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Apple could be buying cobalt from mining companies directly

Cobalt is the new oil. Car companies and battery manufacturers are all rushing to secure multiyear contracts with mining companies for their lithium-ion batteries. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is also participating in this game as the company wants to secure its long-term supplies. The company has never done this before with cobalt. Apple relies on a ton of suppliers for all the components in its devices — including for batteries. And yet, cobalt prices have tripled over the past 18 months. Chances are Apple will secure a contract much more easily than a battery supplier. While an Apple Watch battery is an order of magnitude smaller than a car battery, Apple sells hundreds of millions of devices every year. All those iPhone and Mac batteries represent quite a bit of cobalt. But the issue is that car manufacturers are putting a ton of pressure on cobalt suppliers. BMW and Volkswagen are also looking at signing multiyear contracts to secure their supply chains. And other car manufacturers are probably also paying attention to cobalt prices. As a side effect, buying cobalt straight from the mines makes it easier to control the supply chain. It’s hard to know where your cobalt is coming from when you buy batteries from third-party suppliers. And in that case, it can be a big issue. Amnesty International published a report in January 2016 about cobalt mines, saying that tech companies and car manufacturers aren’t doing enough to prevent child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the country is responsible for 50 percent of global cobalt production. A couple of months ago, Amnesty International published an update, saying that Apple is more transparent than others. The iPhone maker now publishes a list of its cobalt suppliers. But there’s still a long way to go in order to make sure that mining companies respect basic human rights. But let’s be honest. In today’s case, Apple mostly wants to be able to buy enough cobalt at a fair price for its upcoming gadgets. And the company has deep enough pockets to sign this kind of deal.

Update for iOS and Macs negates text bomb that crashed devices

Last week we reported a major bug in Apple operating systems that would cause them to crash from mere exposure to either of two specific Unicode symbols. Today Apple fixes this major text-handling issue with iOS version 11.2.6 and macOS version 10.13.3, both now available for download. The issue, discovered by Aloha Browser in the course of normal development, has to do with poor handling of certain non-English characters. We replicated the behavior, basically an immediate hard crash, in a variety of apps on both iOS and macOS. The vulnerability is listed on MITRE under CVE-2018-4124. If you were curious. Apple was informed of the bug and told TechCrunch last week that a fix was forthcoming — in fact, it was already fixed in a beta. But the production version patches just dropped in the last few minutes (iOS; macOS). Apple calls the magical characters a “maliciously crafted string” that led to “heap corruption.” It seems that macOS versions before 10.13.3 aren’t affected, so if you’re running an older OS, no worries. The iOS patch also fixes “an issue where some third-party apps could fail to connect to external accessories,” which is welcome but unrelated to the text bomb. You should be able to download both updates right now, and you should, or you’ll probably get pranked in the near future.

People are trolling iPhone users with the ‘killer symbol’ that crashes their apps

Surprise! Assorted jerks on the internet have weaponized the unicode-based bug we reported yesterday to insta-crash apps running on an iPhone or a Mac. The result is somewhere between the old Alt + F4 trick and a script kiddie stunt and it ranges from being annoying to rendering a device unusable, depending on the tenacity of the troll. The bug causes many iOS and Mac apps to crash when rendering two characters in Telugu, a south Indian language. While anyone can avoid viewing the symbols themselves, problems arise when someone ill-intentioned starts spamming out the symbols or sending them directly to devices where they will be received as a notification. Droves of Twitter users have taken to tweeting the symbols out over the last day with messages like “read this to log off instantly” and “retweet this to crash anyone using an Apple device,” though luckily most of them don’t have many followers. Still, if the symbol shows up in your @ replies or in the handle of someone who likes one of your tweets, then it’s game over for whatever app you have open (Motherboard writer Joseph Cox learned this the hard way). From what we’ve observed, the only way to get an app working again is to reinstall it from scratch — a time consuming process, especially if a troll just crashes it all over again. As captured on Twitter, one security researcher added one of the symbols to his Uber handle as an experiment. “I suspect a crashed phone means you get routed to the next driver… who gets crashed too. Like an Uber routing worm” he wrote. We reached out to Uber to see if they’re aware of the issue and will update when we hear back. For now, most of the trolling seems to be on Twitter. A search on both Facebook and Reddit yielded conspicuously few signs of Telugu trolling, so it appears that those platforms may have taken steps to limit the fallout from the iPhone-killing unicode symbols. Meanwhile, a thorough blog post by a Mozilla engineer Manish Goregaokar suggests that the scope of the unicode bug could be broader than the two symbols we know. “… From some experimentation, this bug seemed to occur for any pair of Telugu consonants with a vowel, as long as the vowel is not ై (ai),” he wrote. His findings so far: “So, ultimately, the full set of cases that cause the crash are: Any sequence in Devanagari, Bengali, and Telugu, where: consonant2 is suffix-joining – i.e. र, র, য, and all Telugu consonants If consonant2 is र or র, consonant1 is not the same letter (or a variant, like ৰ) vowel is not ై or ৌ” TechCrunch has reached out to Twitter, Facebook and Reddit to see how those platforms are handling the bug, which is particularly destructive when blasted out on an open social network. We’ve also been in touch with Apple and they’ve confirmed that there is a “dot update” fix coming soon, though declined to confirm if it would be iOS 11.2.6. Apple noted that the bug is fixed in current betas of iOS, tvOS, macOS and watchOS. Featured Image: Jane_Kelly/Getty Images (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

