An Apple a Day

It seems like we were talking about Apple’s latest announcements just a couple of days ago, and yet here we are, talking about Apple’s–you know.

Let’s skip the puffery. Does anyone outside Apple really care how many awards Apple TV+ has won?

More importantly, Apple has announced new toys.

Two new iPads, specifically a new basic model and a new mini.

The former is a nice step up from last year’s model. New chips mean a 20% speed increase across the board, and a new camera will let it do some of the video trickery formerly limited to the iPad Pro.

The upgraded mini is probably the most eagerly awaited upgrade. Smaller bezels in the same form factor mean a bigger screen without increasing the weight, Touch ID in the top button*, and a 40-80% speed boost depending on what you’re doing. No more Lightning port; USB-C instead, which opens up a lot of new accessory possibilities. Better cameras, of course. That’s obligatory for any new Apple hardware, right?

* These days, Touch ID is much better than Face ID. Don’t make me take my mask off to sign in without a password, please. And nice of Apple to remember that not everyone who has an iPad has an Apple Watch they could use for automatic unlocking.

And, speaking of the Apple Watch: surprise! Get ready for the new Apple Watch Series 7. Bigger screen and bigger buttons, faster charging, stronger*, and still compatible with your old bands. Because backward compatibility is important, right?

* Let’s hope so. The screens on the previous six generations seem unreasonably vulnerable to cracking from even the smallest jolts. Interestingly, Apple is crediting the improved durability to the shape. I have to wonder why they’re not using the oh-so-strong ceramic they introduced on the iPhone 12 screens.

And it looks like Apple is simplifying the product line a little. Once the Series 7 comes out, the 5 and 6 will both go away. Series 3 for the budget-conscious, SE for the mid-range, and 7 for anyone who doesn’t want to be seen as a cheapskate.

And, of course, new iPhones. Kudos to Apple for not giving in to superstition and skipping “13”.

Smaller front camera notch and, as usual, the best camera ever in a (non-pro) iPhone. Bigger battery. Comes in regular and mini. Faster than your now-obsolete iPhone 12, naturally. Storage now starts at 128GB–no more 64GB devices–and goes up to 512GB. Not quite up to some of the top-of-the-line Samsung phone’s 1TB, but still and improvement for anyone who wants to carry weeks of music or a trans-Atlantic flight’s worth of movies.

Naturally, there’s a Pro and a Pro Max, both of which fall into the “more than six inches” category, also known as “too flippin’ big to fit in your pocket. As usual, the main distinguishing characteristic of the Pro phones are the cameras, but Apple is also talking up the improved battery life (as compared to the equivalent iPhone 12 models) and storage up to (ah, there it is–couldn’t let Samsung get that far ahead) 1TB.

As expected, most of the new devices are evolutionary; only the improved mini could even arguably be considered revolutionary.

But that’s today’s Apple.

WQTS 12

Hard to believe it’s been more than four years since the last WQTS* post. Granted, last year probably shouldn’t count. It’s not like any of us have had opportunities to encounter the results of egregiously bad testing recently. But still.

* For those of you who’ve started reading since June of 2017, or whose memories don’t extend that far back, the acronym expands to Who QAd This Shit. It’s where I mock products that were improperly tested, insufficiently tested, or–a closely related discipline–never granted a design review.

We took the car in for service yesterday–the Toyota, not The Bug. Aside from the semi-annual maintenance, it also needed a new battery. Generally, when it comes to matters automotive, we rely on experts for diagnosis, but it didn’t take much expertise for us to figure that a battery that had been in service for seven years and occasionally failed to hold enough charge overnight to start the car was about due for retirement.

Guess what happens to the radio when the battery is replaced. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

If you guess that it reverts to its default settings, you’re right. Partially.

For the record, the radio in question is the KD-HDR30, made by JVC. To be fair, it is, like the car, more than a decade old; nobody’s going to be buying one today. And there is a chance that JVC’s more recent units radios were designed and built following more rigorous design and testing processes.

The radio itself reverts to the defaults. The add-on modules that give it additional capabilities don’t. So the SiriusXM module remembered our station presets, but the radio switched to its built-in FM tuner.

