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.

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!

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.

An Apple a Day

Here we are at Apple Announcement Day again. Ready for my usual cynical take on the latest hype out of Cupertino? Too bad, you’re getting it anyway.

Apple had three and a half things to announce. Let’s take them in order. For the record, all quotes are from Apple’s “Event” as reported by Ars Technica. If there are any misquotes, please blame Ars, not me. I’ll take responsibility for my misinterpretations, though.

As everyone expected, we’ve got two new iPhones, the 6 and the 6 Plus. They’re bigger than any previous iPhone and have have higher resolution screens than any previous iPhone. Will someone please wake me up when the size wars are over?

Apps written specifically for the new phones can use the extra screen space to display more information, while apps written for the iPhone 5 (and presumably older phones as well) will automatically scale up and just look larger. I’m not sure how well that’s actually going to work out. The aspect ratios on the new phones are slightly different, and neither one is the same as the iPhone 5, let alone earlier devices. Given Apple’s horror of visual sloppiness, I suspect they’ll work around it by turning off a few pixels at the edge of the display.

The new phones will support landscape orientation. With the capability there, users are going to demand that apps use it. That means developers who support the new phones’ screens will have to code for four new resolutions, not two. Lucky them! More new icons, more new screen layouts, more QA engineers trying to figure out how to do more testing in less time. And, of course, more new customer complaints. Fun!

Hey, here’s a new feature that actually is innovative, as far as I can tell. Apple designed the new phones with an eye towards one-handed operation (and I’ll skip the obvious jokes here). One of the key aspects is “Reachability”: double-tap the TouchID button and the screen will scroll down to bring the top half into reach. Nice idea, but I wonder how easy it will be to double-tap the button with the same hand you’re holding the phone with.

Nor do I envy Apple’s QA team, who have to explore the interaction of Reachability with landscape orientation. One hopes that when the phone is rotated, the screen slides horizontally, not vertically… For the sake of the poor third-party developers and QA, I really, really, hope that the OS handles this functionality transparently. If it needs to be coded and tested in every app, there are going to be a lot of missed shipping dates.

There are, of course, tweaks to the camera. Most of them sound incremental, but I do like the sound of the optical stabilization on the 6 Plus: the lens will actually move to counter your hand jiggle. Should make for a whole new level of sharpness in drunken selfies.

The new phones will be up for pre-order this Friday at prices ranging from $199 for a 16GB 6 to $499 for a fully-loaded 128GB 6 Plus. After the obligatory crash of Apple’s servers, expect scam sales to show up on eBay Saturday. Actual shipments will start the following Friday.

Oh, and iOS 8 will start going out to customers a week from tomorrow. Developers and QA folks who want to see how your apps behave under the GM build*, keep waiting. It’s not available yet. Have fun with your last-minute checkouts.

* For those of you who are not steeped in the technological tea, “GM” has nothing to do with the auto maker. It stands for “Golden Master,” and it’s the final beta release, which is supposed to be identical to what actually goes to customers. Sort of the software equivalent of showing the final draft of an e-mail to a friend before you send it to your boss. Apple hopes the developers examining the GM build will find the show-stopper bugs, just like you hope your friend will find the typo that changes your purchase request into a grievous insult.

Moving on.

Announcement Number Two is “Apple Pay”. Apple reminds us that credit cards are insecure and inconvenient. Instead, use your new iPhone 6 to store all of your credit cards and bank accounts, and pay by tapping the phone against a kiosk.

That’s gotta be more secure, right? Especially because Apple has been “working with retailers like Target” to enable Apple Pay for online purchases too!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the security of your information is only as good as (a) the security of your phone (we all know that there are never any security vulnerabilities in Apple’s software, right) and (b) the retailers and credit card processors (nobody could possibly crack the security on Target’s servers. Or Home Depot’s. Or Visa’s.)

Seriously, all this does is remove one point of vulnerability (the card reader) in exchange for adding a new one (the phone and its secure storage) while increasing the attractiveness of the credit card processors as targets for hacking.

Moving on again.

Then we have Apple’s most-eagerly awaited announcement. The iWatch. Oh, wait. It’s the “Apple Watch”. Kudos to Tim Cook and the gang for not forcing another “capital letter in the middle of the name” name on our long-suffering spell-checkers.

Regardless of the name, it’s coming in early 2015 at prices “starting at $349”–we’ll find out what the upper range is later. Don’t expect it to be cheap: one version of the Apple Watch has an 18K gold case, “designed to be twice as hard as standard gold”. Apparently Apple’s signed some kind of deal with Mother Nature to produce unusually hard gold. Nice!

