The User-Unfriendly Web

Why I love Reader mode in Safari – a tale in two screenshots.

Before:

I have to scroll down more than an entire screen to see even the first line of the text. This design is actively user-hostile.

After:

Much better! I still have the title and the sub-heading, but I can see the image and the first paragraph of the text. Result.

What is even better is configuring Safari to use Reader mode automatically on offending websites:

Just a pity I can’t do that on iOS; the setting is only available in the macOS version of Safari. Still, a guy can dream…

The Shape Of 2019

They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake

That quote comes from a NYT story about people attacking self-driving vehicles. I wrote about these sentiments before, after the incident which spurred these attacks:

It’s said that you shouldn’t buy any 1.0 product unless you are willing to tolerate significant imperfections. Would you ride in a car operated by software with significant imperfections?
Would you cross the street in front of one?
And shouldn’t you have the choice to make that call?

Cars are just the biggest manifestation of this experimentation that is visible in the real world. How often do we have to read about Facebook manipulating the content of users’ feeds – just to see what happens?

And what about this horrific case?

Meanwhile, my details were included in last year’s big Marriott hack, and now I find out that my passport details may have been included in the leaked information. Marriott’s helpful suggestion? A year’s free service – from Experian. Yes, that Experian, the one you know from one of the biggest hacks ever.

I don’t want to be any company’s real world mistake in 2019.


🖼️ Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Those Apple Numbers

Apple’s terrible, bad, no good updated guidance (not actual results yet, note) was pretty much unavoidable – as were the reams of commentary on the subject. Nevertheless, I had some thoughts of my own to add to the torrent.

China Syndrome

Tim Cook cited slowing sales in China as the primary factor in his guidance:

While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China. In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad.

China’s economy began to slow in the second half of 2018. The government-reported GDP growth during the September quarter was the second lowest in the last 25 years.

We believe the economic environment in China has been further impacted by rising trade tensions with the United States.

In other words, a combination of a slowdown in the Chinese domestic economy, and the US sanctions starting to bite. I am sure these are both factors; China is the only market with the size and depth to be able to offer the sorts of growth that Apple investors have become used to. Apple’s stock price has long been a lagging indicator, underpriced (in price/earnings ratio terms) by investors stuck in the late Nineties who still thought of Apple as a company that was perpetually circling the drain.

In contrast the stock is now arguably overpriced, as it is hard to imagine another product ever again offering growth rates comparable to the iPhone in its first decade. The Apple Watch, a perfectly respectable business in its own right and a product that completely dominates its sector, is widely decried as a failure because it cannot match the iPhone’s runaway success. The iPad, a smaller business than the Watch, is nevertheless the tablet, with everyone else an also-ran. However, both of these are rounding errors compared to the iPhone business.

Meanwhile, for a company whose products are famously "Designed by Apple in California", but "Assembled in China", any trade sanctions are sure to cause a number of headaches. The sanctions apply most obviously to finished products, but any extended trade war could also affect the supply of raw materials, IP transfer, or relationships with component vendors.

However, I do not think that the Chinese economy and sanctions represent the whole story here.

A Perfect Storm

As everyone concentrates on the impact of US sanctions and wider macro-economic trends, there is another factor whose unfortunate timing is compounding the bad news for Apple.

As a general rule, people don’t upgrade their phone every year. Even among my tech enthusiasts friends, most are on what is known as a "tick-tock" upgrade path, meaning that they change their phone every other year. One reason for this pattern (apart from the obvious one of budget) is that Apple’s hardware generations are not all equal. Historically, a new form factor is launched one year, and then in the following year it is refined and improved.

These "improvement" years used to be known as the "S" models, as in 3GS, 4S, 5S, and 6S. People who wanted new form factors would buy on the non-S year, while those who craved reliability and performance improvements would buy on the S year. So far so good – until the iPhone 6.

As an example, the iPhone 6 was the first to offer the option of a larger screen, in the form of the iPhone 6 Plus, long after most Android manufacturers had launched their own larger-screen models.1 The pent-up demand for a larger iPhone caused many users to upgrade out of cycle, pulling demand forward that would otherwise have hit during the 6S cycle.

The same thing happened with the iPhone X. As the first iPhone to do away with the home-button, relying instead on Face ID, and offering that gorgeous all-screen view, it again caused many users to upgrade early. I was one of them, trading in my perfectly functional year-old iPhone 7 Plus for an iPhone X instead of waiting another year. If it had not been for the iPhone X, I doubt I would have bothered to upgrade to an iPhone 8, which is not different enough from a 7 to justify the outlay.

Breaking The Pattern

In contrast to the visible differences between the iPhone 7 and iPhone X, the iPhone XS and XR offer little to tempt owners of the iPhone X to upgrade early. To compound that effect, the steep price increases of the new models may be actively dissuading users from upgrading, putting them onto a three-year cycle. In other words, we are seeing a trough in demand that is caused at least in part by a previous bulge around the launch of the iPhone X.2 The sheer desirability and newness of that phone may also have obscured the impacts of the price increase – but having made such large investments, users are that much more reluctant to spend even more on newer models.