That’s actually a reasonable default. It doesn’t make sense for the radio to assume the presence of optional hardware. What’s less sensical–and points to inadequate testing and/or design review–is that the FM station presets were gone.

Who thought it was a good idea to withhold capabilities from the base unit that were given to an optional component–the satellite radio plug-in? Clearly, somebody who didn’t think the radio could lose all power after installation.

Wait, it gets worse. The base radio component apparently has no ability to remember anything. Every single setting reverted to the defaults. So the FM tuner was at the top of the dial and the volume was at the exact middle of the range, two ticks higher than we had left it. Annoying, but one has to set the default values somewhere, and those choices have some logic behind them.

Less logical, when we switched inputs to SiriusXM, we discovered that the radio’s default display was the time remaining in the current song. Not the title (our preference) the artist, or even the channel. The time remaining. Who chose that? Realistically, nobody did. Nobody defined the default behavior, so a developer chose the first item in the list of options. Presumably, it was the same developer who put the list of options in their current order. And most likely, that order came straight out of a list of capabilities someone gave him.

If some QA person questioned the behavior, the business owner or project manager decided there wasn’t time to fix it: “If we change the order of the list, every feature that refers to the list will need to be changed; that means reworking and retesting every menu selection. And if we start setting exceptions for the defaults, instead of always choosing the first possibility, we’ll have to decide what those exceptions are, recode the initialization sequence, and retest. For something that only happens once, when the radio is installed.” Because, of course, we all know the radio is connected to a battery, so it can’t lose power.

The really egregious design issue, however–and the one that convinces me that there were no design reviews and possibly no QA–is that by default, the radio goes into a store demo mode. That means the display cycles endlessly through a list of the radio’s features. Why would anyone want to see the list after they’ve purchased the radio?

Turning the demo mode off requires the user to find a menu semi-hidden behind a long press on a button that normally does other things, locate demo mode in that menu, turn it off, and save the setting before the menu times out and returns the radio to its normal display.

Why is this the default? Granted, any unit could be used as a store display. I’ll even grant that a store display unit is more likely to lose power than one installed in an actual customer’s car. But making every unit default to store mode suggests that either the radio is the victim of poor design practices and less-than-adequate QA, or that JVC prioritizes stores’ convenience over customers’.

Turning It Up To…

Hey, did you hear about Windows 11?

Remember when Microsoft said Windows 10 would be the last version of Windows?

To be fair, times have changed since then. That statement was made back when Apple was still cheerfully turning out version after version of OS X with no hint they’d ever turn up macOS to 11. So now Microsoft has to keep pace, lest they be seen as behind the times. That means updating the user interface to match current fashion trends and, yes, updating the version number.

Still, I wish one company or the other would have invoked Spinal Tap in their product announcement, instead of leaving it up to the tech press.

Anyway, it looks like Windows 11 is going to be more of an evolution than a radical departure. Microsoft has clearly learned from the Windows 8 debacle, and isn’t going to give us something so wildly different that we’ll have to totally readjust our muscle memory just to carry out basic tasks. Like launching programs. From what I’ve seen so far, we’ll all be able to manage the learning curve.

For appropriate values of “all”, anyway. Because it’s important to realize that not everyone is going to get Windows 11 on Day One*. And hurray for that.

* Which won’t be until “holiday season”. Which, given that it’s a marketing term with no agreed-upon meaning, could be anything from September–when the stores start pushing Christmas and Christmas gifting–to January or February. Wouldn’t you like your loved one to give you an upgrade to Windows 11 for Valentines Day? Don’t sneer: it may be a free download, but I’m sure not going to install the upgrade without first backing up my systems, and you should too. Let a competent loved one (or paid professional) spend the time and effort, while you eat the chocolate you were going to give them. You do give chocolate to your computer repair person, right? Much safer for your equipment than alcohol.

Even once it’s released, not everyone is going to get Windows 11.

Microsoft is still fine-tuning the limits, but right now it appears that Windows 11 won’t even try to install on systems that are more than about five years old.

Unlike most of the rest of the tech industry, I’m okay with that. One doesn’t run Windows 10 on machines that were originally sold with Windows 7 (or, Goddess help us, Vista). At best, one walks it; more often, one crawls it.