While your figuring out how to finance your watch, don’t forget to budget for a new phone. Unless you’ve got an iPhone 5 or newer, you’ll need to pick up an iPhone, because the Apple Watch isn’t a standalone. It needs the phone to do anything, apparently. Fortunately, when the 6 and 6 Plus go on sale, the price of a 5s will drop to $99, and for the real cheapskates among us, the 5c will drop to $0–with the usual two-year contract, of course.

Even if you’re a cheapskate and get the entry-level Apple Watch and a free 5c, expect to experience “new intimate ways to communicate with your wrist”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t let my wrist speak on my behalf.

There also a “new way for you to connect intimately with others.” Tap your watches together to share information. Lovely. So much more intimate than talking…

It’s got a new paradigm for interaction: you twist the crown! Never mind that people have been interacting with their watches by twisting the crown for at least 150 years. It’s no longer about setting the time. Now the crown is for scrolling and zooming! Oh, and clicking to return to the home screen. A revolution in UI! There’s a lot of twisting involved, it seems. No word from Apple on how (or even if) the Apple Watch accommodates lefties, or anyone who prefers to wear their watch on their right arm.

Of course, the Apple Watch has a variety of sensors built in to monitor your health. Apple wants to keep you healthy so you can continue to buy their merchandise. The watch will monitor your activity, estimate calories burned, track how often you stand up, and suggest “personal, realistic, achievable [exercise] goals”. Oh, and share the information it gathers with the Health app on your phone so that your health-care provider can stay informed about your progress.

I’d be the first to admit that I could stand to lose some weight, but I don’t want my watch nagging me to get more exercise. I’m a lazy slug, yes, but if my watch starts interrupting my thought processes to remind me to stand up and walk around the office, it’s the watch that’s going to get sprinkled with salt.

Apple also took pains to talk about third-party apps that are already in development for the Apple Watch. First on their list: Starwood Hotels. Their app will let your watch work as your room key. Um. Yay? What’s the range of this thing, anyway? I’d prefer that my door not get unlocked every time I walk to the bathroom.

Oh, and don’t forget that Apple Pay works with your Apple Watch. Twirl that crown to select your credit card, and tap the watch against the payment kiosk to pay for your groceries. Careful! Don’t get too close to the kiosk while you’re bagging. Wouldn’t want to pay for the next guy’s groceries too!

Hey, can I tap my watch against yours on the subway to share credit card information?

Moving along, one last time.

The half announcement was, of course, music-related. Because “music is in Apple’s DNA.” U2’s new album, “Sounds of Innocence”, is an iTunes exclusive from now until mid-October. And it’s free. Or it will be whenever they put it up. Despite the statement that it will be “available throughout the day” I’m not seeing it yet. No worries, it sounds like it’ll be free at least until the Apple exclusive expires. Whether it’s worth the price is another question, but I’ll leave that to fans of the band.

The Alphabet Post

A Is For Apple

As promised, a few thoughts on Apple’s “a lot to cover” show.

Taking things more or less in the same order Apple announced them, let’s start with OS X Mavericks, the latest iteration of the other operating system: the one that doesn’t run on mobile devices. I can’t comment on the content changes to the OS, as I just don’t use OS X enough, but the early reviews do seem positive. What I found interesting about the announcement was the price. The price of an OS X upgrade has been dropping for the past few years, and now it’s hit bottom. Well, technically, I suppose Apple could start paying users to upgrade, but I’m having trouble coming up with a business model where that would make sense for them. I’m sure the price would have hit zero eventually, but I suspect their hand was pushed a bit by Microsoft releasing Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade. Apple has gone one better than Microsoft by making it a free upgrade for anyone using OS X; Microsoft is still charging those using XP, Vista, and Windows 7 for the upgrade. Granted that the situations aren’t exactly parallel (for one thing, you have to do a clean install, not an upgrade from XP and Vista to Windows 8), but it’s definitely a selling point for Apple that will help them push users to upgrade; historically OS X migration has moved much more slowly than iOS upgrades.

Moving on, we’ve got the new MacBooks. New CPU, longer battery life, slightly lower prices, Retina screens across almost the entire product line. Nothing even close to earthshaking here. This is all about keeping up with the Windows laptop world.

The fancy, redesigned Mac Pro announced back in June will finally go on sale in December. Good news for those wedded to the workstation line, but largely irrelevant to the rest of the world — other than anyone who can’t resist the case design, which Ars has correctly noted is more than a bit reminiscent of a Dalek.