This effect may be even greater in China, as Ben Thompson has written before:

That, though, is a long-term problem for Apple: what makes the iPhone franchise so valuable — and, I’d add, the fundamental factor that was missed by so many for so long — is that monopoly on iOS. For most of the world it is unimaginable for an iPhone user to upgrade to anything but another iPhone: there is too much of the user experience, too many of the apps, and, in some countries like the U.S., too many contacts on iMessage to even countenance another phone.

None of that lock-in exists in China: Apple may be a de facto monopolist for most of the world, but in China the company is simply another smartphone vendor, and being simply another smartphone vendor is a hazardous place to be. To be clear, it’s not all bad: in China Apple still trades on status and luxury; unlike the rest of the world, though, the company has to earn it with every release, and that’s a bar both difficult to clear in the abstract and, given the last two iPhones, difficult to clear in reality.

John Gruber made the same connection, and commented succinctly:

By Thompson’s logic the iPhone X should have done well in China, because it looked new, and the XS/XR would disappoint in China because they didn’t. And, well, here we are.

What Now?

I am hardly going to offer advice,3 either to Tim Cook or to Apple investors. Tim Cook sees numbers that nobody outside the company does, and has certainly already put plans in motion whose effects we will only see several quarters from now. An aircraft carrier4 the size of Apple does not turn on the spot. Meanwhile Apple investors, taken as a group, have never displayed any particularly deep understanding of the company’s business, and will no doubt continue to do their own thing.

As an Apple user, however, I am not particularly worried – yet. The moment of truth will come later this year, with the launch of the successor phones to the XS and XR. If these phones are sufficiently compelling – and come at a suitably accessible price point, at least for entry-level options – demand would presumably plateau back out, all macro-economic trends being equal.

If on the other hand Apple launches a successor to the XS that is not immediately and obviously different – as the iPhone 7 was not visibly different from the 6 and 6S – and continues its price increase trend, then there may be an issue with longer-term viability.

Apple will probably never again have another iPhone-type product, with such universal appeal and monstrous growth. Everything from now on is about getting iPhone users to upgrade their device regularly, purchase ancillary products (AirPods, Watch, HomePod, Apple TV), and consume Apple services (Music, plus the long-rumoured video subscription service).5 That is a different kind of business, and expectations should be set accordingly.


  1. I refuse to call them "phablets". 🤮 

  2. Attempts to increase desirability with new colours, as on the iPhone XR, and especially the Product Red models released out of phase with the main launch of their parent models, do not seem to have had a measurable impact – although it’s hard to tell without detailed sales data. 

  3. Although I still think that something the size of an iPhone SE, all screen in the iPhone X style, and priced somewhere significantly below the mainstream XS, would be a bigger hit and provide clearer differentiation at the top end of the range than the XR. Or might that be coming in September, when all the iPhone models revert to sharp edges, as we have seen on the new iPad Pro? 🤔 

  4. That’s an AirPower reference! Zing! 😢 

  5. Oh yes, and Mac users – but that platform plateaued a long time ago. I love the macOS as a user, but it’s not a growth market. iPad – still not sure that Apple knows what it wants to do with iPad. 

Benefits of Integration

One of the most powerful memes in tech is the Innovator’s Dilemma. Professor Clayton Christensen’s theory posits moves from integrated products to modularised ones, driven by waves of innovation at different levels. The world of tech swings regularly between these poles of integration and modularisation. Sometimes the whole industry moves at once, as in the ongoing move away from modular desktop computers and towards all-in-one laptops, tablets, and hybrids of the two, with modularisation moving to other levels of the stack. At other times competing models are in play at the same time, with little agreement as to which is better.

Apple is often cited as a counter-example, the archetypal integrated company that defies the conventional wisdom of modularisation exemplified by the infinite variety of the Android platform. One counter-counter-example that often comes up is Maps, and I would like to take a moment to explore (sorry – not sorry) this point.

From launch, Apple Maps was derided as not just a failure, but an actively wrong and misguided choice by Apple. It even gets brought up as the ultimate negative example, as in this M G Siegler piece about Instagram data: "The data makes Apple Maps look like a pristine globe of information". Google had mapping and navigational data that were objectively better, the thinking went, so Apple should simply continue to adopt this external module within their own platform, regardless of consequences.

There is a philosophical aspect to this debate, of course, which may have more currency today than it did at the time. As the famous adage goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product. Certainly with Google Maps, gathering and analysing users’ personal data was very much a key goal of Google’s, both for the altruistic reason of improving mapping and routing data, and for the more irritating one of contributing to the ever more detailed profiles it keeps of all of us in order to pitch us en masse to advertisers.1

Apple had never been entirely comfortable with this situation, and exacted large payments from Google in return for its privileged position within iOS.2 With the launch of iOS 6, Apple deprecated the use of Google’s data as a source for the built-in Maps application.

Note that Google’s own Maps app was never banned from Apple’s iOS or from its accompanying App Store.3 The difference between the systemwide Apple Maps and Google Maps (or any other third-party mapping app, for that matter) was the integration with all other apps that needed mapping data. In much the same way that tapping on a link would open the built-in Safari web browser, tapping on an address would open the built-in Apple Maps app. Using a third-party web browser, mapping app, or chat/IM or email client, required explicit action by the user each and every time.

Apple’s Walled Garden… Orchard?