And Microsoft will continue to support and update Windows 10 for at least five years. That means that, by the time Windows 10 is fully retired*, all those computers that can’t run Windows 11 will be at least a decade old. That’s about 90 in human years. Let them retire gracefully. Please.

* In the same sense that Windows 7 is now fully retired, of course. Which means there are still millions of people using it.

Another bit of good news: Apparently Microsoft has finally admitted that Cortana is massively annoying. She’ll still be in Windows 11, but somewhat harder to find. And computer technicians around the world are still celebrating the news that she’s being removed from the setup workflow. I know people who have to set up multiple machines every day; they hear that awful “Hi, there!” in their sleep. Good riddance.

And, just to close out my rambling, a bit of bad news; the only thing we’ve been told about Windows 11 that makes my head hurt: Windows 11 Home (the version pre-installed on over 90% of the Windows computers sold in stores) will require a Microsoft account to get through the initial setup. There are a lot of open questions around this little nugget of information. In theory, Windows 10 has a similar requirement, but you can get around it by not connecting the computer to the Internet until after the setup workflow is finished. Maybe 11 will work the same way. Maybe not–but if not, how will Microsoft handle it if there legitimately isn’t an available Internet connection?

Because, let’s be blunt here: not everyone wants to give Microsoft that much control over their computer. (Want to see a techie froth at the mouth? Ask them to help you with a Bitlocker recovery.) Even Apple, that vociferous proponent of the “walled garden”, doesn’t force you to enter your Apple ID when you set up a Mac. They’ll nag you if you don’t, but they won’t stop you. And their setup workflow always creates a local user account. You create the account and then, several steps later, they ask you to enter the Apple ID–and most recent versions of macOS have a prominent “Ask me later” or “No thanks” option.

I’d be willing to bet that Microsoft will back down from their current “must” stance. But it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they do it quietly and in a highly non-obvious way.

About ten minutes after the formal release of Windows 11, some repair technician or security analyst will discover that the requirement can by bypassed by entering “microsoft.accounts@sucks.rocks” as the Microsoft account name. Word will spread, and eventually Microsoft will blame it on a rogue programmer–but not remove the capability.

At least, that’s what I’m hoping.

Scammy: A Public Service Reminder

The malware scam has a long and ignoble history. We’ve talked about them before, most notably in the context of confusing the scammers. Back then (2014), we were seeing the rise of the robo-scammer. Surprisingly, it seems that was a short-lived phenomenon.

For the record, I keep an eye on what scams are making the rounds both out of personal curiosity and as part of my day job. A rare occurrence, being paid to do something I’d do anyway (that doesn’t involve writing).

Anyway, in the absence of data, I speculate that people hate talking to a computer so much that not enough people pressed 1 to allow the auto-dialer to connect them to a human being. It seems logical, anyway: the reason these scams are so successful is that the caller has a well-written and well-practiced script to panic the recipient into forking over their money and opening up their computer. No one is going to trust a robotic voice that says “Your computer is under attack.”

Heck, most people are going to assume that the robotic voice is the one that’s doing the attacking.

So we’re back to more traditional methods of scamming. But there are still new wrinkles.

Remember those popups that claim you need to install a special codec to see the video you’ve clicked on? They’re still around, but they’ve been joined by a new come-on. With the long-awaited and well-publicized demise of Flash, now we’re seeing popups telling would-be viewers that they need to reinstall the Flash player that has been removed from their browser.

I would have thought people would stop to ask themselves why Flash was removed in the first place, but apparently there’s a sufficiency of people who aren’t that self-inquisitive. Sufficient enough to keep the scammers happy, anyway.

Of course email spam is still a potent venue for scammers. The “I’ve hacked your webcam and will send your family pictures of you masturbating” letters seem to be on the decline. And good riddance. The current popular approach is a subscription renewal. “Hey, this is [large corporate entity]. Your subscription to our service is about to expire. Your card will be charged [outrageously large fee] tomorrow.” This scam works well because the fee is so high. “Five hundred bucks for a magazine/website/streaming service?” If the victim is actually a subscriber, they call to correct what they figure must have been a typo; if they don’t have the service, they call to prevent the large charge. Of course, if they aren’t a subscriber, the scammer is set with a script to apologize for the incorrect message, pitch the service in glowing terms at a much more reasonable price, and get a credit card number that can then be wildly abused.

