Listen Up!

I love the Internet’s response to new forms of advertising.

Specifically, I’m talking about Burger King’s recent attempt to hijack TV viewers’ cell phones and Google Home devices.

In case you missed it, BK ran–and is still running–an ad that deliberately uses the “OK Google” activation phrase to trigger any gadget in earshot to start reading the Wikipedia page about their Whopper burger.

The response? The page in question was almost immediately edited to describe the burger as “cancer-causing” and to list cyanide in its ingredients.

Allegedly, a senior BK executive tried to change the page to something more complimentary, only to have his edits removed.

So, yeah, I think that’s the perfect response. Google, who apparently were not warned about the ad in advance, modified their software’s response to ignore the ad. While I’m sure many people appreciate that, it does raise a few questions.

Let’s not forget that most of Google’s billions of dollars come from advertising. Suppose BK had come to Google and said, “Hey, we want to tie a TV ad to your devices. Here’s a stack of money.” Does anyone think Google’s response would have been “Buzz off”? I’m guessing it would have been more along the lines of “How big is the stack?”

And then there’s the privacy aspect. This contretemps should serve as a reminder that “OK Google” does not use any kind of voice recognition to limit requests to the device’s owner. Nor can the phrase be changed. I’ve complained about that before: not only does it lead to multiple devices trying to respond to a single request, but it also makes it simple for outright malicious actions.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are equally guilty here–Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have fixed, unchangeable triggers too.

And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why none of the manufacturers want to let users personalize their devices’ voice interaction. If we could change the trigger phrase, or limit the device to taking instructions from specific people, then the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell broadcast advertising like this.

If the only way you can prevent random strangers from using your phone is to turn off the voice feature, then you don’t own your phone.

Microsoft is making it harder and harder to turn Cortana off. Microsoft is also putting more and more ads in Windows. Do you sense a connection?

How long will it be before you can’t turn Siri and Google off?

And editing Wikipedia pages will only get us so far in defending ourselves.

Google was able to turn off the response to BK’s ad-spam. But they could just as easily have changed the response to read from an internally-hosted page or one housed on BK’s own servers. Either way, Internet users wouldn’t be able to touch it, at least not without opening themselves up to legal liability for hacking.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that now I’m craving a hamburger. I won’t be getting one at Burger King, though.

SAST 3

I seem to be fever-free, which is nice. My attention span has improved. I haven’t gotten lost in mid-sentence in almost two days!

The cough is still distracting, however. Writing is a race to get words on the page before I drape my lungs over the keyboard.

Sorry about that image. But it is the only way to accurately describe the sensation.

So, another day of short notes, as I write a bit, cough a bit, lather, rinse, repeat.

Daylight Savings Time, how I loathe thee.

It’s not the lost hour of sleep Saturday night. It’s not the next several days of disrupted sleep. It’s not even the need to reset the non-Internet-connected clocks*–or the confusion to the Backyard Bunch, who are suddenly getting their dinner an hour earlier according to their stomachs.

* The stove. The microwave. The thermostat. The answering machine. The car. Half-a-dozen wall and table clocks. Hey, I just gained two wall outlets by unplugging a clock radio instead of resetting it!

No, what really pisses me off is that I’m suddenly getting up before sunrise again. I like having daylight when I stagger upstairs to say good morning to Rufus and take my first look at e-mail. Why should I have to turn on a light for that?

Mr. Trump, if you want to boost your approval rating, do away with Daylight Savings Time. That’s something both parties and the independents can get behind.

I’ve been following “Jim’s Random Notes” for several years. It’s an interesting mix of computer, wood carving, and cycling geekery. A post last week, North Dakota Mexican Food, amused the heck out of me.

You’ve played the game where one person recreates a drawing based on somebody’s description of the original, right? An NDMF is the culinary equivalent: someone describes a dish, and someone else thinks “Hey, that sounds interesting. Let me see what I can do.”

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t have a NDMF experience? I can think of three right off the top of my head:

  • The Mexican restaurant that thought fajitas were a stew.
  • The diner whose barbeque sauce was red-eye gravy with a couple of chili flakes.
  • The Mexican restaurant that served Saltine crackers instead of chips.

Maybe the Internet will make the NDMF less common. But really, it’s never been particularly hard to find a cookbook…

Moving on.

Google and Apple have been in the news around here lately over their new campuses. Most of the press has been positive, but I’ve noticed they’re both taking a ding in the letter columns because neither company has included housing in their developments.