Some users objected on grounds of principle to the deep integration of first-party apps and the consequent exclusion of third-party ones. Windows desktop operating systems had trained users to install any number of third-party utilities and widgets, either as replacements for system components or to extend native functionality. iOS did not work this way.

Apple had always preferred an integrated approach, producing both its own hardware and its own operating system ever since the original Apple ][, and complementing that with suites of its own applications. In the 90s I had an Apple StyleWriter printer attached to my Macintosh LC, which I interacted with through an Apple monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Displayed on that monitor was a ClarisWorks document, which was of course owned by Apple as well. Sure, it was possible to run Microsoft Office, and even (for a while) Internet Explorer. In fact, in the doldrums of the early 2000s, after the demise of Cyberdog, Apple’s first attempt at a web browser, and before the rise of Safari with OS X, Microsoft’s was the best browser option on the Mac.

This moment of dependence on third parties had its benefits – keeping the company alive at a very difficult time, for instance – but robbed Apple of ultimate control. As owners increasingly expected to be able to personalise the behaviour of their Macs with custom extensions, those systems became increasingly unstable. The introduction of OS X addressed many of those issues by replacing the creaking foundations of classic Mac OS with the Darwin kernel, but still gave users quite a lot of control. When it came time to launch iOS, however, Apple’s pre-existing philosophical bent towards opinionated design combined with the very real limitations of the hardware of the day to produce a "walled garden" where only Apple’s apps would run. The original iPhone did not even have an App Store; instead, Apple envisioned that third-party functionality would be provided through web apps (never mind that EDGE connectivity was not really up to the job, even in 2006).

Play Nice In The Sandbox

Apple did eventually relent and allow third-party apps to run on iPhones, but always in a very controlled manner, with strict sandboxing preventing apps from interfering with each other. This separation also prevented apps from interacting with each other at all, to the point that copy&paste functionality only arrived on iOS with 3.0, released in 2009, and was heralded as a major innovation when it did.

Even then, Apple maintained strict control over core functionality, giving users no ability to replace the standard web browser, email client, to-do list, and more. The Maps app was also part of this list, but used third-party data from Google for its functionality. Tensions had been brewing over this arrangement for a couple of years already, with Google introducing turn-by-turn navigation on Android only, but they came to a head in 2012. What Apple did with iOS 6 was to replace the Google back-end to Apple Maps with its own home-grown data.

For Apple, the creation of its own mapping and routing data from scratch was a monumental undertaking, which unsurprisingly ran into some issues, especially in the early days. However, very soon I found the data to be perfectly usable in the real world, even where I live, very far from Silicon Valley, with all that entails.

That positive overall opinion does not mean that there were no annoyances. Apple Maps’ search function is very finicky, expecting names of streets and businesses to be entered exactly as written, and with an irritating tendency to provide a result, any result – even if it happens to be somewhere completely different, thousands of miles, several national borders, and sometimes even an ocean or two away. Surely some basic heuristic should be able to figure out that if I don’t specify that I want a far away result, I’m probably expecting one within a few tens of kilometres at most? This behaviour has improved over time, but is still present to a certain extent.

All apps have their foibles, and these days, the Big Three mapping services – Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze – are pretty close in their usability. Head-to-head comparisons reveal that Apple Maps gives the most accurate estimates of arrival times, while Waze over-promises the time savings from its shortcuts. As more and more people use Waze, those "shortcuts" are causing congestion on the suburban streets that drivers are being guided to use in place of the gridlocked highways.

So Do I Want Modular Or Integrated Maps?

Very few people make detailed comparisons of map data and navigation instructions. The main benefit people are looking for is usability. Can I tap on an address and get directions? If I connect my phone to my car, does it offer to give me directions to the next appointment in my calendar? Can I text my spouse with a detailed ETA based on actual traffic conditions?

In the modular world, such integration is harder to achieve, simply because each one of the different modules offers slightly different features, or different implementations of common features. Also, modules are constantly changing and evolving at different paces, or even disappearing entirely.

Google is the main advocate for the modular approach, and indeed often produces several competing apps and services for the very same functionality. Google Maps and Waze are increasingly overlapping with each other, for instance. Google Play Music and YouTube Music are equally hard to disentangle. And it seems that every other month brings either the launch of a new Google chat service, or the demise of one of the existing ones. In this situation, users are expected to swap modules around on a regular basis – and if the new module doesn’t offer the same functionality as the old one, or does so in a way that is different and breaks your workflow – well, tough!

For myself, I find the Apple approach preferable. When I invoke a voice assistant on my phone, I am happy to know that it’s Siri, not Alexa or Cortana or whatever Google’s assistant is called, and that my personal data are not being added to some advertising profile that is of no use to me – but that’s another rant for another day. Meanwhile, everything just works; iOS knows who my next calendar appointment is with, and that person's contact card has their office address – and so Maps can suggest a route to that address, as well as letting me easily tell my counterparts when I will arrive. Doing this with modular services is not impossible, but it takes more effort than the average person wants to deal with, while exposing them to a series of trade-offs, precisely because of the lack of separation between apps.

When it comes to maps, though, I have to add one last caveat: your mileage may vary (still not sorry).


