More iPad thoughts

February 3, 2010

Image © Mission Repair

Oh what could have been…

Video chat

Turns out the iPad’s chassis has room for a camera, much like the 3rd generation iPod touch does. Looks like Apple pulled the decision to integrate a camera at the last minute. I can’t really guess why. It would really be a killer feature. Video chat in a tablet. The real issue would be that video chat would have to support more than just iChat, since Apple computers still only account for a small percentage of the market. It would have to support MSN and Skype. Out of the box, Mac OS X only supports iChat. Another consideration would be the network traffic generated by video chat over a 3G cellular network.

In Asia, video chat on cell phones is a pretty popular thing, as impractical as it seems. AT&T is already having enough trouble coping with the huge volume of traffic generated from the iPhones on its network. And make no mistake, the iPad will be a gigantic success.

Video conferencing on the iPad would be a cool feature, but more of a novelty than something that’s actually functional. I can’t imagine having a serious meeting with coworkers on a device like the iPad, especially as I mentioned before, it will likely only support iChat, which only runs under Mac OS X.

Jailbreaking and customization

In April 2008, Apple acquired a company called PA Semiconductor for the low-low price of $278,000,000, a mere drop in the bucket in comparison to Apple’s cash reserve of about $20,000,000,000. This company designs custom chips. Apple’s iPad is the first device to have a chip built in-house.

It’s called the Apple A4. Of course, details are few and far between, but it’s a ‘system on a chip’ design that houses an ARM-based CPU as well as a GPU. My concern is the kind of built-in security that is possible with a chip that’s specifically designed for the hardware. There could be some kind of fishy hardware-software handshaking, much like the security on the Xbox 360 that has made it nearly impervious to hacking and modification. Here’s how it works, from what I understand. Each Xbox 360 game is ‘signed’ by Microsoft with  special code. The DVD drive in the 360 has a unique key, as does the processor. The system checks the DVD key against the CPU key. If they match, the game will run. If they don’t match, the game won’t run. Something like that. I don’t really know that much about this stuff.

Anyway, theoretically, Apple could lock each application to the unique CPU identifier embedded in each A4 chip. This, combined with boot ROM signing, could be very effective in preventing unauthorized modification to the system software. If the boot ROM checksum fails against the CPU, the system could simply refuse to boot.

Before George Hotz hacked the first iPhone, the above picture was the only way to unlock an iPhone: a physical hardware hack, complete with soldering.

Part of what made the iPhone so successful wasn’t only its impeccable design and software, but its ability to be split wide open, and to be able to install applications that weren’t sanctioned by Apple. The iPhone hacking scene actually had 3rd-party applications out before Apple even opened their App Store. This shows the ambition and innovation that exists. With each firmware update, Apple strives to patch the tiny little holes in their baseband firmware (the software that lets the iPhone make calls). And each time they release an update, some genius finds a way to crash the baseband, allowing for an injection of custom code, which is why we have unlocked iPhones today.

So, let’s hope Apple gives us a few little holes so that we can have a wonderful, open device. I’d love to see Apple embracing open-source software. After all, Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD…


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