Apple Arcade Reportedly Focusing On Games With Replayability

Bloomberg:

On calls in mid-April, an Apple Arcade creative producer told some developers that their upcoming games didn’t have the level of “engagement” Apple is seeking, the people said. Apple is increasingly interested in titles that will keep users hooked, so subscribers stay beyond the free trial of the service, according to the people. They asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.

On the calls with developers in April, the Apple Arcade representative cited a specific example of the type of game the company wants: Grindstone, an engaging puzzle-action game by Capybara Games that has many levels.

At the original March event, Apple Arcade was positioned as a subscription service offering an eclectic collection of novel and unique titles, drawing on the raw creativity of indie game studios, as well as mixing in some games from larger franchises. The fact that Apple was funding the games upfront meant that the developers had the freedom to create, in Apple’s words, “the best work of their lives” and without having to contort the gameplay to accommodate monetisation mechanics like interstitial ads, in-game currency, artificial time limits and such.

Of course, we aren’t privy to all the details and nuances of the April meeting, but the snippet provided by Bloomberg is a little unsettling. The problem with saying ‘we want more games like Grindstone’ is not that Grindstone is a bad game. It’s a great game actually, one of Arcade’s best. The issue is that it has the potential to pigeonhole creativity, thereby defeating one of Arcade’s supposed strengths. Game makers may not even bother to pursue new and innovative ideas because they now have to worry about its replayability prospects and fear the pitch would be ultimately turned down.

Some of my favourite games of all time are narrative-driven. They depend on a fixed-length story to engross you for a weekend. If developers working on those kind of games are scared away from the Apple Arcade platform, that would be highly unfortunate. It is exactly this ilk of games that struggle to survive under normal App Store economics, and may never be available on Apple’s devices without Arcade. In contrast, level-based games are already well suited to freemium business models.

I can understand Apple’s concern that they need reasons for people to stay subscribed for multiple months. The risk is if the library becomes is swamped by stage-based games that can offer hundreds of levels. Diversity and variety is important. It is very comparable to TV+ where Apple has rightly commissioned a mixture of content: some shows with recurring seasons, some limited series and standalone films. I also think there are strong arguments that Apple’s monetary commitments to Arcade are too small, especially when you look at what they are happily spending on the TV side. Adding a handful of big-budget high-production games into Arcade would surely be a good thing. As it stands, the budget for Apple’s two series order of The Morning Show exceeds investment into the entire Arcade library.

iOS 14 First Impressions

There are times when Apple pushes boundaries and times when they don’t. This was definitely the latter category. I’m not sure I could point to anything specific in the new software that feels particularly novel. That’s absolutely fine. In fact, I’d place the 2020 conference as one of the best WWDCs ever. Apple advanced each of its operating systems significantly, often adding features that people have been asking for a long time.

The iOS 13 cycle is overshadowed by the bugginess of its debut but it had fundamental product problems from the beginning. Many of the features introduced in iOS 13 were simply mistakes in direction, even if they worked. Things like the changes to text selection, the naive grouping of accessory features in Home, and the inane layout of the Mail toolbar. Myself and many others shared our grievances on these matters over the summer, Apple shipped them without changes, and they were indeed received poorly. It was not a good look when every point-update was congratulated for reverting something that had been launched in 13.0.

In stark contrast to last year, I do not see anything in iOS 14 that is so bad I think they need to retrace their steps. iOS 14’s brilliance is going to make quick work of pushing the troubles of iOS 13 into distant memory.

Widgets on the home screen are just perfect. The whole system feels like a modernisation of the macOS Dashboard, complete with a ripple animation when adding new widgets from the library. For the longest time, people have wanted the ability for app icons to be dynamic, like Clock and Calendar. The small 2x2 widget is basically answering those demands. You can finally have a weather icon on your home screen that actually reflects the current weather conditions. I don’t expect people to flood their home screens with widget after widget, I reckon most people will settle on a couple to put on their first page and that will do just fine. The stringent size options (either 2x2, 4x2 or 4x4) basically encourage that kind of usage pattern.

The decision to disallow any interactivity apart from tapping to launch the app is an interesting one. It makes iOS 14 widgets feel a lot like Watch complications. Whereas the Watch has to lean in to the true black nature of its background, widgets on iOS 14 can explode with colour and vibrancy to complement the surrounding app icons and wallpaper. Apple has set a high standard of beauty with the design of the built-in widgets and I look forward to seeing what the developer community does. I know some people are already anticipating that Apple adds support for buttons and interactive controls in widgets in the future, but I’m not yet convinced they have to. I certainly don’t feel an immediate compulsion to ask for more. The enforced restraint breeds elegance and I am glad Apple’s implementation has ended up being more inspired by Windows Phone Live Tiles than the Android widget system.

Incoming calls as banner alerts and support for Picture-in-Picture video are so good you can only wish Apple would have done it sooner. In particular, PIP adds so much convenience and utility without introducing complexity. The mental model is incredibly simple: a singular floating window that you can drag around and close when you are done. You can’t get confused about what’s going on when you are multitasking with PIP. Again, this is nothing revolutionary, but it is new to iOS and the iPhone is better for it.

I like the idea behind the new design for Siri, making Siri a contextual overlay over your current app instead of a modal takeover. An animated version of the Siri icon pulsates to indicate it is listening, and the answer card appears at the top of the screen. Nothing else obscures your vision of the app Siri has been invoked on top of. This means you no longer see the text of your transcribed request. That’s a bold statement as to the quality of Siri’s dictation accuracy, although there is a toggle in settings to show it. Whilst Siri is active, if you touch the screen, Siri is dismissed. This behaviour is befitting of the compact phone screen, but it also applies to the iPad. Any attempt to interact with the foreground app dismisses Siri completely. On the big iPad canvas, not being able to use the app and interact with Siri simultaneously feels like it is defeating the point of the redesign altogether.

