Showing all posts tagged apple:

Why The M1 Won't Kill The iPad Pro

Quick, it's happening again!

This is my third CPU architecture transition since I've been a Mac user. I started on the 68k, with the weedy 68020 in my first Mac LC. When Apple moved to PowerPC, I cajoled my parents into getting a 603e — still relatively weedy in the context of the dual 604s I got to play with at work, but a massive upgrade from the LC. By the time of the Intel transition I was out of the Apple fold — I couldn't afford one as a student, and later prioritised gaming and dual-booting with Linux.

However, when the MacBook Air launched — yes, the very first one, with the 11" screen, no ports, and no power — I spent my own money rather than use the massive corporate-issue Dell that was assigned to me. Since then I've never looked back; every work computer I've had since that tiny MacBook Air has been a MacBook. My personal computer is my iPad Pro, but I also have a 2nd-gen Mac mini1 which runs headless to take care of various things around the house. An upgrade to SSD and maxed-out 16 GB of RAM keeps it chugging away, nearly a decade in.

When Apple announced the new M1-based Macs, I was blown away like everyone else by the performance on offer. I was particularly relieved to see the M1 Mac mini in the line-up, not because I have any urgent need to upgrade, but just to know that it remains a product in Apple's line-up, for whenever I might need to upgrade in the future. In the same way, I'm not pushing for an early upgrade of my work-issued MacBook Pro, because one of the must-haves for me is support for multiple monitors. I'm assuming that will come with the rumoured 14" Pros that are more clearly differentiated from the Air, so that's what I'm waiting for there.

Most of the commentary is trying to differentiate between the new Air and Pro, and figuring out whether to replace an iMac Pro (or even a Mac Pro!) with the M1 Mac mini. Some, though, have gone the other way, comparing the new MacBook Air to the iPad Pro. The article's conclusion is that "Apple's M1 MacBook Air kills the iPad Pro for the rest of us", but I'm not so sure.

Over-reach

My iPad is a substantially different device from my MacBook, and it gets used for different things, even when I have both within arm's reach. Let's dig into those differences, because they are key to understanding what (I think) Apple's strategy will be for the Mx MacBook and the iPad Pro in the future.

Form Factor

All of the comparisons in that ZDNet article are comparing the big 12.9" iPad Pro to the 13" MacBook Air — which is fair enough on the MacBook side, since that's what Apple has announced so far. On the iPad side, though, most people have the smaller size — currently 11" — and that is the more meaningful basis for differentiation. We'll see whether that changes when and if Apple ever releases a successor to my beloved MacBook Air 11", or SWMBO's (just) MacBook 12", aka the MacBook Adorable — but for now, if you want an ultra-portable device without sacrificing power, the smaller iPad Pro still has an edge.

External Display

Seriously, who connects an external display to an iPad? AirPlay is far more relevant for that use case. Meanwhile, I'm actually more bothered about the fact that no M1 MacBook allows for more than one monitor to be connected.

Webcam

This is a long-standing weak point of the MacBook line, and it's going to be hard to remedy simply due to physics. A better webcam requires more depth, meaning a thicker cover around and behind the screen. Again, though, the use case matters: it's more important for the iPad to have a good built-in webcam, because a MacBook is more likely to have an external one for people who really do care about image quality, resting on top of that external monitor. People who use their MacBook for work care a lot less about image quality anyway, because they may well be looking at a shared document rather than headshots most of the time.

What's Missing

A surprising omission from the list of differences between MacBook and iPad is the operating system. iOS — or rather, iPadOS — is a big differentiator here, because it affects everything about how these devices are actually used. This is the same mistake as we see in those older PC reviews that only compared the hardware specs of Macs to Wintel devices, missing out entirely on the differentiation that came from running macOS as opposed to Windows.

Confusion

I think the confusion arises from the Magic Keyboard, and how it makes the iPad Pro look like a laptop. This is the foundational error in this list of recommendations to improve the iPad Pro.

Adopt a landscape-first mindset. Rotate the Apple logo on the back and move the iPad’s front-facing camera on the side beneath the Apple Pencil charger to better reflect how most people actually use their iPad Pros.

No! Absolutely not! I use my iPad in portrait mode a lot more than I use it in landscape! Does it bug me that the Apple is rotated when I'm using it with the keyboard? Sure, a little bit — but by definition, I can't see it while I'm doing that.

