What to Expect at Apple’s March Event

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The invites for Apple’s big March 21 event finally went out today, and we already have a good idea of what to expect. According to the rumor mill, there are two new products that will be revealed: a 4-inch iPhone SE and an 9.7-inch iPad Pro .

The new iPhone, which will probably be called “SE” for reasons still unknown , will reportedly be a throwback to the 5s with its manageable, 4.7-inch screen. But also expect some lighter specs. Unlike the iPhone 6s, we don’t think it will have a camera that supports 4K , and doubt it will have 3D Touch .

As for the upcoming iPad, we’re expecting a smaller iPad Pro that could be pretty cool. It’s supposedly similar to last year’s iPad Pro and sport the same Smart Connector to support Smart Keyboard . It might even work with the Apple Pencil.

Those are the broad strokes of what we know so far. But we’ll continue to post updates as we get closer to the March 21 event.

Apple reportedly in talks to buy Imagination Technologies

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For almost a decade, Apple and Imagination Technologies have been joined at the hip. Every iPhone from the original 2007 model has used a version of a PowerVR graphics core, as has the iPad. Apple’s business has been a huge boon for Imagination Technologies, but the company’s efforts to diversify outside of graphics by buying the MIPS architecture and developing real-time raytracing hardware have met with very limited success. Recently Imagination announced that it would lay off 350 staff and restructure its business. Now, reports suggest that Apple may be negotiating to buy the company outright.

As reported by Ars Technica, this wouldn’t be a dramatic shift for Apple, who already owns 8.4% of the company and designs its own custom CPUs. It would, however, be a significant change for the rest of Imagination Technology’s current licensees, who depend on the company for IP. Intel has made use of Imagination Technology in multiple products, as has Samsung. ARM develops its own graphics core, dubbed Mali, but plenty of ARM-based SoC manufacturers still choose to pair with a different graphics core. Imagination Technologies lost money in both 2014 and 2015 as its efforts to grow its MIPS, raytracing, and IoT businesses came to little while the market for smartphones and tablets that use its IP shrank. Still, the company has decades of experience in graphics, particularly power-efficient GPUs. The PowerVR2 powered the Sega Dreamcast, while Series 3 drove the short-lived but well-received Kyro GPU family.

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It’s not clear if Apple will continue to support Imagination Technologies work on the Vulkan API if it acquires the company. To date, Apple has shown little interest in Vulkan, preferring to focus instead on its own API, Metal. Imagination, in contrast, has talked up its efforts for both Vulkan and real-time ray tracing. Buying Imagination Technologies would also give Apple theoretical access to MIPS as well as its ARM licenses, though the Cupertino company could also choose to keep just the GPU division of Imagination and sell the rest of the company off.

A major shake-up in IP licensing could give ARM some additional room to breathe or allow smaller competitors like Vivante to snap up some business as well. Apple could continue to operate the firm as an IP licensing division, but it’s more likely that it will take future designs private and build iPhone-specific capabilities. Short-term, we don’t expect Apple’s hardware to change much (assuming the deal goes through): Apple bought PA Semi in 2008 and launched their first CPU architecture (as opposed to an optimized SoC design) in 2012. It might not take that long to do a custom GPU architecture, but it would still take 12-18 months to roll a fundamentally new approach to graphics for future iDevices.

Apple may design its own servers to avoid government snooping

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We’ve known for roughly two years the US government has programs devoted to intercepting computer hardware mid-shipment. These programs are used to insert backdoors or spyware deep into a system’s firmware before it even arrives at its destination. A new report claims Apple is looking into building its own servers as a way to thwart this type of insertion.

The Information (currently offline as of this writing) reported yesterday that:

Apple has long suspected that servers it ordered from the traditional supply chain were intercepted during shipping, with additional chips and firmware added to them by unknown third parties in order to make them vulnerable to infiltration, according to a person familiar with the matter. At one point, Apple even assigned people to take photographs of motherboards and annotate the function of each chip, explaining why it was supposed to be there. Building its own servers with motherboards it designed would be the most surefire way for Apple to prevent unauthorized snooping via extra chips.

Security isn’t Apple’s only motivation — the company has expressed unhappiness with Amazon Web Services and, according to VentureBeat, is working on a plan to build its own in-house data centers and software to run them. Currently, services like iTunes are mostly outsourced to other providers like Amazon or Microsoft’s competing Azure. Apple is far from the first company to take steps like this; Google publicly announced it would begin encrypting all data that travels through its data centers after information leaked that the NSA had tapped undersea cables to spy on Google’s data centers from the inside, where data was once unencrypted.

Whether or not this approach can actually lock out groups like the NSA is an incredibly difficult question. Apple could contract with companies like Foxconn to build hardware to its own specifications, but there’s no guarantee that the NSA wouldn’t find a different method of penetrating Apple’s security. A government agency that’s gone to the trouble of building infrastructure to intercept, bug, and re-ship network equipment and servers is obviously one that’s willing to spend top dollar to guarantee results. Apple can make the game more difficult, certainly, but can it close the loopholes altogether?

