Apple Hardware Day

And now, without further ado, my thoughts on today’s Apple hardware announcements, written as the announcements were made.

New facility is 100% powered by renewable energy. Hooray. Aside from the environmental benefits, that ought to save Apple a few bucks–but I doubt that’ll result in any savings for their customers, though.

Their new stores in large cities will include plazas so you can kick back and chill. Because you can never find a coffee shop near an Apple store. Mind you, it doesn’t look like the plaza will include coffee. Just tables and chairs. Maybe you can hang out there and work on your iPad/Mac while you wait for your iPhone to get fixed?

I’m not sure what this has to do with new phones or other gadgets, but that’s Apple for you. Gotta build the anticipation before they reveal the news that’s already been leaked.

Moving on.

The Apple Watch is now, they say, the number one watch in the world–by what measure, they don’t seem to have said. I assume it’s by number of units sold or total dollars. Rolex, Swatch, and Fossil must be weeping bitter tears.

To celebrate, we’ll be getting WatchOS 4. Which should come as no surprise since they talked about it in June at WWDC. One new feature they didn’t mention back then is a focus on the heart rate app which will now proactively notify wearers if it spots potential problems, such as an elevated heart rate when you’re not exercising. Remember to take your watch off before getting amorously engaged unless you want your Apple Watch interrupting you.

There will also be a new hardware revision of the watch. The big news there is that it has cellular capabilities now. So you can get phone calls even if you left your iPhone home. Have you noticed that it’s getting harder and harder to become unavailable? Now you need to leave your phone and your watch home if you want to take a vacation without your boss interrupting you.

In more important watch news, there will be new colors and new styles in faces and bands. So you can better coordinate with your outfit, I suppose.

You’ll have to wait until the 22nd to get one, though. That’s a whole week and a half. Oh, the horror of delayed gratification! If it helps any, you can place your order on the 15th, and you can upgrade your current Apple Watch to WatchOS 4 on the 19th.

Moving on.

Apple TV is going 4K and getting HDR capability. Did this surprise anyone? Apple thinks it’s as important a transition as the move from black and white to color. Or at least that’s what they’re encouraging us to think. (Ooh, ouch–the first graphic they used in the demo is from La La Land.)

And yes, you’ll need to buy a new box–this is not a software upgrade. You’ve already got a new 4K TV with HDR, right? If not, you might want to get that first. On the brighter side, at some point before the end of the year, Apple TV will support Amazon Prime Video, so you can pay both “Big A” companies.

Same order and shipping dates as for the new watches, so you’ve still got time to go buy that new TV.

Moving on again.

Absolutely nobody should be surprised to hear that there are new iPhones on the way.

The iPhone 8–and thankfully they resisted the urge to skip a few version numbers and call it the iPhone 10 or (gag) iPhone X–has glass on both the front and back. That should make it smoother and easier to drop. But since the glass is “steel reinforced” Apple believes it’ll be more durable. And, as usual, we get two models, one at 4.7 inches and the other at 5.5. Everyone who’s been praying for an Apple phablet is again doomed to disappointment.

Both models have new Retina displays, the usual bumps in processing power on both the CPU and GPU, and new cameras with faster low-light focusing and optical image stabilization. The 8 Plus also gets upgraded sensors and improved realtime analysis of the picture so it can adjust its settings on the fly.

And, of course, the new phones are designed for Augmented Reality. Because that’s the new sexy. Hey, their first example strikes close to home! MLB will release an app that lets you add live player info and stats if you watch a game through your iPhone. Instead of, you know, watching the game directly and glancing at the scoreboard occasionally.

In other news, Apple really, really hates wires. They got rid of wired headphones, and now they’re taking on the power cord. iPhone 8s support the Qi wireless charging standard. It doesn’t look like they’ve eliminated wired charging, but I guess they have to save something revolutionary for the iPhone 9.

And yes, pre-orders open Friday the 15th, with phones shipping a week later. With iOS coming out on the 19th to give you one last upgrade adventure on your now-obsolete iPhone 7.

Whoops! I spoke too soon. There’s also an iPhone X (pronounced “iPhone Ten” *sigh*). It’s got a “Super Retina Display” that covers the entire front of the phone except for a small cutout for the selfie camera, packing at 2436×1125 pixel display into 5.8 inches. (Still not quite a phablet.) There’s no Home button, so you tap on the screen to wake it up and swipe up from the bottom to go to the home screen.

And, since the fingerprint sensor, aka Touch ID, is gone, it now uses facial recognition, billed as “Face ID”, to unlock. Yeah, it unlocks automatically when you pick it up, because there’s no security risk there. Hopefully it’ll be a little harder to fake a face than a finger, but still… They’re claiming it’s twenty times less likely that a random person’s face could unlock your phone than with the fingerprint reader. But the odds go down with relatives, so maybe you can use your phones to settle those arguments over whether your kid looks more like you or your spouse.

