The Current Apple TV Doesn't Make Sense

Six Colors:

In the end, I’m left with the same feeling I had yesterday: Even after Apple has removed the two biggest reasons to buy an Apple TV (exclusive access to AirPlay and Apple’s video content), there is a whole collection of small reasons to buy an Apple TV. But of course, they all require that users pay a large premium—not the usual step-up for Apple products over the competition, but a fivefold increase in price. (Imagine if AirPods Max cost $1800.)

Some people will pay that premium. A lot of people won’t—and aren’t.

First off, Apple deserves some credit for cannibalising its own product so freely. Part of the reason the Apple TV feels a bit irrelevant at the moment is because Apple has chosen to convert some of its proprietary features into commodities. Whilst they had to relinquish control to some degree to broaden the availability of its TV+ original content, it didn’t have to offer ways for long-time iTunes Store customers to access their library of purchases from non-Apple devices .. but it did. A company that can cannibalise itself without fear is not a common thing.

All that being said, the current Apple TV hardware proposition is not good. It’s simply too expensive. A box that offers music, movies, photos, workouts and games through an Apple-designed interface is a desirable product, but it’s not worth $179. It’s not worth $149 even; the price that Apple still charges for the 1080p Apple TV.

That doesn’t mean Apple should get out the set-top box business. They totally should make one. Just like Apple thought it was worthwhile to make an entry-level smart speaker, there’s space in the market for an Apple streaming device. It supports all of Apple’s content services, from fitness workouts to photos, videos and games. Plus, it helps Apple participate in the connected living room, something that will become even more significant as the company prepares a renewed push for HomeKit and the wider Apple smart home ecosystem.

I’m not saying Apple has to stoop to the levels of $40 bargain bucket streaming sticks like those from Amazon and Roku. They are perfectly respectable products for what they are but that low-end isn’t worth Apple’s while.

What I want, what everyone wants, is a modern Apple TV with an updated processor. We will pay for the niceness. At $99, we’re sold. Like all of Apple’s products, the Apple TV should aim to fill the segment of the market that toes the line between being accessible to the masses and being aspirational luxury.

Unlock iPhone With Watch When Wearing Mask

9to5Mac:

Apple today released the first developer betas of iOS 14.5 and watchOS 7.4, bringing a major change to the integration between iPhone and Apple Watch. For the first time, you can now use your Apple Watch to unlock your iPhone when you’re wearing a face mask.

As of iOS 14.5, if the iPhone detects you are wearing a mask, you can use your unlocked Apple Watch as the identity key to let you in to your phone. Even for a first beta, it works really well. It’s fast. Written down, it sounds analogous to the macOS feature, but it feels very different when you try it.

Unlocking your Mac with your watch is comparatively sluggish. I guess this because the Watch is always passively ‘connected’ to its paired iPhone when in Bluetooth range, whereas when the Mac login screen wants to authenticate, it is searching for the user’s nearby Watch afresh each time. Moreover, the iPhone benefits from iOS’s slick lock screen transitions that guide the user smoothly through the unlocking process and the nice animations help to mask over some of the wait period.

I can only assume this has been on the cards ever since the pandemic reared its head. In iOS 13.5 last year, they rushed out what they could to improve the Face ID experience in the context of the pandemic. Many months later, they now have had the time to achieve a more sophisticated implementation of that goal, and that’s what we are seeing in iOS 14.5.

Some of the community reaction to this feature appearing in the beta can be summed up as follows: this means the iPhone 13 will not sport a fingerprint sensor, as Apple is resorting to fix the mask problem through software. Personally, I can’t make that connection.

The iPhone 13 feature set is independent to the needs of the current iOS user base. Even if you assume that Apple has always planned for this year’s iPhone to have Touch ID, they couldn’t not do this in the meantime once COVID hit. Apple has hundreds of millions of active Face ID-only phones out in the world to support. Plus, it will sell hundreds of millions of Face ID-only phones in the months leading up to this fall’s iPhone season, and hundreds of millions more for several years after that. (And not everyone has a Watch, of course.)

Apple TV+ Free Year Trials Extended Again

9to5Mac:

Any current customers with free trials set to end in the February to June period will now see those subscription renewals pushed out to July. Similarly, customers with an annual subscription that expires between February and June will also get the same additional months of service at no additional charge.

I am not surprised that they have to do this. Even before COVID struck, I was mentally modelling that they would need to repeat the free year trials at least one time over. The mechanics are slightly different to what I had predicted. In my head, I expected them to simply re-up the hardware offer; buy another Apple device, get another year.

What Apple has done instead is push back the renewal dates of those active trials. If you subscribed on the same day as the service launched — November 1st, 2019 — your free promotion essentially lasts nine extra months.

A subscription that was originally set to end on November 1, 2020 will now continue until July. However, anyone subscribing for the first time sees no such benefits. If you activate a new Apple device from today, your renewal date will be exactly one year out. Reading between the lines, Apple believes (or at least hopes) a TV+ subscription will be worth paying for in July.

