Twofer

It’s technology week!

Okay, not really. But both Apple and Google decided the time was right to show off their upcoming toys.

Apple went first, announcing their goodies on Monday. Probably just as well, as they had much more to talk about.

They started by talking up improvements to Apple Music. Question: does anyone actually let Siri provide the music for their life? Apple claims they do, and so they’re improving Siri’s selection abilities. How? By turning the job over to human beings. You read that right. Humans will create mood-based playlists, and Siri will pick a playlist based on what you ask for.

Do we really need a voice control for that?

New colors coming for the HomePod mini. Great if you insist on color-coordinating your décor. The rest of us? Ho-hum.

New AirPods with support for spatial audio. Inevitable, but not exactly exciting for anyone who doesn’t use their iPhone as a movie theater. And you’ll still be able to buy the previous generation. I foresee great confusion down the road.

Of course, what everyone was really interested in was the new Macs. Because everyone wants an improved M1 chip. Well, everyone who wants a Mac, anyway. Let’s not make assumptions about just how good Apple’s brainwashingadvertising has gotten.

Up first, the new MacBook Pro. Built around the M1 Pro, which can have as much as 32GB of RAM–a big jump from the M1’s 8GB limit–and able to move data in and out of memory twice as fast. The result is a system 70% faster; twice as fast at graphics-related tasks. Impressive.

But if you really need power, you’re going to want the M1 Max. That basically doubles what the M1 Pro can do: twice as fast at memory operations, up to 64GB of RAM, and twice the graphics processors. Curiously, it’s only got the same number of CPU cores; wonder why they didn’t double those as well.

So the new MacBook Pro will, to paraphrase Apple’s hype, wipe the floor with the old MacBook Pro, to say nothing of all those awful Windows machines. Not that they’re gloating or anything.

Anyway, the new machines bring back all the ports the M1 MacBooks left out: HDMI, headphone, SD card reader. They are losing the Touch Bar, which disappoints me not a bit, but will no doubt annoy many loyal Apple fans. Nice touch: a new and improved MagSafe port for power, but you can still charge ’em with the Thunderbolt ports.

There’s a notch at the top of the display for the camera. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about that, but I kind of like the idea. Gives more physical space for the screen, and if you’ve got so much stuff in your Menu Bar that it runs into the notch, you probably ought to slim things down a bit anyway.

Preorders started Monday, first deliveries next week. Depending on the model and specs, you’ll be paying anywhere from $1999 to $6099.

From a technical perspective, I’ll admit to being impressed. Fiscally, too, but the numbers really aren’t that far out of line for a similarly specced Windows laptop.

But people are easily bored. Camera notch aside, I expect the complaints to start before Halloween. “It’s not fast enough for my workload.” “I need more Thunderbolt ports.” “When do we get a desktop with the M1 Max?” “Where’s the M2?”

Moving on to Google’s Tuesday announcements.

A much briefer announcement. Only two products (plus accessories): the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.

Of course, most of the information leaked out earlier: new, Google-designed CPU, hugely improved cameras, etc., etc. The only really new information is the price point ($599 to $999 depending on model and storage) which is several hundred dollars below similarly specced iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones.

Oh, and one other new bit of information: Google is shifting to go head-to-head with Apple on services. They’ve got a bundle called “Pixel Pass” that gives you time payments on the phone, YouTube Premium, YouTube Music Premium, Google One storage, and Google Play Pass. A discount on Fi service. Accidental damage coverage is included as well.

The phones sound impressive, and Pixel Pass could be an excellent deal, especially if you were planning on buying the phone on time or were already paying for any of the premium services.

To nobody’s particular surprise, the Google Store is struggling. Preorders are (nominally) open with delivery around the end of the month, but as I write this on Tuesday afternoon, the store is up, but not able to process checkouts–assuming it doesn’t list all phones as out of stock. At that, it’s doing better than earlier in the day, when it was bouncing up and down like very erratic clockwork.

I’m very interested in the new phones. My current Pixel 2 XL is still working well enough, but the Lure of the New is getting to me–and I really want to see what kind of cat pictures I can take with the new cameras. I’ve been trying to preorder a Pro for the past hour, but I’m starting to suspect it’ll be at least a couple of months before I can actually get my hands on one.

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.

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.

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.