Ah–there’s also a passcode screen. If you can force it to require the passcode–and I’ve heard rumors you can–that should help with the scenario where the police hold your phone up to your face to unlock it.

And that AR stuff you can do on the iPhone 8? So passe. Imagine the possibilities when you combine AR with the facial tracking: animated emojis that lipsync to your voice. Yes, this is, in Apple’s vision, the ultimate pinnacle of technological evolution and the direction of phone technology for the next ten years.

As Daffy Duck says, “I demand that you shoot me now.” (The iPhone X should even let him say it in your voice–or let you say it in his.)

Say it with me now: “Pre-orders on the 15th, shipping on the 22nd.” Actually, no. Pre-orders open October 27 and it won’t ship until November 3. So you’ll have more than a month to play with your iPhone 8 before you hand it down to your kids. Assuming, of course, you can come up with the $999 for the iPhone X after buying that new TV, Apple TV, and Apple Watch.

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.

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.

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?

Fire at Jeff

I’ll bet you all thought I was going to use today’s post to talk about Amazon’s amazing, astounding, [insert your own superlative starting with “a”] Fire TV.

Sorry.

I am going to talk about Fire TV, but–not to give away the surprise ending of the post–I don’t see anything there that warrants those “a” words.

For those of you who don’t obsessively follow the tech news,* Fire TV is Amazon’s entry into the “set-top box” space. Pause for question: why do we still call them “set-top”? I don’t have a single box small enough to fit on top of my TV. Even the Raspberry Pi is too big–and my TVs are far from the latest, skinniest models. End of digression.

* Frankly, I hope that’s most of you. Better yet, all of you. There are plenty of more worthy objects for your obsession. Off the top of my head, how about baseball, cats, and food?

Fire TV is mainly intended as a media streamer, competing against Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, and their ilk. Naturally, the focus is on Amazon’s own video offerings, though other sources are supported. Since other streamers also allow you to play your Amazon videos, the Medium A* needs to give you a reason to pick up their box. They’ve got three: UI, instant streaming, and games. Let’s take a quick look at those in reverse order.

* The Big A is, of course, Apple. How much of Amazon’s aggressive moves into spaces Apple controls is simply a desire to swap nicknames?

  • Games – Yep, it’s got ’em. In theory, since the Fire TV is running Android under the glitzy UI, it should be easy for developers to port their existing games over. In practice, Amazon heavily customizes Android on its tablets; there’s every reason to assume that they’ve done the same here. That could plant some significant landmines under developers’ feet. On the other hand, Amazon has a slick-looking game controller available for a mere 40% of the cost of the box. If they sell enough controllers, the size of the audience demanding games optimized for the controller would be a powerful incentive for developers to dance in that minefield.
  • Instant Streaming – This may prove to be the big winner for Amazon. The Fire TV caches heavily. That should cut down on streaming failures and “Buffering…” delays. More immediately visible to users, however, is the device’s predictive caching. It predicts which videos you are likely to want to watch next and starts downloading them before you even make the selection. The result is that when you do hit “Play”, the video starts instantly. As long as they don’t pre-cache so heavily that they blow through users’ bandwidth downloading video they never watch or interfere with their other network activities, instant streaming seems likely to grab a lot of eyes.
  • UI – Amazon is proud of the interface they developed for their Fire line of tablets. It’s graphic-heavy, puts their own library of titles front and center, and pisses the hell out of Google. What’s not to like? They’ve brought the same visual interface over to the Fire TV (suitably modified to allow for the fact that few TVs are touch-ready) and added voice searching. Speak into the microphone built into the remote. Your voice is uploaded to Amazon, stored, voice-recognized, and (in theory at least) appropriate search results are displayed*. The problem is that the market isn’t as excited about the interface as Amazon is. Despite Amazon’s mighty marketing muscle behind the Kindle Fire, they haven’t grabbed a major share of the tablet market. Even with a significantly lower price than the iPad, people are not flocking to Amazon’s offering. Even if one ignores Apple, Amazon isn’t dominating the rest of the market: Samsung and Google are at least holding their own.* I’m sure the NSA is salivating at the thought of a microphone in every bedroom and living room in the country. I’m sure they’re equally happy about the microphones in Xboxes and PS4s, but the key difference here is that Amazon will store recordings without anonymizing them. That’s so they can personalize the voice-recognition and improve its accuracy over time. Amazon’s customer data is already a huge target for criminals (and probably the NSA too, though that hasn’t been proven). Adding more data only makes it more desirable and harder to secure.

Bottom line: It doesn’t offer the ability to mirror your phone to your TV as Apple TV does. It doesn’t currently have nearly the same range of video sources that Roku does. It’s three times the price of Chromecast. But it may have found a sweet spot in the middle of that cluster. If you’re in the market for a media streamer, the Fire TV is certainly worth considering. Just don’t go applying all of those superlatives. It’s not at that level, and may never be.