I don’t believe that Apple planned to release three product updates in three successive days in March. At the very least, the new AirPods seems like something that was meant to be out for Christmas. The iMac spec bump might have been intended to be a 2018 thing too. However, the company wanted to draw a line in the ground and make its Monday event solely about software and services.
So, Apple made the best of a bad situation and engendered excitement for relatively-minor announcements in a way that I haven’t seen them do in a long time. The Tim Cook sketch memes on Twitter were great and community was actively excited to see what was coming the day after. The hype train came to a halt when Apple ended the streak on Thursday but as they never promised to have something new for every day of the week, no one really came away feeling disappointed.
I mean, we all know how interesting credit cards are.
It also acts as a nice backstop for the services bonanza taking place on Monday. Apple has already paid some attention to its hardware user base so if you watch the spring event and are completely disinterested in news, games, TV or the credit card project, at least you have already been throne a bone the week before.
The shared motif of all three product category updates was the feeling that these teams were told to do whatever update you can without needing to change the chassis design. For the iPad Air and Mini, this is passable. The bezels are big but it is reasonable to keep the new-generation design as a ‘Pro’ differentiator for a year. The 2018 iPad Pro models only just came out after all. The Air represents good value for money and the Mini carves its own niche (a la Mac mini). The bifurcation of the Apple Pencil accessory is annoying and inelegant. It doesn’t feel like asking too much for Apple to flatten the edges and add a magnetic charger into these models, but alas they did not do this.
The iMac update is so incremental it’s almost insulting. The only change to the default configurations is the inclusion of eighth- and ninth-generation Intel CPUs. The Radeon Pro Vega GPU option is a $750 upgrade. I wasn’t expecting a chassis redesign (although one is very much warranted almost a decade deep with the same design) but the lack of SSD-only / T2 equipped iMac configuration was a disappointing shock.
The new AirPods are cool. I’ve ordered a pair, primarily so I have the wireless charging case at hand for whenever the AirPower mat arrives. My number one complaint with the current AirPods is that, sometimes, it can take like 20 seconds to switch from my iPhone to my iPad. When it looks like it is behaving normally, this action takes about three-to-five seconds. Apple markets the H1 chip as halving the average connection time, and I hope the reliability is improved too.
The new AirPods are described in documentation as ‘second-generation’ but these are more like AirPods 1.2 plus the wireless charging case. Nothing wrong with that but I’d expect more significant change next year. The pricing is a bit awkward. $159 for the new AirPods with the standard charging case, or $199 for the new AirPods with the wireless charging case. I saw plenty of people who were confused by this and thought it was an Apple TV-esque stunt where the old model was continuing to be sold at the same price point. You pay an extra $40 just for the wireless charging function. That is a pretty steep premium for what you currently get in exchange. I predict, maybe next year, the wireless charging case will become standard across the line and the $199 model will be more differentiated, perhaps using features like noise cancellation as the up-sell. The $199 price point isn’t going to disappear.
Shortcuts is an overloaded term in the Apple world. What I am referring to in this article is the Siri Shortcuts system, not the Shortcuts app that allows users to make their own workflows. You can make Siri Shortcuts from shortcuts made in the Shortcuts app.
What I am focusing on is the mechanism by which apps, first or third-party, can expose shortcut actions to iOS that can then be ‘added into Siri’ and activated using your voice. The shortcuts can be presented to the user by each individual app or found in a list of recommendations in the Siri pane of the Settings app.
This means Siri can now be smarter by drawing on the capabilities of many more apps. You can order coffee. Control third party audio apps like Overcast or Pandora. Plan travel itineraries with Kayak. All with your voice talking to your intelligent personal assistant.
Except that’s not really true. That is how Apple likes to market the feature but it’s a twisted form of reality. Shortcuts are not making Siri smarter, in fact they are dumber than pretty much anything Siri has done to date. Shortcuts put the burden on the user to do the legwork of synthesising data sources and integrating the apps into the voice service.
Shortcuts require registration and administration to do anything at all with Siri. The user has to pre-emptively search out every command available in a certain app and then add each in turn to Siri. Registration requires the user to think up the phrase they want to use to trigger the command on the spot. Siri can then trigger these actions when that same phrase is said back to it at a later date.
There is no intelligence here. Siri transcribes the user’s voice and looks for an exact text match of that phrase in the database of voice shortcut phrases that the user has generated off their own back. If a match is found, it proceeds. Otherwise, failure.
There is no leeway in what can be asked. There is no flexibility in how a command can be impromptu formulated. Any sequence of words other than what was inputted when the shortcut was first registered is not understood. That’s the point, there is no understanding. The Siri interpreter has no understanding of semantics or meaning when you are interacting with an app shortcut. It is a dictionary text lookup and nothing more.
It is disappointing that Apple is leaning so heavily on shortcuts as a mainstream way for customers to get more from Siri. It flies in the face of how you want a voice assistant to work and behaves differently from every other type of Siri interaction. When you ask Siri for the weather, you can say ‘What’s the weather?’ or ‘What’s the weather on Friday?’ or ‘tell me the forecast’ or ‘do I need to wear sunglasses?’ or just ‘weather’. The whole point is the user does not have to revise a set list of triggers. Apple has made entire ad campaigns to this effect, promoting the flexibility. Forget custom variables, the Shortcuts system cannot support multiple ways of saying the same thing. A truly good voice assistant does not require the user to remember something.