Excuse me? Yeah, OK, finding housing in the Bay Area can suck. You don’t have to tell me horror stories about extended commutes, thanks; I’ve got plenty of my own.

But do we really want to return to the days of the company town, where your boss owns the factory, the house you live in, the store you shop at, the air you breathe, the booze you drink, and everything else?

Aside from anything else, if the company owns your apartment, it’s a five minute walk from your office, and they own the phone you’re required to carry, are you ever going to get any down time? Or are you going to be unofficially (or officially!) on call twenty-four/seven/three-sixty-five?

I think it would have been wonderful if Apple and Google had included some subsidized affordable housing for non-employees in their construction. Didn’t happen, but would have been great. But captive housing for employees? Bad idea.

Moving on.

Let’s wrap this up with a positive note. I write a lot–a hell of a lot, actually–about useless gadgets full of security holes and loaded with disappointment.

So it’s a real pleasure to write about a gadget that looks like it does exactly what it’s designed to do without putting your money and privacy at risk.

Take a look at the Fidget Cube.

Pretty slick, huh? Everybody fidgets differently, and the Fidget Cube is designed to offer fidgeting options for anyone.

I’ve carried a fingering stone in my pocket for decades. I’ll turn it around in my hand or rub the smooth side with my thumb when I’m on a phone call. Much less distracting than fiddling with the phone cord and quieter than tapping my pen on the desk.

The Fidget Cube’s got me covered with a smooth curve for rubbing on one side. A trackball for spinning. A joystick for sliding.

And several other goodies that I might never use, but somebody else will find addictive. Click-wheels. Toggle switches. Push-buttons. Spinners.

And it looks to be solid enough to stand up to a pocket full of keys, nail clippers, and thumb drives.

Would it replace my rock? Maybe not; it’s hard to top the appeal of a natural object shaped by wind and water. But who says it needs to replace the rock? Why not try some two-handed fidgeting?

Insert Apple Joke Here

Well, well, well. Seems it’s that time of year again. You know what I mean: the time when Apple announces its new hardware. Oh, joy, oh rapture. So, as usual, here’s my take on the goodies coming our way soon. Feel free to flee now. I won’t be offended.

Apple began its event yesterday with a reminder: Apple Music is still around and “keeps getting better”. Good to know that it’s not getting worse, I suppose, but “keeps getting better” is awfully faint praise.

We’ve also been reminded that the Apple App Store is still around, and it’s far and away the most popular app store for Apple apps that ever ‘appened. Or something like that. I got distracted wondering why Nintendo coming out with a Mario game for iOS is the first story Apple wanted us to hear. Isn’t that leadoff slot supposed to be the most important one, the equivalent of above the fold on the front page of the newspaper? If so, why does Apple want to bury the new iPhones somewhere in with the local news?

Sorry, I wandered off again. Moving on.

Apple still supports schools. They just want you to know that. Oh, and iWork now supports live collaboration, just like Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, and everyone else. How thrilling!

In hardware news (finally!), we’ve got some software news (what?). Remember all of the goodies for WatchOS 3 we heard about at WWDC in June? We’re getting it. Yes, including the “Breathe” app for everyone who needs a reminder not to inhale and exhale simultaneously. In addition, now that the Pokemon Go fad is fading, Pokemon Go is coming to your Apple Watch! Hurray?

Oh, here’s the hardware part of the news. The Apple Watch Series 2 is coming. Water-resistant to 50 meters. Built-in water spitter. Seriously. How else would you interpret “The speaker design has been changed to eject the water after a swim”? OK, maybe it just sort of dribbles out. But where’s the fun in that? Come on, Apple, make it a high-pressure stream suitable for backyard water fights! Beyond that, it’s faster (presumably not the time-keeping portion), brighter, and has its own GPS independent of your iPhone.

And, speaking of the iPhone, Apple announced two new phones today, the latest in the line of what they modestly call “the industry gold standard, the phone to which all others are compared.” Headband getting a little tight, Tim?

iOS 10 is, of course, coming. We knew that–you told us about it in June. And, coming with it, (surprise!) the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. High-gloss black finish, smooth curves, shiny anodized layer. Sounds more like a sports car than something you make calls with. Not that anyone makes calls on an iPhone; they just use it to run apps, right?