The improvements to HomeKit are very welcome. There is smarter onboarding when adding new accessories, which help to guide novice users into taking advantage of automations, integration of favourite scenes into the top level of Control Centre, and the textual summary status in the Home app has been replaced by a more functional visual strip of buttons.

App Clips are being framed as the next big expansion of the App Store, with Apple even resurrecting the iconic “There’s an app for that” slogan for the feature’s intro video, but I’m not sure if it is impact is really going to be that widely felt. I think it will find utility in select niches where it makes sense but I don’t think people are going to be encountering them on a daily basis. Retraining people to scan QR codes is a tall order. Searching the name of an app in the App Store and downloading it isn’t that hard. We’ll see how that plays out, I guess.

On the services front, I was surprised News+ Audio wasn’t mentioned given how finished it seems to be in the 13.6 betas. I guess that’s been pushed to fall now. The Apple TV app received no attention at all, sadly, which means TV+’s primary problem will continue through November 1st 2020, the date when customer free trials start expiring. I had guessed this before, but now with the COVID factor delaying the completion of second seasons of Apple’s flagship series, a second year rollover of the free trials feels inevitable. Arcade actually got quite a love. The Game Center UI has been overhauled, banishing the gaudy floating bubbles in favour of a barebones design that uses translucent platters for layering. The Arcade app now uses Game Center for some prominent social features, like seeing what games your friends have played recently.

Other iOS 14 capabilities are tacit nods to the looming antitrust complaints. In this update, you will be able to choose alternative email and browser apps, and integrate MFI-compatible device trackers into the Find My app. Apple is even letting third-party music services run natively on the HomePod. Some of this is merely lip service. The requirements to participate in the Find My accessory program are so locked down I’m pretty sure Tile won’t be participating, but it will probably help Apple’s defence in court nonetheless.

Apple Developer App On The Mac

Martin Pilkington:

This is another oddity I see in a lot of Catalyst apps. On the Mac, selection in a table view should change on either mouse down or mouse up, depending on whether the table supports drag & drop or not. Catalyst doesn’t seem to follow this convention, but I can overlook that somewhat. The bigger issue is that sidebars seem to change selection on mouse up, but remove the old selection on mouse down, resulting in the selection vanishing briefly.

Catalyst doesn’t do much to help translate their iOS designs into Mac native elements. The enforced 2/3rds UI scaling sets an app two steps back from the get go. Most UI controls require manual customisation and reimplementation to make them look and act like their macOS counterparts. Some elements like sidebars do transform their behaviour when running on the Catalyst idiom, but the Catalyst stack seems unfinished as it doesn’t accurately recreate how an AppKit source list works. It is just wrong.

If you use AppKit, you can make a bad app. If you use Catalyst, you can easily make a bad app. At the same time, Catalyst is attracting developers who cannot justify to allocate resources to Mac-specific work. That’s the point of it: to bring iPad apps to the Mac with little effort. And so, the combination of cause and technology stack almost always results in a bad-to-mediocre final result, almost by definition.

Being successful on the iOS App Store is hard enough, a platform with a billion active devices. The scale of the Mac App Store trails by orders of magnitude. As long as that remains true, most developers will only be able to have a Mac presence through shortcuts like Catalyst, and that means app quality will generally suffer.

I don’t blame any third-party for making these choices. It’s basic economics. I am guilty too. I am sad that Apple — the platform owner and biggest company in the world — is leaning on Catalyst so heavily, and not even setting a good example in the process. For the Apple Developer app, they have tried to make a Mac navigation structure with multiple columns, which is nice to see. But that’s basically where my compliments end. I guess you can say that it is better than nothing.

Guessing The Services Bundle

9to5Mac:

iOS 13.5.5 internal files include references to a “bundle offer” and “bundle subscription” that didn’t exist in previous iOS versions. These codes are related to the management system of Apple’s own services subscriptions like Apple News+, so we believe the company still has plans to offer a discount combo with its services.

An easy way to make people happy is to make stuff cheaper. People are naturally excited about these rumours of a forthcoming Apple services bundle to simplify the the growing list of things Apple gets us to pay for on a monthly basis, and save money at the same time.

However, that is the idealised end consumer. From Apple’s perspective, the core reason for doing a bundle is to make people spend more, in the aggregate. If you asked an average Apple customer what they would want from a bundle deal, they’d probably say a combination of Apple Music and iCloud storage. After all, these are Apple’s most popular subscriptions. ‘Everyone’ has them … which is exactly why Apple will not offer it. All that would do is make the people who are already paying, pay less.

Realistically, what Apple is looking for is ways to boost adoption of its newer content services that are still in their infancy. That is News+, TV+ and Arcade. A bundle would let Apple attach these new divisions onto what people are already subscribing to, with a discount incentive to complete the sale. Thematically, bundling iCloud doesn’t make much sense with television or news. This is a hunch, but I think Apple is going to keep pedalling iCloud as a separate entity. I think they are looking at a content bundle, whilst iCloud remains standalone.

So, let’s consider a quartet of Music, News+, TV+ and Arcade. Today, subscribing to each of these individually will cost you $30 per month. $10 for Music, $10 for News+, $5 for TV+ and $5 for Arcade. However, Music is single-user license but the others support Family Sharing. To make it symmetric, you need to get the Apple Music Family Plan which brings the total to a monthly bill of $35 for all of Apple’s content services.

