Apple plans major US expansion including a new $1 billion campus in Austin

Apple has announced a major expansion that will see it open a new campus in North Austin and open new offices in Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles as it bids to increase its workforce in the U.S. The firm said it intends also to significantly expand its presence in Pittsburgh, New York and Boulder, Colorado over the next three years.

The Austin campus alone will cost the company $1 billion, but Apple said that the 133-acre space will generate an initial 5,000 jobs across a broad range of roles with the potential to add 10,000 more. The company claims to have 6,200 employees in Austin — its largest enclave outside of Cupertino — and it said that the addition of these new roles will make it the largest private employer in the city.

Beyond a lot of new faces, the new campus will include more than 50 acres of open space and — as is standard with Apple’s operations these days — it will run entirely on renewable energy.

Apple already has 6,200 employees in Austin, but its new campus could add up to 15,000 more

The investment was lauded by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“Their decision to expand operations in our state is a testament to the high-quality workforce and unmatched economic environment that Texas offers. I thank Apple for this tremendous investment in Texas, and I look forward to building upon our strong partnership to create an even brighter future for the Lone Star State,” he said in a statement shared by Apple.

But Austin isn’t the only focal point for Apple growth in the U.S.

Outside of the Austin development, the iPhone-maker plans to expand to over 1,000 staff Seattle, San Diego and LA over the next three years, while adding “hundreds” of staff in Pittsburgh, New York, Boulder, Boston and Portland, Oregon.

More broadly, Apple said it added 6,000 jobs to its U.S. workforce this year to take its total in the country to 90,000. It said it remains on track to create 20,000 new jobs in the U.S. by 2023.

Apple says iPhones remain on sale in China following court injunction

Apple has filed an appeal to overturn a court decision that could ban iPhone sales in China, the company said on Monday, adding that all of its models remain available in its third-largest market.

The American giant is locked in a legal battle in the world’s biggest smartphone market. On Monday, Qualcomm announced that a court in Fujian Province has granted a preliminary injunction banning the import and sales of old iPhone models in China because they violated two patents owned by the American chipmaker.

The patents in question relate to features enabling consumers to edit photos and manage apps on smartphone touchscreens, according to Qualcomm.

“Apple continues to benefit from our intellectual property while refusing to compensate us. These Court orders are further confirmation of the strength of Qualcomm’s vast patent portfolio,” said Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel of Qualcomm, in a statement.

Apple fought back in a statement calling Qualcomm’s effort to ban its products “another desperate move by a company whose illegal practices are under investigation by regulators around the world.” It also claimed that Qualcomm is asserting three patents they had never raised before, including one which has already been invalidated.

It is unclear at this point what final effects the court injunction will have on Apple’s sales in China.

The case is part of an ongoing global patent dispute between Qualcomm and Apple, which saw the former seek to block the manufacturing and sale of iPhones in China over patent issues pertaining to payments last year.

Qualcomm shares were up 3 percent on Monday. Apple opened down more than 2 percent before closing up 0.7 percent. Citi lowered its Apple price target to $200 a share from $240 a share, saying in a note to investors that while it does not expect China to ban or impose additional tariffs on Apple, “should this occur Apple has material exposure to China.”

The Apple case comes as the tech giant faces intensifying competition in China, which represented 18 percent of its total sales from the third quarter. The American company’s market share in China shrunk from 7.2 percent to 6.7 percent year-over-year in the second quarter as local competitors Huawei and Oppo gained more ground, according to market research firm IDC.

The annual drop is due to Apple’s high prices, IDC suggests, but its name “is still very strong in China” and “the company will fare well should it release slightly cheaper options later in the year.”

‘Google You Owe Us’ claimants aren’t giving up on UK Safari workaround suit

Lawyers behind a UK class-action style compensation litigation against Google for privacy violations have filed an appeal against a recent High Court ruling blocking the proceeding.

In October Mr Justice Warby ruled the case could not proceed on legal grounds, finding the claimants had not demonstrated a basis for bringing a compensation claim.

The case relates to the so called ‘Safari workaround’ Google used between 2011 and 2012 to override iPhone privacy settings and track users without consent.