Release a new keyboard + trackpad case accessory that allows the iPad to be used in tablet mode without removing it from the case.

Now this one I can stand behind: I still miss my origami keyboard case for my iPad Pro, which sadly broke. You could even rotate the Apple logo on the case, while leaving the one on the device in its proper orientation, if you really wanted to.

The reason I still miss that origami case is that I didn't replace it when it broke, thinking I would soon be upgrading my iPad Pro, and I would get a new keyboard case for the new-style flat-edge case. Then Apple did not refresh the iPad Pro line this year, so I still have my 10.5" model.

I do wonder whether this could be the reason why the iPad Pro didn't get updated when the new iPad and iPad Air did. That is, could there be an even better one coming, that differentiates more clearly against the M1 MacBook Air?

Then again, Apple may be getting ready to release a convergent device: a fold-over, touch- & Pencil-enabled MacBook. They would never tell us, so we'll just have to wait and see, credit cards at the ready.


  1. Yes, that really is how you're supposed to capitalise it. No, really

In-App Drama

Everyone and their dog has followed the saga of Hey and Apple — but in case you missed some of the twists and turns, this is a decent recap from The Verge.

My own opinion can be summed up as follows: "Wait, a hundred bucks a year?1 For email? In 2020? Are you insane?" (We also discussed the Hey saga on the most recent episode of the Roll For Enterprise podcast.) In fact, I am far more interested in Bye, the Hey parody that promises to reply to all your email with insults.

That said, there are a couple of different aspects to this story that I think are worth looking at in more detail. One is the PR debacle that this whole saga has been for Apple, and the other is what any of it means for users.

PR Ju-Jitsu

The fact that all this drama went down in the week before WWDC, and at the very same time the EU opens antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store practices, led many to wonder whether this could be some mastermind move to generate the sort of PR money can’t buy for an email app (because, again, email simply is not exciting in 2020. Ahem).

I don’t buy it. Oh, I am sure that the Hey team chose to launch the week before WWDC very consciously to get more attention, but they could never have expected Apple to approve their initial release, then reject a bug fix, and finally to be so ham-fisted in all of their subsequent moves. To be sure, David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH on Twitter, Hey and Basecamp cofounder) rode the PR wave masterfully, positioning himself as the David (ha!) to Apple’s Goliath. He was largely successful in this effort, judging by an entirely unscientific survey of my Twitter feed.

On the other hand, I am equally sure that Apple did not deliberately set out to pick a fight with a Twitter loudmouth in the week before the biggest event of their year. It does seem that they have been trying for some time to get more paid apps to use their own in-app-purchase (IAP) mechanism, and the reviewer(s) for Hey didn’t anticipate this level of blowback from one more enforcement decision in what is already a long list.

Apple PR did make some pretty heavy-handed and tone-deaf moves. At one point, a letter to Hey was apparently released to the press before it was sent to Hey, which is bad enough, but that letter contains language that DHH was easily able to present as a threat to his other apps in the App Store, which also do not use IAP:

Thank you for being an iOS app developer. We understand that Basecamp has developed a number of apps and many subsequent versions for the App Store for many years, and that the App Store has distributed millions of these apps to iOS users. These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years. We are happy to continue to support you in your app business and offer you the solutions to provide your services for free — so long as you follow and respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow.

To me this is not a threat, merely a statement of fact. Operating the App Store is not free, and Basecamp, by not offering IAP, has not contributed any revenue whatsoever to Apple.

Mob Tactics?

This is the key point: is Apple merely rent-seeking by attempting to extract their 30% cut from developers, or do they actually offer a service that is worth that overhead?

Ben Thompson has consistently been critical of the App Store’s regulations and their enforcement; in fact he goes so far as to consider it an antitrust issue, and made hay (or Hey) with this story:

I would go so far as to say that executives in the tech industry are more afraid of Apple in 2020 than they were of Microsoft two decades ago. App Store Review is such an absolute gatekeeper, and the number of ways that Apple can retaliate are so varied and hard to verify, that no one is willing to publicly breathe a word against the company — again, except for Basecamp. I wish I could prove this to you — the stories I have received the last few days tell the tale — but no one is willing to go on the record, to me or to regulators. The risk is too great, because Apple’s level of control, and willingness to use it, is so overwhelming. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not.

