Posts tagged Apple’s

Apple’s Executive Page Just Got More Diverse

Just days after Apple released a report that revealed it’s not much more diverse than the rest of Silicon Valley, the company updated its executive leadership page in a way that spotlights more diversity among a lower rung of executives.

Apple’s website now features five additional executive profiles, two of which are women: Lisa Jackson, vice president of environmental initiatives, and Denise Young-Smith, vice president of worldwide human resources. The recent additions are all vice president-level executives who report to CEO Tim Cook.

See also: Tim Cook Takes A Diverse Stance: Apple’s Gay And Disabled Employees Matter Too

Cook mentioned both Jackson and Young-Smith as examples of diverse executives in a letter that accompanied its transparency report on Tuesday. Apple hired both women within the last year and a half, 9to5 Mac reports.

Though they’re in non-technical roles—men make up 80% of Apple’s technical workforce—both positions are high profile, public facing jobs. At the very least, they make women much more visible at the male-dominated company.

Apple is clearly making an effort to increase workplace diversity, at least the public perception of it. It’s following a trend in which several big tech companies have admitted they’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of hiring talent that isn’t white and male.

Perhaps this brings us closer to the day when Apple will feature a female executive on stage at its annual WWDC meeting for the first time ever

Lead image by matt buchanan

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Tim Cook Takes A Diverse Stance: Apple’s Gay And Disabled Employees Matter Too

Following the transparency trend of tech companies revealing their diversity data, Apple posted its own report Tuesday. Surprise, surprise: The iPhone maker’s numbers don’t look much different from other Silicon Valley companies. 

However, Apple CEO Tim Cook mentioned in a letter accompanying the report that the company’s definition of diversity doesn’t focus exclusively on race and gender, but includes disabilities, sexual orientation and veteran status. Cook didn’t disclose numbers for those specific areas, but he did point out some examples. For instance, he praised Kim Paulk, a hearing- and vision-impaired employee in New York.

Kim has a medical condition that has impaired her vision and hearing since she was a child. Our customers rave about Kim’s service, and they say she embodies the best characteristics of Apple. Her guide dog, Gemma, is affectionately known around the store as the “seeing iDog.”

Apple also cited its support for organizations that provide opportunities for underrepresented people in the technology industry. The company pledged $100 million to President Obama’s ConnectED program to bring technology to schools, and sponsors the LGBT equal-rights group Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Perhaps it was savvy for Cook to highlight those details, as the numbers in the tech giant’s diversity report don’t look all that different from other Silicon Valley companies. 

Apple’s workforce is mostly male and white, with a sizable chunk made up of Asian employees. Of its 98,000 total employees worldwide, 70% are male. In the U.S., the demographic data breaks down to 55% white, 15% Asian, 11% Hispanic, and 7% black. Nine percent of the company’s employees did not declare their ethnicity.

For comparison, the U.S. population boils down to 62.6% white, 17.1% Hispanic or Latino, 13.2% African American and 5.3% Asian.

Unlike other tech firms, Google and Facebook for instance, Apple employs brick-and-mortar retail staffers across the U.S. and the world. The company included these employees in its diversity roundup, but didn’t say specifically if those “geniuses” or other store clerks were part of its “non-tech” or “tech” categories. For the latter, 80% of jobs are held by men. Domestically, tech employees break down to 54% white and 23% Asian, with Hispanic and black workers making up 7% and 6%, respectively.

In his letter, Cook admitted that he’s not satisfied with the ratios. “They’re not new to us, and we’ve been working hard for quite some time to improve them,” he wrote.

Images courtesy of Apple. 

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Apple’s Abrupt Mac OS X Change Could Block Many Apps

Apple told developers Monday afternoon that many of their older Mac applications may not run in the next update to Mac OS X unless they “re-sign” them using a digital-signature tool in OS X 10.9 Mavericks, the current version of the Mac operating system. Many developers aren’t happy about the abrupt change:

The change affects all Mac applications built on older versions of Mac OS X—specifically, any version that predates Mavericks, which officially launched last October. As of the next release of the desktop operating system—that’ll be OS X 10.9.5—those apps may simply no longer function until their digital signatures are updated using a tool in Mavericks. (These apps also may not function in future versions of OS X, including beta versions of OS X 10.10 Yosemite.)

Update, 6:56pm PT: Programs with older digital signatures may simply trigger a security warning for users. At least, that’s the gist of an explanation that Apple apparently sent to developers earlier on Wednesday, per this report in the The Unofficial Apple Weblog:

Signatures created with OS X Mountain Lion 10.8.5 or earlier (v1 signatures) will be obsoleted and Gatekeeper will no longer recognize them. Users may receive a Gatekeeper warning and will need to exempt your app to continue using it. To ensure your apps will run without warning on updated versions of OS X, they must be signed on OS X Mavericks 10.9 or later (v2 signatures).

