Showing all posts tagged apple:

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.

Privacy Versus AI

There is a widespread assumption in tech circles that privacy and (useful) AI are mutually exclusive. Apple is assumed to be behind Amazon and Google in this race because of its choice to do most data processing locally on the phone, instead of uploading users’ private data in bulk to the cloud.

A recent example of this attitude comes courtesy of The Register:

Predicting an eventual upturn in the sagging smartphone market, [Gartner] research director Ranjit Atwal told The Reg that while artificial intelligence has proven key to making phones more useful by removing friction from transactions, AI required more permissive use of data to deliver. An example he cited was Uber "knowing" from your calendar that you needed a lift from the airport.

I really, really resent this assumption that connecting these services requires each and every one of them to have access to everything about me. I might not want information about my upcoming flight shared with Uber – where it can be accessed improperly, leading to someone knowing I am away from home and planning a burglary at my house. Instead, I want my phone to know that I have an upcoming flight, and offer to call me an Uber to the airport. At that point, of course I am sharing information with Uber, but I am also getting value out of it. Otherwise, the only one getting value is Uber. They get to see how many people in a particular geographical area received a suggestion to take an Uber and declined it, so they can then target those people with special offers or other marketing to persuade them to use Uber next time they have to get to the airport.

I might be happy sharing a monthly aggregate of my trips with the government – so many by car, so many on foot, or by bicycle, public transport, or ride sharing service – which they could use for better planning. I would absolutely not be okay with sharing details of every trip in real time, or giving every busybody the right to query my location in real time.

The fact that so much of the debate is taken up with unproductive discussions is what is preventing progress here. I have written about this concept of granular privacy controls before:

The government sets up an IDDB which has all of everyone's information in it; so far, so icky. But here's the thing: set it up so that individuals can grant access to specific data in that DB - such as the address. Instead of telling various credit card companies, utilities, magazine companies, Amazon, and everyone else my new address, I just update it in the IDDB, and bam, those companies' tokens automatically update too - assuming I don't revoke access in the mean time.

This could also be useful for all sorts of other things, like marital status, insurance, healthcare, and so on. Segregated, granular access to the information is the name of the game. Instead of letting government agencies and private companies read all the data, users each get access only to those data they need to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, we are stuck in an stale all-or-nothing discussion: either you surround yourself with always-on internet-connected microphones and cameras, or you might as well retreat to a shack in the woods. There is a middle ground, and I wish more people (besides Apple) recognised that.


Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

What's A Computer?

So there’s an Apple ad for the iPad Pro out there, which is titled "What’s a computer?". It’s embedded here, in case you’re like me and don’t see ads on TV.

tl;dr is that the video follows a young girl around as she does various things using her iPad Pro, signing a friend’s cast over FaceTime and sending a picture of it via Messages and so on.

It’s all very cute and it highlights the capabilities of the iPad Pro (and of iOS 11) very well.

However, there is a hidden subtext here, that only young people who grow up knowing only phones and tablets will come to think of them as their only devices in this way. Certainly it’s true of my kids; I no longer have any desktop computers in the house, so they have never seen one. There is a mac Mini media server, but it runs headless in a cupboard, so it hardly looks like a “computer". My wife and I have MacBooks, but they’re our work machines. My personal device is my iPad Pro.

My son actually just started computing classes in school this year, and was somewhat bemused to be faced with an external keyboard and mouse. At least they’ve moved on from CRTs since my day…

A Second Childhood

There is another group of users who have adopted the iPad enthusiastically, and that is older people. My mother used to invite me for lunch, and then casually mention that she "had some emails" for me to do. She would sit across the room from the computer and dictate to me, because she never felt comfortable doing anything on the infernal machine herself.

Since she got her first iPad a few years ago, she has not looked back. She is now a regular emailer – using the on-screen keyboard, no less, as I have not been able to persuade her to spring for a Pro yet. She surfs the web, comments on pictures of her grandchildren, keeps up with distant friends via Skype and Facebook, and even plays Sudoku.

That last point is particularly significant, as for people who grew up long before computers in homes, it is a major shift to embrace the frivolous nature of some (most?) of what we do on these devices.

