Category Archives: Tuesday Talk

Tuesday Talk ~ Moan fest


(Image from Apple Insider)

I feel Tuesday Talk has become a moan-fest about what Apple could be, its failings and what the Inc could do better. It didn’t used to be this way – when I used to write about Apple for the New Zealand Herald it was to continuously trumpet Apple’s successes. Apple is still ‘successful’ in that it has a global presence and makes tons of money, of course, but for the last two years Apple seems to have been focussing its energies and resources on … gosh, I don’t know what. Not tech and innovation anyway. At least not visibly.
Apple Watch just turned two, and I was always amazed by this product, mostly because it had serious competitors out there in the market place before it was even actually a product. Rumours of the Apple Watch sparked companies to create smart watches that would be ‘better’ than ‘anything Apple could produce’ … except Apple hadn’t produced anything. That’s pretty incredible power right there.
But was Apple Watch the last really innovative thing Apple did? The Watch is beautifully built, and much more useful than you’d think at first sight. But Apple lost control of the market for a device it hadn’t even released, then had to work to regain the market it had itself created. Apple did, eventually, but this was a bizarre situation that it inadvertently orchestrated for itself.

Since the Watch introduction, Mac lines have languished; iPhone has had some regular updates that haven’t been groundbreaking but definitely very good; iPad has had some regularising updates and its lineup has been refined. But for the rest, Apple now has to do something truly incredible at the World Wide Developers Conference in June on more than one front. The tech world will be focussed on Apple like never before.
But why has Apple been acting this way? That’s what I can’t work out. John Gruber, who I interviewed a few years ago in Wellington, reckons Apple’s team focus has been too much on iPhone.
Sure, under Jobs, Apple would focus its key team members on different projects one after another: a project would get the love, then the love would get moved on to another category. This approach made perfect sense when Apple was lean, a little desperate and lacked resources and power – but now that Apple has resources and power to burn, this approach no longer makes any sense. At all.
Frankly, I’m amazed Apple is still doing this. Indeed, Bryan Chaffin reckons Apple’s Achilles heel is the leadership team’s slavish devotion to maintaining a tiny executive inner circle. This appears to have led to positional nest-feathering and structured, impenetrable ennui. We are supposed to be impressed when Cook, Schiller et al even talk in public, when I’d rather see them releasing new products. I actually don’t care who these people are, they’re not my Apple rock stars. Apple’s products should be.

Even Virtual Reality … sure, I’m excited Apple has set up an AR/VR lab in Wellington, New Zealand. Who wouldn’t be? But really? Google, Microsoft and other big players have been exploring this space for years already. Does Apple really think a white headset with an Apple logo on it at twice the price is all Apple is capable of? All we expect? I really, really hope not. Apple needs to work hard to be a relevant player in this space if it’s going to enter it at all. Apple has been publicly ignoring virtual reality while hiring and acquiring experts at an impressive rate.
Meanwhile, Apple as a gaming platform has had some remarkable successes in iDevices, yet it’s still largely ignored on Mac as it has been for decades. This shouldn’t matter to people who use Macs for anything but gaming, but it does: Macs still have second-rate video cards compared to cheaper PCs largely because it can’t be bothered to attract decent games, which challenge and raise technical specs on PCs. This is galling – yet it has always been galling.
Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be changed. It’s also galling because virtual reality games will explode.

So I have one message, Apple: please, please get your sh_t together!
I’d much rather be writing positive commentary.

Tuesday Talk ~ Glimmers of Mac hope


(Image from Apple’s NZ Compare page)

In a rather shocking announcement, and despite reputedly brisk sales of the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, Apple has dropped to fifth place in Laptop Magazine’s annual ranking of laptops. It held top place in that ranking until this year since 2010, which was pretty incredible in a ranking that compared PC (ie, non-Apple) laptops. For the rankings, Laptop Magazine considers the best combination of quality products, cutting-edge innovation, helpful support, sleek designs and strong value.
Actually, I think Laptop Magazine made some good points, at least about the processors and ports. The most particular ‘ouch’ might be LM’s comment “the 13-inch [MacBook] Air feels like leftovers that have been left out on the counter for over two years, complete with a 5th Generation Intel Core chip. (We’re now on 7th Gen, people.)”

(Image from Apple NZ’s Mac page)

This underscores a valid criticism of the whole Mac line, which Macworld scathingly calls “a showcase of old technology“. This includes the Pro which was a cutting edge professional powerhouse at launch for about six months and then never really updated again, for years, while the PC world romped away with ever more powerful and ever more affordable alternatives. For professionals, at a certain point, price trumps brand loyalty. Many professionals passed this point already three years ago.
But the hopeful bit came a few days back, when Apple’s Phil Schiller talked about an updated Mac Pro available now, but more importantly a more expandable, wholly-new Pro that will come out next year and other new Macs that will be more imminent.
As for the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, I really want one and I have the money. My MacBook Pro is 5 years old and staggering under it’s workload (it gets used a lot), but I was teased Kaby Lake Intel CPUs and I decided I’d hold out for them, since it’s already available. But Apple decided to hold with the previous Intel Skylake CPUs …
So I’m still waiting.
Maybe Apple doesn’t need money from Mac sales since it makes so much from not paying tax? I don’t know.
But this all rather begs the question, why does Apple, with all its power and money, wait for things to get so bad before doing anything about it? And not just in one instance (the Pro), but in many? (MacBook air, mini) while releasing an anaemic, over-priced machine without a niche (MacBook)?
Since, as Marty Edwards points out, Apple could just decide to conquer the PC world completely if it actually wanted to.
So to me, Schiller’s reassuring statements didn’t actually answer many questions, and I won’t be reassured until I actually see progress.

