‘Apple May Not Have a Choice but to Release a Watch’ 

Matt Asay, writing for ReadWrite back in February 2013:

Apple is reportedly developing a smart watch made from curved glass. Does it really have a choice? With iPhone sales stalling, the Cupertino innovator is in desperate need of another hit product, and not just any product: Apple needs something that consumers will refresh every 12 to 18 months.

In desperate need. Desperate. I’m surprised they made it this long.

‘Grass Mud Horse’ 

Craig Hockenberry, following up on a mysterious and overwhelming DDoS attack on Iconfactory’s web server originating in China:

In my first post about the attack from the Great Firewall of China, I stuck to the facts. There was a simple reason for this: you don’t want conjecture when your site is down. You want to understand the problem and see suggestions on how to fix it.

This post will be different: these are my opinions and they are pointed. I’ll first note some of the reactions I received, then examine some of the technical subtleties, and conclude with speculation on the motives behind the attack.

By time you finish, you’ll also understand the odd title for this post.

Bad Assumptions 

Great post by Ben Thompson on how Apple remains profoundly misunderstood by many:

And yet, the perception that Apple is somehow hanging on by the skin of their teeth persists. I was speaking to someone about Apple’s particularly excellent China results this afternoon, and was struck at how their questions were so focused on threats to Apple — “How will Apple respond to Xiaomi” for example. This is in stark contrast to the way most think about a company like Google, where their dominance in whatever field they choose to enter is assumed, just as Microsoft’s was a decade ago. Apple, though, is always a step away from catastrophe.

It’s difficult to overstate just how absurd this is, but here’s my best attempt: last quarter Apple’s revenue was downright decimated by the strengthening U.S. dollar; currency fluctuations reduced Apple’s revenue by 5% — a cool $3.73 billion dollars. That, though, is more than Google made in profit last quarter ($2.83 billion). Apple lost more money to currency fluctuations than Google makes in a quarter. And yet it’s Google that is feared, and Apple that is feared for.

His list of three wrong assumptions about Apple is so spot-on. Worth bookmarking. I’d venture to say that just about all wrong-headed analysis of Apple’s future prospects comes down to one or more of those assumptions. The only one I’d add to the list: Apple can’t innovate without Steve Jobs.

Apple and China 

Brian X. Chen, writing for the NYT:

The company on Tuesday reported $16.1 billion in revenue from “greater China” — which includes mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — in its first fiscal quarter, up 70 percent from the same period a year ago. Canalys, a research firm, estimates that Apple is now the No. 1 smartphone maker in China.

The conventional wisdom just two years ago was that Apple needed to create a low-priced iPhone — not just lower-priced but low-priced — to compete in “emerging markets” like China. That would be true if Apple were interested primarily in market share. But they’re not, never have been, and never will be interested primarily in unit sale market share. Far from hurting them, Apple’s commitment to the premium end of the phone market is helping them separate from the pack in China.

An aside, on Chen’s lead:

Apple is famous for setting trends.

In China, though, Apple has found success by following one.

For years, Apple rivals like Samsung offered large-screen smartphones. Although the bigger phones sold well in China, Apple held off on releasing a similar model, and the country remained a weak spot. But Apple introduced its own versions last September, and now the sales spigot is wide open.

There’s no question that Apple was a latecomer to the bigger-display phone game, and I think few would dispute that the iPhone 6 and especially 6 Plus display sizes played a primary role in this quarter’s breakout success in Asia. The Asian market prefers bigger phones. (From Tim Cook’s remarks on the analyst conference call: “There is clearly a geographic preference difference, where some geos would skew much higher on their preference to iPhone 6 Plus than other geos. So it’s something that’s not consistent around the world.”)

But China was far from a “weak spot” for Apple prior to the iPhones 6. In the year-ago quarter Apple had $8.8 billion in revenue in China, up from $6.8 billion the year before that.

The Most Profitable Quarter of Any Company Ever 

Greg Kumparak, writing for TechCrunch:

This page charts the past record holders. Until today, Russia’s Gazprom (the largest natural gas extractor in the world) held the record at $16.2 billion in a quarter.

Apple now holds the record: $18.04 billion in profit, fiscal Q1 of 2015.

Absolutely. Insane.

For reference, that means Apple makes around $8.3 million dollars per hour in profit (24 hours a day).

Of the current Top 20 record holding earners, 15 are Oil/Gas producers — primarily ExxonMobil and Shell. The other five are all Apple, over various quarters.

Who knows how long Apple’s ride at the top will last, but this is a moment worth savoring. A toast to the value of good design.

Yes, That Was Quite an ‘I Told You So’ Moment 

One more serving of AAPL stock price claim chowder. From a March 2013 piece for MarketWatch by Quentin Fottrell:

In 2010, when Apple stock was trading at $199, Edward Zabitsky, CEO of ACI Research in Toronto, was the only analyst on Wall Street to rate the stock a “sell.” Over the next two years, shares went on a tear, peaking at just over $705 and making Apple the world’s largest company as measured by stock-market value. Today, shares have fallen by more than a third from that high. Through it all, Zabitsky has stuck to his bearish call; and while he has since been joined by a couple other pros who have sell ratings on the stock, including Adnaan Ahmad at Berenberg Bank and Per Lindberg at ABG Sundal Collier, Zabitsky retains the distinction, and in some circles the notoriety, of having gotten there first.

