The anticompetitive scrutiny on the App Store has been growing for a while. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact starting point, but a big push came out of Apple’s souring relationship with Spotify. This spat became public in 2018 when Spotify removed the ability to subscribe to its service using in-app purchase. Recent court filings have revealed that the two companies had been privately exchanging tense discourses for several years leading up to that happening. Seemingly following Spotify’s lead, Netflix followed suit later in the same year by removing any ability to sign up in its app. New users would have to go to the web, allowing it to avoid paying Apple a cut of its subscriptions.
The discontent among big companies gradually evolved into a bigger issue as Apple itself started to seriously invest in building competitors to the services that the App Store was restricting. Spotify’s complaint to the EU holds so much weight precisely because it can make the case that it is disadvantaged in competing against Apple Music. Without that incendiary motivation, this stuff may never have come to the fore in the eyes of government. We’ve even seen Tile testify to a judiciary hearing because Apple is merely rumoured to be entering the smart tracker market.
Epic’s public protest will be remembered as the apex of this fight. It has officially reached the point of no return. Something is going to change. I don’t know how and I don’t know what, but something is going to change. Apple is not going to escape from all of this completely unscathed.
Some people think that Apple will use the Fortnite blackout as the time to reconsider and relax some of its policies to placate Epic and diffuse the looming antitrust lawsuits. I don’t see it. Apple has had plenty of chances to re-evaluate its position and it has plainly chosen to remain steadfast. It’s not budging until it is forced to. I think the likely resolution of the standoff is that Epic relents in a couple of weeks time. They will retract the direct payments feature and Fortnite will then return to the App Store. The stunt has served its purpose as a mildly-embarrassing smear campaign against Apple, and its effect won’t be lessened by Epic backtracking. In fact, that might only serve as legal ammo: Epic could argue that Apple’s retaliatory action was so harsh that it left them no choice but to back down.
Assuming Apple sticks to its convictions, we must wait for some government body to enact change through an arduously long court and appeals process. When the dust settles, there are a few different avenues Apple could negotiate. Possible release valves include supporting applications that are installed outside of the App Store, allowing alternative payment methods, or merely letting Netflix tell its customers that users can purchase its services on the web. I do not expect the 30% cut to be meaningfully reduced: Google Play is living proof that an app store can justify taking 30% even when alternative app distribution options are available.
The money is one thing. Personally, I care more about reining in the power Apple has to deny entire categories of apps from existing. The most recent example of this is Apple’s decision to outlaw all game streaming services. These services pose no risk to the security or stability of the operating system, and frankly provide access to games that have been examined far more meticulously by age rating boards than anything App Review does. Apple has no justifiable reason to ban them, and yet here we are. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
A common refrain in support of Apple’s position is to compare iOS devices to game consoles. Microsoft and Sony operate curated platforms for Xbox and PlayStation, with unilateral control over what software is available and mandatory revenue sharing agreements. If Microsoft is allowed to block Google Stadia from being available on the Xbox, why must Apple be compelled to allow it? I wish I hard a straight answer to this question, but I don’t. Maybe it is just the sheer dominance of the iPhone in consumer culture, it touches lives far more deeply than any generation of PlayStation. I can’t fully vocalise why an iPhone is different to a games console, but it is. The ‘console argument’ may be a legitimate legal defence, but it doesn’t convince me. It’s the old adage: you know it when you see it.
The iMac has limped along for a decade on the same industrial design and last-gen technology. I think that will be a permanent blot on Apple’s record. It is a poor showing for the company’s only consumer desktop to lag behind the curve so much. This week’s refresh at least rectifies the biggest hole in feature set; the 2020 iMac lineup finally uses SSDs as standard. The T2 chip is new to the 27-inch iMac too, acting as the storage controller for fast read and write speeds, plus the security benefits and other niceties it provides.
The base model specs are pretty stingy, with Apple equipping all the 21.5- and the low end 27-inch machines with 256 GB SSDs. This choice basically forced them to offer a 1TB Fusion Drive as a build-to-order option, although it’s not available for the 27-inch as the T2 only speaks solid state. Zoom back to 2012 for a second, right after the all-SSD Retina MacBook Pro was released. Do you think people seriously thought Apple would still be selling spinning disks in 2020? Crazy right. Predicting a Retina future for every Mac also seemed obvious in 2012, and yet incredulously the base model 21.5-inch iMac display is a very much non-Retina 1920x1080 resolution.
