Thom Holwerda Archive

Huawei’s Harmony OS roadmap suggests “Innovative PCs” by the end of 2020

James Lu, Product Manager of Huawei recently shared the roadmap of Harmony OS at an event in Jakarta. The Huawei product manager also explained the company’s latest operating system. According to the roadmap, the Harmony OS will make its mark to the smartwatches and bands, head units, and most importantly, what they call “Innovative PCs” by the end of 2020. It’ll also be able to power other devices such as smart speakers, VR glasses two years down the line. One of the largest technology companies dropping Android and Linux and going for an entirely homegrown multi-device open source operating system that other countries and regions can adopt and adapt to their needs is probably not the outcome the US government should be aiming for. I don’t think sharpies will be enough here.

A glut of iOS 0-days pushes their price below cost of those for Android

For the first time ever, the security exploit broker Zerodium is paying a higher price for zero-day attacks that target Android than it pays for comparable attacks targeting iOS. The company provided a message to Ars, stating that while Google and Samsung have worked hard to significantly improve the security of Android. During the last few months, we have observed an increase in the number of iOS exploits, mostly Safari and iMessage chains, being developed and sold by researchers from all around the world. The zero-day market is so flooded by iOS exploits that we’ve recently started refusing some  them. On the other hand, Android security is improving with every new release of the OS thanks to the security teams of Google and Samsung, so it became very hard and time consuming to develop full chains of exploits for Android and it’s even harder to develop zero click exploits not requiring any user interaction. In accordance with these new technical challenges related to Android security and our observations of market trends, we believe that time has come to allocate the highest bounties to Android exploits until Apple re-improves the security of iOS and strengthens its weakest parts which are iMessage and Safari (Webkit and sandbox). The security of an operating system is only as strong as its weakest links, and if Apple is slacking a bit on things like iMessage and Safari, while Google and Samsung work to strengthen Android’s weakest links, this is only a logical outcome.

Android 10 released

Android 10 is here! With this release, we focused on making your everyday life easier with features powered by on-device machine learning, as well as supporting new technologies like Foldables and 5G. At the same time, with almost 50 changes related to privacy and security, Android 10 gives you greater protection, transparency, and control over your data. This builds on top of our ongoing commitment to provide industry-leading security and privacy protections on Android. We also built new tools that empower people of all abilities, and help you find the right balance with technology. Coming to only very few devices probably not near you.

Firefox has lots of room to improve if it wants to beat Chrome

I’ve found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the recent pushes to get people to switch from Chrome to Firefox. Google keeps pulling dumb trick after dumb trick in an attempt to have more control over the web. It’s hard not to think that this kind of behavior warrants quitting Chrome and other Google products. But taking a look at Firefox usage statistics, it’s pretty obvious that the trend (looking at Monthly Active Users) is going in the wrong direction. This raises some questions: why is Firefox usage going down, and what does Mozilla need to do to bring it back up? Harsh, but fair. Firefox’s out-of-the-box defaults are very counter-intuitive to its privacy-focused marketing. Nonsense like recommended articles littering the new tab page, forced Pocket integration that you can only disable through about:config, recommended themes and extensions based on your usage, Google being the default browser, and so on, all seem to fly in the face of claims that using Firefox allows you to take control of your privacy. Sure, I disable the Pocket integration, set DDG as my default search engine, and do other things to decrapify Mozilla’s terrible defaults (Firefox is my browser on all my computers and mobile devices), but regular users shouldn’t have to.

Knoppix 8.6 first wide public release to abandon systemd

Version 8.6 of the popular Debian-derived Linux distribution Knoppix was released on Sunday, rebasing the distribution on Debian 10 (Buster)—released on July 9—with select packages from Debian’s testing and unstable branches to enable support for newer graphics hardware. Knoppix is among the first Linux distributions that can be run live from a DVD, and continues to enjoy a great deal of popularity among Linux enthusiasts. Knoppix 8.6 is notable for being the first publicly-released version of the distribution to abandon systemd, an init system built by Red Hat’s Lennart Poettering intended to replace sysvinit. While adoption of systemd was the subject of considerable controversy and criticism, it is the mainstream default, used by Knoppix’s upstream Debian, as well as other Debian forks such as Ubuntu and Mint; RHEL, CentOS, and Fedora; openSUSE and SLES, as well as Mageia, and by default in Arch. I stay far away from the systemd debate – mostly because I honestly have no clue – but I was actually kind of surprised Knoppix was still around. It’s one of the oldest Linux live CDs around, and somehow I find it comforting that it’s still seeing development.