We spoke to Zabitsky about his wins, mistakes and what he thinks Apple AAPL should do next.

You have a $270 price target. Is that still too pessimistic?

Zabitsky: It’s formally a one-year target, but in 3 to 6 months we’re going to see that play out. The reason I started to make noise was the rise of Samsung. If you say that now, it’s not challenged.

In 2013 pre-stock-split numbers, Apple’s stock is today trading at over $800.

Sometimes the Herd Is Correct 

James Stewart, writing for the NYT in Feb 2013, presuming that Apple’s late 2012 stock drop was inevitable and correct:

By November, with Apple stock in the midst of a precipitous decline, they were still bullish. Fifty of 57 analysts rated it a buy or strong buy; only two rated it a sell. Apple shares continued their plunge, and this week were trading at just over $450, down 36 percent from their peak.

How could professional analysts have gotten it so wrong?

As I type this, AAPL shares are trading at $115 after hours. Adjusted for last year’s 7-for-1 stock split, that’s $805/share. So those 2012 bulls look pretty smart.

It may be no coincidence that the only analyst who even came close to calling the peak in Apple’s stock runs his own firm and is compensated based on the accuracy of his calls. Carlo R. Besenius, founder and chief executive of Creative Global Investments, downgraded Apple to sell last Oct. 3, with shares trading at $685. In December, he lowered his price target to $420, and this week he told me he may drop it even further, to $320. […]

Mr. Besenius based his recommendation on technical factors — as Apple hit $700, its upward momentum and trading volume were slowing — as well as more fundamental concerns about product quality and innovation, as well as growing competition from rivals like Samsung. And there were more subjective factors. Mr. Besenius said he became uncomfortable with what he deemed Apple’s arrogance. “I loved Steve Jobs,” he said. “He built a great company. But he was one of the most arrogant C.E.O.’s I’ve ever met. The way he introduced new products was one big display of arrogance. He ridiculed Microsoft as ‘Micro who?’ That’s a good reason to be cautious. A little humility is a good thing.”

Brilliant analysis there. Steve Jobs was too arrogant in product introductions so the stock deserved to fall.

‘I Give Apple a Year Until They Cave’ 

Christopher Dawson, writing for ZDNet back in 2011, on the lack of Flash Player support in iOS:

Again, as Adobe representatives put it,

Video in particular is driving demand for the plugin, as people browsing the Web on their mobile phones “want to have access to the sort of content they’re used to being able to access,” says Adobe’s Anup Murarka, Director of Product Marketing

So when will Apple finally jump on the train? If Flash isn’t a universal standard, it’s about as close as you can get for web multimedia. […]

I give Apple a year until they cave. Android tablets will just be too cool and too useful for both entertainment and enterprise applications if they don’t.

YouTube announcing today that they’re now defaulting to HTML5 video feels like a good time to cash this one in.

YouTube Now Defaults to HTML5 Video 

Richard Leider, YouTube engineering manager:

Four years ago, we wrote about YouTube’s early support for the HTML5 <video> tag and how it performed compared to Flash. At the time, there were limitations that held it back from becoming our preferred platform for video delivery. Most critically, HTML5 lacked support for Adaptive Bitrate (ABR) that lets us show you more videos with less buffering.

Over the last four years, we’ve worked with browser vendors and the broader community to close those gaps, and now, YouTube uses HTML5 <video> by default in Chrome, IE 11, Safari 8 and in beta versions of Firefox.

Progress.

2013 iPhone Claim Chowder 

Remember back in 2013, when the conventional wisdom held that Apple needed to compete with Samsung on price, and then when the iPhone 5C was announced at $549 (off-contract) experts called it a mistake? Good times:

‘The bottom line for apple is that until they price match to compete with Samsung they are going to continue to fall in popularity,’ said George Charles from Vouchercodespro.

‘Consumers vote with their feet and you can have an all-singing-all-dancing, cook you dinner and say sweet things as you fall asleep phone, but punters will always, always go for the cheapest option.’

Apple today announced record-breaking unit sales and a higher average selling price for iPhones in the just-complete first fiscal quarter of 2015.

Six Colors on Apple’s Quarterly Results 

In a blowout quarter like this one, just about all the numbers look good. The one I’ll call your attention to is average selling price for iPhone, which is up significantly, despite the overall market trend being down, because the price to make a “good enough” smartphone for the low end of the market keeps dropping.

I see two clear reasons for iPhone ASP going up:

  1. The iPhone 6 Plus, which is in heavy demand and has a $100 higher price than the regular iPhone 6 and all previous new iPhones.

  2. The 16/64/128 GB storage tiering, which might be pushing people who would have bought a 32 GB iPhone 6 if it existed to spend the extra $100 for the mid-tier 64 GB model.

I still think selling 16 GB iPhones today is a mistake in the long-term, and from a branding perspective, but Apple might be laughing all the way to the bank on this.