Again, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. A library of exclusive newly-made originals takes time to build up. What is a little bizarre is why they didn’t announce the July date in October. It is surely a little embarrassing for Apple that they have trot back to the press to announce another extension of the ‘one year’ trials so soon, when the first extension happened so recently that it is still fresh in people’s minds. It feels like a public echo of internal flip-flopping.

Marking TV+ down as a failure at this stage is simply premature. I don’t know if it’s going to be a long-term success … but I recognise it’s too early to call it either way. It is true that If the TV+ strategy was adopted by a startup, of course it would fail; a standalone company simply doesn’t have the resources to backstop the early years of growth. For Apple, financials are not a practical concern. As long as it is committed at the executive levels to invest fiercely in originals for three-to-five years, accepting little to no monetary return in the meantime, it should be fine.

Apple Fitness+ Launches

They did a good job with this. It’s not a deeply technical proposition but sometimes simple ideas and good execution are all you need. Fitness+ is high quality and well produced workout videos overlaid with live metrics readouts from a connected Watch. Straightforward, technologically trivial, but effective.

I’m not sure if I would pay a dedicated $9.99 per month subscription plan for it. I have never subscribed to any other online fitness scheme stuff. However, Fitness+ is incorporated into my Apple One Premier plan and it is undisputedly a solid value add that makes me less likely to cancel.

This would be less of a sticking point if Apple had a reasonably-priced Apple TV for people to buy.

One of the few issues with this 1.0 release is that Fitness+ workouts do not work with AirPlay. When you select a fourth- or fifth-generation Apple TV from the outputs list in the Fitness app video player on iPhone or iPad, it seamlessly launches the tvOS Fitness app on the big screen and navigates to the same place. It’s like a deep link shortcut. This is fine if you are an Apple TV household, but owners of other AirPlay compatible devices — like the plethora of smart TVs that now integrate AirPlay 2 natively — are left out in the cold. When you try to connect to one of these outputs, Fitness+ sends the audio stream but the video signal is simply black.

Some have speculated this limitation is in place is because of DRM and piracy concerns. I don’t think that is the reason. First released in 2010, AirPlay was designed with Apple’s content licensing requirements in mind from the beginning. That’s why you can freely AirPlay content from the iTunes Store like your purchased movies or stream from Apple TV+, Netflix and countless other services. AirPlay is a DRM friendly technology. I think the reason Fitness+ currently does not support it is because of how the metric overlays are implemented. My understanding is these are not being encoded into the realtime video stream, but superimposed by the GPU as separate layers and rendered as iOS views. Therefore, Apple needs to do a bit more work to get the transmitted AirPlay stream to include these elements.

In terms of the future of Fitness+, there are obvious routes for Apple to follow. To better compete with the likes of Peloton, Apple needs to embrace the social gamification aspects of online fitness with things like friends leaderboards and broadcast live workout sessions, which would allow the hosts to shoutout participating members. And as beautifully dressed as the Fitness+ studio is, I would welcome a change of setting every now and again; perhaps film trainers running around a park or visiting famous sites like Olympic stadiums. These are the kind of avenues that Apple should explore if it wants to give Fitness+ longevity beyond the COVID-induced fad of at-home fitness.

Anticipating M1X

The M1 chip is so fast that I have zero doubt — zero — that Apple can make a higher-end chip to easily supersede its entire lineup of Intel laptops and desktops in performance. As an owner of an ageing 2016 MacBook Pro with a mostly-broken keyboard, I’m so looking forward to it.

The M1 runs inside a 10-15 watt power budget. The fanless M1 MacBook Air already bests the high-end Core i9 16-inch MacBook Pro on most single-core CPU tasks. There’s no need to imagine about if Apple can deliver a high-performance chip; you literally can go into an Apple Store and already buy it. The definition of an existence proof.

What is still up for speculation is how much higher can an “M1X”, or whatever it’s called, push the performance inside the larger thermal envelope enclosures of iMacs and 16-inch MacBook Pros. For reference, the current 16-inch uses Intel CPUs that are designed to run at around 45 watts, or about triple what the M1 requires.

This is where the guessing comes in. I think Apple can eek out more from the current chip architecture. By letting the cores run slightly hotter at moderately faster clock speeds, those 1700 Geekbench scores can be bumped up to the 2000-2200 range. At least for this first generation, that’ll more than suffice. Then, they can invest the rest of the power budget into boosting multi-core performance. A Bloomberg report published today suggests Apple is working on of 12-core, 16-core and even 20-core CPU designs for the ARM MacBook Pro. That’ll certainly do the job. Remember, the highest-spec MacBook Pro you can buy today features an 8-core CPU.

Frankly, Apple could use the exact same CPU cores in the M1X as they have shipped in the M1, and just have way more of them. They are plenty fast enough for single-core tasks after all. The only areas the M1 falls short in comparison to the current Intel 16-inch MacBook Pro’s is on the multi-core benchmarks. An M1 with a souped-up core count would be perfectly appropriate for the 2021 MacBook Pro. If they can go further, by increasing clock speeds as well, that’s just gravy.

