Apple has finally admitted that it has a self-driving car project in the works, but isn’t saying much else. It now has a permit from the California department of motor vehicles to test autonomous vehicles, which was issued, or at least posted, yesterday. According to the Wall Street Journal, its fleet consists of three Lexus SUVs which will be driven by six registered test drivers.
According to a story by Oscar Raymundo in Macworld, Apple’s business model might have shifted from making self-driving cars to developing software that’ll be offered to other manufacturers…
In 2016, however, Apple seemed to have pivoted the initiative, opting for creating just the self-driving software to license to established car-makers instead of assembling an entirely new Apple vehicle. This is a departure for Apple, which has created a legacy by developing both hardware and the software aspects of all its products.
He’s right, that would be a major strategic departure for Apple, which is why it would be a good idea not to bet the ranch that you won’t see an iCar, or whatever they’re going to call it, sometime in the future. Elon Musk expects Apple to get into the manufacturing game, and he has as much insight into what they’re doing as any outsider – in other words, no hard data but enough knowledge about the business to make an educated guess.
DMV registration carries with it an obligation to file public reports about any accidents, and to submit information once a year about whenever there a “disengagement of the autonomous mode caused by the failure of the technology or when the safe operation of the vehicle requires the test driver to take immediate manual control of the vehicle”. So we won’t have to wait too many months for a window into Apple’s development process.
In the meantime, if you’re cruising Cupertino, look for a tricked out Lexus.
CTIA – the trade group formerly known as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association – is holding its last show in Las Vegas this week. Next year, it’s combining with the GSM Association to produce a new show in San Francisco. GSMA is the organiser of the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, which is the go-to conference for the mobile industry.
The event will shift to the second week after Labor Day, which presumably will get it out from under Apple’s shadow – as in the past, CEO Tim Cook’s fall announcements, which are usually mobile-focused, will happen right smack in the middle of CTIA’s opening keynote session. Which is just as well – the line up of speakers is sadly diminished from years gone by, when the top executives from U.S. mobile carriers were regularly featured. This year, it’s strictly second bananas on the keynote stage.
FCC luminaries aside, the policy focus is shining on cities. Several panel sessions will be devoted to figuring out how to work with communities, or at least get them to go along with plans to deploy dense 5G networks in the coming decade. A lot of the talk will center on the smart city concept, which should involve creating layers of virtual, open source data-driven infrastructure, but too often is just about repackaging existing products and services for the municipal market. Even so, I’m hoping to find new applications and architectures.
The Internet of Things is also getting a lot of attention, although it seems to be as much, if not more, more from parallel events than from the main CTIA show. On Tuesday, I’ll be going to the Telit IoT Innovation conference, which should be a good, general update on the state of IoT, if they’ve kept the information to sales pitch ratio at a manageable level.
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Even though U.S. consumers feel jilted by their Internet service providers, they’re still in love with their smartphones. According to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) telecommunications survey, smartphone makers rate a 79 on a 100 point scale, one point up from last year and only three points behind the most highly rated industry sectors – consumer electronics (at least the television and video player side of the business) and full service restaurants.
Apple edged out Samsung for most highly rated manufacturer, scoring 81 points, a gain of one. Samsung wasn’t far behind, getting an 80, which was unchanged from 2015. Satisfaction fell off sharply after that, though, with Motorola/Lenovo in third place with 77, HTC in fourth with 75, and LG and Microsoft/Nokia tying for fifth at 74. “All others” got 73 out of 100.
When individual models are rated, it’s Samsung that comes out on top. Its Galaxy Note5 scored an 86, with Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus close behind at 85. HTC’s Desire and LG’s Leon LTE were at the bottom of the list, both receiving a rating of 67.
Mobile carriers don’t do as good a job satisfying U.S. subscribers as the manufacturers. The industry overall rated a satisfaction score of 71 out of 100, as did AT&T and Verizon. Sprint was at the bottom with 70 and T-Mobile did the best of the big four with a 74. Subscribers like both the brick and mortar and web store experience offered by the carriers, as well as network coverage and call clarity. The highest level of dissatisfaction was with call centers, service plan choices and mobile broadband speeds and reliability.
A head start matters.
Google won’t be making self-driving cars, but Apple probably will, although it’s coming late to the game. That’s how Elon Musk handicaps the autonomous vehicle sweepstakes. He’s in a better position to judge than most people. His company, Tesla, already has a semi-autonomous car on the market and is trying to break out of its Silicon Valley-centric niche and into the mainstream of mass market manufacturers.
