I rarely discuss earnings, because it is boring and usually irrelevant, but this particular announcement came out of left field and is actually very significant. On the latest earnings call, Apple’s Luca Maestri announced that the company will no longer say how many iPhones, iPads, or Macs it sells, starting next quarter. They will report revenue for iPhone, iPad, Mac, Services and Other products (now renamed ‘Wearables, Home and Accessories’) but no longer will it tell you how many devices make up each category of sales.
The knee-jerk implication is that future iPhone sales are going to be disappointing, or flat. Of course, iPhone sales have been flat for a couple years now, so it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. As a counterfactual, Apple has never disclosed Watch sales but year-over-year growth of that product has been measured in double-digits percentages across its lifetime.
I do not interpret this sudden cloak of secrecy as an indicator that iPhone sales are falling off a cliff. It likely will go down for a while, until emerging markets like India come online. We’ll probably see a repeat of the last few years; hardware sales a little higher in some quarters, a little lower in others.
Perhaps Apple is planning some significant shakeups in its product line and they want to diffuse press attention. This past year, we have seen ASPs rise dramatically and now there is a rooted community consensus that Apple is ‘just’ making products more expensive. If sales had not been reported, it’s harder for people to attach to those storylines. You hear very little about Samsung or Google phone sales because those companies don’t report them. You have to rely on analysts and market analytics to come up with estimated figures. Apple is basically the only smartphone manufacturer who did report shipments. They aren’t doing anything radical really, they are merely joining the herd.
Moreover, I expect a lot of turbulence in the Mac and iPad businesses in the near future, as each of those products go through major transitions. It’s a lot easier to make those changes when there is less focus on financials.
It’s also important to note that disclosing less information does not always benefit Apple. When you create more uncertainty, there’s a greater potential for investors to be led astray. Quarters that are bad can be masked over, but quarters that are good can also fly under the radar.
The EU has ruled that Google can no longer require manufacturers to pre-install Google Chrome and Google search in order to feature the official Android app store, the Google Play Store. It views the entanglement as anticompetitive.
Naturally, Google is appealing the decision but it must comply in the meantime. The new European license will require manufacturers to pay a per-device free for the rights to pre-install the Play Store and other apps. If the hardware companies choose to install Google search and Chrome, a revenue sharing deal will let them recoup some of the costs of the Google Mobile Services license.
The fees are not yet confirmed, but The Verge has supposedly seen the draft agreement, and the costs are set to be significant. The Verge quotes a $40 charge for devices with >500 PPI screens. That is a lot. The Galaxy S9+ screen has a pixel density of 529 PPI. Its build-of-materials is estimated to total $375; a $40 Android license fee is a 10% cost increase and would make Android one of the most expensive ‘components’ in that phone.
There are many potential ramifications of this change. I’m sure Amazon is overjoyed with a renewed chance to expand the reach of the Amazon Appstore. Microsoft could make an Android phone that has the Google Play Store but ships with Edge and Bing. It’ll be interesting to see how many companies suddenly become more thoughtful about what screens their phones use, picking screen resolutions that just go below the $40 500 PPI threshold. Saving $20 per unit is a strong incentive indeed. It’s not like a consumer is going to complain about a mere 400 PPI display. 500+ pixel densities are basically superfluous.
A particularly good example is the aforementioned Galaxy S9+. The physical screen panel is 6.2-inches with a 2960x1440 resolution, yielding a 539 PPI. Yet, Samsung’s software defaults to a much lower screen resolution: 2220x1080. In this mode, the effective PPI is ‘only’ 396. As most users never change defaults, it’s pretty obvious that most of the S9+ models Samsung have sold are not breaching 400 PPI. Under the leaked terms, Samsung would save $30 in licensing costs on every device, if they made the hardware resolution match the default software configuration.
It’s funny how many similarities this device has with an Apple Watch. It is an accessory to your main phone. It is designed to make you more engaged with the world and less distracted by your phone, whilst still staying connected. It uses the same phone number as the primary phone, and is billed in the same way as an LTE Apple Watch too. Even the free-flowing home screen of icons shares a resemblance to the watchOS honeycomb app grid.
