Showing all posts tagged iphone:

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.

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. 

Living in the Future

So far this week my phone got me on a plane:

Around London by Tube and train:

Got me coffee, dinner and some light shopping:

Let me summon a car to my exact location, and pay for the trip:

Oh, and I wrote and published this blog post on my phone.

And I think I also made some phone calls, all while keeping on top of email, using social media, reading books and magazines, listening to music and podcasts, and finding my way around.

Tell me again how phones are overpriced and boring? 🤔


You may have noticed that none of those images are of my actual phone, or of my own boarding passes and credit cards. That is because I am not a complete idiot. Yes, people really do post pictures of those online. No, it is very much not a good idea.

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. 

Talkin' Bout a Revolution

Once again, the seemingly unkillable idea of modular phones rears its misshapen head.

The first offender is VentureBeat, with a breathless piece entitled The dream of Ara: Inside the rise and fall of the world’s most revolutionary phone.

record scratch

Let me stop you right there, VentureBeat. Ara is not a "revolutionary phone" at all, let alone "the world's most revolutionary phone", for the very good and sufficient reason that Project Ara never got around to shipping an actual phone before it was ignominiously shut down.

"Most ambitious phone design", maybe. I’d also settle for "most misguided", but that would be a different article. Whatever Ara was, it was not “revolutionary", because otherwise we would all be using modular phones. Even the most watered-down version of that idea, LG’s expandable G5 phone design, is now dead - although in their defence, at least LG did actually ship a product somewhat successfully.

Now Andy Rubin, creator of Android, is back in the news, with plans for a new phone… which sounds like it may well be modular:

It's expected to include […] the ability to gain new hardware features over time

This is a bold bet, and Andy Rubin certainly knows more about the mobile phone market than I do - but here’s why I don’t think a modular phone is the way to go.

Take a Step Back - No, Further Back

The reason I was sceptical about Project Ara’s chances from the beginning goes back to Clayton Christensen’s Disruption Theory. I have written about disruption theory before, so I won’t go into too much length about it here, but basically disruption states that in a fast-developing market, integrated products win because they can take advantage of rapid advances in the field. Vice versa, in a mature market products win by modularising, providing specific features with specific benefits or at a lower cost than the integrated solutions can deliver.

Disruption happens when innovation slows down because further innovation requires more resources than consumers are willing to invest. In this scenario, incumbent vendors continue to chase diminishing returns at the top of the market, only to find themselves undercut by modular competitors delivering "good enough" products. Over time, the modular products eat up the bulk of the market, leaving the ex-incumbents high and dry.

If you assume that the mobile phone market is mature and all development is just mopping up at the edges, then maybe a modular strategy makes sense, allowing consumers to start with a "good enough" basic phone and pick and choose the features most important to them, upgrading individual functionality over time. However, if the mobile phone market is still advancing rapidly and consumers still see the benefit from each round of improvements, then fundamental upgrades will happen frequently enough that integrated solutions will still have the advantage.

Some of the tech press seem to be convinced that we have reached the End of History in mobile technology. Last year’s iPhone 7 launch was the epitome of this view, with the consensus being that because the outside of the phone had not changed significantly compared to the previous generation, there was therefore no significant change to talk about.

The actual benchmarks tell a different story. The iPhone 7 is not only nearly a third faster than the previous generation of iPhone across the board, it also compares favourably to a 2013 MacBook Pro.

That type of year-over-year improvement is not the mark of a market that is ripe for modular disruption.

What Do Users Say?

The other question, beyond technical suitability, is whether users would consider a product like Project Ara, or LG’s expandable architecture. The answer, at least according to LG’s experience, is a resounding NO:

An LG spokesperson commented that consumers aren’t interested in modular phones. The company instead is planning to focus on functionality and design aspects

Consumers do not see significant benefits from the increase in complication that modularisation brings, preferring instead to upgrade the entire handset every couple of years, at which point every single component will be substantially better.