Oddly, while the scammers go to great lengths to make the emails look like they’re coming from the real company, incorporating stolen graphics and boilerplate legal text lifted from actual emails, they often don’t make the slightest effort to forge the “From” on the email. Though the evidence suggests that they don’t need to make the attempt. People seem to be quite willing to assume that “john.smith@yahoo.com” is fully authorized to speak for Netflix, Fox News, or Xfinity. Or, more likely, nobody even looks at the sender’s address. Those big numbers apparently attached to their credit cards exert a magnetic attraction on the eyes.

The big winner from a scammer’s perspective, however, is still the phone call. Yes, Sam and Nancy and their ilk are still in business. Apparently, however, enough people have figured out that Microsoft and Apple aren’t monitoring their customers’ computers and phones that claiming to be “Sam from Apple” doesn’t work well enough.

Today, the caller is much more likely put a gloss of plausibility on their claim. “Hi, this is Jolene from Norton Security Services.” LifeLock is popular with the scammers, since so many people have subscriptions to LifeLock, either directly or through their association with Norton. Other name-brand security companies’ names are being abused as well: McAfee (many computers come with a trial version of McAfee antivirus installed, so people are used to seeing or hearing the name) and ADT–“Hey, I got my burglar alarm from them, I guess they’re protecting my Internet too”–are at the top of the list.

So let’s be careful out there. Remember, when someone says they’re watching out for you online, they’re telling the exact truth. They’re watching out for you and your wallet.

WWDC 2021

I gotta say I’m underwhelmed by what I’m hearing from Apple. Unlike previous WWDCs, this year’s seems to be totally focused on software. Which, yes, needs to be updated and improved. But it sounds like what we’re going to be seeing from Apple is a bunch of minor evolutions with no revolutions in sight.

iOS 15 is bringing us such goodies as using audio positioning to make it sound like people’s voices are coming from where they’re shown on the screen in FaceTime and automatic filtering of ambient noise. Links to FaceTime calls that can be emailed or added to calendars are handy, but hardly the sort of thing to make someone run out to buy an iPhone. Some of the tweaks to Notifications sound handy–scheduling certain kinds of notifications so you’re not bothered with them when you’re focused on something else, for example. But again, would that be enough to encourage you to buy an iPhone if you were on the fence? I’ll admit “live text” sound sweet. Being able to select text in a picture, even one that’s part of a web page, so it could be copied, pasted, and even clicked if it’s a link is a really helpful tweak. But again, not the stuff of which dreams are made.

Then there are the enhancements to the Apple Wallet app. Sorry, but I have no interest at all in putting my work badge, hotel keys, or driver’s license on my phone. Privacy implications aside–and there are plenty of those–the practical issues are disturbing. Getting locked out of my room because my phone ran out of juice on the conference floor is bad enough. But fumbling with my phone if I get pulled over for speeding? Sounds like a good way to get shot–and I’m not even Black.

Then there’s iPadOS. It’s getting widget support like what iPhones got in iOS 14. Hurray? Oh, wait, they can be bigger and show more information, since the iPad screen is larger. The UI improvements to multitasking are nice, I suppose, but for the most part they’re adding new ways to do the same things. Granted, keyboard support is useful–necessary, even, with the way Apple is pushing keyboards for iPads–but again, not revolutionary.

Speaking as a former software tester, I’m dubious about the ability to build apps on an iPad. Agreed, a nice learning tool. But the ability to submit apps directly from the iPad to the App Store? Apple better exercise some editorial control, or we’re going to be buried under a flood of redundant MyFirstApp apps.

There is one area where I’m totally in favor of Apple’s moves in iPadOS 15, and that’s with the privacy enhancements. Blocking your IP address and location from websites is a plus. One that should have happened years ago, IMNSHO, but it’s here now, and I hope Google follows suit. Private Relay sounds like it’s stealing a trick from the anonymous Tor browser. Slick. Good for Apple.

Moving on to watchOS. Pardon me. Let’s skip that. I find Apple’s continuing fascination with the Breathe app and its progeny disturbing enough that I tuned out that whole section of the presentation.