Opting out of a battle with the titans of the smartphone industry is probably a wise move. It’s nigh-impossible to see an opening in the Apple-Samsung high-end duopoly and the low end flood of Chinese Android phones at rock-bottom prices.
A casual communicator, phone-as-accessory, idea is certainly novel. I don’t know if Palm will be able to shake off the customer hesitation that arises because ‘they already own a phone’ though. It is hard to sell someone on the idea of owning, and paying for, a second flavour of something they already own. The Palm proposition is a hefty $350 handset purchase, plus $10 a month for the add-on contract. Smartwatches are different because they are distinct form factor products and offer a combination of unique features, like intimate health and fitness tracking, and convenience.
Rather than aiming to be a secondary device, perhaps they should up the price to the $500-600 level and make the best standalone smartphone they can. Let the USP be that it is small and compact. Make the (modern) iPhone SE of Android phones. This is a market segment that is currently starving for anything new. All the big players are refusing to consider screen sizes smaller than 5 inches. I think there’s enough people who want something like that to carve a decent niche out of the overall phone market.
There were a lot of people dismissing this product outright because of vague allusions to privacy. I think that tone is pretty lazy. I don’t think anyone in the tech industry would argue that Facebook is an angel of customer data, but upmost privacy is just one tenet of modern technology. Millions, billions, of people use Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the rest. Passing data to companies in exchange for services is a reality that people accept implicitly, and even if you tell them, few care enough to quit. When it comes down to it, people don’t care.
When a normal person sees a Portal, I don’t think they are going to turn a blind eye to it because of the existential fears of personal data exploitation. There are a handful of reasons why this product is going to fail in the market, but I don’t see privacy worries as a legitimate death-on-arrival poison.
I don’t like the trend of glossing over announcements from companies not called Apple, because they all suck at protecting customer privacy. I respect Apple’s privacy commitments at roughly the same level that I respect their environmental achievements. Both are good things to do, but when it comes down to it, the features and functionality is what truly matters in whether I consider a product as ‘good’.
The key marketing point that Facebook is pushing here is video calls, through Messenger. I don’t get it. It just seems so much easier to talk on something that you can hold in your hand — be it a phone, tablet, or laptop in your lap — that you can freely move around with. When I’m on the phone at home, I almost always end up walking around during the course of the conversation. Phones let you angle the camera just how you like to and you can flip the camera around in a pinch to show what you are seeing (iOS 12 FaceTime redesign notwithstanding). The Portal is fixed in place with a single lens. The camera intelligently pans and zooms so you can walk around a room and have it follow you, but what if your kid on the floor starts doing something cute, or you have to rush upstairs? The form factor is inherently limiting.
Facebook is also being pretty stubborn out of the gate with reigning in the software potential of the Portal. You don’t have an app store, so you can only use apps that Facebook partners with, and Alexa is limited in some ways too. You can only do video messages with Messenger, you can’t dictate texts. There’s no YouTube or Netflix. There’s simply not that much to show on its screen. The HomePod is similarly limited and clearly hasn’t set the world on fire. Nevertheless, the HomePod’s core feature — playing Apple Music and sounding good — is far more compelling than the Portal’s video chat offering.
The biggest blocker is just the aesthetics of the object itself. The ‘small’ 10-inch model looks like a checkout kiosk; the Echo Show and the newly-announced Google Home Hub have the same problem. The big 15-inch one is subjectively ugly and objectively big. It is really hard to find a place in your lounge or kitchen where you can put a 15-inch screen on a pedestal, that isn’t in the way but also close enough to actually be able to use the screen and have the camera pointed in the right direction.
Screen-less smart speakers are much more flexible in that regard, as they do not demand line-of-sight human attention. In contrast, an Echo cylinder or HomePod can be placed out of the way on a cabinet or shelf and it is fine. I love visual user interfaces but the intrusiveness of these smart screen devices is a huge barrier to adoption.
For a while now, I have had vague ideas about a smart screen product that can hang on the wall, like a tall mirror or maybe a wall clock. Imagine an Apple Watch that hangs on the wall; because it wouldn’t need to show so much text, it could even be round. I wish Amazon or someone would explore a product like that. Amazon have recently announced an Echo-branded wall clock but it’s not a smart screen; it’s a standard clock with some LEDs around the dial.
