Linked List: January 6, 2020

‘What Apple Is Aiming For’ 

Mark Gurman, tweeting from CES:

Impressed with Nreal’s new AR glasses. This is what Apple is aiming for, but these plug into an Android phone. The new UI is super polished - and $499 blows away higher prices from Hololens, others. Critical to see if it gains an ecosystem.

Yes, I’m sure Apple is aiming for something that looks like the goggles they give you to wear for 3D movies and requires a wired connection to your phone. And Lobot’s headset was what Apple was shooting for with AirPods.

DF Weekly Sponsorships for Winter 2020 

I took some time off over the holidays but as today suggests, I’m back at the keyboard, with a long list of stuff I want to write about. (Did you know that you can get the DF posts for any given day with URLs like that? Bonus: works for months too.)

DF sponsorships for 2020 are currently wide open, including this current week. One sponsor per week, with a sponsor-written entry in the RSS feed to start the week, a thank-you post right on the homepage from me at the end, and the one and only graphic ad on every page of the site all week long. No tracking or other privacy-invasive bullshit. Just plain honest ads. My best argument that they work: the number of repeat companies in the sponsor archive list.

So if you’ve got a product or service you’d like to promote to DF’s discerning audience, I’d love to have you as a sponsor.

Lenovo’s ThinkBook Plus Laptop Has a Second Screen on the Lid 

Andrew E. Freedman, reporting for Tom’s Hardware from CES:

Lenovo’s latest take on the small business laptop has an interesting surprise: a 10.8-inch E ink display on the lid.

The ThinkBook Plus was announced here at CES 2020, and it comes with a secondary display meant to foster collaboration. While the main, 13.3-inch FHD display is closed, the E Ink screen can show email and calendar notifications from Microsoft Outlook. You can also use it to take notes with Lenovo’s included stylus. The idea is you’ll only do what you’ll need to on the screen during meetings, rather than being engrossed entirely in your laptop. It will start at $1,199 when it goes on sale in March.

This is a dumb idea. It’s a feature, not a bug, that when your laptop is closed it doesn’t reveal anything at all. Who wants their closed laptop to show email notifications? This is what smartphones (and watches) are for. When is the last time you had your laptop with you but not your phone?

Jimmy Grewal on IE 5 for Mac 

Jimmy Grewal, writing on Twitter:

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5 for Mac. This was both the most important release of Internet Explorer for the Mac, and the last release. Here are some anecdotes and thoughts from an insider’s perspective. […]

It’s easy to forget, but IE 5 for Mac was a great app. Here’s a good Steve Jobs anecdote:

This “new look” had an uncanny resemblance to Apple’s later Aqua interface for Mac OS X. However it was developed in complete secrecy within Microsoft. When we previewed MacIE 5 with the “new look” to Apple in the Summer of 1999, Jobs was not pleased.

Since no one outside Apple was supposed to know about Aqua at the time, he couldn’t say anything to us about the resemblance; instead he directed his ire at another new feature in MacIE 5 called Media Toolbar. This feature provided support for playing back MP3s on websites.

Media Toolbar was based on code licensed from the developers of SoundJam MP, a popular MP3 player. Unbeknownst to us, Steve Jobs too had his eye on SoundJam and its lead developer Jeff Robbin. Jobs insisted we cut this feature claiming it undermined QuickTime.

Microsoft cut the feature, and regretted it. As far as I’m aware, this story has never been told before. Actually, I don’t think either story in this anecdote had been told before — neither the SoundJam-based MP3 player they intended to bake into IE nor the fact that IE 5’s “new look” was something the IE team came up with independently. Everyone I know always assumed that Apple had disclosed the IE team on the Aqua look-and-feel.