Musk talked about the steep competitive slope new entrants into the automotive business have to climb at a recent conference. According to an article in TechCrunch, Musk believes Apple got started too late…
“I think they should have embarked on this project sooner,” Musk said. “I don’t know… They don’t share with me the details. I don’t think they’ll be volume production sooner than 2020. It’s a missed opportunity. There’s a dozen car companies of significance in the world, the most any company has is approximately 10% market share.”
He brushed off the idea that Google will be building autonomous vehicles itself – “they’re not a car company”, he said – but it is building the market and mainstream automakers that partner up with them will be competitive.
In other words, Apple and Google aren’t changing their core strategies. Apple appears to be leading with hardware and hoping to build a closed ecosystem around it, just as it’s done with computers, phones and other devices. Google, on the other hand, seems focused on building a platform that mass market manufacturers will adopt.
It’s far fetched to think that Google and Apple could dominate the self-driving car universe. Musk certainly isn’t bullish on that idea, and there’s no denying incumbent automakers are still the safe bet. But then again, ten years ago iOS and Android were just development projects, and the smartphone smart money was on the likes of Nokia, RIM and Palm.
The FBI is offering the best argument for not giving government agencies back door access to encrypted systems: those same government agencies can’t keep their own stuff locked down. According to a story on Motherboard, the FBI has put out a warning about another massive security breach…
The feds warned that “a group of malicious cyber actors,” whom security experts believe to be the government-sponsored hacking group known as APT6, “have compromised and stolen sensitive information from various government and commercial networks” since at least 2011, according to an FBI alert obtained by Motherboard.
The alert, which is also available online, shows that foreign government hackers are still successfully hacking and stealing data from US government’s servers, their activities going unnoticed for years. This comes months after the US government revealed that a group of hackers, widely believed to be working for the Chinese government, had for more than a year infiltrated the computer systems of the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM.
The FBI is playing coy about its ability to unlock iPhones, although coy isn’t quiet. The agency has briefed some members of congress on the technique used to hack into a iPhone used by San Bernardino terrorists, but apparently won’t share that info with Apple, who would be interested in plugging the hole.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had regarding how much access government agencies – police or otherwise – should have to private information. But when it comes to building secure systems with strong encryption protections, there’s no middle ground. Either a system is as secure as humanly possible or it isn’t. The continuing hacks of government systems and leaks of secret data should be reason enough to come down on the side of engineering security for all and not chasing a mythical government-only back door.
No problem making a front door.
The legal standoff between the FBI and Apple over a judge’s order to write and turnover a more hackable version of the iOS operating system raises a lot of questions about civil liberties and the U.S. government’s power to 1. dive into any data it wants and 2. force private companies and individuals to help. But it also poses a question about the technical abilities of U.S. investigators.
According to an open letter signed by Apple CEO Tim Cook and posted its website…
The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the [San Bernardino terrorism] investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.
However, according to an article in the Washington Post by Bruce Schneier, Apple’s help shouldn’t be necessary…
There’s nothing preventing the FBI from writing that hacked software itself, aside from budget and manpower issues. There’s every reason to believe, in fact, that such hacked software has been written by intelligence organizations around the world. Have the Chinese, for instance, written a hacked Apple operating system that records conversations and automatically forwards them to police?…We simply have no idea who already has this capability.
Arguably, a backdoor into encrypted iPhones would be safer in Apple’s hands, given the ongoing problems the U.S. government has keeping its own data secure. But it would be safer still if a backdoor was never built.
Apple’s plans to get into the car business – supposedly code-named Project Titan – are taking on a firmer shape, according to an article in Information Week. It lists the top eight Apple car rumors floating through the automotive and high tech communities. Number one on the hit parade is a supposedly leaked target date of 2019 for the launch. That’s considered ambitious in automotive terms, where development cycles can run as long as a decade or more. But not so crazy in Silicon Valley, either from the point of view of product timelines measured in weeks and months, or in terms of what a release date three or four years out means: wishful thinking.
Rumors include meetings with auto executives and regulators, a binge of automotive talent hiring, a phased development plan – electronic cars with drivers first, autonomous ones later – and moves by competitors…
Apple’s bid to be the next major force in the automobile industry is not being waged alone. Google, Tesla, Nissan, and others are all in the electric vehicle and self-driving car game. The latest round of testing for Google’s self-driving car will bring the company’s vehicles to the streets of Austin, the Texas capital. Google is also getting ready to start introducing its autonomous vehicles to a wider audience, and has hired several former auto executives to help with the sales pitch.
