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7 things Microsoft didn’t tell us about the new Office app

Microsoft last week launched Office, a new mobile app for iOS and Android that the company slid into an already packed line-up of individual apps.

Simply dubbed “Office,” the new smartphone app – it runs on tablets, but Microsoft promised something skewed more towards them at a later date – steps back into time by combining multiple apps. (For those who rile at “OK, boomer,” the concept smacks of early low-end suites, like AppleWorks or Microsoft Works.)

Yet Microsoft touted Office not as a return to Work-esque days but as how it sees a future of mobile productivity, with tiny tasks squeezed into any available free moment. If Microsoft’s right, Office may be a harbinger of feasible work on a smartphone or even small tablet. Edit a complex Word document on such a device? No thanks. Pick at it here, add to it there? Maybe.

For all that Microsoft hinted at a revolution in the concept of mobile productivity, it gave a bare-bones walk-through of Office. It left a lot of details on the cutting room floor.

Here are some of the things Microsoft didn’t tell us about Office or, if it did, under-hyped them. We’ve fixed that for them.

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University’s mobile app streaming idea has enterprise IT potential. But, oh yes, there’s that security annoyance.

Purdue University has announced an interesting mobile concept, a means to free up lots of space that is now housing apps and app data. Why not, the university asks, stream the apps themselves from the cloud?

Let’s let the school explain its own idea: “New software streams data and code resources to an app from a cloud server when necessary, allowing the app to use only the space it needs on a phone at any given time. ‘It’s like how Netflix movies aren’t actually stored on a computer. They are streamed to you as you are watching them,’ said Saurabh Bagchi, a Purdue University professor of electrical and computer engineering, and computer science, and director of the Center for Resilient Infrastructures, Systems and Processes. ‘Here the application components, like heavy video or graphics or code paths, are streaming instantly despite the errors and slowdowns that are possible on a cellular network.’ Bagchi’s team showed in a study how the software, called AppStreamer, cuts down storage requirements by at least 85 percent for popular gaming apps on an Android. The software seamlessly shuffles data between an app and a cloud server without stalling the game. Most study participants didn’t notice any differences in their gaming experience while the app used AppStreamer. Because AppStreamer works for these storage-hungry gaming apps, it could work for other apps that usually take up far less space, Bagchi said. The software also allows the app itself to download faster to a phone. The researchers will present their findings Feb. 18 at the 17th International Conference on Embedded Wireless Systems and Networks in Lyon, France.” (Note: This press release was written before Feb. 18.)

First off, let me stress that this app wasn’t designed with enterprises in mind, so any concerns I might express could be fairly criticized as being strawman arguments. That said, the concept of freeing up space on an enterprise device — and especially a BYOD device that only gets a small partition for handling any business data and apps — has potential.

In general, of all of the enterprise complaints about mobile, insufficient space has been rarely heard in the last year or two, as handset manufacturers have sharply increased memory while app-makers have done better at shrinking their footprints. Still, IT is a greedy bunch, so squeezing more out of a finite phone is always of interest.

But unlike the Netflix example, move downloads generally don’t worry end users too much about security. As long as the end user gets to see the movie in good quality, he or she doesn’t care if bad guys out there are also watching and getting free content. The notable exception might be porn, where privacy of viewing choices becomes a concern. Getting back to enterprise IT (where, naturally, no porn is ever watched) security issues, streaming enterprise data and apps from a consumer-grade cloud is not a good idea.

Let’s flip the question, though. In an enterprise BYOD situation, if streaming corporate data and apps is a deal-killer, why not encourage employees to use something like AppStreamer to stream their personal apps and data, theoretically freeing up more space for the corporate partition to do its business fun? Is there reasonable potential there?

A problem I see is that other than doing web searches, much of the convenience of mobile devices is that they can perform many of their functions in a non-wireless environment, such as driving in a dead zone. Even more appropriately, consider instances where the mobile user goes out of the way to enter a dead zone (a.k.a. using airplane mode with Wi-Fi shut down) when the user is working on something sensitive and doesn’t want anyone sniffing into the phone. In short, the ability to actively use app executables and downloaded data is a big advantage for an enterprise device. That would interfere with any app or data streaming.

Back on security: even if the enterprise were able to set aside the concerns about the cloud’s security itself (worries about someone breaking in), there is still the issue of the consumer-grade cloud provider itself. Does your CIO and CISO want your sensitive data to exist outside of your device, on-prem systems and their hopefully heavily vetted enterprise cloud environment?

