Your government is worried. The world is “going dark.” Once upon a time, telephones were the only way to talk to someone far away, and the authorities could wiretap any phone they wanted. Nowadays, though, suspects might be communicating via Facebook, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Skype, Viber. And so, inevitably: “Today, if you’re a tech company that’s created a new and popular way to communicate, it’s only a matter of time before the FBI shows up with a court order to read or hear some conversation.”
But some of those providers have no interest in spying on their users. The FBI is not amused. “A government task force is preparing legislation that would pressure companies such as Facebook and Google to enable law enforcement officials to intercept online communications as they occur,” according to the Washington Post, by fining them increasing sums until they build government-accessible back doors into their systems.
Which invites the titular question of this post.
The FBI may be looking back with dewy-eyed nostalgia on the phone wiretaps of yore, but I think we can all agree that those would have been ridiculously ineffective if anyone with anything to hide had been able to easily acquire and attach tiny devices that made wiretapping impossible. That’s exactly the case today: anyone even remotely au fait with technology can securely encrypt their digital communications themselves, via eg RedPhone.
So the FBI would only be able to wiretap suspects who are either too dumb to use encryption — in which case they ought to be easy enough to catch without wiretaps — or who think they have nothing to hide. Meanwhile, they’d be setting a terrible precedent for other, more draconian governments. Critics say “We’ll look a lot more like China than America after this” … but the Obama administration, which not coincidentally appears to hate whistleblowers above all else, still seems poised to support this initiative.
But wait, it gets worse. In order to claim this empty chalice, the powers that be will require a surveillance system that could be abused by the very kind of people it’s supposed to be used against. Could, and almost certainly would: if you build a tool that can be used malevolently, then inevitably it one day will be. Consider how Google was hacked in 2010 by adversaries who used the intercept facilities built into GMail – at the government’s insistence – to access the private email of Chinese dissidents, and:
Put another way:
Is the FBI actually too stupid to realize that this is a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good idea? Or — get your tinfoil hats on — is the pretext of hunting criminals and terrorists merely a smokescreen for requiring what in effect will be a gargantuan cross-platform surveillance system that will let them spy on anyone’s conversation at any time for their own ulterior motives?
Probably not. (At least, he said paranoiacally, not yet.) But that is exactly what’s happening in other countries. Witness this post by legendary security guru Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of RedPhone among other tools, who was approached by the Saudi Arabian government to help monitor and block tools like Twitter, Viber, Line and WhatsApp. When he declined, they suggested:
If you are not interested than maybe you are on indirectly helping those who curb the freedom with their brutal activities.
That’s right, folks: if you’re not helping the government of Saudi Arabia secretly spy on all of its residents, then you’re on the side of the terrorists! Good to know. I vastly prefer Moxie’s take:
While this email is obviously absurd, it’s the same general logic that we will be confronted with over and over again: choose your team. Which would you prefer? Bombs or exploits. Terrorism or security. Us or them. As transparent as this logic might be, sometimes it doesn’t take much when confirming to oneself that the profitable choice is also the right choice.
If I absolutely have to frame my choices as an either-or, I’ll choose power vs. people.
Similarly, a recent Citizen Lab report indicates that the FinFisher surveillance software is now being used in 36 countries, including those well-known pillars of enlightened human rights Bahrain, Ethiopia, and Turkmenistan, and the Syrian government has an entire electronic army targeting dissidents (who, unfortunately, continue to use Skype even though it’s not secure and Microsoft can and does tap into Skype chats.)
So we’re left with the last option: the FBI is simply technically incompetent. Unable to come to terms with the new world of technology, and take advantage of the many ways in which new technology can aid their investigations in new ways without turning America into a panopticon, they’re instead still thinking inside the box of 20th-century wiretapping, and insisting that tech companies implement a counterproductive, expensive, and ultimately pointless toolkit…purely to satisfy their own blinkered lack of imagination.
It’s sad, depressing, and dangerous. Let’s hope clearer heads and more farsighted visions prevail before this pathetically bad and dumb idea is actually implemented — but alas, I see no reason to believe that we can expect anything but more of the same high-level cluelessness for the foreseeable future.
Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.
Apple has a good deal of cash. And, in the Valley, the startup ecosystem — for many reasons — wants to see Apple spend that cash. As their cash pile continued to grow as their stock price and market cap soared, Apple’s inability to provide robust software services combined with opportunities to expand their reach through acquisitions has become a fancy parlor game which includes every stripe of public and private investor imaginable. On top of this, pumping even a small percentage of cash pile into acquisitions could provide another pool of much-needed liquidity for founders and investors alike. While it all makes sense on paper, part of what makes Apple “Apple” is that they operate how they want to — not how the market wants them to. Recently, in response to a variety of pressures to do something, to do anything, Apple announced a two-part share buyback. There are many explanations for this financial strategy, and while the Valley may have their own armchair financial analysts with a Twitter account, I reached out to some friends who actually work in technology banking or at techonology-focused hedge funds and asked them to send me a paragraph on their perception of the move. Because of the world these folks work in, I’ve reproduced their answers below anonymously, as they are not permitted to publicly share their opinions on such matters:
Technology Investment Banker: With the amount of cash stock piled by Apple, and mainly overseas, it was only a matter of time until the water would break, especially with activist investor David Einhorn ruffling feathers. Apple did something very standard and not uncommon, but on a large scale the way Apple likes to do things. At the end of the day I feel Apple’s actions represent the following four points: (1) Increased Shareholder Value: There are many ways to value a profitable company but the most common measurement is Earnings Per Share (EPS). If earnings are flat but the number of outstanding shares decreases. . Voila! . . A magical increase in period-to-period EPS will result; (2) Higher Stock Prices: An increase in EPS will often alert investors that a stock is undervalued or has the potential for increasing in value. The most common result is an increase in demand and an upward movement in the price of a stock; (3) Increased Float – As the number of outstanding shares decreases, the shares remaining represent a larger percentage of the float. If demand increases and there is less supply, then fuel is added to a potential upward movement in the price of a stock; and (4) Excess Cash: Companies usually buy back their stock with excess cash. If a company has excess cash, then at a minimum you can bank that it doesn’t have a cash flow problem. More importantly, it signals that executives feel that cash re-invested in the corporation will get a better return than alternative investments. This is definitely a positive sign for the company going forward. Customers and investors should feel confident with these events transpiring that Apple will continue to deliver value to both parties respectively.
Technology Hedge Fund Principal: Since Apple has around $150B cash on the books (70% of which is foreign), it’s clear they need to do something with this cash because it’s just wasted sitting on the balance sheet earning low interest rates. People have assumed the market would respond well to Apple making acquisitions, especially in software and services, particularly in cloud and mobile software. While they have reaped the benefits of profits in mobile hardware, the value going forward is at the application and services layer. Other hardware manufacturers are catching up, if they haven’t caught up already. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t seem to have an appetite for these types of acquisitions. Another option is to buy back shares, a proven way to deploy cash, though doing so sends a signal that they are a mature (read: not growth) company. Tactically, buybacks can decouple EPS growth from new product lines, and Apple could see 2x its buyback investment in earnings growth as a result. Ultimately, Apple has withstood significant pressure from the investment community to do something with the cash, especially as growth has slowed. (Venture arms, since you asked, are not an effective use of capital for a corporate player; I see the share repurchase as a much more responsible use of proceeds.
Hedge Fund Partner #2: Apple had four basic choices of what to do with their cash, remembering that apple has a duty to its shareholders: (1) Do nothing (status quo), which makes zero sense. given that they have ~$145Bn in cash and are adding ~ $40Bn in cash annually assuming zero growth earnings earning; (2) Strategic acquisition or expansion, though Apple will be hard pushed to effectively put either their cash hoard or future cash flows to use to do this; (3) a one-time special dividend and increased annual dividend; or (4) a share buyback (or various form of it). Only options #3 or #4 made any sense to me and I assumed it was only a matter of time before they did something. #1 is out as they are would not be meeting their shareholder responsibility and #2 is out simply because of scale.