Anyway, aside from the design innovations and the inevitable boost in processing power*, the new phones have better cameras (similar to, but of course, even better than what we saw in the 9.7-inch iPad Pro). If you’re a photographer, you’ll probably appreciate having a RAW API; presumably only used by third-party camera apps. The 7 Plus goes even further by adding a second camera. No, not for 3D–they’re too close together. One camera is for wide-angle, the other for telephoto. 2x zoom is a true optical zoom. 3x to 10x is still digital zooming, “but still better quality than before”. OK, then.

* “120x faster than the original iPhone.” (And that’s just the CPU. The GPU is “240x faster than the original iPhone.”) Does anyone really remember how fast that phone was–or rather, wasn’t? What good is a comparison that nobody has a referent for?

What else? A new display (like you didn’t see that coming…) that’s brighter and with a wider color display range than ever before. Stereo speakers, one at the top, one at the bottom. (Now there’s a unique concept.) Twice as loud as last year’s phones. And, if you prefer to keep your music to yourself, you can get new “EarPods”. Yes, Apple has confirmed the rumors that the new phones do not have the traditional earplug jack*. The EarPods plug into the Lightning port. Hopefully, there’s a pass-through so you can listen to music while your phone is charging. The phones will come with an adapter, so if you’re an old fogy who prefers the ancient headset you bought last month, you can still use it.

* Apple hasn’t taken this much flack over a design decision since they single-handedly killed off the floppy drive.

Of course, if you stick with your caveman-level Bluetooth (or worse yet, wired) headphones, you’ll be missing out on Apple’s new “AirPods”: wireless earphones that detect when they’re in your ears, have a direct connection to Siri, and can easily switch between all of your (Apple) devices.

Preorders for the new iPhones open tomorrow, and they’ll be shipping on the sixteenth. Are you going to be online, trying to get your preorder in before the allocation runs out? iOS 10, by the way, will be out on the thirteenth.

And, speaking of “by the way”: those AirPods won’t be coming until late October. So you’ll have about a month to get used to using your new iPhone without ’em. Or, if you’re a Beats loyalist, you can wait for Beats’ version. No release date specified, but since Apple now owns Beats, it’s probably in the same general range.

Happy listening, the AppleWay®.

WWDC 16

Did you all find Google’s announcements at last month’s Google I/O as underwhelming as I did? When you undercut the biggest news (what’s coming in Android N) by releasing a beta before the conference, it does detract from the on-stage excitement. Just sayin’.

Apple, on the other hand, has been harkening back to days of yore, when secrecy was the rule. But yesterday was the opening of WWDC 2016. Shall we see if they were hiding anything exciting, or if there weren’t any major leaks because there wasn’t anything to leak?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

The keynote was organized by operating system, so I’ll take the same approach.

  • WatchOS It’s faster. It does background updates. There are new faces, limited handwriting recognition, and a task list. Apple’s somewhat bi-polar attitude towards privacy rears its head: there’s a new app called “Find My Friends” that “takes advantage of background updates to make sure I always have the latest locations for my friends and family.” Terrorists, take note: probably not a good idea to install this app to keep in touch with the rest of your cell. Your watch can now call 911 in an emergency–and send emergency contacts and location data. Let’s hope that function can’t be triggered by software.

    This one’s kind of cool: the workout app is being optimized for wheelchair users, with customized notifications (“Time to roll” instead of “Time to stand”) and wheelchair-specific exercises.

    And then they lose all the cool by announcing an app for deep breathing exercises “to help you deal with everyday stress”. No guys, the “medical community” has not “embraced deep breathing”. The alternative medicine community is pushing it alongside acupuncture, homeopathy, and the rest of the scientifically nonsensical garbage in their arsenal. *sigh*

  • tvOS Apps. Lots of apps. A new iPhone version of the Remote app that will let you control the Apple TV with Siri. Installing apps to you iPhone or iPad will also put them on your Apple TV. No word about whether there’s a way to turn that off if you don’t want that hot new productivity app on your TV.

    Single Sign-on sounds nice: log in once and every app that supports the functionality will pick that up. Except for the app developers who are going to have to explain to their customers why they can’t use Single sign-on on their TV to log into their bank account on their iPhone.

  • OS X macOS Yes, in the interest of brand consistency, OS X has been renamed. Closer integration between your computer and your other Apple devices is the big thing here. Auto-unlock when your Apple Watch or (maybe) iPhone is close to the computer. Copy/paste between devices. iCloud to share files between computer and mobile devices–and to allow you to share your Desktop folder among multiple Macs. Better rethink that NSFW wallpaper of your significant other.