Beyond data leakage fears, there are a host of compliance privacy issues about allowing enterprise data to exist elsewhere. But if mobile memory space is an issue and employees are willing to try this on the consumer side of a BYOD phone, this might eventually have serious potential. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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MIT researchers say mobile voting app piloted in U.S. is rife with vulnerabilities

Elections officials in numerous states have piloted various mobile voting applications as a method of expanding access to the polls, but MIT researchers say one of the more popular apps has security vulnerabilities that could open it up to tampering by bad actors.

The MIT analysis of the application, called Voatz, highlighted a number of weaknesses that could allow hackers to “alter, stop, or expose how an individual user has voted.”

Additionally, the researchers found that Voatz’s use of Palo Alto-based vendor Jumio for voter identification and verification poses potential privacy issues for users.

The study comes on the heels this month’s trouble-plagued Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucus, which used an online app to store votes but failed to do so accurately because of a coding flaw and insufficient testing.

Some security experts have long argued that the only secure form of voting is paper ballots.

iPhone iOS voatz blockchain voting Voatz

Voatz iPhone mobile voting application.

The Voatz mobile voting application has been used in small pilots involving  only about 600 voters total in Denver, West Virginia, five counties in Oregon, Utah and Washington State, where the main focus was on inclusivity for absentee voters living overseas.

In response, Voatz called the MIT report “flawed” because it based its analysis on a long-outdated Android version of the app.

“Had the researchers taken the time, like nearly 100 other researchers, to test and verify their claims using the latest version of our platform via our public bug bounty program on HackerOne, they would not have ended up producing a report that asserts claims on the basis of an erroneous method,” Voatz stated in a blog post today.

“We want to be clear that all nine of our governmental pilot elections conducted to date, involving less than 600 voters, have been conducted safely and securely with no reported issues,” Voatz said.

In 2018, West Virginia piloted Voatz’s mobile voting app for resident service members and family living overseas who wanted to vote in the midterm general election. 

West Virginia Secretary of State’s office pointed to a Department of Homeland Security security assessment of the 2018 Voatz pilots indicating there was “no threat actor behaviors or artifacts of past nefarious activities were detected in the vendor’s networks.”

Audits of paper ballots created by the Voatz plaform on election day also confirmed the results were accurate, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

“We want to get the word out to media outlets like Computerworld to ensure WV voters that we are taking every possible precaution to balance election security and integrity with WV requirement to provide absentee ballots electronically to overseas, military and absentee voters living with physical disabilities,” Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, said via email.

The MIT study, however, underscored the need for Voatz’s mobile app design to be more transparent because public information about the technology is “vague” at best.

Voatz’s platform uses a combination of biometrics, such as mobile-phone based facial recognition, and hardware-backed keystores to provide end-to-end encrypted and voter-verifiable ballots. It also uses blockchain as an immutable electronic ledger to store voting results.

Voatz has declined to provide formal details about its platform, citing the need to protect intellectual property, the researchers said in their paper.

In a blog post today, Voatz called the researchers’ approach “flawed,” which “invalidates any claims about their ability to compromise the overall system.

“In short, to make claims about a backend server without any evidence or connection to the server negates any degree of credibility on behalf of the researchers,” Voatz said.

The researchers also called Voatz out for reporting a University of Michigan researcher who in 2018 conducted an analysis of the Voatz app. “This resulted in the FBI conducting an investigation against the researcher,” the MIT researchers said.

It’s not the first time Voatz has been criticized for not being more open about its technology. Last May, computer scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of South Carolina, along with election oversight groups, published a paper that criticized Voatz for not releasing any “detailed technical description” of its technology.

“There are at least four companies attempting to offer internet or mobile voting solutions for high-stakes elections, and one 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has included voting from a mobile device via the blockchain in his policy plank,” the MIT researchers said in their paper. “To our knowledge, only Voatz has successfully fielded such a system.”

Along with Voatz, Democracy Live, VotemSecureVote and Scytl have all piloted mobile or online voting technology in various public or private balloting that included company stockholder and college board elections. Most recently, a Seattle district piloted the Democracy Live technology in a board of supervisors election that was open to 1.2 million registered voters.

Tusk Philanthropies, a nonprofit focused on promoting mobile voting as a way to increase voter turnout, has helped fund and promote Voatz and Democracy Live.

In a statement to Computerworld, Tusk said it feels confident in the results of all the pilot elections because it conducted independent, third-party audits “which showed that votes cast over the blockchain were recorded and tabulated accurately.”

“With that being said, we always welcome new security information and will work with security experts to review this paper,” Tusk said. “Security is an iterative process that can only get better over time. There is no room for error in our elections, especially when it comes to data leakage, compromised encryption, broken authentication, or denial-of-service attacks.”