Sorry, Apple’s ‘Carpool Karaoke’ gets a second season

Despite its almost universally negative reception from critics, Apple has chosen to renew James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series for Apple Music for a second season. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves announced the renewal on the company’s earning call this week, as part of its commitment to producing more original content, according to a report from Deadline. The series, which is based on the recurring segment from “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” has been streaming on Apple Music since August 2017. It’s essentially an expanded format of what had previously been much shorter clips when it was aired on TV. It also doesn’t have Corden hosting, save for a couple of the episodes. In 20+-minute long videos, the Apple series has featured a cavalcade of guests like Will Smith, Alicia Keys, John Legend, LeBron James, Billy Eichner, Metallica, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Seth MacFarlane, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, John Cena, Shakira, Trevor Noah, and many others. Despite the big names, reviews for the show have not been kind. The Guardian, for example, called it “marginally more watchable than the feeble ‘Planet of the Apps,’” which is a low blow, considering how badly “Planet of the Apps” tanked. Variety said that by making the show a standalone series, its “weaknesses are magnified.” And TechCrunch’s Brian Heater said the show is “not a compelling reason to subscribe to Apple Music.” And yet, it will return – which must indicate that at least some people are watching. Deadline says, in fact, that “Carpool Karaoke” has been the most popular video content on Apple Music. (It didn’t say how it sourced this claim, however.) Of course, the series currently has very little competition, as Apple Music today features few other original series. That will soon change, however. Apple has upped its investment in originals, and now has a number of more promising shows in the works, including a Witherspoon-backed comedy starring Kristen Wiig and thriller starring Octavia Spencer, a documentary series about extraordinary homes, a revival of “Amazing Stories” exec-produced by Steven Spielberg, a new space drama from “Battlestar Galactica’s” creator Ronald D. Moore, called “See,” a scripted basketball show based on Kevin Durant’s life, and show from “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle.

Apple employees are reportedly walking into walls at the company’s fancy new glass office

People in glass offices should probably watch where they’re going. Collisions have been one very clear downside of Apple’s $427 million spaceship office in Cupertino, according to a story out of Bloomberg. The “people familiar with the incidents” won’t say how widespread a phenomenon all of this is, but there’s a definite potential downside to glass walls in a setting where occupants are regularly staring down at their phones. In an effort to the phenomenon, some have apparently taken to sticking Post-Its on potential hazard zones — a sort of primitive form of augmented reality. As someone who regularly runs into stuff, I can personally confirm that walls, not people are to blame in this situation, and likely the whole things is more a source of brief personal embarrassment for those involved. As the story points out, none of the collisions have warranted a post to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Transparency, after all, is the key to addressing these issues. This does, however, reflect a story from 2012, in which an 83-year-old woman filed suit against the company after injuring herself after bumping into a glass surface at an Apple Store. The suit, which was later settled out of court, claimed the company “was negligent … in allowing a clear, see-through glass wall and/or door to exist without proper warning.” Likely these reports, however, won’t result in a black eye for the company.