The Apple TV+ Website

The TV app is pretty bad across the board, as I have discussed many times before and will seemingly have to talk about it again with no announced changes on the horizon.

The degree to how bad it is varies per platform. The available features and UI differ wildly depending on which device you are using to access the Apple TV app. The tvOS Apple TV app version is by far the best expression of the app. Then, you have the app for smart TVs and Amazon Fire/Roku (and soon, games consoles) which try to mirror the tvOS experience and somewhat achieve it. The iPhone and iPad interpretation of the TV app trails significantly behind that, and even further back you have the primitive Mac app which doesn’t support the basics like the ability to autoplay the next episode or skip the intro. I’d argue the implementations of those features on tvOS and iOS are mediocre, but the Mac doesn’t have them at all.

However, the award for the worst experience belongs to the Apple TV+ website found at tv.apple.com. Since the service launched on November 1st 2019, the website has always been incredibly barebones. It is a single flat list of Apple TV+ shows and movies, there’s no Channels or iTunes Store content here, arranged in a seemingly random order with no way to filter by content type, genre or release date. At launch, this was just about passable because the service had only 8 titles. A year on, it is simply embarrassing.

There’s no Up Next queue, no search field and also no support for autoplaying the next episode or skipping intros. You can’t even access all the content that is on TV+ through the website: library titles like Long Way Down, Long Way Round or the classic Fraggle Rock episodes are not listed at all. Occasionally, flagship Apple originals like Servant are inexplicably missing.

The web app, if you can call it that given how it is just barely more sophisticated than a static HTML page, also suffers from reliability issues. Many people are unable to actually play content successfully on the website, as odds on you will be presented with a black screen where the video is supposed to be. This issue occurs most frequently when using browsers other than Safari and Chrome. Apple also requires the logged-in account to have a credit card on file before you are allowed to attempt to watch anything, even with an active paid subscription. This restriction does not apply for any of the platform apps.

Apple doesn’t release usage statistics but I expect the web is a popular way people try to access TV+. For one thing, the web app is the only option for Windows and pre-Catalina macOS users. Moreover, with no native Android app in sight, I’ve seen a lot of people try the website on their non-Apple phones and tablets to catch Ted Lasso or the Peanuts specials or whatever. These are all potential customers, ready and willing to pay for Apple’s services.

As a company, Apple has never been known for its web apps, but it’s not like it doesn’t know how. Apple Music has a decent web client. The iCloud.com apps are technically sophisticated and reasonably feature-rich, particularly the iWork web apps.

Perhaps even more frustratingly, Apple’s very own marketing pages for TV+ feature a dynamic and appealing carousel of TV+ content; you have to scroll down a little to see it. This layout should be the basis of a TV+ web app, and frankly the richness and aliveness of it should inform the future of all the native Apple TV apps too.

The 5G iPhone 12

At the beginning of the year, before rather more world-threatening matters took hold, I was toying with an idea to make a review compilation of all the 5G adverts being shown on TV by carriers. What I’d noticed is just how many of these ads would demonstrate things that had nothing to do with 5G at all. Invariably, they would depict feats that would have been perfectly achievable on a LTE network, or take place in contexts where people would have had access to fast broadband and WiFi anyway. It would have been a fun video.

Just like how television manufacturers forced 3D onto the market because they needed something new to try and entice buyers, 5G is driven by carriers trying to find reasons for customers to upgrade their plans and their phones in an age of ever-elongating phone replacement cycles. Carriers have also had to commit to huge outlays in order to get 5G deployed, so they are basically forced to promote it to reclaim their investment.

5G is the future, but as far as I’m concerned there’s no rush. Last year, Android phones started cropping up with first-generation 5G support. The 5G coverage area was so small, it basically wasn’t available to anyone and it didn’t matter at all. Fast forward a year, and coverage is better. Not ubiquitous by any means, but at least it exists.

I'm not exaggerating on the number by the way. I CMD-F'ed the YouTube closed captions file. "5G" was said seventy times during the event.

Enter the iPhone 12. One of the first slides projected on the Steve Jobs Theater stage by Mr Verizon read “5G just got real”. But has it? I still can’t muster up one reason why anybody needs 5G today. Even if you assume universal network availability, there is nothing that you do with a phone that demands higher download speeds than what a decent LTE connection offers. I look to Apple to introduce new technologies and show us why we need them. Apple may have said the word 5G seventy times during its hour-long presentation but at no point could it come up with a meaningful use case. Usually, Apple only adds features to the iPhone when it has end-user motivation to do so. Unfortunately, with 5G, I think they are participating in the smoke and mirrors 5G racket just as much as the carriers are.

I get it. Market forces mean they kind of needed 5G in the iPhone this year, especially to keep up in geographies like China where 5G deployment is further along. The carriers are thrilled they now have four mainstream phones to push the 5G agenda with, and that will undoubtedly benefit Apple’s bottom lines too. I’m not saying Apple shouldn’t have done 5G now. I guess I am disappointed that they have joined in on the charade. 5G should have been presented as an arrow in the quiver of iPhone 12 features, not the primary reason to upgrade your phone.

