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Apple just doesn’t stop. Hot on the heels of last week’s iLife and iWork updates, the company released General Support Update 2009-001. The company has also launched SecurityCare, a new service-based program that guarantees subscribers a worry-free computing experience. Plus, speculation abounds about a possible meeting between Steve Jobs and ex-Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi. In the iPhone world, it appears that Apple has started purging poorly performing apps from the App Store, though we’re sure that the new Invisibility, which alerts you to the presence of unwanted people, will make the cut. In other news, Glenn Fleishman reports on the end of 802.11b, Adam looks at the announcement of a “green” printer from Epson and finds some potential privacy concerns within iPhoto ’09, and Jeff Carlson reports on the separate ventures of the now-estranged SmileOnMyMac founders. We also note the release of OmniWeb 5.9.2.

Matt Neuburg No comments

Apple Releases General Support Update 2009-001

Apple today released General Support Update 2009-001. According to the predictably terse release notes, the 401.9 MB download “provides various usability and compatibility improvements and fixes several minor issues.” This is the only information we have at this time as to what this update may do; there is no word on whether it affects certain aspects of the system, the system as a whole, or particular Apple-installed applications. Nor are we told what improvements it includes or what issues it fixes. Some have speculated that it could in fact be a new version of Mac OS X, but we’re not sure, since the About This Mac window no longer shows version information after you apply the update.

Apple describes the update as “Recommended for all users,” so we suggest that everyone obediently download and install it like good little boys and girls, and leave the thinking to the higher life forms at Apple. The update is available via Software Update and should be on the Apple Support Downloads page later today.

Adam Engst No comments

OmniWeb 5.9.2 Adds Gopher Support

The Omni Group announced today that OmniWeb 5.9.2 adds support for a revolutionary Internet protocol called Gopher. Developed at the University of Minnesota, Gopher eschews the free-form nature of the Web in favor of a strongly hierarchical organization, simplifying browsing of categorized information. For a list of Gopher servers, see the Floodgap list.

Although Mozilla browsers like Firefox and Camino also offer Gopher support, OmniWeb is the first WebKit-based browser to support the Gopher protocol.

OmniWeb 5.9.2 is available now and is a free download with no licensing restrictions (see “OmniWeb and OmniSiblings Run Free,” 2009-02-25).

Matt Neuburg No comments

Space Meeting between Steve Jobs and Charles Simonyi?

In a surprise announcement that caught reporters completely off-guard, NASA and Apple have issued a curt joint announcement revealing that a bat clinging to the hull was not the only stowaway on board the STS-119 Discovery space shuttle mission, which successfully returned to Earth on 28-Mar-09. With the mission complete, it has been revealed that Apple CEO Steve Jobs was secretly a passenger. The news is particularly surprising in light of the fact that Jobs is completely absent from crew photographs, including the video conference with
President Obama.

Wealthy celebrities traveling to space is nothing new, but the reason for the secrecy of Jobs’s presence on this spaceflight, and his purpose for partaking of it during a time when he is supposedly recovering from health problems, remain mysteries. Perhaps he just wanted the thrill of being in space, for which, it should be added, he can well afford to pay.

However, it has also been noted that Charles Simonyi, former Microsoft Application Software Group head, was a passenger on the Soyuz TMA-14 Expedition 19, which lifted off 26-Mar-09 and is scheduled to stay until 07-Apr-09 at the International Space Station. Since the STS-119 was visiting the International Space Station to deliver improved solar arrays, this means that Jobs and Simonyi could have held a secret meeting… in space. Speculation is rife! Might this indicate a pending Microsoft-Apple detente? Even more alarming, might this be part of an elaborate hush-hush plan for Simonyi to take over at Apple should Jobs step down? Speculation remains just that,
however, since all parties involved have declined to comment further.

Doug McLean No comments

Underperforming Apps to be Purged From App Store

Customers and developers alike often complain of the overly sprawling collection of apps in the iPhone App Store. With countless applications, many of which offer the same basic features, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for truly useful and original apps to stand out, and for customers to purchase them. Apple, in step with a handful of previous App Store policy revisions (see “App Store Reviews Now Distinguish Versions,” 2009-03-12), has decided to do a bit of spring cleaning – implementing a new app purging policy.