It’s certainly true that the App Store extracts rent from developers, but the key point is that it also adds substantial value. All of the coverage of Hey has focused on Apple and on developers, but I have not seen any significant discussion of the users’ point of view. Customers are more willing to engage with a single trusted intermediary like Apple than with vast numbers of unknown developers. Especially with subscriptions, which are notorious for being easy to start and difficult to impossible to cancel, Apple’s role in the process is invaluable.

The user experience is better because of Apple’s aggressive curation of the App Store experience, and users are more willing to take a chance on apps because of that curation, and because of the established trust relationship they already have with Apple.

Friction Is Traction

It’s easy for DHH to say that Apple is interposing itself between him and his customers. He would rather have a direct relationship with them, and keep the 30% for his bottom line. In his view, the App Store and IAP add unnecessary friction to the smooth transmission back and forth.

Here’s the thing, though: friction is not just a negative. If we remove all friction, we also lose all traction. Intermediaries like Apple add both friction and traction. The way they justify their 30% cut — the friction that DHH complains about — is by offering traction: the technical underpinnings of the App Store — hosting, payments, marketing, and so on — but also by enabling developers to take advantage of the trust that Apple has built up with its customers.

I am happy to have my credit card on file with Apple, so buying an app (or a book, or a film, or music back before I subscribed to Apple Music) is a one-click process. One of the reasons I trust Apple with my credit card is because they let me see and manage my subscriptions in one place, and they let me cancel them and even offer refunds of purchases simply and quickly. I have bought thousands of euros through Apple if you add up apps, books, and media; if I had had to register for each one of those purchases, and ask myself "do I trust this vendor not to scam me or just make my life difficult in some way?", I would not have bought nearly as much.

The restrictions that Apple imposes on iOS — no side-loading of apps outside the App Store, sandboxing of individual apps, Apple ID login — may annoy developers and power users, but they also lower the barrier to installing new apps, because those apps cannot mess up anything else, either deliberately or on purpose. People who have experienced Windows are trained to be extremely reluctant to install new apps; no such caution is needed on iOS, in large part due to Apple’s oversight.

None of this is to say that the App Store experience is perfect for users. I could definitely use better search, as scammy developers seem to be winning this round against Apple and have made searching within the App Store almost pointless. The review process itself needs to be more aggressive in my opinion; especially with my eldest now using the App Store, I have discovered a whole lot of scammy IAP practices! Even then, though, the parental controls built into iOS beat anything Google offers.

Hey Hey, Bye Bye

Personally I hope Apple gets a fright and figures out a better way to continue to give me what I like as a user, without developers feeling ripped off. And regardless, there is no way I am dropping a hundred bucks a year2 on email.


  1. And it turns out, shorter account names cost even more: "Ultra-short 2-character addresses like ab@hey.com are $999/year, and 3-character addresses like abc@hey.com are $349/year." I mean, genius business model, charge whatever the traffic will bear and so on, but I just can’t even. 

  2. In fairness, Hey are hardly the only ones at the super-premium end of the email market. Superhuman charges $30/month to improve your Gmail experience, although this review is pretty uncomplimentary

Won’t Somebody Think of the (Virtual) Users?

Here’s the thing with VR: nobody has yet figured out what – or who – it’s actually for.

It seems like you can’t throw a rock without hitting some wild-eyed evangelist for VR. Apparently the next big thing is going to be VR tourism. On the one hand, this sort of thing could solve problems with overcrowding. Imagine if instead of the Mona Lisa, smaller than you expected, behind a barrier of smudged glass and smartphone-wielding fellow tourists, you could spend undisturbed time as close as you wanted to a high-pixel-count scan. And of course, being VR, you could take selfies from any angle without needing to wield a selfie stick or worry about permits for your camera drone.

On the other, you wouldn’t get to spend time in Paris and experience everything else that the city has to offer. At that point, why not just stay home in your favourite chair, enjoying a piped-in virtual experience, like the passengers of the cruise ship in Wall-E?