I see the share buyback as positive for three key reasons: (1) Apple stock is currently very cheap. My back of the envelope calculations conservatively value them at $500-$550/share, so they are effectively leveraging and creating additional shareholder value here until the multiple recovers to fair value. What’s more is that management knows a lot more than what we all do, so they should be able to calculate their own value in two to three years fairly well, and I assume they saw this as a positive. (2) Because Apple issued bonds to finance the deal rather than using cash, this way they will not need to repatriate taxable offshore cash to perform the buyback and they will likely get a bond rate the crazy low prices. Bottom line, they are saving shareholders cash, although at some point they will need to find a way to address the offshore cash, so perhaps they are waiting for another tax holiday. And (3), assuming the market reacts rationally, a buy back signals that managements believes in stock and the story and believes that this will generate returns that will outperform for long-term investors, something that a cash hoard did not address at any level and effectively generate returns far in excess of what could be achieved in any other safe manner.
More often than not I do not like share buybacks. often management does this to boost their own salary bonuses (EPS biased etc) or simply follow bad advice and follow the investment banking herd, but this time I liked Apple’s share buyback at this share price and multiple and applaud the debt financing way of doing it, I would have applauded it more if they had also issued a $40 special dividend.
Hedge Fund Partner #3: The view is Apple has stopped being an innovator. While they were at the forefront of technology, people bugged them to use their cash for a dividend or buyback and they could say “no” because the stock price was going up on leading edge innovation. Once Jobs passed away, Tim Cook hasn’t been able to keep that going, and if anything they are now playing catch-up to Samsung or even Google. When you aren’t innovating and you have $150B in cash, a board has to find ways to keep investors happy and one tactic is to conduct a massive buyback. Showing they are returning money to shareholders, creating a new base if “capital return” investors rather than growth investors. It’s all a game to prop up the stock price, money is cheap because of Bernanke, so it’s an easy way for them to please shareholders without much cost to the business. In general, I think that Apple is falling behind and trying to figure out how to regain their lead, and I’m not sure if its possible any time soon.
Technology Stock Investor: They’re doing the buyback because: 1) they have an unprecedented amount of cash ($140+ billion) that’s earning nearly nothing; 2) the stock is down nearly 40% from its high and shareholders are angry; 3) the stock is cheap on every financial metric, signaling that buying shares is a good use of cash if you believe in the long-term growth of the company. The company does not appear to want to do a large acquisition or massively increase its capital expenditures. They don’t “need” to hold that much cash. So the company had a very inefficient capital structure ($140+ billion of cash and no debt). Equity investors (who, in the end, own the company) sooner or later demand to get returns on their companies’ cash. Capital markets are competitive, and if management doesn’t give investors great reasons to own their stock, investors will go somewhere else. AAPL is facing slowing revenue growth, margin pressure, and uncertainty about their next major product line. A management team that is perceived as unfriendly to shareholders is another reason for investors to sell the stock. The buyback is a big gesture by management that they understand their shareholders’ concerns, in addition to likely being a good investment.
Photo Credit: Eddi 07 / Flickr Creative Commons
Did Google’s conference succeed? It launched dozens of products and services in its 205-minute keynote, but did the world understand them? I saw some of the smartest journalists in technology struggling to handle the information density. But what’s the alternative? Break it up across multiple days, or even multiple conferences? Google’s breadth presents it with a challenge unique among the tech giants.
Apple? Its launches center around a discrete set of devices. That’s why WWDC works. There might be one radically new product, but then just a set of iterations on what we already know. The screen is bigger, the tablet is thinner, the software gets a new sheen. And since Apple is all about hardware you need to touch to believe, it has to do it all in-person. Journalists and pundits can easily digest the news and offer their insights to the world.
