Month: September 2012

With iPhone 5, Apple Again Raises the Smartphone Bar

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook took the stage Wednesday to unveil an eagerly awaited revamping of the company’s flagship products, including the iPhone, iPod, iTunes—all the way down to its ubiquitous white earphones.

The centerpiece of the event, held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts in San Francisco, was the introduction of the iPhone 5, a sleek new handset that sports a larger screen but a thinner profile and is 20 percent lighter than the previous iPhone 4S. The phone runs Apple’s new iOS 6 mobile operating system and clearly raises the bar in a high-stakes, industrywide competition between Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Samsung (SSNLF), and other tech giants to dominate the most real estate in the expanding world of mobile computing. “It really does feel like a piece of jewelry,” says Tim Bajaran, an analyst at Creative Strategies, of the new phone.

Although it sports a new design to accommodate a wider and longer screen, the iPhone 5 is not a radical departure from Apple’s (AAPL) successful formula. The device still transports its users into Apple’s world of digital media and 700,000 mobile apps. Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, says the phone’s screen was expanded to make it more comfortable to hold in your hand and operate with your thumb. The device is encased in glass and aluminum and, like previous models, comes in two colors, black and white, with a silver back.

Powering the latest iPhone is Apple’s homemade A6 processor, which the company said provides faster computing and graphics performance. The new phone incorporates higher-speed 4G networks, called LTE, of Sprint (S), AT&T (T), and Verizon in the U.S. The phone runs Siri, Apple’s famously temperamental voice recognition assistant, which now has expanded duties, including an ability to pull up information about sports and movies and allow the user to make dinner reservations via OpenTable.

“Apple has never been stronger,” said Tim Cook at the end of the nearly two-hour event, in which a succession of senior Apple executives took the stage, one after another, to preview the updates to their product lines. The differences between Apple products and the competition, he said, “is how well all our products work together.”

Although it initiated the wave of modern multifaceted smartphones, Apple has inevitably lost some ground in the mobile computing wars. Its iPad dominates the market for tablets, but Apple trails Google’s Android OS in overall market share. This year, says eMarketer, a data research firm, 43 percent of U.S. smartphone users will employ an Android device each month; 33 percent will use an Apple device.

Apple’s uniquely focused approach was on display at the event. Where other manufacturers enumerate the sheer number of features their phones have, Apple exercised restraint, directing attention to a few key features and emphasizing the unique tricks that distinguish the iPhone, such as a new photo feature that allows iPhone users to take a panoramic picture easily with their handset.

Apple also highlighted its legendary design prowess. The demonstration included a video interview with Apple’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive, who discussed some of the practices Apple has either used or invented to create the latest iPhone. Surfaces are finely honed, polished, and assembled with tolerances measured in microns. In this way, Apple looks to rise above the scrum of competing smartphones, positioning itself in a category that has more in common with expensive luxury goods than flimsy-feeling gadgets. “If you hold something like a Samsung Galaxy S III, you can see it right away,” said Bajarin. “They use cheap materials, and they copy.”

Among other announcements, Apple said the new iPhone 5 would integrate Facebook (FB) into its operating system. Users will be able to deliver status updates to their Facebook page using their voice, via Siri, and songs and videos in the iTunes store on the phone will have Facebook’s “like” buttons. Thus users can easily express their media tastes to their friends. Facebook stock was up nearly 7 percent, rising $1.50 to close at $20.93, on Apple’s announcement.

In addition to the iPhone, Apple announced updates to its somewhat musty line of iPod music players, whose introduction in 2001 truly started the company’s renaissance. Most significant were the changes to the iPod Touch, which now features the same 4-inch display found on the iPhone, as well as an anodized-aluminum case that measures 6.1mm thick and weighs just over three ounces. The iPod Touch has quickly established itself as a popular video, music, and gaming device and is free of the complications associated with mobile-phone contracts and providers.

With upgrades to its camera, the iPod Touch also becomes more of a competitor to traditional point-and-shoot cameras, a product category already knocked about by the rise of smartphone photography. The new iPod Touch has a 5-megapixel camera mounted on the rear, an integrated flash, autofocus capabilities, and the same Panorama feature found on the iPhone. Apple is also shipping iPod Touches with a wrist strap that attaches to the device, driving the point home even further that this is a device to be kept by your side for spontaneous events—exactly what point-and-shoot cameras have used as their selling point for years. Apple also updated the iPod Nano, adding Bluetooth, expanding the screen size, and, in a glancing nod to its past, introducing a variety of colors.

Apple even updated its iconic white earphones. The globular and gratuitously named EarPods are more comfortable and don’t create an awkward seal in the ear, the company said. Apple says it spent three years working out the new dimensions. The EarPods also have a unibody design, which will avoid removable inserts that separate from the rest of the earphone assembly.

Apple said that customers can order the iPhone 5 on Sept. 14 and will ship it on Sept. 21. Prices for the new phone, with a contract, start at $199 and remain the same as existing iPhones. The iPhone 4S goes on sale for $99, and the iPhone 4 is now free with a two-year contract.