Apple has spent so much of its feature budget this year on 5G, their hand is forced to act like it’s something that it is really not. At one point, Cook tried to argue that 5G is good for security because it will mean iPhone users won’t have to connect to public unsecured WiFi as often. Like, come on. It’s a nice to have as far as future-proofing the device is concerned, but that’s about it.

Apple Announces Fitness+

Apple:

A new fitness experience for everyone, powered by Apple Watch. World-class workouts by the world’s top trainers. New workouts every week. Work out how and where you want.

There are some people who miss the days when Apple only made shiny pieces of metal. I am not in that camp. I have no problem with Apple rolling out new services, as long as they are made with purpose and care. Fitness+ fits the bill. It’s a really nice integration of Apple’s ecosystem to bring something new to home fitness courses. The interaction between the recorded video and the user’s on-screen health metrics is useful and simple for prospective subscribers to understand.

In all likelihood, the Fitness app will do a better job at presenting a catalogue of video than the TV app.

Although we can’t test the app yet, the marketing screenshots are promising. It looks like a well made app, with some signature Apple niceties sprinkled on top. There are some obvious paths for future expansion, such as offering live sessions or audio-only workouts for when you are exercising outside with your Watch and AirPods, which I’m sure Apple will get to in the fullness of time.

Until I can try it out for myself (“by the end of the year”), the only criticism I have is that the service will require a Watch. The Fitness app on iPad and Apple TV won’t let you do anything unless it can sense that a nearby Watch is present. This seems like an unnecessary artificial limitation. It is true that the unique parts of the service do depend on the Watch, but I think it’s stupid that the rest of my (non-Watch bearing) family won’t be allowed to use the Apple TV to follow along with the virtual classes and do some exercise.

When I was watching the presentation live, before the denouement of the Fitness+ section, I was expecting a $4.99 per month price point. Fundamentally, Fitness+ is workout videos with some overlaid metrics. Apple can pump these out with relatively low overheads. So, $5 felt about right, to match the value proposition as Arcade and TV+.

With that expectation in mind, I was taken aback when they said it was $9.99 per month (or $80 a year). Music is $9.99 because you get truly unlimited music and streaming music market is tightly controlled. News+ is $9.99 because Apple has to pay publishers. The content offered by Music and News has a marginal cost, which is not true for TV+ and Arcade. Those services have fixed cost financials; Apple doesn’t pay each time a user consumes games or TV shows, it only has to lay down the upfront cost of commissioning them. Hence, only $5.

Fitness+ is a fixed cost service, but it has higher-rate pricing. From the business side, Apple is going to singing for the hills if they can accrue millions of Fitness+ subscribers. It will easily be their most profitable service per customer. In the scheme of things, producing a set of fitness videos on a weekly basis is relatively inexpensive. Their outlay on a single TV+ show will easily cost more than running the entire the Fitness+ service for years.

That being said, it doesn’t matter how much it costs to make, it’s what the market can bear. At $9.99, Fitness+ is legitimately competitive with other workout plans. I clicked on a handful of fitness apps in the App Store, and Apple’s offering is coming in at the same price or sometimes slightly cheaper. For instance, Peloton’s digital subscription is $13. Fitness+ is not a direct competitor to Peloton’s business, but it plays in the same space.

Moreover, Apple has an ulterior motivation. It’s the bundle. As soon as I saw the Apple One pricing slide, any doubts I had about the chosen pricing were explained away on the spot. By making Fitness+ cost a lot, the Premier bundle looks way more appealing. The Premier bundle boasts a $25 saving on a $29.95 monthly price. Almost half of that discount is enabled by Fitness+ being part of Premier, a service that costs Apple almost all no money. Brilliant.

New App Store Rules For Streaming Games Services

Apple:

Streaming games are permitted so long as they adhere to all guidelines — for example, each game update must be submitted for review, developers must provide appropriate metadata for search, games must use in-app purchase to unlock features or functionality, etc. Of course, there is always the open Internet and web browser apps to reach all users outside of the App Store.

Each streaming game must be submitted to the App Store as an individual app so that it has an App Store product page, appears in charts and search, has user ratings and review, can be managed with ScreenTime and other parental control apps, appears on the user’s device, etc.

Firstly, I’m not convinced that any of these rules are actually new policy, I think it’s just the first time Apple has formally written them down. Remember, the iOS beta for the Xbox Game Pass app passed the TestFlight review process precisely because it allowed the user to access one game and one game only.

New or not, these rules suck. I highly doubt Microsoft or PlayStation are going to show any interest in submitting each of their titles separately, which entails uploading hundreds (possibly, thousands) of nearly-identical app binaries that differ only in which game they connect to on the backend.

Apple is also requesting that a new version of the game app is submitted to the App Store when the game is updated, a silly endeavour when the game logic is wholly living on a remote server anyway. At the very least, managing the individual app listings is pointless busywork.