A large number of common apps could be affected by the change; see below for details.

Sign Me Up

Apple requires developers to digitally “sign” their applications, ostensibly for security reasons. Signing an app vouchsafes it as the creation of a given developer, and lets the Mac operating system detect any changes to its underlying code. (Apple explains the process in more detail in its official code-signing guide.)

Pre-Mavericks versions of OS X used an older code-signing technology that produced what Apple calls “version 1″ signatures. OS X 10.9.5 and future OS X versions will require “version 2″ signatures, which require the use of the “codesign” tool within Mavericks.

It’s not clear how much time developers have to re-sign their older applications. Apple hasn’t said when Mavericks 10.9.5 will launch; it just released the first 10.9.5 beta last Wednesday.

Caught In The Digital Dragnet

If developers don’t act quickly, large numbers of common apps could be affected. Developer John Bafford published a command-line script on GitHub Gist that identifies the signature version of all programs in a Mac’s applications folder. It looks like this, in case you’re curious:

I ran the command on my Mac and found almost 50 applications with version 1 signatures, including Apple’s iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, Numbers, Pages and Keynote. Other affected programs include Microsoft Office 2011, Adobe Reader, Dropbox, Google Chrome, Firefox and Evernote. (Oh, and Minecraft, too.)

I don’t have many apps from smaller developer teams on my machine, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find lots of them with version 1 signatures. What’s more, big companies have the resources to re-sign and update their apps well in advance of the release of OS X 10.9.5; smaller developers may be much harder pressed to do that in time.

I pinged Apple PR for further explanation of the announcement, and will update if I hear back.

Lead image by Flickr user ishmael daro, CC 2.0

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Those “Backdoors” in Apple’s iOS: What You Need To Know

Security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski started a firestorm over the weekend when he presented findings that Apple has—apparently deliberately—created undocumented “backdoors” in its iOS operating system that third parties could use to siphon personal data from iPhones and iPads under certain circumstances without notice, much less consent of the user.

Apple, meanwhile, has taken issue with Zdziarski’s analysis, although its response—such as it is—falls short of a complete denial.

It’s a complicated issue, so here’s a quick FAQ to help you sort through it all.

Should I panic?

No. In a blog post summarizing his work, Zdziarski includes this helpful note: “DON’T PANIC.”

The backdoors he describes aren’t the sort of thing your average cybercriminal can easily exploit. There’s no evidence that they’ve been used for identity theft or any sort of related criminal attack on iPhone or iPad data. At least so far, that is.

See also: The Bugs Are Piling Up In Apple’s iOS 7

On the other hand, if you think the NSA or regular law enforcement might be tracking you, then Zdziarski might have described some of the backdoors by which their agents could be delving into your digital life.

Beyond that, they’re an intriguing mystery—one that Apple has yet to explain.

Hold on a moment. What’s a backdoor?

Like the word suggests, a backdoor is a simple or unguarded route into an otherwise secure system. Think Matthew Broderick’s character in War Games sussing out a way to access WOPR by guessing a backdoor password specific to the system’s creator (his dead son’s name—a classically terrible password, by the way).

How would the NSA (or whoever) make use of these backdoors?

Zdziarski, a forensics expert and one-time iOS jailbreaker who’s written several books about iPhone development, described three iOS services that appear to have an unusual degree of access to raw and potentially sensitive data gathered by or stored on the phone. These services are also apparently designed to collect that information, package it and dump it out upon request, either via USB or wirelessly over Wi-Fi.

These features are undocumented, meaning that they’re not described by Apple in the sort of detail it normally provides to third-party developers who might make use of them. According to Zdziarski, however, they are installed and active on roughly 600 million iOS devices. They provide no indication that they’re operating, and there’s no way for users to turn them off.

Perhaps most ominous, these services can send out unencrypted information even if users have chosen to encrypt the data they back up through iTunes. Zdziarski calls this behavior “bypassing backup encryption” and considers it deceptive at best.

That all sounds pretty panic-worthy. Isn’t it?

Turns out there’s a catch. These services only work when an iPhone or iPad is “paired” to a trusted device, such as the computer you run iTunes on. (Bluetooth pairing with, say, a set of headphones doesn’t count.) That greatly limits the ability of any attacker to exploit these services and rifle through your iPhone.