New processor and GPU upgrades are fine but nothing to write home about. The 1080P webcam and ‘studio’ microphone array are welcome inclusions. The nano-texture glass option is interesting in that it shows Apple is looking to bring matte displays to more than just high-end pro products. The option costs $500 compared to the $1000 price jump on the Pro Display XDR. It would be cool to see it on a MacBook soon, maybe as a $200-$300 upgrade. Ultimately, this iMac update boils down to a perfunctory spec bump.
Unless your computer dies and you need a desktop Mac to replace it, I don’t think anyone should buy these iMacs. They just aren’t compelling. When you are buying an all-in-one machine, you are buying a point in time. It’s a non-upgradeable box. This is fine when the box is full of shiny things, all modern and new. From 2010 through 2015 I’d say, the iMac fulfilled that criteria. This was the era of the introduction of things like the razor-thin chassis edge, Retina 5K and Retina 4K displays, P3 wide colour and the like. From about 2016, the product was coasting along but the lustre was gone. Finally, the debut of the thin bezel iPhone X and the iPad Pro in 2018 firmly planted the iMac in yesteryear. Buying these iMacs is committing to technology and design that is already half-deprecated. I would have said the same before the Apple Silicon announcement, but with that in tow, I can say it even more strongly.
This generation of iMac will quickly be remembered as a tombstone of everything old. By this time next year, Apple be deep into a transformation of the entire Mac lineup, featuring whole new architecture and largely new designs. I fully expect the ARM iMac to look entirely different. That is to say, modern. Wait for them.
Display Zoom is a truly great feature for those that need it. The usual go-to accessibility setting for older people is the text size slider. However, I recommend turning to Display Zoom, and considering adjusting the text size as a last resort. Both accessibility features help people with poor eyesight, but the mechanics are very different.
With Dynamic Text, the OS uses larger font sizes for body text and some headings. Due to the limited available space, components like iOS toolbars use fixed metrics and do not change the text size of their buttons at all. When the system font size is increased significantly, this results in a pretty ugly mish-mash of application UIs with some parts of the screen being enlarged whilst other areas don’t change. Often, the app will change the text size of a button but the button’s container doesn’t get bigger in kind, so you see a lot of truncated text. It’s also possible to encounter app layouts that are entirely broken with Dynamic Text active, as developers sometimes forget to test every screen of their app under these conditions.
Display Zoom works by making the OS pretend that it is running on a device with a lower resolution screen, causing apps to render at that smaller size, and then scaling that up to fill the actual display of the device. This means the entire interface is rendered physically larger. Display Zoom came to iOS starting with the iPhone 6 but it originated on the Mac; the behaviour is identical to the scaled display options in macOS System Preferences, except the iPhone only presents you with one choice of alternate resolution.
The main advantage of Display Zoom is that it applies to the entire screen evenly, enlarging everything uniformly. Unlike Dynamic Text, there is no distortion of the relative size of interface elements. Text is easier to read, UI elements are easier to touch. This latter point is frequently the more useful aspect. I set my grandpa’s phone to use Zoomed mode primarily because it makes touch targets easier to press. The lesser scaled resolution usually means there are fewer things visible on screen at once, and the things that do remain are simply bigger. As far as his accessibility to using the phone is concerned, the dexterity of his fingers and unfamiliarity with touchscreens are far greater barriers than the impact of his ageing eyesight. For instance, Display Zoom makes it much easier for him to type on the software keyboard, as each key is about 25% larger in Zoomed view.
My general advice is to enable Display Zoom first. Then, consider bumping up the text if that is still necessary. With Display Zoom magnification in effect, the number of font size increases required may only be two or three notches away from the system default, which is far less disruptive to app layouts than compared to cranking it all the way up to the biggest size.
Display Zoom employs non-integer scaling, which means it causes some degree of blurriness. The visual artefacts are minor though, and someone who needs to use Display Zoom for accessibility reasons won’t be able to perceive it.
