Apple, Machine Learning, and Privacy

There’s a lot of noise about machine learning theses days, and the obviously-better deep-learning machines. You know, because it’s deep. Apple is generally considered to be disadvantaged in this tech derby. Why? Because deep learning requires masses of data from the users of the system, and Apple’s privacy policies prevent the company from harvesting that data.

I work for Apple, just so you know. But the narrative on the street comes down to this: Apple can’t compete with its rivals in the field of machine learning because it respects its users too much. For people who say Apple will shed its stand on privacy when it threatens profit for the company, here’s where I say, “Nuh-uh.” Apple proved its priority on privacy.

A second nuh-uh: ApplePay actively makes it impossible for Apple to know your purchase history. There’s good money in that information; Apple doesn’t want it. You think Google Wallet would ever do that? Don’t make me laugh. That’s why Google made it — so they could collect information about your purchasing habits and sell it. But in the world of artificial intelligence, respect for your customers is considered by pundits to be a negative.

But hold on there, Sparky! Getting back to the actual subject of this episode, my employer recently announced a massive implementation of wacky math shit that I think started at Stanford, that allows both aggregation of user data and protection of user privacy.

Apple recently lifted their kimono just a little bit to let the world know that they are players in this realm. Have been a long time. They want to you to know that while respecting user privacy is inconvenient, it’s an obstacle you can work around with enough intelligence and effort.

This is a message that is very tricky for Apple to sell. In their advertising, they sell, more than anything else, good feelings. They’re never going to say, “buy Apple because everyone else is out to exploit you,” — that makes technology scary and not the betterment of the human condition that Apple sells.

But to the tech press, and to organizations fighting for your privacy, Apple is becoming steadily more vocal. It feels a wee bit disingenuous; Apple wants those other mouths to spread the fear. But it’s a valid fear, and one that more people should be talking about.

From where I sit in my cubicle, completely removed from any strategic discussion, if you were to address Apple’s stand on privacy from a marketing standpoint, it would seem our favorite fruit-flavored gadget company is banking on one of two things: Than people will begin to put a dollar value on their privacy, or that the government will mandate stronger privacy protection and Apple will be ahead of the pack.

Ah, hahaha! The second of those is clearly ridiculous. The government long ago established itself as the enemy of privacy. But what about the first of those ideas? Will people pay an extra hundred bucks on a phone to not have their data harvested? Or will they shrug and say “If my phone doesn’t harvest that information, something else will.”

Honestly, I don’t think it’s likely that Apple will ever make a lot of money by standing up for privacy. It may even be a losing proposition, as HomeKit and ApplePay are slowed in their adaptation because they are encumbered by onerous privacy protection requirements. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Apple is already making piles of cash as the Guardians of Privacy. But I suspect not.

So why does Apple do it? I don’t know. I’m not part of those conversations. But I do know this: If you were to ask CEO Tim Cook that question, he’d look at you like you’d grown a second head and say, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Maybe I’m being a homer here, but I really believe Tim when he says stuff like that. Tim has told the shareholders to back off more than once, in defense of doing the right thing.

And as long as Tim is in charge of this company, “Because it’s the right thing to do” will float for me. So as long as Tim’s in charge, I know Apple will continue to respect the privacy of its customers. Maybe to you that’s not such a big deal, but it is to me. I won’t work for anyone I don’t respect.

The Usual End-Of-Year Apple Reminder

If anyone out there I know is thinking about buying Apple stuff — we make computers and whatnot — I can get folks a modest discount. I get a set amount of discounts to hand out each year, so if no one uses these discounts by Dec 31st, *poof*, they are gone.

Friends don’t let friends by Apple gizmos for full price.


A Staggering Number of 1’s and 0’s

The other day, Apple published an update to iOS, the software that runs iPhones, iPads, and iWhatnot. I updated my two devices last night; the download was about 1GB for each.

Not that long ago, a gigabyte was a lot of data. Even these days, a gigabyte here, a gigabyte there, pretty soon you’re talking about a crap-ton of information.

How much? Today I spent a full ten minutes doing research for this blog episode, hoping to come up with some sort of estimate for the number of iGadgets updated over the last couple of days. I found one fairly recent article that said there were 400 million iOS devices in the wild, but that report was published before Apple sold two million iPhones in China — in a single weekend.