It is, however, possible to spoof that pairing. Every pairing generates a set of cryptographic keys and certificates designed to identify trusted devices to one another—and on the iPhone side, those keys and certificates are never deleted unless the user does a full restore or a factory reset on the device. Prior to iOS 7—the version used by most iPhones—pairing happened automatically without any user intervention. (iOS 7 now requires the user to approve pairing with a “trusted” device.)

As Zdziarski put it in a March 2014 technical journal article describing his findings: “[E]very desktop that a phone has been plugged into (especially prior to iOS 7) is given a skeleton key to the phone.” And that skeleton key is transportable, because a sufficiently motivated attacker can copy pairing keys and certificates from one computer to another. 

Who would go to all the trouble of tracking down those keys and copying them?

Well, the police might, if they thought you were involved with organized crime. So might the NSA, the FBI or a number of other intelligence agencies. And of course some of these outfits could also create seemingly innocuous “paired” devices such as an alarm clock or charging station that would run malicious code once connected to your phone.

As noted above, though, it’s not the sort of thing your average Belarusan hacker is likely to use to take over your phone any time soon.  

OK, tell me more about these undocumented services. What are they and what do they do?

In a presentation he made at the Hope X hacker conference in New York this past weekend, Zdziarski focused on three particular services known by the technical names com.apple.pcapd, com.apple.mobile.file_relay and com.apple.mobile.house_arrest. (You can see the slides from Zdziarski’s talk—all 58 of them—here.)

The pcapd service starts what security professionals call a “packet sniffer” on an iOS device—basically, software that records all data traffic to and from your iPhone. It’s installed by default on all iOS devices, and operates whether a phone is in “developer mode” or not, suggesting that it’s not a developer-specific feature. And it gives the user no warning when it’s activated.

“This means anyone with a pairing record can connect to a target device via USB or Wi-Fi and listen in on the target’s network traffic,” Zdziarski wrote in his March paper.

The file_relay service, according to Zdziarski, exists to vacuum up large volumes of raw data from particular sources on an iPhone and then to dump it out in unencrypted form. Several years back, file_relay appeared fairly innocuous. In iPhoneOS 2.0 (an early predecessor to iOS), it was only able to access six data sources, including “Apple Support,” “network,” and “CrashReporter.”

By iOS 7, however, file_relay‘s reach had expanded to include 44 data sources, many of which specifically address the owner’s personal information. These include the address book, accounts, GPS logs, maps of the phone’s entire file system, a collection of all words typed into the phone, photos, notes, calendar files, call history, voicemail and other records of personal activity that have been cached in temporary files.

Small wonder Zdziarski calls file_relay “the biggest forensic trove of intelligence on a device’s owner” and a “key ‘backdoor’ service” that provides a significant amount of data that “would only be relevant to law enforcement or spying agencies.”

The third service, house_arrest, originally allowed iTunes to copy documents to and from third-party apps. Now, however, house_arrest has access to a much broader array of app-related data, including photos, databases, screenshots and temporary “cached” information.

Couldn’t these services have legitimate functions?

Maybe, although it’s difficult to understand why they they’d have such apparently untrammeled access to so much information. That’s a pretty major security failing under any circumstance.

Zdziarski also runs through a number of possible explanations—that they might be used in iTunes or Xcode (Apple’s iOS app-development environment), or in developer debugging, or by Apple support, or in Apple engineering debugging—and shoots each one down in turn. 

It’s very difficult to construct an explanation for legitimate, non-surveillance uses of services that aren’t documented, that bypass backup encryption, that have access to otherwise inaccessible user data and that give the user no notification that they’re accessing and dumping out information. Oh, and whose code Apple has maintained and updated across several versions of iOS.

Given Apple’s historical issues with lack of cooperation and infighting between technical teams, it’s also conceivable that these services grew without much direction at all, almost by accident, as engineers struggled to solve other technical problems without writing a whole bunch of new code. Call this the it-ain’t-pretty-but-it-works explanation.

Is it plausible? Your guess is as good as mine. And it’s still a major security fail.

What does Apple have to say about all this?

In classic fashion, not very much. Apple didn’t get back to me when I emailed it for comment, although I’ll keep trying.

Apparently, however, it did email a statement to Tim Bradshaw, a reporter for the Financial Times, who tweeted it:

The statement, of course, is rife with ambiguity. Is Apple referring specifically to pcapd, file_relay and house_arrest here, or just issuing a general statement about its diagnostic functions? 

And it fails to address most of Zdziarski’s basic questions. If these services are diagnostic functions, why aren’t they documented? Why do they operate even if users haven’t agreed to send diagnostic information to Apple? Why can’t users deny their consent to having information taken off their devices this way? Why can’t users turn these services off?