I haven’t been running Mojave on my machine in the beta period. I always wait for public releases before updating the software on my (only) Mac. I knew what to expect of course. I don’t have my head in the sand. I watched the WWDC keynote, I saw all my friends’ complaints on Twitter, I was braced for it. But, man, these suck.
Marzipan apps are ugly ducklings. As soon as you use them, you can just know these are not at one with the system. You detect that there’s a translation layer of some kind at work here, just like when you use Slack on the Mac you instinctively feel that it’s a web app in a thin wrapper. The underlying implementation is exposed to the user with a bevy of performance sluggishness, UI quirks and non-standard behaviours. That’s bad.
I launch News. I see a window with a reasonable lineup of platform-standard toolbar controls, although I notice that the title of the window is ‘News’. This is a little odd as modern Mac design generally means that the application name is not repeated in the window itself. The title represents the active visible content inside the window, or they simply might not have a visible title at all. Not a universal rule, but certainly not the norm.
Then, only a few pixels down the screen, is the words Apple News repeated again, this time in all-caps. ‘News’ in the menubar, ‘News’ in the titlebar, ‘Apple News’ in the sidebar. Is the word News redundantly displayed in these three different places because that’s what makes sense for the Mac UI? I’d wager it is not a design choice. I think it’s pretty clear that Apple News is in the sidebar because the sidebar is a wholesale port of the iPad interface. iOS on the iPad doesn’t have a menubar or a titlebar, so it isn’t uncommon for apps to put their branding in the app itself. Why is News in the titlebar? In this case, I suspect the Marzipan system houses apps in a window with a titlebar, and it automatically populates the window with the display name of the bundle. Home is the only app of the new set that bucks this pattern, instead using a segmented control as the centred toolbar item.
This first point is arguably a nitpicky detail, but it’s emblematic of the problem I have with these apps. Their fabric is so clearly of another world. A more blatant visual transgression is the News search field. It doesn’t look like a Mac search field. It is bubblier than an Aqua field, the corner radius is off. Moreover, when you press the little ‘X’ button to empty the text, the field loses keyboard focus and hides itself offscreen. That was surprising to me, and anything surprising is unlikely to be following platform idioms that are ingrained into my head. If you type something and then hit ‘escape’, the text box clears, keyboard focus is resigned, but the sidebar search results aren’t reset. I’d pass that last one off as a bug. (Voice Memos and Stocks exhibit the same behaviours, by the way.)
A big landmark sigh of frustration is that all of these Marzipan apps are single window affairs. There’s no attempt to support opening a company stock detail or a news article in its own window. Voice Memos is a particularly bad offender here. When you start a new recording, it takes over the entire window with a modal view. The user loses context of where they were. This is a common pattern on iPhone and iPad but it really feels alien on the Mac.
Home is the worst case of the single window constraints. It is an app that naturally has hierarchy. Single-window iOS uses modal form sheets. Marzipan Mac uses … single-window form sheets. You don’t need to be a designer or a developer to work out where these interfaces came from. It’s transparent. Interestingly, they did change the animation slightly on the Mac — form sheets appear with a quick fade rather than a slide up effect as seen on iPhone and iPad. If this was a real Mac app, it would spawn multiple floating windows, use source lists instead of touch-friendly bubbly tiles, popup menus rather than sliding reels, checkboxes not green switches, etcetera etcetera. I especially like how single clicking on an accessory tile does nothing but make it bounce a little.
Keyboard shortcuts are very patchy. My instinct when making a voice recording was to slam the space bar to pause. It doesn’t work. I went to the menubar and saw that it was greyed out in the current view, but noted that space bar does work during playback. The trip to the menubar showed me an item for ‘Play/Pause Recording’. If you look in iTunes, you will find a ‘Play’ command when a song isn’t playing and a ‘Pause’ command when it is. This dynamic nicety didn’t make it to Voice Memos, ostensibly because iOS doesn’t have a menubar so nobody considered those kind of situations before. For the same reason, the Touch Bar app region is completely blank on all of these ‘new’ apps.