🖼️ Photos by Capturing the human heart., Mike Enerio, and Alexander Popov on Unsplash


  1. Once again: no, Google does not "sell our data". What it does sell to advertisers is access to certain audiences, defined by their interests, demographics, etc. It is not in Google’s interest ever to sell the data themselves; those are Google’s crown jewels, and they make most of their money by renting access to the product – but never selling the actual data. 

  2. An arrangement that continues today, with Apple being handsomely compensated for keeping Google as the default search engine within iOS. 

  3. Until iOS 12 Apple Maps was the only mapping app allowed to use CarPlay, though. 

Conference swag

Now that AWS re:Invent is done, conference season is over for me this year.

I feel quite virtuous, because I have managed to collect only a single vendor T-shirt and one cellphone stand all year, leaving all the other tat behind at the various shows.

The fact I’m not hauling it home doesn’t mean all of that tat doesn’t have an impact though. Here is a good roundup:

It’s not just tote bags, which only make up 8.4% of total promotional product sales. It’s also T-shirts, which represent more than a quarter of sales; writing instruments, which make up 6.1%; and various tech accessories, like USB drives, which make up 7.5%.

The promotional products industry in the United States is worth $24 billion and has grown by 2.5% over the last five years. There are 26,413 businesses in the space, which employs 392,820 people, according to the most recent figures. While cheap swag is popular across industries, education, healthcare, insurance, nonprofits, marketing companies, and technology are the biggest consumers of these items.

As we all start to plan the 2019 shows, here are some suggestions for event planning teams to minimise the footprint of all this activity.

No Printed Brochures

For a start, while a few people still genuinely prefer hard copy materials, most of the paper brochures handed out at trade show booths go straight into the nearest recycling bin. Instead of scaring a bunch of trees, why not have a panel in the booth with a row of QR codes so that attendees can grab electronic copies of the materials? Or combine that with a station where they can email themselves relevant material directly from the show floor.1

No Show-Specific Materials

I would suggest not to have any give-aways that are specific to one show. I have seen all sorts of ridiculous hats, wristbands, and even headbands. These are even more likely to be left behind in a hotel room than the general run of the mill giveaways.

T-Shirts?

T-shirts are a mixed bag. Some manage to achieve the status of becoming actual collectibles – see e.g. the Splunk shirts, at least a few years ago. Most however will at best be used for decorating, or as sleeping attire for the female attendees. Probably not where you wanted your logo displayed: the audience is generally very small, and it’s probably too dark to read anyway.

Experiences

More positively, you can do something that is specific to the location of the show; maybe you could raffle off tickets to Cirque du Soleil for a show in Las Vegas, or a tour of the city somewhere like London. At smaller events where most attendees will be staying at the same hotel, you could also offer hotel vouchers for spa treatments or room upgrades.

Useful Give-Aways

People do like a little tchotchke, but try to make it something useful – and not fake-useful, meaning no 256MB USB keys, low-quality tote bags, or yet another fidget spinner. Instead, my suggestion is to align the giveaway to your brand identity: pocket tools or batteries for "useful", drinks for "refreshing", and so on.

Rest Easy

Finally, I can’t claim credit for this one, but there was an excellent suggestion on Twitter during AWS re:Invent:

This seems like an excellent idea: people will genuinely want to use the pillow, and so provided your logo isn’t too tasteless, they will be reminded of you every time they travel. For an example of a company doing this right, AWS themselves always manage to have excellent hoodies for re:Invent attendees: high quality, and with branding that is recognisable but sufficiently subtle not to be in your face.

See you on the show floor in 2019!


  1. Yes, eagle-eyed events people, this would indeed give you an extra opportunity to get their contact details – but mind that GDPR! 

Amazon's Private Cloud

Last week was AWS re:Invent, and I’m still dealing with the email hangover.1 AWS always announce a thousand and one new offerings and services at their show, and this year was no exception. However, there is one announcement that I wanted to reflect upon briefly, out of however many there were during the week.

AWS Outposts are billed as letting users "Run AWS infrastructure on-premises for a truly consistent hybrid experience". This of course provoked a certain amount of hilarity in the parts of Twitter that have been earnestly debating the existence of hybrid cloud since the term was first coined.

On the surface, it might indeed seem somewhat strange for AWS, the archetypal public cloud in most people’s minds, to start offering hardware to be deployed on customers’ premises. However, to me it makes perfect sense.

Pace some ten-year-old marketing slogans which have not aged well, most companies do not start out with a hybrid cloud strategy. Instead, they find themselves forced by circumstances to formulate one in order to deal with all of the various departments that are out there doing their own thing. In this situation, the hybrid cloud strategy is simply recognition that different teams have different requirements and have made their own decisions based on those. All that corporate IT can do is try to gain overall visibility and attempt to ensure that all the various flavours of compute infrastructure are at least being used in ways which are sane, secure, and fiscally responsible (the order of the priorities may change, but that’s the list).

Some of the more wild-eyed predictions around hybrid cloud instead expected that workloads would be easily moved, not only between on- and off-premises compute infrastructure, but even between different cloud providers. In fact, it would be so easy that it would be possible to make minute-by-minute assessments of the cost of running workloads with different providers, and move them from one to another in order to take advantage of lower prices.

Obviously, that did not happen.