That’s the question that the VR industry has yet to answer successfully. Much like commercial-grade fusion power, it remains fifteen years away, same as fifteen years ago, and fifteen years before that. In fact, back at the tail end of last century, I played Duke Nukem 3D in a pub1 with goggles, a subwoofer in a backpack, and something called a 3D mouse. The whole thing was tethered to a pretty hefty gaming PC, which back then probably meant a 166 MHz CPU and maybe a first-gen 3dfx Voodoo graphics card.

It was fun, in the immature way that Duke Nukem was, but once the novelty of looking around the environments had worn off, I didn’t see anything that would make me pay the not-inconsiderable price for a similar setup for myself.

A couple of years ago I was at some tech event or other – maybe MWC? – and had the chance to try the then-new Oculus headset. I was stunned at how little the state of the art had moved forward – but that’s what happens when there is no clear use case, no pull from would-be users of the product, just push from people who desperately want to make it happen.

Now, the (virtual) chickens are coming home to roost. This piece in Fast Company admits the problems, but punts on offering any solutions.

The industry raised an estimated $900 million in venture capital in 2016, but by 2018 that figure had plummeted to $280 million. Oculus—the Facebook-owned company behind one of the most popular VR headsets on the market—planned to deliver 1 billion headsets to consumers, but as of last year had sold barely 300,000.

Investments in VR entertainment venues all over the world, VR cinematic experiences, and specialized VR studios such as Google Spotlight and CCP Games have either significantly downsized, closed down, or morphed into new ventures.

[…]

Ultimately it is down to VR developers to learn from existing success stories and start delivering those "killer apps." The possibilities are limited only by imagination.

Apple, more clear-headed than most, is postponing the launch of its own VR and AR efforts. This is particularly significant because Apple has a history of not being the first mover in a market, but of defining the use case such that every other player follows suit. They did not have the first smartphone, or even the first touchscreen, but it’s undeniable that these days almost every phone out there looks like an iPhone.

It’s not clear at this stage whether the delay in their AR/VR efforts is due to technology limitations or the lack of a clear use case, but either way, the fact that they could not see a way to a useful product does not bode well for anyone else trying to make a go of this market.

Shipping The Org Chart

The players who are staying in are the ones who want VR and AR to succeed for their own reasons, not because they see huge numbers of potential users clamouring for it. This is a dangerous road, as Sun found out to their cost, back in the day.

Read the whole thread, it’s gold.

Here’s the problem for VR: while I don’t doubt that there is a small population of hardcore gamers who would love deeper immersion, there is no killer app for the rest of us. Even console gaming is struggling, because it turns out that most people don’t graduate from casual gaming on their smartphones to "serious gaming". This is the other thing that will kill Google Stadia.

The one play that Apple might have is the one that seems to be working with Apple Arcade: first get devices everywhere, then slowly add capabilities. If Apple came out with a physical controller, or endorsed a third-party one, Apple TV would be an interesting contender as a gaming platform. The same thing could work with AR/VR, if only they can figure out a use case.

If it’s just the Google Glass thing of notifications, but RIGHT IN YOUR EYEBALLS, I don’t think it will go anywhere. The only convincing end-user demo I’ve seen is walking or cycling navigation via a virtual heads-up display, but again, that’s a niche use case that won’t support an entire industry.

This one image set back the AR industry by decades.

I already don’t have time for video, because it requires me to be somewhere where I can pay attention to video, listen to audio, and not be interrupted for maybe quarter of an hour. Adding the requirement for substantial graphics support and power consumption, not to mention the headset itself, and extending the timeline to match, further reduces the applicability of this technology.

But go ahead, prove me wrong.


🖼️ Top photo by Juan Di Nella on Unsplash


  1. This was back in the good old days before drinking-age laws were introduced, which meant that all of us got our drinking done when all we were in charge of was bicycles, limiting potential damage. By the time we got driving licenses, drinking was somewhat old-hat, so there was much less drive to mix the two. 

Discoverability

As more and more devices around us sprout microphones and "smart" assistant software that listens for commands, various problems are emerging. Much attention is lavished on the Big Brother aspects of what amounts to always-on ambient surveillance, and that is indeed a development that is worth examining. However, today I would like to focus on another aspect of voice-controlled user interfaces: when a system has no easy way of telling you what its capabilities are – how do you know what to ask it?

The answer to this question entails discoverability, and I would like to illustrate this somewhat abstract concept with a picture of a tap. This particular tap lives in my employers’ newly refurbished London office, and I challenge you to work out how to get sparkling water from it.