And that is why the mobile phone market is not ready for a modular product, instead preferring integrated ones. If every component in the phone needs to be upgraded anyway, modularisation brings no benefit; it’s an overhead at best, and a liability at worst, if modules can become unseated and get lost or cause software instability.

At some point the mobile phone market will probably be disrupted - but I doubt it will be done through a modularised hardware solution in the vein of Project Ara. Instead, I would expect modularisation to take place with more and more functionality being handed off to a cloud-based back-end. In this model, the handset will lose many of its independent capabilities, and revert to being what the telephone has been for most of its history: a dumb terminal connected to a smart network.

But we’re not there yet.


Images by Pavan Trikutam and Ian Robinson via Unsplash

Updating the Car

As I mentioned in my one-year review of my car, the one aftermarket upgrade I made was to swap the rather dated factory ICE for a CarPlay head unit. That modification is itself now about a year into its service, so it is also about due a review.

The reason for the upgrade is that the factory PCM 2.1 unit was really showing its age, with no USB, Bluetooth, or even Aux-in. In other words, Porsche were way ahead of Apple in removing the headphone jack… Courage!

This meant it was not possible to connect my phone to the car. Instead, I had a second SIM card which lived in the dash itself, and a curly-cord handset in the armrest between the front seats. Very retro, but not the most practical solution.

The worst part, though, was the near decade-old maps. While we do have some roads around here that are a couple of thousand years old, lots of them are quite a bit newer, and even on the Roman roads, it’s important to know about one-way systems and traffic restrictions.

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My solution for these problems was to swap the PCM 2.1 system for a head unit that is basically just a dumb screen driven by an iPhone, with no functionality of its own beyond a FM tuner. The reason is that I change phones much more frequently than I change cars, and upgrade the software on my phone more frequently than that.

The specific device is an Alpine ILX-007, and I am quite satisfied with it. It has a decent screen, which seems to be one of the key complaints people have about other CarPlay systems. There is occasionally a little lag, but I assume that’s software rather than hardware, since it’s not reproducible. It did crash on me once, losing my radio presets, but that’s it.

Upgrades

Adding this system to my car has been a substantial upgrade. I have all my music, podcasts and so on immediately available, I can make phone calls, and there is even a dedicated button to talk to Siri. I use this a lot to add reminders to myself while driving, as well as obvious stuff like calling people.

Siri also reads messages that come in while the phone is in CarPlay mode, which is occasionally hilarious when she tries to read something written in a language other than English. On the other hand Siri handles emoji pretty well, reading their name (e.g. "face blowing kisses"), which is very effective at getting the meaning across - although it’s a bit disconcerting the first time it happens!

Contrary to my early fears about CarPlay, it works perfectly with my steering-wheel controls too, so ergonomics are great.

The main win though is that my in-car entertainment now benefits from iOS upgrades in a big way. In particular, iOS 10 brings a redesigned Music screen and a major update to Maps.

Show me around

The Music screen used to have five tabs, which is way too many to navigate while driving. The new version has three tabs, and is generally much clearer to use. I don’t use Apple Music, and one of the things that I hated about the old version was that it would default to the Apple Music tab. The biggest reason why I don’t use streaming services like Apple Music is that the only time I really get to listen to music is while I’m out and about. That means either in aeroplanes, where connectivity is generally entirely absent, or in the car, where it is unreliable and expensive. Therefore, I only listen to music stored locally on my phone, but I had to switch away each and every time I launched the Music app. iOS 10 fixes that.

The biggest change iOS 10 brings to the CarPlay experience is to Maps. Many people have pointed out that Maps will now add a waypoint when the iPhone is disconnected from the car, so that drivers can easily retrace their steps to their parked car. I have to admit that I have never lost my car, but it’s good to know that it’s, say, ten minutes’ walk away when it’s raining.

