The Unyielding App Store Game

Apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Marches On

iPad Pro

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

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

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

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

MacBook Air

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

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

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

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

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

No WWDC, No Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Originals On Apple TV+

CNBC:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloomberg:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying Monopolistic Moves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Content Opportunities For Streaming Services

Input:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EjectBar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iOS 13 Text Selection

In the WWDC 2019 presentation, Craig Federighi praised the new UI for text selection, saying “there’s no need to double tap and no magnifying glass getting in your way”. I remember doing a double-take when he said it because that’s not really true at all. The magnifying glass was a convenience, rather than annoyance. Getting rid of it sounded like it would be exactly the wrong thing to do, especially as there was no alternative UI affordance to fulfil its purpose.

Benefit of the doubt and all, I let it play out through the betas. Unfortunately, the end result is as bad as I feared. On iOS 13, the magnifying glass may not “get in your way” but your fingers certainly do.

Twitter Will Let Users Control Who Can Reply To Their Tweets

The Verge:

Xie says Twitter is adding a new setting for “conversation participants” right on the compose screen. It has four options: “Global, Group, Panel, and Statement.” Global lets anybody reply, Group is for people you follow and mention, Panel is people you specifically mention in the tweet, and Statement simply allows you to post a tweet and receive no replies.

Brands are definitely going to be making use out of the Statements mode. Below almost every brand tweet I see, often when the brand has paid for the tweet to be promoted to a wider audience, are replies from people complaining about something about the company’s products that is completely unrelated to the tweet content. This happens on Twitter and Facebook alike.

For example, there’ll be a post in my timeline from a UK carrier about some new phone deal. Inevitably, the top comment will be a complaint about no signal and slow data in a particular area, or a terrible in-store customer service experience, being kept on hold for too long, or something along those lines. I always chuckle when I see it because these companies are indirectly paying to have customers complaints spreads more widely.

A Statement option would close that hole and make promoted posts much more like traditional display advertising. A public placard with no interaction.

Separately, I think Twitter certainly risks losing some of its ‘community’ if all celebrities suddenly switch to posting in Statement mode and thereby hiding all reactions to their tweets. I find a lot of the fun of Twitter is that feeling of everyone being able to jump in the same conversation.

Take something like Tim Cook’s recent tweet about the Golden Globes. It is pretty entertaining to go to the comments and see people quipping about the elephant in the room — Gervais’s provocative opening speech — and also some actual factual debate was also spawned off of those knee-jerk jokes. I would be sad if in the future Cook posted everything as a Statement and I could no longer click through on his tweets and see those kind of responses.

There’s also the more serious issue of being unable to correct someone who shares something that is fake or misleading, if that person has disabled replies. Twitter is already criticised for promoting echo chamber tendencies.

My gut feeling here is that ‘people in the public eye’ should not have access to these controls. That is imperfect though because there are plenty of public personalities, like world news journalists for instance, who are the subject of the abuse and harassment that these policies are ultimately trying to help. I will say that I have no intention of limiting who can reply to my tweets. I like the openness of Twitter, plain and simple. (Granted, I speak from the position of someone who has been fortunate enough not to be the subject of online harassment in my decade online.)

The Connected Home Over IP Working Group

Project Connected Home Over IP:

The industry Working Group will take an open-source approach for the development and implementation of a new, unified connectivity protocol. The project intends to use contributions from market-tested smart home technologies from Amazon, Apple, Google, Zigbee Alliance, and others. The decision to leverage these technologies is expected to accelerate the development of the protocol, and deliver benefits to manufacturers and consumers faster.

The project aims to make it easier for device manufacturers to build devices that are compatible with smart home and voice services such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and others. The planned protocol will complement existing technologies, and Working Group members encourage device manufacturers to continue innovating using technologies available today.

Tech alliances rarely deliver on their initial promises. Some seem to exist for years without anything meaningful to show for it. Others break up after a bit. Some work. Some work for a while until the big companies have a fall out, the commitments waver, and you slowly end up back at square one.

The smart home industry has certainly seen a plethora of partnerships in recent years, most not really achieving anything of significance. What Connected Home over IP has going for it, is that they have somehow managed to get every big player together; platform leaders in Apple, Google and Amazon as well as the main accessory manufacturers like Samsung, Philips Hue, the lot. They also have noble aims; an open source smart home protocol for smart accessories. This isn’t some private pact that locks others out.