Broadband connectivity – both mobile and fiber (if for no other reason than mobile backhaul) – is as necessary for self driving cars as roads, so it’s no surprise that Google is looking at Austin as a testing ground, where it owns it own infrastructure.
The automotive assembly line of the near-future.
Rumors of an Apple-built car appear to be true. The Guardian, in a story written by Mark Harris, tells of enquiries made by Apple engineers to GoMentum Station, a test site for driverless cars located on the old Concord Naval Weapons Station in the East Bay Area. With military-grade security still in place, the site is run by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and is billed as the largest secure test bed site in the United States.
Apple’s interest in developing an autonomous car follows a similar program launched by Google. Although old school petrol heads tend to deprecate Silicon Valley’s automotive chops, I think both companies have realised that the car business is ready to be as thoroughly disrupted as the computer industry was 40 years ago, and the mobile phone market 10 years ago.
All-electric vehicles will change the game completely. Once designs move away from aping legacy gas guzzlers, the number of moving parts required to make an electric car will become diminishingly small – the drive train can be reduced to four electric motors, one built into each wheel. Nearly everything else is either electronic controls or passenger amenities. When core automotive components become largely generic, mega-factories in China and elsewhere can pump them out as easily as laptops and tablets.
Combine a high tech supply chain with the software and data – on and off board – needed to enable driverless operation, and the auto business becomes 90% software, 9% design and 1% hardware. That’s dead center of Apple’s golden ratio.
When Tim Cook unveiled the Apple Watch on Tuesday, and launched into a rapturous description of the digital crown – the old school winding wheel on the side that’s redesigned into a user interface – the first thing I thought was “they made the damn watch for right-handed people”. Any southpaw old enough to remember having to wind a watch every day – yes, me – remembers having to unstrap it and shift hands first. The crown is on the right side, which is the wrong side if you’re a lefty.
Well, not exactly. The display can be flipped around so you can wear the watch on your right hand with the crown pointing left, albeit sub-optimally positioned lower down. But enough grumpiness.
The big take away for me isn’t the design or functionality. It’s Apple’s determination that smart watches are about health and fitness. The Apple Watch will display text messages and otherwise serve as an iPhone extension, but the killer app is health and fitness, with Apple forming a high caliber development team around it.
Apple didn’t make the first MP3 player or the first smart phone or the first tablet. But it figured out what those devices were good for and how to build supporting platforms and content to make them useful and attractive to consumers. That track record is reason enough to presume that Apple has done the same for smart watches, and could do as well for other wearable categories.
Health, particularly, has been a tough sector for technology companies to penetrate. Microsoft has been trying to run an online medical record platform for years, with little success. Stringent legal requirements and the threat of further regulation has been a stumbling block for nimble startups. Apple has the market strength, development talent and raw resources to succeed, though. It’s not a done deal – an Apple Watch and health platform would be the first post-Jobs attempt at a category breakout – but that’s the way to bet.
All eyes were on Cupertino this morning, even – or maybe particularly – eyes that had flown to Las Vegas with the intent of being briefly at the center of the mobile telecommunications universe. So CTIA made the smart move, and built its opening keynote session around Apple’s iPhone 6 and Apple Watch announcements this morning.
New CTIA president Meredith Attwell Baker made her rookie appearance, earnest enough but lacking the easy stage presence of her predecessors in the job, like FCC chair Tom Wheeler, who was next up on the stage. A forgettable discussion about mobile video followed. And then it was time to bring up a panel of commentators – panel moderator and CNBC reporter Julia Boorstin, Shelly Palmer, Chetan Sharma and Glenn Tinley – and put Apple’s event up on the big ballroom screen.
Except Apple was having video problems. Or at least that appeared to be the case. The live feed cut in and out, giving everyone a laugh and panelists a chance talk about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s announcement of the iPhone 6 and 6-plus, and accompanying mobile wallet and health and fitness features and services. It wasn’t quite up to MST 3K standards, but it was more entertaining than just sitting and watching Apple’s production.
Finally, with “the crowd there in Cupertino clearly going wild”, as Boorstin put it, Cook intoned “we have one more thing” and rolled out the Apple Watch (more about that later). By contrast, the crowd here in Las Vegas was, in turns, amused and bored with the announcement. But not dismissive. Apple’s high-end hardware was clearly the highlight of the show in Las Vegas today, even though it’s not even here.