This rumor isn’t going to be well-received by the government, which has already indicated it believes Apple’s behavior is just shy of treasonous in various court filings related to the San Bernardino shooting. Building its own data centers and designing its own hardware from the ground up, at least partly for the express purpose of locking the government out, isn’t going to sit well with the folks in Washington.

Up to this point, the battle over encryption has largely been waged behind the scenes. The White House has declined to push for any legislation that would actually ban encryption or formally require companies to cooperate with the government in turning over keys and access. One likely reason for this state of affairs is that government agencies feel reasonably assured that they can get the data they want without the battle public legislation would spark. If government agencies start feeling less sure of their own ability to compel cooperation or access information at will, this fight could go more public than it has to date. The technology sector would ferociously oppose such legislative fiat (assuming Congress was willing to consider it in the first place), but whether that opposition would be sufficient to sway the final outcome is another unknown.

Both Republicans and Democrats have given great deference to the NSA, FBI, and their claims that warrantless wiretaps and mass surveillance are required if the American people are to be kept safe. Apple, however, isn’t alone in its efforts. Last year, Cisco’s security chief announced it purposefully shipped to fake locations to keep the NSA from targeting and intercepting its hardware.

Android N vs iOS 9 comparison

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Android N vs iOS 9: release date

Android N is currently available as a Developer Preview, which was made available on 17 March. It’s a long way from a finished system and only contains a few new bits; the final version is due in the Fall.

iOS 9 has been around since 2015, with the third version (iOS 9.3) made available to all compatible devices in March 2016.

Both Apple and Android offer beta programs that enable you to test the next versions of their software before they are officially released, although they warn that you shouldn’t use betas on any devices you depend upon: by their very nature betas are unstable and buggy.

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Android N vs iOS 9: interface

Android N is likely to undergo a lot of interface changes between now and Fall, but we’re already seeing some key differences between it and Android Marshmallow. The notifications area has been completely redesigned and now enables you to respond to messages from within notifications, and there’s a new multi-window mode, which didn’t quite make the cut for Android M. Google also says it’s been working on Project Svelte to make Android feel smooth on older devices, but details of that haven’t been announced yet.

The last major redesign of iOS was years ago, with the controversial iOS 7. It’s not quite as garish as iOS 7 was and the new 3D touch adds extra functionality to (some) app icons, but there are still some shockingly bad interface elements such as the horrible, horrible Music app. iOS 9.3 does get one key new UI feature, though: Night Shift, which can automatically chance the color balance to minimize bright screens’ effects on your sleep.

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Android N vs iOS 9: Google Now vs Siri

We’ve yet to see any significant changes in Google Now on Android N, but even if Google only tweaks the edges it’s still ahead of Apple’s Siri for us. Maybe it’s our accent but we find Google’s voice recognition much more accurate than Apple’s, so Siri’s usefulness suffers as a result. Being able to shout “hey Siri!” and issue commands is something we’re glad Apple copied; it’s just a shame that Siri seems to think everything else we say is “blargle argle garble”. Siri also remains far behind Google Now in the usefulness stakes.

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Android N vs iOS 9: security and privacy

As ever, Apple and Google are coming at this from different directions. Apple goes for the Father Knows Best model, where apps are only allowed from the Apple app store and even the FBI doesn’t get to decrypt users’ iPhones. Google, on the other hand, wants to be open, so there are always security risks from malicious apps and third-party app stores. One thing we’re hoping to see in Android N is the Smart Lock for Passwords feature, which actually debuted in Marshmallow: that version doesn’t work with many apps yet, so we’re hoping Google promotes it more for Android N app developers.

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Android N vs iOS 9: battery

Android’s kicking Apple’s backside in the battery stakes: only the enormous iPhone 6S really delivers the goods battery-wise for power users, whereas the Doze mode introduced in Android Marshmallow massively increased battery life in Android devices of all sizes. Android N doubles down on Doze, with an improved energy saving mode that kicks in any time the screen is off. That should make Android last even longer – hopefully without impairing notifications and usability.

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Android N vs iOS 9: mobile payments

Apple’s way ahead here, with Apple Pay embraced by banks all over the world. Google’s payment system has been revamped and rebranded – it’s Android Pay now – but at the time of writing it hasn’t launched in markets such as the UK. When it does, we’d expect the same retailers that support Apple Pay to support Android Pay too.

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Android N vs iOS 9: early verdict

We’re not just comparing apples and oranges here; Android N is so far away that we’re comparing ripe apples with orange trees that haven’t borne fruit yet. Android N is already looking interesting, but we haven’t seen its best bits yet.

As with iOS 8 and Android M, both Android N and iOS 9 are improved versions of existing OSes: they’re better than their predecessors but in an evolutionary sense, not an “OMG they’ve changed everything!” sense. We think Android has the edge in some key areas – battery life and voice recognition in particular – and that Apple offers a more elegant but also more strictly controlled experience. As ever the choice between the rival OSes will largely come down to personal preference, so Android users are likely to gravitate to Android N while iOS users will tend to stick to iOS kit.