Now, the question is what level of discount can Apple feasibly deliver. They basically have free rein to charge whatever they want for TV+ and Arcade. Obviously, the production of TV shows and games has to be ultimately paid for, but Apple is retaining the rights over distribution and pricing. Short term, they can charge $2, $5, $10, whatever they want. Apple Music and News+ are more complicated. The music industry has rigid contracts with all the streaming services, which lock down pricing. This is why Spotify and Apple Music basically offer identical plans for the same library of streaming music. The labels do not want their content to be devalued any more than it already has been. Apple’s margins on a music subscription are also relatively slim.

Apple’s position with News+ is slightly less restrictive, but still constrained by the fact that at the end of the day, publishers get paid by making half of the total News+ revenue. There have been a few reports that Apple has negotiated new terms which would allow Apple to reduce the amount it pays out when News+ was bundled, but it can’t be that much of a reduction — the magazines have long been complaining that monetisation from News+ is poor.

Theoretically, Apple could charge nothing for TV+ and Arcade and just accept the content productions costs as losses. As discussed before on this blog, TV+ is currently a loss-leader when priced at $5 per month. (Apple needs to hit about 50 million subscribers to start making profits from the TV+ service.) But charging nothing at all for it feels like an unsustainable step that Apple wouldn’t cross. I think we can reasonably estimate/guess that, as a bundle, Apple could shave $2 off the News+ pricing, halve the cost of TV+ and Arcade, and leave Music as is. With a bit of optimistic rounding applied, that sums to a saving of $10.

So, that’s $25 per month rather than $35. 30% off! Not bad. I mean, it is nice but it’s still expensive. People love to draw contrasts between Apple’s bundle and what Amazon does with Prime, but the price points are very far apart to the point where it’s not really comparable. Remember, this total figure is still excluding your monthly iCloud payment.

Take a prospective customer who was only ever interested in Music, TV+ and Arcade. They aren’t going to be better off in the post-bundle era financially, they’ll be paying the same. Admittedly, the draw of getting an additional service for free might draw some people in. My point is that the bundle is good, but not a silver bullet. It needs to come hand-in-hand with improvements to the services themselves, to make them more compelling.

People will groan but I fully expect to see a Services segment at the upcoming WWDC keynote. It’s more than a year since the March event, so Apple is due to have things coming out of the pipeline. Apple News+ audio articles is essentially fully implemented in the iOS 13.5.5 beta, Apple just has to flip a switch to make it appear for everyone. It does suggest that Apple isn’t waiting until iOS 14 in the fall to ship this. And given the code evidence, maybe the bundle is imminent too.

Rewatching WWDC 2011

WWDC 2011 is significant not only because it was Steve Jobs’ last Apple keynote, but because that year launched several core technologies that we now take for granted, like iCloud, iMessage and AirDrop. It was fun to look back on it with the context of what we know in 2020. You can also see a marked change in the pacing of Apple’s presentations between then and now.

Watch above, along with my audio commentary. I’ve been meaning to do something like this for a while and right now felt like a great time for it, as we wait to see how Apple handles its first keynote-at-home event. WWDC 2020 kicks off on June 22nd.

Apple News+ Audio Articles

Digiday:

Over the past several months, Apple has been asking the publishers participating in its year-old premium program for permission to produce audio versions of the stories distributed there, according to sources at four different publishers that have heard the pitch.

Apple will handle production costs, and compensate publishers in the same way it compensates them for the written content available on Apple News+, two sources said; Apple metes out 50% of subscriber revenue to publishers based on how much time those subscribers spend with publishers’ content in a 30-day period.

In March, I heard that Apple was courting publishers to let them produce spoken word versions of their content. The voiceover talent would include known names, actors and other celebrities. Apple foots the bill for this, so there’s no additional burden on the publications. These talks were part of wider negotiations around contract renewals, as the original News+ deals allowed publishers to drop out after one year if they were unhappy.

I couldn’t get secure confirmation of that tidbit so I never reported it, but Digiday is now reporting the same thing, so it’s clearly happening. Presumably, users would be able to navigate to a story and hear the audio version but you have to expect that Apple would also package this into some sort of feed for people to listen to as part of their commute. Sounds like a podcast, right?

It would be stupid of them not to let users add this into Apple Podcasts. I expect it would be through some proprietary mechanism which of course Apple can do as the owner of both the Podcasts and News app, not backed by a public RSS feed. This would also give them an excuse to feature News+ ads in the Podcasts app, which helps bring more eyeballs to News+ in general.

I’ve also heard that Apple wants to do something similar for video as well, with a half-hour weekly Apple News Spotlight show in the TV app. This project is not as far ahead though; I’d expect to see the audio article stuff in iOS 14.

Later in the Digiday report, it says that publishers have been disappointed with News+’s performance. My understanding is the situation is slightly more nuanced. Whilst most of the magazines have seen almost no growth in readership compared to the status quo before Apple acquired Texture, the newspapers are pretty happy. Not ecstatic or blown away, but generally pleased with the revenue News+ is making for them.

As a reminder, Apple keeps half of the $9.99 per month subscription fee. The remaining $5 is divided up between each News+ publisher based on their relative share of engagement on the platform.

The News app does a good job of promoting stories from the News+ newspapers and therefore these publications are capturing high levels of engagement and the vast majority of the News+ subscription money. I think Apple had expected the newspapers to dominate, but it believed that it would bring enough new subscribers onboard to enable the magazines to see meaningful returns too. That basically hasn’t happened.

One of the fears Digiday raises about the audio push is that this effect will only be increased. The smaller outlets are concerned that Apple will mostly commission audio stories from the ‘big guys’ and their content will be marginalised further.

Different Tabs In The TV App Offer Different Experiences

Screen Times:

TV box sets currently have their episodes jammed together in one long list and its enough to trigger anyone with even the slightest OCD. Just look at the one star iTunes reviews for the complete box set of popular show “Big Bang Theory” to understand that its not just me complaining about this.

