Insights For Success

Strategy, Innovation, Leadership and Security

Apple

OnePlus policy that makes it a better buy than Samsung, HTC or LG

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
7dde5baaa7509370f2b16982bfd0605d_260_0.png

As a security technologist, the security philosophy of the OEM is a crucial determinant of my decision to buy or recommend a device. This is where Apple shines with it's iPhone update strategy. Every single iPhone receives updates (security and version) at the same time. 

This is why I highly recommend Google's Pixel devices. The Pixel line offers the same regular and speedy update schedule. The other Android manufacturer that has shown it cares about upgrades is OnePlus. Until this week, it did a great job delivering updates quickly, but it didn't formally commit to a software upgrade schedule. 

OnePlus Software Maintenance Schedule.png

All of that changes this week when OnePlus unveiled its new operating system (Android) maintenance schedule. It has copied the Google Pixel model and will deliver major upgrades for two years and security updates for three years. 

As per the maintenance schedule, there will be 2 years of regular software updates from the release date of the phone (release dates of T variants would be considered), including new features, Android versions, Android security patches and bug fixes and an additional year of Android security patch updates every 2 months.
— OnePlus OS Maintenance Schedule

Conclusion

OnePlus has always offered solid well-designed devices at competitive prices. This new software maintenance schedule commitment makes their offering that much more compelling. 

I can no longer recommend devices from manufacturers that do not regularly deliver security and version upgrades. This is why I only recommend Android devices from Google, Blackberry Mobile and OnePlus. 

My history with mobile gadgets

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
alejandro-escamilla-9.jpg

I've been involved in technology for a long time and bought my first real personal digital assistant (PDA) in 1997. It was an Apple Computers MessagePad (Newton) 130, and it was a thing of beauty. It had handwriting recognition, an external keyboard attachment and fueled my geek dreams about what wondrous technologies the future would bring.

Along the way, I owned hundreds of devices including Palm pilots, Treos, Handspring devices, Nokias and almost every other portable gadget in between.

As you can imagine, I also bought the first iPhone and almost every one since (in the last ten years). Every time I watched an Apple keynote, I was like a kid in a candy store. I starred at the presentation anxiously waiting to see what amazing new technologies Apple would bring into my life. Apple didn't invent most of that tech, but it usually made it usable and practical.

Then Steve passed away, and many were worried whether Apple had lost its mojo. Fans defended the Cupertino giant, but we started to see some cracks forming in its otherwise perfect and shining armor. Tech reviewers what would never have dared to challenge the superiority of the big Apple began to ask difficult questions.

For the past five years, I have been carrying both Android and IOS smartphones, but the iPhone has always been my primary daily driver. September 2017, was time for me to upgrade my "primary driver" from an iPhone  6s Plus + an iPhone 7 (yes I have both). I watched the keynote and was dumbfounded by the iPhone X. It was a beautiful piece of kit but had a screen smaller than the plus models and a price tag of $1500CAD. The camera wasn't materially better than the one in the iPhone 8 Plus. The only new "thing" it brought to the table was the FaceID sensor, an OLED screen, and smaller bezels.  

Apple technology innovation

Surely I had missed something. A ~$400 price increase had to bring something new and revolutionary? But it didn't. Having been a gadget geek for the last 25+ years, I knew perfectly well that previous devices  contained technology Apple commercialized many years later:

  • wireless charging (HTC Droid DNA in 2012 - Apple in 2017)
  • dual rear cameras (HTC One M8 in April 2014 - Apple 2016)
  • OLED screen (Nokia N85 in October 2008 - Apple in 2017)
  • Fingerprint scanner ( Motorola ATRIX 4G in March 2011 - Apple 2013)

Apple made many of these technologies better but by the time it included it, Android devices at half the price of an iPhone had them built in.

Apple has been a significant force pushing smartphone manufacturers to make safer, more secure devices and operating systems. This has been a clear win for consumers. Good healthy competition is good for the marketplace.