As for the ability to let you unlock the door to your house by tapping your phone or watch… Uh, let’s just say I’m sure it’s more secure than any of the standalone Bluetooth locks out there. But that doesn’t mean its secure. Too much room for error here–I’ve double-tapped icons accidentally, turning something on and then immediately back off, way too many times to want to literally make them the keys to my castle.

And, of course, Apple is introducing a new version of MacOS. What comes after Catalina and Big Sur? Monterey, of course. All the whiz-bang feature updates from iOS and iPadOS seem to be making their way to the desktop as well. No surprise there. A few other little tweaks. You’ve been able to use your iPad as a second monitor for your Mac for a while. Now you’ll be able to move your cursor from one to another and drag and drop files seamlessly. Really making the iPad (or a second Mac!) work like a second monitor. That’s cool. And if you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, I can see it being a way to persuade you to expand your hardware portfolio.

I’m going to skip the developer-oriented updates. Most of you won’t care, and those of you who will have probably already seen all of them. I could snark a bit about them, but really, some targets are too easy. (App Store, I’m looking at you.)

Bottom line, the new OSes–coming to public beta next month for a Fall release–will make existing Apple users’ lives easier in small ways, but by themselves, they’re not going to sell hardware. And there’s no word from Apple when they’ll be announcing new hardware.

Google I/O 2021

Sorry about the late post. I’ve been trying to get a handle on all of the critical news coming out of yesterday’s Google I/O keynote. Unlike years past, nobody’s done a live-blog of the presentation–not unreasonable, considering that it’s online for anyone to watch, but annoying for those of us who don’t want to be limited to realtime speed. (I don’t know about you, but I read a lot faster than I watch, and I don’t have much patience for videos that are, in effect, advertising.)

Anyway.

Google wants to be helpful. Well, Google wants to make lots of money, but if they can do it by being helpful, why not? So they’re introducing features like Google Maps routings that are optimized for fuel efficiency or weather-and-traffic safety. Seems like a useful initiative. I don’t have any more qualms about it than I do over any use Google makes of the information they’re gathering about us.

Google Workspace–the business-oriented set of tools that includes Docs, GMail, Meet, and so on–is getting something called “Smart Canvas”. It’s supposed to allow for better collaboration. For example, having a Meet video conference while collaboratively editing a Sheet document. Again, useful, at least for that subset of the world that needs it. And not hugely more intrusive than any of the individual tools alone.

Here’s one that really looks good: Google is adding an automatic password change feature to Chrome. This builds on the existing feature that alerts you if your password has been exposed in a data breach. Now it’ll have an option to take you to the site and walk through the password change process for you. I do wonder if you’ll be able to use it to change your Google password periodically; that’s something you should do anyway, and especially if you’re using the password manager built into Chrome. Speaking of which, that Chrome password manager will soon be able to import passwords from other password managers. Handy if you’re using Chrome everywhere, but those of us who use other browsers occasionally will probably want to stick with a third-party manager.

Some privacy additions here and there. A locked folder for Google Photos is a natural; we should have had that years ago.

Then there are the counter-privacy features. The keynote highlighted updates to Google Lens that will let you take a picture of somebody and find out where their shoes are sold. Because that’s not creepy at all.

What else?

New look and feel in Android 12–which will probably be released in the Fall–and some iOS-catchup features. Showing on-screen indicators when an app is using the camera or microphone is worthwhile, but they’re also introducing one of my least-favorite iOS features: using your phone as your car key. That’s coming first to BMW, which somehow doesn’t surprise me a bit. I suspect Lexus won’t be far behind. But I digress.

One useful update (for a small subset of users) is the ability to use your phone as a TV remote control. Mind you, it’ll only work with devices running Android TV OS. That does include the Chromecast with Google TV and NVidia Shield devices, so there’s a decent pool of users, but it’s unlikely to replace all your current remotes. There’s an opportunity here for somebody to step up and fill the universal remote void that Logitech’s decision to stop making Harmony remotes is leaving.

And that’s pretty much it. No hardware announcements. We’ll probably get those sometime in late summer, when we get close to the Android 12 release.