The civil legal action — whose claimants refer to themselves as ‘Google You Owe Us’ — was filed last year by one named iPhone user, Richard Lloyd, the former director of consumer group, Which?, seeking to represent millions of UK users whose Safari settings the complaint alleges were similarly ignored by Google, via a representative legal action.

Lawyers for the claimants argued that sensitive personal data such as iPhone users’ political affiliation, sexual orientation, financial situation and more had been gathered by Google and used for targeted advertising without their consent.

Google You Owe Us proposed the sum of £750 per claimant for the company’s improper use of people’s data — which could result in a bill of up to £3BN (based on the suit’s intent to represent ~4.4 million UK iPhone users).

However UK law requires claimants demonstrate they suffered damage as a result of violation of the relevant data protection rules.

And in his October ruling Justice Warby found that the “bare facts pleaded in this case” were not “individualised” — hence he saw no case for damages.

He also ruled against the case proceeding on another legal point, related to defining a class for the case — finding “the essential requirements for a representative action are absent” because he said individuals in the group do not have the “same interest” in the claim.

Lodging its appeal today in the Court of Appeal, Google You Owe us described the High Court judgement as disappointing, and said it highlights the barriers that remain for consumers seeking to use collective actions as a route to redress in England and Wales.

In the US, meanwhile, Google settled with the FTC over a similar cookie tracking issue back in 2012 — agreeing to pay $22.5M in that instance.

Countering Justice Warby’s earlier suggestion that affected class members in the UK case did not care about their data being taken without permission, Google You Owe Us said, on the contrary, affected class members have continued to show their support for the case on Facebook — noting that more than 20,000 have signed up for case updates.

For the appeal, the legal team will argue that the High Court judgment was incorrect in stating the class had not suffered damage within the meaning of the UK’s Data Protection Act, and that the class had not all suffered in the same way as a result of the data breach.

Commenting in a statement, Lloyd said:

Google’s business model is based on using personal data to target adverts to consumers and they must ask permission before using this data. The court accepted that people did not give Google permission to use their data in this case, yet slammed the door shut on holding Google to account.

By appealing this decision, we want to give affected consumers the opportunity to get the compensation they are owed and show that collective actions offer a clear route to justice for data protection claims.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

Metacert’ Cryptonite can catch phishing links in your email

Metacert, founded by Paul Walsh, originally began as a way to watch chat rooms for fake Ethereum scams. Walsh, who was an early experimenter in cryptocurrencies, grew frustrated when he saw hackers dumping fake links into chat rooms, resulting in users regularly losing cash to scammers.

Now Walsh has expanded his software to email. A new product built for email will show little green or red shields next to links, confirming that a link is what it appears to be. A fake link would appear red while a real PayPal link, say, would appear green. The plugin works with Apple’s Mail app on the iPhone and is called Cryptonite.

“The system utilizes the MetaCert Protocol infrastructure/registry,” said Walsh. “It contains 10 billion classified URLs. This is at the core of all of MetaCert’s products and services. It’s a single API that’s used to protect over 1 million crypto people on Telegram via a security bot and it’s the same API that powers the integration that turned off phishing for the crypto world in 2017. Even when links are shortened? MetaCert unfurls them until it finds the real destination site, and then checks the Protocol to see if it’s verified, unknown or classified as phishing. It does all this in less that 300ms.”

Walsh is also working on a system to scan for Fake News in the wild using a similar technology to his anti-phishing solution. The company is raising currently and is working on a utility token.

Walsh sees his first customers as enterprise and expects IT shops to implement the software to show employees which links are allowed, i.e. company or partner links, and which ones are bad.

“It’s likely we will approach this top down and bottom up, which is unusual for enterprise security solutions. But ours is an enterprise service that anyone can install on their phone in less than a minute,” he said. “SMEs isn’t typically a target market for email security companies but we believe we can address this massive market with a solution that’s not scary to setup and expensive to support. More research is required though, to see if our hypothesis is right.”

“With MetaCert’s security, training is reduced to a single sentence ‘if it doesn’t have a green shield, assume it’s not safe,” said Walsh.

Alibaba made a smart screen to help blind people shop and it costs next to nothing

Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth.

When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.

Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass.

Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.

Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens.

Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”.

“It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.

Alibaba blind smartphone feature

Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba

“We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.”

Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims.

Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through.

At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps.

But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback.

“Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process.

There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out.