The answer is that you press both taps – and now that I’ve told you, you may perhaps notice the pattern of bubbles along the bottom of the two taps. However, without the hint, I doubt you would ever have worked it out.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana1, and their ilk suffer from the same problem – which is why most people tend to use them for the same scant handful of tasks: setting timers, creating reminders, and playing music. Some users are willing to experiment with asking them to do various things, but most of us have enough going on in our lives that we can’t take the time to talk to very stupid robots unless we have a reasonable certainty of our requests being understood and acted upon.

Worse, even as existing capabilities improve and new ones are added, users generally stick to their first impressions. If they tried something a couple of years ago and it didn’t work then, as far as they’re concerned it doesn’t work, even if that particular capability has been added in the meantime.

I generally find out about new Siri features from Apple-centric blogs or podcasts, but that’s only because I’m the sort of person who goes looking for that kind of thing. I use Siri a fair amount, especially while driving, although AirPods have made me somewhat more willing to speak commands into thin air, so I do actually take advantage of new features and improved recognition. For most people, though, Siri remains the butt of jokes, no matter how much effort Apple puts into it.

This is not a competitive issue, either; almost everyone I know with an Alexa just treats it as a radio, never using any other skills beyond the first week or so of ownership.

The problem is discoverability: short of Siri or Alexa interrupting you ("excuse me, have you heard the good news?"), there isn’t any way for users to know what they can do.

This is why I am extremely sceptical of the claims that voice assistants are the next frontier. Even beyond the particular issues of people in an open-plan office all shouting at their phones, and assuming perfect recognition by the AIs2 themselves, voice is an extremely low-bandwidth channel. If my hands and eyes are available, those are far better input and output channels than voice can ever be. Plus, graphical user interfaces are far better able to guide users to discover their capabilities, without degenerating into phone menu trees.

Otherwise, you have to rely on the sorts of power users who really want sparkling water and are willing to spend some time and effort on figuring out how to get it. Meanwhile, everyone else is going to moan and gripe, or bypass the tap entirely and head for the bottled water.


  1. I find it significant that autocorrect knows the first two, but not the third. As good an indication as any of their relative market penetration. 

  2. Not actually AI. 

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. 

Companies Turning Down My Money

I’m always going on about my troubles with the Italian iTunes Store, but I realise people might not know what that means in practice, so I wrote up a real-world scenario.

I wonder what movie we could watch on Sunday night – maybe that 1969 classic, The Italian Job?1

First hurdle, finding the thing. Searching for "the italian job", as any reasonable (meaning "naive and inexperienced") person might, brings no results.

As this is not my first rodeo with the Italian iTunes Store, I fall back to searching for everything Michael Caine has been in – and sure enough, after the various Batman and Kingsman films, there is… Un colpo all’italiana. Sure, why not.

But once again, this is not my first rodeo – and therefore, instead of just hitting that "Buy" button, I know to scroll down and check one more thing:

Do you see it?

Look under Language: there is only one entry, "Italian (Stereo)". No English audio.

I refuse to pay ten Euros to hear Michael Caine dubbed into Italian, thank you very much. If you won’t sell things to people, they won’t buy them.

Guess we’re watching something else, kids.


  1. We will not speak of its 21st century would-be imitators, thank you. 

Keeping The Data Lake Clean

One of the biggest problems in data analysis is making sure that your inputs are clean and sane. This holds true whatever you are using to do the analysis, whether it’s the latest fancypants machine-learning, or a roomful of expert humans doing the calculations by hand.

I think it’s useful to keep this perspective in mind when considering Apple’s recent tie-up with Salesforce.

The first example given by Salesforce is this scenario:

Imagine a sales rep saying "Hey Siri, Daily Briefing" then hearing an overview of their day.

This scenario encapsulates the dream end-state of all of these integrated CRM systems. Normally, of course, the user requesting an overview is not the sales rep but a manager, whether the person responsible for a region who needs to know whether their team of sales reps is going to hit the regional number, or a higher manager preparing a presentation for the board and hoping very much that the key dashboards are all in the green.