Display Zoom imposes no additional engineering effort on app developers. Apple achieves this by having each iPhone simulate a screen resolution of another model in the lineup, that has the same aspect ratio. Every app in the App Store supports Display Zoom automatically, because to the app it is the same as if it was running natively on a different iPhone, and of course developers have to ensure compatibility with all the various iPhone form factors as a matter of course.
For example, the Zoomed view on grandpa’s iPhone 8 renders as if it was a 4-inch iPhone SE, the iPhone 8 Plus emulates a iPhone 8 screen and on the iPhone 11 Pro Max, it matches the resolution of the iPhone 11 Pro.
A quirk of time is that the 5.8-inch iPhone X has never offered Display Zoom. Because the X was the start of a new line of 18:9 iPhones, Apple didn’t have a suitable resolution from a counterpart phone to draw upon. The lack of Display Zoom carried through to the iPhone XS and iPhone 11 Pro, which share the same screen specifications. Dynamic Text is available, but no Display Zoom.
This omission was an unfortunate downside of the modern non-Max iPhones. Hopefully, me extolling the benefits of Display Zoom across the last five paragraphs shows why that matters. The good news is that iOS 14 beta 3 adds Display Zoom to all 5.8-inch phones.
But what about the lack of smaller 18:9 iPhone? Apple hasn’t released any new sizes. Yet. As tested by 9to5Mac in the iOS Simulator, and as seen by taking a screenshot on the iPhone 11 Pro in Zoomed mode, the never-before-seen resolution is 960x2079 (or 320x693 at 3x scale). That’s the same width as the old 4-inch phones. Odds on, this is the resolution of the new 5.4-inch iPhone, which will be one of four iPhone 12 models coming this fall.
The introduction of a new resolution means Apple is facing yet another iPhone hardware cycle where users will have to wait a few months for developers to update their apps so they can fully enjoy their new phone’s form factor, free of top and bottom black bars. Apps will need to update to explicitly declare compatibility for this screen size. Otherwise, apps appear on-screen letterboxed. You can try this out for yourself; install beta 3 on a 5.8-inch iPhone, enable Display Zoom, and launch any App Store app.
It’s funny that Apple slipped this in during the third beta seed, as if no one would notice. They would have probably been better off shipping it as part of beta 1 and drawing attention to it in a WWDC session, proudly touting the addition of Display Zoom to the 5.8-inch phones as a new feature. We would always make the connection to the rumoured new phone size, but you might as well start evangelising apps to support it as soon as possible.
All of Apple’s system apps are already updated to fill the screen. I spent a good twenty minutes using my phone in Zoomed mode to get a feel for what the forthcoming 5.4-inch phone might be like to use day-to-day. It seemed fine. I could not find a single place in the system where I found the smaller screen real estate meaningfully lacking. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on something. If you are yearning for the smaller-phone-with-premium-specs, I think you’ll be happy with what you are getting. The loss in horizontal resolution is not a big deal; some controls like tab bars just have less whitespace between the buttons.
The production quality of Apple’s WWDC keynote video was incredibly high. Swooping drone shots, sharply paced, a good variety of presenters, complementary slides and animations, and immaculate background sets. They really did step and embrace the fact that the show was being pre-recorded.
The effort was well received and I saw many people sharing the sentiment that this how WWDC should be done every year. I can’t say I agree. I yearn for them to go back to normal. Obviously, in the current health environment, that is not possible. When the world situation (eventually) improves, I am personally hoping Apple goes back to normal with its events. Doing something live, truly live, has this effervescent ambience that will never be matched by something that has been filmed ahead of time. The lingering danger of something going wrong with the demo is palpable, and that’s what makes live events great. The weeks of rehearsal and the confidence in the products shine through. Pre-recorded streams are always going to be perfect. This time, it was new, novel and impressive they could pull off such an elaborate presentation under stringent social distancing conditions. But one, two, three years down the line, the novelty wears off and it gets boring. I want to see a show, not watch a marketing video. The risk of live is what makes it.