This philosophy is exactly what drove Apple to design the SiriKit API in the way they did. SiriKit abstracts aways the parsing or semantics of a snippet of speech. It is the responsibility of Apple engineering to enable the understanding, across English locales and foreign languages. Under SiriKit, the third-party apps only supply the data for the response. All of the work Apple puts in to improve Siri’s understanding of commands automatically benefits every SiriKit app, and every SiriKit app of the same domain should respond consistently to the same commands. The downside to SiriKit is that it can only work with a subset of applications, those which Apple has done the legwork to create a domain for. So, a user has to know which of the apps on their phone works with Siri, but they don’t have to register a corpus of commands and can interact with the app through Siri with an order of magnitude more freedom.
By relying on the Shortcuts system so heavily, Apple risks breeding even more hatred for Siri than what already exists in the community, as people inevitably forget the exact words they used when they made the shortcut four months ago, and blame it on Siri being dumb instead. If you want to call Siri dumb, then Shortcuts is primordial in comparison.
I am worried that Siri Shortcuts has usurped favour in Apple’s product marketing groups to the point where engineering resources on SiriKit have been sidelined. Siri Shortcuts certainly requires less effort on the part of Apple to maintain. It’s the lazy way out for them versus SiriKit which necessitates continuous advancement and development of new domains. I care about the end user experience and SiriKit provides superior results. I want them to invest in supporting more domains. At best, Apple should consider Siri Shortcuts as a companion feature to Siri and not a substitute for SiriKit.
The distinction between iPhone and iPad support sticks out. In the age of Split View, iPad app have to be ready to adapt to skinny columns, square, and full-screen layouts at any time. They are programmed to be continuously resizable. Even fixed size iPhone apps on macOS would be alright; they’d just be small windows amongst your other windows.
In an attempt to decipher the Chinese whispers here, I think what this actually means is that this year’s Marzipan system will not let you shrink windows into single-column designs. At a technical level, apps running under Marzipan on macOS 10.15 will not transition to compact width size classes. In fact, this is exactly how News, Stocks, Voice Memos and Home work on Mojave. Try it right now. Although the windows are resizable, they have minimum size constraints in both width and height. It is not possible to compress the interface enough to collapse the sidebars.
I don’t know why they chose to enforce this restriction as many actual Mac apps, like Finder, do happily morph into skinny column layouts when their windows are made small, and I can’t think up a technical reason that would prevent it from being implemented.
I love Kuo. He can go silent for three months and then, out of the blue, drop a wide-reaching report about seemingly every major new Apple hardware product coming this year. On a Sunday.
Kuo believes there will be a new MacBook Pro update with a 16 to 16.5-inch display. This is apparently an “all-new design” which, in Kuo parlance, means a substantial change to the chassis. This isn’t going to be the same MacBook Pro chassis we know today made to accommodate a 16-inch display. The obvious direction is to make the bezels smaller. Kuo provides no more details, but let’s hope the keyboard is “all-new” too.
Interestingly, a 16-inch panel implies that the laptop will almost certainly get larger. Even if you removed 100% of the black frame surrounding the current MacBook Pro screen, you would just reach a 16-inch diagonal. In reality, there is of course going to be some minimal expanse of bezel, and the report has enough wiggle room that screen could be up to 16.5-inches, so the dimensions simply have to be getting a little longer and wider. Maybe this will be a MacBook Pro that does not tout thinner, lighter and smaller as one of its flagship improvements. That’s significant in itself.
The other morsel in the Mac category is details about Apple’s upcoming external display, expected to ship alongside the Mac Pro. Kuo describes its as a 31.6-inch ‘6k3k’ high-resolution panel with a backlight similar to Mini LED. Unlike typical LCD monitors, Mini LED backlights enables portions of the display to be turned on and off independently. This results in a similar effect to OLED with high-contrast black levels. Mini LED lighting is also thinner and power efficient than standard LCD backlight components. All of these features firmly differentiate the Apple display from the LG UltraFine range. It certainly fits the bill of Apple’s promises that it would be a ‘high-end pro’ display. Also, expect a big bill when you buy it.
Kuo says that Apple will an Apple Watch ceramic body option after an Edition hiatus with the Series 4. He reiterates that AirPower is shipping in the first half of the year, and accompanying wireless charging AirPods case, so that’s good news. The 9.7-inch iPad is being bumped up to 10.2-inches but it’s not clear if the screen bezel is shrinking with that product as Apple still has to contend with the Touch ID home button. The iPad Pro, iPad mini and iPod touch are getting the short end of the product marketing stick, with mere processor upgrades anticipated.