Another issue with treating boxsets differently to separate seasons is that despite personally owning the Game of Thrones Seasons 1-5 Boxset, when I go to play it through Siri, I’m prompted to subscribe to HBO Now in order to watch. This is because the TV App treats boxsets differently and prioritizes services over content I own, due to the way Apple catalogues boxsets compared to separate seasons. The same thing happened recently to my purchase of ‘Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague’, which is no longer sold through Apple but is available through Prime Video. The only way of adding my purchase to my Up Next queue to playback, is by first initiating playback through Library.

The Library may share the same tab bar as the other buttons in the TV app but they are otherwise disconnected. It’s like having two separate apps rolled into one, each with their own UI components and each operating on a different set of data. It’s like having two people living in the same house that do not talk to each other. For the Library tab, Apple essentially took the old iOS Videos app and transposed it as one screen inside of TV.

They didn’t modernise it all, and its age shows through. The Library knows about content downloaded locally to your device, and your iTunes Store purchases, because that’s what Videos could do. Newer inventions like third-party TV Provider apps or Apple TV Channels subscriptions, which the Videos app did not incorporate because those components simply didn’t exist at the time, are therefore not shown at all. Library has no awareness of them. If you find something in Watch Now on a streaming service, you can’t add that to your library. You can only add it to a separate Up Next queue, which is only exposed as a single horizontally-scrolling list in the Watch Now tab and offers no further categorisation or filtering. Something that the Library tab would be perfect for, if it actually worked as you would naturally expect it to.

Box sets were handled badly in the Videos app, and that behaviour has been brought across wholesale into the TV app. Despite the other parts of the TV app having access to a full catalogue of TV shows, with information about their seasons and constituent episodes, the Library is siloed off from that data. It merely deals in files and file downloads. So, if you bought the first five seasons of Game of Thrones as an iTunes Store box set, Library sees that as a block of 50 video files, and it naively groups them together. The structured season metadata — that the TV app can show you if you were to look up Game of Thrones in the Search tab — is completely ignored. The TV storefront also rarely surfaces bundles like box sets for sale; users hunting the best deals have to continue to look in the iTunes Store app.

Whereas the Library tab is rendered as native table views, the other tabs are thinly-wrapped web views. Each time they reload, you see a full-screen spinner and have to wait. In fact, if you open the TV app whilst offline, the tab bar will vanish and you can only see the ‘Downloaded’ part of the Library. So, remember that Up Next queue which serves as your todo list of what to watch? You can’t actually see that if you are offline — even if you have downloaded the shows in advance. The design of screens varies dramatically between the tabs as well; both Library and Watch Now include navigation that shows a 2-column thumbnail grid of results. In the Library, each of these thumbnails is accompanied by a textual label that says the name of the show. But the Watch Now quasi-web environment omits these labels altogether (which makes quickly scanning search results annoying).

Everything is just very disjointed, both in concept and in their underlying implementations. A better TV app would have everything holistically driven by the same shared data source. You should be able to add any show to your library; it shouldn’t matter if that show is backed by a physical file on disk or not. The Apple Music app does a much better job at unifying the deprecated iTunes Store and the modern subscription-based experience. If everything in TV app was cohesively connected, it would also solve other complaints I have about the TV app for free. For instance, if I could add all the shows I am watching on Apple TV+ to my library, I wouldn’t be so annoyed that Watch Now is overwhelmingly featuring content that I don’t own and need to pay for. In this theoretical happy place, I could add all ‘my’ shows to the library and rarely need to look at the other tabs; many Apple Music users manage their songs in exactly this way. However, it isn’t possible with TV as the Library isn’t aware about anything apart from stuff purchased from iTunes.

macOS Battery Health Management

Six Colors:

The new feature, which will only be available on Mac notebooks with Thunderbolt 3 ports , enables a new default approach to charging and discharging MacBook batteries. According to Apple, the feature is meant to reduce the rate of chemical aging of the MacBook’s battery, thereby extending its long-term lifespan—but without compromising on day-to-day battery life.

The feature works by analyzing the temperature of the battery over time, as well as the charging pattern the laptop has experienced—in other words, does the laptop frequently get drained most of the way and then recharged fully, or is it mostly kept full and plugged in? In the latter case, Battery Health Management is more likely to stop a bit short of full capacity in order to extend the battery’s long-term lifespan.

Lithium ion batteries do not like being charged at full capacity for extended periods. The aim of this new macOS behaviour is to reduce the amount of time MacBook batteries sit at 100%. And that’s why this feature is right down my alley. As a laptop-as-desktop user, my MacBook Pro is plugged in for most of the day. I am aware of the optimal battery conditioning procedures but — like everyone else — I can’t be bothered to micromanage it to that degree, so naturally my laptop sits fully charged for hours at a time, day in and day out. I just have to accept that I am not going to eek out the maximum number of recharge cycles from the machine. As of macOS 10.15.5, I won’t have to accept this penalty. With the setting enabled, my laptop will learn that it needs to charge to 80% and no more, naturally extending the lifetime of the battery without me having to manually regulate it.

I do think the feature could be implemented a bit more effectively though. In cases when you do want to charge to full, like if you know you are going to be away from a power adapter for a while, Apple’s answer appears to be to dive into System Preferences and disable the checkbox. This is functional but a bit inelegant. When I’m no longer mobile, I’ll have to remember to re-enable automatic battery health management. I’d prefer it if the Battery menu in the menubar had a one-click ‘charge to full’ button. This would allow the MacBook to reach 100% impromptu, but default back to the 80% behaviour for subsequent recharges.

