Brief Thoughts and Observations on Today’s ‘Time Flies’ Apple Event

Apple Watch Series 6 and SE

There’s nothing spectacular or game-changing about Apple Watch Series 6, but it’s a perfect example of Apple’s incremental product update strategy. What’s new in Series 6 compared to Series 5?

Technology-wise: the blood oxygen sensor and the S6 chip. The S6 chip’s improved power efficiency, in turn, allows Apple to brighten the always-on display — up to 2.5 times brighter than the S5. The always-on display of Series 5, you will recall, is my favorite Apple Watch new feature ever. (Or, the flip side of the same coin: I despised the not-always-on display of previous Apple Watches.) The thing about rolling out incremental updates every single year is they add up — and people don’t buy new watches every year. Anyone who bought, say, a then-new Series 3 Apple Watch in 2017 would get a really nice upgrade with a new Series 6 now.

Style-wise: The aluminum models have new navy blue and Product Red colors. In the stainless steel line, space black has been replaced by “graphite” — it’s hard to tell how dark graphite is going by Apple’s product photography because their images emphasize its polished surface. I’m going to miss space black stainless steel, which was about as black as black can get — it was clearly the model Darth Vader would wear. But I can see why they went with graphite as the new “dark” stainless steel color: it seems more like a glossy sibling to the matte space black titanium Edition option, which is more like a very dark gray than black. And if that’s not confusing enough, there are a few Space Black stainless steel models in the Hermès Series 6 lineup. The only Series 6 Edition models are in titanium — no ceramic models this year.

The new bands are interesting, as ever. I’m curious to play with the stretchy Solo Loops. (Worth noting: The regular rubbery Solo Loops cost $50; the fabric-y Braided Solo Loops are $100. Getting a new watch with the Braided Solo Loop as the included band thus carries a $50 surcharge.) The Solo Loop bands come in nine sizes for each watch size (sizes 1-9 for 40 mm watches, sizes 4-12 for 44 mm). That sort of precision fit seems like it’s begging for a hands-on retail experience, like trying on shoes, but hands-on retail experiences are not really a thing here in the U.S. at the moment. So, Apple has a PDF sizing guide you can print, cut out, and wrap around your wrist. Looks like I’m a size 7.

The Apple Watch SE is best thought of as a cut-down Series 5 watch. Apple has an excellent comparison page, and it’s pretty clear from that page that the difference between a Series 6 and SE comes down to three things the SE lacks: no always-on display, no ECG sensor, no blood oxygen sensor. Also, adding cellular connectivity to an aluminum Series 6 is a $100 upsell; on the SE adding cellular costs only $50. (The stainless steel and titanium Series 6 models all have cellular included.)

It seems all but certain that next year — if civilization still exists — the Apple Watch SE will move down to the $199 spot in the lineup that remains occupied by the now-kinda-old-looking Series 3 model. Series 3 remaining in the lineup is a bummer for developers, who will need to keep designing WatchOS apps and complications for an entirely different pair of displays for a few years to come. I get why the Series 3 is still there — it’s $80 cheaper than the SE, which is significant percentage-wise. A new Series 3 Apple Watch is “about $200”; a new SE is “about $300”. But it’s really not a fun product at all: the only style choices are silver with a white Sports Band and space gray with a black Sports Band.

New iPad and iPad Air

The new just-plain “iPad” could almost be called the “iPad SE”. In the same way the new iPhone SE is (I think) the last of the home-button iPhones, this new iPad is (I think) the last of the home-button iPads. It’s nothing exciting technology-wise, but it’s a great device for a starting price of $329.

One obvious question: why does the new iPad still use the old Apple Pencil? Well, because even though it’s a new iPad, it’s an old design. The old Apple Pencil was designed for the home-button iPads, and the new Apple Pencil was designed for the no-home-button “all display” iPads. The new “all display” iPads have flat sides where the new Pencil can magnetically snap into place and pair; the old iPad design has round sides. That, too, is one reason why the new just-plain iPad has a Lightning port, not USB-C — otherwise it couldn’t pair with the old Pencil.