For end-users, it means cluttering your home screen with pages of app icons that all need to be logged into when you launch them. Nobody would choose to use a cloud service in this way. A defining characteristic of the game streaming model is how easy it is to play something new; no waiting for gigabytes of assets to download. Apple’s requirements add barriers to entry which will make the experience less enjoyable for players.

Apple’s current position on this matter is indefensible. Simply, companies should be allowed to make an app that comprises a catalogue of games, and have those games be playable inside the same app. ‘100-in-1 minigames’ apps actually already exist on the App Store. The only difference with streaming services is where the game is physically being rendered.

If Apple was telling these services that they need to be notified when their game library changes, I’d get it. If they mandated a 17+ age rating for the container app’s listing on the App Store, fine. Even if they said game streaming services can only feature titles that have been tested and rated by an official body, like the ESRB which almost all console games are ratified by, I’d understand.

watchOS 7 Forces Out Force Touch

Apple first signalled that pressure sensitivity screens were on the way out with the iPhone XR in 2018. Last year, Apple fully removed the reliance on 3D Touch from iOS in preparation for the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro’s release. On reflection, the transition has been uneventful. It was a regression — activation with pressure is still faster than a long press — but the difference in speed was small enough that techies quickly forgot to care, and normal people didn’t notice.

In key areas of the system, it was also an opportunity to make the iOS experience wholly better, by removing places where the gestures were overloaded and conflicting, like on the home screen. You still hear occasional grumbles about the loss of the headphone jack, and a lot of people want Touch ID to be offered as an alternative to Face ID. Yet on the eve of iPhone 12, nobody is yearning for 3D Touch to return.

Whereas 3D Touch for iPhone was tacked on years after the platform’s idioms were established, Force Touch was an inherent part of the Apple Watch’s design. The Watch’s small size meant that Apple needed a way to offer users access to additional app actions without taking up valuable screen space. So, the solution they came up with was that a firm press on the display would overlay a menu of buttons, relevant to the current context.

However, Apple is dropping pressure sensitivity from the Apple Watch this year and it is watchOS’s turn to adapt its software for a world without Force Touch. With watchOS 7, all of the old Force Touch menu stuff is deprecated. Instead, developers are expected to incorporate these buttons directly into their app UIs. In the WWDC sessions, Apple proposed a few approaches for how to achieve this.

One suggestion was to add a primary action button at the top of scrolling lists. For example, to start a new message on watchOS 6, you would firmly press on the Messages list to show the New Message button. On watchOS 7, a blue New Message button resides at the top of the list. When you first launch Messages, this button isn’t visible as the default scroll offset hides it. A simple swipe down reveals it and it sticks to the top of the screen whilst the rest of the list bounces, providing some subtle visual delineation of content.

This pattern is a pretty natural transition for list-based apps. But a lot of watchOS apps are not structured as pages of lists. A good number of Watch apps are actually single-screen widget-like experiences. For these kinds of apps, it is less obvious what to do. You can see this play out in the Apple stock apps.

For apps that previously used the Force Touch buttons as pseudo tabs, each providing different views on the same data, Apple appears to have decided that merely tapping on the screen will suffice. In Stopwatch, you tap anywhere to switch between the digital, analogue and hybrid modes. Similarly, tap on the forecast summary in the Weather app to toggle between weather conditions and temperature estimates. This works, but it is a bit undiscoverable and perhaps too easy to trigger accidentally. It’s also a little awkward if the mode you want to flip to is multiple taps away and most people won’t remember the order of screens — just tap and hope I guess.

Calendar used Force Touch to switch between Up Next, list or day view, a tab-like design. But tapping the screen is already used in Calendar to perform navigation, so the standard approach can’t be used. What they landed on was moving the view options out of the app entirely and exposing it as a preference in the Settings app. I hate it. Settings are meant for user choices that aren’t contextual, things that are rarely changed. Yet, I’m constantly wanting to switch calendar views, depending on things like how busy my schedule is and what time of the day I’m checking it.

Other Apple apps are a bit of a free for all. In the Activity app, the new buttons are found by scrolling to the bottom of the screen. Maps exposed all sorts of actions through its Force Touch menu. These are now placed behind a translucent circular button, tucked in the bottom-right corner of the screen. Photos has similarly added a Create Watch Face button, albeit in the bottom-left corner. Calculator put a percentage button in its Force Touch menu; Apple seems to have found no viable alternative location and simply opted to remove the function altogether. A little-known trick in the Workout app is you could press on the End button to reveal a button to cancel it, in case you started a workout accidentally that you don’t want to save and notify your friends about. As far as I can tell, this feature is also no longer available.

At the watchOS system level, users most commonly encountered the need to Force Touch to enter and exit the watch face edit screen. This has been wholesale replaced by a long press. Something that felt fast now feels slow. Just like the iPhone though, it is a manageable loss and I expect people will quickly forget the former elegance.

There is one place where getting rid of Force Touch has made the Watch meaningfully worse to use: clearing your notifications. I get a handful of notifications throughout the day. When my watch taps me, I look down and see what the alert is. Usually, it doesn’t demand a response so I turn my wrist back and the notification goes to Notification Centre. I clear up my inbox about twice a day, usually once at lunchtime and once in the evening. If I know there is nothing that I need to go back to, I simply swipe down on my watch face and press firmly to clear all my notifications away. At least, that’s what I did prior to June.