Grewal includes a link to Steve Jobs unveiling and demoing IE 5 on stage at Macworld Expo SF 2000. The video quality is terrible — somehow it’s very overexposed — but it is captivating nonetheless. What struck me about this demo is Jobs’s attention to minor UI details — like the fact that the Carbon IE 5 app used the same Aqua scrollbars as a Cocoa app. The pace and conversational tone — and the assumption that everyone watching cares as much as Jobs himself does about nitty-gritty UI details — feels very unlike a modern day Apple software demo. It’s easy to get sucked into the whole video, but the unveiling and demo of Apple Mail that follows has that same thing going for it. What Jobs is saying, effectively, is “Look at how we’re sweating every single detail.

Apple’s Surging Stock Price Attributed to Services Push 

Jeran Wittenstein, reporting for Bloomberg*:

For the first time since 2011, shares of the iPhone maker have traded at a higher price-earnings ratio than the S&P 500 for months amid a year that saw the stock’s valuation almost double. It’s a reversal from the previous nine years, when concerns over a lack of product innovation kept the stock at a persistent discount to the market.

Credit the shift in sentiment to Apple’s focus on tapping an ecosystem of nearly 1.5 billion users to generate a steady stream of profit. The increasing contribution from services like iCloud storage and Apple Music is making its business more stable and therefore deserving of a higher multiple, according to Gene Munster, a long-time Apple analyst and founder of Loup Ventures.

I hope this is simply good news for Apple (and for those who own Apple shares). 2019 marked a serious push into subscription content services and the credit card market for Apple. My concern, again, is what happens if the drive to increase services revenue takes precedence over Apple’s “Prime Directive”: to put product design and experience above all else.

* You know.

‘The Coming Supremacy of AR’ 

Allen Pike:

Advertising, gamification, constant distractions and chaos, interruptions — basically a Black Mirror hellscape. And to be clear, in the event that high fidelity AR becomes possible, some company will attempt to make such a hellscape, filled with crapware and covering your gaze with nonsense for the lowest possible price.

I challenge you, though, to imagine not the worst that a future AR experience could be, but the best. Imagine instead an AR experience not designed by advertisers, but by Apple — or even better, Apple’s successors. A team obsessively focused on people, taking a distinctly human approach to designing how your glasses could augment what you see.

The potential is obviously huge. My pessimism is that based on the state of software today — what most people use on their phones and tablets, desktops, and the web — there is arguably only one company with the technical and financial resources to make this possible that might be interested in doing it in a way that isn’t based on selling you shit through in-view advertising (as well as using what you see and hear through AR to profile you).

That company is Apple. Facebook — good god no. Google makes almost all of its money through advertising. Amazon makes most of its money selling us stuff. Samsung or any of the upstart Chinese phone companies? They don’t have the design chops to do something subtle and tasteful.

[Update: Two points. First, I should not have omitted Microsoft. They’re not an advertising company, they have the technical chops, and they’ve been working on AR/VR for years with HoloLens. So I’ll file Microsoft under “maybe”. But historically, Microsoft has never led the way on new computer interface paradigms. Second, I know Apple makes most of its money “selling us stuff” too. But Apple’s “selling us stuff” is a very different business from Amazon’s. When you buy an iPhone, Apple doesn’t start badgering you to buy an iPad and Apple Watch, too, in the way that Amazon never ceases suggesting algorithmically determined products to buy. Apple doesn’t track you across the web in order to algorithmically suggest which iPhone model you should buy. But Apple is now promoting its services within its own UIs in a way that it has never promoted its hardware products.]

But I worry that with its services push, Apple is turning into an advertising company too. It’s just advertising its own services. In iOS 13 they put an ad for AppleCare at the very top of Settings. They use push notifications to ask you to sign up for Apple Pay and Apple Card, and subscribe to Apple Music, TV, and Arcade. The free tier of Apple News is now a non-stop barrage of ads for Apple News+ subscriptions. Are we at the “hellscape” stage with Apple? No, not even close. But it’s a slippery slope. What made Apple Apple is this mindset: “Ship great products and the profits will follow” — not “Ship products that will generate great profits”.

It is essential that product people remain in charge of these decisions at Apple, not services people.