Showing all posts tagged apple:

App Stores & Missing Perspectives

In Apple-watching circles, there has long been some significant frustration about Apple's App Store policies. Whether it's the opaque approvals process, the swingeing 30% cut that Apple takes out of any purchase, or the restrictions on what types of apps and pricing models are even allowed, developers are not happy.

It was not always this way: when the iPhone first launched, there was no App Store. Everying was supposed to be done with web apps. Developers being developers, people quickly worked out how to "jailbreak" their iPhones to install their own apps, and a thriving unofficial marketplace for apps sprang up. Apple, seeing this development taking place out of their control, relented and launched an official App Store. The benefit of the App Store was that it would do everything for developers: hosting, payment process, a searchable catalogue, everything. Remember, the App Store launched in 2008, when all of that was quite a bit harder than it is today, and would have required developers to make up-front investments before even knowing whether their apps would take off — without even thinking about free apps.

With the addition of in-app purchase (IAP) the next year, and subscriptions a couple of years after that, most of the ingredients were in place for the App Store as we know it today. The App Store was a massive success, trumpeted by Apple at every opportunity. In January, Apple said that it paid developers $60 billion in 2021, and $260 billion since the App Store launched in 2008. Apple also reduced its cut from 30% to 15%, initially for the second year of subscriptions, but later for any developer making less than $1M per year in the App Store.

What's Not To Like?

This all sounds very fine, but developers are up in arms over Apple's perceived high-handed or even downright rapacious behaviour when it comes to the App Store. Particular sticking points are requirements that apps in the App Store use only Apple's payment system, and that IAP be used for any digital experience offered to groups of people. The first requirement touched off a lawsuit from Epic, who basically wanted to have their own private store for in-game purchases, and the second resulted in some bad press early in the pandemic when Apple started chasing fitness instructors who were providing remote classes while they were unable to offer face-to-face sessions.

The bottom line is that many of these transactions simply do not have a 30% margin in the first place, let alone the ability to still make any profit after giving Apple a 30% (or even a 15%) cut. This might seem to be a problem for developers, but not really for anyone else — but what gave this issue resonance beyond the narrow market of iOS developers is that the world has moved on since 2008.

Hosting an app and setting up payment for it is easy and cheap these days, thanks to the likes of AWS and Stripe. Meanwhile, App Store review is capricious, while also allowing through all sorts of scams, generally based on subscriptions — what is becoming known as fleeceware.

The long and the short of it is that public opinion has shifted against Apple, with proceedings not just in the US, but in Korea, Japan, and the Netherlands too. Apple are being, well, Apple, and refusing to budge except in the most minor and grudging ways.

Here is my concern, though: this situation is being looked at as a simple conflict between Apple and developers. In all the brouhaha, nobody ever mentions another very important perspective: what do users want?

Won't Somebody Think Of The Users?

Developers rightly point out that the $260B that Apple trumpeted having paid them was money generated by their apps, not Apple's generosity, and that a big part of the reason users buy Apple's devices is the apps in the App Store. However, that money was originally paid by users, and we also have opinions about how the App Store should work for our needs and purposes.

First of all, I want all of the things that developers hate. I want Apple's App Store to be the only way of getting apps on iPhones, I want all subscriptions to be in the App Store, and I want Apple's IAP to be the only payment method. These are the factors that make users confident in downloading apps in the first place! Back when I had a Windows machine, it was just accepted that every twelve months or so, you'd have to blow away your operating system and reinstall it from scratch. Even if you were careful and avoided outright malware, bloat and cruft would take over and slow everything to a crawl — and good luck ever removing anything. Imagine a garden that you weed with a flamethrower.

The moment Apple relaxed any of the restrictions on app installation and payment, shady developers would stampede through — led by Epic and Facebook, who both have form when it comes to dodgy sideloading. It doesn't matter what sort of warnings Apple put into iOS; if that were to become how people get their Fortnight or their WhatsApp, they would tap through any number of dialogues without reading them, just as fast as they can tap. And once that happens, all bets are off. Subscriptions to Epic's games or to whatever dodgy thing in Facebook's platform would not be visible in users' App Store profiles, making it all too easy for money to be drained out, through forgetfulness and invisibility if not outright scams.

Other Examples: The Mac

People sometimes bring up the topic of the Mac App Store, which operates along the same notional lines as the iOS (and iPadOS) App Store, but without the same problems. The Mac App Store is actually a great example, but not for the reasons its proponents think. On the Mac, side-loading — deploying apps without going through the Mac App Store — is very much a thing, and in fact it is a much bigger delivery channel than the Mac App Store itself. The problem is that it is also correspondingly harder to figure out what is running on a Mac, or to remove every trace of an app that the user no longer wants. It's nowhere near as bad as Windows, to be clear, but it's also not as clean-cut as iOS, where deleting an app's icon means that app is gone, no question about it.