Arguably, this whole thing benefits Apple the most. It's a way to dramatically increase the number of HomeKit compatible accessories on the market.

Positive intent is better than none at all, and so the chances of a better smart home ecosystem are unquestionably higher today than they were the day before this was announced. Like everyone else, I was sceptical the moment the news broke. Why would these companies suddenly want to play happy families, after five years of constructing fiefdoms?

Well, I think I’ve figured out the motivations. This open protocol commoditises access to appliances and accessories. For manufacturers today, getting their stuff to work (and certified) with proprietary platforms is expensive and time consuming, especially for HomeKit. An open initiative should break down those walls and reduce costs. For Apple, Amazon and Google, they don’t base their business on the smart home accessories themselves. Their interest is in the voice assistants, in the intelligence layer, in the hardware and services that manages the accessories. And this doesn’t threaten that at all.

So, with that in mind, I’m not as doubtful as I was initially. The wins for customers may be small, but still welcomed nonetheless.

Apple Awards Week

This year, Apple paid more attention than ever to its end-of-year commendations. They invited press to an intimate media briefing in New York to announce their App Store Best Of 2019 picks, beyond the normal press release. Apple also made a big song and dance about 2019 music. iTunes has released top song lists and ‘artist of the year’ editorials for as long as I can remember, but this year they formalised proceedings into official Apple Music Awards. The winners receive an awesome custom physical trophy, featuring a 12-inch disc of silicon as a perfect fusion of modern technology and vinyl throwback. They even held a celebratory concert at the Steve Jobs Theater.

However, in an awkward state of affairs, I feel like they invested far more effort into the ceremony of the thing than the actual process of award-giving. The chosen picks are predictable and uninspired. It doesn’t seem like they took any risks and mostly stuck to name brands and big companies. It makes for a very dry list of featured apps. I also think it is hilarious that in the same year Apple launched a dedicated App Store for Apple Watch, they did not have a Watch category at all. It just seems like such a waste to host this non-event event with such bland recommendations underlying it all; contrast the Best Of list to this year’s Apple Design Awards this year, which was a much more diverse and interesting set of apps but was honoured with far less fanfare.

On the music side, Apple Music’s inaugural awards had meagre ambitions. Apple Music normally makes a huge deal about the breadth and depth of their huge catalogue with playlists for all genres and moods. Yet Apple gave out just five awards for 2019, three chosen by editorial teams and two based on global play counts. With three out of five of this year’s awards being given to the same artist, the need for more diversity is even more highlighted. At the very least, there should be awards for every genre of music. They could do a lot more that emphasises unique elements of Apple Music; awards picked by Beats 1 hosts, some kind of sing-along lyrics tie in, most streamed music video, the works. I hope they have a better all-round showing for 2020.

Apple TV+ Launch Slate

Nine titles is not a lot. Eight TV shows and one movie, and one of those shows is the Oprah book interview. However, I think Apple did a decent job at spanning the gamut of content appeals. Shows for adults, shows for children, and an all-family documentary film. From what I’ve watched, “The Morning Show” has the best story, “See” has the best visuals, “For All Mankind” has the most novel plot with a lot of potential, and “Dickinson” is just plain fun.

There was a lot of speculation in the last couple of years that Apple was heading towards a family friendly tone. The launch dramas obviously dispel that myth comprehensively. Almost the opposite, there is not a TV+ show that is actually appropriate for the whole family to enjoy together. The children’s programming isn’t sophisticated enough in story to entertain adults and the adult shows contain far too much swearing/sex/violence to be kid friendly. The three Apple originals scheduled for the rest of 2019 are also decidedly adult material.

What’s missing is something like “Doctor Who”, something that you can watch on a Saturday night after dinner before its bedtime. “Amazing Stories” seems like it was the property meant to fill exactly that gap. It’s rated TV-PG and we have heard that it was destined to be one of the Apple TV+ launch shows — until production was delayed.

For nine titles, I think Apple did about as well as they could have done. The response from critics was definitely not what they were hoping for but the general audience reaction seems to be up to par. Their challenge now is to keep delivering on this formula at a pace that is fast enough to fend off competition from other original content services.