Effective 01-Apr-09, Apple is selectively removing from the App Store apps that fail to meet a new set of criteria for active in-store status. While an Apple spokesperson said the company would not be making the specifics of its criteria public, he did note it would be generally taking into account an app’s number of downloads, customer ratings, and whether Apple feels the app “contributes to or detracts from the App Store’s overall mission.”

We also expect that the company may limit the number of similar products in a category. While this might reduce the app count from its current 25,000 to as few as 2,500, the long-tail applications represent less than .01 percent of all App Store downloads.

Some developers are concerned that their apps could be unexpectedly removed by this murky set of criteria. Fraser Speirs, author of the Flickr viewing and uploading app Darkslide, is currently waiting for a title to be approved. “I submitted an app four months ago,” he said. “I’m afraid it will finally be approved and then yanked on the same day.” After some prodding, Speirs revealed the app to be FartLighter, which combines two of the App Store’s most popular utilities into one.

However, many developers are happy to see Apple taking steps to improve the app store experience. Craig Hockenberry of Iconfactory, makers of Twitterrific and Frenzic apps, said, “I know none of my apps will be affected, so I think it’s a wise and overdue move on Apple’s part. It’s time we give these underachievers the boot.”

Overall, we’re pleased to see Apple continuing to enhance the App Store environment, and feel confident the company will make sound decisions regarding the deservedness of aspiring apps.

Glenn Fleishman No comments

Wi-Fi 802.11b Standard Expires

As everyone knows, all technology industry standards come with a built-in expiration date, a kind of “terminator gene” intended to prevent protocols from functioning indefinitely. Such old technologies can, if allowed to continue, result in security breaches and prevent the sale of improved hardware and software. The final day of operation for IEEE 802.11b, the earliest flavor of the trade group certified Wi-Fi standard, was 31-Mar-09.

You might think you can work around this problem by setting your device’s clock to a date preceding the protocol expiration, but this usually won’t do the trick. Many hardware devices contain a simple clock that does rough tracking to ensure that the expiration mechanism isn’t bypassed.

If you own a pre-2003 Macintosh, you might have woken up this morning and found that you couldn’t connect to the network. If you’re running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or 10.5 Leopard, you should see a dialog explaining that your AirPort Card will no longer work, and advising a trip to the Apple Store. A $99 AirPort Express can be used to connect a Mac to an 802.11g or a newer network via its built-in Ethernet port.

The AirPort Extreme, starting in 2003, contains 802.11g technology, which isn’t slated to expire until midnight on 31-Mar-11.

While disabling hardware just because a certain date has passed might seem harsh, if you read the fine print of the license agreement on the box, you’ll see that you agreed to this policy when you purchased the equipment.

Adam Engst No comments

Epson’s “Green” Printer Debuts for Earth Day

Just in time for Earth Day on 22-Apr-09, Epson today announced a new “green” printer that’s cleverly decked out in a green casing: the GR-401. The monochrome laser printer (black-and-white, not green-and-white, thankfully!) is designed to meet the needs of homes and small offices while reducing its environmental footprint in numerous ways. It’s Energy Star-certified for the lowest power use in its class, and features a sleep mode that draws less than 0.5 watts of power while idle. The printer also employs a kind of regenerative braking – it recaptures some energy from the rollers’ inertia after power is used to initiate the gripping and feeding process. You can also attach an optional crank to spin up its internal motor, and reduce
power further.

The printer also includes built-in Wi-Fi, so it can support multiple computers, thus eliminating the need for each computer to have its own printer, and it uses toner cartridges that were explicitly designed to be refilled up to 10 times. It can also print in duplex, using both sides of the paper automatically to reduce unnecessary paper use. The printer driver also automatically switches fonts to their Ecofont equivalent, reducing toner use by as much as 20 percent per character.