Apple Hardware Redux

And here we are again, talking about Apple’s latest hardware releases. Another symptom of a weird year. I mean, isn’t this about the sixteenth time?

Anyway, this announcement is for the first Macs running Apple’s own CPU–with the distinctive moniker “M1”–instead of one made by Intel.

The major feature of the new CPU, at least from Apple’s perspective, is that it combines all of the silicon into one convenient package. It’s not just a CPU, in other words. It’s also the security manager, the memory, the input/output controller, the machine-learning “Neural Engine”, and sixty ‘leven other things.

That allows for smaller motherboards, lowers the cost of production, and may simplify repairs.

On the down side, it also eliminates certain upgrades. Specifically, increasing the RAM isn’t going to be possible. Apple is confident that, rather than upgrading their machines when they get older, the majority of their customers just replace them. Which is probably a safe bet, given the cost of Apple-compatible memory.

There are three new machines: a MacBook Air, a MacBook Pro, and–the biggest surprise of the day–a Mac Mini. Interestingly, while the MacBooks will be selling at the same price point as the Intel-based models they’re replacing, the Mini will be $100 cheaper. Since I’m on record as considering the previous generation of Minis to be significantly overpriced, this is definitely an improvement.

Worthy of note: the Air and the Pro are nearly identical. The only differences, as far as anyone can tell until we get our hands on the machines, is that the Pro has a cooling fan–which may allow it to run faster for longer stretches than the fanless Air*–and at least some models will have faster graphics processing.

* Now there’s an irony for you: a mobile computer named “Air” that doesn’t move air around.

Accompanying the new machines is, of course, a new Mac operating system. Big Sur will be out tomorrow for all Macs (at least all made in the last five years or so).

It’s got the usual laundry list of new features: new look and feel, new privacy features, and so on, ad infinitum. The biggie, at least if you buy Apple’s thinking, is that it can run iPhone and iPad apps.

Was anybody really asking for that?

Granted, Google’s done a nice job in allowing Android apps to run on Chromebooks; they’ve shown the idea can be done well. But Apple’s history in cross-platform app support isn’t encouraging. Let’s be blunt here: the iPad came out in 2010. And yet, the best it can do when running an iPhone-only app is to show it at double its normal size with little support for rotation. And Apple hasn’t done much to encourage developers to add iPad-functionality.

To be fair, Google has done a lousy job of convincing developers to support Android table-specific apps either. But the wide variety in Android phone capabilities forces Google’s infrastructure, and thus phone-oriented apps, to be more flexible in terms of resolution and layout than is the case in Apple’s world.

I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of people experiment with iOS apps on their MacBooks, decide the experience isn’t all that great, and give up. Developers will then say “Hey, nobody’s using apps on their computers; why should we waste time and effort on making it better?”

Bottom line: The new Macs sound good, but even with Apple’s experience in custom-designed silicon–the M1 is, after all, a variation of what’s been running iPhones and iPads for years–there are going to be teething problems.

Similarly, even if you ignore Big Sur’s need to support those new devices alongside the existing Intel devices, it’s still a major revision to the Mac OS (major enough that Apple is declaring it version 11 after seventeen years of version 10). Remember how rough the transition to Catalina was last year, when the biggest change was the move to eliminate 32-bit apps?

My advice is to wait until at least 11.0.2 to upgrade–Apple is already working on 11.0.1; odds are they won’t start building in fixes for real-world problems in the new Macs until 11.0.2 at the earliest.

And unless you’re comfortable dealing with random computer misbehavior, hold off buying an M1 Mac for at least six months to give Apple time to work out–or work around–the inevitable hardware bugs.

Apple Hardware (sans iPhone)

I’m going to give you my usual recap of Apple’s latest hardware unveiling in a moment, but first, a public service announcement.

Ahem.

I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU’VE HEARD ABOUT TOILET PLUMES. IF YOU USE A PUBLIC BATHROOM, FLUSH THE DAMNED TOILET WHEN YOU’RE DONE!

Okay, on to Apple.

As expected, Apple is coming out with a new Apple Watch. All the features of the previous versions, and now adds blood oxygen level monitoring, an always-on altimeter, new faces, new bands, and one big new feature.