One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.)

Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores.

Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact.

“The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.

The iPhone is reportedly getting 5G in 2020

The first 5G phones are set to start arriving next year. Motorola plans to bring next-gen connectivity via a Mod for the Z3, and companies like LG and OnePlus have promised to deliver the tech baked into handsets at some point in 2019. iPhone users, on the other hand, may have to wait a bit longer.

The technology is, of course, an inevitability for Apple (along with everyone else, really), so it’s just a question of when. A new report from Fast Company (via the Verge) puts the timing around a year and half out.

The “source with knowledge of Apple’s plans” put the 5G iPhone’s arrival at some point in 2020, with Intel supplying the tech this time out. Apparently Apple and Intel are going through a bit of a rough patch of late, courtesy of heat/battery issues with the 8060 5G modem. Of course, things aren’t rough enough for the company to hit up Qualcomm again.

Given the on-going battle between the two companies, that’s probably a bridge too far. Instead, Apple’s holding out for Intel’s 8161 chip. 5G presents a solid opportunity for Intel to regain some of the substantial ground it ceded to Qualcomm in the mobile market the last time out.

Siri Shortcuts app gets updated with weather, alarms, timers and more

Alongside today’s announcements of new iPads and Mac, Apple also rolled out an updated version of its Siri Shortcuts app. The app, first introduced at WWDC, arrived with iOS 12 as a way to unlock Siri’s potential by allowing users to create their own custom voice commands and workflows. Now, it can do a few new things, too – including setting alarms and timers, getting the latest weather, and more.

The weather actions should be especially useful for those who have created custom morning routines with Siri Shortcuts, as you’ll now be able to use the latest weather in your shortcuts with the new “Get Current Weather” and “Get Weather Forecast” actions. Being able to ask for this sort of information is already among the top use cases for voice assistants, like Alexa and Google Assistant, so it makes sense to offer these sorts of commands to Siri Shortcuts users, as well.

Also helpful are the new “Create Alarm,” “Toggle Alarm,” and “Start Timer” actions, which addressed another notable hole in the Shortcuts app at launch. Many people were confused about how to use alarms within the app because these actions weren’t available, and the request often came up on Apple’s own support site, too. The new release, Siri Shortcuts 2.1, addresses this problem.

Other new actions include the ability to convert between a variety of units from the “Measurement” and “Convert Measurement” actions, and the ability to get the most recent set of imported photos from the Photos app using the “Get Last Import” action.

The app also fixes a problem with using Siri Shortcuts with HomePod. It will now automatically play back media from the HomePod over AirPlay, when you run the shortcut from HomePod via Siri – which just makes more sense.

Siri Shortcuts version 2.1 is the first major update following the app’s release with iOS 12. However, the app today still largely appeals to iOS power users – those who were already comfortable using its predecessor, Workflow, and who understand how to build routines.

More mainstream users are likely being exposed to Siri’s expanded powers through their favorite apps. With iOS 12, a number of top developers updated their apps with “Add to Siri” buttons that point out special tasks their apps can perform by way of voice. Early adopters on this front included Pandora, The Weather Channel, Sky Guide, Citymapper, Google News, TripIt, Trello, Monster, and others.

The updated version of Siri Shortcuts is available for download from the App Store.

At long last, pet portraits with background blur are possible on the iPhone XR

The new iPhones have some great new photography features, but the XR lacks a couple, for instance portrait mode for non-people subjects, owing to its sadly having only the one camera. So last year! Fortunately third party camera app Halide is here to help you get that professional-looking bokeh in your doggo shots.

There’s more to this than simply the lack of a second camera. As you know, since you read my article, the future of photography is code — and the present too, really. What’s great about this is that features that might otherwise rely on specific hardware, a chip or sensor, can often be added in software. Not always, but sometimes.

In the case of the iPhone XR, the lack of a second camera means depth data is very limited, meaning the slack has to be taken up with code. The problem was that Apple’s machine learning systems on there are only trained to recognize and create high quality depth maps of people. Not dogs, cats, plants, or toy robots.

People would be frustrated if the artificial background blur inexplicably got way worse when it was pointed at something that wasn’t a person, so the effect just doesn’t trigger unless someone’s in the shot.

