.”

The details and developer preview that Apple has come out with indicate that even more iOS DNA is being mixed into OS X this time around, with more shared features and functions.

One of the most welcome new features for iOS 5 last year was the Notification Center, and a very similar type of notification tool will show up in Mountain Lion. iCloud will have deeper hooks in the OS, allowing users to upload documents. The mobile Notes app will make an appearance on the desktop, and full-screen mirroring will come to Airplay — though only in 720p with stereo sound.

iChat will become a thing of the past. In its place you’ll find Messages, which will support chats with the usual gang of IM platforms as well as iMessage, the chat system used by iOS.

And one new feature called “Gatekeeper” could make OS X even more iOS-ish in a different way — not with common features, but with a common security philosophy.

iOS operates in what’s known as a “walled garden.” Unless you go through the process of jailbreaking your iPhone, the only software you can get is stuff that Apple’s specifically OKed and placed in the App Store.

With Gatekeeper, your Mac can live inside a walled garden too — though you do have the choice of whether you want to stay there, no jailbreaking required in order to leave. You can opt to accept only software from the Mac App Store, meaning you never have to worry about weird programs you don’t want somehow latching onto the system. Or you can opt to take stuff only from the App Store and in-the-wild developers that Apple has identified as safe. Or opt to accept installations from anywhere if you figure you can take care of yourself. So it’s sort of like supermax versus halfway house versus your own home.

This gives users a choice regarding the old liberty vs. security conundrum, but it could foreshadow a much more restricted future for the platform. When the Mac App Store first arrived, there were already suspicions that the company’s ultimate goal was to eventually make its store the only way for Macs to get software. Gatekeeper still leaves a choice, but it could also prove to be another way Apple slowly eases its users into an even more closed-off system.

Listen to the podcast (13:13 minutes).

The Beaten and Bruised Path

The social network Path took a straight-to-the-chin suckerpunch of public retribution recently when it was revealed the company was playing fast and loose with users’ private info. And it wasn’t just Path that suffered as a result — soon companies like Yelp, Twitter, Foursquare and even Apple were dragged into the spotlight as well.

It started with a revelation about Path, a social network that mainly centers on photo sharing. It seems that when Path users installed the network’s mobile app on their smartphones, Path would copy the user’s contacts list and upload it to Path’s own servers — without the user’s consent. Path officials said it was done to help users find people they know who also use Path, and they actually seemed kind of surprised that anyone would have a problem with this. But shortly after receiving the Carrier IQ Memorial Scholarship for the Most Reviled Company on the Internet for the Time Being, they backed down, nixed the feature, and scrubbed all those user address books off their servers.

But even after Path took measures to right its part in the situation, the issue of lifting user address books lingered in the air. It came to light that what Path was doing wasn’t unique — very popular apps like Instagram and Twitter’s mobile app, among several others, were also found to be dipping into users’ little black books.

So just how much info about the user does an app really need to know in order to work properly? And when it gets that info, what’s done with it? How are users informed about it, and are they given the chance to say “no, you can’t do that”?

Because Apple itself is the final arbiter of everything sold through the iTunes App Store, it became the company a couple of U.S. representatives targeted in a letter. Henry Waxman and G.K. Butterfield, both of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote to Apple asking it to clarify its developer guidelines and explain what measures are taken to screen the apps that go through its store. And their questions got a little pointy. They noted that even though its dev guidelines seem to provide some protection to users regarding their data, there appeared to be what the representatives called a “quiet understanding” among app makers that resulted in sending off entire address books, without users’ permission, to be stored on remote servers.

Apple’s said that it’ll add a new barrier to protect against the unwanted sharing of contact info. Soon, apps that want to peek at the user’s address book will need to get explicit permission from the user to do that, sort of like how each app needs permission to track your physical location. That’ll prevent this kind of nasty surprise from springing up again, but critics said it was just a case of Apple suddenly following rules it should have been following all along.

Mind on My Money

Google Wallet, the company’s mobile payment technology, is still very young. It’s only available in a handful of Android phones, you can only use it in a small number of retail stores, and it won’t hook up with just any credit card you happen to have under your name. Lots of users just opt to connect it to a prepaid account.

But these fledgling mobile payment technologies — Google Wallet and others in development — may just be the first small steps toward not having to carry around an actual wallet stuffed with cards and cash.

Getting there has been a bumpy road, though, and Google hit a serious pothole recently when not one, but two methods for filching funds from Google Wallet were suddenly widely publicized. One of the techniques only works on rooted Android phones — phones that have been hacked right down to the core by owners who really like to tinker with that kind of stuff.

The other technique was a little more troubling. Apparently if someone got hold of a Wallet user’s phone, and it wasn’t protected with a general passcode, it was a piece of cake for the thief to reach in and start spending whatever funds that user had on the Wallet account. Just wipe a little data here, reset a code there, and start shopping — if you can find a store that takes Google Wallet, of course.

Google’s reaction was to temporarily freeze users’ ability to put more money on their prepaid cards or get new ones, and the flaw was fixed a few days later.