Most important, though, is Epson’s innovative recycle mode that reuses both toner and paper. Epson spokesman Isaac “Prince” Daley told us in a briefing that Epson’s research showed that nearly 80 percent of all printouts are recycled within 7 days of being printed. In response, Epson has developed a technology that strips the printer’s specially formulated toner particles from previously printed pages, leaving the paper clean and ready to be printed on again. All you do is stack previously printed pages in a top-mounted sheet feeder, and set whether the printer should print with virgin paper and toner or use recycled paper and toner, if available. Epson’s Daley said that although the recycled printouts are pretty good, they’re not quite as crisp as those using new paper and toner, hence the user option to switch.

Cool as it is, the recycling process isn’t perfect. Paper that has been written on can’t be put back through the printer, since pen ink and pencil graphite could contaminate the recycled toner. The printer automatically detects foreign substances and discards suspect toner and pages into a hopper. (A warning light lets you know the hopper is full.) And although small bends or crimps from paperclips aren’t problematic, paper that has been too crumpled could cause jams in the printer’s sheet feeder. Lastly, reformulating the recycled toner particles so they can be re-fused onto paper requires some energy, though Epson is justifiably proud of the fact that no additional chemicals are involved in the process, only water. Unfortunately, you can’t use tap water, due to unpredictable mineral concentrations.

Epson estimates that toner and paper usage will be reduced by 50 to 75 percent, since the only losses to the system are from pages that are either sent out or treated in such a way that they can’t be fed through the printer again. Unsurprisingly, this reduction in consumables means that the “razor blade” business model used for so long by printer manufacturers won’t work, so the printer is priced at $3,999. Epson will sell the special mineral-free water, produced using a patented thermal vaporization system, for $19.99 per liter bottle, enough for 200 pages. Toner refills will cost $39.99 for enough toner to print 3,000 pages, and replacement toner cartridges (pre-filled with toner) will cost $299. Both bottles and toner cartridges can be returned to Epson for recycling.

Although the GR-401 is the first printer to use Epson’s new recycling technology, the company has high hopes for it and is looking at introducing a large-scale variant that could be used to print and recycle newsprint, which could be a boon to the ailing newspaper industry, beset as it is by spiraling print costs.

Glenn Fleishman No comments

Invisibility App for iPhone Helps You Avoid Undesirables

We all have people we want to avoid. Sometimes for a few minutes or hours (“Damn, the boss is coming, and I’m not done with the report!”) and sometimes for the rest of your life (“Not that psycho ex-boyfriend – please don’t let him see me!”). Invisibility for the iPhone aims to solve that problem with, you guessed it, technology!

The name is related to the Invisible option added to iChat in Leopard, where you can see buddies but they can’t see you. Invisibility’s developers typically write network-intrusion software, and have released this product separately under the company name Invisible Inc.

The Invisibility app relies on the information that iPhones and other devices emit whether they’re idle or in use, coupled with the enormous amount of personal data that we all spew into the Internet via social networking services. It can’t actually make you invisible, of course, but it can help you avoid uncomfortable situations by alerting you to the presence of unwanted people.

The app costs $79, which is extremely high for an iPhone app, but through 01-Apr-10, purchases of Invisibility include a lifetime subscription to the required Invisibility service, which is slated to cost $24.99 per year.

Invisibility works by creating a profile of each person you want to avoid, using a variety of inputs. You can give the program access to email that’s received on your iPhone, and it can scan for inbound messages. Using IP lookups and likely travel time estimates, the software tries to determine where that person was when he sent the email and where he is now, relative to your current location. The tracking screen uses Google Maps to show you the current location (if known) of anyone you’ve profiled, along with a circle of probability and a timestamp. This is useful when you’re taking a stroll and want to make sure the coast is clear.

Invisibility can also use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals to identify someone’s cell phone within a range of 30 to 100 feet. To do this, you put the app into a sniffing mode, in which it grabs MAC addresses and other wireless identifiers out of the air when you’re near the person in question. If Invisibility “hears” those identifiers in the future, it uses that information along with other data to trigger a proximity alarm. These alarms can be customized for each person, so, for instance, you might want to be alerted via email and a loud warning sound when your ex-spouse appears anywhere in your neighborhood, whereas your boss moving within 100 feet of you might necessitate only a discreet vibration.