Regarding iPhones, the report says that the iPhones will have a new ‘frosted glass’ casing finish. This sounds like a similar material to the Pixel 3’s matte glass back. I haven’t actually handled a Pixel 3 in person, but the matte glass is cool to look at in photos. Kuo says the triple camera setup will mean the addition of an ultra-wide lens. A fair few Android phones offer ultra-wide cameras currently, I don’t know how useful they are in the real world. I feel like it’s more niche than the zoom lens. Kuo calls out ‘larger batteries’ as a new feature. The XR embarrasses the iPhone XS (non-Max) so much when it comes to battery life it is actually insane. Hopefully, the 11 can bring those models closer together. The bilateral charging feature benefits from a bigger internal battery too, as you can use any excess juice to wirelessly charge up your AirPods in a pinch.
The other major thing Kuo highlights is support for ‘Ultra-Wide Band’ indoor positioning. UWB involves venues setting up little antennas in the corners of rooms, which the phone can talk to and locate itself with a very high degree of accuracy (often better than a 1 metre radius). Apple has been slowly expanding its indoor mapping features in Apple Maps, and I bet that this is the year they push it big time. Here comes augmented reality Maps navigation.
This is annoying but it is not unusual. App Review loves to changes its mind and never more so than with the renewing subscription requirements. On this occasion, I had ‘nothing’ to do whilst I was waiting in the metaphorical App Store Connect line. It was a weekend.
For some reason, I channeled my frustration from the repeated delays into making a Mac app. I booted up a new Xcode project and tried to learn AppKit on the spot. I had approximately zero prior knowledge about Mac development, and it seemed like a terrible time to start given the turbulent state of macOS apps framework, but I had nothing better to do.
AppKit is funky. I have now made a Mac app, but I admit I don’t know what I’m doing. When you get stuck with AppKit, you really do get stuck. Googling doesn’t really help you as there simply is a lack of online posts and forum threads for Mac-specific topics. I basically followed UIKit idioms whenever the most obvious path was not apparent.
Some stuff came very naturally. Other stuff seemed inane, or at least I don’t have the context or berth to understand the choices that have been made.
I thought it was really cool that behaviours like alternate menu items in the menubar are built-in automatic features of the AppKit framework. (This is the thing where you can hold down a modifier key, like Option, whilst in a menu and see how some of the items dynamically update to show an alternate-but-related action that depends on the modifier key being held.) As a developer, you just add two menu items with concomitant keyboard shortcuts, set a flag, and it shows and hides the secondary one automatically. In general, AppKit has a much larger library of controls and interface elements than UIKit such that the need for coding custom view subclasses is greatly reduced. Also, macOS standard elements look prettier than the stock iOS counterparts, so that helps a lot too.
In the ‘stupid stuff’ camp, it is ridiculous that you can’t zoom in or out of a Mac storyboard in Interface Builder. I was flummoxed when it came to making an action that could be executed with a keyboard shortcut without having an activatable control on the screen. I also struggled to work out how I was supposed to organise my Mac project. How do I funnel menu items from a storyboard into outlets for my window controller? The solution I found is to make outlets on the AppDelegate that I then expose as public properties. Yuck.
Despite the bumpy road, my familiarity and ten year knowledge of iOS app development meant that I could complete the work. I have made a single window utility Mac app, and doing it was really fun. I originally made it as a personal proof of concept but it turned out so good that I polished it up into a shipping app.
What is that app? Tabs to Links. It detects open windows and tabs in Safari and lets you export those tabs as a list of links. In one step, you can make a bulleted list in Notes or just send the links in an email. There’s also an integrated suffix algorithm, which allows the app to strip redundant text from the links. This comes up a lot as many websites include their name and/or slogan in the page title. Just check the ‘Trim titles’ box and the app finds such repetition and will not include it when sharing. Click the Share Links button to see all compatible sharing services. If Tabs to Links is frontmost, you can press Command+C to instantly copy to the clipboard, ready for pasting into any Mac app.
You can get it now from the Mac App Store. Watch this 15-second demo video I made using my incredible (read: terrible) iMovie and QuickTime skills. It works with Safari only; I could make it work for Chrome too if there is demand.
Here’s an amusing aside. Years ago, I made this feature as a tabs-to-links Safari extension. It would take the open tabs and spit out a HTML list. Me and Zac have used it for ages to create the show notes for the Happy Hour podcast.
Sods law is such, that upon completing the native Mac version, Safari Technology Preview added an API for app extensions to retrieve data for all windows and tabs. This means Tabs to Links could live as an app extension after all. In any case, the Mac app is way nicer to use. AppKit enables more features, a prettier UI, and access to system sharing services. Down the road, I could integrate a Safari extension into Tabs to Links as an alternative option.
The Apple Store is a store. It’s a place to buy something, and a place for Apple to sell something. However, the Apple Store has never been defined by the hard sell. In fact, it boldly fought against it. Apple retail employees have never earned commission because the goal was to give shoppers the right advice, and match person to product based on need and wants, not which one gives the biggest kickback.
These new initiatives to juice iPhone XS and iPhone XR fly in the face of the principled stance Apple has established in the past. Staff advice is distorted by upper management marketing pressure, rather than monetary incentives, but the result is the same for the customer. The advice is currently biased towards hitting Apple’s targets, not what the person walking in the shop really wants.