I’m going to throw the number 500 million out there, because it’s nice and round and makes the math easier. We have to figure in the percentage of iDevices that are sitting in drawers gathering dust; those will not likely be updated the moment a new iOS version is available. What percentage is this? It’s really hard to tell. Apple loves to point out, however, that even taking into account the huge market share they enjoy, the amount of Web traffic generated by their devices is even higher, suggesting a significantly higher usage rate than their Android cousins. I will make the logical leap that higher usage rate implies higher demand for updates to the new iOS.

So, let’s say that half of all iOS owners upgraded their gear in the last two days. Apple considers it a HUGE competitive advantage that they can provide infrastructure to update all iOS devices. Android providers simply don’t have that (Google has might, but Android updates go through the telephone companies, so the telcos can limit features and add nefarious supplements). As a result, soon 80% of all iOS users will be on the latest version. Nirvana for software developers.

But let’s think about that infrastructure. Over the last two days, by my wild-ass estimates, Apple delivered 250 million gigabytes of data to their iOS customers. 250 petabytes, on top of the regular daily traffic. I’ve been told by unreliable sources that after the Great iTunes Christmas Crush of ’09 (or was it ’10? Thanksgiving?) work was done to allow server capacity to be reallocated in anticipation of massive crunch times. If the network performance in my office is an indicator, that happened this week.

Side thought: is it possible to store more bits of data than there are particles in the universe? Not in binary, I suspect. Side side thought: I learned on a British educational TV show in roughly 1981 that the universe holds something like 1083 particles, but what with all the dark matter and so forth coming down the pike since, it wouldn’t surprise me if the estimate had moved up to 1084 particles by now. Of course, the definition of “particle” itself can be squirrelly, translated from the 1980’s, and I may just remember wrong. ANYWAY, the iOS update was only on the order of 1017 bits. Chump change when scaled against the entire universe.

But down here on planet Earth, that’s a lot of ones, and roughly the same number of zeroes, each where it belongs.


Wore My Black Turtleneck Today

It was my quiet way of marking the passing of a great man.

Ask yourself this: at the company where you work, would they offer grief counseling if your former CEO died? You’ve probably read plenty about Steve Jobs’ accomplishments in the last 24. I hesitate to add to that, but I think a lot of pundits and journalists are missing the mark on what made Steve great.

Steve didn’t invent personal computers. He didn’t invent the Graphical User Interface. He didn’t invent smart phones or tablet computers or mp3 players. His genius was making all those things useful. He’s been called a visionary, and I’m not going to argue that, but his vision was “If this stuff was intuitive to use, it would be a hell of a lot better. And I can fix that.” Macintosh was “the computer for the rest of us.” It was the first personal computer with a GUI, with point-and-click and drag-and-drop, the first computer that made an effort to make tasks you accomplish with technology more similar to things you do in the physical world.

He stole that idea (with permission) from Xerox. Xerox had, to paraphrase some pundit whose name I can’t recall, spent huge amounts of money to see the future. Then they gave Steve a tour of their facility, and he went and made their ideas useful. Steve himself has regrets about that fateful day; he was so blown away by the GUI that he didn’t appreciate the network and the new approach to programming Xerox had developed.

Xerox gave Steve Jobs a peek at the future of computing, and he was just the guy to take that glimpse and revolutionize the way humans and machines interacted, and just the guy to bend a successful company to his vision.

Almost immediately after the Mac was introduced, Steve was wedged out of Apple. The two events were probably related; to say that Steve was brutal on the development team would be an understatement (“Insanely Great” was his mantra; his unwillingness to compromise on the little details his curse), and he was neglecting the very successful Apple II. But the Apple II was the past. Computing the way it used to be done. Mac was a world-changer. Steve knew that. The board of directors wasn’t so sure.

After his departure Apple continued to refine and improve on his vision, and try with increasing futility to protect those inventions from imitators. To this day, Apple is ready to throw down a lawsuit at a moment’s notice, but the biggie, the one that got away, was the one against Microsoft for copying the windowed operating system. Losing that one almost killed Apple.

Then Steve came back. FiRST step: quit refining the OS and overhaul it. The competition was improving quickly. Next step: follow the power. The computing power, I mean, which was moving into smaller and smaller packages. I was pretty excited about Mac OS X, but I was dead stoked when I heard the phrase “A thousand songs in your pocket.” I bought one of those first iPods, and on airplanes and in bars people would ask me about it. The thing was, in a word, awesome. (“Insanely Great” has long been retired. The phrase is kind of like the Great Wall in China, I think – much more fun for people who don’t remember the cost.)