Coming down to some more fundamental issues, I found button interactions to be wonky in places. Consider the ‘Details’ button in Home app for viewing active accessory status. How do buttons work on a computer? You press down with the mouse, and let go. If you press down and decide you don’t want to depress, you move your mouse away. Not so with the ‘Details’ button in the Home app. As soon as you have pressed down, you are committed. It doesn’t matter where your mouse goes. It can leave the bounds of the button, even the frame of the window, and its action will still fire. This issue does not plague most of the buttons in the Marzipan suite, but it was not an isolated occurrence either.
The Home app lets you use a jump bar to navigate to a room quickly through the toolbar item; this is a nice Mac feature. In fact, the equivalent navigation in the iPhone and iPad Home apps is much uglier as it involves an abuse of action sheets. However, you can also navigate between rooms by swiping left or right with the trackpad. This is a downright mess on the Mac. The swipes don’t register consistently, the momentum feels wrong, and sometimes you can make the view bounce as if it has reached the end of the pages, only to swipe again and have it suddenly spawn the next page. There’s also a really ugly rendering glitch with the background. This should not have passed QA.
I already mentioned how everything is single window. Let’s consider the basic window operations. You get the standard traffic light close/minimise/full-screen widgets and they work fine. Window resizing using mouse drags — not so much. The performance is just poor. I use News in this example video, and compare it with resizing equivalent content in Safari, and the difference is night and day. I observe laggy resizing on Home, Voice Memos, Stocks and News, and this is using a 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro. Again, I think this is an inherent part of how these apps are conceived — iOS apps don’t need to worry about live window resizing — bubbling up as user-facing deficiencies.
Here’s one another one I’ll toss out there. Try dragging a News article from the Today screen into a Messages conversation. You can’t do it, you get a funky file permissions error instead. Great. Now try dragging from the Today screen to the desktop. This will work, it will make a webloc shortcut file. However, it takes an extraordinarily long time. You can count many seconds go by before it completes. Whilst this happens, the rest of the app is locked up and cannot be interacted with. I even saw my mouse cursor turn into a beachball when doing this. Copying a link to the desktop.
I debated calling this post ‘Home, News, Stocks and Voice Memos for Mac’ because it’s not really a comment on the Marzipan project initiative. After all, I don’t expect the solution Apple ships next year to have the same laundry list of drawbacks that these Mojave apps do. It’s a critique of the apps that are shipping now to customers of macOS. These apps are preinstalled with the OS. News was even unceremoniously placed into the middle of my Dock upon upgrading. And they are not good, simple as that. I would have been mildly happier if Apple had offered these apps as optional App Store downloads affixed with a beta label.
Functionally, they are a win. These apps make the Mac do things it couldn’t before. That shouldn’t excuse them from blame, though. These are mediocre, bordering on bad, experiences. It’s not a good poster child for the future of the Mac. The Mac — heck Apple as a whole — is about delighting users with good-to-great experiences. What drew me to Apple was never how many bullet points they checked off the feature list.
After the iPhone and Watch announcements, Tim Cook said they had a quick update on HomePod and began by recapping the AirPlay 2 features they added “recently”. I had to laugh. We’ve already been through one keynote in which AirPlay 2 existed, as the feature shipped the week before WWDC. At the developer keynote, they elected not to mention the HomePod operating system at all. I thought that was a funny warping of the timeline.
Thankfully, that’s wasn’t the only news. Cook announced a substantial bout of new features coming to the HomePod on Monday. Multiple timers, make and receive phone calls, lyrics-based song playback. As the HomePod OS does not participate in a public beta program — I wish it would — I’ll just trust for now that these features are implemented well.
With this update, it finally feels like Apple has delivered what the HomePod experience should have been on day one. AirPlay 2 dramatically improves the home music experience, and this latest 12.0 update adds the obvious missing holes on the assistant side. There’s still a lot more runway to tackle, like proper multiple user support and furthering iPhone independence, but I can finally consider this a complete 1.0 product.
I did not expect that the iOS 11 GM leak would be bested less than a year later. The accompanying iPhone XS name leak is nice, but this new Apple Watch is awesome. Whatever you think about the new clock face design, it’s great that Apple has tried something more radical than just stretching the current square layouts to a 20% bigger screen.