The program can also tap into Facebook messages, Flickr geotagging information, Skyhook Wireless location updates, Twitter, Dopplr travel logging, Blogger posts, and all kinds of other public and private (once you’ve connected it to your accounts) social media and buddy services. By adding someone’s Flickr account to their profile, for instance, Invisibility can use RSS to determine when a new photo is added, then extract the geotag information to see where that person was when the photo was taken, and calculate a possible current location for them. Since Invisibility reports your own location back to the company’s servers as well, it can use that for highly accurate location reporting for anyone who’s trying to avoid you.

While Invisibility is impressive, Invisible Inc. isn’t promising 100-percent success. However, since the system works largely by correlating vast quantities of data, the developers promise that it will improve in the future, as a surveying mechanism built into the app will enable users to report on failures. And, of course, the more people who use Invisibility, the more accurate it becomes, if only among Invisibility users.

The company calls this asocial networking, something the founders believe is a growing trend as people tire of being expected to be in a state of constant availability to an increasingly wide range of friends and acquaintances. Eventually, Invisible Inc. hopes to tie Invisibility into a new system with the working title of “Effacebook.”

Adam Engst No comments

iPhoto’s Faces and Places Designed to Track Terrorists?

At Macworld Expo in January, Apple made much of the two big new features in iPhoto ’09, Faces and Places. Faces is face detection and recognition technology, and Places both reads GPS information stored with photos and enables you to add it yourself. Currently, Faces is the more successful of the two, since although it’s relatively easy to add geotags to photos in iPhoto, most photos won’t be geotagged until GPS chips are commonplace in cameras.

However, a programmer friend spelunking through the text strings stored in the iPhoto application binary made a rather unsettling discovery. There’s an IP address deep in the bowels of iPhoto that points at a machine within a range of IP addresses controlled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Users running Little Snitch haven’t reported any unexpected traffic leaving iPhoto for the destination address, so whatever it is, it’s not currently active.

Needless to say, Apple had no comment on the discovery. If forced to speculate, therefore, all I can think of is that there is some code in iPhoto with the capability of phoning home to the DHS. It wouldn’t make sense to transfer entire photos most of the time, since massive data transfers would be obvious. But, if there were some way to transfer just the facial recognition data at a trickle rate, the DHS could compile it all and cross-reference it against facial characteristics of known terrorists. That may not be all that helpful on its own, but what if the facial recognition data was accompanied by geotags and date stamp information? If the DHS – or another government agency – could pinpoint when and where known terrorists were, even in the past, that could prove a huge aid in preventing further acts of terrorism and bringing them to justice.

The problem, of course, is that were such a feature to exist within iPhoto, it would be a massive privacy breach on an unparalleled scale. I can’t see Apple, of all companies, going along with this sort of thing. However, over the past few years the U.S. government has been single-minded in its quest to capture terrorists, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was some super secret way the government could compel a private company to act in a way that protected the interests of national security. Of course, this isn’t out of line with some previous secret government programs, such as all color laser printers putting a nearly invisible pattern of yellow dots on every page that includes the printer model and serial number, along with a date stamp.

Our request for information from the Department of Homeland Security was turned down, not surprisingly, although the spokesman did say that all projects begun under the previous administration were “under review.” This is certainly one I’d like to see go under the axe, for if the DHS relies on iPhoto for its reconnaissance, it’s anyone’s guess who will end up under the magnifying glass, given pictures like this one.

Rich Mogull No comments

Apple Launches SecurityCare

Recently, Apple has come under criticism for its handling of a series of security issues. Apple is also known for maintaining a stoic silence in the face of public outcry, then releasing a new product or update to wipe away the world’s concerns. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see Apple announce a major new security initiative: Apple SecurityCare.

Similar to AppleCare, SecurityCare is an add-on service available with the purchase of any new Mac, AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express, or Time Capsule. All new Macs and AirPort base stations come with 90 days of free coverage, with 3 years of extended protection available. As with AppleCare, prices vary based on the particular Mac. While tiered pricing makes perfect sense for AppleCare, it’s hard to see the same correlation justified for security issues, and we suspect the move is to maintain consistency in the product lines.