None of this is to say that I disagree with Apple’s thesis in the ad. When it comes to computers, my own children only really know iPads first-hand. They see adults using laptops occasionally, and of course spending too much time on their phones, but they don’t get to use either of those devices themselves. As far as they are concerned, “computer" might as well mean "iPad".

I just think that they should do a Volume Two of that ad, featuring older people, and perhaps emphasising slightly different features - zoomed text, for instance, VoiceOver, or the many other assistive technologies built into iOS. Many older people are enthusiastic iPad users, but are not naturally inclined to upgrade, and so may still be using an iPad 2 or an original iPad mini. A campaign to showcase the benefits of the Pro could well get more of these users to upgrade - and that’s a win for everyone.

Sowing Bitter Seeds

The Internet is outraged by… well, a whole lot of things, as usual, but in particular by Apple. For once, however, the issue is not phones that are both unexciting and unavailable, lacking innovation and wilfully discarding convention, and also both over- and under-priced. No, this time the issue is apps, and in particular VPN apps.

Authoritarian regimes around the world (Russia, "Saudi" Arabia, China, North Korea, etc) have long sought to control their populations' access to information in general, and to the Internet in particular. Of course anyone with a modicum of technical savvy - or a friend, relative, or passing acquaintance willing to do the simple setup - can keep unfettered access to the Internet by going through a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

A VPN does what it says on the tin: it creates a virtual network that connects directly with an endpoint somewhere else; importantly, somewhere outside the authoritarian regime's control. As such, VPNs have always existed in something of a grey area, but now China (the People's Republic, not that other China) has gone ahead and formally banned their use.

In turn, Apple have responded by removing unregistered VPN apps (which in practical terms means all of them) from their App Store in China. In the face of the Internet's predictable outrage, Apple provided this bald statement (via TechChrunch):

Earlier this year China’s MIIT announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license from the government. We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations. These apps remain available in all other markets where they do business.

Now Apple do have a point; the law is indeed the law, and because they operate in China, they need to enforce it, just as they would with laws in any other country.

Here's the rub, though. By the regionalised way they have set up their App Store service, they have made themselves unnecessarily vulnerable to this sort of arm-twisting by unfriendly governments. Last time I wrote about geo-fencing and its consequences, the cause of the day was Russia demanding removal of the LinkedIn app, and China (them again!) demanding removal of the New York Times app. As I wrote at the time, companies like Apple originally set up the infrastructure for these geographic restrictions to enable IP protection, but the same tools are being repurposed for censorship:

This sort of restriction used to be “just" hostile to consumers. Now, it is turning into a weapon that authoritarian regimes can wield against Apple, Google, and whoever else. Nobody would allow Russia to ban LinkedIn around the world, or China to remove the New York Times app everywhere - but because dedicated App Stores exist for .ru and .cn, they are able to demand these bans as local exceptions, and even defend them as respecting local laws and sensibilities. If there were one worldwide App Store, this gambit would not work.

The argument against the infrastructure of laws and regulations that was put in place to enable (ineffective) IP restrictions was always that it could be, and would be, repurposed to enable repression by authoritarian regimes. People scoffed at these privacy concerns, saying "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". But what if your government is the next to decide that reading the NYT or having a LinkedIn profile is against the law? How scared should you be then?

If you are designing a social network or other system with the expectation of widespread adoption, these days this has to be part of your threat model. Otherwise, one day the government may come knocking, demanding your user database for any reason or no reason at all - and what seemed like a good idea at the time will end up messing up a lot of people's lives.

Product designers by and large do not think of such things, as we saw when Amazon decided that it would be perfectly reasonable to give everyone in your address book access to your Alexa device - and make it so users could not turn off this feature without a telephone call to Amazon support.

How well do you think that would go down if you were a dissident, or just in the social circle of one?

Our instinctive attitude to data is to hoard them, but this instinct is obsolete, forged in a time when data were hard to gather, store, and access. It took something on the scale of the Stasi to build and maintain profiles on even six million citizens (out of a population of sixteen million), and the effort and expense was part of what broke the East German regime in the end. These days, it's trivial to build and access such a profile for pretty much anyone, so we need to change our thinking about data - how we gather them, and how we treat them once we have them.