Medici Ventures, the wholly-owned investment subsidiary of, has also backed Voatz, whose application has mainly been used to allow absentee voter service members and their families to cast their ballots via their smartphones from anywhere in the world.

Jonathan Johnson, CEO of Overstock and president of Medici Ventures, responded in a statement to a New York Times article about the MIT study, saying he believes the Voatz technology is responsible and safe.

“It not only prevents voting fraud, but it also protects the privacy of each voter. The Voatz app even generates a paper ballot that can be audited to guarantee the fidelity of the vote,” Johnson said. “This is, we believe, the right path forward to safe innovation in election technology. We should not let ourselves derail the future of voting.”

Critics of mobile or online voting, including security experts, believe it opens up the prospect of server penetration attacks, client-device malware, denial-of-service attacks and other disruptions — all associated with infecting voters’ computers with malware or infecting the computers in the elections office that handle and count ballots.

Jeremy Epstein, vice chair of the Association for Computing Machinery’s US Technology Policy Committee (USTPC), has been a vocal critic of mobile voting platforms, including Voatz. He said the MIT study was “very thorough” and demonstrates exactly what experts have been saying for years.

“Internet voting is risky. It’s no surprise that the Voatz system is vulnerable to many kinds of attacks, even to an attacker with no access to source code or other inside information,” Epstein said via email. “The attacks demonstrated by MIT are well within the capabilities of nation-state adversaries who are interested in manipulating US elections, and such an adversary won’t publish their results as the MIT team has done, leaving us with an election that may be undetectably manipulated.”

The five-year-old Voatz slammed the MIT researchers for never connecting even the outdated app they used to the company’s servers, which are hosted by Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

In the absence of connecting to the actual servers recording public votes, “the researchers fabricated an imagined version of the Voatz servers, hypothesized how they worked, and then made assumptions about the interactions between the system components that are simply false,” Voatz said.

Epstein retorted that Voatz’s comments “demonstrate that they don’t understand either the severity of the attacks or the way security works in general.

“Any election official using Voatz products would be well advised to cancel their plans, before a stealthy attack in a real election compromises democracy,” Epstein said.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Hard times inside Apple’s forgotten App Store

Are you one of the many iOS users that ignores the row of apps at the bottom of the message composition window?

Once the appeal of sticker packs wears off, there just doesn’t seem to be much inside Apple’s forgotten App Store for Messages.

In between the hype and the reality…

Apple introduced the App Store for iMessages to its customary forest of hype, as industry watchers predicted great things.

Forrester analyst, Frank Gillet said:

“Opening up the iMessage and Phone apps to third party developers is… a big deal, enabling Apple to offer a more natural fluid experience to customers that builds on chat innovations pioneered by WeChat and others.”

There sits the shadow…

Did it work? It seems fair to ask when you last heard of something you absolutely had to download from that store, or when you last actually used an app that wasn’t GIPHY?

I’m willing to accept that some U.S. users may use Apple Pay Cash to send payments via messages. Nice for you. But let’s just note that it has been over two years since that service was introduced to the U.S. and it still remains unavailable anywhere else.

Which doesn’t bode particularly well for international introduction of Apple’s popular Apple Card credit card.

Take the time to rifle through the contents of the app drawer (which is what Apple calls that row of apps at the bottom of your Message composition window) and you might find a few stars, beyond #Images and Apple Pay.

Power in the darkness

Exploring the store is a somewhat dispiriting experience.

You’ll find apps you know to be really useful on your other devices, only to discover all they offer via the iMessage App Store are a few sticker packs and the occasional relatively useful function.

It’s a place of inspirational darkness, within which you may find a small handful of stars to illuminate the space.

Game Pigeon, for example, is one of the better items you’ll find, in part because it actually does something. The app consists of a vast collection of games (including mini-golf, Checkers and Chess) that you can play with your friends using Messages.  

You may also come across a smattering of tools for knowledge workers, particularly Dropbox, which lets you find and share items with others via Messages.I do find it interesting that there is no iCloud Drive Stickers app to do this, you still have to access the content in Files before you get to share it via the Share pane.

That lack of integration between Files and iMessage makes me question if even Apple  takes its iMessage apps seriously.

Other apps you may find useful may include: iTranslate, which makes it easier to write a foreign language when you need to; Scheduling apps like Doodle, Open Table or Polls With Friends; List apps such as Loopy Lists.

But it’s all a little vacant.

Apple’s forgotten App Store

The overwhelming perceptions I get when I visit this particular App Store are those of inattention and absence.

It feels a little like wandering through an abandoned home.

You can still see how it was laid out. You can still perceive the glorious optimism that went into building the place, but somehow those dreams were shattered as the inhabitants learned that it takes more than this to change hope into reality.