The abundance of 12-month free trials have enabled them to debut with a small library offering but they need to expand quickly if they want people to start paying for real when November 2020 rolls around. On current pace, they will have about 35 original titles in a year’s time. That puts them somewhere between passable to good in my evaluations, depending on the number of smash hits they chance upon. The proposition is much stronger in the second year when the TV+ library will be closing in on a hundred titles.

AirPods Pro

Apple:

AirPods revolutionized the wireless audio experience with a breakthrough design, and now AirPods Pro take it even further with a new class of lightweight, in-ear headphones engineered for comfort and fit. Each earbud comes with three different sizes of soft, flexible silicone ear tips that conform to the contours of each individual ear, providing both a comfortable fit and a superior seal — a critical factor in delivering immersive sound. To further maximize comfort, AirPods Pro use an innovative vent system to equalize pressure, minimizing the discomfort common in other in-ear designs. AirPods Pro are sweat- and water-resistant, making them perfect for active lifestyles.

It is interesting that Apple chose not to give these stage time at the September event, only to be available for holiday sales a month later. It seems unlikely that the fate of the product was unknown then. Manufacturing and freight alone make up a several week lead time. Obviously, the AirPower embarrassment looms over the company but I haven’t quite worked out the new policy; the Mac Pro and Deep Fusion are just two examples of things that they had no qualms in previewing ahead of time.

The new AirPods Pro are a logical addition to the AirPods family. I bet for a lot of people, the draw of AirPods Pro is simply having another shot at a design that is comfortable for their ears. ‘One size fits all’ AirPods did a good job at covering a wide spectrum of human ear shapes, but clearly there were people left out — either due to comfort or looseness. AirPods Pro, and its three choices of ear tips, should fill in the gaps.

The change from a double-tap to a press is something that I hope trickles down to the normal AirPods. The double-tap gesture means pushing the buds down your ear canal, with a relatively strong intensity lets the AirPods not detect your intent. With the new force sensor in the stem, the idea is you can just pinch either side of the stalk, mimicking the press of inline buttons on old Apple wired headphones. As you press down evenly with a finger on both sides of the stalk, the AirPods Pro themselves should stay fixed in place and it won’t be anywhere near as uncomfortable as the tapping.

The Beats Studio and newly-released Beats Solo Pro feature active noise cancellation. It is effective but carries a fairly significant battery life penalty: the headphones boast 40 hours of music listening, but only 22 hours when active noise cancellation is turned on. Battery life is essentially halved. Because of this, when the design of the new AirPods Pro leaked, I automatically assumed that the noise cancellation features would be achieved by way of the natural sound isolation of in-ear buds, that is to say, passively. However, that is not the case. The AirPods Pro actually do have active noise cancellation (and a transparency mode like the Solo Pro). But what is intriguing is the quoted battery life impact is only half an hour. You get 4.5 hours of music playback compared to the normal 5 hours of AirPods battery life. I guess we’ll have to wait for the reviews to see if Apple took any shortcuts to achieve this feat.

The $250 price feels a little high although clearly Apple is going to have no trouble selling these given how in demand AirPods are in general. The price elasticity is obviously there. I hope Apple can find a way to get rid of the AirPods with (non-wireless) Charging Case SKU. The lineup does feel a little bloated. In a perfect world, you’d just have AirPods at $149 and AirPods Pro at $199.

The Pace Of Apple TV+

If you take interest in Apple — as in Apple the company — like I do, then you have to care about Apple TV+. As much as some people might want it to be, TV+ is not a side project or distraction. It’s not like iBooks textbooks or iWork in iCloud.com. Over the last two years, Apple set up a dedicated video division and they mean business. Just this week, news broke that Apple is spending an estimated $100 million on the production of a single film. Apple’s overall (and ongoing) financial investment in TV+ content must surely eclipse the budgets of many of its hardware projects.

You can not care about television, or not be interested in the shows Apple is making. But if you care about the machinations of Apple, then television programming is a fascinating venture to follow. In particular, one aspect that has piqued my curiosity is the pace of Apple’s content rollout. Looking beyond the launch, Apple hasn’t really shown us anything of what it has coming in the pipeline apart from quick glimpses as part of a one-minute Apple TV+ sizzle reel.

The M. Night Shyamalan production "Servant" debuts on Thanksgiving, November 28th.

Today, Apple announced that its “Truth Be Told” drama will be available from December 6th. With that date now out there, we can know work out how much maximum runway Apple has with the launch lineup, as listed on tv.apple.com.