Facebook? It prefers the rolling thunder approach that works because it’s mostly a software company. Releasing things when they’re ready rather than waiting months for an event embodies its “move fast and break things” ideal. It reaches out to journalists almost daily about new updates. When it has something big, it throws a laser-focused, dedicated event like it did this year for content-specific news feeds, Graph Search, and Home. Even when it threw its last f8 developer conference 20 months ago, it kept it tight to just Timeline and Open Graph. The media could wrap its head around the social network’s plans.
Those conferences serve their purposes because they align with the identities of producers. Some see Microsoft’s events as a fragmented mess, as they too embody their producer. Microsost has Build for Windows and developers, TechEd for enterprise, a partner conference, a management summit, and a whole event for SharePoint. By splitting them all up, it never feels like there’s one day where Microsoft rules the world.
But Google has its own identity and it’s causing I/O growing pains. The conference certainly captures the spotlight. The problem is that Google’s vast ambitions have left I/O bursting at the seams. This year’s mega-keynote tried to combine search, maps, Google+, YouTube, Google Now, Google Play, music, games, Chrome, Android, and a new phone. And that was just the consumer facing stuff! Then there were a huge set of developer announcements like a native client for C++, location APIs, game services APIs, cloud messaging for notifications, and a suite of mobile app building tools called Android Studio.
Did you watch the keynote? If so, did you remember all these things? Did you have time to read insightful analysis about them? Did journalists even have the bandwidth to write intelligently about it all? It could take a while to unpack everything from I/O. I know I have at least five stories I want to write. And inevitably things will fall through the cracks as a new week will bring new news from elsewhere.
And it’s only going to get more intense. Google employees I’ve talked to say Larry Page is really pushing his 10X innovation mantra and speedier product cycles. They explain that Google could have saved some stuff for another conference later this year, but by then it’ll already have whole slew of new things ready to show off. Plus, developers and futurists might not be willing to come from around the world for two events a year.
The single, 3+ hour keynote with no intermission did symbolized Google’s big theme of unification. Google wants to show it isn’t just a grab bag of different products. They all piggy-back on each other. Android ties mobile together. Google+ ties people together no matter what other Google products they’re using.
But I/O may be too dense and rich. Like a chunk of chocolate fudge, it overwhelms the senses and leaves you struggling to chew up Google’s vision. It was so mind-boggling it put Wired’s Mat Honan into a psychedelic trance.
The three days of developer sessions that followed the keynote were a success, in that they helped developers develop. But perhaps splitting the keynote into two bite-size sessions would make it all easier to swallow. One consumer keynote (Search, Maps, Google+, Hangouts, Music, phone) and one developer keynote (Android, Chrome, APIs, developer tools). They could be split across two days. Alternatively, it could be one keynote with announcements sorted into these two categories with an intermission in the middle. Either would go a long way to making I/O more comprehensible.
But for now, sticking with a single, epic conference may be the best route for Google to create momentum, convey unification, bring its community together, and impress the globe. Google is determined to innovate faster and deliver the future. The duty falls on us to keep up.
I’ve spent the last two weeks wandering around London, Paris, and Istanbul (not Constantinople.) As an experiment, I left my trusty MacBook Pro behind and brought only the $199 Chromebook on which I type this. And to my considerable surprise it has served admirably. So admirably, in fact, that I believe ChromeOS is only one or two iterations away from being the right choice for many-if not most–homes.
I was skeptical to begin with: after all, I thought, Chrome is acceptable when you’re online, but I’ll be spending much of my travel time offline, which probably makes it a non-starter, right? — So I devoted most of my Chromebook’s (bizarrely spacious) 320GB hard drive to an install of Ubuntu. Which I then never used even once.
I suppose I would have if some kind of critical work emergency had come up: after all, I’m (mostly) a software developer by trade, and ChromeOS isn’t much of a developer platform. But that didn’t happen. Good thing, too, because Linux-on-the-desktop seems as ugly and frustrating as ever for someone, even a deeply techie someone, who just wants to get things done.
ChromeOS, though, is both very pretty and almost painless. Its biggest problem is that out of the box it naively insists that you’ll be online all the time–even though it can be perfectly serviceable while disconnected. You may not have known that nowadays both GMail and (most) Google Docs can work just fine offlne.