Is the iPhone more secure than an Android device?

Technologically yes. Apple's IOS is designed with strict application controls to protect user information. Its hardware (e,g, the secure enclave) is a thing of beauty and incredibly well designed to protect your biometric and financial information.

In the real world, for the average consumer that is not being targeted by skilled blackhat hackers or nation-state threat actors, both can be made equally safe with minimal handling precautions.

Not in my walled garden

A couple of months ago, Apple made headlines when it blocked all VPN apps from its China app store. This decision was made to comply with local laws, and Apple had no choice. The problem arises when you realize that Apple doesn't have a mechanism for users to sideload apps onto its devices.

Sideloading apps is a risk because it could be an attack vector, but shouldn't the user be able to accept the risk and perform their desired action on an $800-1000 device?

This had a chilling effect on some activists in China, but the same model of application category control could be applied to anything else in any other country (e.g., a country can outlaw social media or dating apps, etc.).

Time to switch?

Apple's latest financial results show that the company is doing smashingly well. They are selling record numbers of mobile devices, and their cash horde is only getting larger. Any talk about its demise is greatly exaggerated.

There is, however, a growing number of users, who were once ardent fans gobbling up all Apple branded tech, as fast as the company could release them, that are now looking at alternatives. I am amongst this group. My decision to switch isn't based on the cost of the device,  but on the more advanced Artifical intelligence features like the built-in assistant.


Android Auto versus Apple CarPlay

My latest car can support both platforms, but anyone that has used Apple Maps will tell you, it sucks. I can't tell you how many times it has navigated me into a major traffic jam or has taken me 20 minutes in the wrong direction. Apple doesn't like competition and would rather offer a sub-par experience to its users and maintain control.

On Android Auto, I can use other mapping apps, but on the iPhone, you can only use Apple Maps.

On Android Auto, you can choose which music app is your default and voice control it. On Apple, you can only voice control Apple Music.

And this is an example of the user-hostile behavior exhibited by Apple. Not only does it block competition, forcing you into inferior apps, but it isn't even improving the core interaction mechanisms of Car Play: the visual interface and SIRI.

SIRI the terrible


Most iPhone users from teenagers to CEOs use Siri a couple of times at first, then give up. I had hoped that Apple would update Siri's capabilities with IOS 11 (particularly with the expected December release of the Siri powered home speaker system, the HomePod). Surely Apple would impress us with massive gains in understanding and capabilities. Nope. Nothing.

While the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant improve every month, Apple hasn't developed Siri in years. It feels like Amazon and Google are working in internet time while Apple is working ... To be honest, I don't even think they are working on Siri. I say that facetious. I know they are working on Siri, but until users benefit from that work, it is useless.

The big data problem

I work in security and understand that absolute security is the enemy of usability. An absolutely secure system is not usable.
In the enterprise space, we are continually struggling to find the right balance between security and usability.

It feels Apple has taken a more security-focused approach and is willing to sacrifice modern functionality.

Any modern deep learning expert (aka neural networking that powers smart assistants) will tell you that the key to success is having vast amounts of ingestible data. Apple doesn't have this type of data because of it is privileging user privacy, whereas Google and Amazon do. Where Apple's image search can show you a dog, Google's can find the chihuahua on a beach eating a hotdog.

Siri is a parlour trick you get tired of after a day or two. Google Assistant will become a real time saver and thus will become something you will likely come back to over and over.

The latest and greatest thinking in machine learning from Geoffrey Hinton may eventually be beneficial for Apple. It is called Capsule Theory and is a new way of developing machine learning models that require much less data, but this is still early day research.

Conclusion

As I search for my next daily driver, I am testing a handful of new Android smartphones that I will review shortly on my blog. First-up will be a review of the Samsung Note 8. I won't be discussing the specifications but looking at it from the viewpoint of an iPhone user considering the switch.

I am hoping to also get my hands on a Mate 10 Pro, Pixel 2 XL and the ONePlus 5T.