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There are also updated graphics, which are much clearer to read in a hurry. These are not just limited to pretty icons, though; there is actual improved functionality. Previously, users had to switch manually between separate Overview and Detail modes. Annoyingly, there was a significant gap between the greatest zoom on Overview and the widest area on Detail. Also, Detail did not include traffic alerts, while Overview by default showed the entire route, not just currently relevant parts, so a typical journey required a fair amount of switching back and forth between modes.

The new Maps zooms gradually over the course of the journey, always showing current position near one edge of the screen and destination near another edge. This is much more useful, allowing the driver to focus on alerts that are coming up rather than being distracted by ones that are already passed. There is also more intelligence about proposing alternate routes around congestion.

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And yes, Maps works perfectly well for me, thank you. I would probably use it anyway given that, as the system-level mapping service, it plugs into everything, so I can quickly get directions to my next appointment from the calendar or go to a contact’s home or office address. The search could still be better, requiring very precise phrasing, but contrary to Maps’ reputation out there, landmarks generally exist and are in the correct place.

I am on record as an Apple Maps fan even in the early days, and it’s improved enormously since then. Don’t believe the hype, give it a go.

The integration is a big deal, as I saw last Wednesday. I was supposed to meet a colleague out and about, so I used Messages to send him my current location. To be extra sure, I chose the actual restaurant I was in, rather than just my GPS location. All my colleague needed to do was to tap on the location in the chat to be routed to my location. Unfortunately, he is one of those who prefer Google Maps, so he eyeballed the pin location and entered that in Google Maps. Unfortunately for him, the location he eyeballed turned out to correspond to a chain, and Google in its eagerness to give a result (any result) gave him the location of the nearest branch of that chain, rather than the specific location I was near.

It all worked out in the end, after a half-hour detour and a second taxi trip…

Trust the system, it works.

The System Works

This is exactly why I got a CarPlay unit in the first place: so I would get updates in the car more frequently than every few years when I get a whole new car. So far, that’s working out just perfectly. The iOS 10 upgrade cleaned up some annoyances and added convenient new features without requiring me to rip out all my dashboard wiring. I won’t consider another car without CarPlay support.

Dinosaurs Evolving

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Right now, basically the entire Internet is having a massive collective tantrum over the fact that Apple dropped the headphone jack from the newest iPhone. This, despite the fact that (in a very un-Apple move) the box includes both a Lightning-to-TRS audio jack adapter, and a pair of EarPods with a Lightning connector.

Speaking for myself, I already specced out the iPhone I want, but I’m just waiting to pick it up when I go to San Francisco next month. Some times, geo restrictions actually work in my favour, as even with SF sales tax, the US price is a couple of hundred Euros cheaper than my local price. EarPods don’t fit my ears (which also means the new AirPods are out), so I’ll use the adapter while I look for W1 wireless earphones that I like.

The hysteria over the whole thing reminded me of a situation that is the exact opposite, one where an “obsolete" standard keeps soldiering on, despite repeated attempts to kill it or just declare it dead by fiat.

I am of course referring to email1.

A bit of history

To recap, everything started back in those tie-died days of 1965. This was not yet email as we know it, however; even the @-sign was not added until 1971, although for a while there things like bang paths were viable alternatives.

In those days the Internet in general and email specifically were still things that only academics and governments used. However, in September of 1993 - the September that never ended - Arpanet was opened up to the public, becoming the Internet2. It didn’t take long for the whole thing to degenerate into the wretched hive of scum and villainy that we know and love today.

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So why did email survive the transition to the Internet, when many other protocols, including beloved ones like Usenet, withered and died? And why are people still trying to kill it now, with the likes of Slack or Cisco Spark or Microsoft's Yammer or Salesforce Chatter or whatever?

The key thing about email is that it is extremely simple. If you want (and if you can still find an SMTP server that does not require authentication), you can still send email from the command line in just a couple of lines.

 > telnet mail.domain.ext 25

 Trying ???.???.???.???...

 Connected to mail.domain.ext.

 Escape character is '^]'.

 220 mail.domain.ext ESMTP Sendmail ?version-number?; ?date+time+gmtoffset?