See Also: Six Color’s transcript of Tim Cook’s prepared remarks and Q&A session on the analyst conference call. He says they’re on pace to begin shipping Apple Watch in April.

Apple Reports Record First Quarter Results 

Apple:

Apple today announced financial results for its fiscal 2015 first quarter ended December 27, 2014. The Company posted record quarterly revenue of $74.6 billion and record quarterly net profit of $18 billion, or $3.06 per diluted share. These results compare to revenue of $57.6 billion and net profit of $13.1 billion, or $2.07 per diluted share, in the year-ago quarter.

Not bad.

The Talk Show: ‘Malaprops’ 

New episode of my podcast, The Talk Show, with special guest Ben Thompson. Topics include Apple’s pseudo “sabbaticals” (employees who leave the company but then return after a year or two); Google’s cultural similarities to Microsoft; the ways that Apple (and iOS users) might miss Scott Forstall; accessibility as a high priority for Apple; Instagram’s success (and how they effectively ate Hipstamatic’s lunch); a debate on just how “simple” Twitter is; Box’s successful IPO, and Dropbox’s support for Yosemite’s official Finder integration for such services; MIT economist Jonathan Gruber pissing in my Google juice; Chromebooks; Amazon’s overall strategy, and the colossal failure of their Fire Phone; and, lastly, a good chunk on Microsoft’s Windows 10/HoloLens event last week.

Brought to you by three excellent sponsors:

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Update: Overcast users may need to unsubscribe/resubscribe to the show if this episode isn’t appearing for you.

Microsoft, Apple, and Disappointment 

Gus Mueller:

Apple is your favorite aunt or uncle, who isn’t talking about crazy future ideas, but is instead showing you how to hold a pencil correctly, or a tie your shoe. Something you can do today. Apple isn’t flailing about trying to grab onto whatever it can so, yelling out for attention. Apple is solid, reliable, dependable.

And I think that is why we’re seeing so many people reacting to Apple’s software quality lately. You expect Microsoft not to deliver. But we expect Apple to. And lately, it really hasn’t felt like they’ve been doing it.

Good analogy.

I’d even throw half an Apple Watch in the list, because did you really need to announce it so far ahead of launch? Was it just to spite competitors? Or was it market pressure?

I think they announced Apple Watch 6-7 months ahead of it going on sale for one reason: so they could unveil it to the public on their own terms, rather than have it leak from the supply chain. (Back in 2007, Steve Jobs stated at Macworld that they were announcing the iPhone six months ahead of it going on sale so that it would not leak through FCC regulatory filings.)

Stanford’s ‘Developing iOS 8 Apps With Swift’ Class Now Available Through iTunes U 

Pretty cool that something like this is available free of charge.

The Shape of the App Store 

Charles Perry, analyzing App Store revenue numbers:

To provide some context to the results, you may be familiar with the Pareto distribution. It’s the origin of the classic “80-20 rule” that’s used to explain so many phenomena that obey a power law. “Twenty percent of the people in an organization do eighty percent of the work.” “Twenty percent of the population control eighty percent of the wealth.” You hear these types of statistics a lot, but they’re usually not very accurate. Often, they are useful as a first estimate at best. So I didn’t actually expect App Store revenue to obey the 80-20 rule. In fact, I expected it to be a much sharper curve, representing even greater disparity in the distribution of revenue than the 80-20 rule would suggest — maybe a 90-10 split, or even a 95-5 split. As it turns out, the revenue distribution curve of the App Store is even sharper than I imagined.

(Via Michael Tsai.)

Building Classic Mac OS Apps From Yosemite 

Steven Troughton-Smith:

With the same source file, and only a handful of #ifdefs, I could build the same app for 1984’s System 1.0 all the way up to the current release of OS X, Yosemite.

Amazing story. Brought back warm memories of MPW.

iPhone Closing in on Samsung Smartphone Unit Sales 

Daisuke Wakabayashi, reporting for the WSJ:

Samsung overtook Apple as the biggest smartphone maker in the third quarter of 2011, according to research firm Canalys. Since then, Samsung has maintained its lead — in shipments if not profits — by offering a wide range of phones.

There’s no if about it — Apple leads the industry in profits by a long shot. Apple has captured a majority share of the industry’s profits since 2011.

But Samsung’s share has been falling, hurt by lackluster sales of its flagship models and the rise of homegrown brands in fast-growing emerging markets. In the third quarter, Samsung shipped about 78 million smartphones, about 25% share of the global market, down from 34% a year earlier, Canalys said.

Enter Apple’s new bigger-screen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which went on sale in September. Analysts polled by Fortune forecast that Apple sold 66.5 million iPhones in the quarter ended Dec. 27, up 30% from a year earlier. Some analysts expect iPhone sales to eclipse 70 million units in the quarter.

“It’s going to be closer than it’s ever been since Samsung took the lead,” said Chris Jones, principal analyst at Canalys.

The story line” continues to change. The key point to take away here is that raw unit sale market share is often, maybe even usually, undeserving of the obsessive focus it gets from investors and business reporters.

Procreate Pocket 

My thanks to Procreate for sponsoring this week’s DF RSS feed to promote Procreate Pocket, their beautiful, amazing new illustration app for iPhone. It’s from the same team behind the Apple Design Award-winning Procreate for iPad.