The iLife and iWork software suites have been updated and are now free with the purchase of new Apple hardware. Not a big surprise, considering that they’ve been giving iWork to all purchasers of new iOS devices since last month’s iPhone launches. Apple is moving more and more toward giving away the software and making their money on the add-ons. And why not? It worked well with iTunes: give away the software, make your money selling music, videos, books, and apps. So now they’re pushing the strategy down one level. Expect other developers to follow suit, dropping the purchase price for apps and pushing in-app sales. This is going to bite some of them in the ass, though. Apple has a solid policy against in-app sales for physical items or anything that can be used outside of the app. They’re currently in “discussions” with British media retailer HMV over their iOS app which enabled MP3 downloads that could be used by any app on the device. Look for more such “discussions” in the future.

And then there are the iPads. Much to everyone’s surprise, the new iPads got a new name: iPad Air. Way to simplify things, Apple. More importantly, the new models are much lighter. If you’re interested in a tablet somewhere around the ten-inch mark where weight is a serious concern, it’s well worth a look at the iPad Air. It’s clearly the lightest device in that class. Add in that very high resolution screen, and it makes a good case for being worth the usual price premium over the Samsungs and Nexuses (Nexii?).

The other big surprise was the iPad Mini finally getting a Retina screen. Oh, wait. That wasn’t much of a surprise. But it’s now official, so moving on. The Mini isn’t as much of a contender in its class (7-8 inch tablets) as the Air is in the larger tablet space. It does take the resolution lead, albeit only by a small margin over the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7. But it’s also the heaviest small tablet out there and this is a niche where one-handed operation is the rule. 1.4 ounces may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to read on the subway, you notice the difference surprisingly quickly. The A7 processor should make it competitively fast, but the price tag, almost twice that of the Nexus 7 and HDX 7, is going to drag it back.

B Is For BART

Looks like I was a bit off in my predictions about the length of a BART strike: I was expecting something closer to a week than the four days we actually got. Not that I’m complaining. Having BART out of operation is a royal pain, especially for anyone who normally uses it to go someplace other than downtown San Francisco. None of the alternatives are of use if you’re commuting between two points in the East Bay. Fortunately, Maggie was able to telecommute, but I’m sure she was in a minority. The newspaper was full of reports of people who slept at their desks in San Francisco or had their normal hour commute stretch to three or four hours.

So now there’s a settlement. Of course, the proposed contract still needs to be ratified by the unions and BART management. My gut reaction is that all parties will accept the deal, but it’s not exactly a sure thing. One BART director has already gone on record as opposing the deal, and nobody is offering odds one way or the other on the union membership’s opinion. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, calls for a legal ban on transit strikes (which would presumably also cover AC Transit, who are just beginning their 60 day cooling-off period). Even if legislation passes, it’s not going to remove the possibility of a BART shutdown. Workers could still strike illegally. It’s happened in New York; it could happen here. Even without a strike, a “work slow-down” could be just as devastating. BART’s rather elderly computer systems struggle to cope on busy commute days. Imagine how badly they could be snarled if even a few drivers called in requests for maintenance checks at every stop, or took their trains out of automatic control, citing “safety concerns”.

Still, the current system clearly isn’t working. As several commentators have pointed out, the previous contract included as “no strike” clause. The unions ignored it on the grounds that the contract was expired, although they insisted that all other provisions, especially those related to pay, should remain in effect. It’s a wonder management didn’t retaliate in kind and ignore the clause that forbids them from hiring replacement workers until the unions go on strike. Heck, for all we know, they might have. Reports on Saturday’s fatal accident are that the train was being used to train replacement drivers. Rumor has it that the trainees were managers who had previously been drivers, but BART hasn’t confirmed that. Could they have been new hires?

I don’t know how to fix it, but let me suggest one place to start: The contract is 470 pages long. Four hundred seventy. Most of that is apparently what they refer to as “work rules”, the codification of thirty years of “how we do it here”. Those rules were a major point of contention in the negotiations, and the incorporation into the contract has limited both sides’ ability to propose changes. According to ExecuRead, the average reading speed for technical material is approximately five minutes per page. That means that the typical BART worker is going to need around 40 hours — a full work week — to absorb the contents of the contract he’s signing. Estimates of average salaries for BART employees vary wildly. I’ve seen as low as $60,000 and as high as $80,000. Even by going by the lowest value, that’s $1100 per employee, or — very conservatively — $2,750,000. Does that sound like overkill to anyone else? OK, I’ll grant you that we can amortize the amount across the four years of the proposed contract, but that’s still almost $700,000 a year being spent just on reading the damned document.