The problem with such dashboards is the age-old one of Garbage In, Garbage Out. The predictions are only as good as the data they are based on. Unfortunately, the data are not always good, because by and large, sales reps – and I’ve known a few, good, bad, and indifferent – do not particularly enjoy documenting everything they do for someone else. That last clause is important; the good sales reps take a lot of notes and know all sorts of details about their accounts and territories, but the notes are for their own consumption, and the way they are taken and stored make them hard to access. Sometimes this is even by design, especially among “relationship" sales people who see their value mainly in terms of the thickness of their Rolodex1: “if you fire me, I’ll walk and take all my customers with me!".

We all know how well that play worked out for Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire. Regardless, getting the input data is a very real problem. This is why I am much more interested in the second half of that example scenario from Salesforce:

They can also easily update Salesforce records after a meeting.

Updating opportunities is already pretty easy from the Salesforce mobile app, but sales managers and Sales Ops types have a tendency to over-complicate the process by adding supplementary required fields which must be filled in to save the simple text-based notes and contact info which are the most valuable parts of the process. Added friction in the data-entry stage leads to opportunity details being added in a rush at the end of the quarter, ret-conning against the ultimate outcome of the opportunity rather than documenting facts in near real time.

Adding support for other technologies on the input side has the potential to remove much of that friction. Siri would let reps have a good rant in the car on the way back from the meeting and transcribe all of that into the activity record. Location data would enter the correct office where a meeting was held. Integration with office suites and cloud storage could add the collateral used in a meeting to the opportunity. Each addition of intelligence on the input side would remove a small amount of friction from the opportunity management process, which in turn would help to ensure that the data which all the fancy analyses are based on are at least somewhat factual.

I have no doubt that most of the videos and presentations around the Apple-Salesforce joint technology developments will focus on showing magical Minority Report2 dashboards, updating in real time, and smiling managers happy with the results being displayed. However, if any of those whiz-bang dashboards are to have utility in the real world, it will be down to the input capabilities in the individual sales reps’ iPhone and Apple Watch, and the technology’s removal of as many excuses as possible not to update Salesforce records.


  1. Yes, Rolodex; that’s how dated this way of thinking is. 

  2. I think I owe Tom Cruise royalties for this article. How much is 50% of no dollars whatsoever, again? I’m sure he doesn’t mind appearing here for the exposure, though. 

How Do You Say Apple In Mandarin?

I noticed this aside in a CBInsights piece on the state of AI assistants in China:

Among US big tech, only Apple’s Siri supports Mandarin on the iPhone. The company’s Homepod smart speaker only supports English, and is not available in China.

This sounds very much like my ongoing issue with the lack of Siri support on AppleTV. Siri is available on iOS in many different languages, but for whatever reason, Apple does not capitalise on that capability to deliver Siri functionality on its other devices.

The assumption is that this behaviour is driven by App Store issues:

I have never watched the Godfather films (I know, I know), and with some intercontinental travel coming up, I thought this would be a good time to load them up on my iPad and finally catch up - forty years late, but who’s counting?

Since I no longer have any truck with physical media, my first stop was iTunes. At first I thought they did not have the films, but this turned out to be because I live in Italy, and so they are listed as Il Padrino. Fair enough, except that it’s not just the title card that’s Italian; the only soundtrack available is an Italian dub. It’s not even the original, it’s a re-dub, and the reviews are all one-stars complaining about the new dub.

Of course iTunes has all three Godfather films in the US store, but Apple in their wisdom tie your iTunes account to the country your credit card is registered in. This means I can’t simply download the English-language version from the US store.

However, when it is keeping Apple out of a market the size of China, which its competitors are unable to enter because of their lack of language support, I would suggest that it is high time to figure out a way around this problem.

Here’s hoping…

Apple Abroad

I am broadly bullish about Apple’s purchase of digital magazine subscription service Texture. I do however have concerns about Apple’s ability and willingness to deliver this service internationally. This concern is based on many past examples of Apple rolling out services to the US (and maybe UK) first, and the rest of the world only slowly, piecemeal, and according to no obvious or consistent logic.

Subscription hell is a real problem, and it creates a substantial barrier for users considering new subscriptions. Even if the financial element were removed, I have had to adopt a strict one-in, one-out policy for podcasts, because I simply don’t have enough hours in the day to listen to them all. (It doesn’t help when The Talk Show does one of its three-hour-long monster episodes, either.) Add a price component to that decision, and I’m even more reluctant to spend money on something I may not use enough to justify the cost. I would love to subscribe to the Financial Times and the Economist, but there is no way I could get through that much (excellent) writing, and they are pretty expensive subscriptions.