    Apple Pay for online shopping. Set up the transaction on your desktop, then authenticate it with your iPhone or Apple Watch. Shrug. If it’s even slightly more secure than typing your credit card number, it’s a win, but not exactly earthshaking.

    And [trumpet sound effect] Siri on the desktop. Because, of course, Microsoft has Cortana, and Apple can’t afford a personal assistant gap.

  • iOS And, of course, Apple’s bread and butter. A new lock screen that comes on when you pick the phone up so you have a chance to read your notifications before you unlock it. Hopefully it won’t trigger in your pocket often enough to run your battery down. And, naturally, you can do more in the way of responding to those notifications from the lock screen. Is it really that much of a pain to unlock the phone before you can reply to a text?

    Siri and Autocorrect are having a baby: Quick Type. Because having Siri tell you what to type isn’t at all scary.

    Photos can now show you a map of where your photos were taken. I can see that being useful. It would sure make organizing your vacation pictures easier–especially those ones you took through the plane’s window somewhere between Sedalia and Seattle. Oh, wait, that’s me. There are improvements in facial recognition and a new “Memories” tab that sounds like it’ll show images related to the one you’re currently looking at. Automatic slideshow creation. Hmm. That’s more worrisome–do you really want your phone automatically creating a slideshow of all 200 pictures you took at last night’s concert?

    Maps will expand last year’s “Nearby” feature to give you “proactive suggestions based on calendar events or your normal routine”. So it’ll offer you directions to the restaurant you’ve been going to for lunch every day? That’ll be handy. Hey, traffic data! Because nobody’s ever done that before.

    UI tweaks in Apple Music. Thrills. Oh, wait, now it can display lyrics. “Death of the mondegreen predicted. Film at 11.”

    Am I the only person who didn’t know that Messages was the single most popular app on the iPhone? I’m sure those of you who use it will be happy to hear that not only will emoji be three times larger in iOS 10, but the OS will provide emoji suggestions as you type in addition to suggesting words and phrases.

Well.

I hope you’re as excited about what Apple will bring us this Fall.

No, let me amend that. For Apple’s sake, I hope you’re more excited than I am.

Looks like it’s something of a consolidation year for both Apple and Google. Maybe we’ll get something radically new in ’17.

A Bushel of Apples

Yesterday, of course, was Apple Day. Not only did Apple announce new products, but there’s been an interesting development in the battle over encryption.

Let’s start with the new goodies.

Nothing really new for the Apple Watch–unless you like changing the band. We’ve got a set of woven nylon bands coming in a variety of colors. Forgive me if I find that less than enthralling.

Apple TV gets an OS update to include, among other things, Live Photos support. I guess that explains why Apple has been running iPhone commercials focusing on Live Photos recently. (To refresh the memory of those of you who don’t have an iPhone, Live Photos are short, looped movies: you take a photo, and it moves. Basically, it’s the high-resolution, high-color version of an animated GIF.)

There’s a new iPhone coming, the SE. Hardware is similar to the 6S, but with a four-inch screen. Consider it a 6S in a 5S form-factor. Kudos to Apple for catering to those of us who think holding a six-inch slab of glass and metal up to our ears is pretty darn silly.

And on a similar note, we’re also getting a smaller iPad Pro. I’m a little dubious about that. I’ve tried using my Nexus 9 for serious work (writing, naturally), and found it a bit cramped. I have to think the new iPad Pro would be similarly constrained. And let’s not even think about typing on a keyboard scaled down to be the cover for a 9.7 inch screen. I still remember trying to type on a netbook. It wasn’t fun.

There’s a new iOS, of course. 9.3 brings us “Night Shift”. It knows when local sunset is, and starts removing blue tones from the display. Everyone seems to be going nuts for this idea that limiting blue light in the evening will help you sleep better. If I’m not mistaken, all of the excitement comes from a single study that hasn’t been replicated yet, and I have to wonder just how over-hyped the findings are. But in any case, if my iPad starts removing blue tones from videos after dark, I’m going to lose sleep, because I’ll be too busy swearing at it (hint: removing the blues from the Mariners’ uniforms are going to leave them looking peculiar). (Later note: Yes, it can be turned off or changed to a clock-based schedule instead of following the sun.)