I’ve been railing against arguments that iPhones are only for content consumption, not creation for years. Procreate Pocket takes creativity on the iPhone to a new level. It is simply remarkable. The UI is brilliantly simple, but offers a rich set of features. AirDrop and iCloud Drive support make it a pleasure to continue your artwork on your iPad. Procreate Pocket is an amazing app at an amazing price: right now just $2.99. Check out their website for more information and a gorgeous video of Procreate in action.

Fast Company: ‘The Real Story Behind Jeff Bezos’s Fire Phone Debacle and What It Means for Amazon’s Future’ 

It’s a couple of weeks old, but I just now got around to finishing Austin Carr’s detailed and incredibly well-sourced story on the making of Amazon’s Fire Phone. Scathing take on Bezos’s involvement:

And team members simply could not imagine truly useful applications for Dynamic Perspective. As far as anyone could tell, Bezos was in search of the Fire Phone’s version of Siri, a signature feature that could make the device a blockbuster. But what was the point, they wondered, beyond some fun gaming interactions and flashy 3-D lock screens. “In meetings, all Jeff talked about was, ‘3-D, 3-D, 3-D!’ He had this childlike excitement about the feature and no one could understand why,” recalls a former engineering head who worked solely on Dynamic Perspective for years. “We poured surreal amounts of money into it, yet we all thought it had no value for the customer, which was the biggest irony. Whenever anyone asked why we were doing this, the answer was, ‘Because Jeff wants it.’ No one thought the feature justified the cost to the project. No one. Absolutely no one.” […]

According to three sources familiar with the company’s numbers, the Fire Phone sold just tens of thousands of units in the weeks that preceded the company’s radical price cuts. The $170 million write-down confirmed that the launch has been a dud.

I disagree with Carr’s assessment that Fire Phone was doomed from the outset because it didn’t fit within Amazon’s brand. Carr writes:

What makes the Fire Phone a particularly troubling adventure, however, is that Amazon’s CEO seemingly lost track of the essential driver of his company’s brand. It’s understandable that Bezos would want to give Amazon a premium shine, but to focus on a high-end product, instead of the kind of service that has always distinguished the company, proved misguided. “We can’t compete head to head with Apple,” says a high-level source at Lab126. “There is a branding issue: Apple is premium, while our customers want a great product at a great price.”

Brands are the result of products and services, not the other way around. The problem with the Fire Phone is that it’s a shitty phone. That’s it. If Amazon had made a phone with compelling features — an iPhone-caliber phone — it would have done just fine, and Amazon’s brand would have grown. If you set out to make a premium quality phone, you have to deliver a premium quality phone.

Can You Hear Above 16-bit/44.1kHz? 

Dave Hamilton, writing at The Mac Observer:

This difference between 16-bit/44.1kHz audio and anything greater than that has been tested (a lotin double-blind tests) and we have yet to find any human that can reliably notice that difference. Bit depths greater than 16 bits and sample rates above 44.1kHz simply don’t matter as long as the data is converted properly (and our ability to do that conversion has improved substantially since those very first CDs were released at the dawn of the digital music era).

Sounds like snake oil.

On Apple’s Integration of TestFlight 

Supertop (developers of Castro and Unread):

In March last year, after a particularly frustrating few hours dealing with iOS beta device slots, I filed this bug report with Apple. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a solution to this problem was already in motion. In February, Apple had acquired a company called TestFlight. Over the next few months it integrated many of the original TestFlight features into iTunes Connect.

Shortly after iOS 8 was released, Apple opened this new beta testing service to iOS developers. When compared to the previous testing process, it is a major improvement and I am grateful to the team behind it. It is a sign that Apple cares about third party developers and about helping us improve the quality of the software we provide.

(Via Federico Viticci at MacStories.)

Former Microsoft Executive on HoloLens 

James Brightman interviewed former Microsoft executive Peter Molyneux — who worked on the Kinect — on HoloLens:

Molyneux commented, “The bizarre thing is a huge amount of effort and time and money goes into researching the tech, like the Kinect tech and scanning the bodies, and there’s always this one line that hardware manufacturers — whether it be Microsoft or anyone else — say and that’s ‘we can’t wait to see what happens when it gets into the hands of developers.’ Now if Apple had said that when they introduced the iPhone, I don’t think we’d ever end up with the iPhone! What really should happen is that they put a similar amount of money into researching just awesome real world applications that you’ll really use and that work robustly and smoothly and delightfully.

“They should spend as much money doing that rather than just on hardware tech and saying, ‘Okay developers, we’ll leave it to you.’ If you look at the cases where technology has worked well — touch is one of those, and Wii Sports and motion control; Nintendo didn’t introduce motion control until they had Wii Sports. You weren’t just playing a few demos. I just hope that for the Holo stuff that they really choose an application and make that sing.”

Bigger Than Hollywood 

Horace Dediu, on Apple’s having paid $10 billion to App Store developers in 2014:

Put another way, in 2014 iOS app developers earned more than Hollywood did from box office in the US.