Miller’s anecdote is a great example of how this damages the retail experience and, by extension, the whole of the Apple brand. He is walking to get his iPhone XS Max fixed. He’s literally Apple’s best iPhone customer coming in for a support query on his new phone. Yet, the representative is immediately initiating a sales pitch. It honestly sounds like to me the employee did not even look to see what phone he had before starting to read robotically from the sales patter. Even if the person did mistake it for an iPhone X, that’s still a new model (with an associated $1000 outlay only one year ago). Nobody giving genuine advice would be recommending an upgrade in this scenario.
If you are a customer browsing the devices on the product tables, you expect the Apple employees on duty to expound the benefits of the best iPhones. A couple of mentions during Today at Apple sessions is also borderline acceptable; it’s a free session otherwise. That stuff is just about okay. It’s the fact Apple is instructing retail staff to also prey on people coming in to get help at the Genius Bar that is unequivocally distasteful, and not something that you expect from a premium brand. It’s offensive behaviour. These are tactics that try to inflate iPhone sales in the short term that risk damaging Apple’s long-term reputation and image. Tim Cook loves to advocate to investors that the company management look beyond the 90-day clicks, but this is certainly not that.
At a high-level, there isn’t much strategic difference between an original content TV service and a games service. You just need leadership with good taste to hunt out games, and sign the exclusivity deals. One distinction is that modern TV production can be expensive but the budgets of AAA console titles can be even bigger than TV.
Apple has deep pockets but even they will be hesitant dropping three hundred million dollars on a single game. You have to aim your sights slightly lower; you can certainly make visually rich and engaging mobile titles with much less financial backing.
You could even make a service with zero exclusives and instead push discovery of what’s already there. I can imagine a compelling discovery/rental proposition. What if you paid a dollar a week, and you can play any game featured in the “Games We Love” section of the App Store. The titles appear automatically in a special folder on your iOS’s home screen and it continuously refreshes. No freemium games, full proper games. When the title goes out of rotation, you can choose to buy it to keep, at a reduced price. I think an idea along those lines could have legs. It brings discovery outside of the App Store app, and feels like value of money to boot. A similar model could be rolled out for apps too.
I was pretty snarky about this on Twitter when the news hit on the weekend, which I think gave people the impression that I thought Apple was making the wrong moves here. I actually think the opposite. This is great for everyone.
I have been asking for Apple to license video AirPlay to third-parties since it launched on Apple TV in late 2010; in fact, there were reports all the way back in 2011 that Apple was negotiating with TV set manufacturers to do exactly that.
Businesses and schools have been buying Apple TVs in droves just to enable wireless projection of iOS device screens. It’s such a big part of the product’s appeal that Apple added a Conference Room mode to support this usage. I think around 60 million Apple TVs have been sold, and I’d guess 10% of them are only used for AirPlay.
On the mainstream angle, a lot of smart TVs integrate a technology called DLNA to enable wireless video streaming from Windows computers and Android devices. Apple has essentially held back experiences to Apple devices that customers using other manufacturer’s products can already enjoy, and have been enjoying for half a decade. No normal person buys an Apple TV just for AirPlay, it’s simply too pricey.
If Apple had licensed AirPlay video more liberally from the get-go, every TV screen and projector would have it built in already. No need to buy a $100+ peripheral. No need to switch to the Apple TV input. No setup needed.
I am so pleased that Apple has changed their stance here. These partnerships bind Apple customers more closely to the iPhones, iPads and Macs they already own, and improve customer satisfaction and loyalty rates. It will take time for the number of AirPlay 2-enabled TVs sold to be meaningful, but in the course of time, it will be commonplace.
This includes access to iTunes' 4K HDR content, something even the Mac cannot do. And yes, obviously, iTunes is a placeholder until the new Apple video service is launched.
For Samsung TVs, Apple is going further and will release an iTunes Movies and TV Shows app, representing the first time Apple is bringing its video services to non-Apple platforms. It won’t be the last time either.
These rollouts erode some hitherto exclusive features of tvOS and will cannibalise Apple TV sales substantially. I saw people draw comparisons to Apple Music launching on Amazon Echo but I actually feel that this is more ‘severe’; these announcements marginalise the Apple TV way more than the HomePod is impacted by the Amazon deal.
In the absence of Apple making its own television set, Apple’s overall business is bettered by having a universal presence in the living room with these partnerships, rather than not just to protect the appeal of its middlingly successful set-top box. People are going to be amazed when they can ask their iPhone to play a TV show and it just starts playing on the TV. They will buy more iPhones and sign up to the Apple video service because of it. Even discarding the imminent Services onslaught, I would still argue that this is the right thing to do.
The Apple TV hardware proposition needs to change. The Apple TV is not a competitive product in its current form. With Apple giving away the crown jewels to Samsung, LG, Sony and Vizio, it is going to require a radical overhaul. Maybe they start bundling Apple TVs with its video subscription service, maybe they change to a Chromecast-like form factor. I love the tvOS interface — it’s the best Plex client available — but I can also recognise that the idea of a $150+ set-top box is closer to irrelevance than it ever has been before.