This is information density on steroids, fitting eight (or nine) complications into a single analogue watch face. The complications are also far richer than the current generation of watchOS offerings. The way in which the corner complications curve around the dial is not merely beautiful, it also packs in more information. Weather will now represent the high and low temperatures, for instance.
I love how the next calendar event is inscribed in-band with the tick marks on the clock face. That feels so refreshingly modern and also harkens back to horological classics. This might be a ninth complication that can present any arbitrary line of text, or it might be a feature inherent to this particular watch face. After the initial dumbstruck shock-wow factor wore off, I would be a bit worried that this face is perhaps too crowded and busy. However, all Apple Watch faces let you set their complication zones to ‘None’ to hide them, and I see no reason to suspect that this will be any different.
I tweeted that this is the most discombobulated thing Apple has done in years, I got a lot of flack, I reassessed, and I still think it’s insane. Apple released a major feature for a product they don’t sell anymore. This is way more ridiculous to me than Apple charging $200 for a leather sleeve, or missing a deadline for announced features.
I am not saying that this is bad for owners of the second-generation AirPort Express. It’s great that there is now a way to bring dumb speakers into the AirPlay 2 ecosystem, connecting via the Express’s aux input. Specifically, the absurd part of this is that they rolled this out to a product that they discontinued months ago, the Express has been delisted from the Apple Store, and there isn’t a replacement product for people to buy that can achieve the same result.
What does Apple expect people to do? Scrounge on eBay for some second-hand AirPort Express units and hope they win the treasure hunt bidding war? When Apple updates iOS for older iPhones that they no longer sell, with iOS 12 going all the way back to the discontinued iPhone 5s, they are advancing a platform. The features introduced in iOS 12 are available for customers buying the currently-sold new-in-box phones. The support given to the older phones makes their owners more likely to buy another iPhone when they come to upgrade, and it advances the app ecosystem by carrying forward millions of existing customers as potential markets for developers making apps that targets the latest and greatest OS.
The AirPort Express has no successor, no future, and no substitute. The closest alternative is buying an AirPlay 2 receiver I suppose, but I think that’s obviously aiming at a very different demographic. The Express is like a Chromecast, a glorified dongle. The AirPlay 2 ecosystem does not have an equivalent product, apart from a product that you can’t buy anymore. That’s really screwed up messaging in my book. When the decision came down to retire the AirPort line, the work on this feature should have been axed as well. What has actually happened is completely incongruous.
What I hope Apple introduces is a rebranded/redesigned AirPort Express for $49, that ditches all of the wireless networking stuff and just acts as an AirPlay 2 audio repeater. Maybe it will be manufactured by Apple’s new best friend, Logitech. Perhaps Beats will make one. If such a product existed (and maybe it will in a couple weeks), I would be less riled up. At least then, you could point people to something that serves the same role as the Express. The status quo is ridiculous. (By the way, the method for updating the AirPort Express with this posthumous software update is through AirPort Utility. The iOS AirPort Utility app is letterboxed on the iPhone X display.)
Did you know that weather information in Apple Weather is provided by The Weather Channel? And Stocks uses Yahoo Finance? It’s hard not to know. Both the Weather and Stocks app on iOS feature the logos of Weather Channel and Yahoo prominently in their user interfaces. At some level, it’s nice to know where the numbers are coming from, so an acknowledgement in the apps is probably sensible. But it goes further than that.
If you use weather or stocks widgets, scroll down to the bottom of the widget screen. There’s yet more credit given to Yahoo and the Weather Channel; small print, logos and links to the respective company’s websites that open in Safari when you tap on them. It’s not just interfering with Apple’s visual OS design. The HomePod will regularly announce to you what it uses as a data source when you ask for weather or stock information, lengthening Siri responses that should be short and sweet. These credits are everywhere.
This stuff has been playing on my mind for a while. Only recently, did it hit me how antithetical this is to Apple’s ethos. Why does Apple allow for third-party company logos to besmirch their user interfaces, not just contained within apps but across the OS, when the hardware group refuses to put any stickers or logos on their products that are not their own. The rejection of the Intel Inside program is a long-told anecdote. The same company that forces shopping malls to change the color of the light shades in front of the Apple Store.