I enjoy that the new iPad Air comes in new colors: blue, green, and pink (in addition to silver and space gray). But what’s most remarkable about the new iPad Air are two technical firsts: it’s the first device with an A14-series SoC and the first iOS device with a Touch ID sensor in the power button.

Surely Apple’s original plan, pre-COVID, was for the iPhones 12 to be introduced at this September event. But they weren’t, so the A14 debuted not in an iPhone but in the iPad Air. It seemed to me Apple didn’t talk much about A14 performance today — perhaps to save some bragging for next month’s iPhone 12 introduction. But that raises the question of when, “next month”, the iPad Air will actually ship. Will it ship before the new iPhones are introduced, spoiling their performance? Or will it ship alongside the first iPhone 12 models, despite being introduced weeks beforehand? Mum’s the word from Apple. My guess: the new iPad Air will begin shipping immediately after next month’s iPhone event, a week or so before the new iPhones will begin shipping. That way the A14 performance details will remain under wraps for the iPhone event, but the iPad Air and iPhone 12 won’t ship at the same time.

Touch ID in the iPad Air’s power button raises the question of whether that might be true for the iPhone 12 as well — not as a replacement for Face ID but as a face-mask-friendly supplement to it. I’m going to guess no. I think this pandemic struck far too late for ubiquitous face-mask-wearing to factor into Apple’s design for the iPhone 12. But it’s interesting to think that the mid-range iPad now has a feature millions of people would rather see in high-end iPhones.

The Apple One Services Bundle

A month ago I speculated thus:

My back-of-the-envelope proposal is that Apple One should cost $15/month for an individual and $20/month for family sharing, and include: Music, TV+, Arcade, and the top tier of iCloud storage. Make News+ a $5/add-on.

Basically: start with Apple Music as the linchpin service in the bundle, charge $5 more than they currently are for Music alone, and include everything Apple owns the entirety of: TV+, Arcade, and iCloud storage. I think they have to charge extra for News+ to pay the participating providers — News+ is more like a bundle unto itself.

That was pretty good speculation if I do say so myself. The actual deal announced today:

  • Individual: $15/month for Music, TV+, Arcade, and 50 GB of iCloud storage
  • Family: $20/month, with storage bumped to 200 GB
  • Premier: $30/month to add News+ and Fitness+, with storage bumped to 2 TB

Apple is still, in my opinion, nickel-and-diming on iCloud Storage, but the basic pricing is exactly what I hoped for: start with Apple Music’s pricing, add $5/month, and include TV+ and Arcade. It’s a good deal.

If you’re currently an Apple services whale, Apple One will save you significant money compared to the previous a la carte pricing. That sounds rather un-Apple-like — since when does Apple sell things at a lower price than you were previously paying? But Apple’s goal with a services bundle isn’t to get the most money it can from you, individually, but to get the most money it can from all of us, collectively. My ballpark estimate is that only about 20 percent of iPhone owners pay Apple for any subscription services at all. The fact that some of those 20 percent will now save money with the Apple One bundle should be more than offset by getting more people to pay for any monthly services at all. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem and want Apple Music, it’s a no-brainer to pay $5 more to get the Apple One bundle instead.

It’s a simple proposition at a compelling price — exactly what a bundled offering should be.

Worth noting: According to the short FAQ at the bottom of Apple’s web page for Apple One, “You can purchase additional iCloud storage separately to supplement what’s included with your Apple One plan”. This includes, I am reliably informed, being able to purchase an additional 2 TB if the included 2 TB in the Premier tier isn’t enough for your family. (4K video clips add up.)

The Event Itself

The show looked and felt a lot like the WWDC keynote: fun, cheerful, with impeccable production values. And with an hour’s worth of material, it ran just about one hour on the button. Also like the WWDC keynote, it was so well-received that a bunch of people are already speculating that this might be how Apple does events henceforth, even after in-person events are possible again. I disagree. There’s a lot of nuance that is missing without a live stage show — but I do think these virtual keynotes might fundamentally change how Apple does smaller product introduction events going forward. Make them a little more suited to a streaming audience, and a little less theatrical. It’s also interesting how much the new Apple Park campus is effectively a character in these virtual keynotes — a role the architecturally bland Infinite Loop campus could not have played, had this pandemic hit a few years ago.