Finally, there’s a new framework for application development, CareKit. It builds on last year’s ResearchKit, which is designed to help create medical research applications. CareKit is for apps to help individuals with medical needs. Examples mentioned at the Apple event include post-surgery recovery and monitoring of Parkinson’s Disease. Although they didn’t say so, I suspect that it’s closely tied into the HealthKit framework for fitness apps.

It sounds like there are some interesting app possibilities in CareKit, but there are some significant privacy implications as well. Which, of course, brings us to Apple’s squabble with the FBI.

During the Apple event, Tim Cook reiterated Apple’s belief that they “have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy.” In other words, Apple would not give in and obey the court order to write a crippled version of iOS for law enforcement.

Shortly after that, the FBI asked the judge in the case to cancel today’s hearing, saying that they believe they have a way to break into the phone in question without Apple’s help, and they want time to test their method.

It’s unclear where they got the technique. The NSA, perhaps? In any case, if the idea proves out, I imagine they’ll drop the case against Apple, rather than risk a precedent being set that would prevent them from making similar demands for backdoors in the future. And, no doubt, the next version of iOS will include a fix for whatever bug allows the FBI access to the phone.

Stay tuned for free baseball!

Stick ‘Em Up

It’s taken far longer than anyone would have expected, but one small group has attained equality. Not that they appreciate it.

Back in 2003, I talked about a couple of unrelated cases where Apple ran afoul of pornography issues. The first* was the first appearance of “ransomware” on Apple computers. Unlike ransomware on other platforms, no files were encrypted. The software essentially locked the Safari browser onto the page demanding ransom. Kill the browser, delete your browser history, and everything would be back to normal.

* The second case concerned a lawsuit filed against Apple. The plaintiff, one Chris Sevier, declared that easy access to pornography via his iPhone had resulted in his becoming addicted. The suit demanded that Apple add pornography filters to every device they sell. The case is still active. Although it was dismissed in October of 2015, Mr. Sevier appealed the dismissal and continues to pursue the matter. His most recent filing includes an attempt to link the case to a separate suit against HP and Carly Fiorina–and accuses the Tennessee judiciary of being “completely out of control”.

Mr. Sevier has also attempted to judicially link Apple to the fight for equal rights, claiming that if same-sex marriage is legal, it should also be legal for him to marry his computer. I presume this is not the evil iPhone which addicted him to pornography and destroyed his previous marriage.

Poor Apple.

It’s taken almost three years, but Mac users finally have ransomware that’s as much of a pain in the rear as Windows and Linux users.

As ArsTechnica (among other venues) reports, a malware program called KeRanger specifically targets OS X, encrypting files and demanding payment in bitcoins. Mac users, welcome to this frontier. Now that the first settler has arrived, you can be sure there will be plenty of others following. Be careful out there.

Mind you, Windows ransomware authors aren’t sitting idle. BleepingComputer has a rundown on Cerber. This otherwise-typical ransomware package goes one step beyond the usual pop-up dialog box to let you know your data is being held hostage: it uses Window’s voice synthesis routines to speak its message.

I suppose the next escalation will be to replace the soundtracks of your pornographic videos with synthesized instructions for how to pay the ransom.

Oddly, Cerber won’t take your data hostage if your computer is located in Eastern Europe. Perhaps this is a safety precaution to prevent the programmer from being assaulted by his own code.

Speculation that the programmer is in league with the porn producers of Prague seems to be unfounded, as the Czech Republic is not on the “safe” list.

Whoops

Engadget has a story up which claims that “tablets with detachable keyboards” are the new hot. Or at least, the only thing that’s hot in an otherwise ice cold tablet market.

They cite fourth quarter shipments of 8.1 million devices, more than double last year’s number.

There’s only one little problem with the story they’re telling. It’s almost completely wrong.

See, the thing is, they’re counting the 1.6 million Microsoft Surface tablets and the “over 2 million” Apple iPad Pros. Neither of those are tablets with detachable keyboards. They’re both tablets that can work with an attachable keyboard.

Let me say that a little differently. In both cases, the keyboard is sold separately and can be connected to the tablet. That’s no different from any other tablet out there. Any iPad or Android tablet can use a Bluetooth keyboard. Heck, most Android tablets can even use a USB wired keyboard!

I have to wonder what percentage of the Microsoft and Apple buyers even shell out for a keyboard. Especially the iPad Pro owners, given Apple’s marketing spin.