It is certainly interesting that Apple feels compelled to deny that it has even “worked with any government agency from any country” to engineer backdoors into its products or services. Especially since Zdziarski hadn’t accused them of such.

Does Zdziarski have thoughts about Apple’s statement?

Does he ever. In a new blog post Monday night, he summed up his reaction this way:

I understand that every OS has diagnostic functions, however these services break the promise that Apple makes with the consumer when they enter a backup password; that the data on their device will only come off the phone encrypted. The consumer is also not aware of these mechanisms, nor are they prompted in any way by the device. There is simply no way to justify the massive leak of data as a result of these services, and without any explicit consent by the user.

I also contacted Zdziarski for comment, but haven’t heard back.

Lead image by Flickr user Mooganic; swan image by Flickr user blinking idiot, CC 2.0

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Developers Are Starting To Chase After Apple’s Swift

Apple really wants developers to switch to Swift. And it looks like the feeling is mutual.

Six weeks after Apple unveiled Swift, the new programming language for iPhone and Mac applications is attracting a noticeable level of interest from developers. Phil Johnson at IT World crunched the numbers, and at least on GitHub, developers are picking it up.

See also: Apple Wants Devs To Love Swift, Its Shiny New Language—But There’s A Catch

Swift is now the 15th most widely used language on GitHub, with more than 2,600 new Swift repositories created since June, according to Johnson’s study. More significantly, Johnson believes that interest in Swift is directly replacing interest in Objective-C:

“From the beginning of January through the end of May, developers created about 294 new Objective-C repositories per day on GitHub. Since Swift was released in early June, that average has dropped to about 246 repos per day. That drop of 48 repos per day is pretty close to the average number of new Swift repositories created per day since its release and initial spike in interest.”

Apple has shown a marked interested in getting developers to adopt Swift, even going so far as to launch a surprisingly open and friendly development blog.

See also: Why Apple’s Blogging About Swift, Its New Programming Language For iPhones And Macs

From Apple’s perspective, Swift is a simpler, safer, faster-to-run alternative to the somewhat clunky and error prone language Objective-C now used to write apps for iPhones, iPads and Macs. But even if Swift is the magic bullet Apple conveys, it’s still going to have to rally developers to switch from the old way of doing things to an unproven new language.

The GitHub data shows that at least some developers are turning a new leaf.

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Why Apple’s Blogging About Swift, Its New Programming Language For iPhones And Macs

Well, here’s an unusual move: Apple hit the virtual streets Friday to tout Swift, its new programming language for developers, via a brand-new, dedicated blog.

For the historically stand-offish—some would say arrogant—iPhone and Mac maker, this sort of developer outreach is unusual. Although the company has dedicated sections and webpages about various aspects of its software and hardware lines, they tend to be opaque holding tanks for official pronouncements and downloads. 

Now Apple seems to be going out of its way to appeal to developers in historically unthinkable ways. The Swift blog, hosted on Apple’s own website, offers a more open and friendly approach, pledging to give app builders an inside look at Swift development. It also carries through Apple’s overarching theme about the language’s ease of use for creating mobile iOS and desktop OS X apps.

This new blog will bring you a behind-the-scenes look into the design of the Swift language by the engineers who created it, in addition to the latest news and hints to turn you into a productive Swift programmer.

Get started with Swift by downloading Xcode 6 beta, now available to all Registered Apple Developers for free. The Swift Resources tab has a ton of great links to videos, documentation, books, and sample code to help you become one of the world’s first Swift experts. There’s never been a better time to get coding!

Apple’s new Swift blog

There’s no telling how things could evolve from here. So far, there’s only one blog post talking about Swift’s stability across “past, present, and future OS releases.” But it’s easy to imagine it becoming a stepping stone on the way to more two-way conversations with the company. At least it’s easy to imagine now. A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable. 

The Wall Street Journal recently noted how Apple has softened under Tim Cook’s reign. The CEO’s warmer, fuzzier leadership style—which emphasizes teamwork and collaboration—stands in stark contrast to that of Steve Jobs, the cofounder known for dictatorial management and an uncompromising personality. 

Apple Senior VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi rocked out at the 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference.

Certainly a funner, and funnier, Apple seemed to be on display at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June, where Apple executive Craig Federighi threw devil horns when talking about a new feature called “Metal” and Cook teasingly called his colleague “Superman” for his ability to fly on and off the stage for presentation after presentation. 

That lent some credence to the notion of a more laid-back Apple. The new Swift blog adds even more, as Cook’s internal openness looks like it’s finally filtering outside to Apple’s army of independent software builders.