Is the $499 Essential phone worth it?

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 7.27.43 PM.png

No other Android smartphone in 2017 has been as polarizing as the Essential phone. Created by the father of Android, many of us (tech reviewers) wanted a no compromise phone we could love. A device that would be a trailblazer showing other manufacturers what is possible and ushering in an new era of innovation through competition.

Instead the Essential phone is a device I want to love but can't. 

Essential recently dropped its Canadian and US price and many readers wanted to know if I could recommend this phone at the new price. Keep reading to find out.

It feels rushed

So Andy Rubin teed the essential phone in March an created a tone of excitement.

Reviewers went wild because it was the first phone with an edge to edge display. Since then, we have been bombarded with a bunch of beautiful, wet designed smartphones with edge to edge displays (like the Samsung Note 8, Samsung Galaxy S8+, iPhone X, etc). 

When I use the phone and compare it to its cousins, I have the feeling the phone was rushed. Since September, Essential has had to release 4 updates to make the device usable and it still has a lot of room for improvement.

One major complaint that seems to affect all users is the camera quality. Even with the hardware Essential used, most of us expected the device to take much better pictures. Then a port of the Google Pixel Camera app was released by an unknown developer and tests (see article here) show that through software, image quality can be greatly improved. This is the perfect example of issues created because Essential didn't take the time to release adequate software to make it's device shine.

If you take too many sequential burst pictures, the native Essential Camera app crashes and won't work until you restart the phone. 

If you take too many sequential burst pictures, the native Essential Camera app crashes and won't work until you restart the phone. 

The good

The Essential phone looks and feel amazing. It has a beautiful edge to edge screen that is brights.  The device is slightly heavier than competing products and really feels well built. It is (to me at least) the best looking android phone you can buy today.

It comes with USB C.

It has a camera that doesn't have a hump so the entire back of the device is flat and won't wobble when placed on a table.

It has a fantastic fingerprint reader that is well placed and works very quickly every time. 

It is running a stock version of Android (comparable to the Google Pixel line). This clean version of Android means the phone is extremely fast and responsive. Apps start quickly (often faster than on a Samsung Galaxy S8+ or Note 8). 

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 7.55.37 PM.png

Essential has committed to 3 years of security patches and 2 years of major OS updates which is a huge win. Even companies like Lenovo Motorola, Samsung and OnePlus don't commit to software updates like this. I think this is a huge plus for Essential and I wish other companies would follow it's lead.

The bad

The camera is one of the main reasons people buy smartphones and the Essential camera is just "ok". I won't bore you with samples because every reviewer has posted dozens but trust me, the camera will leave you wanting.

As mentioned above, the illicit port of the Google Pixel Camera app does make a significant improvement to the picture quality but it still isn't in the same league as the Samsung Galaxy S8 (which you can now buy around the same price) or the OnePlus 5 (which is out of stock as we wait for its replacement the OnePlus 5T).

It doesn't have any type of water or dust protection.

It doesn't support wireless charging.

You can't buy a second Essential branded was charger yet and the only add-on they released is their $150 360 camera which itself produces "ok" quality pictures and videos.

The speakers on the Essential phone get fairly loud but the audio quality is sub-par. 

Conclusion

The Essential phone was the phone I was hoping to love and was hoping it would become my daily driver (replacing my iPhone). 

So to answer the original question, even at this price, I can't recommend the phone for most users. If Essential released an Android 8 upgrade (we know they are testing it internally) and that version included a massively reworked camera app and they released the charging pad, then may recommendation would likely change.

What is DXO Mark Mobile and should you care?

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
bryan-minear-315906.jpg

Over the span of a couple of weeks, we saw three phones released, and with every release, the manufacturer touted the device's incredible "best ever" DXO Mark Mobile performance rating:

  1. Samsung released the Galaxy Note 8 with a DXO Camera score of 94
  2. Apple released the iPhone 8 Plus with a DXO Camera score of 94
  3. Google released the Pixel 2 / Pixel 2 XL with a DXO Camera score of 98

Manufacturers love touting these scores to "prove" that they have designed the finest camera a distinguished tech user could ask for. For all intents and purposes, technology should get better and this means every new phone released (at the high end) should have better overall performance than its predecessor. Why would you buy an inferior phone?