On the Mac, technical users have all sorts of tools to manage this situation, and that extra flexibility also has many other benefits, making the Mac a much more capable platform than iOS (and iPadOS — sigh). But many more people own iPhones and iPads than own Macs, and they are comfortable using those devices precisely because of the sandboxed1 nature of the experience. My own mother, who used to invite me to lunch and then casually mention that she had a couple of things she needed me to do on the computer, is fully independent on her iPad, down to and including updates to the operating system. This is because the lack of accessible complexity gives her confidence that she can't mess something up by accident.

More Examples: Google

Over the pandemic, I have had the experience of comparing Google's and Apple's family controls, as my kids have required their own devices for the first time for remote schooling. We have a new Chromebook and some assorted handed-down iPads and iPhones (without SIM cards). The Google controls are ridiculously coarse-grained and easily bypassed — that is, when they are not actively conflicting with each other: disabling access to YouTube breaks the Google login flow… In contrast, Apple lets me be extremely granular in what is allowed, when it is allowed, and for how long. Once again, this is possible because of Apple's end-to-end control: I can see what apps are associated with each kid's account, and approve or decline them, enforce limits, and so on. I don't want to have to worry that they will subscribe to a TikTok creator or something, outside the App Store, and drain my credit card, possibly with no way to cancel or get a refund.

What Now?

Good developers like Marco Arment want to build a closer relationship with customers and manage that process themselves. I do trust Marco to use those tools ethically — but I don't trust Mark Zuckerberg with the same tools, and this is an all-or-nothing decision. If it's the price it takes to keep Mark Zuckerberg out of my business, then I'd rather have the status quo.

All of that said, I do think Apple are making things harder on themselves. Their unbending attitude in the face of developers' complaints is not serving them well, whether in the court of public opinion or in the court of law. I do hope that someone at Apple can figure out a way to give enough to developers to reduce the noise — cut the App Store take, make app review more transparent, enable more pricing models, perhaps even refunds with more developer input, whatever it takes. There are also areas where the interests of developers and users are perfectly aligned: search ads in the App Store are gross, especially when they are allowed against actual app names. It's one thing (albeit still icky) to allow developers to pay to increase their ranking against generic terms, like "podcast player"; it's quite another to allow competing podcast players to advertise against each other by name. Nobody is served by that.

If Apple does not clear up this mess themselves, the risk is that lawmakers will attempt to clear it up for them. This could go wrong in so many ways, whether it's specific bad policies (sideloading enforced by law), or a patchwork of different regulations around the world, further balcanising the experience of users based on where they happen to live.

Everyone — Apple, developers, and users — want these platforms to (continue to) succeed. For that to happen, Apple and developers need to talk — and users' concerns must be heard too.


🖼️ Photos by Neil Soni on Unsplash


  1. Yes, I am fully aware that the sandboxing is at the OS level and technically not affected by any App Store changes, but it's part of a continuum of experience, and I would rather not rely on the last line of defence in the OS; I would prefer a continuum between the OS and the App Store to give me joined-up management. In fact, I would like the integration to go even further, such that if I delete an app that has an active subscription, iOS prompts me to cancel the subscription too. 

Spending Tim Cook's Money

Mark Gurman has had many scoops in his time covering Apple, and they have led him to a perch at Bloomberg that includes a weekly opinion column. This week's column is about how Apple is losing the home, and it struck a chord with me for a few reasons.

First of all, we have to get one thing out of the way. There is a long and inglorious history of pundits crying that Apple must make some particular device or risk ultimate doom. I mean, Apple must be just livid at missing out on that attractive netbook market, right? Oh right, no, that whole market went away, and Apple is doing just fine selling MacBook Airs and iPads.

That said, the reason this particular issue struck home is that I have been trying to get stuff done around the house, and really felt the absence of what feel like some obvious gap-filling devices from Apple. As long as we are spending Tim Cook's money, here are some suggestions of my own — and no, there are no U2 albums on this list!

Can You See Me Now?

FaceTime is amazing, it is by far the most pleasant video-chat software to use. Adding Center Stage on the iPad Pro makes it even better. It has the potential to be a game-changer for group calls — not the Zoom calls where each person is in their own box, but calls where several people are in one place, trying to talk to several people in another place. Examples are families with the kids lined up on the couch, or trying to play board or card games with distant friends. What I really want in those situations is a TV-size screen, but the Apple TV doesn't support any sort of camera. Yes, you can sort of fudge it by mirroring the screen of a smaller device onto the TV via AirPlay, but it's a mess and still doesn't work right. In particular, your eye is still drawn to the motion on the smaller screen, plus you have to find a perch for the smaller device somewhere close enough to the TV that you are "looking at" the people on the other end.