Although the totals for Domestic (US) Box Office are not the complete Hollywood revenues picture, Apple’s App Store billings is not the complete App revenue picture either. The Apps economy includes Android and ads and service businesses and custom development. Including all revenues, apps are still likely to be bigger than Hollywood.

Amazing Home-Brew Pac-Man for Atari 2600 

The official 2600 version of Pac-Man was one of the most spectacular failures in video game history: incredibly anticipated, utterly disappointing. The maze was all wrong, the colors were all wrong, Pac-Man didn’t even turn his head up or down — and the sound, good lord the sound was like something you’d play to torture someone. The Ms. Pac-Man sequel largely righted all of these wrongs, and was a pretty good game.

But here, this guy has created an almost impossibly good Atari 2600 version of real Pac-Man. If Atari had shipped this in 1982 instead of the turd they actually released, it would have been a sensation, and I might never have left the house. It’s painstakingly faithful to the coin-op in appearance, gameplay, and most amazingly, sound.

(Via Dave Dribin.)

Yamaha Introduces New Mixer Aimed at Podcasters and Gamers 

Jim Dalrymple:

Usually when I write about Yamaha at NAMM, I’ll talk about new guitars or keyboards, but today the company introduced a new mixer it said was designed specifically for webcasting, podcasting, gaming and music production.

It’s sign of just how popular podcasting and video game recording have gotten that a company like Yamaha would start building hardware for them.

MacBooks Used by the Press at Microsoft’s Windows 10 Event 

How times change. When I first started attending Apple keynote events, around 2006 or so, it struck me that a majority of the media were pecking away on Windows laptops. Now, a majority of the press at Microsoft events are using MacBooks.

(Those seats sure look comfortable. The seats in Apple’s tiny Town Hall are more cramped than coach on an airplane.)

Obsidian 

New from Hoefler and Co.: a decorative typeface with algorithmically defined 3D effects. Gorgeous.

See also: Margaret Rhodes’s story for Wired: “An Ingenious New Typeface Inspired by Old Maps, But Made With Algorithms”.

Microsoft Is Pulling an iMessage With Skype in Windows 10 Messaging App 

Tom Warren, writing for The Verge:

The new Messaging app works by integrating Skype, allowing you to chat to Skype contacts or initiate video / audio calls. All the conversations are synced between PCs, tablets, and phones, and the new app looks like a lightweight version of Skype. It’s also identical to the Messages app on OS X, with the same two-panel interface and circular UI for contact photos. Microsoft has started linking Skype usernames with mobile numbers to make it easier to find friends who are using the service without having to know their user ID. That makes this whole approach a lot more like iMessage, allowing Skype users to chat to friends easily on the service. The main difference is that Skype is cross-platform so you can chat to friends on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows, and more, while iMessage is limited to Apple’s platforms.

I know that iMessage syncing is one of those “functional high ground” issues some people are still seeing, but for me, it’s been working great. Seamless hand-off and continuation of conversations across devices. Seems like a no-brainer for Microsoft to go this route with Skype and Windows 10.

Not sure how Google can follow it, with Android being so beholden to the whims of carriers in the mass market.

BlackBerry CEO John Chen Advocates for ‘App Neutrality’ 

BlackBerry CEO John Chen:

Unfortunately, not all content and applications providers have embraced openness and neutrality. Unlike BlackBerry, which allows iPhone users to download and use our BBM service, Apple does not allow BlackBerry or Android users to download Apple’s iMessage messaging service. Netflix, which has forcefully advocated for carrier neutrality, has discriminated against BlackBerry customers by refusing to make its streaming movie service available to them. Many other applications providers similarly offer service only to iPhone and Android users. This dynamic has created a two-tiered wireless broadband ecosystem, in which iPhone and Android users are able to access far more content and applications than customers using devices running other operating systems. These are precisely the sort of discriminatory practices that neutrality advocates have criticized at the carrier level.

Therefore, neutrality must be mandated at the application and content layer if we truly want a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. All wireless broadband customers must have the ability to access any lawful applications and content they choose, and applications/content providers must be prohibited from discriminating based on the customer’s mobile operating system.

So Apple should be forced to build a version of iMessage for BlackBerry (and, presumably, Android and Windows Phone), and Netflix should be forced to stream movies to BlackBerrys. Good luck with that.

The Web Back-End That Handled Kim Kardashian’s Back-End 

Remember that thing with the nude photos of Kim Kardashian in Paper magazine a few weeks ago? Ends up long-time friend of the Internet Greg Knauss is the guy who engineered their server setup to handle the influx of tens of millions of page views. Paul Ford:

Hosting that butt is an impressive feat. You can’t just put Kim Kardashian nudes on the Internet and walk away — that would be like putting up a tent in the middle of a hurricane. Your web server would melt. You need to plan.

The Return of the Remaindered Links (Sort Of) 

Jason Kottke:

Sites like Reddit, Digg, and Hacker News and services like Facebook and Twitter are so much faster than this one man band… trying to keep pace is like racing an F1 car on roller skates.

Michael Tsai’s Roundup of Commentary on Apple’s Software Quality 

This month’s debate, collected in one place. I thought I’d read it all, but there were a few interesting pieces Tsai links to here that I hadn’t seen.