Apple’s embrace of the ellipsis menu, née hamburger menu

As I’ve been exploring iOS 13 to write the just-released Take Control of iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, I’ve become concerned about what seems to be an increasingly frequent pattern in iOS software design. What finally pushed me over the edge into writing this article was documenting Apple Card’s user interface in Wallet, because I found myself typing the same character over and over and over… That’s right, I’m talking about the increasingly ever-present ellipsis ••• buttons in iOS (technically, we generally render a user-interface ellipsis in running text as three bullets to make them more easily seen). At WWDC 2014, Apple railed against the hamburger menu, and ever since it’s very vogue in Apple developer circles to make fun of the hamburger menu. I guess Apple’s major, magical innovation of replacing the three lines with three dots was enough for the company to adopt the concept completely. Of course, Apple has no taste and has no clue how to design good user interfaces these days, so they made it worse by using the button all over the place in weird locations and have it do different things in different places, but we’ll let that slide.

Canadian carrier Rogers says Android 10 is rolling out to Pixels on September 3

Android 10 is expected to begin rolling out sometime next month to all Pixel phones. According to Canadian carrier Rogers today, the Android 10 launch date is Tuesday, September 3rd. For the past several years, Google has released Android versions at the start of the month alongside security patches. Given that the first Monday of September is Labor Day in the United States, Google looks to be targeting the day after. Now the waiting game begins for the 99.9% of Android users who do not have a Pixel.

Unix at 50: How the OS that powered smartphones started from failure

Maybe its pervasiveness has long obscured its origins. But Unix, the operating system that in one derivative or another powers nearly all smartphones sold worldwide, was born 50 years ago from the failure of an ambitious project that involved titans like Bell Labs, GE, and MIT. Largely the brainchild of a few programmers at Bell Labs, the unlikely story of Unix begins with a meeting on the top floor of an otherwise unremarkable annex at the sprawling Bell Labs complex in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I acknowledge the importance of UNIX – who doesn’t – but I hate how it has become a huge roadblock to any meaningful rethinking and improvement in lower-level operating system design. The best we can do seems to be to hide the ’60s guts underneath ever more layers, instead of addressing the actual shortcomings of such an old design. But hey, I’ve learned over the years that criticizing UNIX is akin to drowning kittens, so maybe I should just fall in line and parrot the party line – UNIX is great, UNIX is perfect, and UNIX needs zero modernisation because it was instantly perfect.

In praise of xlogo

For those who haven’t encountered it before, xlogo is a trivial X11 application that pops up a window showing the X Window System logo. It’s close to being the X equivalent of a ‘hello, world’ program, which makes it a good lightweight initial test case. Whenever I need to do a quick check of my X11 connectivity (which in my case usually means I’m checking that SSH X forwarding is basically alive), xlogo is a good choice of program to run: it won’t spend ages setting itself up, and unlike text-only alternatives like xdpyinfo, it’ll pop up a window on the target display, which makes it easy to check that my connection has gone to the right display. But that’s not all xlogo is good for. There are several other things I use it for. I remember xlogo from the very first few times I used Linux – somewhere in 2002 or 2003. Together with stuff like xeyes, it was a fun little toy to experiment with after installing Linux for the first time. I had no idea it could actually be useful.

Microsoft unveils new tablet experience for Windows 10

Microsoft is planning to redesign the tablet experience for Windows 10. The software giant has started testing a new design for 2-in-1 convertible PCs that will keep the user interface more similar to the existing desktop design. Currently, Windows 10 throws you into a more tablet-optimized UI that removes task bar icons and puts the Start menu full-screen when a device automatically switches into “tablet mode.” Microsoft is now walking back some of those changes, while keeping some touch-optimized elements for 2-in-1 PCs. In the new tablet experience, the desktop will remain in full view, with the task bar icons visible and increased spacing between them. If enabled, the search box will collapse into an icon, and the touch keyboard will appear when you tap on a text field. File Explorer will also switch to a touch-optimized layout. Windows’ tablet modes have simply never really taken off, so it makes sense for Microsoft to try and come up with better ways to align Windows with what users actually want. I’ve had several Surface devices with detachable keyboards, and not once have I liked the tablet mode. I always prefer to just use the regular desktop environment, with the slightly enlarged and more spaced-out touch targets Windows already supports. This seems like Microsoft embracing this particular way of using Windows and touch, and I’m all for it.

Microsoft wants exFAT in the Linux kernel

Microsoft ♥ Linux – we say that a lot, and we mean it! Today we’re pleased to announce that Microsoft is supporting the addition of Microsoft’s exFAT technology to the Linux kernel. It’s important to us that the Linux community can make use of exFAT included in the Linux kernel with confidence. To this end, we will be making Microsoft’s technical specification for exFAT publicly available to facilitate development of conformant, interoperable implementations. We also support the eventual inclusion of a Linux kernel with exFAT support in a future revision of the Open Invention Network’s Linux System Definition, where, once accepted, the code will benefit from the defensive patent commitments of OIN’s 3040+ members and licensees. Microsoft has been using its exFAT patents to bat Linux companies over the head with for close to two decades, and it was an important pillar of Microsoft’s strategy of extracting patent licensing fees from all kinds of entities using Linux. Seeing this finally come to a complete and non-negotiable end is a sight to behold, but it does make me wonder – was it really all necessary? Was it worth it? It seems like to me it really wasn’t – in fact, it’s been a catastrophic failure. Linux is now the single most popular operating system in the world, shipping on more devices and hardware than any other. No amount of silly troll patents were going to stop that.

