Apple and Mac OS X

The iPhone 3G experience

I’m very glad my wife waited a year to get the second-generation iPhone. It has been quite difficult to actually get one, though. For a while, I thought it was some ploy by Apple to generate more demand and hype by pretending to have a limited supply and thus make the iPhones appear harder to get than they really are. After all, that worked for the Wii, except that Nintendo couldn’t get its act together even a year after demand for the Wii had swelled.

The long lines were a big put-off, and I kept thinking, “Why is there such a long line? Don’t they just sell whatever stock they have and then just tell people they’re sold out?” This thought came to me especially when I called one Apple store to ask if they had iPhones in stock, and they said, “Yes, we have them, but there’s a line, and it’s about a four- to five-hour wait right now.” Excuse me? Four- to five-hour wait? Who would do that? That’s crazy! I waited in line for three hours for the Uffizi in Firenze, but that’s because my friend who was studying there at the time said the Uffizi was the only tourist trap worth going to.

Well, today, my wife finally got her iPhone. She went to the Apple store downtown, and they said they didn’t have it. Then I suggested she try the new Apple store in the Marina, and she got there just as a truck full of iPhones was pulling up to the store. A line immediately formed in front of the store, and she was about the fourth in line. What was this line for? Why did the process take so long? Well, first they had to individually “pre-screen” each customer to make sure they had an AT&T account (yes, we’re in America, and AT&T is the only provider you can use with the iPhone) or knew the appropriate account information to switch from another provider. Then they had to take each customer and set up an account and activate the phone specifically for that account. In other words, it was all this AT&T business that made the lines so long. The entire process of waiting to be pre-screened, being pre-screened, getting the iPhone set up, and purchasing the iPhone took about an hour and a half… for one customer (my wife, in this case). Talk about inefficiency. But, hey, at least AT&T knows Apple isn’t selling iPhones to people who will just unlock it and use it with another provider. No, you’re locked into their two-year contract. They have their claws in you.

That said, the iPhone’s pretty slick. I wish they had a Linux-based (and pay-as-you-go) phone that was this slick. The only things I don’t like about it (user experience-wise) are

  • You can’t easily remove apps you don’t care for.
  • You can’t easily install random apps, and a lot of the specifically-made-for-iPhone apps cost money.
  • A lot of the menu items do not have a back button to return to the main menu. I prefer a back button to pressing the main menu button.

So, buying experience—lame. Actual user experience—pretty cool. I think my wife will have a lot of fun with it. I’m happy with my crappy Virgin Mobile phone, though. I don’t need all that fancy stuff. I just want to make phone calls and occasionally check when the next bus is coming.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Is security through obscurity better than nothing?

Before I started using Linux and getting into frequent online discussions with other Linux users about security issues, I had no idea about computer security. I thought having a login and password was enough to keep the “bad guys” out, should my computer ever be stolen. Most people I know think the same. My dad (who actually is quite tech-savvy and can, unlike me, program in several languages and build his own computers from scratch) thought a fingerprint reader on his Thinkpad would keep people from accessing his files, but I showed him (with the aid of Knoppix CD) that that wasn’t the case.

The truth is that most computer “security” for home users is bogus and just security through obscurity. It may (or may not, depending on how resourceful they are) keep nosy family members and friends out, but it won’t stop someone who’s stolen your computer from getting to all your files. Having separate passwords and usernames on a home computer (as opposed to authenticated on a domain at work) is mainly a way to just make it slightly inconvenient for others using the same computer to snoop into your files.

If they had a little bit of knowledge and really wanted to snoop, however, they could. In the case of Mac OS X or Ubuntu, all it would take is booting into single-user mode and copying your files to their folders and changing ownership of those files. Or, if they didn’t want to be stealthy about it, they could change your password and log in as you. In Ubuntu, Mac OS X, and Windows, if you have a live CD (like Knoppix), you can boot it, mount the hard drive, and read any and all files on the computer.

Of course, in addition to having a username and password, there are other ways to slow down intruders and snooping friends from exploring your computer’s contents (setting a BIOS password, for example). Ultimately, though, once physical security is compromised, your computer’s contents have been also compromised… unless your drive is encrypted.

Of course, if one single person learns anything new from reading this, then the obscurity is that much less obscure now than before, but this understanding leads to the next question of “Is security through obscurity better than no security at all?” The Pidgin developers seem to think it’s not, as you can read in their justification for storing instant messaging passwords in plain text. In answer to the question “But surely something is better than nothing, right?” they say No. When a Pidgin user looks at her accounts.xml file, she can tell immediately that it’s a sensitive file and should be treated as such. When an application attempts to ‘trick’ the user into thinking its passwords are secure by obfuscating it in some way, the user assumes it’s safe.

In one sense, I agree with this. I don’t believe in giving users a false sense of security. In another sense, though, I think what they’re saying is ridiculous. Most users of instant messaging programs never look to see whether their passwords are stored in plain text or not, so they will almost always assume it’s safe. What would make much more sense by their line of reasoning would be to have a huge warning the first time you launch up Pidgin saying “Instant messaging is never secure, and that’s why we store your password in plain text.”

I’m a little ambivalent about all this, if you couldn’t tell. On the one hand, I do believe that for most purposes (keeping snooping family members and friends out), having usernames and passwords for unencrypted data serves its purpose. In this regard, security through obscurity works. On the other hand, this does give people a false sense of security, as they may think that not having an autologin will prevent laptop thieves from getting their data. People won’t be careful when it comes to their data and the real “bad guys.” On a lighter note, they may think that forgetting their administrative password means they have to reinstall the entire operating system instead of just resetting the password.

I guess if it really comes down to it, I believe in education. I believe people should know what is secure and what is not secure. What do people think? I know I have a lot of tech-savvy folks (people who know a lot more than I do) who read this blog. Is it ever the case that security through obscurity is better than no security at all?