The technical sessions were also all pre-recorded this year … and they should keep them that way. It was brilliant. The seminar format conveyed the information with more detail and more clarity. For learning materials, that’s exactly what you want. The scheduling was so much better too. All videos could simply be released at the same time each day. They weren’t beholden to the timetable and room capacity of the McEnery convention centre. I assume this was also less stressful for the developers and designers presenting their work. You still have to script and prepare for recorded filming work, but taping to a teleprompter is far less of an ordeal than needing to meticulously rehearse and rehearse for your one shot at presenting during WWDC week.
I think you can reconcile the appeal of live keynotes and the practicality of recorded session. In the hypothetical future, WWDC would still be an in-person event with consumer Keynote and developer State of the Union presentations on the Monday. Session videos would then be released that evening, leaving the rest of the week for extended labs, mixers and hands-on workshops for the developers in attendance.
At the original March event, Apple Arcade was positioned as a subscription service offering an eclectic collection of novel and unique titles, drawing on the raw creativity of indie game studios, as well as mixing in some games from larger franchises. The fact that Apple was funding the games upfront meant that the developers had the freedom to create, in Apple’s words, “the best work of their lives” and without having to contort the gameplay to accommodate monetisation mechanics like interstitial ads, in-game currency, artificial time limits and such.
Of course, we aren’t privy to all the details and nuances of the April meeting, but the snippet provided by Bloomberg is a little unsettling. The problem with saying ‘we want more games like Grindstone’ is not that Grindstone is a bad game. It’s a great game actually, one of Arcade’s best. The issue is that it has the potential to pigeonhole creativity, thereby defeating one of Arcade’s supposed strengths. Game makers may not even bother to pursue new and innovative ideas because they now have to worry about its replayability prospects and fear the pitch would be ultimately turned down.
Some of my favourite games of all time are narrative-driven. They depend on a fixed-length story to engross you for a weekend. If developers working on those kind of games are scared away from the Apple Arcade platform, that would be highly unfortunate. It is exactly this ilk of games that struggle to survive under normal App Store economics, and may never be available on Apple’s devices without Arcade. In contrast, level-based games are already well suited to freemium business models.
I can understand Apple’s concern that they need reasons for people to stay subscribed for multiple months. The risk is if the library becomes is swamped by stage-based games that can offer hundreds of levels. Diversity and variety is important. It is very comparable to TV+ where Apple has rightly commissioned a mixture of content: some shows with recurring seasons, some limited series and standalone films. I also think there are strong arguments that Apple’s monetary commitments to Arcade are too small, especially when you look at what they are happily spending on the TV side. Adding a handful of big-budget high-production games into Arcade would surely be a good thing. As it stands, the budget for Apple’s two series order of The Morning Show exceeds investment into the entire Arcade library.
There are times when Apple pushes boundaries and times when they don’t. This was definitely the latter category. I’m not sure I could point to anything specific in the new software that feels particularly novel. That’s absolutely fine. In fact, I’d place the 2020 conference as one of the best WWDCs ever. Apple advanced each of its operating systems significantly, often adding features that people have been asking for a long time.
The iOS 13 cycle is overshadowed by the bugginess of its debut but it had fundamental product problems from the beginning. Many of the features introduced in iOS 13 were simply mistakes in direction, even if they worked. Things like the changes to text selection, the naive grouping of accessory features in Home, and the inane layout of the Mail toolbar. Myself and many others shared our grievances on these matters over the summer, Apple shipped them without changes, and they were indeed received poorly. It was not a good look when every point-update was congratulated for reverting something that had been launched in 13.0.
In stark contrast to last year, I do not see anything in iOS 14 that is so bad I think they need to retrace their steps. iOS 14’s brilliance is going to make quick work of pushing the troubles of iOS 13 into distant memory.
Widgets on the home screen are just perfect. The whole system feels like a modernisation of the macOS Dashboard, complete with a ripple animation when adding new widgets from the library. For the longest time, people have wanted the ability for app icons to be dynamic, like Clock and Calendar. The small 2x2 widget is basically answering those demands. You can finally have a weather icon on your home screen that actually reflects the current weather conditions. I don’t expect people to flood their home screens with widget after widget, I reckon most people will settle on a couple to put on their first page and that will do just fine. The stringent size options (either 2x2, 4x2 or 4x4) basically encourage that kind of usage pattern.