You can buy a $20 leather coaster for your HomePod

Sure, yesterday’s big wood staining HomePod news was a bit of a black eye for Apple’s smart speaker, but it’s going to be a boon for one very specific, extremely narrow product category. I’m sure I’m going to get 50 similar pitches the minute this story publishes, but Pad & Quill owner Brian Holmes beat everyone to the punch by alerting us to a $20 leather coaster that’s currently up for pre-order. I’m not saying you should buy this — in fact, you probably shouldn’t — but it’s there if you want it. And yes, it will, indeed fix the issue of the HomePod’s silicone base leaving circular marks in some wood finishes. It’s not a necessary product — you could even say it’s a waste of 20 of your hard-earned dollars, not to mention a perfectly good piece of leather. But hey, it’s nothing if not a testament to American ingenuity and the magic of capitalism, addressing the smallest opening in consumer demand with “state-of-the-art surface protection…designed in Minneapolis and handmade by skilled artisans.” Sure, it’s designed to never actually been seen, but you’ll know it’s there, working hard for you and your wood finish, and at the end of the day, isn’t that the most important thing? In fact, if you’re going to spend $20 on a handcrafted leather HomePod coaster, maybe it’s better that no one actually ever sees it. The thing should start shipping next week, so maybe keep the HomePod in a safe space until then.

This new text bomb crashes most Mac and iOS apps with a single unicode...

TechCrunch has learned of a potentially serious new bug affecting a wide range of Apple devices. During their development work on an international news feed, software engineers at Aloha Browser discovered two unicode symbols in a non-English language that can crash any Apple device that uses Apple’s default San Francisco font. The bug instigates crashes on iPhones, iPads, Macs and even Watch OS devices that display text containing the symbol on their screens. When one of the two symbols is displayed in an app, the software crashes immediately. In many cases, the app cannot be reopened and must be reinstalled. TechCrunch was able to recreate this behavior on two iPhones running an older version of iOS, one iPhone running iOS 11.2.5 and a MacBook Pro running High Sierra. The bug crashes apps including Mail, Twitter, Messages, Slack, Instagram and Facebook. From our testing, it also crashed Jumpcut, a copy and paste plugin for Mac. While it initially appeared that the Chrome browser for Mac was unaffected and could safely display the symbol, it later crashed Chrome and the software would not reopen without crashing until uninstalled and reinstalled. TechCrunch has been in touch with Apple the potential timeline for a software fix and will update this story accordingly. According to the team at Aloha Browser, Apple is aware of the bug and it may have been reported by another development team as well. This is Apple’s second text bomb headache of the year. In January, software researcher Abraham Masri discovered an iOS glitch that allowed a specific URL to crash any iPhone it was texted to, sometimes resulting in a kernel panic. In 2016, another bug could crash any iPhone or the Safari browser if a user clicked the URL for CrashSafari.com. In 2015, a so-called “Unicode of Death” could overload an iPhone’s memory using some Arabic characters. Now we’re looking at Unicode of Death 2.0. Because so many apps are affected, the new text bomb could be used to create mass chaos if spammed across an open social platform or used to target individuals via email or messaging. The new bug affects a broad swath of Apple devices and crashes nearly any major app they run, making it particularly destructive if not resolved quickly. Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

Apple confirms HomePods can leave marks on wood surfaces, updates support page with notice

Yeah, so this is a bummer. Now that the HomePod is out in the wild, reports have started trickling in from users complaining about the $349 smart speaker’s unfortunate side effect on wood furniture. A quick trip to Twitter shows various sorts of HomePod-sized rings left on desks and table tops. Apple has since confirmed the issue on its support page, noting, “It is not unusual for any speaker with a vibration-dampening silicone base to leave mild marks when placed on some wooden surfaces.” The issue seems to be one of chemistry. “The marks can be caused by oils diffusing between the silicone base and the table surface, and will often go away after several days when the speaker is removed from the wooden surface.” For what it’s worth, we didn’t run into the issue in our own testing, and the complaints appear to be pretty scattershot. But the averse interaction between wood and silicone is a known issue, as Apple handily points out. In fact, users have complained of similar issues with products like the Echo Dot. #homepod left rings on my wood furniture in less than 20 minutes of use. Thanks #apple I am glad a paid $400 to make perfect etched circles on my more expensive furniture. Guess I can not move it now to cover up the mark. Evil geniuses you are. #applesupport pic.twitter.com/eZng16barS — Guy San Francisco (@Guyinsf415) February 10, 2018 Of course, that’s all the more reason that this issue should have been addressed before the product hit the market. If the marks don’t go away, the company suggests, “wiping the surface gently with a soft damp or dry cloth may remove the marks. If marks persist, clean the surface with the furniture manufacturer’s recommended cleaning process.” Beyond that, well, “if you’re concerned about this, we recommend placing your HomePod on a different surface.” There are also plenty of handy tips on various woodworking forums if you’re among those who’ve run into the issue. Here’s a helpful page describing what can be done to counteract the damage. In some cases, it may require a refinish. And, no joke, using something as a sort of large coaster or other bumper might not be a terrible idea, either. At least until Apple issues some kind of a fix here. If the issue does become widespread, perhaps we’ll see something akin to the iPhone 4 case program that arrived in the wake of Antennagate.