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the first digital music player, but when it came out, something fundamental changed. This was the first player that was useful, that carried enough music, that you could fill up almost thoughtlessly, that was simple to use, often without looking. All the details were right, the little things that others compromised on. That was Steve’s genius. Do it right. He had the unwavering belief that he knew what right was, even if no one else did. Do it right, and people will agree with you in retrospect. I cringed when Apple got into the phone business. Don’t they know what a cutthroat, small-margin business that is? They did it right, and I stand corrected (provisionally).

I think this is why I enjoy working at Apple so much. Most of you out there will never see the fruits of my labors (except perhaps as a microscopic price reduction in Apple products), but always I strive to put that little bit of extra rightness into everything I make. It’s noticed here. The spirit of Steve, his uncompromising attitude, is still alive.

God: Welcome, Steve. Did you enjoy the heavenly choir?
Steve: They were awesome! Really stirring. But…
God: But what?
Steve: What if everyone could hear their own music? I mean, not music they wrote, but music that was perfect for them, right at that moment.
God: That’s kind of what we do…
Steve: Let me handle this.


Vaya con iDios, Steve

One of the world’s most famous corporate icons resigned yesterday. I had my head deep in code when I started hearing the word ‘resigned’ buzzing around the office, but I had stuff to get done. It was my sweetie who actually gave me the news that Steve Jobs had resigned as CEO of Apple.

My first thought: I bet his badge still works. This was confirmed when I read his resignation letter; he will continue to be an Apple employee. The elevators in Infinite Loop 1 are not safe yet.

My second thought: A man who played a huge role in shaping what computing is these days is very sick. Sick enough that he has accepted that he will not be up to running Apple and smart enough to move aside gracefully and let the people who have been running the company continue to do so without uncertainty.

I hope he’s ok. That had to be a monumental decision, not just to let go of the reins but to accept that his own health might not improve. I hope Tim and Peter and the rest had a chance to sit and have a quiet beer with their boss one last time, a chance to think about all they’ve accomplished.

And Steve’s badge still works. He’ll be around.

Impressions of Lion

So just to be clear, even though I work for Apple I have no special access to the plans of the hardware and OS guys. If I did have access, I wouldn’t be able to post speculations like these. All this is the same guesswork you can do if you stop and look at your operating system as it evolves.

Last night I installed the latest Mac operating system (‘Lion’) on my work machine. We’ll see how that goes before I put it on anything more important. A couple of things struck me immediately, however, that I think may be indicators of where Apple is heading.

1) No scroll bars. Well, barely. There’s something scrollbar-like that appears when you move stuff around, but there’s a fundamental shift in the UI going on here. In the past you worked the thumb on the scrollbar to move the content in its window. When you worked the scroll wheel on your mouse, you were in your mind moving the scrollbar thumb. Now, in your head you grab the content of the window and move it around – which goes in the opposite direction as the scroller thumb. So the wheel on your mouse works ‘backwards’ in Lion; before you were moving the scroll thumb down, now you’re moving the content down, which moves the thumb up.

Opinion: I’m ok with this overall, but there are times when there is no indication that you can scroll. There are also cases where there’s no indication that the corner of a window can be dragged to resize the window. I’m not comfortable with designs that presuppose you know stuff.

2) Bold prediction: the magic mouse is Apple’s last major mouse. It’s a mouse/touchpad hybrid, bringing people closer to the touchpad replacement. The company that brought the mouse to the consumer will also be the first to take it away. Interestingly, the company that only put one button on its mouse will be hanging its hat on a very complicated set of finger gestures and combinations. They can do a hell of a lot, and they’re intuitive, if you already know them. (I just accidentally discovered the gesture for switching tabs in my browser — only, shit! It’s not switching tabs, it’s like using the back arrow. And there’s a bug! I almost lost this entire episode!)

Opinion: with the iPad and whatnot, multiple-finger user interfaces are here. I should have applied for a patent fifteen-plus years ago when I thought about making touch screen interfaces with actual knobs to turn and stuff like that. If I’d had this blog back then it would have shown up in the Get-Poor-Quick pages. But I didn’t, and now that invention belongs to other people. Because they built it, and I only talked about it.

My New Cube

Welp, it’s official, I’m a salaried employee of Apple. It’s not that big a change from being a contractor; I’ll be doing the same work as before.

While I was traveling my department moved to a new building, so when I got to my new cube for the first time, this is what I saw:


And yes, I do get a discount on stuff, and yes, they assume I’ll be buying for friends and family as well. So if you need a Mac system or an iPod (no iPads at this time), let me know.