Secondly, I find it curious that Apple chose to brand this setting as battery health management. This terminology closely overlaps with the iOS suite of Battery Health features, which encompasses things like the infamous performance throttling policies. The Mac behaviour has nothing to do with unexpected shutdowns or performance, though, it’s solely motivated by the desire to maximise the MacBook’s lifespan. As of iOS 13, iPhone and iPads do this too with a feature called “Optimized Battery Charging”. It would be more sensible if Apple used that exact term on the Mac too.

The Unyielding App Store Game

Apple:

Apple has an established program for premium subscription video entertainment providers to offer a variety of customer benefits — including integration with the Apple TV app, AirPlay 2 support, tvOS apps, universal search, Siri support and, where applicable, single or zero sign-on. On qualifying premium video entertainment apps such as Prime Video, Altice One and Canal+, customers have the option to buy or rent movies and TV shows using the payment method tied to their existing video subscription.

At first glance, this looked like a loosening of App Store restrictions and a concession to the increasing focus on big tech firms and the monopolistic platforms that they control. The press statement is masterfully worded in the way that it diverts attention. If you skim it, it sounds like Apple is offering a financial incentive in exchange for supporting Apple’s latest system technologies like AirPlay 2 and TV app integration. I don’t read it that way at all.

If you read it carefully, the statement does not say what the requirements are to “qualify”. I think that’s because they aren’t any; Apple picks who can participate in accordance with what best suits Apple’s business. Those aforementioned features are the benefits of joining the program, not the entrance requirements. The important takeaway is that Apple decides who gets invited.

If you are blessed and get in, then you can take advantage of APIs that any normal developer cannot (such as integration with the TV app and universal search) and reap the financial benefits of not being forced to use In-App Purchase for existing customers.

So long as Apple gets to choose who joins the private club, they can never lose out as a result of this arrangement. As an upstart and fledgling newcomer, you must struggle to survive in the ecosystem like you always have, taking that 30% cut as a cost of business. If you do happen to break out from the crowd, and become so successful that your business can continue without offering a convenient way to buy stuff inside the application itself, Apple might consider proffering a deal. In that latter case, Apple is making zero incremental revenue from that app. If Apple can arrive at a partnership with the developer, then Apple starts monetising those customers once again. In every case, Apple makes more money than they did before.

These deals are a positive outcome from the perspective of an end-user. The inconveniences of being kicked out to Safari to rent something from Amazon Prime have now been removed. However, it does nothing to make the App Store a fairer marketplace. If anything, it has the opposite effect. The App Store becomes more tilted towards favouring the select few, with Apple at the head of the table. I fully expect that this will expand beyond so-called ‘video entertainment providers’. This is an opening of the floodgates to Apple cutting special deals across all categories of the App Store. As ever, Apple controls how the cards are dealt and the game is always stacked in Apple’s favour.

Apple Marches On

iPad Pro

Now is not exactly an ideal environment in which to launch a new product but Apple can’t hold products indefinitely. Who knows how long these world conditions will last. Delaying an iPad’s release just pushes the entire roadmap further back. So, here’s a new iPad Pro.

Slightly faster GPU performance, an ultra-wide lens, and a new LiDAR scanner. That’s the essence of the changes. The LiDAR sensor is cool for two seconds until you realise it’s just another place for iPad hardware to outstrip the software. I sincerely hope Apple has better messaging for this by the time the LiDAR-equipped iPhone 12 comes out. I believe indoor maps navigation has the potential to be truly enhanced by augmented reality, and the Apple Maps team certainly seems to have been laying the groundwork for it, but nothing has shipped to date.

It is strange that the iPad does not bring a bigger performance improvement; x-rays have confirmed the die layout of the A12Z is identical to the two-year old A12X. Perhaps Apple’s silicon team did not have the bandwidth to develop ARM Mac cores and an incrementally-upgraded iPad CPU at the same time. The next iPad Pro — some reports point to a late 2020 release — will undoubtedly tout a 5 nanometer A14X powerhouse. Maybe the first ARM Mac runs on the A14X architecture too.

People asking ‘why bother?’ are missing the point. Following the major overhaul of the 2018 model, an incremental refresh is perfectly acceptable (even if this update was likely meant to debut late last year). This is no more significant than the MacBook Air update, and nobody blinks when Macs ‘only’ get a minor update. That’s just the nature of how mature products evolve. The iPhone has had its fair share of inconsequential generations too. The main focus of this cycle is the trackpad support in iPadOS 13.4 and the Magic Keyboard accessory. The fact that these advancements are accessible to owners of previous iPads is irrelevant. Apple sells the complete package, and that works best when they have a new iPad model to promote alongside it, however immaterial.

MacBook Air

Now is not exactly an ideal environment in which to launch a new product but Apple can’t hold products indefinitely. Who knows how long these world conditions will last. Delaying a MacBook’s release just pushes the entire roadmap further back. So, here’s a new MacBook Air.

The 2018 Retina Air took far too long to come to market, and when it did arrive it was unsatisfactory because of the price point. Apple sold it for $1199, even with a paltry 128 GB SSD as standard. Last year, they discounted the identical configuration to $1099. Now, they have finally got it below a grand. The MacBook Air has returned to the $999 sweet spot, featuring at least 256 GB storage, latest-generation Intel CPUs, and a reliable keyboard that is widely praised.

It has been a long time since the MacBook lineup has felt sane. Between protracted Retina transitions, price hikes and the butterfly keyboard fiasco, it has been a very tumultuous decade for Apple’s laptops. With the 2020 Air in hand, we are getting close to a baseline of normality once again.

The last domino to fall is the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro. The happy path is for it to get replaced by a sleek 14-inch MacBook Pro with slim bezels. What I think might actually happen is the 13.3-inch is spec-bumped with the new keyboard, and the 14-inch model slots in between that and the 16-inch. Even in the second scenario, though, I think it would be fair to say that the Mac laptop lineup was in good standing, with well-defined product SKUs across the board. So I look forward to the MacBook story being tied up by year’s end.