But it’s very likely that the blog is more than just a nice gesture put forth by a repentant tech company. If Apple wants a Swift transition from the older, clunkier languages used to stock the App Store’s shelves, it needs to rally developers. 

And the best way to do that is to give this community—which is used to (some say tired of) being left out of the loop on iPhone and OS X plans—what they’ve wanted all these years: the iron fist of Apple to loosen into an open hand. 

At least, that’s what some developers believe.

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Apple’s Ambition Extends Well Beyond The iPhone—As In, To Your Entire Life

On the surface, Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference last week was all about new developer tools—well, that and some upcoming features in Mac OS X and iOS, its computer and handheld operating systems. Step back, though, and you can see the outlines of something much bigger: a hint of how Apple sees its future beyond smartphones and tablets.

Brace yourself, because it looks momentous. Think of it as Apple’s plan for your new iLifestyle.

Gathering The Clues At WWDC

Some folks already live deep in the Apple ecosystem. But those iPhones, iPads and Macs were just the first step. Apple now looks to be laying a foundation for a much bigger and more pervasive platform that will bridge iOS and Mac OS X, and move outward from there to encompass practically every aspect of its users’ lives.

It all starts with developers. After years of restrictions, Apple offered numerous software changes that will start opening up its tightly controlled operating software in still-limited yet significant ways. It showered iOS developers with 4,000 new APIs (see our API explainer) and new access to long-desired functions. For instance, apps will be able to communicate with each other, reaching outside those limited and isolating “sandboxes”; they’ll also be able to tap the identity-verification functions of the TouchID fingerprint scanner introduced in the iPhone 5S last year.

The changes will make apps more useful and open up possibilities for new app-based innovations. And that process could get a boost from Swift, Apple’s new programming language, which is designed to make building iOS apps fast and easy work.

Meanwhile, Apple also took initial steps toward some entirely new fields—preliminary moves that are easy to discount because Apple didn’t draw that much attention to them.

In a “blink and you’ll miss it” portion of the presentation, Apple offered a (very) brief glimpse of HomeKit, its iPhone-driven foray into smart homes. The company didn’t offer many details at the time, and its developer document on the HomeKit framework is also fairly sketchy. But the idea is to cut through the clutter of scattershot connected-home approaches by providing a common protocol for automated lighting, climate and security systems so that “third-party apps”—i.e., on the iPhone—can direct them.

In a similar way, HealthKit aims to create a central repository for the jumble of data collected by health trackers and fitness apps, one that can be of use to both you and your doctor. 

The big notion in both introductions is “unification.” That word is key to Apple’s plans. 

What Apple Aims To Fix

There’s tremendous opportunity in smart homes, mostly because no one has managed to make them work well for the average consumer. In that sense, the connected-home industry is essentially broken.

Right now, wiring up your home involves wading through way too many complex decisions. Should you do it yourself or let Comcast manage it for you? You have to sort through standards (Zigbee? Z-wave? Insteon?) and weigh other options (hub or no hub? Wi-Fi or Ethernet? Throw in your lot with a single manufacturer or mix and match products?). Further complicating things is the fact that most of these approaches are incompatible, so heading down one path essentially means you have to start all over if you change your mind.

Apple has a knack for stepping into nascent, chaotic markets and imposing order with a streamlined offering that, often enough, turns into a blockbuster hit. It’s clearly betting it can do exactly that for smart homes. As the company put it in its developer documentation:

Home Kit makes possible a marketplace where the app a user controls their home with doesn’t have to be created by the vendor who made their home automation accessories, and where home automation accessories from multiple vendors can all be integrated into a single coherent whole without those vendors having to coordinate directly with each other.

Likewise, Apple wants to bring together the piecemeal information gathered by health and fitness apps and make sense of it all. There’s a lot of data from step trackers, heart rate monitors, smart clothes and such, and not all of it lines up.

In Apple’s vision, the iPhone will match up the metrics and fill in gaps where it can. Actually deriving meaning from all that data in ways that are useful to healthcare providers is a trickier proposition. So the company partnered with the Mayo Clinic and other healthcare centers for their expertise.

It’s not a stretch to think Apple will pull together its health and smart home initiatives. You can easily imagine HealthKit collecting data from connected health gadgets around the home, like digital scales and blood pressure monitors. That makes it a short hop from automating our lights to managing our health and wellness.

Take things just a step further, and Apple’s systems could learn our behaviors and anticipate what we need before we know it ourselves. Lights might change to a soothing color when the system knows I’m tense. My devices could power off automatically because bedtime is near. Diet notifications might land on my wrist as soon as I open the fridge between meals.