For the cloud broker model to work, several laws of both economics and physics would have to be suspended or circumvented, and nobody seems to have made the requisite breakthroughs.

To take just a few of the more obvious objections:

The Speed Of Light

Moving any meaningful amount of data around the public internet still takes time. If you are used to your local 100 Gb-E LAN, it can be easy to forget this, but it is going to be a factor out there in the wild wild Web. This objection was obvious when we were talking about moving monolithic VMs around, but even if you assume truly immutable infrastructure, you are still going to have to shift at least some snapshot of the application state, and that adds up fast – let alone the rate of configuration drift of your "immutable" infrastructure with each new micro-release.

Transparent Pricing

The units of measure of different cloud providers are not easily comparable. How does the performance of an AWS M5 instance compare to an Azure Dv2-series? Well, you’d better know before you move production over there… And AWS has 24 instance types, whereas Azure has 7 different series, each with sub-types and options – and let’s not even talk about all the weird and wonderful single-use configurations in your local VMware or Openstack service catalogue! How portable is your workload, really?

Leaving Money On The Table

Or let’s take it from the other side: assume you have carefully architected your thing to use only minimum-common-denominator components that are, if not identical, at least similar enough across all of the various substrates they might find themselves running on. By definition, this means that you are not taking full advantage of the more advanced capabilities of each of those platforms. This limitation is not only at the ingredient level; you also have to make worst-case assumptions about the sorts of network bandwidth and latency you might have access to, or the sort of regulatory and policy compliance environment that you might find yourself operating within.

For all of these reasons and more, the dream of real-time cloud pricing arbitrage died a quick death, regardless of whether individual companies might use different cloud providers in various parts of their business.

Amazon Outposts is not that. For a start, despite running physically on the customer’s premises, it is driven entirely from the (remote) AWS control plane. Instead, it has the potential to address concerns about physical location together with associated concerns about latency and legal jurisdiction. Being AWS (with some help from VMware) it avoids the concern about different units of measure. For now, it only goes part of the way to resolving the final question about minimum common denominator ingredients, since at launch it only supports EC2. Additional features are expected shortly, however, especially including various storage options.

So yes, hybrid cloud. Turns out, it’s not only still a thing, but you can even get it from AWS. Who’d have thunk it?


  1. I managed to avoid any hangovers of the alcoholic variety; staying well hydrated in Las Vegas is good for multiple purposes. My inbox, however, is a mess

The Problem With Self-Driving Cars – And Self-Flying Planes

Many petrolheads are worried that self-driving cars will kill the idea itself of the car. Personally, I’m not that worried about that; horses have not been a primary means of transport for maybe a century, and yet there still seem to be plenty of enthusiasts who enjoy them. I rode my bike side-by-side with a horse just last weekend.

No, my main concern is about the process of getting to fully self-driving cars. Today, we have cars with all sorts of safety features such as radar cruise control and lane-departure warnings. These already add up to a limited self-driving capability – level 2 or perhaps even 3 in the NHTSA definition. I have used some of this functionality myself on the German Autobahn, with my hired Volvo staying in its lane, following curves in the road, and accelerating or braking with the traffic, including coming to a complete stop.

I was never able to get out a book or just climb into the back seat for a nap, though. I always had to remain alert and engaged in case of any failure of the self-driving systems. Ultimately, I found this more wearing than just driving myself, and so I disengaged all the systems, got off the clogged-up Autobahn, and found myself a twisty and more engaging alternative route where I could concentrate fully on the driving.

This is the "uncanny valley" problem of self-driving cars: in order to get to full autonomy, we have to deal with a transition period where the automated systems are not yet good enough to do the job, but they are already good enough for drivers to become distracted and disengaged from the process of driving. The risk is that when the systems fail, the driver is not able to re-establish situational awareness and take control quickly enough to avoid an incident. We saw this scenario play out with tragic consequences when a self-driving Uber car struck and killed a woman earlier this year.

This problem of operator attention is of course not unique to cars, and may in fact have played a part in the tragic Lion Air crash in Indonesia. As part of the investigation of that crash, it was uncovered that a faulty air-speed sensor may have been the proximate cause of the accident, leading to the plane’s avionics mis-identifying the situation as a stall and putting the nose of the plane down to recover the speed necessary to get out of that stall.

The FAA has now issued a directive to operators of the plane to update their manuals. The linked article includes this image, purportedly from an internal Boeing magazine, describing the steps involved in identifying and correcting this situation:

You’re a pilot, climbing on autopilot on a routine departure – so you don’t have much airspeed or altitude to play with. Suddenly for no apparent reason the plane pitches nose-down. You have to diagnose the problem correctly, disengage a bunch of systems, and recover manual control. It’s a hard task, even for trained aircraft pilots.

Now imagine the same situation in a self-driving car. You’re on the phone, thinking about something else, and suddenly the car is drifting across lane markings, straight towards a concrete highway divider.

How do you rate your chances?

It is true that these systems will only improve with real-world usage and with more data to learn from, but their marketing and usage need to be aligned to their actual capabilities and failure modes, not what we wish they would be or what they might be in ideal conditions. New interface paradigms may also be required to set operators’ experience accordingly.

Until we get there, a sensible minimum standard seems to be that we should not expect drivers to do anything as a matter of course that is difficult even for trained airline pilots.

