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Brief Thoughts and Observations on Yesterday’s Apple Event, Roughly, if Not in Fact Exactly, in the Order in Which They Were Announced

Apple Arcade

$5 per month is what had been rumored, and to me feels like a fantastic deal for users, especially considering that it includes family sharing. A lot of people spend a lot more than $5 per month on mobile gaming, and an important — I’ll even say essential — aspect of Apple Arcade is that none of the games include in-app purchases. $5 per month is all you pay, you get all the games without even a nickel’s worth of nickel-and-diming, and they’re all exclusive to Apple Arcade on mobile.

I do question the appeal of the games Apple chose to demo on stage, though. The Frogger demo felt like it took 10 minutes. And: Frogger? Sayonara Wild Hearts looks very cool though — I thought that was the standout of the bunch.

Apple TV+

A lot of people expected TV+ to cost $10 per month — not because they thought it looked worth $10 per month but because Apple is Apple. Well, it’s $5 per month, and I still see a lot of people complaining that it’s not even worth that without a much larger library of content. That’s nonsense. As Tim Cook put it on stage, $5 per month is the cost of a single movie rental at iTunes. Maybe you don’t rent movies, but a lot of people do. Honestly, I don’t see how Apple could charge less. Look at it this way: Apple Music had 60 million paid subscribers as of a few months ago. Let’s say Apple TV+ gets to 50 million paid subscribers. That’s roughly $250 million in revenue per month — $3 billion per year. But there are reports that Apple is already spending $6 billion annually on original content. That means they’d need 100 million paying subscribers just to break even on the effort. (And keep in mind, too, that in some countries, Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade subscriptions cost less than $5 USD — in India they’re just $1.50 USD.)

What a lot of us expected was some sort of subscription bundle — pay Apple $X per month and get Arcade, TV+, News, and maybe even Music. The content rights are murkier for News and Music, so in the back of my head I wondered about a bundle just for Arcade and TV+. What Apple is offering instead is really quite clever: an entire year of free service, family sharing included, with the purchase of any iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac, or Apple TV. Will they keep this offer going forward? I.e., can you keep a “free” TV+ subscription in perpetuity just by buying Apple hardware annually? That wasn’t clear. But this is a terrific bundle — and a brilliant reminder that Apple, for all its talk about “Services, Services, Services”, is and will always remain a hardware company at heart. Effectively, this is a bundle — but instead of bundling one or more subscription services together, they’re bundling TV+ with hardware purchases that customers were already going to make anyway. It turns TV+ into a perk just for being an Apple customer. It seems clear that’s the way to think about it — a lot more like Amazon Prime Video than Netflix or HBO. A reward for being a loyal customer and a strong incentive to remain in the ecosystem.

Content-wise, I’m really looking forward to “The Morning Show” and “For All Mankind”. I didn’t find the trailer for “See” to be compelling though. It certainly looks beautiful, but the trailer just didn’t grab me.

New Entry Model iPad

This was a surprise to me — Apple has never introduced iPad hardware at the annual iPhone event Apple has only ever before introduced new iPad hardware at the annual iPhone event once, with the first iPad Pro in 2015. But it kind of makes sense — as an entry model, it didn’t take attention away from the new iPhones or Apple Watches. And announcing this iPad now means that an October event could be focused on “pro” products: MacBook Pro, Mac Pro, and iPad Pro.

Apple Watch Series 5

One big surprise feature: the always-on display. I’ve been clamoring for this ever since the original Apple Watch (a.k.a. Series 0) in 2015. This feature seemed inevitable, but I would not have predicted it for this year.

The segment showing interviews with people who had heart conditions and other emergencies identified by their Apple Watch was truly moving. There was something genuine about the way that many of the videos were just shot using FaceTime cameras. The titanium and (return of) ceramic editions was rumored, but interesting nonetheless. I found it a little interesting that the Hermès models are still limited to stainless steel, even though both the titanium ($800) and ceramic ($1,300) models cost more than the non-Hermès steel models.

At the low end of the price range, Series 3 models now start at just $200. I’m rounding up by a dollar, but at the low end, breaking the $200 barrier with a $199 price tag could really move a lot of watches this holiday season. And yet people still refuse to acknowledge the obvious: Apple Watch is a hit product.

iPhone 11

The most interesting thing about the iPhone 11, to me, is that its second rear camera is an ultra wide angle lens, not a telephoto lens. This is a very different camera system than the dual lens system on the iPhone X and XS. Fundamentally it’s a bet on the power of computational photography — it’s easier to zoom in digitally than it is to compute a wider field of view.

Google beat Apple to the “night mode” game last year, but Apple’s implementation seems more natural to use. It just comes on automatically, when needed. (There is a way to turn it off, very much like turning off the camera flash.) On a Pixel, Night Sight is an entirely different mode, which I find a little weird. My guess has been that Google made Night Sight its own mode because Night Sight images, though often amazing, are also often quite unnatural. It’s so effective that it often makes nighttime scenes look like they were shot in daylight — like an old Hitchcock movie where they shot day-for-night. I hope Apple’s implementation results in more natural images — the goal should be to make it appear that the camera can see in dim lighting, not to make dark scenes look brightly lit.

I actually managed to correctly predict the naming of this year’s iPhones, and everything I wrote in that piece looks good in the wake of yesterday’s event. The iPhone 11 has the right name because it really is the best iPhone for most people, and Kaiann Drance emphasized that the iPhone XR was Apple’s most popular new iPhone last year. (I do wonder, though, whether that would still be true if sales of the iPhone XS and XS Max were combined — treating them as two sizes of the same phone, which I think would be fair.)

iPhone 11 Pro

Unless I missed something, Apple seems to have kept the new Midnight Green color under wraps before yesterday’s event. New colors usually leak from the supply chain, but Midnight Green dropped as a surprise. Fun. In person, it’s a pretty neutral green — has a bit of a Boba Fett feel to it.