The Halide team, not bound by Apple’s qualms, added the capability back in by essentially taking the raw depth data produced by the XR’s “focus pixels,” and applying their own processing and blur effect to make sure it doesn’t do weird things. It works on anything that can realistically be separated from the background — pets, toy robots, etc — because it isn’t a system specific to human faces.

As they write in a blog post explaining some of this at length, the effect isn’t perfect and because of how depth data is sent from the camera to the OS, you can’t preview the function. But it’s better than nothing at all, and maybe people on Instagram will think you shelled out for the XS instead of the XR (though you probably made the right choice).

The update (1.11) is awaiting Apple approval and should be available soon. If you don’t already own Halide, it costs $6. Small price to pay for a velvety background blur in your chinchilla pics.

Trump has two ‘secure’ iPhones, but the Chinese are still listening

President Trump has three iPhones — two of them are “secure” and his third is a regular personal device. But whenever the commander-in-chief takes a call, his adversaries are said to be listening.

That’s according to a new report by The New York Times, which put a spotlight on the president’s array of devices — and how he uses them.

Trump reluctantly gave up his old and outdated Android-powered Samsung Galaxy phone when he took office in 2016 and was transitioned to Apple devices. iPhones have historically been seen as more secure than their Android counterparts. Although one of his devices is a regular iPhone that he can use to store his contacts, the two other iPhones for official business have been modified and locked down by the National Security Agency to prevent eavesdropping.

Except — even when you’re in the White House, you can’t escape the aging, ailing and insecure cell network that blankets the capital and the vast majority of the U.S.

A crucial cell network system that helps broker and pass information between networks — known as Signaling System No. 7 (or just SS7) — have made it easier in recent years for hackers to intercept phone calls and text messages. SS7 is the protocol that cell networks use to establish and route calls and texts, but SS7 so broken that codes used for two-factor authentication have been intercepted and used to break into and drain bank accounts.

Those largely unfixed flaws make it far easier for governments — and anyone else — to tap into calls as they’re being made. That includes China, Russia — and any reasonably knowledgable attacker with the resources to pull off a successful intercept.

Trump’s reliance on three iPhones may seem cumbersome, but it’s a step up from what his predecessor got.

President Obama once likened his government-issued iPhone — given to him during his second term — to a “play phone [that] your 3-year-old has.” It was modified so that it could receive email but couldn’t make calls, and didn’t have a camera or microphone that foreign adversaries could use to glean any knowledge that the president was working on. He wasn’t even allowed to text — not necessarily for technical reasons, but to comply with the Presidential Records Act, which requires high-ranking government officials to store their official communications.

As much as Trump has been given more leniency than Obama, the president is still supposed to receive new, clean devices every month to cut off any hidden persistent malware that could be lurking within. But that policy isn’t enforced as closely as it should be, the report says, because of the inconvenience of having to manually port over the old data to the new phone without accidentally transferring any lingering malware — if any.

Although flaws in SS7 remain an issue for the average person, they’re apparently no match for the president’s own terrible “opsec” — or operational security, an awareness of the threats that he faces and the effort to mitigate them. Even if the Chinese or the Russians aren’t listening to his calls, they could always try their luck by hanging around one of his golf courses — where the president sent staff into a scramble after losing one of his phones in a golf cart.

And this is someone we trust with the nuclear codes.

Apple’s next iOS update will fix accidental selfie softening

Last month, the internet was a buzz with reports that Apple was sweetening up selfies on the iPhone XS and XS Max. The shots appeared to have an effect applied, in a manner similar to “beauty” filters offered on competing handsets. Apple denied it was intentionally touching photos, but not before it earned the predictable name, “Beautygate.”

Turns out it wasn’t just your imagination. The shots were getting softer, as a result of a software bug, according to the company. As The Verge reports, however, Apple will be fixing things with the upcoming iOS 12.1 update. Apple has since confirmed the fix with TechCrunch, noting that it’s also available in the current beta.

The long and short of what’s happening is this: the HDR processing has been defaulting to a longer shutter speed. That coupled with a loss of front-facing OIS leads to shakier images and blurrier photos. In other words, your phone wasn’t making you prettier, so much as a bit more blurry.

Honestly though, sometimes we’ll take what we can get.

The beta of the update is available now and should be rolling out to everyone else soon.