Realistically, the truth seems to be that App Store for iMessages hasn’t moved on much since I curated this collection of iMessage apps in 2018. (With the possible exception of Business Chat, which is actually useful.)

It feels like a lost opportunity.

Given the highly secure nature of iMessages it did once seem possible some developers may have attempted to create highly secure enterprise collaboration systems that used them. Perhaps they did.

So, what would the weakness of the product be?

Perhaps because Messages remains resolutely closed to other platforms.

We are where we are, of course, so let’s hear it for the iMessages App Store: Apple’s forgotten place where all the useful apps sit sad and surrounded by endless collections of sticker packs. Weeping for the cross-platform solutions they should have been. Perhaps you’ll hear them next time you get a message. Or perhaps you’ll tap the App Store icon in the App Drawer and visit with them for a while.

They don’t seem to get many visitors, these days.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Apple’s App Store generates $1B a week

On average, Apple generated more than $1 billion a week from the half-billion-plus people visiting its App Store every week in 2019, new data shows.

That’s $54.2 billion in the year.

Chasing the (long) tail

There’s lots of reasons for this, principally a successful push toward subscription-based business models and rapidly growing consumer acceptance that there actually is a value in digital products.

This renaissance in digital engagement is also generating new opportunity for enterprises who seek to meet customers where they are with digital-first experiences.

Subscription revenues increased in 2019, with more developers offering to let users try their apps before paying for the full feature set, according to SensorTower data. Growing subscription revenues prove shoppers will pay monthly fees for apps.

Nurturing this kind of perception has been one of the big challenges for the tech industry. In the early years, the success of Napster and file-sharing showed what can happen to industries when people don’t value digital product.

The later success of iTunes, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime and services like iCloud and Dropbox helped most users recognize digital value.

Now it’s generating massive money. User spending at the App Store climbed 16% year-over-year from $47 billion in 2018. Games accounted for a mighty $37 billion of this, while entertainment apps hoovered up $3.9 billion more.

We’re also seeing physical product sales become more deeply digital. 

“People are more connected today than ever before,” said Jason Woosley, vice president of commerce product and platform at Adobe.

“We all have a smartphone in our pocket, and that is really what is driving the uptick in mobile commerce and e-commerce overall. You can literally think of something you need, and just purchase it right that second.

“This always-on and always connected trend will continue to accelerate, especially as the definition of mobility continues to expand to new devices and modes of accessing the Internet.”

Best in store

Apple recently announced that App Store developers had earned more than $155 billion in App Store sales since 2008. The company added that “over a quarter” of these sales came in the last year and confirmed customers spent $1.42 billion at the App Store between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve 2019 — up 16%. The App Store store generated $386 million in sales on New Year’s Day 2020, Apple said – up slightly on the $322 million generated the same day last year.

The trend isn’t merely visible on Apple’s App Store; even Google Play also saw increased revenues – though the sum generated by iOS was 85% greater than the $29.3 billion spent on Google Play.

The digital value chain

This flurry of statistics proves perception of digital value is growing. (This is also proven by news that Pokemon Go generated nearly a billion dollars in revenue on in-game purchases alone last year.)

That is something that should matter to enterprise professionals attempting to identify and deliver new services and business models.

Consumer willingness to pay for digital services shows business models such as “information as a service,” expansion in digital channels and sponsorship of key digital experiences are more likely to build revenue, attract customers or enhance relationships than before.

In an intensifying competitive environment, delivering such services may be mandatory – and there may be some way to go, given Gartner’s analysis that 84% of consumers using digital tools and services in 2018 reported “underwhelming” experiences.

This matters.

  • 60% of enterprises that have engaged in digital transformation projects have also built new business models.
  • 78% of customers use mobile channels to communicate with brands.
  • 80% of millennials are more likely to purchase from companies that have a mobile customer services portal.

The attention economy isn’t at all stable. A better product or service can come along and quickly steal away hard-won hearts and minds. This has always been true in business, but the rapidity with which digital solutions can be developed and distributed means competition is rapid – and response must be more agile.

It’s an intense environment.

“By 2022, 72% of customer interactions will involve an emerging technology, such as machine-learning applications, chatbots or mobile messaging, up from 11% in 2017,” Gartner predicted in 2019.

It is interesting that Calm and Headspace became the biggest-grossing apps in the health and fitness category across both Apple and Android platforms in December.

Perhaps all those ‘digital first’ executives badly needed some time out as they grappled with the challenge of continued transformation?

Though on a more serious note, this also reflects consumer willingness to invest in a huge array of tech-driven services, even those we don’t usually associate with “digital.”

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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