The decision to disallow any interactivity apart from tapping to launch the app is an interesting one. It makes iOS 14 widgets feel a lot like Watch complications. Whereas the Watch has to lean in to the true black nature of its background, widgets on iOS 14 can explode with colour and vibrancy to complement the surrounding app icons and wallpaper. Apple has set a high standard of beauty with the design of the built-in widgets and I look forward to seeing what the developer community does. I know some people are already anticipating that Apple adds support for buttons and interactive controls in widgets in the future, but I’m not yet convinced they have to. I certainly don’t feel an immediate compulsion to ask for more. The enforced restraint breeds elegance and I am glad Apple’s implementation has ended up being more inspired by Windows Phone Live Tiles than the Android widget system.
Incoming calls as banner alerts and support for Picture-in-Picture video are so good you can only wish Apple would have done it sooner. In particular, PIP adds so much convenience and utility without introducing complexity. The mental model is incredibly simple: a singular floating window that you can drag around and close when you are done. You can’t get confused about what’s going on when you are multitasking with PIP. Again, this is nothing revolutionary, but it is new to iOS and the iPhone is better for it.
I like the idea behind the new design for Siri, making Siri a contextual overlay over your current app instead of a modal takeover. An animated version of the Siri icon pulsates to indicate it is listening, and the answer card appears at the top of the screen. Nothing else obscures your vision of the app Siri has been invoked on top of. This means you no longer see the text of your transcribed request. That’s a bold statement as to the quality of Siri’s dictation accuracy, although there is a toggle in settings to show it. Whilst Siri is active, if you touch the screen, Siri is dismissed. This behaviour is befitting of the compact phone screen, but it also applies to the iPad. Any attempt to interact with the foreground app dismisses Siri completely. On the big iPad canvas, not being able to use the app and interact with Siri simultaneously feels like it is defeating the point of the redesign altogether.
The improvements to HomeKit are very welcome. There is smarter onboarding when adding new accessories, which help to guide novice users into taking advantage of automations, integration of favourite scenes into the top level of Control Centre, and the textual summary status in the Home app has been replaced by a more functional visual strip of buttons.
App Clips are being framed as the next big expansion of the App Store, with Apple even resurrecting the iconic “There’s an app for that” slogan for the feature’s intro video, but I’m not sure if it is impact is really going to be that widely felt. I think it will find utility in select niches where it makes sense but I don’t think people are going to be encountering them on a daily basis. Retraining people to scan QR codes is a tall order. Searching the name of an app in the App Store and downloading it isn’t that hard. We’ll see how that plays out, I guess.
On the services front, I was surprised News+ Audio wasn’t mentioned given how finished it seems to be in the 13.6 betas. I guess that’s been pushed to fall now. The Apple TV app received no attention at all, sadly, which means TV+’s primary problem will continue through November 1st 2020, the date when customer free trials start expiring. I had guessed this before, but now with the COVID factor delaying the completion of second seasons of Apple’s flagship series, a second year rollover of the free trials feels inevitable. Arcade actually got quite a love. The Game Center UI has been overhauled, banishing the gaudy floating bubbles in favour of a barebones design that uses translucent platters for layering. The Arcade app now uses Game Center for some prominent social features, like seeing what games your friends have played recently.
Other iOS 14 capabilities are tacit nods to the looming antitrust complaints. In this update, you will be able to choose alternative email and browser apps, and integrate MFI-compatible device trackers into the Find My app. Apple is even letting third-party music services run natively on the HomePod. Some of this is merely lip service. The requirements to participate in the Find My accessory program are so locked down I’m pretty sure Tile won’t be participating, but it will probably help Apple’s defence in court nonetheless.
Catalyst doesn’t do much to help translate their iOS designs into Mac native elements. The enforced 2/3rds UI scaling sets an app two steps back from the get go. Most UI controls require manual customisation and reimplementation to make them look and act like their macOS counterparts. Some elements like sidebars do transform their behaviour when running on the Catalyst idiom, but the Catalyst stack seems unfinished as it doesn’t accurately recreate how an AppKit source list works. It is just wrong.