On the other hand, the idea of paying for one Netflix-style sub that includes a whole bunch of magazines, so that I can read what I want, seems pretty attractive on the surface. Even better if I can change the mix of consumption from one month (beach holiday) to the next (international business travel) without having to set up a whole bunch of new subs, with all the attendant friction.

Here’s the problem, though. Apple has form in releasing services in the US, and then only rolling them out internationally at a glacially slow pace. I realise that many commentators may not be aware of this issue, so let’s have a quick rundown, just off the top of my head.

News

Apple’s News app is still only officially available in the US, UK, and Australia. Luckily this restriction is pretty easy to fool by setting your iOS device to a region where it is supported, and there you go – the News app is now available on your home screen. Still, it seems an odd miss for what they regularly claim as a strategic service.

Siri on AppleTV

I have ranted before about the shameful lack of Siri on AppleTV, but this issue still hasn’t been resolved. Worse, the list of countries where Siri is available on AppleTV makes no sense. What concerns me, obviously, is the absence of Italy, especially when much smaller countries (the Netherlands? Norway?) are included, but there are other oddities. For instance, French is fine in France and Canada, but not in Belgium. Why? Quebec French is far more different than Belgian French. Also, Siri works just fine in way more countries and languages than are on that list, so it’s far from obvious why it’s not available on tvOS.

The worst is that it is not possible to get around this one, as the restriction is tied to the country where the user’s Apple ID is registered, and that in turn is tied inextricably to the credit card’s billing address. Short of registering a whole new credit card, if you live outside one of the blessed countries, you’re not going to be able to use the Siri remote for its intended function. Given that nobody likes that remote, and fully 20% of its button complement is dedicated to Siri, this limitation substantially detracts from the usage experience of what is already a pretty expensive device.

Apple Pay in Messages

As with Siri on tvOS, this is a weird restriction, given that Apple Pay works fine in many countries – but is not available in Messages. I could understand if this were a banking restriction, but why not enable payment in Apple Store vouchers? Given my monthly spend, I’d be happy to take the occasional bar tab in store credit, and put it towards my iCloud, Apple Music, other subscriptions, and occasional apps. But no, I’m not allowed to do that.

TV app

Returning to the TV theme, if you’re outside a fairly short list of countries, you are still using the old Video app on iOS and tvOS, not the new TV app. Given that the TV app was announced in October of 2016 and launched at the end of that year, this is a pretty long wait. It’s especially annoying if you regularly use both the iTunes Store and a local iTunes library, as those live in separate places, especially in light of the next item.

iTunes Store

Even when a service is available, that doesn’t mean it’s the same everywhere. One of the most glaring examples is that I still can’t buy TV shows through the Italian iTunes Store. I’m not quite sure why this is, unless it’s weird geographical licensing hangovers. Cable TV providers, Amazon, and Netflix all seem to have worked out licensing for simulcast with the US, though, so it is possible to solve this.

Movies are another problem, because even when they are available, sometimes (but not always!) the only audio track is the Italian dubbed version, which I do not want. Seriously, Apple – literally every DVD has multiple audio tracks; could you at least do the same with Movies in the iTunes Store?

And sometimes films or books simply aren’t available in the Italian store, but they are in the US store. It’s not a licensing issue, because Amazon carries them quite happily in both countries. A couple of times I have asked authors on Twitter whether they know what is going on, but they are just as mystified as I am.

It Works In My Country

There is a more complete list of iOS feature availability out there, and I would love if someone were able to explain the logic behind the different availability of seemingly similar functionality in certain countries – and the different lists of countries for seemingly identical features! Right now, Apple’s attitude seems to be a variation of the classic support response, “it works on my machine": “but it works in my country…".

And that’s why I worry about Apple’s supposed Texture-based revamp of Apple News: maybe it gets locked down so I can’t have it at all, or maybe it’s neutered so I can’t access the full selection of magazines, or some other annoyance. I just wish Apple would introduce an “International" region, where as long as you accept to do everything in English, they just give you full access and call it good, without making us jump through all these ridiculous hoops.