How did Apple manage to screw up the iOS calculator app?

This is a strange one.

Not too long ago, Quartz reported on an unfortunate gaffe by Apple in the calculator app in the latest version of iOS. If you typed in “1+2+3=” fast enough, you would get a wrong answer (i.e. not 6). In some cases, you would get a very wrong answer.

Apple did finally get around to fixing this bug about a week after the article. What’s disturbing is just how the botched calculator came to be to begin with. Per the article:

According to a group of eagle-eyed iPhone users on Reddit who spotted the issue, it seems to be because of a new animation in the calculator app, where a button briefly fades to white when you press it. The result is that if you press an operator button (i.e., the plus sign) before the short animation finishes, the app ignores it. So, 1 + 2 + 3 accidentally gets read as 1 + 23.

Translation: Apple cares more about the flashy and purely cosmetic animation than the calculator actually performing its intended function. This is wholly unacceptable for any company involved in devices intended to be used for functional computing. A calculator app is not a laser light show with numbers on it. It is a tool, much like the dedicated devices it is modeled after, which is relied upon to give accurate results when used. Screw up something like the calculator, and you (quite justly) lose the trust of a good number of your users, something which is not very easy to regain.

The good news is that Apple is fixing it. The bad news is that it apparently took Apple two minor iOS revisions to recognize the issue and get a fix out there. Quite disturbing to me. Yes, there are third-party calculator apps, but one should not have to resort to a third-party app for something like this.

I can only imagine what’s next: a phone app that dials the wrong number if you enter it too quickly?

The MacOS App Store: starting down the slippery slope

As recently reported by Crunchgear, Apple likes the entire App Store concept so much it’s now rolling it out in the next version of MacOS X. It’s hardly an unsurprising move, however, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous from a software freedom standpoint.

While it appears for now that Apple will continue to allow software to be installed on MacOS X as before, I suspect it will only be a matter of time before this quietly disappears and MacOS becomes just like iOS (the iPhone/iPod/iPad operating system), where everything must be approved by Apple, and truly free software (as in freedom) is impossible. This is one more step down the slippery slope which started with the App Store in the iPhone.

Until and unless Apple proves by words and actions it is committed to the freedom of its users to use its products in ways not arbitrarily limited by Apple itself, I still maintain that Apple is the biggest threat to the future of computing freedom. The specific actions I am referring to would include the following, at minimum:

  1. Apple offers alternatives to the App Store on its “non-computer” products (iPod, iPhone, iPad) where such alternatives do not currently exist, without the requirement of “jailbreaking” those devices.
  2. Evidence of “jailbreaking” is no longer considered by Apple for the purpose of warranty validity while it is still necessary to run non-Apple-approved applications.
  3. The license for future versions of the iOS SDK is made friendlier to the free software development model. (I will clarify this in a later post when I get a full copy of the license agreement.) Ideally, Apple would release enough documentation to let anyone write an iOS replacement and load it onto any device which ships with iOS, and make the license changes retroactive.

Were Apple to do these things, I believe the world would be a better place for freedom. The fact that Apple will probably refuse to do any of this, speaks volumes about the true motives of Apple as a company and the character of such people as Steve Jobs. With this latest attack on software freedom by Apple, there has never been a worse time to buy Apple products.

Engadget editor shows us the “restrictions” in Digital Restrictions Management

I know, two stories from the same source. But this one hit one of my hot buttons a bit too hard to just skip.

Paul Miller, senior associate editor for Engadget recently posted about a nasty surprise that his Apple iPad had waiting for him. Instead of quoting the entire story I’ll do my best to summarize in bullet-point format:

  • Paul gets stuck in an airport with his iPad and buys a movie for $15 to pass the time (since his laptop battery is dead, the iPad was his only choice).
  • The download only gets 2/3 of the way completed before Paul has to board his flight.
  • Luckily his flight has in-flight WiFi. Unluckily for him, the port iTunes needs to access to download the movie is blocked (I have no idea how iTunes works so I’m just using the same terminology Paul did).
  • Paul finishes downloading the movie at home, and decides the iPad’s small screen is too small to truly enjoy the film. So Paul connects his iPad to his TV.

And… bam! The “Restrictions” part of Digital Restrictions Management kick in, and the iPad throws up “Cannot Play Movie / The connected display is not authorized to play protected movies.” Not surprisingly, Paul’s next move is to fire up a BitTorrent client and download an unrestricted copy of the same movie, which I would assume works fine.

The unfortunate part of Paul’s post is that he has bought into the misleading and loaded usage of terms such as “steal” and “theft” for copyright infringement. Unfortunately, that’s a much bigger problem and it’s not going to be solved overnight, or probably even this year. But that’s another rant for another day. That, and the fact he gets bitten by DRM on a device built entirely around DRM, that is a brick until it’s connected once to a copy of iTunes on Windows or MacOS, is an unfortunate non-surprise to the readers of this blog. (Oh, yes, you read that right! The iPad will not work without being hooked to a computer with iTunes at least once! More on that in a future entry, maybe.)

The reality is that the MPAA is overdue to “get it” like the RIAA did. The RIAA finally figured out that it made more sense to sell unprotected music files via Amazon and even iTunes than it did to keep using digital locks to try to keep the honest people honest. It’s a step in the right direction, of course those are still MP3 and most record companies still aren’t embracing WAV/FLAC downloads (which I could understand being a little more expensive per track, but which I would actually buy).