 > HELO local.domain.name

 250 mail.domain.ext Hello local.domain.name [loc.al.i.p], pleased to meet you

 > MAIL FROM: mail@domain.ext

 250 2.1.0 mail@domain.ext... Sender ok

 > RCPT TO: mail@otherdomain.ext

 250 2.1.0 mail@otherdomain.ext... Recipient ok

 > DATA

 > Subject: This is a subject

 >

 > This is the body of the email

 > .

 250 2.0.0 ???????? Message accepted for delivery

 > QUIT

 221 2.0.0 mail.domain.ext closing connection

 Connection closed by foreign host.

Try that with Chatter.

Of course nobody would do that except for a stunt - but this is what is going on in the background of every mail client you would actually use on a regular basis. The simplicity of this protocol means that anyone can implement their own tool, offering specific capabilities. Email clients can be arbitrarily simple or complex, and anyone can choose one that suits their own requirements.

Email is email is email

One of the consequences of that simplicity is universality and flexibility. Anyone using email can communicate with anyone else, regardless of what client or server software they are using. Email is email is email.

In contrast, most would-be email killers are walled gardens, consisting of a service that is tightly integrated with its client app and does not allow third-party clients. This makes it much harder for innovation to happen, because there is only one provider, and they deliver only the functionality that they want and can build. If you want a feature to be added to Slack, you can’t build your own Slack client; you have to petition Slack to do it, and they choose whether to implement that feature or not.

Even now, more than fifty years into the age of email, there is constant experimentation, with new email clients popping up all the time. Right now I am using one called Notion, which implements all sorts of gestures to triage your inbox. You can “star" messages, file them, and even snooze them so that they go away but come back to your inbox later. Even in the simplest clients, you still have the option to read something and then mark it as unread so that you don’t forget about it.

Try snoozing a notification from Facebook Messenger, or marking a WhatsApp message as unread to return to it later. Can’t be done.

You don’t need a fancy client, either. There are a ton of features built right into the protocol. Think of the concise power of the CC and BCC headers, or the simple “forward" action. With CC (“carbon copy", a coelacanth term surviving from a previous age of office technology) you can make people aware of a conversation, while also making it clear that they are being informed but are not expected to take action. BCC (“blind carbon copy") lets you send a message without making each participant aware of all of the others, so you can let your boss see the email you sent without the recipients seeing their name. BCC should also be used by anyone sending mass emails, to avoid disclosing the entire recipient list to every recipient, but people regularly forget - with hilarious consequences.

In contrast, chat systems are symmetrical. You can add people to a group chat, but it’s a flat hierarchy; no question of someone being informed as opposed to an active participant, or a silent observer. Forwarding a message with its context is also usually impossible. Sure, you can easily copy the text, but not the group participants and so on. Email’s simplicity make all of these features universal, independent of the generosity of one particular developer.

Email just won’t die

Email is unkillable because it provides substantial utility, and it is easy for people to build additional value on top of a common standard. In other words, if it's a dinosaur, it's the sort that didn't get killed by an asteroid, but instead grew feathers and is still around today.

The old TRS audio jack has only ubiquity in its favour. It does not offer any particular functionality; the TRRRS extended spec that lets in-line remotes work is a horrible hack, and it’s kind of surprising that it works as well as it does.

Also, most iPhone users just use the EarPods they get with their device, so I would not have been surprised if, absent the media firestorm and rending of vestments, people would have just used the Lightning EarPods and not even have noticed the change.

And if you feel that strongly about it, use the adapter that Apple puts right in the box.

Who wants to bet that inside of two years, all the major Android manufactures offer phones with audio over Micro USB or something similar, instead of TRS? Some vendors already do…


  1. Yes, I have given up on calling it “e-mail", although I still think that is more correct. 

  2. An internet, the Internet. Come at me. 

Head in the Vapour

In news which should surprise absolutely nobody, Google - I mean, Alphabet - have killed their ridiculous “Project Ara" modular phone.