That’s Family Setup, which lets you set up watches for other people who don’t own iPhones. This could be really nice–though I suspect anyone willing to buy their kid a $500 watch isn’t going to balk at getting them a $400 phone to go with it. But I know plenty of older people–who can really use the health-monitoring capabilities of the Apple Watch–who don’t feel the need for an iPhone each. One phone to handle the watches of both members of the couple? Win!

The other big watch announcement is the Apple Watch SE. Like the second-generation iPhone SE, it’s got most of the hardware of the new watches, but at a significantly lower price. In the case of the phone, the SE’s cost savings are the display and camera; for the watch, they’re in the CPU: it’s faster than the Series 3 phones, but not up to the speed of the Series 6. (It looks like the SE is replacing the Series 5 watch; the 3 is still around at an even lower price, but the 5 appears to be gone and the SE will use similar or identical components.)

Moving on to the iPad, we’re getting a new generation with (surprise!) a faster CPU, the dedicated machine learning chip, support for the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. Nothing really new here.

Ditto for the new iPad Air. More colors (whoopie!) and a USB-C port instead of Lightning. New CPU–faster–and larger. I thought the selling point of the Air was that it was light and easy to handle. At eleven inches (diagonally), it’s definitely getting into the “rest it on a table or your lap” territory. I do like the idea of a fingerprint sensor in the power button. No more Home button, but still keeps the ability to unlock the device without removing your face mask.

iOS 14 comes out today (Wednesday), along with the iPad, Watch, and Apple TV variants. Nothing new there we didn’t already know about from WWDC and the last couple of months of public betas.

No iPhones, thanks to (according to rumor) problems testing the 5G capabilities. No doubt, those will be coming later this year, along with the new Apple-CPU Macs and a few other little projects in the pipeline.

Usually there’s one product line that looks generally good, and the rest are highly snarkworthy. Certainly this set of announcements is no exception. It’s nice to see the Apple Watch finally getting out of the snark category (“Breathe” app, anybody?) but we’ll have to see how long that lasts.

SAST 17

You Know Who has never been subtle, but even by his standards, the paired assault on the Post Office and on mail-in ballots is crude and obvious.

Fortunately, the counter move is just as obvious. To misquote Pogo, vote early and vote widely.

Fill your ballot out as soon as you get it*–you know who you’re voting for–and get it in the mail immediately. Better yet, if your state offers a way to drop off ballots in person in the days or weeks preceding Election Day (California does; I’m sure others do as well), use one. They generally have a shorter wait than actually voting, and they often keep longer hours than polling places. Best of all, they avoid the Post Office completely.

* And if it hasn’t shown up within a couple of days of the mail-out date, use whatever process your state has for dealing with lost ballots. Don’t wait around, hoping it’ll show up.

And vote in every contest on the ballot. And vote Democrat. This is not the time for a protest vote, much less a no-vote protest. It’s not the time for voting for a third party candidate. Anyone who runs as a Republican is automatically complicit with You Know Who. Defeat ’em all.

Moving on.

Watching baseball on TV doesn’t feel quite real.

It’s not the fake crowd noise–or fake crowds–though those don’t help. Nor is it the omnipresent threat of a sudden end to the season. It’s not even the universal DH or the fake baserunners in extra innings.

What it really is, is the contrast with everything going on outside the stadiums. Defined beginnings and endings. Rules known to everyone and largely accepted, however grudgingly. Even, Goddess help us, leaders–team captains, coaches, managers–who lead.

Still, I don’t let the fantastic aspects stop me from watching. Heck, I write fantasy; I can deal with a universe totally unlike the real world.

Aspirational? Sure. Achievable? Probably not–but we can dream.

And moving on again.

In a move that surprised absolutely nobody, Google announced their latest phone, going head to head with Apple’s announcement of a few new models of computers.

I’ve been trying to get excited about any of the forthcoming gadgets, but it’s touch. None of them, Apple or Google, is radically new. They’ve all got minor advancements over the previous generation, but nothing to make anyone want to rush out and buy one.

Which seems weirdly appropriate for today’s universe.

Apple is nominally targeting the Back-to-School audience, but with so many schools being virtual, there’s not much scope for the usual implied message of “be the envy of your peers”.

Google, on the other hand, seems to have announced the Pixel 4a solely because it was already developed and in production. Might as well push it out there, collect a few news stories, and prepare the way for the Pixel 5, possibly as soon as a couple of months from now.