Listen To The Heart

I am now the proud owner of my third1 Alfa Romeo! Well, technically I’ve only made the down payment: the car itself will arrive in a couple of months, so a good late Christmas / early birthday present for me.

Much as I would have loved a Giulia Quadrifoglio, Italy’s horsepower tax (spit) tips that over from "maybe if I scrimp & save" to "sorry, not going to happen". What I really would have liked would have been a Giulia Sportwagon, but Alfa Romeo in their wisdom don’t make one of those. I wonder if this is the American influence speaking, as they have made wagon versions of all their previous cars, going back to the 33 Giardinetta?

Regardless, this lack of a wagon option means that I had a difficult decision between heart (Giulia Veloce – most of the good bits of the Quadrifoglio, but with a thriftier two-litre twin-turbo four-pot, sending 280 bhp to all four wheels) and head (Stelvio Bi-Tech – basically a Giulia on stilts and with a bigger boot).

I had a good long test drive of a Giulia Super, which the dealer had ready to go. This is basically the spec I wanted for a Veloce, but in a lower state of engine tune – 200 bhp instead of 280. As with most modern cars, the Giulia features keyless-go, which I don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other. Alfa Romeo however have taken this excuse to put the start/stop button on the steering wheel, Ferrari-style, which is admittedly a gimmick, but a good one.

Straight away the impressions were good, with light and sensitive steering, reacting instantly to inputs and giving good feedback through the wheel. The Alfa is not only far lighter than the Beast, it’s also the lightest of its peers, usefully edging the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and the Audi A4. You can feel this lightness as soon as you turn the wheel, with a level of agility and responsiveness the others struggle to match. The transmission sends drive to all four wheels, but in normal use it’s heavily rear-biased, which also helps.

Even in lukewarm 200 bhp spec, this motor pulls well. Again, the lack of weight helps here, but it’s a willing engine, and it sounds good too. The eight-speed ZF gearbox is technically the same unit as in the Volvo V70 I also drove, but the feeling could not be more different. Left to do its own thing, it shuffles gears quite competently, and indeed invisibly, especially in normal driving. However, should you be in the mood, there are those paddles behind the steering wheel… Slap the BMW-style gearstick left into manual mode, and you are in full control, and I do mean full. The dealer sales rep was sitting beside me, so I couldn’t get too extreme, but I tried hard to catch the system out, and I simply couldn’t.

Alfa Romeo also offers its DNA drive-mode selector, and the three modes are indeed usefully different. You start in N, for Normal, which is a good description. In this mode everything is, well, normal; the car will trickle around town quite happily without making a fuss, but will also downshift promptly if you put your foot down. D is for Dynamic mode, and everything gets just a bit sharper-edged; the engine note hardens, the transmission hangs on to gears for a bit longer, the traction control relaxes a bit (it can’t be turned fully off except on the Quadrifoglio), traction shifts entirely to the rear wheels, and so on. The test car did not have the sport suspension fitted that I specced for my own car, but that is also affected. The third option in the DNA system is A, the All-Weather mode, with the traction control primed and ready to step in at any moment. This mode can also be used for motorway cruising, as a sort of "eco" mode, where it is quiet and unobtrusive.

In addition to the shape of the gear lever, there is something else in the cabin that is eerily reminiscent of BMW, and that is the in-car entertainment system. There is a click-wheel which is pretty much identical to an iDrive controller, driving a menu system which is also very similar to the BMW setup. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and indeed BMW’s iDrive is by far the best input system I have used. I can’t get on with Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system, and Audi’s MMI is just a mess. Tesla-style systems that hide all the controls in a touchscreen are actively dangerous. Instead, the click-wheel systems that Alfa Romeo and BMW use allow drivers to memorise common paths through the system – two clicks left, press, three clicks right, press – for repeated tasks, without taking their eyes off the wheel.

I don’t intend to spend much time with the Giulia’s onboard systems, though, since it has a very good CarPlay implementation. Upon connecting the phone, the whole screen – a very nice 8.8" TFT, merged beautifully into the curve of the dashboard – is taken over by the CarPlay display, which can be navigated using that wonderfully tactile click-wheel, with its direct haptic feedback. Plus of course there’s Siri, available through her own button on the steering wheel, who will read you messages and take dictation in return.

Everything you touch in the Giulia’s cabin feels premium. In classic Alfa style, the instruments are very much focused on the driver, but all the control surfaces are pleasant, the ICE is competent but not intrusive, and all the other controls fall easily to the hand. The steering wheel in particular is a joy, adjusting easily to suit even my difficult requirements: I have long legs and so I sit quite far back, but even though I also have long arms, I like the steering wheel relatively close to me, low down but not so much that it obstructs the instruments. The sports seats also provide great lateral support during cornering.

When it comes to practical aspects, the boot is larger than I expected, but still compromised (as compared to a wagon) by a big cross-member that sits below the rear screen. Rear leg room is also perfectly adequate, even behind me, but not perhaps ample. These considerations persuaded me to also test-drive the Stelvio SUV.

