Don't you dare Touch my new iPod

Is Apple keeping the iPod Touch and iPhone platform closed to third party developers to protect its impressive record on security?
Written by Munir Kotadia, Correspondent on

In the ZDNet Australia office we are no strangers to new gadgets. Actually, if you take into account our sister site CNET.com.au, we are up to our ears in them.

New mobile phones, PDAs, MP3 players, laptops, wide-screen TVs and all kinds of hi-tech hardware is constantly flowing through the editorial teams' clutches. But every now and again, something comes along that has the reviewers drooling in anticipation of a play -- or in this case, a Touch.

Last Tuesday I took delivery of Apple's latest iPod, the Touch, which was a surprise because it arrived a few days earlier than expected.

The much bigger surprise is that, one week on, I am yet to plug in my headphones and use the device as a portable music player.

So distracted have I been by the combination of Wi-Fi, a touchscreen interface and the Safari browser, I've had no time to simply put the Touch in my pocket and listen to music, like a traditional iPod demands.

Never have I been so excited or happy about using a teeny weeny portable computer. Never has an iPod been so desirable.

Whether browsing regular Web pages or specially crafted sites -- such as iphone.facebook.com -- the iPod Touch is a dream to use. The battery life is great and it is just oh-so-pretty.

The iPod Touch is one of the best gadgets this year in my opinion but, despite my gushing, I am the first to admit that it is far from perfect.

There is a long list of annoying shortcomings and missing features that make no sense to me.

For example, why no copy and paste? Why can't I select and copy a name or line of text from a Web page and then drop it into Google?

The virtual keyboard is also annoying because it keeps letters and numbers on different "soft" menus. As we have moved into an age where passwords often must contain both letters and numbers, I have to flip between the two "soft" keypads several times for each password, which is very inconvenient.

And why is it that I can happily watch videos on YouTube but not from ZDNet Australia, even though they all use Flash?

The iPod Touch also feels rather delicate. I would never just shove it in the back pocket of my jeans as I would with previous iPods because this one would get scratched and probably snap in half if I sat down.

On top of all this, it has lost a pixel. I actually feel bad about complaining about it because, after all, it is only a teeny weeny pixel. But still, I want it back. Now.

Also, why are there no games? I am not talking complex multiplayer games, just something like touch-screen Solitaire -- or touch Pong. Either would be fun to have.

Obviously an open platform for third party games and applications would be ideal.

But this is where Apple has a dilemma.

If the iPod and iPhone platform is opened up to allow third party applications, the device could well become a security nightmare.

The risks are there even in a closed environment according to H D Moore from Metasploit, who explained that the iPhone -- and so I assume the iPod Touch -- runs every process with "root" privileges, which means that if one of its applications contains a security flaw, a successful exploit could mean the entire system is compromised.

"A rootkit takes on a whole new meaning when the attacker has access to the camera, microphone, contact list, and phone hardware. Couple this with 'always-on' Internet access over EDGE and you have a perfect spying device," said Moore.

Obviously, the iPod Touch does not have a camera or microphone and cannot access the mobile phone network. However, while it is connected to any wireless network, including Wi-Fi, it could provide a new attack vector for criminals.

Apple's market share is increasing and iPhone sales are booming in the US. I would be very surprised if the same doesn't happen once it reaches Australia -- especially if it comes armed with 3G, as has been hinted at by Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

According to analyst group Gartner, it is only a matter of time before a smartphone becomes popular enough to justify some attention from the criminal gangs currently focusing their attention on unsecured Windows operating systems.

If the iPod Touch is a bestseller, as seems likely, and the iPhone continues to fly off the shelves as it has done to date, Apple will soon own a decent chunk of both the PDA and smartphone markets.

With this in mind, keeping the iPod/iPhone platform closed to "untrusted" applications seems like a very smart move.


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