The company revealed in its September press release that most shows will be released according to the following schedule: three episodes upfront, with the remaining episodes of the season on a weekly cadence.

Apple’s television projects have between 10-12 episodes per season. If you take December 6th as the latest possible starting point, then Apple will exhaust its entire cache of TV+ launch content … by the end of January. Even in regard to TV+ movies, “The Elephant Queen” is available on November 1st and “Hala” is coming in December. “The Banker” will follow in January, and Apple hasn’t said anything about any other films so far.

You can laugh at the fact TV+ only has a dozen different franchises, but that’s the state of the game right now. It’s not like Apple is going to be sit on the launch catalogue for a year. They can’t. Almost all of the launch lineup will have ended before 2020 starts, and we don’t expect to see the next seasons of those shows start for the good part of a year.

To keep to Apple’s promise of new content every month, in the most pessimistic case of every show being on the gradual one-a-week schedule, Apple will have at least doubled the number of available shows by March. Throw in three or four movies too.

What shows are these going to be? We don’t really know. This Wikipedia page lists all known Apple commissions, but it’s not clear which of them are in the can and ready to go. “Little America” is the only one I know of that is close to being released; that’s the anthology series produced by Kumail Nanjiani which Apple talked about at the March event.

Furthermore, the aforementioned press statement also says that some shows will drop an entire season of episodes at once, binge-style. Naturally, Apple’s need to put out new shows quicker accelerates for every show that is released in that manner. I had assumed that clause was referring to mostly kids content, like the Snoopy cartoon or “Helpsters”. It turns out that some of Apple’s premier shows are also adopting that strategy. Hailee Steinfeld recently revealed to Jimmy Fallon that “Dickinson” will be one such case, all 10 episodes available on November 1st. (Apple has been running broadcast and social media adverts for “Dickinson” like it’s no tomorrow.)

This whole thing is a whirlwind and I can’t wait to try out the service and watch how it grows. Maybe Apple’s first ten shows will all be terrible and a miserable flop. As calculated above, it’ll only be a handful of months before we can reassess with an as-yet-unknown lineup of a dozen TV+ original series.

Apple Arcade

We have cable TV at home. I rarely watch anything live as it airs. Everything is recorded, and the fast forward button on the remote is probably one of the most worn keys. Adverts suck. When you are introduced to a better world, it’s really hard to go back. I hate TV ads even for the duration that I’m fast-forwarding past them.

Whatever the ethicalness of DVR’ing television and skipping the ad breaks is, the simple fact is you can’t do the same thing with apps. If there’s an ad-ridden game, you are seeing the banner ads. You are watching the interstitial ads. Often, you complete a level, you are subjected to watching a sponsored video, and then you get kicked back to the menu screen which has a persistent banner across the bottom.

If ads are one tier of ickiness, the pseudo-gambling virtual currency mechanisms are a million times worse. Nevertheless, that is the status quo of the App Store. It’s so dominant that it’s actively difficult to find titles that do not feature those things. In many cases, a game will have both ads and in-app purchases galore.

Arcade has value on that axis alone; a simple place to find games that do not have those distractions and borderline casino business models. It also helps that the Arcade games are good.

There are currently about 70 titles on offer, spanning a diverse set of genres. There’s puzzle games, RPGs, endless runners, the works. There’s really deep adventures and other games suited to be played in bitesize five-minutes-of-fun chunks on the bus. Apple is promising there will be 100 Arcade games before the end of the year.

I’ve been playing What the Golf, Assemble with Care, and just started Don’t Bug Me. They are engaging and work great on the iPhone. I’m having fun playing with them and not seeing a single ad in that time is — truly — a breath of fresh air. I play Words with Friends with my family, and its egregious usage of advertising is more annoying than ever before. Before, I’d put up with it. Now, I actively detest it. And Arcade has been out for a fortnight.

I’d love for Arcade to offer an ad-free Scrabble clone. Arcade has a word game called Word Laces. It’s fine, but the best thing about it is that it is ad-free. What’s weird when you are playing Arcade titles is that your brain is accustomed to freemium tropes. You are primed to expect a paywall screen that your gems have run out of juice or you need to buy this lightning bolt gizmo to progress. And those things just don’t exist.

Word Laces has a lightbulb button that gives you a hint if you get stuck in a puzzle. It took me a week to have the innate confidence to tap it because my brain was avoiding it, automatically ascribing it as some sort of in-app purchase thing. Nope. You tap the lightbulb, you get a hint.