Whether this really damages the credibility of Wallet or mobile payments in general is debatable. Wallet users are still relatively few and far between, and early adopters probably aren’t going to dump an entire technology over one security screw-up. Besides, a thief would only be able to spend the victim’s money if that person’s phone was lost or stolen — which is pretty much exactly the same situation you’re in if you lose your regular, old-fashioned wallet.

Use of Weapons

The mobile industry has been at war with itself for many months now, with companies lobbing patent bombs over walls, leading trademark bayonet charges, and attempting to blockade various markets from receiving or exporting certain phones and tablets.

Describing exactly how the battle lines are drawn is about as simple as explaining World War I. On the most basic level, it’s every company for itself, but a large part of the fighting boils down to “Google vs. the World.” Apple, Oracle and Microsoft all accuse Google of ripping off their intellectual property in creating Android, though often it isn’t Google that’s left to directly defend its mobile OS. Instead, Android’s enemies typically pick proxy fights, going after companies that make Android devices — Samsung, HTC, etc.

But now it seems Google has been granted permission to buy itself some heavy weapons to defend Android — and maybe even launch an offense of its own. Regulators in both the United States and Europe have OKed Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility.

Motorola is an elder statesman in the mobile industry. It made what was arguably the very first cellphone. It had lots of hits after that, fell into some lean years, then rose again with its Android-based Droid phones.

But as far as Google is concerned, the most important thing Motorola owns is patents — thousands of them. Once the purchase is complete, Google will be in possession of that portfolio, and by flashing a few pieces of paper and wiggling its eyebrows a little, it may be able to wave off a lot of the patent missiles other companies have launched against Android.

In fact, some of Motorola’s patents are so old and powerful that without permission to use them, many companies simply would not be able to build phones that are compliant with industry standards. In other words, they might need to get Google’s OK in order to build phones that work at all.

This is the arena in which the U.S. Department of Justice will keep an especially close eye on how Google handles its soon-to-be new subsidiary. Owners of these kinds of super-vital patents, called “FRAND” patents — that’s fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory — can demand some kind of payment for licensing them out, but they aren’t allowed to charge exorbitant rates.

It’s unclear whether Google’s ownership of Motorola Mobility will eventually turn the tide in the patent war, or whether it could eventually lead to a sort of uneasy stalemate in which everyone has so much hanging over everyone else’s head that it’s just not worth it to sue anymore. But it might get a lot messier before it gets any cleaner. In fact, the fight over FRAND patents has already warmed up — Apple just recently accused Motorola of abusing its most vital patents by charging too high a rate to license them.

Back Away From the Buffet

Just like most wireless carriers, AT&T does not love all its customers equally.

Say you’re a new customer, just emigrated over from T-Mobile. You’ve got a nice, new, shiny, expensive iPhone 4S, and you’re under contract.

To AT&T, you’re nothing.

No, you’re worse — you still owe them money on that phone. You’re a debtor, and that contract is your debtor’s prison, so whatever AT&T does, you’re just going to have to go along with it. Moocher.

Same goes for anyone under contract with any carrier, really. Except most carriers at least have something of a soft spot for long-term customers. If you’ve continually re-upped your contract to get discounts on new phones again and again over the years, you might — might — get some kind of favorable treatment.

Lately, that treatment has usually taken the form of a grandfather clause that lets existing customers stick with old-fashioned service plans that AT&T is trying to phase out. For instance, when AT&T eliminated a certain kind of text-messaging plan, old customers could opt to stick with the old plan they’d been using, as long as their account remained in good standing.

The same has been true for cellular data plans. In 2010, AT&T introduced tiered data pricing, and new customers had to pick from among a set of limited data plans. But old customers who had been downing unlimited amounts of data for years could let it ride and not have to worry about a monthly gigabyte allowance.

But it seems that even “unlimited” has its limitations. Members of Club Unlimited who use a lot of cellular network data — specifically the top 5 percent of users — have reported that their connections are being throttled. If an unlimited customer becomes a super-heavy user in a given month, his or her connection speed is choked, slowing down to speeds that would frustrate even the heartiest dial-up Web pioneer of 1994. After the billing period is over, it’s back to normal.

To be fair: They were warned. AT&T said months ago it was going to do this to the tip-top users; the reports now coming in from people who’ve experienced it only confirm that the company meant what it said.

For now, this is mostly hitting people who really do suck down a lot of data from the cell network — constant YouTube users, streaming music addicts, the like. But it makes you wonder what the long-term effects of this policy could be. If heavy users get sick of getting throttled, a lot of them might just give in, walk away from unlimited data forever, and opt for a tiered plan. Then semi-heavy users would technically become the top 5 percent. So they’ll get throttled, get fed up, and get a new plan.

Go through it enough times and you’re at a point at which watching a single YouTube clip could earn someone a slowdown notice. And pretty soon, everyone’s using a tiered plan — which is probably what AT&T and most other carriers really want anyway.

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