Contrast that with something like Asus’ Transformer Book line, the Dell Latitude 7000 series, or any of the other true “2 in 1” devices: the keyboard comes with the tablet and the two devices function as a unit. In many cases, they even work when the keyboard is detached.

Take away those 3.6 million Apple and Microsoft devices and the remaining 4.5 million units shipped doesn’t seem nearly as hot. If it’s true that last year’s number was around 4 million, then this year’s number is still an improvement, but it’s not the kind of sexy number that really makes hardware companies sit up and beg.

Full disclosure: I have an Asus 2 in 1 and, despite a couple of annoying design glitches*, I like it quite a bit. It’s lighter than my old laptop, despite the much larger screen, and I love the ability to rotate it into portrait mode so I can see a whole page at once when I’m editing. Try that with a regular laptop. On second thought, don’t–even with an external keyboard, it’s not a good experience.

* In particular, I had to buy a third-party stand to use the device in portrait mode. A built-in kickstand would have been nice. But the biggest problem is that it only has one USB port. Really, guys, would it have killed you to put in two ports so I could simultaneously connect one of the three zillion non-Bluetooth mice running around the house and an external drive?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not running down the iPad Pro or the Surface 4. By all reports, they’re both pretty darn kickass devices. I am running down Engadget. Next time, how about you limit your comparisons to citrus fruits, without bringing in those apples?

Applesauce

Back in June, Apple held its annual developers’ conference, with sneak previews of the autumn software releases. Here we are at the nominal beginning of fall, so it’s time for them to remind us about the software and update us on their hardware plans.

Spoiler alert: There aren’t a whole lot of surprises.

The Apple Watch has a outrageous 97% customer satisfaction score. I’ll just note in passing that there’s a well-documented psychological tendency for people to convince themselves they like something they paid too much for: a way to convince themselves that eating peanut butter for every meal for six months is worth it. Not that I’d ever suggest the Apple Watch is overpriced.

Anyway, WatchOS 2 is coming, and with it is the ability to run apps on the watch, rather than on your iPhone with the watch as a secondary display. Yes, now you can have Facebook Messenger on your wrist. Are you excited? How about iTranslate: talk to your wrist and hear what you said in more than 90 languages. Hopefully you can select one of the 90+, rather than having to sit through the whole list… We’ll find out on the 16th.

Moving from the wrist to the forklift, Apple’s got the iPad Pro. It’s 12.9 inches diagonally. 12.9. I complain about the awkward size of a nine-inch tablet, and the iPad Pro is more than a third larger. Let’s face it: this isn’t going to be competing with other tablets. Apple clearly sees it as a laptop alternative, as witness their claim that its CPU is “Desktop-class”. And it only weighs 1.57 pounds. (Hint: the original iPad weighed 1.54 pounds, and it was very hard to hold for more than a few minutes.) But Apple doesn’t really expect you to hold it. It’s obvious that they expect you to set it on a desk. With an external keyboard. Oh, and and “Apple Pencil”–that’s a stylus to those of us who believe that pencils should be filled with graphite. So, if you want a small laptop that runs iOS, the iPad Pro is your baby. Starting at $799 in November. Plus $169 for the keyboard and $99 for the styluspencil.

If that’s a bit steep and/or heavy for you, there’s also going to be an iPad Mini 4–think iPad Air 2 in the Mini form-factor. Although they didn’t say so, I presume that the Mini 4 will be able to handle the full multitasking capabilities of iOS 9.

As expected, Apple announced a new Apple TV box. Television, it seems, is no longer about shows. It’s about apps. Sorry, that doesn’t make any sense to me. If I want apps on TV, I’ll hook my iPad to the set. I use the TV to watch TV. But then, we all know I’m an old curmudgeon.

Anyway, aside from the obligatory app store, the new Apple TVs have a remote with a “touch surface” (I believe most of us would call it a trackpad and a microphone for voice control. Yup, Siri’s in your TV now. All part of “tvOS”. Because Apple didn’t have enough operating systems already. Branding aside, tvOS is a variant of iOS. “Universal” apps are no longer just iPhone and iPad, now they can include an Apple TV version as well. No wonder iOS 9 only installs the portion of a universal app that’s relevant to the device. If you can’t wait to play games and shop from your TV, you can get your fix in late October.