Not the Whole Reason

So, not the only reason Amazon is conquering the world, but a big part of it is that they make it easy to order.

A couple of counter-examples.

I recently placed an order with Retailer A (name concealed because it’s irrelevant). There were four items in my order, three of Item 1 and one Item 2. Here’s what I had to do after I added the items to my cart:

  1. Click the cart.
  2. Click to confirm the items were correct. All items were set to in-store pickup.
  3. Click again to switch Item 2 from in-store pickup to shipping.
  4. One of the Item 1 had changed from In-Store to “How do want to get this item?” It took three clicks to set it back to In-Store. And doing that changed Item 2 from shipping back to in-store, one more click to reset it.
  5. Click to confirm the order.
  6. The confirmation page reloaded with a message informing me that some of the delivery dates had changed. Click yet again to confirm the order with the changed dates.
  7. Click to confirm my payment information.
  8. Click again because one of the Item 1 had changed delivery dates back to the original date.
  9. Which, naturally meant I had to reconfirm my payment information.
  10. One final (amazingly!) click to confirm my address for the item being shipped.

Later the same day, I placed an order from Retailer B. Because I’ve shopped with this retailer before, I know I need to buy $35 worth of merchandise to get free shipping. No problem: I need a bunch of the same small item, so I’ll get enough of them to total $35. I go to the product page. There’s no ability to put more than one in the cart, so I add one.

  1. Click the cart.
  2. Change the order quantity to ten.
  3. Realized the price had dropped since I last bought this thing, and ten of them was still a bit under $35.
  4. Tried to change to a dozen. Discovered the system wouldn’t let me order more than ten. This was not documented anywhere.
  5. Returned to the product page and tried to add it to the cart again. Only at that point did I get a pop-up informing me I already had the maximum number of the item per order in my cart.
  6. Gave up, ordered one of something I didn’t need but can use because it was still cheaper to get that with free shipping than to pay for shipping.
  7. One click to confirm my address.
  8. Another click to confirm my payment information.

To be clear, these are not little Mom and Pop outfits; they’re both chains with national footprints and extensive experience in online sales.

Now, let’s contrast the experience with shopping on Amazon.

If there’s an item limit, Amazon tells you so on the product page right below the price.

The delivery date never changes during checkout. If there’s a change–to an earlier or later date–they tell you after the order has been placed and give you an opportunity to change or cancel the order.

Different items can have different shipping options and changing one never affects the others.

So even if you leave the one-click order process out of the discussion, it always goes like this:

  1. Click the cart.
  2. Click to confirm the address.
  3. Click to confirm the payment info.
  4. Click to confirm the shipping info.

Why would anybody shop anywhere but Amazon? In my case, the only reason I used Retailers A and B was because they had merchandise I wanted that Amazon didn’t. If I’d been able to get it from Amazon, I’d probably have given up at Step 5 in both cases. Given the way Amazon aggressively expands, “we have something they don’t” is never more than a temporary advantage.

And, really, who needs the hassle?

Nobody is going to compete with Amazon on price. You need to bring something to the party that Amazon doesn’t.

Something that customers want.

Nobody wants to be annoyed.

Not How It Was Supposed to Work

Cord cutting via online streaming services was supposed to free us from the stupidities of cable and satellite.

You know the ones I mean. Paying for dozens of channels you don’t want in order to get the two or three you actually watch. Losing channels because the channel and the carrier are feuding.

And yet, here we are.

Want to watch Food Network? You either need to have a subscription bundle from a streaming provider such as Sling, YouTube TV, or Philo, or you need to be signed up with a Dish, Comcast, or some local cable system.

Because if you don’t have a streaming bundle that includes the channel, Food Network’s standalone streaming app requires a sign-in via “your TV provider”. And may still be subject to blackouts for some shows.

Ditto for other popular channels.

There are some channels that have their own services. You can get ESPN+ for a mere six bucks a month. Not bad–but wait! That’s not the ESPN TV channels. It’s extra content and on demand access to the talk shows and other not-actually-sports content. Want the familiar channels and the sports from your local listings? You can stream ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, and ESPNEWS and the other channels in the ESPN family if you sign in via your “content provider”. What’s that? Yup, your streaming aggregator, such as Sling, YouTube TV, Fubu, or your satellite or cable provider.