Maybe if Microsoft ever gets around to releasing their dual-screen Android phone, we’ll have something to get excited about. Right now, though? Gadgets: boring.

No Charge

There’s a rumor making the rounds that Apple will not include chargers with their phones in the future. Depending on who you listen to, it’ll either be all iPhones or only this year’s models.

Assuming, of course, that Apple manages to release new models this year. With 2020 being the year it’s been so far, let’s not take anything for granted.

It’s an interesting idea, but I have to question the logic.

Most sources of the rumor I’ve seen suggest that it’s a cost-saving measure for Apple. Does anyone really think Apple needs to save the cost of a charger when they’re selling their phones for more than a grand? Okay, yes, the SE starts at $400, but the point stands. They sell 18 watt chargers for $29 and 5 watt for $19. Given normal electronic industry markups, Apple’s cost is likely about $5.

Increasing their per-phone profit by $5 isn’t going to be that much of a win. Even if you assume another $5–which probably overstates the case–for a no-longer-included, formerly obligatory cable, you’re still not looking at a significant boost to Apple’s bottom line.

The other common argument is that Apple is reducing electronic waste. Everyone already has a pile of chargers lying around the house, so they don’t need another one.

That’s a very optimistic assumption.

Apple wants to sell phones to people who don’t already have a phone–or at least don’t already have an iPhone*. They don’t want to take a PR hit from people who get their new phone and can’t use it because they don’t have a way to charge it.

* Yes, they want to get iPhone users to upgrade, but that doesn’t build market share.

Because a large percentage–probably a great majority–of those old chargers sitting in desk drawers are going to be low power devices. Anyone who’s ever tried to charge a modern phone with a charger that struggles to deliver five watts knows just how slow and painful the process is.

Can you imagine Apple dealing with hundreds or thousands of phones being returned because “it doesn’t charge worth shit”? Me neither.

The only way I can see this working at all acceptably for Apple would be if they stop including the charger and cable in the box with the phone, but very prominently offer a bundle: “Buy the new iPhone 12 Super Pro Max and get an accessory package for $44.99!” Said package would include a charger, a cable, and perhaps a lightning to headphone adapter (Apple’s estimated cost: $2.) Now we’re talking a serious bump to revenue!

Actually, I can think of one other way the “no charger in the box” model might work for Apple.

What if Apple goes completely wireless and gets rid of the charging port entirely?

Nobody’s going to expect them to throw in a $40 wireless charger with every phone. No PR hit.

And–bonus!–eliminating the port improves the water resistance of the phone and allows Apple to make the phone skinnier.

Of course, that port does have other uses than charging. Audio out for those who don’t want or can’t use wireless headphones. Connection to a computer for loading data and doing backups.

But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Apple has done away with a popular connection option–anybody else old enough to remember floppy drives?

And Apple has certainly been discouraging the use of iTunes for doing backups–they’d far rather everyone paid for iCloud storage. And if you aren’t ripping your own CDs, why would you use iTunes on the computer to load music on your phone? Just stream via the Music app and pay Apple a monthly fee for that as well.

Eliminate charging and syncing, and the only remaining uses of the port are a few repair scenarios. I can think of a few ways Apple could work around that with an appropriate phone design–or ignore it altogether and require a phone replacement in those situations.

I’m not convinced Apple is ready to go port-free. But it is, IMNSHO, a more likely possibility than that they’re just going to stop including chargers with their phones.

WWDC 2020

Well, I sure got that one wrong.

In last year’s WWDC summary, I said, “Odds are good that 2020 will be a year of minor tweaks and enhancements.” Oops.

Even if you don’t normally follow tech news, you’ve probably heard the biggest change coming this year: Apple is beginning to transition away from Intel’s chips to their own designs.

As you could probably guess, the reaction is fairly evenly split between “It’s about time” and “OMG, WTF?!” The latter crowd further subdivides into “Apple is doomed!” and “Man, this is going to be a tough few years for Apple.”

Let’s get real: this isn’t the first time Apple has made a major shift like this. The switch from 68000 chips to PowerPC caused massive confusion. The change from PowerPC to Intel, by comparison, was barely a blip, because Apple learned from experience. Since then, they’ve also dealt with the transition to OS X and splitting iOS into iPhone and iPad tracks (and last year, separating out iPad OS as a semi-independent OS).