I can’t do that anymore as Force Touch is gone. watchOS 7’s solution is to put a Clear All button at the top of the list of alerts. This means I have to swipe down to open Notification Centre, then spend several seconds scrolling the list back up to the top where the button is, and then tap it. Even though I am only doing this process two or three times a day, it is a right pain. I had hoped this would have changed over the beta season, but we’re at watchOS beta 7 now and there have been no improvements.

Like with the iOS transition, the execution has been mostly good. I just really hope the Notification Center interaction gets smoothed out. As for why Apple chose to kill Force Touch now, I point to the reports that Apple is about to launch an ‘Apple Watch Series 3S’. Removing Force Touch helps to trim component costs and may make room internally for a slightly larger battery.

Epic's Monopoly Royale

The anticompetitive scrutiny on the App Store has been growing for a while. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact starting point, but a big push came out of Apple’s souring relationship with Spotify. This spat became public in 2018 when Spotify removed the ability to subscribe to its service using in-app purchase. Recent court filings have revealed that the two companies had been privately exchanging tense discourses for several years leading up to that happening. Seemingly following Spotify’s lead, Netflix followed suit later in the same year by removing any ability to sign up in its app. New users would have to go to the web, allowing it to avoid paying Apple a cut of its subscriptions.

It wasn’t so much that Apple had changed its App Store policies, most of the rules currently under public review date back to Steve Jobs. What did happen is that Apple began applying them ever more strictly. It was cracking down on things like Spotify including links in its app that directed people to to sign up online. The enforcement was so stringent that it even extended to banning apps that included help and support buttons because they would indirectly allow users to get to an account creation page, like with a link in the website footer. Today, many companies have resorted to setting up completely separate privacy policy and FAQ pages, stripped of all website navigation, just to appease App Review.

The discontent among big companies gradually evolved into a bigger issue as Apple itself started to seriously invest in building competitors to the services that the App Store was restricting. Spotify’s complaint to the EU holds so much weight precisely because it can make the case that it is disadvantaged in competing against Apple Music. Without that incendiary motivation, this stuff may never have come to the fore in the eyes of government. We’ve even seen Tile testify to a judiciary hearing because Apple is merely rumoured to be entering the smart tracker market.

Epic’s public protest will be remembered as the apex of this fight. It has officially reached the point of no return. Something is going to change. I don’t know how and I don’t know what, but something is going to change. Apple is not going to escape from all of this completely unscathed.

Some people think that Apple will use the Fortnite blackout as the time to reconsider and relax some of its policies to placate Epic and diffuse the looming antitrust lawsuits. I don’t see it. Apple has had plenty of chances to re-evaluate its position and it has plainly chosen to remain steadfast. It’s not budging until it is forced to. I think the likely resolution of the standoff is that Epic relents in a couple of weeks time. They will retract the direct payments feature and Fortnite will then return to the App Store. The stunt has served its purpose as a mildly-embarrassing smear campaign against Apple, and its effect won’t be lessened by Epic backtracking. In fact, that might only serve as legal ammo: Epic could argue that Apple’s retaliatory action was so harsh that it left them no choice but to back down.

Assuming Apple sticks to its convictions, we must wait for some government body to enact change through an arduously long court and appeals process. When the dust settles, there are a few different avenues Apple could negotiate. Possible release valves include supporting applications that are installed outside of the App Store, allowing alternative payment methods, or merely letting Netflix tell its customers that users can purchase its services on the web. I do not expect the 30% cut to be meaningfully reduced: Google Play is living proof that an app store can justify taking 30% even when alternative app distribution options are available.

The money is one thing. Personally, I care more about reining in the power Apple has to deny entire categories of apps from existing. The most recent example of this is Apple’s decision to outlaw all game streaming services. These services pose no risk to the security or stability of the operating system, and frankly provide access to games that have been examined far more meticulously by age rating boards than anything App Review does. Apple has no justifiable reason to ban them, and yet here we are. That just doesn’t sit right with me.

A common refrain in support of Apple’s position is to compare iOS devices to game consoles. Microsoft and Sony operate curated platforms for Xbox and PlayStation, with unilateral control over what software is available and mandatory revenue sharing agreements. If Microsoft is allowed to block Google Stadia from being available on the Xbox, why must Apple be compelled to allow it? I wish I hard a straight answer to this question, but I don’t. Maybe it is just the sheer dominance of the iPhone in consumer culture, it touches lives far more deeply than any generation of PlayStation. I can’t fully vocalise why an iPhone is different to a games console, but it is. The ‘console argument’ may be a legitimate legal defence, but it doesn’t convince me. It’s the old adage: you know it when you see it.

The iMac No One Should Buy

Apple:

Apple today announced a major update to its 27-inch iMac. By far the most powerful and capable iMac ever, it features faster Intel processors up to 10 cores, double the memory capacity, next-generation AMD graphics, superfast SSDs across the line with four times the storage capacity, a new nano-texture glass option for an even more stunning Retina 5K display, a 1080p FaceTime HD camera, higher fidelity speakers, and studio-quality mics.