And if you didn’t, well, Google sure isn’t about to proactively tell you. You actually have to make a point of seeking out, installing, and then activating Offline Gmail and Offline Google Docs from the Chrome Web Store. Why ChromeOS doesn’t prompt you with this option as part of the onboarding process is truly beyond me. Similarly, why on Earth are “Gmail’ and “Offline Gmail” two separate apps? Google may be full of incredibly smart people, but they can also be insanely myopic when it comes to end users.
Once those were up and running, though, my Chromebook was a charm to use under almost all circumstances. Offline, I could write documents, check old email, and even play a few free games from the Chrome Web Store, although most Chrome games still seem to require an initial server connection to start up. And online, of course, the world was my oyster.
Did I have access to all the features of, say, Word or Excel? Hell, no. (You still can’t create a Google Docs spreadsheet when offline, either.) Was it an all-guns-blazing gaming experience? Again, no, although Chrome’s rapidly evolving Native Client ought to keep matters improving here. What I could do, though, was email, play a few games, surf the Net, communicate (via GChat or Google Hangouts, which worked excellently), and write documents — which unless I’m much mistaken is pretty much everything that most people use their computers for at home.
ChromeOS still needs better, and simpler, offline support; and I’d like to see more diversity of available hardware; but once those two things are addressed, which shouldn’t take long, I would happily recommend a Chromebook to my parents the next time they upgrade. In fact I’d happily recommend one to anyone who wants a small second laptop for travel, or who doesn’t need to do serious work on their home computer.
Long ago Neal Stephenson, when comparing operating systems to vehicles, described MacOS as a hermetically sealed day-glo VW Beetle; MS Windows as a clunky two-tone station wagon; and Linux as the product of a horde of dreadlocked hippies who spent their time building M1 battle tanks and giving them away for free. Which sounds great at first, but who actually wants to drive a tank?
Well, if I may extend that a little, ChromeOS is like a sleek, shiny Airstream trailer built around that same M1 engine. There are many things it can’t do, and a bunch more at which it’s very clumsy, but within its bailiwick, casual exploring, it’s both very attractive and awfully comfortable.
I don’t think Stephenson’s original analogies quite hold any more, though. Nowadays OS X is more like a Porsche…and Windows is a gas-guzzling pickup truck, or a cube van that makes disturbing noises whenever it corners. Still suitable for work, but not particularly great for either road trips or sub/urban living — and nowadays looking nervously over its metaphorical shoulder at the flotilla of drones and self-driving cars on the horizon.
Image credit: Dan McCullough, Flickr.
Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.
This is the final episode of my show on TCTV, “In The Studio.” The final guest is a good friend, Parth Shah (no relation), an engineer with VMware, and before that, at Yahoo! Parth combines the precision of CMU CS graduate’s take on web development with a hacker mentality, and has the rare skill of being able to explain some of the most complex enterprise IT concepts to those who don’t have as much context — such as me! In this short conversation, Parth shares with us his work at VMware and his generalized thoughts on how the enterprise stack is being disrupted today. This video would be a great primer for anyone who wants to begin to learn about the enterprise world.
As an added bonus, Parth and I have spent a few months collaborating on a post about the enterprise IT stack, written in lay-terms so that a wider audience can learn more about it. We are proud to publish this post today, which you can read here.
Finally, thank you for being a loyal viewer of “In The Studio” as it ends today (my Sunday column, Iterations, will continue). In the span of 18 months, the show ran for 70 consecutive weeks, producing 70 episodes featuring Silicon Valley’s up-and-coming founders, legendary venture capitalists, emergent seed investors, and focused on producing quality, primary-source content in today’s noisy tech media landscape. For me, “In The Studio” was a terrific platform to get to meet people who excelled at what they do. As someone who is new to the technology world, doing the show was a crash-course in learning by conversation, and making those conversations public will hopefully provide insight to others who are looking to learn. I have worked to organize and reproduce all the videos, which you can access here. This is a great privilege, so thanks again to all those who participated.