Cynically, I doubt anyone is actually reading what they’re committing themselves to — that’s what lawyers are for, right? — but maybe I’m pessimistic.

My advice, and take it for what it’s worth, is to amend the contract to remove the work rules and replace them with a notation that employees are subject to the rules as documented separately. This is the same process by which other businesses include employee dress codes and similar organizational practices and procedures. The potential gains are clear: contract negotiations can focus on pay and benefits, which are quite contentious enough; meanwhile the work rules can be updated independently of the contract, making it easier to keep them in sync with a rapidly-changing technical and regulatory environment.

C Is For Critters

The last item for today is a heads-up for those of you who enjoy the Friday Cute Critter posts. For the next month or so, I’ll be taking a break from posting pictures of our crew and bringing you a special feature: “Meet the Neighbors”. Join me tomorrow, won’t you?

Apple, Again

So Apple had its usual multimedia extravaganza to promote their forward-thinking, innovative iOS and iPhone releases. Apple’s taken a lot of hits lately for their lack of innovation, but I think today sets the record straight. Just look at what all they announced:

  • The way forward is through new sales. All of the apps in their iWork suite will be free. To anyone buying a new iOS device, anyway. Current customers don’t matter, Apple is looking forward to the new customers and rewarding them with Keynote, Pages, Numbers, iPhoto, and iMovie.
  • iOS 7 will be available to all on September 18th. Hey, they’re looking a whole week into the future! It’s got all kinds of unique features like a convenient Control Center and Notification Center. Nothing like those on any Android phone! Well, OK, maybe there is, but iOS’ versions have that futuristic “flat” look! Yeah, I’m exaggerating here, but frankly iOS has been commentated to death already. There isn’t much here that we haven’t known about since the first beta.
  • That ancient iPhone 5 is dead, dead, dead. It’s being replaced by the exciting new iPhone 5C, the even more exciting iPhone 5S, and the absolutely thrilling iPhone 4S. Wait, what?
    • The iPhone 5C is (as Ars Technica put it) essentially identical to the iPhone 5 but plastic instead of aluminum. The big excitement is that it will be available in thrilling new colors: blue, green, red, yellow, and white. Oh, and its front-facing camera will have better low-light performance than that old iPhone 5. Prices starting at $99. Pre-order starting Friday, available a week later. Again, looking forward.
    • (Turning the snark mode off for a moment. Mostly.) The 5S is where the innovation really shines. Brand new 64-bit CPU (“The only phone with a 64-bit CPU”), up to twice as fast as the previous generation. iOS 7 has, of course, been fully updated to support 64-bit code while retaining full backward compatibility with existing 32-bit apps. In the long term, this will be a big win in terms of speed and capability. In the short term, we’re going to see a flood of customer complaints about apps not being updated to 64-bit versions, even in cases where there’s no value in it. A new “motion co-processor” will handle the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass without the CPU needing to get involved. Opens up possibilities for context-sensitive and activity-aware apps. Major enhancements to the camera (bigger pixels, wider aperture, larger image sensor) combined with OS updates that pretty much boil down to “you don’t need to know a thing about photography to take pretty pictures”. A lot of the changes amount to taking multiple pictures at once and then the OS choosing the best of them, because it knows what effect you were going for better than you do. And then there’s that famous fingerprint reader in the home button. No more passcode and no more typing your password to buy something from the iTunes store. Just put your finger on the button. Very slick. Of course, if you share your phone, you’re screwed. It’s going to be a lot harder to share a finger than it was to share a passcode. Lior, I’m sure you’ll be happy to sacrifice a finger to the cause, right? Snip it off, preserve it in plastic, and pass it around to the team… At least you can use the same finger for multiple phones. Oh, and let’s not forget that you fingerprint data is encrypted and stored locally on the phone, never uploaded to Apple’s servers. That means the NSA can’t get your fingerprint. Uh… unless they arrest you and take your phone away. But they wouldn’t do that, because the fingerprint is only decryptable via the TouchID software on your phone. They can’t possibly crack that encryption, right? And if they can’t, nobody else can either! This phone is so cutting edge and futuristic that you can’t even pre-order it. It’ll be available on September 20th and you can order it then!
    • And that spiffy new iPhone 4S is free-with-contract. Because in the future, there’s still going to be a demand for a slower CPU and a lower-resolution screen. Apple’s got you covered, future retro enthusiasts!
  • The future of music is its past! The show ended with an appearance of Elvis Costello, whose long career is a clear indication that he’ll continue to produce cutting edge music for years to come. Look, Apple, I love Elvis Costello as much as the next guy, but if you’re trying to establish relevance and forward-thinking, he’s probably not the right choice. How about showcasing a new group, somebody on the edge of success, or at most just enough of a track record to show they’re not a one-hit wonder?