Although not yet available for the iPhone or iPod touch, Apple stated that SecurityCare will be available with the iPhone/iPod touch 3.0 release later this year. Normal iPods won’t be covered, since there is essentially no security risk for them. For Macs, SecurityCare is available only for those running Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard or later.

Apple describes SecurityCare as a “premier security service, offering unparalleled, personalized security support.” Breaking out of the traditional paradigm of subscription-based security products such as antivirus software, SecurityCare is instead a full service offering that doesn’t require additional software. Covered devices will be securely configured by a SecurityCare specialist to minimize the risk of a successful attack.

This includes proper user account and firewall configuration, software updates, setting up secure sharing and wireless, and locking down other system settings. It also includes proper configuration of Time Machine backups, assuming the customer has (or purchases) a Time Capsule or external hard drive. MobileMe subscribers gain additional support, including spam filtering, email-based antivirus filtering (on the MobileMe servers), and Back to my Mac configuration support. Apple also states that the SecurityCare specialist activates certain parts of Leopard’s Parental Controls and Apple Remote Desktop to increase security and support remote security management. After the initial configuration, Apple will remotely monitor these systems for
any signs of security lapses.

An Apple spokesperson stated, “With SecurityCare we are changing how people think of security. Rather than relying on limited software, Apple SecurityCare provides ongoing, proactive support that takes security concerns out of the hands of Apple customers. Users shouldn’t have to become technical security experts, and Apple now provides customers with a worry-free computing experience.” Apple guarantees an immediate response if any security problems are detected, and complete remediation. “Our SecurityCare Specialists won’t rest until your Apple product is completely restored and safe to use by the entire family.”

As part of the announcement, Apple also revealed that it is dramatically expanding its security team to more proactively manage potential security issues, saying, “Apple’s new Security Response Center redefines the industry standard for managing product security. Our team not only responds to security issues, but works proactively to prevent them from occurring in the first place.”

Although Apple is sparse on details about what exactly SecurityCare entails, information is slowly leaking from some pre-release SecurityCare testers. “I thought I might have accidentally downloaded a Trojan Horse program,” said one tester, who asked to remain anonymous, “so I posted a question in an online forum. Within minutes this shiny silver sports car pulled into my driveway, and two guys wearing jeans, black turtlenecks, and ski masks walked right into my house, pulled my mouse out of my hand, and fixed everything. I couldn’t believe how fast and efficient they were!”

Another SecurityCare tester stated, “It was wild. I’d taken my Mac to the Apple Store to get a printing problem resolved, but they totally locked down my computer before I left, for free. Then, when I went to a local Starbucks and connected to the wireless network, an aluminum sports car pulled up, an antenna popped out of the roof, and next thing I know my wireless connection was locked down. Although I think they may have also deleted all my porn.”

Other testers report similar incidents… once they encounter a potentially risky security situation, a brushed aluminum sports car that many believe is a customized all-electric Tesla appears, and a pair of Apple security experts resolve the situation. Some people complained about the aggressive, yet efficient, nature of these encounters. “I know they’re supposed to keep me secure, but did they really have to cut my Internet connection with wire clippers?” one source asked. Another tester explained, “There I was, just engaging in a little late night file sharing, when in the reflection of my new glossy-screen iMac I saw someone standing behind me. He said, ‘Sir, put the mouse down,’ took over
my computer, and now I can’t get to BitTorrent anymore”.

A source within Apple also revealed SecurityCare subscribers will soon be offered a Pro upgrade that will come with a personal bodyguard to protect you in line at Apple Stores during Apple product launches.

[Editor’s Note: In what we hope is unrelated news, security researchers Charlie Miller and Dino Dai Zovi have not been seen since shortly after the release of their new book, “The Mac Hackers Handbook,” which includes a foreword by TidBITS Security Editor Rich Mogull. Mr. Mogull filed this article from an undisclosed location via carrier pigeon.]

Jeff Carlson No comments

FrownOnMyMac Fills New Mac Niches

The smile at SmileOnMyMac isn’t as broad as it used to be. Following a contentious disagreement between founders Philip Goward and Greg Scown (apparently over whether the sound made by TextExpander is a “bloop” or a “pop”), the pair have parted ways. Goward remains in charge of the SmileOnMyMac stable of utilities such as DiscLabel and TextExpander, while Scown is branching out with a new spinoff company named FrownOnMyMac.