16-bit RISC-V processor made with carbon nanotubes

Our ability to continuously shrink the features of our silicon-based processors appears to be a thing of the past, which has materials scientists considering ways to move beyond silicon. The top candidate is the carbon nanotube, which naturally comes in semiconducting forms, has fantastic electrical properties, and is extremely small. Unfortunately, it has proven extremely hard to grow the nanotubes where they’re needed and just as difficult to manipulate them to place them in the right location. There has been some progress in working around these challenges, but the results have typically been shown in rather limited demonstrations. Now, researchers have used carbon nanotubes to make a general purpose, RISC-V-compliant processor that handles 32-bit instructions and does 16-bit memory addressing. Performance is nothing to write home about, but the processor successfully executed a variation of the traditional programming demo, “Hello world!” It’s an impressive bit of work, but not all of the researchers’ solutions are likely to lead to high-performance processors. The rate of progress on this particular technology is astounding.

Apple now offers genuine parts and tools to independent repair shops, but we have questions

Apple announced today that it will offer genuine parts, diagnostic tools, and repair manuals to independent repair shops. It’s a bold move from a company that has lobbied against Right to Repair bills, and a concession to the reality of iPhone owners’ needs. But we still have questions. There’s some ‘scorpion and the frog’-ness to Apple’s major concession here, and I’d be incredibly wary of the fine print. On top of that, this seems like a classic case of Apple trying to prevent proper right to repair legislation from gaining even more steam by offering a stripped down version of what said legislation would demand of them, so they can point at this news and claim legislation isn’t needed.

All the useless Windows 10 features Microsoft should remove

It’s 2019, and Windows 10 has too many useless and annoying features. Don’t get me wrong: Windows 10 has gotten better and, overall, I love it compared to Windows 8. But some things just need to go. Like any operating system, Windows 10 is full of junk that we’d all love to remove, and this is a decent list. Personally, I’d much rather more and more of the ancient things in Windows 10 get replaced by modern equivalents, such as Explorer, various outdated settings panels, applications like Notepad, and so on.

Fairphone updates its Fairphone updates its ethical smartphone for 2019

Understandably, given Fairphone’s focus on making a phone that’s sustainable rather than a portable powerhouse, the Fairphone 3’s specs aren’t competitive with other flagships we’ve seen this year. It’s got a 5.7-inch Full HD display, a 12-megapixel rear camera, and an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. Internally the phone is built around a Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 processor, and features 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. Its 3000 mAh battery might not be the biggest around, but it’s removable, allowing you to easily replace it if its capacity starts to degrade. The entire phone is made form recycled, conflict-free, and fair trade materials, and is remarkably repairable. Sustainability and repairability from a small company comes with a price tag, however – but at €450, it’s actually not that bad.

Huawei in talks to install the Russian operating system, Aurora, on 360,000 tablets

On paper, the reason for installing Aurora on the tablets is for carrying out Russia’s population consensus in 2020. A Huawei spokesperson confirmed that the company is currently holding talks with the Russian Ministry of Communications. Two sources at Reuters specified, “Huawei is interested in the project. It showed samples of tablets that could be used,” and, “This is a pilot project. We see it as the first stage of launching the Russian OS on Huawei devices.” Aurora is a Russia-specific version of Sailfish OS.

Reliable after 50 years: the Apollo Guidance Computer’s switching power supplies

We recently restored an Apollo Guidance Computer, the revolutionary computer that helped navigate to the Moon and land on its surface. At a time when most computers filled rooms, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) took up just a cubic foot. This blog post discusses the small but complex switching power supplies that helped make the AGC compact enough to fit onboard the spacecraft. The Apollo project is one of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements in human history, and apparently that goes down to the details. Amazing.

Deconstructing Google’s excuses on tracking protection

Blocking cookies is bad for privacy. That’s the new disingenuous argument from Google, trying to justify why Chrome is so far behind Safari and Firefox in offering privacy protections. As researchers who have spent over a decade studying web tracking and online advertising, we want to set the record straight. Google’s refusal to join Firefox’ and WebKit’s strong privacy positions is both entirely unsurprising and wholly sad. Chrome is the most popular browser in the world, and while I have no doubt Chrome engineers themselves would love to make their browser and engine more privacy-conscious, Google itself obviously has no incentive to do so.

Android Q is Android 10

First, we’re changing the way we name our releases. Our engineering team has always used internal code names for each version, based off of tasty treats, or desserts, in alphabetical order. This naming tradition has become a fun part of the release each year externally, too. But we’ve heard feedback over the years that the names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community. As a global operating system, it’s important that these names are clear and relatable for everyone in the world. So, this next release of Android will simply use the version number and be called Android 10. We think this change helps make release names simpler and more intuitive for our global community. And while there were many tempting “Q” desserts out there, we think that at version 10 and 2.5 billion active devices, it was time to make this change. Not exactly a hugely important bit of news or anything, but there you have it – the dessert names are no more.