The Mac mini ‘update’ is a bit pathetic, but Mac mini fans are well accustomed to being ignored for years at a time. Apple’s renewed focus on pro machines clearly does not mean regular processor updates for every single model.

No WWDC, No Problem

WWDC is all but confirmed not to be happening this year, at least not in the usual sense. Whereas Apple corporate employees may not be wholly prepared to work remotely this week, Apple is well equipped to run a venue-less WWDC for the community.

The day-one keynote will surely be held at Steve Jobs Theater, maybe inviting only a few dozen press and retail staff to fill the seats. The general media attention for the WWDC keynote may pale in comparison to the September iPhone event, but it’s still big enough that Apple will want to give its new major operating system updates the proper justice of a prepared presentation unveiling.

Apple has recorded WWDC sessions and put them online for ever, and in the last few years began live-streaming sessions for anyone not in the room to follow along with. This year, with no physical presence, Apple engineers due to present developer sessions in-person can instead rehearse and record videos in advance. In fact, they could publish all of them immediately following the keynote, alongside the beta OS releases. They don’t have the usual scheduling constraints of the convention centre.

The biggest question mark is how does Apple replace the labs experience. You are never going to truly replace one-on-one chats with Apple engineers but you can get close. Apple could dedicate some time for the rest of WWDC week to hosting webinars or online Q&A sessions. They could also ramp up documentation and sample code efforts to mitigate the lack of face-to-face labs.

Also, WWDC does not have to be confined to the one week in June. In the past, Apple has held one-day “Tech Talks” conferences in countries around the world, at all sorts of times of the year. For instance, the last Tech Talks were run in early 2016 to discuss how to develop tvOS apps; the Apple TV was announced in September and therefore skipped the WWDC cycle that year. I can definitely see Apple planning Tech Talks-esque events as a WWDC substitute, whenever the coronavirus risks subside.

I’ve seen some people ponder if Apple would change their product schedules because of the the lack an in-person WWDC, like whether Apple would postpone announcing the Intel ARM to Mac transition because they need the physical sessions and labs to get developers onboard. Personally, I doubt Apple has any reservations of that nature. WWDC holds outsize importance in the tech community because so many podcasters and influencers of said community are privileged enough to attend. The reality is WWDC caters to a very small slice of the overall Apple developer ecosystem. The conference hosts 5000 people, but Apple has over 20 million registered developers. It’s worth remembering that the vast, vast, majority of App Store apps were made by people who have never attended a WWDC lab in their life.

Selfishly, I am quite happy that Tech Talks 2020 are likely going to be a thing. The UK was one of the countries they visited last time they did them, so no reason for them not to come back here. That means I will be able to go to an official Apple developer event for the first time ever.

All Originals On Apple TV+

CNBC:

One shareholder at the annual general meeting in Cupertino asked why that wasn’t an Apple TV+ show. “We love ‘Friends.’ Who doesn’t love ‘Friends’? It’s not what Apple TV+ is about, it’s about original programming,” Cook said. “It doesn’t feel right for Apple to go out and take a rerun. It doesn’t feel like Apple.”

Apple’s messaging on TV+ has been very consistent, new content only, and yet people keep asking them about this or that show, or this studio, as if it is incredulous to think that Apple is not looking for existing content to buy up. I could understand the questioning if there were continuing reports about Apple chasing down franchises, but Hollywood is pretty leaky and it has (basically) been radio silence on that front.

It is certainly true that Apple TV+ is an ‘all originals’ streaming service because the market forced them into that alley. Apple was late to getting its ducks in a row in regards to TV, after flailing for five years with various different proposals for cable subscriptions and skinny bundles, it entered TV just as every network was coming to the realisation that running their own streaming services was more sensible than licensing their content to others. When Apple hired Erlicht and van Amburg in 2017, the opportunities to buy content had all but dried up. So, originals it is.

People keep positing about Apple media acquisitions because they don’t believe a service that doesn’t have a back catalogue can be successful. In the short term, perhaps, but I don’t see what is wrong with Apple’s take if you consider a longer term timescale. Frankly, all streaming services are effectively becoming originals only by default, as every network is taking back their content for their own streaming services. The difference with Apple TV+ is it is literally a blank slate; they have no content to take back. Apple is investing aggressively but building the library simply takes time. There’s no way around it but to launch with little and have the patience — both tactical and financial — to bide your time. Apple has the clout to attract talent and the funds to cover the costs of getting the service off the ground.

TV+ is Apple’s first true loss-leader business, a fascinating phenomenon in itself. They are many years away from profitability. I don’t think they will break even for four years at the very earliest.

Apple TV+ is always going to be a quality over quantity strategy. It’s Apple after all, that’s what they do. They are never, ever, going to have a catalogue size to match Netflix or Disney+. That’s fine, but even so the service has to reach some reasonable threshold of available titles for people to have enough high-quality stuff to watch and stay engaged with. The free year offer is a way to paper over the low show count out the gate. Realistically, Apple are going to have to repeat the offer, or some variant of it, for at least one more year before they have enough shows and movies for TV+ to stand on its own feet.

First and foremost, Apple needs to keep releasing good shows, and do so at a faster pace. I think they should aim to get to the point where they are releasing something new — a new season or a movie — every single week of the year. As the number of renewals and new commissions compounds, this target is actually not too far away. If they continue to ramp up the production schedule at the same rate as they have been in the last six months, they will cross the one-per-week apex in mid-2021.

iOS 14 To Better Support Third-Party Apps Like Web Browsers

Bloomberg:

The technology giant is discussing whether to let users choose third-party web browser and mail applications as their default options on Apple’s mobile devices, replacing the company’s Safari browser and Mail app, according to people familiar with the matter. Since launching the App Store in 2008, Apple hasn’t allowed users to replace pre-installed apps such as these with third-party services. That has made it difficult for some developers to compete, and has raised concerns from lawmakers probing potential antitrust violations in the technology industry.