The iMac has limped along for a decade on the same industrial design and last-gen technology. I think that will be a permanent blot on Apple’s record. It is a poor showing for the company’s only consumer desktop to lag behind the curve so much. This week’s refresh at least rectifies the biggest hole in feature set; the 2020 iMac lineup finally uses SSDs as standard. The T2 chip is new to the 27-inch iMac too, acting as the storage controller for fast read and write speeds, plus the security benefits and other niceties it provides.

The base model specs are pretty stingy, with Apple equipping all the 21.5- and the low end 27-inch machines with 256 GB SSDs. This choice basically forced them to offer a 1TB Fusion Drive as a build-to-order option, although it’s not available for the 27-inch as the T2 only speaks solid state. Zoom back to 2012 for a second, right after the all-SSD Retina MacBook Pro was released. Do you think people seriously thought Apple would still be selling spinning disks in 2020? Crazy right. Predicting a Retina future for every Mac also seemed obvious in 2012, and yet incredulously the base model 21.5-inch iMac display is a very much non-Retina 1920x1080 resolution.

New processor and GPU upgrades are fine but nothing to write home about. The 1080P webcam and ‘studio’ microphone array are welcome inclusions. The nano-texture glass option is interesting in that it shows Apple is looking to bring matte displays to more than just high-end pro products. The option costs $500 compared to the $1000 price jump on the Pro Display XDR. It would be cool to see it on a MacBook soon, maybe as a $200-$300 upgrade. Ultimately, this iMac update boils down to a perfunctory spec bump.

Unless your computer dies and you need a desktop Mac to replace it, I don’t think anyone should buy these iMacs. They just aren’t compelling. When you are buying an all-in-one machine, you are buying a point in time. It’s a non-upgradeable box. This is fine when the box is full of shiny things, all modern and new. From 2010 through 2015 I’d say, the iMac fulfilled that criteria. This was the era of the introduction of things like the razor-thin chassis edge, Retina 5K and Retina 4K displays, P3 wide colour and the like. From about 2016, the product was coasting along but the lustre was gone. Finally, the debut of the thin bezel iPhone X and the iPad Pro in 2018 firmly planted the iMac in yesteryear. Buying these iMacs is committing to technology and design that is already half-deprecated. I would have said the same before the Apple Silicon announcement, but with that in tow, I can say it even more strongly.

This generation of iMac will quickly be remembered as a tombstone of everything old. By this time next year, Apple be deep into a transformation of the entire Mac lineup, featuring whole new architecture and largely new designs. I fully expect the ARM iMac to look entirely different. That is to say, modern. Wait for them.

Display Zoom Reveals New iPhone Resolution

Display Zoom is a truly great feature for those that need it. The usual go-to accessibility setting for older people is the text size slider. However, I recommend turning to Display Zoom, and considering adjusting the text size as a last resort. Both accessibility features help people with poor eyesight, but the mechanics are very different.

With Dynamic Text, the OS uses larger font sizes for body text and some headings. Due to the limited available space, components like iOS toolbars use fixed metrics and do not change the text size of their buttons at all. When the system font size is increased significantly, this results in a pretty ugly mish-mash of application UIs with some parts of the screen being enlarged whilst other areas don’t change. Often, the app will change the text size of a button but the button’s container doesn’t get bigger in kind, so you see a lot of truncated text. It’s also possible to encounter app layouts that are entirely broken with Dynamic Text active, as developers sometimes forget to test every screen of their app under these conditions.

Display Zoom works by making the OS pretend that it is running on a device with a lower resolution screen, causing apps to render at that smaller size, and then scaling that up to fill the actual display of the device. This means the entire interface is rendered physically larger. Display Zoom came to iOS starting with the iPhone 6 but it originated on the Mac; the behaviour is identical to the scaled display options in macOS System Preferences, except the iPhone only presents you with one choice of alternate resolution.

The main advantage of Display Zoom is that it applies to the entire screen evenly, enlarging everything uniformly. Unlike Dynamic Text, there is no distortion of the relative size of interface elements. Text is easier to read, UI elements are easier to touch. This latter point is frequently the more useful aspect. I set my grandpa’s phone to use Zoomed mode primarily because it makes touch targets easier to press. The lesser scaled resolution usually means there are fewer things visible on screen at once, and the things that do remain are simply bigger. As far as his accessibility to using the phone is concerned, the dexterity of his fingers and unfamiliarity with touchscreens are far greater barriers than the impact of his ageing eyesight. For instance, Display Zoom makes it much easier for him to type on the software keyboard, as each key is about 25% larger in Zoomed view.

My general advice is to enable Display Zoom first. Then, consider bumping up the text if that is still necessary. With Display Zoom magnification in effect, the number of font size increases required may only be two or three notches away from the system default, which is far less disruptive to app layouts than compared to cranking it all the way up to the biggest size.