Personal data are more akin to toxic waste, generated as a byproduct of valuable activity and needing to be stored with extreme care because of the dire consequences of any leaks. Luckily, data are different from toxic waste in one key respect: they can be deleted, or better, never gathered in the first place. The same goes for many other choices, such as restricting users to one particular geographical App Store, or making it easy to share your entire contact list (including by mistake), but very difficult to take that decision back.

What other design decisions are being made today based on obsolete assumptions that will come back to bite users in the future?


UPDATE: And there we go, now Russia is following China’s example and banning VPNs as well. The idea of a technical fix to social and legal problems is always a short-term illusion.


Image by Sean DuBois via Unsplash

Thoughts about WWDC '17

First of all, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way; no new iPhone was announced. I was not necessarily expecting one to show up - that seems more suited to a September event, unless there were specific iOS features that were enabled by new hardware and that developers needed to know about.

We did get a whole ton of new features for iOS 11 (it goes up to eleven!), but many of them were aimed squarely at the iPad. With no new iPhone, the iPad got most of the new product glory, sharing only with the iMac Pro and the HomePod (awful name, by the way).

On that note, some people were confused by the iMac Pro, but Apple has helpfully clarified that there is also going to be a Mac Pro and external displays to go with it:

In addition to the new iMac Pro, Apple is working on a completely redesigned, next-generation Mac Pro architected for pro customers who need the highest-end, high-throughput system in a modular design, as well as a new high-end pro display.

I doubt I will ever buy a desktop Mac again, except possibly if Apple ever updates the Mac mini, so this is all kind of academic for me - although I really hope the dark-coloured wireless extended keyboard from the iMac Pro will also be available for standalone purchase.

What I am really excited about is the new 10.5" iPad Pro and the attendant features in iOS 111. The 12.9" is too big for my use case (lots of travel), and the 9.7" Pro always looked like a placeholder device to me. Now we have a full lineup, with the 9.7" non-Pro iPad significantly different from the 10.5" iPad Pro, and the 12.9" iPad Pro there for people who really need the larger size - or maybe just don’t travel with their iPad quite as much as I do.

My current iPad (an Air 2) is my main personal device apart from my iPhone. The MacBook Pro is my work device, and opening it up puts me in "work mode", which is not always a good thing. On the iPad, I do a ton of reading, but I also create a fair amount of content. The on-screen keyboard and various third-party soft-tip styluses (styli?) work fine, but they’re not ideal, and so I have lusted after an iPad Pro for a while now. However, between the lack of sufficient hardware differentiation compared to what I have2, and lack of software support for productivity, I never felt compelled to take the plunge.

Now, I can’t wait to get my hands on an iPad Pro 10.5".

I already use features like the sidebar and side-by-side multitasking, but what iOS 11 brings is an order of magnitude beyond - especially with the ability to drag & drop between applications. Right now, while I may build an outline of a document on my iPad, I rarely do the whole thing there, because it is just so painful to do any complex work involving multiple switches between applications - so I end up doing all of that on my Mac.

The problem is that there is a friction in working with a Mac; I need (or feel that I need) longer stretches of time and more work-like environments to pull out my Mac. That friction is completely absent with an iPad; I am perfectly happy to get it out if I have more than a minute or so to myself, and there is plenty of room to work on an iPad in settings (such as, to pick an example at random, an economy seat on a short-haul flight) where there is simply no room to type on a Mac.

The new Files app also looks very promising. Sure, you can sort of do everything it does in a combination of iCloud Drive, Dropbox, and Google Drive, and I do - but I always find myself hunting around for the latest revision, and then turning to the share sheet to get whatever I need to where I can actually work on it.

With iOS 11, it looks like the iPad will truly start delivering on its promise as (all together now) a creation device, not just a consumption device.

Ask me again six months from now…

And if you want more exhaustive analysis, Federico Viticci has you covered.


  1. Yes, there was also some talk about the Watch, but since I gave up on fitness tracking, I can't really see the point in that whole product line. That's not to say that it has no value, just that I don't see the value to me. It certainly seems to be the smartwatch to get if you want to get a smartwatch, but the problem with that proposition is that I don't particularly want any smartwatch. 