The best answer I have is — something something legal issues. I would love if someone could enlighten me here, but it instinctively feels like a problem Apple could solve by writing a cheque. An interesting parallel is the Safari search engine. Apple doesn’t pay Google, Yahoo or Bing to be featured in the search field. The search engines pay Apple. Google literally forks out billions to remain the default iPhone search provider and they don’t get to put their logo anywhere in Apple’s UI. The autocomplete results are titled ‘Google Search’, set in Apple’s San Francisco typeface, and that’s it.
It’s easy to gloss over this stuff as someone who buys new devices frequently, but if you’ve used the iOS 12 beta, the performance focuses of this release makes a difference — even on the iPhone X. The thing that I notice the most is the share sheet.
On iOS 11, pressing share meant waiting several seconds for the activity view controller to start rising up from the bottom of the screen. On iOS 12, the sheet displays instantly. Or at least, the appearance transition is instantaneous. The share sheet lazily loads the contents of its rows, so the OS feels responsive even if it hasn’t quite finished gathering all the third-party extension information that it needs. Occasionally, the sheet pops up and both the bottom rows are just displaying loading spinners. A beat later, the app icons and actions pop in. I assume this happens more often on slower hardware. Regardless, the difference is night and day. Showing something, and populating the complete data a couple seconds later, is so much better from a user experience standpoint than waiting for everything to be ready before starting to display the view.
The iOS 12 performance changes are a combination of these visual touch-ups and genuine speed optimisations. The share sheet is faster overall and presents its UI as soon as possible.
It’s sad that we ever got to a point where the keyboard can be shown 50% faster, but I’m thrilled to see these pain points addressed. It translates into meaningful, real-world, improvements. The overall reception to iOS 12 is going to be very positive because of it. It speaks volumes that performance is the first section on Apple’s iOS 12 features page.
The overhanging question about the focus on performance is whether it can be sustained. It’s great that these improvements are coming with this software cycle, but the impact is mostly moot if iOS 13 regresses and slows down older phones again. Apple has to make a concerted, ongoing, effort to maintain performance on all devices that the new OS versions support.
I did a double-take when I saw that the Mac mini was mentioned at all, but I’m not singing Apple’s praises on this one quite yet. Kuo specifically states that the Mini will get a processor upgrade. A product that last got a refresh four years ago deserves more than a simple spec-bump. There’s a lot of creative potential for the Mini form factor. It should be like the hey-day of the iPod nano, where Apple would try out wildly-different styles with each generation. If there really are no fundamental design changes to the product, then the Mini will carry on being a neglected part of the lineup, just not so neglected that it is allowed to be on a modern processor architecture.
The new low-cost notebook with a Retina display sounds like a perfect replacement for the Air line, and Kuo is backing down from his previous allusions to this new laptop being branded as MacBook Air, but there is still unanswered justifications for how this new computer is differentiated from its 12-inch MacBook brethren. Based on the fact that Kuo says the 12-inch is getting a processor bump, it seems to me Apple will continue to position it as the ultra-portable. I do not think the $999 13-inch will go out of its way to compete on thinness and lightness; it will very much comprise an Air-esque form factor featuring a high-resolution glass-bezelled display. It’ll be interesting to see what ports it has.
The iMac update is perhaps the most intriguing part of Kuo’s rundown. He specifically points out a ‘display performance’ upgrade in addition to new processors. The iMac display is already best-in-class, and there’s no obvious next step. High frame rate 120Hz ProMotion is the most natural progression in theory. Technically, I’m not convinced we are there yet. The bandwidth requirements alone are a huge challenge. I’m all for surprises, but I would be flabbergasted if Apple can ship high-framerate 5K displays this year, in a mainstream consumer machine.
As far as the mobile lineup is concerned, everything sounds great. I love the 12.9-inch iPad screen but, man, it’s a tank. Shrinking its bezels down helps curb its overall footprint, and it will look stunning in the hand. All this year I’ve been imagining an iPad with four bezels that are as slim as the 10.5-inch iPad’s side bezels. The dreams are coming true.