Scown’s initial lineup of programs is based on early code for which he still owns the rights. “I wanted to hit the ground running with applications ready for sale right away,” he said. The lineup includes the following applications, which are available immediately. Because of the age of the code, all three work under Mac OS 9, or in Mac OS X in the Classic environment (and thus aren’t compatible with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard).

TextRedactor 1.2 — Billed as “the perfect tool for any serious writer,” TextRedactor encourages you to write the best prose you can manage. As writers we can attest that we often delete more words than we write during the revision process. TextRedactor takes that one step further, automatically deleting poorly written sentences once you’ve typed them. When you write a good sentence, TextRedactor’s proprietary language algorithm identifies it and keeps it onscreen for three minutes, during which time pressing Command-Option-Ctrl-7-P-M prevents the sentence from being erased. (A LazyType option in the program’s preferences can also automatically keep
your fifth, tenth, or thirtieth try without invoking the algorithm.)

New in version 1.2 is the capability to specify fonts other than Helvetica, the option to play a sound (“Splonk,” added to your Mac during installation) when the software does its redacting, and, anticipating popular request, a full-screen view for eliminating distractions. TextRedactor costs $41.09.

FaxPen PRO 1.0.2 — SmileOnMyMac’s PDFpen utility has been a godsend for anyone who needs to edit or view a PDF and can’t handle the overhead and feature bloat of Adobe’s Acrobat Pro. However, PDFs weren’t yet in wide use when Scown first developed FaxPen Pro.

FaxPen Pro takes existing PDFs, with their precise formatting and aligned text, and converts them into low-resolution TIFF images suitable for faxing. You can accept the software’s default values, or expand a sidebar to reveal sliders that control the amount of Text Alignment, Image Loss, Crumpledness, and even Cutoff (where the bottom of the sheet is excised). Scown also revealed a tip: when you hold the Option key, the Image Loss slider becomes the Coffee Stain slider, which controls the darkness of a random coffee stain applied to the image.

FaxPen Pro is ideal for computer-literate users who are in the midst of refinancing a mortgage, sending forms to the government, or engaging in other similar activities where the only acceptable format is fax. The software costs $41.09 for a single-user license, or $2,300 for organizations of 50 or more employees. An optional 1200 bps USB modem for directly faxing from your computer (Mac OS X 10.0 or later) is $1.08 plus shipping.

DisKLabel — The last item in the FrownOnMyMac lineup is DisKLabel, an easy-to-use utility for printing attractive dot-matrix floppy disk labels. “We all have lots of floppy disks stored away,” said Scown, “typically with no scheme for cataloging or even identifying what’s on them.”

DisKLabel reads the contents of a floppy disk (provided, of course, that you’re able to mount it using an external USB floppy disk reader) and creates a label listing the top six items (or eight items if you set the label font to Very Tiny) that can be applied to the surface of any 3.5-inch floppy. A separate sheet of paper contains the rest of the disk’s contents, and includes prominent marks to indicate where to fold the paper so that it matches the disk’s physical size.

DisKLabel is also compatible with HP’s advanced label-burning technology built into the latest generation of USB floppy drive readers. It uses a low-powered laser to etch the plastic on a diskette without a label attached. A typical label takes 150 minutes to burn.

New in version is backwards compatibility for 5.25-inch floppies (provided you can find a way to read them) and support for two-color printing. Through the end of 01-Apr-09, you can also download a bonus package that lets you also print labels for Zip disks. Like the rest of FrownOnMyMac’s programs, DisKLabel costs $41.09.

Why So Serious? So, what’s the story behind the dour company name? I caught up with Jean MacDonald, the now-professionally-bipolar marketing and PR contact for both SmileOnMyMac and FrownOnMyMac for more information. She replied via Twitter (she’s @macgenie):

The name is just poking fun at Greg's old company, there's no - well, not much - malice behind it. We thought FrownOnMyMac embodies the spi

After reaching Twitter’s 140-character limit, MacDonald declined to comment further.