Rewatching How Microsoft Sold Us on the Kinect 

Ben Kuchera, writing for Polygon:

We’re not saying the HoloLens is just smoke and mirrors, it’s just worth taking a step back and realizing that what they’re showing right now is a huge leap from any technology that has existed before. How the hardware will eventually work in our homes, and at what price, are still open questions. Also, heck, it could be smoke and mirrors.

The Difference Between Microsoft and Apple 

Dan Frommer:

There, executives showed off what seems like Microsoft’s big bet — or at least one of its many bets — on the future of computing: HoloLens, a virtual reality headset that responds to hand gestures and voice controls. It looks technically impressive, and Microsoft’s demo went about as smoothly as something like this could have. This could become a big deal someday.

But it’s hard to get over how strange someone looks using it. And it’s hard to imagine Apple doing something like this any time soon, whether or not it’s the future of computing.

Microsoft hasn’t given up on phones and tablets, not by a long shot — a big chunk of today’s event was about all the new Windows 10 features for phones and tablets. But HoloLens (and Surface Hub — a huge 84-inch 4K touchscreen) are the right idea: trying to find the next big thing.

From the DF Archive: The Type of Companies That Publish Future Concept Videos 

HoloLens is a big step in the right direction for Microsoft: an attempt to wow us with an actual product, not a concept design. I suspect it’s Microsoft’s cultural affinity for pie-in-the-sky concept videos that led them to oversell HoloLens’s graphical fidelity in their product intro video.

Microsoft HoloLens 

Impressive announcement from Microsoft today — a set of goggles that projects 3D rendered images into your field of vision. No pricing or shipping date announced, but CEO Satya Nadella claimed it would ship “in the Windows 10 timeframe”, whatever that means.

A few thoughts:

  • HoloLens is like the anti-Glass. Google proposed Glass as something you’d wear everywhere, making you look weird and creepy. HoloLens is clearly something you’ll only wear in private, while working or playing. And, by virtue of being so much bigger and obtrusive, HoloLens is far more powerful and capable.

  • Microsoft’s two-minute product intro video is a cheat. Compare the fidelity and precision of the projected elements in the product video with the video of the actual on stage demo. Let me be clear: the actual demo is very cool, and I would love to try this out. But it’s nowhere near as cool as the downright Minority Report-quality effects they show in the product video. Under-promise and over-deliver is the way to introduce new technology.

Today’s Announcements From Microsoft: HoloLens, Surface Hub, a Smarter Cortana, Universal Apps 

Lori Grunin, writing for CNet:

Microsoft is now viewing Windows as a service, one that it wants “people to love on a daily basis,” and frames its goal as not building apps but creating “harmonizing experiences.” Touting its new open development strategy, the company’s representatives spent some time thanking the 1.7 million members of its Windows Insiders program for their feedback.

We were expecting — nay, hoping! — good news about price. And Windows 10 will be free, for some. During the first year after Windows 10 ships, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 users get a free upgrade, as will Windows Phone 8.1 users. Microsoft also claims that it won’t cut off Windows 10 support — support will last for the life of the device.

There was all sorts of pie-in-sky banana pants stuff at the end of the event, but making Windows 10 free of charge is a big deal. Post-Ballmer Microsoft is indeed a new Microsoft.

The End of Trickle-Down Technology 

Ben Thompson on how the phone market has upended conventional wisdom about how technology expands in the market:

If indeed Apple has broken through with conservatives, this has powerful implications for all kinds of companies: smartphones are the tip of the spear when it comes to the spread of technology into every part of society, and what Apple may be demonstrating is that there is real money to be made amongst late adopters if the user experience is demonstrably superior. To be sure, Apple’s powerful brand and reputation is hard to replicate, but the iPhone’s continued success offers hope that customers will pay for true differentiation, not trickle-down technology.

The Onion: ‘Unsold Google Glass Units to Be Donated to Assholes in Africa’ 

The Onion:

“We are committed to positively impacting the lives of poverty-stricken smug pricks by distributing the surplus inventory of Google Glass to self-important fucks throughout sub-Saharan Africa,” a statement released by the company read in part, adding that the program will provide the optical head-mounted technology, as well as professional training sessions, to destitute communities of conceited dicks from Sierra Leone, to Somalia, to Botswana.


Siri Improvements

I’ve noticed over the past year that Siri is getting faster — both at parsing spoken input and returning results. I use iOS’s voice-to-text dictation feature on a near-daily basis, and it’s especially noticeable there. I’ve been using a Moto X running Android 5.0 the past few weeks, so today I did a side-by-side comparison between Siri and Android’s Google Voice Search, asking both the simple question, “What temperature is it outside?” Both phones were on the same Wi-Fi network. Siri was consistently as fast or faster. I made a video that shows them in pretty much a dead heat.

My point here isn’t “Siri is better than Google Voice Search”, or even “Siri is as good as Google Voice Search”. Once you get past the superficial level, they’re different enough that it’s hard to make a blanket one-is-better-than-the-other comparison. I’d even agree that Google Voice Search is better at many complex queries, and, further, that “What’s the temperature?” is a very simple question.