I’m sure a default app system has always been somewhere on the nigh-infinite to-do list of things Apple wants to add to iOS at some point. After all, it’s a natural feature for any mature operating system to offer. No doubt, the brewing threat of big tech antitrust regulation helped bump it up the roadmap, such that is now on the cards for iOS 14.

The simplest version of “default apps” would be a way to override what app is launched when a web link is tapped. Implementation-wise, it’s pretty straightforward. iOS apps already declare what URL schemes that they can support, but as it stands today third-party developers can only enact on custom schemes. For iOS 14, Apple would simply change the system policy so that http and mailto links delegate to whatever app the user has chosen in Settings, rather than always being forwarded to Safari and Mail.

That small change would cover the use cases of what most people think up when they say they want the ability to set default apps. With such a trivial amount of work involved, that is probably what Apple will do. Competition regulators would probably be appeased by it. However, if you were actually trying to design a system that treated third-party and first-party apps as equals, there’s a lot further to go.

Apple’s stock apps have a lot of privileged system behaviours. For instance, Mail gets to poll the server for new emails on a regular schedule. You can go into Settings and set to check for new mail as often as once every every fifteen minutes. Third-party email apps can only use the sanctioned background refresh APIs, which throttle updates significantly and do not have any guarantees of regularity. This means the majority of third-party email apps have to be backed by a cloud service that checks inboxes and sends new mail push notifications to the device. Apple Mail also has deep and granular options for notification preferences; a user can choose how and where notifications appear on a per-mailbox basis, and do things like let messages from VIP contacts hit the lock screen whilst sending everything else silently to Notification Centre. No App Store app has the capability to do that stuff.

Regarding competing with Safari, you have the classic constraint of no arbitrary code execution, which means all iOS third-party browsers can only ever be thin wrappers around WebKit anyway. There’s also no getting away from the fact that Safari View Controller is a special built-in component, widely used by a lot of apps, which offers access to system AutoFill, Keychain and a shared cookie database. Safari’s prominence on iPhone and iPad isn’t going anywhere.

I use Safari and Mail out of personal preference, not because I am forced to, but if I was invested in Chrome or Outlook or whatever, I would be wanting more than just URL scheme handling. Bloomberg’s report focuses mostly on how Apple will support email and browser alternatives, when those categories of apps are really not where the anticompetitive complaints are coming from.

The predominant frontrunner is the dispute with Spotify, currently making its way through the European commission. Bloomberg does say that iOS 14 may offer a way to select Spotify as their preferred app for Siri music commands, allowing users to command Siri to play music without having to say ‘on Spotify’ every single time. Moreover, apparently the HomePod will gain the ability to support native apps other than Apple’s, which would pave the way for Spotify on the HomePod itself, rather than through AirPlay.

Being locked out of the HomePod was one of the things Spotify complained about to the EU, so you can definitely draw a line there to an instance where Apple is conceding. Realistically, though, a few more iOS 14 features in its favour will not shut Spotify up. Spotify’s complaint boils down to money; the App Store requirement to use In-App Purchase and the 30% cut. I’ll just say Apple is surely more willing to open up iOS than it is to make concessions to the business of the App Store. I don’t think we will see App Store policy change much unless some government institution forces the issue.

Identifying Monopolistic Moves

I’ve watched a lot of technology congressional hearings and most of them are a farce, either due to limiting time constraints or lack of technical knowledge to cover intricately nuanced technical matters. The January 17 hearing on online platforms was a rare exception. It was an intelligent session, and I’ve been thinking over what was said there a lot. The hearing predominantly skewers Amazon and Google’s practices, but Apple’s position as platform auteur was brought up a fair few times as well.

The Apple discussion was spearheaded by panel participant Kirsten Daru, vice president of Tile, the leading manufacturer of Bluetooth trackers. Their grievances are rooted in the fact that the Apple’s Find My app is a system app, installed by default, and gets elevated privileges to behave in ways that third-party apps in the App Store cannot. The conversation is slightly complicated by the fact that Apple’s ‘AirTags’ product is not official yet, but I don’t blame Tile for starting to gain traction for a cause that is clearly waiting in the curtains.

Tile fears that Apple is about to enter their market and steamroll over them. They are correct. Assuming a basic level of competency on the part of Apple’s implementation, the AirTags will be better than what Tile can offer in every single way.

They can clone the baseline feature set, and integrate it directly into a stock iOS system app. Apple will let its tags interoperate with the Find My network, made up of the hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads running iOS 13. Tile has spent years trying to build its ecosystem, to convince users to downloads its app and become nodes in the network, and all of a sudden here comes Apple which can offer worldwide coverage for its trackers out of the box. Finally, the U1 chip present in the latest iPhones will enable the exact location of the AirTags to be precisely visualised in augmented reality.

The particulars of this product category allow Apple to enter the market late and easily crush everyone. The Apple tracker will be at least as good as Tile’s offerings, and superior in a few ways that Tile can never catch up to. I don’t think that’s debatable. What needs consideration is whether Apple can do that because they are acting with monopolistic malice.

To its credit, Apple has said it will change the behaviour of "Always Allow" location alerts in a forthcoming software update, following complaints from the developer community.