Now extrapolate just a bit farther—after all, Apple probably has. A few months ago, it got behind the wheel with CarPlay, its first attempt at pushing iOS into the automobile dashboard. A few months from now, CEO Tim Cook is expected to introduce a new wearable device. So instead of relying on other companies’ electronics, there may soon be a sweep of Apple products all plugging seamlessly into the iLifestyle.

What Apple Gets In Return: The New iLifestyle

Supposing Apple does unify the car, the wrist, the pocket and your desk to manage your home and your health, there’s no way around the fact that it’s going to know a lot about you. An awful lot. And if that’s Apple’s end game, there’s no doubt it will set privacy advocates on edge.

That’s where TouchID—currently, the iPhone’s somewhat gimmicky fingerprint scanner—might alleviate some privacy fears. So far, most talk about this biometric authentication has focused on whether it could be used for mobile security or payments. (PayPal is reportedly exploring that very notion.) 

But TouchID could also easily emerge as the guardian of your digital lifestyle by requiring biometric proof of your identity before unlocking your health data or home controls—even your car. (That might be an especially compelling proposition should Apple mount the scanner on an iWatch.) The likely consumer message: You can trust the system because your literal hearts and homes are safeguarded by your own fingerprint.

None of this will happen overnight, of course. But Apple has laid down a serious iLifestyle foundation. Now all it has to do is deliver on it—and convince people that an Apple-branded way of life is what they wanted all along.

Images courtesy of Flickr users Jon Rawlinson (Apple store logo), Mackenzie Kosut (Apple home with view), Fauzan Alfi (Apple gadgets), Philipp Zumtobel (iWatch concept), Blake Patterson (Tim Cook in motion). Carplay image courtesy of Apple.

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Sorry, Apple’s HealthKit Isn’t Going To Give You Six-Pack Abs

ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm about Apple’s newly announced HealthKit software, especially from the makers of fitness apps and connected devices.

I hate to throw everyone into the locker room and turn the cold-water faucets on full blast, but someone’s got to do it.

Here’s an example of the hype that’s getting thrown around:

“HealthKit appears to be a great platform that Strava can use to serve our global community of athletes with more insight about their athletic performance.” —Strava strategy VP David Lorsh

Appearances aren’t everything. The bottom line is that HealthKit is largely geared around delivering very basic vital statistics to medical personnel, and its nutrition- and activity-tracking features are rudimentary at best.

That will limit the adoption of HealthKit to a fairly small set of users intensely interested in tracking vital signs. As Google and Microsoft have found through their past misadventures in online health, that market just isn’t very broad. It’s not clear to me why Apple thinks putting this data on your smartphone will change consumers’ minds.

Meanwhile, apps like MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and MapMyFitness will keep ingesting massive amounts of data from their tens of millions of users (who have both Android and iOS phones)—and sharing it broadly through their well-established application programming interfaces. The data they collect about calories in, calories out, and types of activity, may get fed into HealthKit. But because HealthKit’s data types are so limited at present, any useful analysis that helps guide people to better health decisions will have to happen outside of Apple’s health universe. 

Apple executive Craig Federighi shows off an app using Healthkit at the 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference.

Apple executive Craig Federighi shows off an app using Healthkit at the 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference.

Down In The Documentation

There’s no need to speculate about what HealthKit can or can’t do anymore. The details are all in the documents Apple has published, as well as a presentation Apple engineers delivered at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this week.

It’s clear that Apple had a hard decision to make on what data types to include. Should HealthKit support a wide variety of medical, health and fitness apps, and risk making choices that conflict with developers’ preferences or medical experts’ ideas of what data is most valuable? Or should it focus on a narrower set of uses, and risk disappointment when consumers realize it can’t store the information they’re most interested in?

The decisions Apple made, though, don’t really fall towards either extreme. In the end, they’re just confusing.

Apple, for example, supports a host of options for taking your temperature from your eardrum to your rectum:

HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocation
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationArmpit
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationBody
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationEar
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationEarDrum
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationFinger
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationForehead
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationGastroIntestinal
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationMouth
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationOther
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationRectum
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationTemporalArtery
HKBodyTemperatureSensorLocationToe

It’s also got a wide variety of nutrients available for recording. It tracks steps, flights of stairs climbed, and Nike’s proprietary NikeFuel measure for activity. It can track the number of times you’ve fallen and your inhaler usage.

Where Apple falls far short, at least in terms of the concepts built into HealthKit, are the useful details of what we eat and how we work out.

There are some basic features for food logging, but there doesn’t appear to be a concept of timing for food consumption, for example, or support for grouping food items into meals. It’s also not clear what kind of food database Apple might tap to match food items to standardized calorie and nutrition information. MyFitnessPal users accustomed to its very rich food-tracking capabilities will be sorely disappointed by anything built purely with HealthKit.