This is basically the same car, just with longer suspension travel and a larger boot (and apparently slightly more rear leg room). This time I did get to drive the 280 bhp engine, but while I could feel the extra power, its impact was somewhat blunted by the extra weight. The Stelvio is still a light car for what it is, but it’s inevitably taller than the Giulia, and you do feel that when cornering. There is apparently an active suspension pack which mitigates some of the body roll, but it’s throwing technology at a physics problem which can be avoided by simply not jacking a Giulia up on stilts in the first place. I also don’t particularly like the fact that you can see the much smaller real exhaust tips hiding in plain sight inside the massive chromed fake tips. Petty, I know, but there it is.

Ultimately what made my decision was that, after the Beast, I’ve had my fill of SUVs and want to get back low to the ground. I would have happily bought a Giulia Sportwagon, but since Alfa Romeo won’t sell me one, I think I can make the saloon work. The Stelvio is a fine SUV and I would have been happy with it, but the Giulia is just better at being a car.

I did make a bit of a gamble on the colour, opting for what is apparently the rarest colour in the gamut: Grigio Lipari. In the configurator it looks almost burgundy, but in person it’s a rich grey-blue, shifting between one and the other depending on the light, with reddish flecks embedded beneath the surface. I think it will look great, especially with the diamond-cut version of the classic Alfa "telephone dial" wheels, but we shall see when it arrives.

I’m just happy to have rejoined the ranks of the Alfisti.


  1. I previously owned a 156 with the last generation of the venerable Busso V6 engine, as well as a 147 Blackline with every "sport" option in Alfa’s catalogue. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and neither ever gave me any trouble. So much for Alfas’ high-maintenance reputation! 

How To Throw Away A Sale

When it came to be time to replace the Beast, I had a shortlist to work from. I initially wanted a Mini Clubman, in John Cooper Works trim, but was informed by She Who Must Be Obeyed that this was simply not big enough to act as the main family car.

I therefore went back to the drawing board, refined the list to two cars, and started arranging test drives.

The first dealership I visited was Volvo, as I liked the idea of a plug-in hybrid1, and nobody else seems to build them as cars – not SUVs, not city runabouts, but regular-sized family cars. The V70 seemed to fit the bill: gigantic load capacity, Volvo reputation for safety and reliability, and a plug-in hybrid drivetrain available. The Volvo setup even promised some potential for fun, as the hybrid system allows the driver to ghost silently around town on electric power alone, drive normally using the petrol engine, or combine both for a 400 bhp hit.

Unfortunately it was not possible to arrange a test-drive of the hybrid option. This was my first warning sign, especially when I tried other dealers in nearby cities and nobody had one to drive, not even fitted to a different car (the same drivetrain powers the larger V90 wagon, as well as the XC60 and XC90 SUVs and S70 and S90 saloons). I am not excited by the idea of owning some sort of unicorn and potentially having to wait for parts to be shipped from China if anything goes wrong.

Regardless, I agreed to test-drive a V70 with the popular D4 drivetrain. This is a common-or-garden turbo diesel four-pot, which sounds quite clattery from the outside of the car. On the inside, Volvo’s usual understated Scandinavian luxury muffles the racket to a distant drone, but it’s never a particularly pleasant sound.

That first impression of luxury was short-lived, though. The test-drive car had a middle-of-the-road Business spec, which looked fine but did not quite live up to its billing when it came to various important touch-points. The engine is started by twisting a little knob, which felt fiddly and flimsy. The steering wheel was nice enough, but had some very rough stitching right where the driver’s thumbs rest. The buttons all felt plasticky, too.

These may seem like quibbles, and indeed I would happily be able to put up with them on a Škoda, or indeed on something that compensated by being more driver-focused. However, the Volvo’s big selling point is that it’s a nice, safe place to be. It plays on that Scandinavian notion of hygge, which is probably best translated as "coziness", although that does not quite cover it. For a car this expensive, everything I touch has to fit into that overall impression. Instead, every touch point I came in contact with undermined that cozy feeling.

The next disappointment was the in-car stereo. New Volvos have an iPad-style portrait-oriented touchscreen high in the middle of the dashboard. This is fine, although I found it a bit distracting even on a brief test-drive. It doesn’t go quite as far as new Teslas in putting all the controls there, but it goes far enough in that direction that I would worry about not being able to access controls easily on the move without taking my eyes off the road.

CarPlay is also a must-have feature for me, and as Volvo was a launch partner of this technology, I was looking forward to testing out their implementation. Unfortunately, it took far too long to get my phone recognised by the Volvo’s systems, and once it was connected (by cable – still no wireless CarPlay 2), instead of taking over that big screen, it just created a little letterbox window towards the bottom, with the rest of the Volvo chrome still cluttering up the rest of the screen. The resulting CarPlay view was actually smaller than my iPhone X’s screen, which undermines a large part of what makes CarPlay useful in the first place.

The driving experience was pretty much as expected: very competent in a quiet way, and almost entirely insulated from the road. In typical Volvo fashion, the V70 is loaded with safety systems, all of which seem to be well thought out. I particularly liked the lane-departure warning system, which gently guides you back into your lane if you stray across a white line – unless your indicator is on, in which case it assumes you know what you’re doing. It doesn’t vibrate the wheel or do anything annoying, instead simply applying a little extra pressure to the power steering. It’s possible to override this guidance quite easily, but it’s just enough to catch your attention. Imagine Jeeves delivering a quiet cough to draw your attention to a potentially unfortunate choice, but resigning himself with a pained look if you do insist.