Then there’s that lovely reminder of days not-so-gone-by, the carriage dispute.

Remember those? Your cable provider would threaten to drop a channel because of the cost; the channel would claim the cost was necessary to pay for the content; the cable system would remind everyone that if the popular channels didn’t subsidize the niche content, it wouldn’t be able to carry those small channels; and then they’d raise the cost of the cable subscription or drop the channel. Or both.

Now our streaming world has raised the ante. Instead of threating to drop channels, they threaten to drop whole streaming aggregators.

Seriously. Roku is currently feuding with YouTube TV and threatening to force them off of all Roku streaming boxes. Google is responding by complaining about Roku taking negotiations public.

And the viewers simply roll their eyes, well aware that there are plenty of other ways to get YouTube TV’s content on their televisions. Roku may be the big name in streaming boxen, but there are smaller companies playing in that pool. You might have heard of some of them: Google. Apple. Amazon.

There are only two ways this can go. If Roku gets too aggressive and throws too many services off their hardware–or starts charging a monthly fee on top of the cost of the box–customers are going to migrate to cheaper and/or more flexible systems. Or they can stay the course, keep themselves an open and independent portal, concentrate on convenience and ease of use, and they’ll still be around, still making money, years down the road.

Right now, though, the posturing and threats are a pain in the rear–or, more accurately, a poke in the ear.

Annoying that the brave new world looks and sounds so much like the old one.

Apple Springs Into Action

Kind of an odd place to start, Apple.

Kicking off a round of (primarily) hardware announcements by rolling out changes to the Apple Card is weird. Not that they spent much time on it–but I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that you can now share your Apple Card with your family. How this differs from every other credit card in the world allowing you to get additional cards for family members is unclear. I’m sure Apple will explain eventually, given their dedication to transparency and open access.

Anyway.

We all know the most important news goes up front, right? So apparently the biggest thing coming out of Apple is a new color for the iPhone 12: purple.

I like purple. I might buy a purple phone if I was looking for a new phone (I’m not). But I can’t help but think Apple is indulging in a bit of lede burial.

What else did they spring on us?

After literally years of speculation, Apple has finally released the AirTag. This is, of course, Apple’s version of the Tile and TrackR devices*. As long as you’re using it with a reasonably recent Apple device (maybe a purple iPhone?), you can get actual directional information. That right there puts them miles ahead of TrackR. It’s unclear how large AirTags are, but it’s worth noting that they use a CR2032 battery. Easy to find (sorry) but does impose a certain minimum size not all that much smaller than a quarter.

* Yes, TrackR is still around. Their latest product is the “pixel” (what is it about their refusal to use capital letters?) which they call their “lightest and brightest” tracker. It’s “about the size of a quarter” which isn’t much smaller than the old product I reviewed four years ago. I don’t plan to review them to see if they work any better.

What else? Hey, a new Apple TV. 4K, of course (I can hear all of the enthusiasts/first adopters asking why not 8K. Shush.) More powerful than any previous Apple TV and it comes with a new remote that doesn’t include the damn trackpad–actually it seems to be a callback to the much-loved iPod Classic with its five-way click wheel. That right there seems like sufficient reason to buy the new model if you’re looking for a streaming box.

Then, of course, there are the new Macs.

Remember the original iMac? The one that came in all of those cool colors? Check out the new iMac. Twenty-four inch screen with a more-than-4K resolution. Thinner than many TVs. And, of course, boasting the same M1 chip found in last year’s MacBook and Mini–that’s good and bad. On the plus side, they’ll be fast and not too power-hungry. On the down side, they’re limited to the same 8GB of RAM as the MacBook and Mini–that may be a bit limiting for a machine that’s historically been pitched as a good starting point for people who want to experiment with video.

And, as you may have gathered, a literal rainbow of colors–with matching keyboards and mice. Personally, I’d like to see an ability to mix and match. Purple computer with blue keyboard and red mouse, anyone? Or am I the only one who likes to get away from color coordination from time to time?

Anyhow, Apple also announced a new iPad Pro. With an M1 chip.

Way to blur the lines between computers and tablets, guys.

