Reporters in China should close iCloud accounts to avoid surveillance, says free press watchdog

In light of Apple’s intentions to outsource Chinese iCloud operations to a firm with ties to the local government at the end of the month, French nonprofit Reporters Without Borders — otherwise known as Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF — is telling journalists to take security precautions.

The nonprofit said in a post on Monday that members of the media who have Apple iCloud accounts in China should either move or close their accounts before the deadline, or face “control of their data [passing] to the Chinese state.” iCloud operations in China will be taken over by Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD), which is supervised by a board run by government-owned businesses.

The transfer won’t make any visible difference to Chinese customers on the front-facing end, and Apple tells customers that data remains secure and private. On its site, under “Government Information Requests,” the company states, “Apple has never created a backdoor or master key to any of our products or services. We have also never allowed any government direct access to Apple servers.”

However, this is the second time RSF has recently expressed concern over Apple’s compliance with the Chinese government. In August, the organization commented on news that VPNs would be withdrawn from Apple’s Chinese App Store since the government considers them illegal. In general, free press watchdogs like RSF and human rights advocacy organizations like Amnesty International do not have high expectations for the Chinese government. RSF has expressed a dark outlook on Apple’s partnership with GCBD, noting how Apple’s lawyers have added a clause in the Chinese terms that both Apple and GCBD may access all user data.

“Apple promises that it will never give governments a backdoor to content, but there is no way of being sure about this,” says Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau. “Knowing the Chinese government’s determination and the extent of the means of pressure at its disposal, it will end up getting its way sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.”

Android Messages may soon let you text from the web

For a year and a half now, Google’s semi-official strategy for messaging apps has been a three-legged stool: Allo for consumer chat, Hangouts for corporate chat, and good ol’ SMS for texting (with RCS in the future). None of those strategies were ever really going to challenge the players who are leading the messaging app space: WhatsApp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger.

It’s possible, however, that the last leg of that messaging stool is about to get a lot more interesting. Android Police just dug into the code for the very latest version of Android Messages, the app Google makes for SMS. And inside it are references to two very intriguing features.

The first is pretty straightforward and, one hopes, easy to implement: you may be able to easily send text messages from your computer soon. Just as you can with Allo and WhatsApp, it appears as though you’ll be able to go to a webpage, scan a QR code, and have it get connected up to your phone as an easier way to send texts. Android Police found code that indicates multiple browsers will be supported and, in fact, multiple computers may also be supported.

That’s all well and good — it takes care of a gap that Android users have had to use third-party products to fill for a long time. It’s also not super interesting because, well, SMS itself is not super interesting. Even paired with MMS, it doesn’t offer any of the features you expect from a modern texting app.

Which is where RCS, or Rich Communication Services, comes in. Android Messages has always been Google’s RCS app, but to date RCS as a standard has done what you expect standards to do: get lost in the shuffle as different companies either ignore it or implement it according to their own corporate whims.

RCS takes SMS and gives it some of the features you’d want: higher resolution images, read receipts, and typing indicators, among others. But its adoption has been dependent on carriers implementing it and making it compatible, which is one of the reasons it hasn’t gone anywhere.

That’s why Android Police’s look inside the new Android Messages app is so intriguing. They found code for a pop-up that reads “New! Text over Wi-Fi and data,” which is as close to a layman’s description of RCS as you’ll ever find. But the truly intriguing line comes in the fine print: “Chat features are powered by Google. By continuing, you accept the %1$s.”

See, like any modern messaging app, RCS really needs to be supported by a cloud-based infrastructure to work. Which leads to one of four possibilities for the code Android Police found:

  1. Nothing to see here. This code is a lark and will come to nothing.
  2. This is a feature for Google’s own carrier, Project Fi, and this is just the code necessary to turn on RCS for Fi users.
  3. Google is just beefing up the RCS capabilities inside Android Messages, and if a carrier wants to offer RCS but doesn’t want to deal with the necessary infrastructure, Google will handle it.
  4. Google has finally threaded the impossible messaging needle: created a modern messaging platform powered by Google services that won’t piss off the carriers too much, such that it can release a messaging app that can do for Android what iMessage does for iPhones: seamlessly supplant SMS.

Given the many, many years we’ve watched Google fail to execute on a messaging strategy that takes advantage of Android’s worldwide dominance, that last option is probably too much to hope for. Then again, it’s been a year and a half since the company announced a major change in its messaging app strategy, so we’re probably due for another pivot.

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 looks set to retain the headphone jack

The Galaxy S9, 2018’s hottest phone until the next iPhone, has emerged in new leaked images today, and this time we’re seeing the first indication that it will still have a headphone jack. Samsung, LG, and a couple of other companies like OnePlus have remained resolute in their inclusion of a headphone jack, but that was far from a certainty for the next Galaxy S iteration. This is a phone that will compete against the iPhone X, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and more niche rivals like Google’s Pixel 2: all of them surviving sans a headphone jack. So Samsung could have dumped the analog audio output, but it seems to have opted against it, and that’s worthy of commendation. USB-C earphones are all still either bad or expensive — or both — and phones that retain compatibility with 3.5mm connectors remain profoundly useful to consumers that aren’t yet convinced by Bluetooth.

