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Apple in space: 7 things you should know

Posted on January 28, 2020

Toward the end of last year, reports and rumors surfaced about a top-secret Apple program to develop satellite communications technology.  

Here are 7 things to know about Cupertino’s bold initiative:

  1. 1

    They’re hiring

    Although it’s all being kept very quiet, Apple has already hired specialists from the world of aerospace engineering as well as satellite and antenna design to work on the project. They’ve reportedly snagged some pretty big names in the field, including Michael Trela and John Fenwick, the former heads of satellite engineering and spacecraft operations at Google.

  2. 2

    It’s aimed at Earth

    Notwithstanding the company’s acclaimed Apple TV+ series For All Mankind, Apple’s interest in space likely has nothing to do with space travel per se: with space tourism or rocketry in the mold of Virgin Galactic or SpaceX. The hiring decisions made thus far suggest that Cupertino is looking for a better way to transfer data between Earth-based communications devices — i.e. iPhones — and orbiting satellites.

  3. 3

    There’s a reason

    If Apple is indeed developing a way to transmit data directly to their customers’ devices, this is understandable: There are several strong incentives for the company to pursue this capability. Perhaps most importantly, it would allow Apple to free itself from dependence on wireless carriers, paving the way for the creation of non-traditional networks between devices. This could lead to an ultra-secure “space Internet” — one run along Apple’s privacy principles.

  4. 4

    Not everyone will like it

    An Internet that cut wireless carriers out of the loop would greatly weaken the ability of the world’s governments to regulate — and monitor — their citizens’ communications. Powerful interests, from the U.S. Department of Justice to the Communist Party of China, would have much to lose in such a scenario, and they may push back on grounds of national security.

  5. 5

    They’re not alone

    Apple isn’t the only company doing this. SpaceX’s Starlink project is already launching satellites into orbit with the goal of providing global broadband Internet connectivity by the middle of the decade. Facebook and Amazon are working on similar initiatives. Apple, however, is unique among these companies because of its focus on privacy — and its obvious advantage as the premier manufacturer of the ground-based mobile devices used to access the web.

  6. 6

    It’s still early days

    As of now, no one knows exactly what Apple is up to (although they have a pretty good inkling). Public reports put the number of new hires at around a dozen, so it’s safe to assume that the project — whatever it is — is still in the very early stages of planning. Other companies have tried to create a space-based Internet before — and failed — so there’s a distinct possibility that Apple may abandon the project if it’s not deemed viable.

  7. 7

    It’s ambitious

    Nevertheless, the choice of new hires points to Apple’s seriousness about the project, and CEO Tim Cook is said to be a supporter. The initial Bloomberg report which broke the story puts the timeline to completion — based on sources within the company — at around five years. This would make sense, considering the pace at which competitors like SpaceX are proceeding: Elon Musk already has more than 180 Starlink satellites in orbit, and expects to have 12,000 by the mid-2020s.

The idea of a space-based Internet offered by Apple is a tantalizing prospect for anyone concerned with digital privacy and security. Only time will tell if this is what the company is actually working on — and if they’ll be able to move beyond the planning phase to overcome the technological and business hurdles needed to make it a reality. But Apple’s “one small step” into the satellite business may turn into something very big indeed, which definitely makes this story one to watch.

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