  2. To me this is the explanation for the 13 straight quarters of iPad sales drop: an older iPad is still a very capable device, and outside of very specific use cases, or people upgrading from something like an iPad 2 or 3, there hasn’t been a compelling reason to upgrade - yet. For me at least, that compelling reason has arrived, with the combination of 10.5" iPad Pro and iOS 11. After the holiday quarter, I suppose we will find out how many people feel the same way. 

Talk Softly

With the advent of always-on devices that are equipped with sensitive microphones and a permanent connection to the Internet, new security concerns are emerging.

Virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now have the potential to make enterprise workers more productive. But do “always listening" assistants pose a serious threat to security and privacy, too?

Betteridge’s Law is in effect here. Sure enough, the second paragraph of the article discloses its sources:

Nineteen percent of organizations are already using intelligent digital assistants, such as Siri and Cortana, for work-related tasks, according to Spiceworks’ October 2016 survey of 566 IT professionals in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

A whole 566 respondents, you say? From a survey run by a help desk software company? One suspects that the article is over-reaching a bit - and indeed, if we click through to the actual survey, we find this:

Intelligent assistants (e.g., Cortana, Siri, Alexa) used for work-related tasks on company-owned devices had the highest usage rate (19%) of AI technologies

That is a little bit different from what the CSO Online article is claiming. Basically, anyone with a company-issued iPhone who has ever used Siri to create an appointment, set a reminder, or send a message about anything work-related would fall into this category.

Instead, the article makes the leap from that limited claim to extrapolating that people will be bringing their Alexa device to work and connecting it to the corporate network. Leaving aside for a moment the particular vision of hell that is an open-plan office where everyone is talking into the air all the time, what does that mean for the specific recommendations in the article?

  1. Focus on user privacy
  2. Develop a policy
  3. Treat virtual assistant devices like any IoT device
  4. Decide on BYO or company-owned
  5. Plan to protect

These are actually not bad recommendations - but they are so generic as to be useless. Worse, when they do get into specifics, they are almost laughably paranoid:

Assume all devices with a microphone are always listening. Even if the device has a button to turn off the microphone, if it has a power source it’s still possible it could be recording audio.

This is drug-dealer level of paranoia. Worrying that Alexa might be broadcasting your super secret and valuable office conversations does not even make the top ten list of concerns companies should have about introducing such devices into their networks.

The most serious threat you can get from Siri at work is co-workers pranking you if you enable access from the lock screen. In that case, anyone can grab your unattended iPhone and instruct Siri to call you by some ridiculous name. Of course I would never sabotage a colleague’s phone by renaming him “Sweet Cakes". Ahem. Interestingly, it turns out that the hypothetical renaming also extends to the entry in the Contacts…

The real concern is that by focusing on these misguided recommendations, the focus is taken off advice that would actually be useful in the real world. For instance, if you must have IoT devices in the office for some reason, this is good advice:

One way to segment IoT devices from the corporate network is to connect them to a guest Wi-Fi network, which doesn’t provide access to internal network resources.

This recommendation applies to any device that needs Internet access but does not require access to resources on the internal network. This will avoid issues where, by compromising a device (or its enabling cloud service), intruders are able access your internal network in what is known as a “traversal attack". If administrators restrict the device’s access to the network, that will also restrict the amount of damage an intruder can do.

Thinking about access to data is a good idea in general, not just for voice assistants or IoT devices:

Since personal virtual assistants “rely on the cloud to comprehend complex commands, fetch data or assign complex computing tasks to more resources," their use in the enterprise raises issues about data ownership, data retention, data and IP theft, and data privacy enforcement that CISOs and CIOs will need to address.

Any time companies choose to adopt a service that relies on the cloud, their attack surface is not limited to the device itself, but also extends to that back-end service - which is almost certainly outside their visibility and control. Worse, in a BYOD scenario, users may introduce new devices and services to the corporate network that are not designed or configured for compliance with organisations’ security and privacy rules.