Apple is developing a scripted basketball show inspired by Kevin Durant’s life

The Warriors are currently atop the Western Conference standings, but from the looks of it, Kevin Durant is shaping up to be every bit as in demand off the court. Roughly a month ago, YouTube announced that it was partnering with the star small forward’s video business to offer up original sports programming. Now Apple’s getting in on the action. The company announced today that it’s partnering with Durant’s Thirty Five Media and Imagine Media to create a new scripted series. Written and directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood (Notorious, Get on the Bus), Swagger will be based on Durant’s early life. “Working with Imagine Entertainment on this project is an unbelievable opportunity for our company, Thirty Five Media,” Durant said in a release tied to the announcement. “They hold a well-respected place in the industry and have such a proven track record, that they’re going to do an amazing job collaborating with Reggie to bring this idea to life. I’ve lived and breathed basketball since I was a kid, and the idea for the show draws not just from my knowledge of that world, but the unique personalities involved and the drive that makes young players’ stories so compelling.” The show marks the second high profile media deal for Durant in the space of a month, though Apple’s approach is notably different than the YouTube partnership, which is primarily focused on short form sports and documentary content. It also marks the latest in a number of recent announcements from Apple, as the company makes an aggressive push into original scripted content. The list also includes a pair of shows with Reese Witherspoon on board as producer, a series from La La Land’s Damien Chazelle and a reboot of Steven Spielberg’s 80s classic, Amazing Stories. Of course, none of the above have actually debuted — and Apple has yet to really outline its play to take on the likes of Netflix and Hulu– but after Carpool Karaoke and Planet of the Apps, well, just about anything would feel like a step in the right direction. We’ll see if it’s any match for LeBron’s planned House Party reboot. This Warrior/Cavs rivalry is really starting to heat up.

Apple and Android are destroying the Swiss Watch industry

In Q4 2017 – essentially during the last holiday season – market research firm Canalys found that more people bought Apple watches than Swiss watches. Two million more, to be exact. Brian Heater has more data but this news is quite problematic for the folks eating Coquilles St-Jacques on the slopes of the Jura mountains. The numbers are estimates based on market data but they still point to a trend. In Q1 2016 Apple shipped 1.5 million watches to Switzerlands 5.9 million. The intervening quarters were about the same until the launch of the Apple Watch 3 in September 2017, just in time for holiday shopping. The boost of a new phone and a new watch at the same time meant a perfect storm for upgraders, driving the total number of Apple Watches sold past the Swiss watch sales numbers. This switch does not mean Apple will maintain that lead – they have one product while Switzerland has thousands – but comparing a single company’s output to an entire industry’s in this case is telling. Wearing watches is, as we all remind each other, is passé. “I check the time on my phone,” we said for almost a decade as phones became more ubiquitous. Meanwhile watch manufacturers abandoned the low end and began selling to the high end consumer, the connoisseur. Take a look at this chart: Sales of low- to mid-tier watches – and a mid-tier watch can range in price between $500 and $3,000 (and I would even lump many $10,000 watches in the mid-tier category) – were stagnant while the true cash cows, the expensive watches for the ultra-rich, fell slowly from a high in 2014. This coincides with falling purchases in China as what amounted to sumptuary laws reduced the number of expensive gifts given to corrupt officials. Sales are up as December 2017 but don’t expect much of a bump past the current slide. As a lover of all things mechanical – I did ruin a few years of my life writing a book about a watch – I look at these trends with dismay and a bit of schadenfreude. As I’ve said again and again the Swiss Watch industry brought this on itself. While they claim great numbers and great success year after year the small manufacturers are eating each other up while nearly every major watch brand is snooping around for outside buyers. There is no money in churning out mechanical timepieces to an increasingly disinterested public. As time ticks ever forward things will change. The once mighty Swiss houses will sink under the weight of their accreted laurel-resting and Apple will move on to embedded brain implants and leave watches behind. The result, after a battle that raged for more than four decades, will be a dead Swiss industry catering to a world that has moved on.