If you use AppKit, you can make a bad app. If you use Catalyst, you can easily make a bad app. At the same time, Catalyst is attracting developers who cannot justify to allocate resources to Mac-specific work. That’s the point of it: to bring iPad apps to the Mac with little effort. And so, the combination of cause and technology stack almost always results in a bad-to-mediocre final result, almost by definition.
Being successful on the iOS App Store is hard enough, a platform with a billion active devices. The scale of the Mac App Store trails by orders of magnitude. As long as that remains true, most developers will only be able to have a Mac presence through shortcuts like Catalyst, and that means app quality will generally suffer.
I don’t blame any third-party for making these choices. It’s basic economics. I am guilty too. I am sad that Apple — the platform owner and biggest company in the world — is leaning on Catalyst so heavily, and not even setting a good example in the process. For the Apple Developer app, they have tried to make a Mac navigation structure with multiple columns, which is nice to see. But that’s basically where my compliments end. I guess you can say that it is better than nothing.
An easy way to make people happy is to make stuff cheaper. People are naturally excited about these rumours of a forthcoming Apple services bundle to simplify the the growing list of things Apple gets us to pay for on a monthly basis, and save money at the same time.
However, that is the idealised end consumer. From Apple’s perspective, the core reason for doing a bundle is to make people spend more, in the aggregate. If you asked an average Apple customer what they would want from a bundle deal, they’d probably say a combination of Apple Music and iCloud storage. After all, these are Apple’s most popular subscriptions. ‘Everyone’ has them … which is exactly why Apple will not offer it. All that would do is make the people who are already paying, pay less.
Realistically, what Apple is looking for is ways to boost adoption of its newer content services that are still in their infancy. That is News+, TV+ and Arcade. A bundle would let Apple attach these new divisions onto what people are already subscribing to, with a discount incentive to complete the sale. Thematically, bundling iCloud doesn’t make much sense with television or news. This is a hunch, but I think Apple is going to keep pedalling iCloud as a separate entity. I think they are looking at a content bundle, whilst iCloud remains standalone.
So, let’s consider a quartet of Music, News+, TV+ and Arcade. Today, subscribing to each of these individually will cost you $30 per month. $10 for Music, $10 for News+, $5 for TV+ and $5 for Arcade. However, Music is single-user license but the others support Family Sharing. To make it symmetric, you need to get the Apple Music Family Plan which brings the total to a monthly bill of $35 for all of Apple’s content services.
Now, the question is what level of discount can Apple feasibly deliver. They basically have free rein to charge whatever they want for TV+ and Arcade. Obviously, the production of TV shows and games has to be ultimately paid for, but Apple is retaining the rights over distribution and pricing. Short term, they can charge $2, $5, $10, whatever they want. Apple Music and News+ are more complicated. The music industry has rigid contracts with all the streaming services, which lock down pricing. This is why Spotify and Apple Music basically offer identical plans for the same library of streaming music. The labels do not want their content to be devalued any more than it already has been. Apple’s margins on a music subscription are also relatively slim.
Apple’s position with News+ is slightly less restrictive, but still constrained by the fact that at the end of the day, publishers get paid by making half of the total News+ revenue. There have been a few reports that Apple has negotiated new terms which would allow Apple to reduce the amount it pays out when News+ was bundled, but it can’t be that much of a reduction — the magazines have long been complaining that monetisation from News+ is poor.
Theoretically, Apple could charge nothing for TV+ and Arcade and just accept the content productions costs as losses. As discussed before on this blog, TV+ is currently a loss-leader when priced at $5 per month. (Apple needs to hit about 50 million subscribers to start making profits from the TV+ service.) But charging nothing at all for it feels like an unsustainable step that Apple wouldn’t cross. I think we can reasonably estimate/guess that, as a bundle, Apple could shave $2 off the News+ pricing, halve the cost of TV+ and Arcade, and leave Music as is. With a bit of optimistic rounding applied, that sums to a saving of $10.
So, that’s $25 per month rather than $35. 30% off! Not bad. I mean, it is nice but it’s still expensive. People love to draw contrasts between Apple’s bundle and what Amazon does with Prime, but the price points are very far apart to the point where it’s not really comparable. Remember, this total figure is still excluding your monthly iCloud payment.