Security is important - but let’s focus on getting the basics right, without getting distracted by overly-specific cybersecurity fantasy role-playing game scenarios involving Jason Bourne hacking your Alexa to steal your secrets.

New Mac Fever

Apple bloggers are all very excited about the announcement of a new Mac Pro. The best roundup I have seen is on Daring Fireball: The Mac Pro Lives.

I'm not a Mac Pro user, nor frankly am I ever likely to be. My tastes lie more at the other end of the spectrum, with the ultra-portable MacBook (aka MacBook Adorable). However, there was one interesting tidbit for me in the Daring Fireball report:

Near the end, John Paczkowski had the presence of mind to ask about the Mac Mini, which hadn’t been mentioned at all until that point. Schiller: “On that I’ll say the Mac Mini is an important product in our lineup and we weren’t bringing it up because it’s more of a mix of consumer with some pro use. … The Mac Mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today."

While there are certainly Mac Mini users who choose it as the cheapest Mac, and perhaps as a way to keep using a monitor and other peripherals that used to be plugged into a PC, there is a substantial contingent of Mac Mini "pro" users. Without getting into Macminicolo levels of pro-ness, I run mine headless in a cupboard, where it serves iTunes and runs a few other services. It's cheap, quiet, and reliable, which makes it ideal for that role. I don't necessarily need ultimate power - average utilisation is extremely low, although there is the odd peak - but I do want to be reassured that this is a product line that will stick around, just in case my current Mac Mini breaks.

The most important Macs are obviously the MacBook and MacBook Pros, but it's good to know that Apple recognises a role for the Mac Pro - and for the Mac Mini.

Smart Swatch

Remember Swatch? The must-have colourful plastic watches of the 80s and 90s? They are back in the news, with their new plan to produce their own smartwatch operating system.

Swatch plans to develop its own operating system as the Swiss watchmaker seeks to combine smart technology with the country’s expertise in making timepieces and miniaturisation, chief executive Nick Hayek has said.

Mr Hayek added that he wanted to avoid relying on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android and provide a “Swiss" alternative offering stronger data protection and ultra-low energy consumption.

This new plan has caused all sorts of consternation around the Internet, but I was disposed to ignore it - until now. I just received this week's Monday Note, by the usually reliable Jean-Louis Gassée.

M. Gassée makes some initially good points about the complexity of operating systems, the immaturity of the smartwatch market, and the short timescales involved. Swatch intends to ship actual products by the end of 2018, which is barely any time at all when it comes to developing and shipping an entirely new physical product at mass-market scale. However, I do wonder whether he is falling into the same trap that he accuses Hayek and Swatch of falling into.

… in 2013, Hayek fils publicly pooh-poohed smart watches:
"Personally, I don’t believe it’s the next revolution… Replacing an iPhone with an interactive terminal on your wrist is difficult. You can’t have an immense display."

I tend to agree with Hayek, as it happens; the "terminal on the wrist" is pretty much a side show. The one stand-out use case for smart watches1 right now appears to be sensors and fitness. If that's not compelling, then there is very little else to attract you to smartwatches, even if you are a committed technophile like me. For myself, after wearing a Jawbone Up! for a year or two, I determined that I was not making use of the data that were gathered. The activity co-processor in my iPhone is ample for my limited needs.

What Is A Smartwatch?

The key point, however, is that Swatch have not announced an actual smart watch, but rather "an ecosystem for connected objects". M. Gassée even calls out some previous IoT form within CSEM, Swatch's partner in this venture, which recently produced the world's smallest Bluetooth chip.

The case against the wisdom of the Swatch project - the complexity of OS development and maintenance, the need for a developer ecosystem, and so on - assumes that Swatch are contemplating a direct rival for Apple's watchOS and Google Gear. What if that's not what's going on at all?

What if Swatch is going back to its roots, and making something simple and undemanding, but with the potential to be ubiquitous? The ecosystem for a smartwatch is now widespread: everyone has a smartphone, NFC is everywhere, from payment terminals to subway turnstiles. What if Swatch just intends to piggyback on that by embedding a few small and cheap sensors in its watches, without even having a screen at all?