Apple’s initial revenue projections were lower than many analysts had predicted, and now it transpires the reality is even worse than Apple’s original estimates. On top of the year-over-year revenue decline, companies have to be able to show that they understand their business and can forecast results reliably. Apple’s corporate team screwed up on that part, plain and simple.
Getting guidance wrong spreads investor uncertainty and it’s much harder to dig out the seeds of doubt from the ground than it is to plant them. This is why Cook’s letter is as fastidious and detailed as it is. It’s serious stuff. The problem with a letter this long is that people get lazy, pull out one part that confirms their own beliefs, and essentially ignore every other word.
I think if you read this report and come away with the idea that Apple’s strategy of jacking up iPhone prices to the $1000 level has backfired, you are not interpreting what Cook wrote accurately.
Nowhere does it allude to Apple pricing its products out of reach of consumers. In fact, it says “categories outside of iPhone combined to grow almost 19 percent year-over-year”. Apple raised prices on basically every product last year, and it seems to be mostly working. They are going to hit all-time revenue records in many regions, including the United States. If iPhones were 10% cheaper, they would have sold more of them of course, but would they have sold >10% more units to increase the overall total? That is not a sure thing.
The note does call out foreign exchange fluctuations causing price increases in some international developed markets, which compounded the rise in the US dollar prices. Perhaps we will see price cuts in select markets which are particularly impacted by tariffs and/or unfavourable exchange rates. Notably, Apple did not include the United Kingdom in the list of record-setting regions, a market where the iPhone is usually resilient. Weakness in the pound hasn’t helped Apple’s sales performance here recently.
The China issue is hard to parse. It is staggering to me that sales in a region could change course so quickly, so much more dramatically than any worldwide trend. I guess we will wait and see whether other smartphone companies announce similar shortfalls in China, to determine if it really is a macroeconomic concern or a fundamental weakness in the appeal of the iPhone.
Most interestingly, Cook mentions the iPhone battery replacement program as a factor for iPhone upgrades not being as strong in some developed markets. A year ago, on the Q1 2018 earnings call, Cook said that “we did not consider in any way, shape, or form what it would do to upgrade rates … we did it because we thought it was the right thing to do … I don’t know what effect it will have”.
With this letter, Apple acknowledges that some people elected to upgrade their battery for $29 and opted not to buy a new iPhone which would cost them hundreds of dollars. Shocker. The combination of iOS 12 and fresh batteries is of course going to make some people hold off. This is absolutely fine. A couple million units lost in short-term sales should pay back in spades with the loyalty earned by these policy efforts. Apple also loves to expand the install base at the moment, which has a positive knock-on effort on services income.
To be fair, Cook’s writing does not say that the battery replacement program is a problem. It’s candidly mentioned because it is a contributing, secondary, factor to lower demand in the current quarter and they have to be transparent about it. Some investors will no doubt get upset about it, but Apple should never cave to that kind of opportunistic pressure.
Overall, I think the letter is a pretty good reply to a bad situation, which arose primarily by Apple’s own errors in forecasting. The next earnings call is going to be a great listen, and I can’t wait to see how “undertaking and accelerating other initiatives to improve our results” comes to fruition over the next few months.
It’s funny. I don’t like Dark Mode enough to change to it full time but there are definitely parts of the appearance which are better than the Light appearance. I love how certain apps and panels look with dark styling, but I don’t prefer enough components to switch over wholesale.
The harsh white borders that spring up on window frames and other bars is particularly obnoxious. I get why they did it but it feels overdone for my tastes. I almost want to pick and choose a combination of light and dark components.
The header image is an example of something which is much improved in Dark Mode. The style of the volume HUD has irked me ever since the Yosemite bleaching. The grey blurry panel is just unattractive, reminiscent of blotchy mud. However, in Dark Mode, the blurred backdrop is much better with its darkened palette. The white glyph pops over the background, and the black surround doesn’t steal focus. The contrast of the elements is simply superior.
I rarely discuss earnings, because it is boring and usually irrelevant, but this particular announcement came out of left field and is actually very significant. On the latest earnings call, Apple’s Luca Maestri announced that the company will no longer say how many iPhones, iPads, or Macs it sells, starting next quarter. They will report revenue for iPhone, iPad, Mac, Services and Other products (now renamed ‘Wearables, Home and Accessories’) but no longer will it tell you how many devices make up each category of sales.
The knee-jerk implication is that future iPhone sales are going to be disappointing, or flat. Of course, iPhone sales have been flat for a couple years now, so it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. As a counterfactual, Apple has never disclosed Watch sales but year-over-year growth of that product has been measured in double-digits percentages across its lifetime.
I do not interpret this sudden cloak of secrecy as an indicator that iPhone sales are falling off a cliff. It likely will go down for a while, until emerging markets like India come online. We’ll probably see a repeat of the last few years; hardware sales a little higher in some quarters, a little lower in others.
