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Saturday, 08 July 2006 06:58

Apple tarred with Microsoft's WGA brush

A new feature in the latest upgrade to Mac OS X 10.4 (10.4.7) has provoked a storm of protest over allegations that Apple is spying on its users. However these allegations seem somewhat inflated.

Of Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) debacle, iTwire commented  that "[it] appears to be a combination of the software [Microsoft] is using, its implementation policies and its public relations strategies."

The same could be said of Apple's problem.The new feature is designed to ensure that any desktop widgets the user downloads are genuine. It does this by comparing the downloaded widget against a list of genuine widgets stored on Apple servers.

The problem is the way this is done, and the fact that Apple has not been totally upfront about it.The feature was discovered and publicised by Daniel Jakult on the Red Sweater blog apple-phones-home-too.

He linked it to WGA by saying: "Lately I’ve heard a lot on technical podcasts about the public outrage over 'Microsoft Genuine Advantage' and the fact that it 'phones home' every day. Apple released Mac OS X 10.4.7 last week, and ever since I installed it, I’ve been noticing Apple’s own modest home phoning behaviour."

The way Jakult described the feature was that it retrieved data from URLs on Apple servers and performed verification of newly downloaded widgets within the users Mac. No information was uploaded, but he was less than pleased by this discovery.
"I can’t see that anything at all is being sent back to Apple, but that’s sort of not the point. The mere act of 'checking in' lets Apple know that I’m here and I’m running 10.4.7. They didn’t ask my permission to start making this regular check-in, and I’m not even sure what benefit I’m going to be getting out of allowing it."

His views, especially the opening comments have been picked up widely reported and Apple now has a PR disaster on its hands simply as a result of trying to protect OS X users from net nasties.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to say that, given the hullabaloo, and the lawsuits over WGA, Apple could have anticipated a similar outcry, provided more details about the feature and given users the option to turn it off. Instead, all Apple said was "You can now verify whether or not a Dashboard widget you downloaded is the same version as a widget featured on [www.apple.com] before installing it."

That in itself suggests that the feature is a user-activated option which is not the case.

It's hard to believe that Apple prepared the 10.4.7 release and the accompanying notes with full awareness of the WGA bunfight, more likely it was all done before that started. Maybe in future  a tick in the box from PR will be the final step before a release goes out.

The moral of this tale is that users are very sensitive to any covert software-initiated communication between their machine and the servers of the software provider: transparency and the option to disable should be the order of the day.

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