Now that would be a Swatch move. In fact, it's such a Swatch move that they've done it before, with their Snow Pass line:

Its ski watch stores ski pass information and has an antenna that communicates with a scanner at the fast-track ski lift entrance. One swipe of the wrist and you're through.

That description sounds a lot like ApplePay to me - or really any NFC system. Add some pretty basic sensors, and you've got 80% of the smartwatch functionality that people actually use for 20% of the price.

Seen through this lens, the focus on privacy and security makes sense. It has been said that "the S in IoT stands for 'security'", and we could certainly all use an IoT player that focuses on that missing S. If the sensors themselves are small and simple enough, they would not need frequent updates and patches, as there would be nothing to exploit. The companion smartphone app would be the brains of the operation and gateway to all the data gathered, and could be updated as frequently as necessary, without needing to touch the sensors on the watch.

So What Is Swatch Really Up To?

As to why Swatch would even be interested in entering into such a project, remember that these days Swatch is part of a group that sprawls across 70 different brands, most far more up-scale (albeit less profitable) than lowly Swatch with its plastic watches. Think Omega, Breguet, Glashütte, Longines, or Blancpain. The major threat to those kinds of watches is not any single other watch; most watch lovers own several different mechanical watches, and choose one or another to wear for each day, activity, or occasion. In my own small way, I own three mechanical watches (and two quartz), for instance.

For a while now, and accelerating since the release of the iPhone, the competition for watches was - no watch at all. Why bother to wear a watch, the thinking went, when your smartphone can tell the time much more accurately? But now, insidiously, the competition is a watch again - but it is the last watch its owners will ever wear. Once you start really using an Apple Watch, you don't want to take it off, lest you miss out on all those activities being measured. Circles will go unfilled if you wear your Rolex to dinner.

But what if every watch you buy, at least from The Swatch Group, gives you the same measurements and can maintain continuity through the app on your phone? What if all of your watches can also let you on the subway, pay for your groceries, and so on? Other players such as Breitling and Montblanc have also been looking into this, but I think Swatch has a better chance, if only because they start from scale.

Now we are back to the comfortable (and profitable) status quo ante for the Swiss watch industry, in which watch aficionados own several different watches which they mix and match, but with each one part of the same connected experience.

Analogies are dangerous things. The last few years have conditioned us to watch out for the "PC guys are not just going to figure this out"-type statements from incumbents about to be disrupted. What if this time, the arrow points the other way? What if Swatch has finally figured out a way for the traditional watch industry to fight back against the ugly, unclassy interloper?


  1. In a further sign of the fact that this is still a developing market, even auto-correct appears to get confused between "smartwatch" and "smart watch". 

Own Your Interfaces

The greatest benefit of the Internet is the democratisation of technology. Development of customised high-tech solutions is no longer required for success, as ubiquitous commodity technology makes it easy to bring new product offerings to market.

Together with the ongoing move from one-time to recurring purchases, this process of commoditisation moves the basis of the competition to the customer experience. For most companies, the potential lifetime value of a new customer is now many times the profit from their initial purchase. This hoped-for future revenue makes it imperative to control the customer's experience at every point.

As an illustration, let us consider two scenarios involving outsourcing of products that are literally right in front of their users for substantial parts of the day.

Google Takes Its Eye Off the Watch

The first is Google and Android's answer to the Apple Watch, Android Wear. As is (usually) their way, Google have not released their own smartwatch product. Instead, they have released the Android Wear software platform, and left it to their manufacturing partners to build the actual physical products.

Results have been less than entirely positive:

If Android Wear is to be taken as seriously as the Apple Watch, we actually need an Android version of the Apple Watch. And these LG watches simply aren't up to the task.

Lacking the sort of singular focus and vertical integration between hardware and software that Apple brings to bear, these watches fail to persuade, and not by a little:

I think Google and LG missed the mark on every level with the Style, and on the basis of features alone that it is simply a bad product.

So is the answer simply to follow Apple's every move?