What I want is a good camera, at least HD if not 4k, that can perch somewhere around the TV screen and talk to the AppleTV directly so that we can do a FaceTime call from the biggest screen in the house. Ideally, this device would also support Center Stage so that it could focus in on the speaker. In reverse, the AppleTV should be able to use positional audio to make the voice of speakers on the far end come from the right place in your sound stage.

Can You Hear Me?

This leads me to the next question: I have dropped increasingly less subtle hints about getting a Home Pod Mini for Christmas, but if people decide against that (some people just don't like buying technology as a gift), I will probably buy at least one for myself. However, the existence of a Home Pod Mini implies the existence of Home Pod Regular and perhaps even a Home Pod Pro — but since the killing of the original-no-qualifiers Home Pod, the Mini is the only product in its family. Big speakers are one of those things that are worth spending money on in my opinion, but Apple simply does not want to take my money in this regard. Maybe they have one in the pipeline for 2022 and I will regret buying the Mini, but right now I can only talk about what's in the current line-up.

Me, I Disconnect From You

This lack of interest in speakers intersects with the same disinterest when it comes to wifi. I loved my old AirPort base station, and the only reason I retired it is that I wanted a mesh network that had some more sophisticated management options. If we are going to put wifi-connected smart speakers all over our homes, why not make them also act as repeaters of that same wifi signal? And they should also work as AirPlay receivers for external, passive speakers, for people who already have good speakers and just want them to be smart.

People Have Families

These additions to Apple's line-up would do a lot more to help Apple "win the home" than Mark Gurman's suggestion of a big static iPad that lives in the kitchen. Apart from the cost of such a thing, it would also require Apple to think much more seriously about multi-user capabilities than they ever have with i(Pad)OS, so that the screen recognises me and shows me my reminders, not my wife's.

Something Apple could do today in the multi-user space is to improve CarPlay. My iPhone remembers where I parked my car and puts a pin in the map. This is actually useful, because (especially these days) I drive my car infrequently enough that I often genuinely do have to think for a moment about where I left it. Sometimes though I drive my wife's car, and then it helpfully updates that "parked car" pin, over-writing the location where I parked my car with the last location of my wife's car — which is generally the garage under the building we live in… The iPhone knows that they are two different cars and lets me maintain car-specific preferences; it just doesn't track them separately in Maps. As long as we are wishing, it would be even better if, when my wife drives her car and leaves it somewhere, if the pin could update in my phone too, since we are all members of the same iCloud Family.

This would be a first step to a better understanding of families and other units of multiple people who share (some) devices, and the sorts of features that they require.


🖼️ Photo by Howard Bouchevereau on Unsplash

Lessons in Hiring

Some of the most insightful and succinct commentary on the whole Antonio Garcìa Martìnez debacle comes from an ungulate with a Classic Mac for a head:

the Macalope believes Apple should not have hired García Martínez only to fire him. He believe it never should have hired him in the first place.

I'm not going to go over all of the many (many, many) red flags about this person's opinions that should have at the very least triggered some additional scrutiny before hiring him. The reaction from Apple employees was entirely predictable and correct. Even if the misogynistic opinions expressed in his public writing were exaggerated for effect, as he now claims, there would always be a question mark around his interactions with female employees or those from minority backgrounds. At the very least, that would be enormously disruptive to the organisation.

Leaving that aspect aside for a moment: even if this had been someone with the most milquetoast opinions possible (and no NYT bestselling book in which to trumpet them), it's still not great that Apple was looking for someone with his specific professional experience — honed at Facebook.

This particular hire blew up in Apple's face — but it's extremely concerning for Apple users that they were actively recruiting for this type of experience in the first place.

I'll lay my cards on the table: I dislike the idea of search ads as a category, especially in the App Store. We can argue the merits of allowing apps to "jump the queue" of results for generic searches, but as it is today, you can buy yourself into a position ahead of your competitor even for direct searches on that competitor app's name. Where is the value to users in that?

Display ads in Apple News or Stocks, which are the other two Apple properties discussed, might be acceptable — as long as they are not too intrusive. I don't have as much of a philosophical issue as some do with Apple using first-party tracking data within iOS, precisely because those data are not available to other parties or to other platforms. It's easy to opt out of Apple's tracking, simply by not using those apps, and ads from there won't follow me around the rest of the web.

The lesson I hope that Apple takes away from this whole situation is not "don't hire people with big public profiles" but "users really hate sleazy adtech". I would hate for Apple to go the way of YouTube, which is becoming unusable due to ad load. I understand that Apple is trying to boost its Services revenue, and App Store search ads are a way to do that, but if it makes my user experience worse, that's a problem. Apple products command a premium in large part because of how nice they are for users; anything that undermines that niceness weakens the rationale for staying in the Apple camp.

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.