Of course there are new iPhones. What would September be without new iPhones? This is an odd-numbered year, so just as the Giants won’t win the World Series, Apple won’t introduce a major phone upgrade. We’re getting the 6s and 6s Plus. Apparently the most important new feature is that they come in “Rose gold” in addition to the usual silver, gold, and “space gray”–at least, that’s the first feature Apple announced. They also have “3D Touch”, meaning they can tell how hard you press and behave differently for different pressures. Main use seems to be to let the user preview apps or functions and take action without actually opening the app–for example, read an e-mail and delete it without opening the Mail app.

What else? Faster Touch ID, 50% more pixels in the camera. The camera can now take 4K video. Better buy a new TV that can handle 4K–although it’s worth noting that the new Apple TV boxes don’t do 4K. Oh dear. The new phones can use the screen as a flash for selfies. I guess it’s the logical next step after using your phone as a flashlight. “Live photos” include a little pre- and post-photo information, so you can get a bit of movement. Sounds like the old 3D prism images that move when you look at them from different angles.

Apparently Apple recognizes that the “s” phones aren’t major advances. Prices will be the same as the current 6 and 6 Plus are now. The old ones will get a $100 price cut. Or you can buy on an installment plan directly from Apple and trade up to the newest phone every year. I’m sure the carriers are thrilled with that. Preorders open this weekend, phones will be out on the 25th.

If you’re not planning to buy a new device, but want iOS 9, it’ll be out on the 16th.

All in all, Apple’s announcements are what everyone expected. If you’re married to the Apple infrastructure, you’re excited. Otherwise, it’s largely a shrug.

I can’t see the Apple TV taking a big chunk of the market away from the Rokus, Fire TVs, and Chromecasts of the world, given the cost and the continued availability of the previous generation Apple TV at half the price. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the future of television is apps. I hope not.

And I really don’t see the iPad Pro taking significant market share away from the low-end Windows laptops or the low-end MacBooks. The iPad Pro isn’t that different than Microsoft’s Surface tablets in terms of capabilities relative to it’s laptop and desktop counterparts, and Surface is barely a blip on the public’s radar.

Equal Time for WWDC 2015

I’m all about equal time–when it suits me, of course. Just because I can look at issues from all sides doesn’t mean I will. But as it happens, today I’m in a fair-minded mood, and since I did a quick take on the announcements coming out of Google I/O a couple of weeks ago, here’s equal time for Apple’s WWDC.

  • First up we’ve got the next version of OS X, El Capitan. Many of the changes are minor–the focus of the release is on stability and appearance. Among the more notable advances are steps toward natural language searching in Spotlight and a new split screen mode where two programs can be automatically sized to fill the screen without overlapping. Most of the work, though, has been behind the scenes: programs should launch faster, run faster (if they use the GPU), and hopefully crash fasterless often.

    By the sound of it, Mac users will appreciate El Capitan, but it’s probably a good thing Apple no longer charges for OS upgrades, as there doesn’t seem to be enough there to drive adoption if users had to pay. It’s in developer beta now; public beta will start in July, and release will be in September or October.

  • Over on the iOS side of things, we’ll be getting iOS 9. Oddly enough, the focus there is also on speed and stability. There are a few new features and significant enhancements to get excited about–or worry about, if you share my usual concerns.

    Siri, for example, is becoming “more proactive”. I gather this includes things like searching your e-mail for clues to identify unknown callers and telling you when it’s time to leave for an appointment. Hopefully the latter feature will take local conditions into account. Google’s version of this doesn’t; I frequently get reminders that it’s time to leave when I’m already on the road–or even parking at my destination.

    Here’s a nice touch: the iOS keyboard will now show lowercase letters when appropriate. Not bad, Apple, it’s only taken nine versions to fix that particular misfeature.

    If you have an iPad Air 2, the most exciting announcement about iOS 9 is that you’ll be getting honest-to-gosh side-by-side multitasking. Those not-quite-so-lucky folks with the original iPad Air, iPad Mini 2, or iPad Mini 3 will get limited multitasking, with the ability to slide an app into a sort of sidebar. Everyone else is still stuck with the current background multitasking we have today. Oh, wait, there’s also a “picture in picture” mode where you can have a small video window running on top of your main app. That should be nice for my colleagues in QA: keep an eye on the game while you test. No word on what’ll happen when your main app needs to display embedded video, to say nothing of full-screen video.