Perhaps Apple is planning some significant shakeups in its product line and they want to diffuse press attention. This past year, we have seen ASPs rise dramatically and now there is a rooted community consensus that Apple is ‘just’ making products more expensive. If sales had not been reported, it’s harder for people to attach to those storylines. You hear very little about Samsung or Google phone sales because those companies don’t report them. You have to rely on analysts and market analytics to come up with estimated figures. Apple is basically the only smartphone manufacturer who did report shipments. They aren’t doing anything radical really, they are merely joining the herd.
Moreover, I expect a lot of turbulence in the Mac and iPad businesses in the near future, as each of those products go through major transitions. It’s a lot easier to make those changes when there is less focus on financials.
It’s also important to note that disclosing less information does not always benefit Apple. When you create more uncertainty, there’s a greater potential for investors to be led astray. Quarters that are bad can be masked over, but quarters that are good can also fly under the radar.
The EU has ruled that Google can no longer require manufacturers to pre-install Google Chrome and Google search in order to feature the official Android app store, the Google Play Store. It views the entanglement as anticompetitive.
Naturally, Google is appealing the decision but it must comply in the meantime. The new European license will require manufacturers to pay a per-device free for the rights to pre-install the Play Store and other apps. If the hardware companies choose to install Google search and Chrome, a revenue sharing deal will let them recoup some of the costs of the Google Mobile Services license.
The fees are not yet confirmed, but The Verge has supposedly seen the draft agreement, and the costs are set to be significant. The Verge quotes a $40 charge for devices with >500 PPI screens. That is a lot. The Galaxy S9+ screen has a pixel density of 529 PPI. Its build-of-materials is estimated to total $375; a $40 Android license fee is a 10% cost increase and would make Android one of the most expensive ‘components’ in that phone.
There are many potential ramifications of this change. I’m sure Amazon is overjoyed with a renewed chance to expand the reach of the Amazon Appstore. Microsoft could make an Android phone that has the Google Play Store but ships with Edge and Bing. It’ll be interesting to see how many companies suddenly become more thoughtful about what screens their phones use, picking screen resolutions that just go below the $40 500 PPI threshold. Saving $20 per unit is a strong incentive indeed. It’s not like a consumer is going to complain about a mere 400 PPI display. 500+ pixel densities are basically superfluous.
A particularly good example is the aforementioned Galaxy S9+. The physical screen panel is 6.2-inches with a 2960x1440 resolution, yielding a 539 PPI. Yet, Samsung’s software defaults to a much lower screen resolution: 2220x1080. In this mode, the effective PPI is ‘only’ 396. As most users never change defaults, it’s pretty obvious that most of the S9+ models Samsung have sold are not breaching 400 PPI. Under the leaked terms, Samsung would save $30 in licensing costs on every device, if they made the hardware resolution match the default software configuration.
It’s funny how many similarities this device has with an Apple Watch. It is an accessory to your main phone. It is designed to make you more engaged with the world and less distracted by your phone, whilst still staying connected. It uses the same phone number as the primary phone, and is billed in the same way as an LTE Apple Watch too. Even the free-flowing home screen of icons shares a resemblance to the watchOS honeycomb app grid.
Opting out of a battle with the titans of the smartphone industry is probably a wise move. It’s nigh-impossible to see an opening in the Apple-Samsung high-end duopoly and the low end flood of Chinese Android phones at rock-bottom prices.
A casual communicator, phone-as-accessory, idea is certainly novel. I don’t know if Palm will be able to shake off the customer hesitation that arises because ‘they already own a phone’ though. It is hard to sell someone on the idea of owning, and paying for, a second flavour of something they already own. The Palm proposition is a hefty $350 handset purchase, plus $10 a month for the add-on contract. Smartwatches are different because they are distinct form factor products and offer a combination of unique features, like intimate health and fitness tracking, and convenience.
Rather than aiming to be a secondary device, perhaps they should up the price to the $500-600 level and make the best standalone smartphone they can. Let the USP be that it is small and compact. Make the (modern) iPhone SE of Android phones. This is a market segment that is currently starving for anything new. All the big players are refusing to consider screen sizes smaller than 5 inches. I think there’s enough people who want something like that to carve a decent niche out of the overall phone market.
There were a lot of people dismissing this product outright because of vague allusions to privacy. I think that tone is pretty lazy. I don’t think anyone in the tech industry would argue that Facebook is an angel of customer data, but upmost privacy is just one tenet of modern technology. Millions, billions, of people use Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the rest. Passing data to companies in exchange for services is a reality that people accept implicitly, and even if you tell them, few care enough to quit. When it comes down to it, people don’t care.
When a normal person sees a Portal, I don’t think they are going to turn a blind eye to it because of the existential fears of personal data exploitation. There are a handful of reasons why this product is going to fail in the market, but I don’t see privacy worries as a legitimate death-on-arrival poison.
I don’t like the trend of glossing over announcements from companies not called Apple, because they all suck at protecting customer privacy. I respect Apple’s privacy commitments at roughly the same level that I respect their environmental achievements. Both are good things to do, but when it comes down to it, the features and functionality is what truly matters in whether I consider a product as ‘good’.
