'Apple' on the cheap
By Martin J Young

HUA HIN, Thailand - Apple products have become status symbols in China, so as the burgeoning population clamors for more iPhones and iPads the counterfeit black market expands at an unprecedented rate to fulfill the needs of the tech-hungry masses there and elsewhere in Asia.

Knock-off iPhones are available in shopping malls in Thailand, for example, at around 20% of the cost of the genuine article.

Even so, Apple has not been very active in the battle against piracy of its own products, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks this week .

A document from the United States Embassy in Beijing dated September 2008 stated that the California-based tech giant organized a team to respond to the rampant counterfeiting of its products in March of the same year. Three years later, little has been achieved, and pirated products are as prevalent as ever.

The hunger for Apples in China cannot be quashed by the country's only genuine Apple Stores in Shanghai and Beijing, so wily entrepreneurs have been churning out phony phones, plastic pads and even creating their own fake Apple stores elsewhere in the People's Republic (see Apple harvest doubles, Asia Times Online, July 23, 2011).

According to the cable, factories in mainland China were exporting enough counterfeits by the end of 2008 to single-handedly supply the world with "Apple" products.

The report goes on to say that gadget piracy isn't a high priority for the Chinese government. The authorities appear to be directing all of their energies into Internet censorship and control of information flow; however, this issue was not addressed in this particular cable.

The document also highlighted Apple's typically furtive approach to anything even remotely critical of its operations; "Low-profile raids are a good option for Apple, a company that wants to stay away from too much publicity surrounding this issue."

Apple has remained characteristically silent on the issue, and interestingly removed an application from its online store in December that allows users to browse WikiLeaks documents on their iPhones or iPads.

The counterfeit versions at least offer a cheap alternative when the real thing persistently flashes the message "Unable to restore iPhone - error 28" after it is accidentally damaged or otherwise breaks down (neither the genuine product nor the fake phones, for example, can swim).

Another app that has been removed from Apple's online store this week is the Financial Times, although this deletion was not at the heavy hand of the Cupertino tech giant. The battle for control of customer subscription data has been lost by the United Kingdom-based newspaper as Apple insists that all subscriptions are made through its own App Store.

The FT yanked the app after negotiations broke down; it did not agree to giving Apple a 30% cut of revenues from its digital subscribers or all of the associated customer profile information. Apple's subscription service for magazines, newspapers, music and video has won little support from major publishers due to its inequitable demands for control of data and revenue.

More scrutiny of Apple's Chinese operations has come this week as environmental groups renewed accusations that the company's suppliers were releasing highly toxic materials and causing health problems to locals. A coalition of environmental organizations released a 46-page report on Wednesday that stated 27 of Apple's suppliers had severe pollution problems.

The Chinese Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, where the report was published, claimed that in one instance, pollution from a factory owned by the Taiwanese information technology giant Foxconn in northern Shanxi province was so bad that locals sometimes could not open their windows.

It said Apple had decided to "take advantage of loopholes" in developing countries' environmental management systems to "grab super profits".

The fruity company never fails to stay out of the tech headlines, this week being no exception as yet another prototype iPhone is rumored to have gone missing in a bar. The cynical among us would believe that these employee "misplacements" of highly guarded products are an intentional ploy by Apple to stir up attention before a major launch, in this case the iPhone 5 in a few weeks time.

Sony has finally entered the tablet business with a statement that its goal is to become the biggest player in Japan's growing market for Android tablets. Two new Android-powered tablets offer a number of features that others, including the all-dominating iPad, lack.

A folding clamshell unit known only as the Sony P tablet offers two screens and access to some first generation PlayStation games. The single-screen S tablet also functions as a universal remote with a built-in infrared transmitter.

Sony is attempting to break the mould in a very crowded market place and offer something a little different to the standard tablet format that Apple seems to think it has complete ownership of. Pricing may be the digital hurdle for the Japanese electronics company as the two units don't come cheap, starting at US$500.

In the latest in a string of Internet security breaches, hackers have manipulated digital certificates that verify the authenticity of websites and posed as Google to snoop on web users in Iran.

A Dutch Internet company, DigiNotar, that issues these Secure Socket Layer web certificates, was hacked in July by an unknown group that managed to acquire fraudulent certificates and then pass them off as if it were Google. The objective was to spy on users in Iran of Google Mail, Docs and Plus. Security company F-Secure stipulated that the attack was likely to have originated from the government of Iran to monitor dissidents.

Google is investigating the breach and browser-makers Mozilla and Microsoft are updating their security alert systems to spot fraudulent certificates. Users of Google's Chrome browser would have been protected from the attack as the browser would have recognized the security certificate was fake.

Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.