In exercise, HealthKit appears to count numbers of activities and the energy burned in performing them, but that’s it. You can’t even compare that to RunKeeper’s very well-developed Health Graph application programming interface, which has an extensive software vocabulary for cardio and strength training.

Our Prescription For HealthKit: An Intensive Training Program

I asked RunKeeper CEO Jason Jacobs for some perspective on what it takes to build a sophisticated interface for connecting health and fitness apps, since his company did exactly that back in 2011 with the introduction of the Health Graph.

Jacobs says RunKeeper realized that it was best off building apps for consumers, rather than trying to build what Jacobs calls “middleware” for other app developers. It recently introduced a new activity-coaching app called Breeze alongside its eponymous fitness-tracking app.

“It’s really hard, so I wish them luck!” Jacobs told me. “If [Apple’s] not successful, it doesn’t hurt us. If they are successful, it should help us.”

That’s broadly true, I believe, for most of the apps in the fitness category. HealthKit may help them simplify some aspects of data entry, but it’s far too underpowered and unsophisticated to do much on its own.

How Apple Can Slice Up Our Data

The one thing that’s intriguing about HealthKit is its ability to consolidate and reconcile overlapping data from multiple sources. In a WWDC presentation, Apple software engineer Justin Rushing showed how HealthKit could take step data from two different apps, sort it by time periods, and based on the preferences of the user, eliminate redundant data.

That would be great for someone like me, who’s constantly trying new apps and devices which often track the same kinds of statistics, like hours of sleep, steps walked, and even heart rate during a workout. I use MyFitnessPal and connect it with apps like RunKeeper, Pear Sports, and Jawbone Up.

Here’s an example of how Apple’s HealthKit sorts out conflicts in fitness data.

Here’s an example of how Apple’s HealthKit sorts out conflicts in fitness data.

That’s valuable to me because I now rarely have to log a workout in one app and then record it again in another app. The challenge comes when the Up counts the number of steps I take during a run while RunKeeper logs the same activity and estimates calories based on mileage and speed—and they both feed MyFitnessPal data that not only overlaps but often disagrees.

As we add sensors and apps that can passively track our activity, the problem of data overlap will only grow. HealthKit will have to rapidly add more data types and get better at understanding the relationship between steps, calories, and activity, though—otherwise its abilities to reconcile data won’t keep up with the demands of consumers or developers.

It’s important to recognize HealthKit as it exists today as a beginning, not an end, to Apple’s presence in the health and fitness world. There are some valuable things it can bring—things as simple as letting users update their weight once and have that information flow to all available apps. I typically have to enter my height, weight, sex, and age every time I sign up for a new app. A central storehouse for that information just makes sense.

I’d be happier, though, if that storehouse weren’t so tightly tied to a particular device. As we enter a world of wearables, our devices will increasingly talk directly to servers over the Internet—the cloud, in other words—without the mediation of a smartphone. Smartphones and tablets will be access devices where we can review and analyze this data, but they don’t need to be the central hub.

I can understand why Apple, which makes its money selling mobile devices, would favor a device-centric approach. I’m just worried that it won’t give HealthKit a very long lifespan.

Photo by Shutterstock; screenshot via Apple

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Apple’s Swift Move: How Its New Coding Language Could Shake Up iOS Development

Guest author Alex Salkever is head of product marketing and business development at Silk.co. This piece first appeared on his Tumblr.

At the 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple released an entirely new programming language called Swift. It is a higher level coding language that aims to provide the power of Objective-C with the flexibility of higher level scripting languages such as Node.js or Python.

In theory, Swift should make it far easier to write iOS apps that run as fast or faster than those scripted painstakingly within the more cumbersome, time-consuming and risky confines of Objective-C. If Swift delivers even partly on its promise, it could be huge boon for companies that want to build iPhone apps. iPhone developers have been the hottest ticket on the global software market for a number of years.

The good ones command nose-bleed level hourly rates of $250 to $300 per hour. Starting salaries for entry level iOS coders that have passed rigorous coding challenge tests run from $120,000 per year north. Senior iOS devs have commanded $200,000 from larger enterprises seeking their experience.

Why the high prices for iOS talent? Supply and demand. It’s very hard to learn Objective-C well enough to write compelling, high-performance apps. Learning how to manage memory in iOS and how to best take advantage of the capabilities of the hardware takes time, effort and a deep understanding of Objective-C.