But: it’s a question I ask Siri almost every day, before I get dressed, especially during winter. I want to know whether it’s going to be just plain cold, or really fucking cold. When Siri debuted in 2011, it was often (usually?) relatively slow to parse your spoken input, and slow to return results. Your mileage may vary, but for me that just isn’t true any longer. Siri has also gotten much, much better while on cellular networks. Part of that is surely that LTE networks are maturing, but I suspect part of it is Apple’s doing as well.

Nor is my point about which service presents the information in a more attractive or useful layout. My point here is simply this: Siri is noticeably faster than it used to be. Even just a year ago, I don’t think Siri could have held its own with Google Voice Search pulling information like the current temperature or sports scores, but today, it does. Apple has clearly gotten much better at something everyone agreed was a serious weakness. Two years later, I don’t think “Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services” feels true any more.

Notes:

  • After I posted that video to Twitter, DF reader Steven Op de beeck made an overlay showing his results in Belgium. Outstanding Siri performance.

  • Here’s a Storify collection of just about every response to my “Just me, or is Siri getting a lot faster?” tweet.

  • My 2010 piece for Macworld, “This Is How Apple Rolls”, on the company’s pattern of steady, iterative year-over-year improvements to its products, seems apt.

  • I think this is a case that shows how important first impressions are. Quite a few of the responses I got on Twitter were along the lines of, “I don’t know, I gave up on Siri years ago.” No product or feature is ever perfect when it debuts. Quite the opposite, brand-new products/features usually debut needing numerous obvious improvements. But, ideally, they should debut on the right side of the “good enough to engender affection” line. The original iPhone had no third-party apps, EDGE networking, and lacked copy-and-paste. But we loved it. Siri, I think it’s clear in hindsight, debuted on the wrong side of that line. It’s harder to change a negative perception than it is to create a positive one from a blank slate.

  • Lastly, a rather obvious but important observation: Improvements to Siri across the board — reducing latency, improving accuracy, increasing utility — are essential to the success of Apple Watch. And — given the previous note on first impressions — it’s pretty important that Siri integration on Apple Watch work well right from the start. Apple will find itself in a deep hole if voice dictation via Apple Watch gets saddled with an “Egg Freckles”/”Eat up Martha” reputation. 


Apple and Eras of Flux

Dr. Drang, in an excellent piece on l’affaire Functional High Ground:

I think a lot of us have lost our spirit, and that’s a problem for Apple. Apple may not think so — its financial statements would argue that it’s in great shape — but it’s being buoyed by an excellent run of hardware releases and a certain amount of inertia. Eventually, though, it runs the risk of becoming another Microsoft, with users who do more complaining than praising. When a company’s best users lose their spirit, it loses their leverage.

Every company’s downfall is different. Microsoft didn’t have a major update to 2001’s Windows XP until 2006’s Windows Vista, which was rejected by its customers. The “fix”, Windows 7, didn’t ship until 2009. I can’t help but wonder whether Apple’s recent focus on annual significant-but-not-hubristic (read: Longhorn) updates to Mac OS X is an attempt to do the opposite of what Microsoft did to lose its edge with Windows. The annual schedule keeps OS X from stagnating, and keeps Apple from biting off way more than it can chew, leading to a years-long death march that never actually ships. (See also: Copland and Pink from Apple’s own history.)

But in avoiding the problems of stagnation and hubris, it feels like Apple has run into a different problem: nothing ever feels settled and stable. If the pattern Apple has established the last two years holds, by the time the loose screws get tightened in iOS 8 and OS X 10.10, we’ll be getting developer betas of iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 at WWDC. And as Guy English has keenly remarked numerous times, the annual schedule means that by now — that is, January — a lot of engineering talent in Cupertino is being directed to next year’s OS releases, leaving less talent on the task of tightening the remaining loose screws in last year’s.

Apple’s decade-ago development schedule for OS X now seems downright leisurely.1 10.0 was a glorified public alpha — more of a proof of concept than a usable OS. 10.1 followed just a few months later in September 2001. 10.2 shipped in August 2002, 10.3 in October 2003, and 10.4 (Tiger) slowed things down by not shipping until April 2005. That schedule was close to annual, but in those years, Apple was just picking low-hanging fruit. Mac OS X was incomplete, inconsistent, and slow when it debuted. Those first few years were about making it more complete, consistent, and fast. It’s fair to say, in hindsight, that 10.4 Tiger was the first good release of Mac OS X, the first one that truly delivered on the promise of a union between Mac OS and NeXTStep.

And then 10.5 (Leopard) didn’t ship until October 2007, after having been promised for June of that year. That was the time Apple issued a decidedly Jobsian “Hotnews” post acknowledging that Leopard — which even if it had shipped on time would have appeared more than two years after 10.4 — would be delayed an additional four months because Apple had pulled engineering resources to work on the original iPhone release.

It was then another two years before we got 10.6 (Snow Leopard), which Apple proudly marketed as having no new features. That’s not true, of course — Snow Leopard had plenty of new features, including significant new technologies like Grand Central Dispatch, Apple’s solution to parallel computing. But it really was true that Snow Leopard didn’t introduce many new user-facing features. It was exactly what Apple billed it as: a shoring up of the OS’s technical foundations. It was then another two years before the release of 10.7 (Lion) in June 2011.