Take a prospective customer who was only ever interested in Music, TV+ and Arcade. They aren’t going to be better off in the post-bundle era financially, they’ll be paying the same. Admittedly, the draw of getting an additional service for free might draw some people in. My point is that the bundle is good, but not a silver bullet. It needs to come hand-in-hand with improvements to the services themselves, to make them more compelling.
People will groan but I fully expect to see a Services segment at the upcoming WWDC keynote. It’s more than a year since the March event, so Apple is due to have things coming out of the pipeline. Apple News+ audio articles is essentially fully implemented in the iOS 13.5.5 beta, Apple just has to flip a switch to make it appear for everyone. It does suggest that Apple isn’t waiting until iOS 14 in the fall to ship this. And given the code evidence, maybe the bundle is imminent too.
WWDC 2011 is significant not only because it was Steve Jobs’ last Apple keynote, but because that year launched several core technologies that we now take for granted, like iCloud, iMessage and AirDrop. It was fun to look back on it with the context of what we know in 2020. You can also see a marked change in the pacing of Apple’s presentations between then and now.
Watch above, along with my audio commentary. I’ve been meaning to do something like this for a while and right now felt like a great time for it, as we wait to see how Apple handles its first keynote-at-home event. WWDC 2020 kicks off on June 22nd.
In March, I heard that Apple was courting publishers to let them produce spoken word versions of their content. The voiceover talent would include known names, actors and other celebrities. Apple foots the bill for this, so there’s no additional burden on the publications. These talks were part of wider negotiations around contract renewals, as the original News+ deals allowed publishers to drop out after one year if they were unhappy.
I couldn’t get secure confirmation of that tidbit so I never reported it, but Digiday is now reporting the same thing, so it’s clearly happening. Presumably, users would be able to navigate to a story and hear the audio version but you have to expect that Apple would also package this into some sort of feed for people to listen to as part of their commute. Sounds like a podcast, right?
It would be stupid of them not to let users add this into Apple Podcasts. I expect it would be through some proprietary mechanism which of course Apple can do as the owner of both the Podcasts and News app, not backed by a public RSS feed. This would also give them an excuse to feature News+ ads in the Podcasts app, which helps bring more eyeballs to News+ in general.
I’ve also heard that Apple wants to do something similar for video as well, with a half-hour weekly Apple News Spotlight show in the TV app. This project is not as far ahead though; I’d expect to see the audio article stuff in iOS 14.
Later in the Digiday report, it says that publishers have been disappointed with News+’s performance. My understanding is the situation is slightly more nuanced. Whilst most of the magazines have seen almost no growth in readership compared to the status quo before Apple acquired Texture, the newspapers are pretty happy. Not ecstatic or blown away, but generally pleased with the revenue News+ is making for them.
As a reminder, Apple keeps half of the $9.99 per month subscription fee. The remaining $5 is divided up between each News+ publisher based on their relative share of engagement on the platform.
The News app does a good job of promoting stories from the News+ newspapers and therefore these publications are capturing high levels of engagement and the vast majority of the News+ subscription money. I think Apple had expected the newspapers to dominate, but it believed that it would bring enough new subscribers onboard to enable the magazines to see meaningful returns too. That basically hasn’t happened.
One of the fears Digiday raises about the audio push is that this effect will only be increased. The smaller outlets are concerned that Apple will mostly commission audio stories from the ‘big guys’ and their content will be marginalised further.
The Library may share the same tab bar as the other buttons in the TV app but they are otherwise disconnected. It’s like having two separate apps rolled into one, each with their own UI components and each operating on a different set of data. It’s like having two people living in the same house that do not talk to each other. For the Library tab, Apple essentially took the old iOS Videos app and transposed it as one screen inside of TV.
They didn’t modernise it all, and its age shows through. The Library knows about content downloaded locally to your device, and your iTunes Store purchases, because that’s what Videos could do. Newer inventions like third-party TV Provider apps or Apple TV Channels subscriptions, which the Videos app did not incorporate because those components simply didn’t exist at the time, are therefore not shown at all. Library has no awareness of them. If you find something in Watch Now on a streaming service, you can’t add that to your library. You can only add it to a separate Up Next queue, which is only exposed as a single horizontally-scrolling list in the Watch Now tab and offers no further categorisation or filtering. Something that the Library tab would be perfect for, if it actually worked as you would naturally expect it to.