    Finally, iOS 9 is going on a diet, and it’s forcing apps to do the same. iOS 8 takes something over 4.5GB of your device’s precious, non-expandable storage. iOS 9 will trim that to less than 1.5GB. Even better, Apple is introducing several technologies that should, if all used together, reduce the size of apps by (I’m pulling numbers out of the air here) 30-70%. QA alert: One of the changes, “Bitcode,” will shift the compilation of the app from the developer to Apple. That means your customers will always download an app built with the latest compiler–you can no longer assume that the app they’re running was compiled with the same set of compiler updates and fixes as the app you tested. Have fun with that, gang.

  • Of course we’re getting a new OS for the Apple Watch as well. WatchOS 2 will give developers access to all of the watch’s spiffy hardware features and let them build apps that run on the phone, making them much more useful if your phone’s battery dies. Hooray, I suppose.
  • Moving beyond operating systems, we learned that Apple is open-sourcing their Swift language. Of course, open source comes in a variety of flavors. Don’t expect Swift to become a wide-open free-for-all. I’m quite sure that Apple is picturing something similar to Python, with themselves in the role of Benevolent Dictator for Life. How responsive they are to the needs of developers outside of Apple will play a major role in determining how long it will be before the language gets forked.
  • Then there’s the announcement we all expected: Apple is getting into streaming music. As every review hastens to assure us, Apple Music doesn’t offer anything that existing streaming services don’t already give us. It’s very much a “me too” play at this point, and only Apple’s massive base of iTunes users makes it practical for them. Assuming it survives, though, I expect it will evolve in some unique directions.

    Actually, Apple Music already offers one small but important distinguishing feature. Like everyone else, Apple has personalized recommendations. Unlike other services, however, Apple’s version isn’t completely machine-generated; it incorporates playlists curated by actual human beings. We’ll have to wait until the launch June 30th to find out the truth of the rumor that all curators will are required to include at least one non-skippable U2 track on every “For You” playlist.

Some People Never Learn

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the Apple Watch.

You’re almost right. Apple didn’t really say anything new yesterday. OK, so now we know when we can buy the watch (preorders start today, actual orders and in-store purchases start in two weeks). We also know how much it’ll cost (anywhere from $350* to well over $10,000, depending on model and features). Everything else was revealed at last September’s “event” or has been discussed ad nauseum since then.

* OK, OK, $349. You can use the extra dollar to feed the parking meter while you stand on line outside the Apple Store on the twenty-fourth.

I’m still less than fully-whelmed. I’m sticking with my Christmas Kidizoom watch–thanks, Erin!–until I see a feature that will benefit me, rather than just Apple’s bottom line. That shouldn’t take more than three or four iterations of the Apple Watch. By which time, I’ll have charged my Kidizoom less than fifty times–have fun tethering yourselves to yet another charger, oh lovers of all things Apple. Yes, I’m getting more than two months per charge. The Apple Watch is expected to get eighteen hours–in a device that’s intended to monitor your health.

What I did find interesting about Apple’s “Spring Ahead” event was how tone-deaf they are. Their customers have been complaining for years about having to delete their own data to make room on their devices for iOS upgrades. So what did Apple do with yesterday’s iOS 8.2 update? They included an Apple Watch app which is installed on every iPhone that takes the upgrade. Wait, it gets better: like other critical Apple-installed apps (Game Center, iBooks, and Clock, for example) the app cannot be uninstalled. Didn’t Apple learn anything from last year’s U2 fiasco? Even better, if you don’t have an Apple Watch, the app will display an advertisement.

Oh, well. At least the Apple Watch app doesn’t get installed on iPads and iPods. Mind you, there’s no reason why it should be on those devices, since the Apple Watch only works with iPhones. But this is Apple, after all. If they can put an non-deletable advertisement on the phones, why shouldn’t they put it on other devices as well. After all, if you’ve got an iPad, you really ought to have an iPhone too, right? And as long as you’re picking up that must-have iPhone 6 Plus, you can pick up a gotta-have-it watch as well…

More tone-deafness: Apple finally realized that the $99 price tag on their Apple TV device wasn’t competing well against the $50 Roku, $39 Amazon Fire TV, and $35 Chromecast. So they drastically reduced the price: effective immediately, you can pick up an Apple TV for only $69. Yes, Apple has always cost more, justifying it with claims of “It just works” and “It’s aesthetically awesome”. Unfortunately, their competition also “just works”, and aesthetics are a personal matter. At this point, Apple TV’s only real distinguishing feature is the ability to be a receiver for AirPlay. Is that really worth a 40% price premium to the average consumer?