A Swiftly Tilting Labor Market

Enter Swift, which—again, if it works as Apple clearly hopes—will with one stroke dramatically lower the bar for writing an iPhone app. The language is designed to make it much easier for coders to write iPhone apps both quickly and well. That should rapidly expand the market for coders with iPhone skills; in turn, the cost of building iPhone apps, which is primarily a function of wages for developers, will fall.

That’s bad for existing iPhone developers, but good for everyone else. Apple will enjoy a rush of new iPhone apps entering the market.

Startups and enterprises building iPhone apps will be able to pick from a wider talent pool, and in the not-too-distant future, they’ll build those apps with developers paid mere mortal salaries in the low six figures. The only folks who don’t win here, in addition to the iOS developers who have been making huge bucks, are the iOS education programs that charge devs top dollar to upgrade their iOS chops and move up the coding salary ladder.

For consumers, too, this is a big win. Better apps. More apps. Cheaper apps. Apple, too, may hope that the switch to Swift, which might turn out to be an easier development environment than Java for Android, could help Cupertino reclaim lost handset market share. Check back in on Swift in six months for a more complete verdict.

Lead image by Flickr user Sean MacEntee, CC 2.0

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Apple’s iOS 8: What You Need To Know About Its New Features

Apple today announced iOS 8 beta, the newest operating system that runs iPhones and iPads. The release of iOS 8 starts a summer of building for Apple developers, culminating in the release of the new iPhone later this fall.

iOS 8 is full of new features and functions for users and developers centered around health and fitness, messages and notifications and iCloud integration.

HealthKit And Fitness

iOS 8 includes a bevy of new health and fitness features for consumers. Health is a single place on an iDevice that is a composite of all your health activity. The Healthkit comes with a new iOS app called “Health” that aggregates all of your health data, including third-party fitness apps like RunKeeper or Nike. Apple has also teamed with the Mayo Clinic

Notification Center And Mail

The dropdown notifications in iOS 8 now work in the lockscreen on iPhones and iPads as well as in-line reply straight from the Notification Center from any app that you are using at the time. Apple described the new user experience as “actionable notifications.” Frequently used contacts will also be shown in the new Notification Center.

Apple also changed the Mail app so that you can both compose a mail and see the rest of your inbox at the same time. New mail experiences include the ability to swipe to delete or mark as read as well as an easier email delete function.

Messages

Group messaging has been improved in iOS 8 with the ability to name messaging threads and the ability to kick somebody off a messaging thread. Messages also has a “Do Not Disturb” mode for specific threads.

Messages will be able to know your location and will be able to show images from those specific threads. Messages also has new push-to-talk Walkie Talkie-like audio message capability along with video and “selfie” messaging capabilities. 

Spotlight

Spotlight—traditionally a Mac OS X feature—is not much more robust on iOS 8. Spotlight “suggestions” are now available iOS 8.

iCloud Drive

Apple’s new iCloud Drive personal online storage feature comes to iOS 8 in addition to Mac OS X Yosemite. Users can save documents from apps across Macs, iOS devices and Windows devices. 

Keyboard QuickType

The keyboard in iOS 8 has been improved with a new predictive typing suggestion feature. QuickType will be able to suggestion responses to questions in your messages. QuickType learns how you type and how you respond to specific individuals and will suggest certain words for certain people.

Enterprise Device Enrollment Program

Apple has introduced a new authentication program for enterprise business users that will automatically set up all your corporate accounts and apps when unboxing new iOS devices. iOS now supports S/MIME messaging, third party device management.

Family Sharing

iOS 8 now has the ability to share content like apps, books and movies between family members. So, if you buy an app once, you can share it among up to six family members (that all share a common credit card). 

Family sharing also allows for parents to track their kids devices and integrates the “Find My Friends” feature introduced in earlier versions of iOS.

Photos

Apple is bringing its Photos app to iCloud so that you can share your pictures among your other Apple devices like a Mac or an iPad. If you edit a photo on an iPhone, that edit will be saved through iCloud to your Mac as well. New editing controls like cropping, straightening and lighting are also available in iOS 8 Photos.

Photos also has new search capabilities for time, location and albums. 

Siri

Siri has new voice-activated car capabilities as well as new voice streaming recognition. Siri now has 22 new dictation languages along with Shazam music streaming recognition.

Safari

Mobile Safari now has a new browser tab user interface that is much like the new card-like tabs introduced in Mac OS X Yosemite. 

Airdrop, Handoff And Continuity

Apple’s wireless document sharing function is now compatible between Mac computers and iOS devices like iPads and iPhones. If you are working on one device, like an iPad, you can swipe and send it to your Mac and keep working from exactly where you were. Apple also announced a similar feature called Handoff that will switch mail, documents and phone calls from an iOS device to a Mac. 

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