At the conclusion of the announcement, the Foo Fighters took the stage and performed several of their hits, including My Hero and Walk, songs whose wistful lyrics seemed easily interpretable as an implicit nod to the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs nearly a year ago.

MacDefender: No, Macs are not suddenly susceptible to viruses

MacDefender: No, Macs are not suddenly susceptible to viruses

The tech community is in a frenzy over malicious software called MacDefender that targets Mac users. While this is a new phenomenon, it has nothing to do with the security of Mac OS X. Macs are still not susceptible to viruses.

Ever since Mac OS X was introduced over ten years ago, Mac owners have watched from afar as Windows users have suffered through viruses and spyware. There are always bugs and holes in any kind of software, but Mac OS X has remained free of self-installing viruses for a decade. In light of the recent MacDefender outbreak, many people are declaring the end of Apple’s virus-free reign. The problem with these claims is that Mac OS X’s security has not actually been breached. In fact, users themselves are giving explicit permission for this software to install.

For those who are unaware of the MacDefender issue, many people with Macs have been coming across malicious webpages that trigger a download of unwanted, fake antivirus software. Many times, these webpages fraudulently claim that a security scan has found malware on the user’s Mac. The solution, they say, is to install their software, pay for it with a credit card, and run it to clean out the system. Obviously, this is all a big scam to get money and credit card numbers. The MacDefender program does absolutely nothing but pester people for payment and open adult sites if they don’t comply. While this sounds bad, there’s not much Mac OS X could have done to prevent it from happening.

MacDefender trojan for Mac OS X

Unlike Windows malware and viruses that install themselves with no interaction from the user, this new Mac trojan requires the user to do most of the work. Here’s what must happen for MacDefender to be installed on a Mac:

  1. The user must go to an infected website. Many people have come across these through Google Image searches, so it could happen to anyone.
  2. The infected page runs a script that downloads the MacDefender installer file. Most of the time, this is the end of the line. Nothing has been installed and the Mac has not been infected. Just drag the file to the Trash – no harm, no foul. However, if Safari is set to “Open ‘safe’ files after downloading,” the process moves to stage 3.
  3. When Safari is configured to automatically open downloaded files, the MacDefender file will launch the application installer. Even still at this point, nothing harmful has occurred. If the user wisely realizes this is not a trusted or desired installation, they can quit the installer. Again, the file can then be trashed and the whole thing can be forgotten. On the other hand, if the user chooses to click the buttons to select a destination disk and continue the installation, they move to stage 4.
  4. Mac OS X, as a built-in layer of security, will then ask for an Administrator password. The user must willingly enter this password to complete the installation, otherwise it will fail and MacDefender won’t infect the system. Some new variants of the MacDefender malware don’t require a password if an Administrator account is being used, though. But Apple has always recommended people create Standard user accounts for day-to-day use, which would still require a password. Regardless of the type of account, the user must still manually click through the installer to get to this point.
  5. Assuming the user has completed all of the previous stages and is using an Administrator account and/or has entered their password, the MacDefender trojan will finally be installed. At this point, adult sites and security scare tactics will try to persuade the user to provide their credit card information.

As you can see, the process a user must go through to infect their Mac with MacDefender requires a number of poor decisions. Specifically, decisions where the user explicitly circumvents Mac OS X’s built-in security measures and their own best judgement. This method is called social engineering – manipulating a person (by scaring them into thinking they are infected with a virus) into doing something they don’t want to do (installing malicious software that poses as something else). Social engineered malware differs from the majority of traditional Windows malware, which can install itself without the user doing a thing. MacDefender doesn’t take advantage of a weakness in Mac OS X, but rather a weakness in the user. That’s why Macs continue to be virus-free and third-party security software still isn’t needed for most folks.

Of course, that isn’t to say Apple can’t make some improvements. For one, the “Open ‘safe’ files after downloading” setting in Safari should not exist. It’s highly recommended that every Safari user go to the program’s Preferences menu and uncheck this option right now. Second, Apple should modify Mac OS X setup process to create a Standard user account by default. This is more secure because a password is required for all software installations under a Standard account. Administrator accounts should remain hidden so unknowing users don’t log into them for everyday use. Nonetheless, these are relatively minor gripes. The major issue here is training users so they are better prepared not to fall for social engineering scams.

To sum everything up, this is a human attack, not a computer attack. How can a Mac – or any piece of technology, for that matter – protect users from themselves? Aside from turning Mac OS X into a curated platform like iOS where every piece of software must be approved by Apple through the App Store, there is no way to do this. Users must stay aware of what’s going on and use their best judgement. If you don’t have antivirus software installed and you get a warning that a scan has revealed security issues, don’t believe them. If an installation starts and you don’t know what program it is or why it’s there, quit it. Most importantly, if something is asking for your Mac’s Administrator password and you don’t know why, don’t give it.