Display Zoom employs non-integer scaling, which means it causes some degree of blurriness. The visual artefacts are minor though, and someone who needs to use Display Zoom for accessibility reasons won’t be able to perceive it.

Display Zoom imposes no additional engineering effort on app developers. Apple achieves this by having each iPhone simulate a screen resolution of another model in the lineup, that has the same aspect ratio. Every app in the App Store supports Display Zoom automatically, because to the app it is the same as if it was running natively on a different iPhone, and of course developers have to ensure compatibility with all the various iPhone form factors as a matter of course.

For example, the Zoomed view on grandpa’s iPhone 8 renders as if it was a 4-inch iPhone SE, the iPhone 8 Plus emulates a iPhone 8 screen and on the iPhone 11 Pro Max, it matches the resolution of the iPhone 11 Pro.

A quirk of time is that the 5.8-inch iPhone X has never offered Display Zoom. Because the X was the start of a new line of 18:9 iPhones, Apple didn’t have a suitable resolution from a counterpart phone to draw upon. The lack of Display Zoom carried through to the iPhone XS and iPhone 11 Pro, which share the same screen specifications. Dynamic Text is available, but no Display Zoom.

This omission was an unfortunate downside of the modern non-Max iPhones. Hopefully, me extolling the benefits of Display Zoom across the last five paragraphs shows why that matters. The good news is that iOS 14 beta 3 adds Display Zoom to all 5.8-inch phones.

But what about the lack of smaller 18:9 iPhone? Apple hasn’t released any new sizes. Yet. As tested by 9to5Mac in the iOS Simulator, and as seen by taking a screenshot on the iPhone 11 Pro in Zoomed mode, the never-before-seen resolution is 960x2079 (or 320x693 at 3x scale). That’s the same width as the old 4-inch phones. Odds on, this is the resolution of the new 5.4-inch iPhone, which will be one of four iPhone 12 models coming this fall.

The introduction of a new resolution means Apple is facing yet another iPhone hardware cycle where users will have to wait a few months for developers to update their apps so they can fully enjoy their new phone’s form factor, free of top and bottom black bars. Apps will need to update to explicitly declare compatibility for this screen size. Otherwise, apps appear on-screen letterboxed. You can try this out for yourself; install beta 3 on a 5.8-inch iPhone, enable Display Zoom, and launch any App Store app.

It’s funny that Apple slipped this in during the third beta seed, as if no one would notice. They would have probably been better off shipping it as part of beta 1 and drawing attention to it in a WWDC session, proudly touting the addition of Display Zoom to the 5.8-inch phones as a new feature. We would always make the connection to the rumoured new phone size, but you might as well start evangelising apps to support it as soon as possible.

All of Apple’s system apps are already updated to fill the screen. I spent a good twenty minutes using my phone in Zoomed mode to get a feel for what the forthcoming 5.4-inch phone might be like to use day-to-day. It seemed fine. I could not find a single place in the system where I found the smaller screen real estate meaningfully lacking. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on something. If you are yearning for the smaller-phone-with-premium-specs, I think you’ll be happy with what you are getting. The loss in horizontal resolution is not a big deal; some controls like tab bars just have less whitespace between the buttons.

The WWDC Format

The production quality of Apple’s WWDC keynote video was incredibly high. Swooping drone shots, sharply paced, a good variety of presenters, complementary slides and animations, and immaculate background sets. They really did step and embrace the fact that the show was being pre-recorded.

The effort was well received and I saw many people sharing the sentiment that this how WWDC should be done every year. I can’t say I agree. I yearn for them to go back to normal. Obviously, in the current health environment, that is not possible. When the world situation (eventually) improves, I am personally hoping Apple goes back to normal with its events. Doing something live, truly live, has this effervescent ambience that will never be matched by something that has been filmed ahead of time. The lingering danger of something going wrong with the demo is palpable, and that’s what makes live events great. The weeks of rehearsal and the confidence in the products shine through. Pre-recorded streams are always going to be perfect. This time, it was new, novel and impressive they could pull off such an elaborate presentation under stringent social distancing conditions. But one, two, three years down the line, the novelty wears off and it gets boring. I want to see a show, not watch a marketing video. The risk of live is what makes it.

The technical sessions were also all pre-recorded this year … and they should keep them that way. It was brilliant. The seminar format conveyed the information with more detail and more clarity. For learning materials, that’s exactly what you want. The scheduling was so much better too. All videos could simply be released at the same time each day. They weren’t beholden to the timetable and room capacity of the McEnery convention centre. I assume this was also less stressful for the developers and designers presenting their work. You still have to script and prepare for recorded filming work, but taping to a teleprompter is far less of an ordeal than needing to meticulously rehearse and rehearse for your one shot at presenting during WWDC week.

I think you can reconcile the appeal of live keynotes and the practicality of recorded session. In the hypothetical future, WWDC would still be an in-person event with consumer Keynote and developer State of the Union presentations on the Monday. Session videos would then be released that evening, leaving the rest of the week for extended labs, mixers and hands-on workshops for the developers in attendance.

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.