There are going to be hiccups. Probably a missed deadline or two, as well. But Apple will get through the transition in one piece. That’s a prediction I have no qualms about.

Parenthetically, if you’re worried about how long Apple will continue to support that shiny new MacBook you bought for working from home, relax. Historically, Apple has supported all of their computers for at least five years–by which time, the technology has advanced far enough that moving to a new machine if the old one breaks is a reasonable choice. It’s highly unlikely Apple will cut off Intel support in less than five years.

Moving on.

IOS 14 and iPad OS 14 will finally support widgets on the home screen. It won’t be necessary to swipe off to another screen to check a stock ticker, control your music, check weather or traffic, or any of the other things Android users have been doing on their home screens for more than half a decade.

Can you tell I’m in the “It’s about damned time!” camp on this? I want to be able to glance at my phone and get the scores without having to launch the MLB app. It’ll finally happen next season*–whether that’s 2021 or sometime later.

* No, I haven’t given up on baseball in 2020. But if it happens, it’ll be this season.

Mac OS will be called “Big Sur”. More excitingly (for the geeks among us), it will NOT be OS X. After what, fifteen years or so, Apple is finally giving us OS 11.

The big changes are (1) a new, very iPad-like look. More specifically, a very iPad OS 14 appearance. (2) the ability to run iPhone apps. One presumes it’ll also support iPad apps. One also presumes there will be a performance penalty running iOS/iPad OS apps on Intel Macs.

We all pretty much saw this coming when iPads picked up support for mice and trackpads, right? Apple is working hard to erase the distinction between tablets and computers, and the OS 11 changes are simply the next step in the process.

Here’s an interesting note: iPad OS will get a system-wide handwriting recognition function if you have an Apple Pencil. That’s one feature that probably won’t work on Apple computers for quite a while. No touchscreens, so no Apple Pencil, after all. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Apple rolls out Pencil support in select non-Intel machines next year or the year after.

I’m going to lump most of the other announced changes together as the “minor tweaks” I was expecting: user customization of Apple Watch faces, surround sound audio on AirPods Pro, enhanced privacy labels, Apple TV picture-in-picture. You get the idea.

“Clips” sounds interesting. Apple is billing it as a way to download and use only part of an app. The example I’m seeing is for things like renting a scooter without having to install the company’s app permanently.

I’m intrigued, but dubious about the feature’s long-term prospects. Why should app makers be enthusiastic about letting you install the part of their app that does something useful without also installing the part that nags you to use the less-useful-but-revenue-generating functions? You know: “While you’re waiting for your Lyft, sign up for a subscription that’ll give you discounts on your future rides.”

“Nice idea, limited adoption” is my bet.

And, finally, there’s “CarKey”. My immediate reaction was “Why would I want an app that scratches the paint on my car?” But that might actually be preferable to what this feature does: Not only will you be able to use your iPhone or Apple Watch to unlock and start your car, but you’ll also be able to share the digital key with family and friends.

The potential for abuse is staggering. Remember, this is the same auto industry that can’t figure out how to remove app access on used cars. Would you buy a used car with this feature without some kind of proof that none of the former owners and their friends still have access?

Heck, it’s not just used cars. “Hey, Joe, I’m too trashed to drive. Here’s the key to the BWM” sounds good in principle. But are you going to remember to revoke the key the next day? Even if you do, can you revoke it if Joe isn’t right there?

The first cars that support CarKey will supposedly be out next month; the functionality will arrive with iOS 14, but will also be available in iOS 13. Brace yourselves for the onslaught of ads touting this as the greatest advance in automotive technology since the steering wheel.

I hate to end on a negative note, and the truth is, Apple has quite a bit of good stuff heading our way. So, one final bit of good news: Apple is bringing back the “bonnnnnnnnnnnnng” startup sound. It’s been gone for a couple of years. And, while it is possible to turn it on if your computer is running Catalina, it requires a visit to the command line–hardly in Apple’s point-and-click spirit. Word is that Big Sur will have a simple on/off switch for the iconic chord somewhere in the system configuration.

I’m hoping the move will prove popular enough that Apple rolls the same option into iOS and iPad OS. Just not WatchOS–that would be excessive.