While most blogs blindly write headlines repeating this single "representative" number, very few actually take the time to read the full DXO reviews and explain the details to their readers. 

It's complicated

The first thing to keep in mind that blending complex factors into a single easy to digest number is complicated and sometimes may mislead some readers. While most blogs only show the single number, DXO actually provides a generous amount of valuable information for the curious reader.

The DXO tests include a slew of carefully controlled tests and other real world tests that are more subjective. 

If we pick on today's "highest ranking" phone, the Google Pixel 2, here is how the rating of 98 is made up:

dxo1.png

DXO provides detailed test results and write-ups for each of these categories. While most blogs will tout that the Pixel 2 has a rating of 98 (the best ever rating for a smartphone), they rarely provide the makeup of that number.

And the make-up of that number is critical to your buying decision. If you will use the camera primarily for video, you may notice it scored 96. You can also check out how DXO made up that score by evaluating what is important to you about video (which attributes are more important to you).

  • Exposure and contrast
  • color
  • Autofocus
  • Texture
  • Noise
  • Artifacts
  • Stabilization

Remeber that the video rating fo 96 is not a straight average but rather a "black box" formulae closely guarded by DXO. 

Is DXO Mark Trustworthy?

The next question is "can you trust the DXO testing methodology"?

Having reviewed the public information made available by DXO, I say yes. They have a well-documented methodology that is as good as it is going to get. I trust their rating but use the detailed review information to make up my mind, not the single number most blogs publicise. 

It is also important to keep in mind that DXO is a for-profit consulting company that manufacturers hire. DXO works with manufacturers to tune their imaging systems and get the best possible performance out of the equipment and software. DXO also sells image quality testing solutions.

I do not believe this consulting arm influences the device ratings in any way but it is still an important fact to keep in mind.

DXO Optics Pro

DXO Optics makes very good photo improvement software because of all this camera/lens knowledge they have accumulated. They know the shortcomings of each of the camera/lens combos and can this build specific correction profiles. 

I own their software and paid for it myself. 

90% of all the questions I receive these days is about comparing the iPhone to the Google Pixel2.  In addition to all the information I have already written and the info provided above, there is one more piece of knowledge you should consider. 

The Google Camera app on the Pixel 2 does not natively support RAW (the iPhone 5s or newer) does. This means DXO Optics Pro has corrective filters for all these iPhone RAW images, but does not for the Google Pixel2. This could be a major deciding factor for more astute or demanding mobile photographer.

Conclusion

I know most users simply don't care about the details. They want one easy to read headline that justifies their belief (Google is better / iPhone is better). My ask is that you, my more knowledgeable readers, take the time to look at the data that makes up the numbers.

It's a worthwhile investment of your time.

Which Smart Assistant is the smartest

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment
Capture.PNG

Silicon Valley has been promising life-changing personal digital assistants for years, but we all know most are semi-useful at best. 

A new research project to measure the IQs of these "smart assistants" concluded that Google is the smartest but has an IQ equivalent to a six-year-old (Google received a score of 47.28 while a typical 6-year-old would receive a 55.5). An average adult would rate between 85-115 points.

Where does the "digital golden child" (aka Siri) score? It received a very disappointing 23.9.  Siri was outsmarted by Microsoft's Cortana and Baidu. 

The results showed that these assistants had made significant improvements over the last two years but that they still have a long way to go before they deliver on their real promise.

Privacy and the digital assistants

Apple triumphantly became the first major tech company to include a digital assistant with every iPhone 4s. As we bought into the dream, we were enthralled by all the wonderful possibilities that this technology would enable. 