Apple’s marketing describes the Arcade library as a collection of “groundbreaking” titles that “redefine” games. I don’t get that feeling. The games are not really innovative, they are pretty standard. It’s almost like putting the Steam indie catalogue on your phone. I haven’t seen any Arcade game so far that surprised me with an innovative premise. I don’t care. I like that the games are new releases, offering new content, and I like that they are fun. Being “groundbreaking” is not what interests me.

Arcade is great. You should try it. $4.99 for six people spanning iPhone, iPad, TV and Mac is good value pricing. Nevertheless, it’s not perfect.

I mentioned I downloaded three Arcade games to my phone. I also downloaded many more titles and promptly deleted them after a few minutes, including some of the flagship Arcade recommendations like Hot Lava and Oceanhorn 2.

They aren’t bad games, but they aren’t suited for the phone. Hot Lava really warrants an iPad-or-larger screen to be enjoyed, and the touch control scheme is unplayable. I don’t know how anyone could get past the first level in Hot Lava without a controller with physical buttons. Even more trivially, the performance of the game is poor. It makes my phone run really hot and my 2015-era iPad Pro exhibits terrible FPS. Oceanhorn is a bit better phone optimised, but it still feels too constrained.

Arcade has a lot of games that are clearly not designed for the iPhone and yet probably fantastic TV, iPad or Mac experiences. Similarly, a physical game controller is effectively required for some titles. However, Arcade is careless in this regard. The storefront is identical across every platform and is not personalised for you, or your devices.

A big part of the value proposition of Apple Music is its carefully-curated playlists of songs. Arcade doesn’t have much of that. I don’t think Hot Lava should be the top recommendation when I’m browsing the Arcade tab on my phone. The store shouldn’t recommend games if the device I am browsing with is too underpowered. Seriously, try playing Hot Lava on an Apple TV HD, the non-4K model. It’s a mess of jaggies and dropped frames. Yet when I updated my Apple TV to tvOS 13, Arcade was proudly recommending Hot Lava as a daily play. It reflects badly on Arcade, and it reflects badly on the Apple hardware.

Arcade needs better curation and better organisation. Arcade doesn’t really have categories to browse by genre and there are no charts for ‘most played’ or ‘hot’ games. It’s hard to even view the entire catalogue of games. You have to open the Arcade tab in the App Store, scroll to the very bottom, tap ‘See All Games’ and then scroll a flat list of games in reverse-chronological order. This will only become more unwieldy as new games are added.

Arcade is also a very isolating experience because there is effectively zero social integration. All the games diligently implement Game Center, supporting high scores and achievements. There should be a single place where you can see progress across all of your Arcade games and compare against other people, at least the other people in your Family Sharing group. Even something akin to Apple Music’s ‘Friends Are Listening To’ feature would go a long way.

It’s almost claustrophobic to pack all of this stuff into one tab inside the App Store app. Perhaps, they would be better off with a dedicated Arcade app that can have sections for your library, game recommendations, Game Center achievements, top charts, and search. Interestingly, the Apple TV actually does have a dedicated Arcade app, but there’s no additional functionality exposed there yet. It just mirrors what is shown under the Arcade section in the App Store.

I was also disappointed to find some games inside Arcade that behave like they depend on freemium mechanics, even though they don’t. These games were obviously in development before Apple approached them with its service and have been quickly ported over with the in-app purchases removed. Sonic Racing is a good example of this. It has so many things you can unlock that intrude on the actual gameplay, that only exist because they were meant to be avenues for monetisation. Sonic Racing isn’t even optimised for notch phones; the top toolbar on the game’s main screen is cut off by the Face ID camera housing.

Apple should not have let these big publishers get away with being so tasteless. Apple should scrutinise the finesse of every game, regardless of who made it. Arcade is meant to be a premium service of good games after all. And it mostly is, but there are a handful of slackers in the mix.

As it stands, the infrastructure of the Arcade storefront is at minimum-viable product level. I think Arcade is off to a great start but I hope there’s a lot more in the pipeline. We also have to keep abreast of what new games are added, at what frequency, and whether they maintain the generally high standards of quality. It’s also not entirely clear to me … can a developer choose to leave Arcade and take their games out of the subscription? That would sour the appeal of the service significantly.