It’s an interesting challenge for Apple to introduce the new super tier of iPhones — the XS models last year, the 11 Pro models yesterday — alongside the XR and 11, because the “regular” models are so damn good and share so many of the same features. Everything Apple said about the A13 chip applies to both phones. Most of the camera features that don’t involve the 11 Pro’s telephoto lens apply to both phones. It was Phil Schiller, during the iPhone 11 Pro segment, who introduced Deep Fusion, an oddly-named feature coming “later this year” that will “fuse” 9 separate exposures into a single image. (It’s still unclear to me when you would use Deep Fusion and when you’d use Night Mode — both features seem to address low-light photography.) But Deep Fusion will be available on the regular iPhone 11 too.

I think these “Pro” names are perfect, but at a technical level, the only differences from the regular iPhone 11 seem to be:

  • 3 cameras on the back instead of 2
  • The OLED “Super Retina” display
  • Slightly faster LTE

Some folks will look at that list and say the iPhones 11 Pro aren’t really “pro”. I look at that list and say the regular iPhone 11 is almost just as “pro” at significantly lower prices. This is a very different dynamic between pro and non-pro models compared to MacBooks, Mac desktops, and iPads, where the pro models have very obvious performance differences. The iPhone is just a different product. I’ve made this point in the past, but the difference is more like that between aluminum Apple Watch models and the higher-end models made with stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic. They’re just nicer. But what were they going to call the iPhone 11 Pro if not “pro” — iPhone 11 Edition? I don’t think so. And, frankly, there is a legitimate professional argument to be made for the iPhone 11 Pro camera system. It’s two-thirds the same as the iPhone 11 camera system but that extra third — the telephoto 52mm equivalent lens (which now sports an f/2.0 aperture instead of the f/2.4 on last years XS models) — is meaningful. Maximum storage of 512 GB rather than 256 GB is genuinely pro too — particularly for anyone shooting a lot of video.

The battery life story is intriguing. Last year the iPhone XR had the longest battery life of any model. In fact it had the best battery life of any iPhone ever. This year the regular iPhone 11 is advertised as having 1 more hour of battery life than the XR. That’s a fine year-over-year improvement.

But the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are billed as having 4 and 5 more hours of battery life compared to their same-size XS equivalents from last year. That sort of improvement year-over-year seems bananas. And in fact, if Apple’s comparison page tech specs are accurate, the battery life of this year’s iPhone models goes in order of price: 11 Pro Max is best, 11 Pro is next, and 11 is last. But the 11 has longer battery life than the XR, the previous record-holder. Apple, as usual, did not exactly go into technical depth regarding how the 11 Pro models have seen such tremendous year-over-year gains in battery life, but it seems like a lot of it must be some combination of the new Super Retina XDR OLED display being far more efficient than last year’s XS displays, and perhaps bigger batteries with improved chemistry.

In person, the most impressive thing about the new iPhones, to me, is the way that the entire back is made from a single piece of glass. The square section around the camera systems is milled from the same piece of glass as the rest of the back. On the iPhone 11, the back is glossy but the camera area is matte; on the iPhone 11 Pro models, it’s the reverse: the back is matte and the camera area is glossy. It makes them look like sibling devices more than the XS and XR did.

The most curious feature in the new iPhones is the U1 chip — Ultra Wideband technology for “spatial awareness”. This obviously seems related to Apple’s rumored “tile trackers” — so that your iPhone 11 won’t just tell you your keys are somewhere in the living room, it’ll point to the exact couch cushion they’ve fallen behind. But Apple didn’t introduce tile trackers yesterday. So the only U1-powered feature they’re talking about now is the ability to point two iPhones at each other to improve AirDrop. That’s a fine feature, but not worth an entire chip. I suspect we’ll hear a whole lot more about the U1 in the months ahead.

People Watching

  • Jeff Williams did not appear on stage; I believe he introduced the new Watch hardware with each previous generation. I wouldn’t read anything into this — if anything it might be the result of Williams being elevated above running product for Watch and now running product for all hardware.

  • No Eddy Cue either — Tim Cook handled the brief Apple TV+ segment himself.

  • Jony Ive was in attendance at the event, accompanied, as he often is, by Laurene Jobs. One gets the impression that they are very dear friends.

  • Ive’s usual role as the narrator of product videos was filled by Dan Riccio, who did a fine job. I think we’ll all miss Ive’s aluminiums though.

  • One more thing: I really wish Apple would put each presenter’s name on a slide when they first go on stage. It seems like what they’re doing now is introducing people by first name (or in Joz’s case, his only name) if they have appeared on stage at a recent event. So Ann Thai (Apple Arcade) was introduced only as “Ann”, Sumbul Desai (Apple Watch health studies) only as “Sumbul”, and Kaiann Drance (iPhone 11) only as “Kaiann”. But Stan Ng (Apple Watch Series 5) was introduced by his full name. I saw some people speculating on Twitter that this was gender bias — that the women weren’t given full credit but the men were. But Joz was just “Joz” and Schiller just “Phil” — and first-time speaker Deirdre O’Brien (retail) was introduced by her full name. It’s clearly about implied familiarity on the audience’s part. Here’s Ann, you remember her from our services event back in March. Here’s Kaiann, you remember her from last year’s iPhone event. I think it’s fine if Tim Cook wants to introduce speakers by first name, but I’d like to see their full names on screen as they come out — if only to make it easier for me (and everyone else in the media) to quote them by name. (Apple does exactly this with all of their invited guests from other companies.)

    Update: It’s worth pointing out that Apple’s Newsroom summary of the event includes photos and the full names of everyone who was on stage.