But the MPAA has held onto “lock it down with more DRM” like a stubborn mule. Why, I don’t know. Movie producers and studios are finally grasping the concept of digital cinema, but a good many productions still originate on 35mm film. The new age is the digital age, an age of non-scarcity, where we can have as many copies as we want. DRM is a failure. Shame on you, MPAA; it’s time to let your obsession with DRM go.

Exiting the rat race: a story of an iPhone developer’s departure

Dan Grigsby, best known for his Mobile Orchard blog for iPhone developers, has decided to hang it up per his recent blog entry which was also reported in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Dan draws an excellent parallel between two historic situations involving “ask permission” environments and the current situation involving Apple’s iPhone and its increasingly more restrictive development environment:

In the mid nineties, ahead of even, I founded one of the earliest e-commerce companies. At that time, most banks forbid Internet credit card transactions. They were fearful, so they enacted policies that blocked innovation. Of course that wasn’t universal: a few banks bucked the trend and, together with entrepreneurs like me, created a new sector of the economy. Pedants will point out that we still needed a bank’s permission; more reasonable readers will observe that there was no single daddy entity whose approval we required.

Early last decade, at roughly the same time and in parallel, I created a company like PayPal. Person-to-person payments threatened the banking establishment to such an extent that we were routinely told PayPal-like transactions were criminally illegal. A decade later, Wired Magazine placed PayPal as the cornerstone of the future of money.

The innovation in both of these examples made the establishment uncomfortable — they’d have stopped us at the gates had they been able too. Apple can, at their least bit of discomfort.

The lessons here should be relatively obvious: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Apple can exercise what is in effect an absolute veto over any particular iPhone application. Of course, there is no shortage of applications that will make Apple uncomfortable as a corporation; there are tons of blog entries about iPhone app rejections of questionable merit.

It makes me uncomfortable that those that dare call Apple out are usually dismissed. It takes high-profile iPhone developers and bloggers to finally put their virtual feet down and say “enough is enough, I’m quitting this rat race because even if you win you’re still a rat.”

Apple’s tightening of the chokehold, telling developers exactly what programming languages they can use (Objective-C, C, C++, or Javascript), and even then placing developers completely at their mercy, denying the App Store placement of what would otherwise be useful applications, is a recipe for inevitable bad PR and a peasants’ revolt. This is something I would have expected a company to have done back in the 1980s; it is woefully out of place in 2010. The irony of this, is that the Apple Computer that brought us the Apple II computers and the original Apple Macintosh was much more freedom- and hacker-friendly than today’s company.

The most discomforting thing, is that Apple is much closer to the rule than the exception. My best arguments against buying Apple’s iPhone also apply to any number of other products, most notably the Blackberry series and Microsoft’s Kin. (While Google is not exactly squeaky clean, they aren’t being nearly as restrictive in development of applications for Android-based phones such as the Droid and the Nexus One.) The most promising freedom-friendly smartphone, the Neo Freerunner, is being made in very small numbers and is disproportionately priced given its featureset.

Maybe Dan Grigsby can get Apple’s attention in ways others can’t. No one developer or blogger will be able to effect the type of change truly needed; it’s going to take a mob of angry developers to abandon Apple before they take notice.

Rotten Apple dealings, part number gee-I-lost-count

I’m combining my commentary from these three recent stoies into one post, because they are all about Apple’s latest shenanigans and I don’t want to post three in a row.

The first two are about yet more arbitrary iPhone app rejections. ZDNet’s The Apple Core blog reports on Apple taking out certain wi-fi discovery applications, on the grounds they use an undocumented interface (i.e. something Apple decided was too good to let just any old programmer use). Another one is more troubling; TechCrunch reports on the phone radiation monitoring application Tawkon and its denial.

Both of these examples have something in common: they highlight the arbitrary nature by which iPhone applcation developers can be put out of business. As it stands now, the iPhone developers are at the mercy of Apple.

With regard to wi-fi discovery, the responsible thing to do would be to open up the API (interface), properly document it, and ensure that every programmer who wishes to use it may. I’m not sure of the gory details, but this certainly smacks of something Apple would just do on a whim. At least one of the applications in question is releasing a version for jailbroken iPhones, though again I will note that jailbreaking shouldn’t even be necessary to begin with.

Tawkon actually performs a very useful function, something that really should be built into most mobile phone handsets. It’s sad, but unfortunately no big surprise, that Apple’s own interest (covering up exactly how much radio frequency emissions come from its product) trumps those of the people who wish to make money by selling such an application. Does Apple really have something to hide here? I would not be surprised if the final, Apple-approved version of Tawkon is crippled beyond usefulness.

The last article is about the iPad and Associated Press, courtesy of TechJackal. Apparently the good old AP is planning to offer a paid service to read its news articles on the iPad. Yes, the same ones available for free via the web.

The closed model of the iPad breeds greedy schemes like this of dubious merit. It’s a great deal for the AP and Apple, and a lousy deal for the people out there who have placed their trust in Apple by buying their wares. I know, it’s nothing really new. It’s sad that we have so many Apple lemmings out there willing to jump on the company’s latest offering, none of whom even care about the implications behind Apple’s unfortunate use of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) where it is clearly not needed and works to the detriment of its customers.

Shame on you, Apple. Your customers and developers deserve better than this.