It is certainly true Google have shown with their Nexus and Pixel phones just how much better a first-party Android phone can be, and it is tempting to extrapolate that success to a first-party Google Watch. However, smartwatches are still very much a developing category, and it is not at all clear whether they can go beyond the current fitness-focused market. In fact, I would not be surprised to see a contraction in the size of the overall smartwatch market. Many people who bought a first-generation device out of curiosity and general technophilia may well opt not to replace that device.

Apple Displays Rare Clumsiness

In that case, let us look at an example outside the smartwatch market - and one where the fumble was Apple's.

Ever since Retina displays became standard first on MacBooks1 and then on iMacs, Mac users have clamoured for a large external display from Apple, to replace the non-Retina Apple Thundebolt Display that still graces many desks. Bandwidth constraints meant that this was not easy to do until a new generation of hardware came to market, but Apple fans were disappointed when, instead of their long-awaited Apple Retina 5K Display, they were recommended to buy a pretty generic-looking offering from LG.

Insult was added to injury when it became known that the monitor was extremely sensitive to interference, and in fact became unusable if placed anywhere near a wifi router:

the hardware can become unusable when located within 2 meters of a router.

Two metres is not actually that close; it's over six feet, if you're not comfortable with metric units. Many home office setups would struggle with that constraint - I know mine would.

Many have pointed out that one of the reasons for preferring expensive Apple solutions is that they are known to be not only beautifully designed, but obsessively over-engineered. It beggars belief that perfectionist, nit-picking Apple would have let a product to market with such a basic flaw - and yet, today, if an Apple fan spends a few thousand dollars on a new MacBook Pro and a monitor in an Apple Store, they will end up looking at a generic-looking LG monitor all day - if, that is, they can use the display at all.

Google and Apple both ceded control of a vitally important part of the customer experience to a third party, and both are now paying the price in terms of dissatisfied users. There are lessons here that also apply outside of manufacturing and product development.

Many companies, for instance, outsource functions that are seen as ancillary to third parties. A frequent candidate for these arrangements is support - but to view support this way is a mistake. It is a critical component of the user experience, and all the more so because it is typically encountered at times of difficulty. A positive support experience can turn a customer into a long-term fan, while a negative one can put them off for good.

Anecdata Time

A long time ago and far far away, I did a stint in technical support. During my time there, my employer initiated a contract with a big overseas outsourcing firm. The objective was to add a "tier zero" level of support, which could deal with routine queries - the ones where the answer was a polite invitation to Read The Fine Manual, basically - and escalate "real" issues to the in-house support team.

The performance of the outsourcer was so bad that my employer paid a termination fee to end the contract early, after less than one year. Without going into the specifics, the problem was that the support experience was so awful that it was putting off our customers. Given that we sold mainly into the large enterprise space, where there is a relatively limited number of customers in the first place, and that we aimed to cross-sell our integrated products to existing customers, a sudden increase in the number of unhappy customers was a potential disaster.

We went back to answering the RTFM queries ourselves, customer sat went back up into the green, and everyone was happy - well, except for the outsourcer, presumably. The company had taken back control of an important interface with its customers.

Interface to Differentiate

There are only a few of these interfaces and touch-points where a company has an opportunity to interact with its customers. Each interaction is an opportunity to differentiate against the competition, which is why it is so vitally important to make these interactions as streamlined and pleasant as possible.

This requirement is doubly important for companies who sell subscription offerings, as they are even more vulnerable to customer flight. In traditional software sales, the worst that can happen is that you lose the 20% (or whatever) maintenance, as well as a cross-sell or up-sell opportunity that may or may not materialise. A cancelled subscription leaves you with nothing.

A customer who buys an Android Wear smartwatch and has a bad experience will not remember that the watch was manufactured by LG; they will remember that their Android Wear device was not satisfactory. In the same way, someone who spends their day looking at an LG monitor running full-screen third-party applications - say, Microsoft Word - will be more open to considering a non-Apple laptop, or not fighting so hard to get a MacBook from work next time around. Both companies ceded control of their interface with their customers.

Usually companies are very eager to copy Apple and Google's every move. This is one situation where instead there is an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Interfaces with customers are not costs to be trimmed; instead, they can be a point of differentiation. Treat them as such.


Image by Austin Neill via Unsplash


  1. Yes yes, except for the Air.