Despite this late break, and the truly cavernous boot ("trunk" for American readers), the test drive was a bit of a let-down. I don’t know whether my reaction might have been different if I had been able to drive the sportier hybrid R-Design spec I had in mind, but I got out of the car with that feeling I get when I hand back a rental car: "that was perfectly fine, but I’m glad I’m going back to my own car now". In other words, I had no intention of spending my own money on the thing, especially once the salesman made it clear he was extremely uninterested in offering me any reasonable trade-in on the Beast.

A pity; I was ready to embrace the green EV/hybrid lifestyle, but it seems it was not meant to be – yet, at least.


  1. Pure EVs are not really an option in Italy. I did test-drive a Tesla around the time I bought the Beast, because all of my friends and colleagues in California raved about all the state and federal subsidies they got, the access to HOV lanes, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, not only does Italy not offer any of that – EVs are subject to all the normal taxes2 – because of the Tesla’s power rating, it also came in for an additional horsepower tax, with no discount for its non-polluting nature. In the same way, there was no equivalent of the HOV lane access, or London’s free access to the congestion charging zone. In other words, a Tesla Model S would cost in the same range as a BMW M5, and I wasn’t able to justify that even if I had had the budget. 

  2. Matters have improved slightly, although in a very Italian way: the taxes are still due, but then a partial rebate can be applied for through the regional government. It’s still not quite worth it, especially given that roll-out of the charging infrastructure around here appears to have stalled. With the recent ban on older diesels, maybe that calculation will change in time for my next car. Conspiracy theorists might also suspect that government incentives will coincidentally be introduced once FCA get around to launching a hybrid offering of their own. 

End Of Term Report

I bought a new car today. More on that later, but for now, I wanted to give a proper send-off to the Beast.

The Beast in a rare moment of looking small beside another car

Oh yes, it’s still in rude good health. I’m not selling it because of anything that is wrong with it, it’s just time to move on.

It is true that the Beast did finally blot its previously-unblemished copybook when it came to maintenance. While the Turbo engine is more reliable than the non-Turbo ones in this generation of Cayenne, it does have one notorious Achilles’ heel: Porsche engineers, in their wisdom, decided to fit two cooling pipes made of plastic that run basically right under the engine. Shockingly, this turns out to be a terrible idea, and the pipes are known to fail. Unfortunately, because it’s a horrible job – not quite engine-out, but near enough – it’s not the sort of thing you would do as preventative maintenance, or that you could tack on to routine maintenance. As an owner, you cross your fingers and hope.

Well, my luck finally ran out over the summer, and I had to get a tow back from a dinner in the wee hours of the morning, and then pay an unconscionable amount of money to have the busted plastic pipes replaced with more robust aluminium versions. I don’t think I’ve ever paid a bill that had a worse ratio of parts to labour! Then again, I got off fairly lightly compared to one owner, who had the broken pipes dump coolant right onto the tyres and ended up wrecking his car as a result.

Apart from that, though, the Beast is still a beast. Its party trick is still the mountains of torque that it can throw at any problem. It’s not that good at a standing start, because the traction control and gearbox do not get on particularly well together. I mean, it can be done, and 0-100 kph in five seconds flat is nothing to sneeze at in something that big and heavy, but the process is so unpleasant if you have any mechanical sympathy at all that it’s not really worth doing regularly.

Moving smoothly off the line is a better bet. Once the Beast is rolling, the combination of big-displacement V8 and a brace of turbochargers gives in-gear acceleration that can only be described as "violent". Motorway slip roads are the perfect environment for this sort of thing; as the on-ramp straightens out, simply floor the throttle. The Tiptronic transmission takes a moment to gather its thoughts, then drops into third, a donkey kicks you in the small of your back, and suddenly you are going very fast indeed, with the V8 bellowing and the turbochargers adding a shrill wail over the top. Around 6500 rpm – not too shabby for a big turbocharged lump like this – the Beast changes up into fourth and continues accelerating just as violently, and by the time fifth gear shows up it’s high time to back off the throttle and coast back down to the speed of the traffic.

That rush never gets old, and the looks of shock and awe on the face of other drivers when they see a big SUV move like that are just the icing on the top.

However, the Beast is getting to be an old lady, and there are more big bills lurking in its future. The timing belts will need doing soon, as will all four brake disks. I also had to send the summer tyres for recycling, and the sorts of compounds the Beast requires are fearsomely expensive, especially given the sheer acreage of rubber involved. Finally, even though it’s over ten years old and therefore benefits from the maximum discount, Italy’s horsepower tax is just too painful to deal with any longer.

I’ll miss the space, the comfort (enhanced by the air suspension), and the commanding driving position, not to mention the enormous thrust. I won’t miss the thirst, though, especially since the V8 is mostly inaudible from the cabin in normal driving, without any deep-chested burble to make you feel like you are getting your money’s worth for all that petrol you’re burning. It’s also worth noting that I used the locking diffs and low-range gearbox exactly twice in nearly four years of ownership, thereby proving every stereotype about SUVs’ typical usage patterns.

So it’s farewell Beast, and hello younger, more supple model. More on the car hunt soon, as well as the final choice!