The full information spill today is actually focused on a new Samsung DeX Pad, which appears to be an evolution of last year’s $149 DeX dock for the Galaxy S8. The purpose of these docks is to facilitate connection between the Galaxy device and a nearby monitor, with the smartphone then functioning more or less like a PC. The DeX Pad includes additional USB ports plus a full-size HDMI output and a USB-C connection for power. It doesn’t look like the prettiest accessory in the world, but then it’s not like too many things will look beautiful once you stick a bunch of cables into them anyway. The pad’s reportedly intended to allow the phone to be laid flat and used as a touchpad or keyboard, and it’s expected to be backwards-compatible with the Galaxy S8 too.

Aside from the headphone jack’s appearance in the images, we can also see Samsung’s Bixby button on the Galaxy S9, still located just below the volume rocker on the side. That button, and the Bixby voice assistant in general, hasn’t been well received, but Samsung already expressed its commitment to Bixby as a growth driver during its latest financial report, so there’s no reason to believe that the company will be abandoning it anytime soon. Even though it should.

The HomePod is the point of no return for Apple fans

The notion of Apple’s “walled garden” ecosystem of products precedes even the iPhone. For as long as the company has existed, Apple products have worked best with other Apple products and that’s been that. But the new HomePod speaker, which is going on sale today, ratchets this commitment up another notch. If you thought you were locked inside the Apple ecosystem before, buying a HomePod is like adding an iron ball to those chains.

The HomePod costs $349. That’s a high price for the vast majority of people, and it pretty much guarantees that you’ll be using the HomePod as the primary listening device in your home. The HomePod has voice control for music playback, but you’ll have to be tapping into Apple’s own Apple Music, iTunes tracks, or iTunes Match to take full advantage of Siri. Alternatively, you can use AirPlay from an Apple device, which gets you access to services like Spotify but with drastically simplified play / pause voice control. In any and all cases, to get the most out of the HomePod, you absolutely must have a subscription to an Apple music service and an iOS device to set the speaker up.

Obvious and standard Apple practice, right? Well, hold on. While it’s true that Apple has always privileged its devices and services ahead of others, the company’s track record has been a bit more mixed. As of right now, you can use an iPhone while relying on almost zero Apple apps. When I set up an iPhone, I download all my Google services like Maps and Keep, swap Safari with Chrome, and rely on Dropbox instead of iCloud. Apple even made a change to allow uninstalling its default apps if you’re not a willing user of them. On the Mac front, you can turn your MacBook into a Chromebook by doing most of your work in the Chrome browser or you can Boot Camp into a Windows installation. Even the AirPods work with any Bluetooth source, albeit not as frictionlessly well as they do with an iPhone.

My point is that purchasing a HomePod is nothing at all like purchasing a Sonos One, an Amazon Echo, or even a Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90. This is both a speaker and an anchor locking you in place exactly where you are — because to even consider a HomePod you must already have at least one foot inside Apple’s ecosystem. The HomePod just reinforces the locks on the gates outside, because once your $349 (or $698 or $1,396, depending on the number you install in your home in the years to come) is invested, you’ll be quite unlikely to make any future choices that conflict with that purchase. Maybe you’re an iPhone user that was equivocating about making the jump to a Google Pixel for the superior camera, maybe the Samsung Galaxy S9’s headphone jack spoke to you, or maybe you miss your Spotify playlists. Whatever, you just bought the Apple speaker and now you have to live within the confines of the world that Apple has set up for you.

It’s not as linear a relationship as “my next phone will be an iPhone because I already own a HomePod,” but it’s pretty close. Apple has shown itself a master of creating synergistic effects between its products, with the Apple Watch, AirPods, Mac, and now HomePod each feeding the demand for an iPhone user to remain an iPhone user. The striking thing to me today is just how aggressive the Apple separatism is with the HomePod: without even basic Bluetooth streaming, the HomePod is, to borrow a famous Apple line, unapologetically Apple-centric.

This could all change with time, as Apple might open up the HomePod with proper Spotify support to entice more users, but there’s no guarantee. We’re still waiting on FaceTime to become an open industry standard as once promised.

In spite of its starkly limited music source options, the HomePod speaker still managed to sell out of preorders on the eve of its release date. The peculiar thing with Apple is that even when it goes into a hardcore proprietary mode, as it has done with the HomePod, there are still hundreds of millions of Apple users out there with the budget and interest to purchase its latest product. Long ago, Sony tried to make all of its stuff proprietary in a similar fashion but got rejected by the market. Apple has found success by first building out a flourishing and attractive ecosystem and then leveraging its unprecedented scale.

And yet, I would argue that we should collectively reject the lock-in practice that Apple is currently engaging in. It may seem fine and benign to just add another piece to your Apple hardware puzzle today, but you’re liable to keep that speaker for many years and what happens if Apple makes some decision you disagree with? How easy will it be for you to extricate yourself from the company that already provides your phone, laptop, smartwatch, earphones, speakers, car and TV interface, and — via Apple HomeKit — all your smart home gadgets and devices? Amazon and Google are competing for a similar dominance of our attention spans, but they at least embrace alternative services like Spotify and Tidal. What Apple lacks is the will or interest to be compatible with others.

Apple’s HomePod is, by all accounts, a superb speaker that sets a new benchmark for sound quality in its size and price class. But it is also brazenly hostile to any hardware or service not made by Apple. If you decide to buy one, do so with the full awareness of how deeply ensconced inside the Apple bubble you will be.