Box sets were handled badly in the Videos app, and that behaviour has been brought across wholesale into the TV app. Despite the other parts of the TV app having access to a full catalogue of TV shows, with information about their seasons and constituent episodes, the Library is siloed off from that data. It merely deals in files and file downloads. So, if you bought the first five seasons of Game of Thrones as an iTunes Store box set, Library sees that as a block of 50 video files, and it naively groups them together. The structured season metadata — that the TV app can show you if you were to look up Game of Thrones in the Search tab — is completely ignored. The TV storefront also rarely surfaces bundles like box sets for sale; users hunting the best deals have to continue to look in the iTunes Store app.
Whereas the Library tab is rendered as native table views, the other tabs are thinly-wrapped web views. Each time they reload, you see a full-screen spinner and have to wait. In fact, if you open the TV app whilst offline, the tab bar will vanish and you can only see the ‘Downloaded’ part of the Library. So, remember that Up Next queue which serves as your todo list of what to watch? You can’t actually see that if you are offline — even if you have downloaded the shows in advance. The design of screens varies dramatically between the tabs as well; both Library and Watch Now include navigation that shows a 2-column thumbnail grid of results. In the Library, each of these thumbnails is accompanied by a textual label that says the name of the show. But the Watch Now quasi-web environment omits these labels altogether (which makes quickly scanning search results annoying).
Everything is just very disjointed, both in concept and in their underlying implementations. A better TV app would have everything holistically driven by the same shared data source. You should be able to add any show to your library; it shouldn’t matter if that show is backed by a physical file on disk or not. The Apple Music app does a much better job at unifying the deprecated iTunes Store and the modern subscription-based experience. If everything in TV app was cohesively connected, it would also solve other complaints I have about the TV app for free. For instance, if I could add all the shows I am watching on Apple TV+ to my library, I wouldn’t be so annoyed that Watch Now is overwhelmingly featuring content that I don’t own and need to pay for. In this theoretical happy place, I could add all ‘my’ shows to the library and rarely need to look at the other tabs; many Apple Music users manage their songs in exactly this way. However, it isn’t possible with TV as the Library isn’t aware about anything apart from stuff purchased from iTunes.
Lithium ion batteries do not like being charged at full capacity for extended periods. The aim of this new macOS behaviour is to reduce the amount of time MacBook batteries sit at 100%. And that’s why this feature is right down my alley. As a laptop-as-desktop user, my MacBook Pro is plugged in for most of the day. I am aware of the optimal battery conditioning procedures but — like everyone else — I can’t be bothered to micromanage it to that degree, so naturally my laptop sits fully charged for hours at a time, day in and day out. I just have to accept that I am not going to eek out the maximum number of recharge cycles from the machine. As of macOS 10.15.5, I won’t have to accept this penalty. With the setting enabled, my laptop will learn that it needs to charge to 80% and no more, naturally extending the lifetime of the battery without me having to manually regulate it.
I do think the feature could be implemented a bit more effectively though. In cases when you do want to charge to full, like if you know you are going to be away from a power adapter for a while, Apple’s answer appears to be to dive into System Preferences and disable the checkbox. This is functional but a bit inelegant. When I’m no longer mobile, I’ll have to remember to re-enable automatic battery health management. I’d prefer it if the Battery menu in the menubar had a one-click ‘charge to full’ button. This would allow the MacBook to reach 100% impromptu, but default back to the 80% behaviour for subsequent recharges.
Secondly, I find it curious that Apple chose to brand this setting as battery health management. This terminology closely overlaps with the iOS suite of Battery Health features, which encompasses things like the infamous performance throttling policies. The Mac behaviour has nothing to do with unexpected shutdowns or performance, though, it’s solely motivated by the desire to maximise the MacBook’s lifespan. As of iOS 13, iPhone and iPads do this too with a feature called “Optimized Battery Charging”. It would be more sensible if Apple used that exact term on the Mac too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.