In the hearing, Daru complains that iOS 13’s repeated location permission alerts disfavours Tile, imposing hurdles on third-party apps that Apple’s Find My don’t have to contend with. I’d say that is indeed unfair and anticompetitive; third-party apps should be treated the same as Apple’s. The problem is how far do you take this. If Apple’s apps and third-party apps must be concomitant partners, should Apple then be forced to remove Find My as a built-in installed-by-default application? That seems like a step too far, beyond what would be deemed reasonable.

Daru also voices her company’s frustration that the U1 chip does not have a public API and therefore unavailable to developers. She argues that anyone should be able to use the ultra-wide band technology in the iPhone, saying that UWB is a standard and the only thing that makes it proprietary is Apple’s decision not to expose an API for it. Should Apple be compelled to open up the U1 hardware? If so, what about direct access to the Infrared cameras or the phone modem or the cellular antenna or the myriad other key internal components. Personally, I don’t think that a manufacturer should be required to allow access to every component of the products they make. Otherwise, you could equally argue that Apple should be forced to let anyone build alternative launchers and the like, and that just seems wrong.

But it’s that exact freedom to lock the platform down that allows the platform proprietor to make choices that benefit itself. Let’s say Apple never provides an API for ultra-wide band. That means every other company will never be able to match the AirTags on features. Is that a monopolistic move, or just inherent to the state of play? I really don’t know how you can distinguish the two.

Bonus Content Opportunities For Streaming Services

Input:

I want to learn more about the creative process behind the piece and engage with the ideas of whatever media I’ve just seen. I want to see alternate takes the filmmakers opted not to use in the final work and hear commentaries from those artists, or the scholars who can teach me more about what I’m watching. I want to explore. I miss special features. I miss the context and bonus content that would come with DVDs, ones that encouraged me to stay with a movie even after watching it. In the age of limitless content and fully customizable menus, this experience is all but dead.

The core element of a streaming service is basically set in stone — have compelling things to watch and be able to play them wherever you are — but there is scope for differentiation beyond the basic premise of a video repository. At the highest level, there’s the way that the app chooses to present its content, help the user keep up with their favourite shows and discover more TV. This is obviously something that Netflix has perfected and something that the Apple TV app does very poorly right now.

You can also stand out with features like the X-Ray mode in Amazon Prime Video, a modernised version of the cast and crew list that can tell you who that actor is on the screen right now. It’s cool. Over time, I hope all the streaming services pay more attention to extras like this, and that includes a much wider bonus content offering.

Apple is in a theoretically strong position to do this. In addition to things like set tours, bloopers and commentary tracks, Apple could pair the shows with behind-the-scenes podcasts, music playlists and the like. In fact, they are already making Apple Music soundtrack playlists but basically no one knows that they exist because they aren’t linked to or advertised in the TV app at all. You have to manually trawl through Apple Music to find them.

A lot of stuff in this arena is just tying up loose ends of existing produced material. For example, in a recent set of ads, Apple commissioned artists to make concept posters for some of its titles. However, Apple hasn’t actually used the posters anywhere but the ads showing them being made. What a waste. Wouldn’t it be great if you could see those posters beneath the show in the actual TV app? What if you could tap on them and set them as your wallpaper?

Apple has marketing teams running social media for its flagship series like The Morning Show, and these accounts have posted many soundbite interviews with showrunners, cast and crew members over the last few months. All of these are essentially lost to time in the endless scroll of Instagram and Twitter feeds. This kind of table stakes stuff should be easily accessible from within the TV app itself.

In the March unveiling of Apple TV+, Apple’s Jamie Erlicht said “this is not just another streaming service”. To date, Apple has not delivered anything unique to really back that up. The first priority for them should be to fix the badly-made application, but that’s all just catch up to meet the status quo. Beyond that, extras and bonus content could be a way for Apple TV+ to stand out. They have the means.

EjectBar

Since getting the new MacBook Pro in 2016, I have used it with an OWC Thunderbolt Dock. This dock is highly convenient and delivers on the potential of the laptop’s Thunderbolt 3 ports; I plug in one cable for power, network access, and accessories.

For several years, I relied on a Synology for my Time Machine backups. In the latter half of last year, though, this workflow started exhibiting problems. On a daily basis, I would get errors from Time Machine that my backup was inconsistent and it needed to start over. I was used to getting that error about once a month, but it triggering every day was untenable. It meant every morning, my machine would spend five hours copying the entire contents of its SSD to the network storage.

After several rounds of troubleshooting, I gave up on Synology for Time Machine and plugged in a local hard drive to the OWC dock instead. I have found this much more reliable. In fact, since switching over, I am yet to see a Time Machine verification failure.

However, this set up came with its own annoyances. Namely, every evening when it came time to unplug the laptop, I would have to remember to eject and unmount the locally-connected drive. The highly convenient one-port lifestyle was now mired by another mandatory step. This wasn’t a problem with the always-on networked Synology, but the local drive is bus-powered and macOS will complain that the disk was “Not Ejected Properly” if you don’t go through the ceremony to eject it first.

I messed around with some Mac automation — bash and cron — but the result was unsatisfactory. At the start of 2020, my colleague Zac Hall also switched from an iMac to a laptop-and-dock solution, and started being annoyed by similar disk ejection requirements.

This was the ultimate motivation to package up my shell scripts into a finished app. EjectBar is the result. EjectBar is available in the Mac App Store. It’s a menu bar app that you can click on to show your connected drives and eject them one-by-one, or you can right click on the icon and it ejects all of them immediately. You can also set a schedule for EjectBar to eject drives automatically at a specific time of day. I set mine for 6 PM, which means I never have to remember to do anything when I’m packing up my desk at nighttime.

It’s designed to be aesthetically discreet; a simple monochrome menu bar icon that even dims when no drives are connected. And it’s available in the Mac App Store, so you don’t have to mess around with installers or hacky permissions.