I’m also psyched by the details of the new watches. Kuo has been talking about 15% larger displays for Apple Watch Series 4 as early as March, but this time around he nails down exact dimensions; 1.57-inches and 1.78 inches. These numbers are easy to get mixed up because Kuo is referring to the screen diagonals. Apple markets the Watch as 38mm and 42mm but the size refers to the height of the overall case, bezel included. The current watches have a 1.34-inch and 1.53-inch screen, measuring diagonally. Assuming Kuo’s numbers are right, the new small watch will have a larger screen area than the current big watch.
These rumours are promising. I have complete confidence that Apple is not going to abandon the small watch market by making both of its watches physically 15% bigger. Watch customers are probably the most sensitive to form factor changes out of all of Apple’s products. When Apple moved from 4-inch to 5-inch phones, some people were annoyed that it would be harder to fit the phone in their pocket, or they’d have to start using two hands. With a wearable, if you make it bigger, it’s just not going to fit on people’s arms anymore. A bigger watch is not an inconvenience, it’s a practical alienation.
The screen size change has to be accompanied by a reduction in the surrounding bezels/chassis. A new look for the Watch is definitely due. The reality is, since the first model in 2015, the Watch design has only gotten worse (a couple millimetres thicker). Series 3 headlined LTE, Series 2 was swimming and GPS. Series 4 probably won’t have any major new feature like that. The bigger display obviously improves functionality, but the main appeal is cosmetics. This year, they are going to make the watch look different, modern, and new. I can’t wait.
The goals of this overhaul sound fantastic; accurate and richer maps with near-realtime updates to keep data fresh fed by Apple’s own ground truth fleet and anonymised data from iPhone users. Apple improving Maps with crowd-sourced iPhone data isn’t new per se, but the scope of this renewed effort is much, much, greater than anything they did before. The way Maps works today is basically Apple prettifying and packaging map tiles and POIs from a swathe of licensed third party data sources. This new initiative means Apple is making its own map tiles, literally from the ground up. It will maintain the source of truth for the first time.
Expect to see headlines of people spotting Maps errors that weren’t there before as Apple migrates over to the new system. The world is simply too large for there not to be some regressions. Theoretically, though, Apple’s modern Maps infrastructure will enable these errors to be corrected quickly. This highlights a critical element of this story. The pitch here is not just about a one-time maps upgrade, Apple is promising that Maps is now much more flexible to respond to ongoing changes in roads and buildings.
It all sounds great. The bad news is this rollout is going to be painfully slow. Apple says it will deploy the new Maps section-by-section, spanning all of the United States by the end of next year. It’s particularly bleak if you consider the possible timeline for an international launch. The Apple Maps LIDAR vans have been roaming the US since 2015. The only other country Apple has started to send its vans around is the United Kingdom. Based on their hesitancy with the US deployment, Maps 2.0 for the UK probably isn’t going to arrive until late 2019 at the very earliest. And I don’t need to point out that there are lot more than two countries in the world.
Rising from the ashes, iTunes Remote has been updated with a new design and support for the latest device form factors. The icon is greatly improved. It went from a white roundrect with an inscribed circle and harsh geometric triangle to a simpler coloured gradient and neatly-rounded play symbol. It’s a nicer icon than the stock Music app now.
Sadly, that’s where my praise ends. iTunes Remote reeks of ‘five years old’ flat design. The structure of the app is still stuck in the past, a lookalike of the Music app pre-Apple Music. The tab bar is still there, the Now Playing interface is in a horizontal navigation stack, and even the Search bar doesn’t use the iOS 11 integrated style. This would be okay … if the app didn’t try to mimic the modern Music app in other ways. The Now Playing screen shadows the iOS 11 Music/Podcasts player UI but it’s only surface level. The transport controls don’t expand or shrink in the same way, the font sizes are wrong and Up Next is segregated into a separate modal. Don’t get me started on the iPad version.
Looking slighter wider, what is the point of this app existing. Remote controlling your Mac’s iTunes app makes little sense in an era of AirPlay 2 and HomePod speakers. Also, Apple now has three separate places to find ‘media remotes’. There’s the iTunes Remote app, Apple TV Remote app, and the Apple TV Remote platter in Control Centre. Each of these tread on each other’s toes in different ways, but there’s not one app for everything either. It is messy. Before today, I was assuming iTunes Remote had run its course and was heading towards extinction. With this update, I just don’t know what the roadmap is here. Apple isn’t normally prone to carrying around legacy baggage.