As you may have gathered, I wasn’t hugely wowed by Apple’s announcements. Yes, the 5S is a significant step forward, but it’s going to take some time for developers to catch up to its capabilities.

In Apple’s defense, though, I was pleased to see that they’re not following the current Android trend of ever-larger phones with ever-larger camera pixel counts. They may not be blazing new trails, but at least they’re not tramping down the same trail as everyone else.

Apple WWDC

Last week was pretty depressing, especially towards the end of the week. I’m going to try to keep it a bit lighter this week, but the universe being the perverse place that it is, I fully expect a major disaster of some sort that will totally blow my plans to shreds. Until the universe starts slinging tire irons at our metaphorical kneecaps, though, cheerful is the word.

Let’s start with some updates on the wonderful world of Apple as revealed in this morning’s WWDC keynote. I’m getting most of my information from Ars Technica, and I highly recommend them if you want additional details on anything I talk about. Note that I’m not going to talk about iCloud and OS X as I don’t particularly use either, so I’m not in a position to comment on the usefulness of the updates.

Correction: One comment specifically on OS X. Apparently Apple has run out of cats. All of the versions from 10.0 (“Cheetah”) to 10.8 (“Mountain Lion”) were named after big cats, but the 10.9 release is “Mavericks” (for the California surfing spot, not the Dallas basketball team). A shame, really, but it does offer some room for fun and speculation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that next year’s release (whether it be 10.10 or 11.0) will be named “Emeryville” in view of Apple’s close relationship with Pixar.

Moving right along…

Apple has officially announced their much-rumored streaming music offering. “iTunes Radio” will, according to Ars, be built into the upcoming iOS 7 (more on iOS 7 in a moment) and be available through AppleTV and iTunes for OS X. Not making it available for Windows iTunes users seems to make no business sense. Other venues are reporting that it will be available when Mavericks is released; I suspect Ars misunderstood or misreported. At the moment, this comes off as a “me too” play from Apple – it doesn’t seem to offer customers anything they don’t already have, but if Apple can do a significantly better job with its new music recommendation functionality that the current players have, there’s a potential for major migrations away from Pandora, Spotify, and others.

On the iOS 7 front, the biggest news in terms of number of words spent is actually the least significant in terms of functionality. Everyone is reporting on the new “flattened” UI. This is a change that makes little or no practical difference to customers, but will make work for developers who will now need to implement a new set of UI elements to stay consistent with the overall look and feel. Such good times!

On the brighter side, developers will no longer have to worry about the iPhone 3GS as iOS 7 will only be available for the iPhone 4 and newer. Over on the iPad side, original iPad users were not brought in from the cold – they’ll remain stuck on iOS 5. All other iPad users will be able to upgrade to iOS 7 when it comes out in the fall.

And speaking of updates, the App Store will now automatically update apps instead of nagging users to upgrade. If Apple implements this as the only configuration, it’s a big win for developers, who will no longer need to support multiple versions of their apps at once. If it’s optional behaviour, there’s likely to be little change from the current situation, as users who don’t like to update will just turn off the automatic updates and continue to ignore the nags.

More small changes that seem like they could actually be useful for users: the iCloud keychain will act as a password manager, suggesting secure passwords and sharing them across customer’s Apple phones, tablets, and desktops. This sort of functionality has been available from third-parties for years, but baking it into the OS should increase adoption and make at least a small boost in online security. Photos and movies can be shared from inside the Photos app and can be shared via an ad-hoc wifi connection (no need to tap phones together as on Samsung’s Android phones). Safari now has a scrollable tab interface, as well as what appears to be an integrated RSS reader. That could actually be very handy with the demise of Google Reader.

Ooh, here’s an incredibly useful change: Siri now has an optional male voice! How thrilling! (Seriously, there are useful Siri changes, including integration of Wikipedia and Bing search results, but that was too easy a target to resist…) I’m a little surprised Apple hasn’t started cutting deals for celebrity voices as on GPS units. Granted that the larger vocabulary would be a bit of a barrier, but I’d be willing to bet that a core vocabulary could be defined and implemented, and less common words could be handled with the current synthesized approach.

What else? I’m not seeing a whole let else. I’m sure my former cow-orkers are busy installing the developer beta of iOS 7 as I write this. Hey, gang, chime in and let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed that we should be looking forward to.

Until we hear from that old gang o’ mine, I’ll rate iOS 7 as “nice, but not earth-shaking”.