Tuesday 22 August 2017

Meet the Irish code detective uncovering Apple secrets

Dublin programmer has revealed details of the next iPhone

In the know: Steven Troughton-Smith has the drop on what Apple boss Tim Cook (right) will announce next month
In the know: Steven Troughton-Smith has the drop on what Apple boss Tim Cook (right) will announce next month
Apple CEO Tim Cook
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

The Apple mothership springs more leaks than the Trump White House these days. It can't be easy keeping secrets about the next iPhone in a giant organisation with massive factories spread across the globe.

But to scatter clues and even illustrations in plain sight - well, that's just careless. Especially when there's an army of online sleuths panning for nuggets of information. And the leading archaeologist/detective just happens to be a young Irishman who never finished college.

Steven Troughton-Smith has written several popular apps for iPhone and Mac but he's now almost more globally renowned for digging into Apple's code to see what it spills about upcoming, cancelled or delayed products. Just last week, the 28-year-old Dublin-based programmer revealed clues about the design of the new iPhone 8 - due out next month - and how it is expected to feature infra-red face recognition to unlock the screen.

Alongside a developer from Brazil, he discovered the details buried in software Apple accidentally published on its servers for its new speaker named HomePod. "There's an element of curiosity about it, especially for something as important to our lives as the smartphone," explains Troughton-Smith, who attended DCU but didn't graduate from his Digital Media Engineering course. "It's fun to get excited about possible new things, or get an idea for where the industry is heading. Apple has tremendous reach and any new feature they build will get distributed to somewhere near a billion users simultaneously, which has a ripple effect across so many industries.

"I like to cast light on features I find (like the iPhone 8 leak), so that we can have an open debate about them. For example, we all use emoji today, but when it first shipped, it was limited to iPhones in Japan and not available to the western world. I believe I was the first to investigate this and find a way to enable emoji for everybody, which suddenly created a booming business of 'emoji enabler' apps for iPhone so that everybody else could use them.

"Eventually that was too much for Apple to ignore and they brought emoji to the rest of the world in a later release of iOS. Very similarly, last year I found a 'one-handed keyboard' mode that was lying dormant in iOS for many years. Apple, after seeing how enthusiastic the public were about this news, finally included this feature in iOS11. I'm confident in taking at least some credit for that one."

Troughton-Smith doesn't consider what he does to be hacking, at least not in the traditionally negative sense.

"For me, 'hacking' is the term I use for creating or enabling cool things. When information or software is distributed publicly, for anybody to download and investigate, there's no real skill involved in acquiring it. There may be skill involved in dissecting and interpreting it, but that's a reverse-engineering and fact-finding process. I like to think of it more akin to archaeology."

You might think Apple would have come on heavy by now with Troughton-Smith, given he provides such regular glimpses behind the kimono. But he has never been approached officially and only once or twice his contacts inside Apple have advised him to hold off.

"On very rare occasions they ask me to retract something just long enough for them to have time to deal with the problem."

His day job remains creating and maintaining software for iPhones and iPads, but even that bustling market has its own problems due to the vast numbers of apps released. "I have been fortunate enough for my app-making to be my primary income, though I do contract from time to time on special/fun projects."

But his growing profile has enabled him adopt the online patronage platform Patreon, where supporters pay small sums for privileged access to his work and discoveries.

See www.patreon.com/steventroughtonsmith for more on Troughton-Smith's work

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