Here’s why this was a stupid idea from the beginning. Description from the Project ARA homepage:

The Ara frame is built with durable latches and connectors to keep modules secured. Ara modules are designed around standards, allowing them to work with new generations of frames and new form factors.

All of that means bulk - increased size and weight. Also, you’re still going to be constrained by what can fit on that chassis; there would be a spot where you could fit a camera, but if you want a bigger camera or don’t want a camera at all, this architecture doesn’t help you. It also sounds fragile, with many points of failure. These modules could easily become dislodged in your pocket, so you pull your phone out to take a picture and realise that you need to reconnect the camera module to the phone, but now the OS doesn’t recognise it, so you have to do a hard reboot - and now the sun has set or the child has run off, and you have a handful of modules and nobody to throw them at.

The real problem, though, is the goal of this project. The only attraction of modular systems is if you are going to upgrade components piecemeal: instead of buying an entire new phone every 18 months or whatever your replacement cycle is, you can judiciously upgrade just the screen or add a fingerprint reader or an NFC antenna, or so the theory goes.

In practice, nobody wants to do that. First of all, even on desktop systems where the bulk and weight are less of a factor, the market has moved decisively towards fully integrated all-in-one systems. People have voted with their pocketbooks for integrated convenience over flexible modularity. And that's in static desktop applications. When we’re talking about something people carry around all day, bulk and weight are an even bigger factor.

Secondly, most upgrades require many systems to be upgraded at once - at which point you might as well just buy a new phone anyway. This isn’t PC gaming, where you can get measurable benefits from upgrading your video card. Mobile phone hardware is still evolving far more rapidly than desktop hardware, and the benefits of full integration far outweigh the benefits of modularity.

We used to talk about the notion of a Personal Area Network, back when meaningful computing power was too heavy to hold in one hand. The idea was that you would carry a PC in a backpack, and a screen in your hand, an earpiece in your ear, maybe something like Google Glass, and so on. By the time the tech would have been there to enable that vision, it was already obsolete, because you can hold more computing power than you can use in the palm of your hand.

We may get back to that vision if wearables take off in a meaningful way, but the idea of modularising the phone itself was a pointless detour.

What it is, is typical Google - I mean Alphabet. Announce some random blue-sky project, let nerds everywhere geek out on how it could work without ever considering whether it should be done in the first place, and then kill it off once it hits the real world. The annoying thing is that Google actually gets credit for doing this over and over again, instead of ridicule for not thinking things through. Yes yes, fail fast and let a thousand flowers bloom and all that, but some adult oversight in the planning phases would not go amiss.

I forget who initially suggested the position of VP of Nope, but I think Google needs one. The idea is that this is an exec, senior enough that they have to be taken seriously, who just sits in the back of the room, and when someone proposes something obviously idiotic, they just clear their throat and say “nope". Their salary would be very well earned.


UPDATE: Just noticed that John Gruber pointed out back in 2014 that the emperor had no clothes, and before that in 2013:

you’d still be throwing out old components on a regular basis, and the march of progress is such that it won’t take long until your base board is outdated too.

Exactly.


Images from the Project ARA homepage while it lasts.

Quick Text Shortcuts

I tend to assume that things I know are obvious and widely known, and so I don’t often bother to document them. However, I noticed that a couple of different people did not know this particular very useful trick, so I thought I would share it here for anyone else who might find it useful.

The trick (I refuse to call it a “hack", or even worse, a “life hack") is useful if you often need to type the same snippets of text on an Apple device, whether it’s an iPhone, an iPad, or a Mac. You can do this using only built-in tools from Apple, with no need to install additional components or mess with anything under the hood.

On a Mac, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Text. Here you can create the shortcuts that will be useful to you. You should have one defined already, which replaces “omw" with “On my way!".

Simply click the + button at the bottom of the window to add your own snippets. I have a couple for my phone number and email address, so that I can simply type “mynum" or “mygmail" to have those appear, with no fear of typos.