The key marketing point that Facebook is pushing here is video calls, through Messenger. I don’t get it. It just seems so much easier to talk on something that you can hold in your hand — be it a phone, tablet, or laptop in your lap — that you can freely move around with. When I’m on the phone at home, I almost always end up walking around during the course of the conversation. Phones let you angle the camera just how you like to and you can flip the camera around in a pinch to show what you are seeing (iOS 12 FaceTime redesign notwithstanding). The Portal is fixed in place with a single lens. The camera intelligently pans and zooms so you can walk around a room and have it follow you, but what if your kid on the floor starts doing something cute, or you have to rush upstairs? The form factor is inherently limiting.
Facebook is also being pretty stubborn out of the gate with reigning in the software potential of the Portal. You don’t have an app store, so you can only use apps that Facebook partners with, and Alexa is limited in some ways too. You can only do video messages with Messenger, you can’t dictate texts. There’s no YouTube or Netflix. There’s simply not that much to show on its screen. The HomePod is similarly limited and clearly hasn’t set the world on fire. Nevertheless, the HomePod’s core feature — playing Apple Music and sounding good — is far more compelling than the Portal’s video chat offering.
The biggest blocker is just the aesthetics of the object itself. The ‘small’ 10-inch model looks like a checkout kiosk; the Echo Show and the newly-announced Google Home Hub have the same problem. The big 15-inch one is subjectively ugly and objectively big. It is really hard to find a place in your lounge or kitchen where you can put a 15-inch screen on a pedestal, that isn’t in the way but also close enough to actually be able to use the screen and have the camera pointed in the right direction.
Screen-less smart speakers are much more flexible in that regard, as they do not demand line-of-sight human attention. In contrast, an Echo cylinder or HomePod can be placed out of the way on a cabinet or shelf and it is fine. I love visual user interfaces but the intrusiveness of these smart screen devices is a huge barrier to adoption.
For a while now, I have had vague ideas about a smart screen product that can hang on the wall, like a tall mirror or maybe a wall clock. Imagine an Apple Watch that hangs on the wall; because it wouldn’t need to show so much text, it could even be round. I wish Amazon or someone would explore a product like that. Amazon have recently announced an Echo-branded wall clock but it’s not a smart screen; it’s a standard clock with some LEDs around the dial.
I haven’t been running Mojave on my machine in the beta period. I always wait for public releases before updating the software on my (only) Mac. I knew what to expect of course. I don’t have my head in the sand. I watched the WWDC keynote, I saw all my friends’ complaints on Twitter, I was braced for it. But, man, these suck.
Marzipan apps are ugly ducklings. As soon as you use them, you can just know these are not at one with the system. You detect that there’s a translation layer of some kind at work here, just like when you use Slack on the Mac you instinctively feel that it’s a web app in a thin wrapper. The underlying implementation is exposed to the user with a bevy of performance sluggishness, UI quirks and non-standard behaviours. That’s bad.
I launch News. I see a window with a reasonable lineup of platform-standard toolbar controls, although I notice that the title of the window is ‘News’. This is a little odd as modern Mac design generally means that the application name is not repeated in the window itself. The title represents the active visible content inside the window, or they simply might not have a visible title at all. Not a universal rule, but certainly not the norm.
Then, only a few pixels down the screen, is the words Apple News repeated again, this time in all-caps. ‘News’ in the menubar, ‘News’ in the titlebar, ‘Apple News’ in the sidebar. Is the word News redundantly displayed in these three different places because that’s what makes sense for the Mac UI? I’d wager it is not a design choice. I think it’s pretty clear that Apple News is in the sidebar because the sidebar is a wholesale port of the iPad interface. iOS on the iPad doesn’t have a menubar or a titlebar, so it isn’t uncommon for apps to put their branding in the app itself. Why is News in the titlebar? In this case, I suspect the Marzipan system houses apps in a window with a titlebar, and it automatically populates the window with the display name of the bundle. Home is the only app of the new set that bucks this pattern, instead using a segmented control as the centred toolbar item.
This first point is arguably a nitpicky detail, but it’s emblematic of the problem I have with these apps. Their fabric is so clearly of another world. A more blatant visual transgression is the News search field. It doesn’t look like a Mac search field. It is bubblier than an Aqua field, the corner radius is off. Moreover, when you press the little ‘X’ button to empty the text, the field loses keyboard focus and hides itself offscreen. That was surprising to me, and anything surprising is unlikely to be following platform idioms that are ingrained into my head. If you type something and then hit ‘escape’, the text box clears, keyboard focus is resigned, but the sidebar search results aren’t reset. I’d pass that last one off as a bug. (Voice Memos and Stocks exhibit the same behaviours, by the way.)
A big landmark sigh of frustration is that all of these Marzipan apps are single window affairs. There’s no attempt to support opening a company stock detail or a news article in its own window. Voice Memos is a particularly bad offender here. When you start a new recording, it takes over the entire window with a modal view. The user loses context of where they were. This is a common pattern on iPhone and iPad but it really feels alien on the Mac.