3D Touch is hard to discover. Simple as that. It’s been three years since Apple debuted pressure-sensitive screens and I still have conversations with my family about how to access what should be simple features … features that just so happen to be gated behind a firm press gesture.
Apple’s usage of 3D Touch throughout the system is inconsistent. that they artificially wall off features with 3D Touch gestures, when they aren’t needed at all. In Control Centre, you should be able to long-press on the platters to open them up. There’s no reason for this action to rely on pressure. Another case of this kind of misappropriation is the ‘Clear All Notifications’ button in Notification Centre. A long-press could serve the same job, and it doesn’t. That’s weird.
In the Mail app example, peek and pop previews do necessitate a sensitivity to pressure. You apply less pressure to display the preview, and press harder to commit the navigation. You couldn’t do this with a simple long press. The question is then is it a problem that many users won’t ever think to do this. I’d say it’s not, Peek and Pop is merely a shortcut and not essential. The primary action, viewing the email, is always available with a simple tap. A shortcut behaviour does not warrant a permanent visual indicator. The email summary cells can be swiped left or right too, but we don’t reach to put an arrow glyph on either side of the screen to hint at all possible actions. It’s just there if you need it.
A third class of problem is cases where the same on-screen elements respond to pressure and long-press interactions. I’ve observed that human dexterity is not as good as you’d think a modern species would be, and it’s hard for people to apply the correct amount of force. As such, elements supporting both long-press and pressure-based behaviours are frustrating to use. The gestures clash way too often in practice; users accidentally press in on the screen and cancel their long-press, for example. On the iPhone, the obvious example of this is the app icons. You can long-press to make the icons jiggle and enable icon re-arrangement, or force-press and show quick actions.
Ideally, these situations should be avoided altogether. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often in iOS. For the Home Screen editing, I think Apple should provide an escape hatch to smooth out 3D Touch misfires; with quick actions visible, some sort of button in the corner of the screen to jump into jiggle mode.
All this to say there are better ways to make 3D Touch more approachable than to put little decorations on every UI element that responds to pressure. Remove the places where 3D Touch is an unnecessary gimmick, and refine the interactions where it is actually useful. Find ways to bring important features that are currently ‘hidden’ behind 3D Touch actions into the main interface on screen — rather than add repetitive, redundant, visual affordances that most users would be blind to anyway.
There’s a lot to digest this week, but this particular feature announcement keeps coming to the front of my mind. Here’s the pitch: you speak a question and it answers, no hot-word required. Really.
I’m fascinated by it. It’s one of those things that sounds like it would be far too risky for Apple to do it. How does the Watch determine if you are actually talking to it, or just raising your wrist — checking the time — and talking to someone else? The possibility for false positives seems very high and there is a big cost when the system gets it wrong; presenting a modal Siri response is a very intrusive interface action. I’m honestly shocked it passed approval by Apple’s privacy tsars. Even if they can correctly analyse utterances and determine intent reliably, this feature will mean the watch has to record and upload far more audio to the Siri servers than ever before.
Maybe I’m missing some clever trick that makes an implementation obvious. As described, it is bordering on magic. Given Siri’s patchy track record of intelligence, I can’t blindly trust them on this one. Raise to Speak is not available in the first beta of watchOS 5, so this will have to play on my mind for a few weeks longer.
I don’t care about the monetary value of this stuff. I’m sure Samsung and Apple don’t either; lawyer fees of an eight-year long legal case of this magnitude must already sum into the hundreds of millions of dollars. What Apple argued is that the infringement covers the full value of the copycat phones, not merely the value of the constituent components that cause the infringement. The jury sided with Apple on that, and I do too.
What’s great about this lawsuit is that it has dragged on for so long, the industry landscape has changed so much. Modern Samsung phones do not try and look like an iPhone at all. They have their own brand, their own style. A Galaxy S9 does not look like an iPhone 8 or an iPhone X. They are distinct offerings, and that’s great. In fact, whilst almost all other Android phone manufacturers have jumped on the notch screen design to leech off of the iPhone X’s curtails, Samsung defiantly treads a different path.