This is of course even more useful on an iPhone, where the small keyboard can make it frustrating to type when you can’t rely on autocorrect - and doubly frustrating to type phone numbers in the middle of other text. On an iPhone (or an iPad), go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Text Replacement, and then tap the + to enter your own snippets.

The cherry on the cake of usefulness is that the text snippets will sync over iCloud, so any snippets you set up on one of your devices should be available on all your other devices too.

Enjoy!

Apple Bottom Drawer

There has been a long-running complaint that equipping the entry-level iPhone with only 16GB of storage is not only cheap, but wrong-headed because owners will have a bad user experience. Most of the time, the example people bring up is operating system upgrades, with people forced to stay on older iOS releases because they don’t have enough free space to perform the upgrade1.

As per their usual tight-lipped policy, Apple has not said anything about precisely why it is that they continue to keep the 16GB models around. The general assumption has been that the idea is to offer a (relatively) low entry price for the iPhone range to get as many people as possible through the door.

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Today, though, I overheard a conversation that illustrated a different reason why Apple might want to increase the storage in that bottom-tier device sooner rather than later. Someone recommended an album, someone else searched for it on iTunes, hit “Buy" - and was told that they did not have enough space. When storage limits are preventing sales, this is a problem.

One obvious quibble would be to ask how many owners of entry-level devices spend significant sums in the iTunes Store (or would do if they had the free space available). This overlooks the fact that these days, a significant number of iPhones are actually corporate-owned or at least -funded. Because the owner is not the user, it is not possible to infer the user’s purchasing power or willingness based on the device they have. Companies may well opt for limited storage because that’s all that is required for work purposes, even though employees would be willing to fill additional space with personal data, given the chance.

Bottom line: it’s high time for the bottom storage tier to move up to 32GB. I would also argue that when they do this, Apple should eat the difference and not raise prices, because their margin is big enough and the parts cost is so small. The improvement in user experience would pay for itself in Tim Cook’s beloved “customer sat", without even allowing for increased revenue per user (ARPU) as people are able and willing to fill up some of that free space.


  1. Yes, I know that you can also upgrade by plugging into iTunes without needing the free space, but these days, many iPhone owners don’t come from the iPod experience and would not necessarily think of that. Many of them in fact don’t even have iTunes installed, or may not even own a PC or Mac in the first place. 

Problems that only affect me

It seems that iOS 8.3 changed something in the way multiple keyboards are handled. If you don't know, you can add keyboards to iOS from Settings > General > Keyboard. This is worth doing even if you only type in one language, because it's how you get access to the Emoji keyboard. Enabling multiple keyboards adds a little "globe" key between the numlock and dictation keys:

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Simply tap that "globe" key once to switch to the next keyboard in the list, or hold it to see a menu and select the keyboard you want.

The advantage of having multiple keyboards is that it enables predictive text to work in other languages. It also allows you to choose alternative layouts, e.g. AZERTY for French, QWERTZ for German, or QZERTY for Italian - but I find that confuses me more. Luckily, iOS lets you set all keyboards to use QWERTY.

Now, here's the problem. Before 8.3, if you had a primary keyboard (generally corresponding to your locale), you could switch to another language to type some text. The next time you hit the key, as long as it was within a reasonably short period of time, it would switch you back to your default keyboard. This is great for me, as I type mainly in English, but switch to other languages several times a day.

With 8.3 this behaviour has gone, and the "globe" key always switches to the next keyboard in the list.

This change is probably invisible to almost everyone, and only a minor irritant for those few of us who use multiple input languages frequently, but it is surprisingly annoying when you are used to the old way of things.

I can even understand the rationale, as I have seen people get confused by why the switcher would sometimes go to the next keyboard but at other times revert to the default - but the solution there is to give us preference settings to disable the behaviour entirely or change its timeout. I don't even mind if it's turned off by default, as long as I can turn it back on - but that's not the Apple way.

Sigh.