Home is the worst case of the single window constraints. It is an app that naturally has hierarchy. Single-window iOS uses modal form sheets. Marzipan Mac uses … single-window form sheets. You don’t need to be a designer or a developer to work out where these interfaces came from. It’s transparent. Interestingly, they did change the animation slightly on the Mac — form sheets appear with a quick fade rather than a slide up effect as seen on iPhone and iPad. If this was a real Mac app, it would spawn multiple floating windows, use source lists instead of touch-friendly bubbly tiles, popup menus rather than sliding reels, checkboxes not green switches, etcetera etcetera. I especially like how single clicking on an accessory tile does nothing but make it bounce a little.
Keyboard shortcuts are very patchy. My instinct when making a voice recording was to slam the space bar to pause. It doesn’t work. I went to the menubar and saw that it was greyed out in the current view, but noted that space bar does work during playback. The trip to the menubar showed me an item for ‘Play/Pause Recording’. If you look in iTunes, you will find a ‘Play’ command when a song isn’t playing and a ‘Pause’ command when it is. This dynamic nicety didn’t make it to Voice Memos, ostensibly because iOS doesn’t have a menubar so nobody considered those kind of situations before. For the same reason, the Touch Bar app region is completely blank on all of these ‘new’ apps.
Coming down to some more fundamental issues, I found button interactions to be wonky in places. Consider the ‘Details’ button in Home app for viewing active accessory status. How do buttons work on a computer? You press down with the mouse, and let go. If you press down and decide you don’t want to depress, you move your mouse away. Not so with the ‘Details’ button in the Home app. As soon as you have pressed down, you are committed. It doesn’t matter where your mouse goes. It can leave the bounds of the button, even the frame of the window, and its action will still fire. This issue does not plague most of the buttons in the Marzipan suite, but it was not an isolated occurrence either.
The Home app lets you use a jump bar to navigate to a room quickly through the toolbar item; this is a nice Mac feature. In fact, the equivalent navigation in the iPhone and iPad Home apps is much uglier as it involves an abuse of action sheets. However, you can also navigate between rooms by swiping left or right with the trackpad. This is a downright mess on the Mac. The swipes don’t register consistently, the momentum feels wrong, and sometimes you can make the view bounce as if it has reached the end of the pages, only to swipe again and have it suddenly spawn the next page. There’s also a really ugly rendering glitch with the background. This should not have passed QA.
I already mentioned how everything is single window. Let’s consider the basic window operations. You get the standard traffic light close/minimise/full-screen widgets and they work fine. Window resizing using mouse drags — not so much. The performance is just poor. I use News in this example video, and compare it with resizing equivalent content in Safari, and the difference is night and day. I observe laggy resizing on Home, Voice Memos, Stocks and News, and this is using a 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro. Again, I think this is an inherent part of how these apps are conceived — iOS apps don’t need to worry about live window resizing — bubbling up as user-facing deficiencies.
Here’s one another one I’ll toss out there. Try dragging a News article from the Today screen into a Messages conversation. You can’t do it, you get a funky file permissions error instead. Great. Now try dragging from the Today screen to the desktop. This will work, it will make a webloc shortcut file. However, it takes an extraordinarily long time. You can count many seconds go by before it completes. Whilst this happens, the rest of the app is locked up and cannot be interacted with. I even saw my mouse cursor turn into a beachball when doing this. Copying a link to the desktop.
I debated calling this post ‘Home, News, Stocks and Voice Memos for Mac’ because it’s not really a comment on the Marzipan project initiative. After all, I don’t expect the solution Apple ships next year to have the same laundry list of drawbacks that these Mojave apps do. It’s a critique of the apps that are shipping now to customers of macOS. These apps are preinstalled with the OS. News was even unceremoniously placed into the middle of my Dock upon upgrading. And they are not good, simple as that. I would have been mildly happier if Apple had offered these apps as optional App Store downloads affixed with a beta label.
Functionally, they are a win. These apps make the Mac do things it couldn’t before. That shouldn’t excuse them from blame, though. These are mediocre, bordering on bad, experiences. It’s not a good poster child for the future of the Mac. The Mac — heck Apple as a whole — is about delighting users with good-to-great experiences. What drew me to Apple was never how many bullet points they checked off the feature list.
After the iPhone and Watch announcements, Tim Cook said they had a quick update on HomePod and began by recapping the AirPlay 2 features they added “recently”. I had to laugh. We’ve already been through one keynote in which AirPlay 2 existed, as the feature shipped the week before WWDC. At the developer keynote, they elected not to mention the HomePod operating system at all. I thought that was a funny warping of the timeline.
Thankfully, that’s wasn’t the only news. Cook announced a substantial bout of new features coming to the HomePod on Monday. Multiple timers, make and receive phone calls, lyrics-based song playback. As the HomePod OS does not participate in a public beta program — I wish it would — I’ll just trust for now that these features are implemented well.
With this update, it finally feels like Apple has delivered what the HomePod experience should have been on day one. AirPlay 2 dramatically improves the home music experience, and this latest 12.0 update adds the obvious missing holes on the assistant side. There’s still a lot more runway to tackle, like proper multiple user support and furthering iPhone independence, but I can finally consider this a complete 1.0 product.