Though, as a friend of mine pointed out, pairing the new iPad Pro with a keyboard, and you’re getting awfully close to the touchscreen laptop Apple fans have been demanding for years. If you don’t mind being limited to the iPad version of apps. That’s probably a dealbreaker for me; I know the iPad versions of Office and the various Adobe apps are getting better and better, but there are still things you can only do with the computer versions of the programs. Hey, Apple, how about an iPad Pro variant running MacOS?

And that’s about it.

Most of the hardware will be up for preorder at the end of the month, with shipping in late May. Not too long to wait.

Oh, and if you gotta have a purple iPhone, you can pre-order it this Friday and get your hands on it April 30–assuming they made enough to keep up with the demand.

Taking Note

There are a few things that annoy me about SiriusXM–most notably the amount of time spent reminding listeners that there are no commercials and their programmers’ habit of preempting channels for special events (and rearranging the channel lineup with little or no warning).

Even so, as you may have gathered, I like the service. It could improve–less channel segmentation, or at least more channels that cover a range of genres would be nice–but it’s worth the annual subscription.

It’s starting to scare me, though.

Not too long ago, on a cold, gray day when I was more than normally ambivalent about going to work, I got a station break as I backed out of the garage. That ended as just as I shifted into Drive, and I headed up the hill listening to “Mama Told Me Not to Come”. That was followed by “Old Man” and then “Stairway to Heaven”.

At this point, having been informed that I shouldn’t go to work because I was old and going to die, I was seriously considering turning around and going back to bed. Unfortunately, at that point I was halfway across the bridge, where turnaround points are non-existent–and besides, I’d already paid the bridge toll.

So I made the decision to go on, only to be reminded that “People Are Strange”. I could only agree. And change to the 40s channel. Which had, of course, been preempted in favor of “Holiday Traditions”.

I managed to switch to an 80s alternative channel before succumbing to the urge to rip the radio out of the dashboard, but it was a close call.

Despite the warning and the obstacles SiriusXM put in my path, I did make it to work, survived the day, and made it home in one piece, but the next time the radio gives me a warning like that, I think I’ll take its advice. Far easier on the nervous system.

Actually, I should clarify one thing.

My car radio is an older model–I got it at Circuit City, back when there was a Circuit City. So, no touchscreen, no bluetooth, no voice or steering wheel controls. What it does have is a simple segmented LCD panel just wide enough to show eleven characters in all-caps.

So my warning was actually “MAMA TOLD M”, “OLD MAN”, and “STAIRWAY TO”.

Generally not a problem, but it does mean I occasionally get a bit of cognitive dissonance. Did you know The Kinks had a 1966 single called “SUNNY AFTER”? After what? The lyrics don’t give much of a clue.

Then there’s that immortal Stones’ classic “LETS SPEND “. I hadn’t thought the song was quite that explicit about what Mick and Keith were planning.

The real prize, however, was learning that “JEFFERSON A” had a top-ten hit in “WHITE RABBI”. I didn’t know Grace Slick was Jewish…

Despite its limitations, I have no plans to replace the radio with something newer and more capable.

Something else I won’t be getting: Apple’s new AirPods Max* headphones.

* Yes, that is the official name for them. The hazards of applying a single name across a product line. “AirPods”–plural–makes sense for a set of those things you stick in your ears, but rather less so for a single device that covers both ears.

Even if Apple is correct in calling them the greatest auditory experience since “musician” meant “that guy who bangs two sticks together” (I’m paraphrasing their advertising, if you hadn’t guessed.), we can’t lose sight of the fact that, like the rest of the AirPods line, they’re Apple-only.

There’s also–and I can’t believe I’m writing this–the price tag: $550!

That’s more than half the cost of a new M1-based MacBook Air or an iPhone 12.

Reminds me of those legendary restaurants that are so expensive they only need one party of four to pay their rent for the month.

Granted, Apple has always had a reputation for expensive gear, but even by their standards, this is excessive.

If you have to have Apple-made headphones to go with your Apple-made electronics, stick with Beats. Unless you’re in the hundredth of a percent of the population with absolutely perfect hearing you only listen in an acoustically-sealed room, you’re not going to hear the difference.