Apple went all-in with the privacy chip, and soon Siri was surpassed by Alexa and the Google Assistant. Most notable was the launch of Amazon's Alexa in 2014 which had a much better ability to understand natural language commands and had the first real consumer implementation of far-field microphone technology. Amazon's microphone technology coupled with artificial intelligence in the cloud meant it could pick up commands from a distance even in relatively noisy environments. Something Apple certainly couldn't do. 

While Amazon opened up its skills technology to the world, Apple carefully guarded its assistant enforcing strict privacy controls. In the Snowden era, privacy is important, but consumers are typically more interested in convenience. 

Pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence, Google decided to use its incredibly vast trove of user data to train its artificial intelligence and machine learning engines. This unmatched access to valuable data (think Google Voice, Google Maps driving patterns, likes/dislikes in Gmail, etc.) has allowed the sultan of search to become the king of digital assistants. 

Many believe that Apple's lack of development of Siri caused many prominent employees to leave the Siri program. Most noticeable were the departures of the Siri co-founders Adam Cheyer and Dag Kittlaus. Not wanting to retire and watch from the sidelines, they created a new digital assistant leveraging the most modern technologies, under a new banner "Viv Labs. Viv Labs was supposed to be an independent digital assistant that would work across many products and companies. Helas they sold to Samsung for ~$200M, and now we wait to see how they will use the technology. 

Google is all in with the Google Assitant

On October 4, 2017, most tech analysts watched as Google unveiled its 2017 crop of technologies. They launched two phones, two speaker-assistants, a refreshed VR headset, Bluetooth headphones and a new laptop. We could see how the new MadebyGoogle style was infused in everything they launched. 

Even though everything seemed well designed and manufactured, the most striking message was that Google was embedded it's Google Assistant in everything. 

The Google Assistant now lives in every new Google product and in most cases is the unique differentiator for that product. 

The Google assistant and its unique Artificial Intelligence engines:

  • Allow its Google Home Max speaker to auto-tune its sound profile taking into account the characteristics of the location it is in
  • Allow it's smartphone to use a single camera to generate bokeh and blurred photo backgrounds (which Samsung, HTC, and Apple deliver using two cameras)
  • Allow its Google Buds Bluetooth earphones to break down the communication barrier by making Google translate voice easier to use in the real world
  • Allow its Pixel Chromebook laptop competitor to use Google Lens to identify elements in a picture (aka a famous person on a web page or a landmark in a picture)

Google is gambling that its Assistant will be a key product differentiator and they may be right. I have owned iPhones since the very first version. I owned every Apple Newton Apple every released and spent way too much money on Newton accessories. I am not a fan-boy but loved the tech. 

This is the year I upgrade my personal phone; I opted to jump to the Google Pixel 2XL instead of the iPhone X. 

  • I need a device that is more customizable thank what Apple allows. Think of the Chinese citizens that can no longer install VPN clients on their Apple products because Apple banned these apps from its Chinese app store to comply with Chinese law. To make things worse, Apple does not allow them to sideload any apps, so these customers are stuck. On Android, you can toggle a switch to sideload apps. Sideloading does increase your cyber risk, but sometimes that is an acceptable outcome. 
  • I was also tired and frustrated with Siri and Google can help me be more efficient in more situations. 

I believe that Google CEO Sundar Pichai is right when he says we are entering an AI first world. 

Conclusion

Assistants will be the front end to this new artificial intelligence first world we are entering into. Apple has more money than most countries and could surprise everyone with a significant upgrade to Siri, but without the enormous troves of data Amazon and Google have about users, it will be an arduous journey. Apple is not in trouble. Apple is not dead. Apple is a vibrant company that continues to find new ways to create billion dollar business' (Apple music, Apple watch, etc.). 

In the short term, I doubt the lackluster performance of Siri will hinder its growth, but I am convinced it will have an impact on its longer-term viability (unless it decides to jump all in and spend some of its cash on buying maturity for Siri).