So from April 2005 through June 2011, Apple released only three major updates to Mac OS X, one of which had “no new features”. Again: an almost leisurely pace by recent standards. But this led to criticism that Apple only cared about iOS. Predictions that Apple would soon enough abandon the Mac were common.

It’s a hard balance to strike. When Mac OS X releases were roughly biannual, we complained that Apple was neglecting it. Now that the releases are annual, we’re complaining that they’re going too fast.


Guy English, earlier this week, regarding Marco Arment’s argument that “We don’t need major OS releases every year”:

Sure, it’s a pain in the ass for us at times. But “we don’t” is starting to echo through the people for whom iOS devices were a revelation. These devices made people believe in the magic of technology again. Now? I hear a lot about planned obsolescence and buggy software.

“No! I know these people and I swear that’s not at all their intent!”

That really only goes so far.

The worst thing is that it’s seldom anything big, onerous or serious. It’s just weird little things that don’t work that add up to create the impression that “computers” are incomprehensible.

I don’t regret upgrading from iOS 7 to 8, or from Mac OS X 10.9 to 10.10. I definitely don’t want to switch to Android or Windows. But I’d like to think that a year from now, I’ll be running new versions of iOS and OS X that don’t do much more than what today’s versions do — instead, that they just do those same things more reliably and consistently.

My hope is that the reliability issues we are seeing in iOS and Mac OS X in recent releases are largely the inevitable result of Apple going through numerous transitions simultaneously. Extensions, XPC, iCloud Drive, Continuity — these things require coordination between all three of Apple’s platforms (mobile, desktop, cloud). That what we’ve been seeing the last few years is this decade’s equivalent of the first few years of Mac OS X — rapid development and flux that precedes an era of relative stability and a slower pace of change. Let iPhone, iPad, and Mac settle in — and let the rapid change and flux flow through Apple Watch, CarPlay, a new Apple TV, and whatever else comes next. 


  1. iOS has always been on an annual schedule, with .0 major releases accompanying each new iPhone generation, but even there, some of those iOS releases weren’t very ambitious in terms of new features. Apple was busy picking low-hanging fruit — iOS 3’s biggest feature was Cut/Copy/Paste. (Seriously, we went two years without Cut/Copy/Paste — crazy, right?) 


On Charging the Purported USB-Only MacBook

Tons of feedback from readers regarding how a USB-only MacBook might charge. I’ve collected a bunch of them from Twitter here. Among the recurring ideas:

  • iPads don’t have MagSafe, and generally aren’t used while charging, so maybe this new MacBook is supposed to work like an iPad, unplugged. Possible, I suppose, but I think this train of logic would lead one to argue that Apple should stop making MacBooks and everyone should just use iPads. The whole point of MacBooks and iPads being separate devices with completely different form factors is that people use them for different tasks, and in different environments. iPads are usually held in hand,1 lessening the need for MagSafe protection. Plus, even if this new MacBook has absolutely staggering battery life, if people can plug it in while using it, they will, at least sometimes, which means MagSafe trip protection would still be useful.

    Note too that iPads come with Lightning cables that are only 3 feet long. MacBooks come with very long cables. If this new MacBook ships without MagSafe of any kind, perhaps the cable is only 3 feet long, iPad-style, reducing the chances that you even could position it in a way that the cable could be tripped over. That’d sure be frustrating for anyone who leaves the house with an uncharged MacBook, though.

  • Maybe it’ll still have MagSafe, but somewhere else on the cable. A lot of readers suggested that the MagSafe connector could move to the AC adapter, or that you’d use a MagSafe-to-USB-Type-C dongle. Requiring a dongle would be gross (and easily lost). I’m not sure what to think of a MagSafe connector on the AC adapter, but something along these lines seems like the most likely answer.

  • Apple Watch-style inductive charging. That’s a great idea, but I’m not aware of any inductive technology that carries sufficient current to power something as big as a laptop. If any company could bring such technology to market this year, it’d be Apple, but I’ll believe it when I see it. But also: where would this connect on the MacBook? If it’s on the bottom, wouldn’t it prop up the whole laptop at an angle? The sides are too thin. That leaves the back of the display, like maybe it’d connect on the Apple logo. That strikes me as ungainly.2 


  1. Yes, I know, many people use hardware keyboards and prop their iPads laptop-style on a table or desk for writing, but I think it’s fair to say most iPad usage is hand-held. 

  2. Speaking of Apple Watch-like technology, Mark Gurman, in his report on this purported new MacBook, also claimed that its trackpad no longer physically clicks. If that’s true, I can’t help but wonder if they’re introducing “taptic” feedback. Apple has always prided itself on the quality of its trackpads — they’re the best in the industry, by a long shot. iOS touchscreens don’t have any physical feedback, but they do have *visual* feedback when you tap and drag. And on the Mac, *clicking* and *tapping* are two different things. I can’t help but think you’d want some sort of physical feedback — and if it doesn’t actually click, that means haptic feedback. 


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