Tuesday Talk ~ Apple and New Zealand tax


(Image from YouTube)

First of all, lots of people don’t like paying tax. Neoliberals and conservatives in particular seem to have massive issues with tax, although they seem to have no problem driving on the roads those taxes paid for, being cared for by public medical services or taking advantage of public education, or at least of education subsidies paid on their behalf from tax revenue so their little darlings can benefit from private school educations that advantage the advantaged.
But that’s partly what I find so odd about Apple apparently paying ‘no’ tax in New Zealand: Apple has a reputation for supporting democrats, standing up for equality and strongly pursuing sustainability ambitions. None of these are exactly ‘neoliberal’.
However, Apple is also a rapacious US corporation with its eye firmly on profit. Apple will do almost anything to defend its interests, ruthlessly cut product lines and teams that don’t satisfy this urge for ever more money and, seemingly, exploit any avenue that leads to even more money on the extremely wealthy corporation’s bottom line.

But what’s the truth about Apple and New Zealand tax? Sure, Apple makes money in New Zealand. It’s a tiny territory and hardly a big factor in Apple profits, although New Zealand has always been relatively high in Mac use, then iPhone adoption.
But ‘Apple New Zealand’, although it has an office in Auckland and staff on the ground here, is actually run out of Sydney, Australia as part of ‘Apple Pacific’ which, in turn, reports directly back to Cupertino (or at least, this was the case last I heard). So Apple pays its tax in Australia, and not New Zealand. This actually means Apple pays more tax, not less: if Apple operated this subsidiary out of New Zealand it would be paying tax at 28%, but because it’s based in Australia, it’s subject to tax at 30%, as Seamus Coffey asserts.
Look, I’m not advocating tax avoidance – in fact, it makes me sick to the stomach. You choose to live in a society, and you pay your dues, as far as I’m concerned. And if I can pay tax on my tiny income, Apple can pay tax on its massive one.
Of course, corporate tax is paid on profit, not sales (apart from the New Zealand Goods and Services Tax or GST, which Apple does pay even on online sales).
Apple has not paid any income tax in New Zealand for the last ten years in New Zealand, but it has paid out $37 million from NZ sales to the Australian Tax Office instead of to New Zealand’s Inland Revenue.

But the issue is being ‘investigated’ by National minister Judith Collins. You know, the one whose husband runs Oravida, which is making millions out of selling free New Zealand water by bottling it and moving it overseas. So yeah – kettle, pot, black …

Of course, none of this excuses Apple from its tax avoidance elsewhere. That totally sucks.

Tuesday Talk ~ Siri and The Silent Division


Do you have your Siri set to a male or female voice? Personally, I prefer female. Possibly that’s because I had two daughters and even the cat’s a girl, so I’m used to being told what to do by female voices. [OK, that’s a joke. Honestly.]
No, I just prefer it. Whether it’s easier to understand and clearer, I don’t know. But do please note that Siri can not only be set to the New Zealand English accent – in other words, to better understand New Zealanders –  it can also be set to either of two genders and even to other languages. My current choice is an Irish female voice, partly because it’s so pleasant. You can do this in Settings>Siri, and on the Mac, System Preferences>Siri.

Regardless, we now have digital assistants with us all the time. And they’re literally a voice summons away.
And they’re literally iterated all over the place – Apple shipped 78 million iPhones, 13 million iPads, and 5.4 million Macs just in the last quarter.
All of them have Siri. This doesn’t even include Apple Watches and, of course, Macs. The research firm Canalys estimates Apple sold 6 million Watches last quarter. All in all, that’s over 100 million Siri enabled devices in one quarter. S/he’s literally everywhere.

Of course, there are rivals. Consumer Intelligence Research estimates Amazon sold 5.2 million Amazon echoes … for all of 2016. Ouch. And there’s Microsoft’s Cortana.
As I just explained to a SeniorNet group in Auckland yesterday, Siri on your Mac is particularly handy, for doing Maths (I love this! Asking for a percentage of a number, for example, is way easier than mucking about with a calculator). But you can also use it to find file, launch files and apps and open folders, and even to start playing iTunes music. Want to find something on the web? Launch Siri, say ‘Find me news about flooding on the web’.

Once you start doing things like this, you start considering if trackpads and mice will be necessary at all soon. For many of us who don’t mind the sound of our own voices, this is a strikingly fast and convenient way to do oh so many things.
I only worry about walking down the street and yakking to my iPhone in public. After all, us Kiwis are a reticent bunch – New Zealand soldiers in world War One famously stopped singing when they came to a village, to resume a safe distance away on the other side, earning them the nickname amongst Belgian and French villagers of ‘The Silent Division’.

Tuesday Talk ~ Where to for the Mac? Still …


This discussion is still unresolved. As Daniel Iran Dilger points out on Apple Insider, Apple’s mix of products, and therefore revenues, has changed a lot over the last two decades. In 1997, it was a mix of Macs that Apple sold; nowadays Macs form less than a fifth of Apple’s products with iPhone responsible for well over a half.
It’s easy to think Apple doesn’t care too much about the Mac, and yet it’s the Mac that made Apple what it is, and it’s the Mac users who form Apple’s most loyal, and longest standing, customer base. But some of Apple’s Mac hardware hasn’t been updated for years. It’s easy to see why, going by the sales mix, but this has created uncertainty about whether Apple still values some of its smaller niche businesses. As Dilger points out, these were once considered strategically important to Apple and included audio, video, graphics and publishing professionals.
On Apple’s current Compare Mac Models page, which lists a dozen Mac products, seven are notebooks, three are iMacs and two haven’t been materially updated in years: Mac mini and Mac Pro. It’s clear the Mac Pro was designed for professional users, and really made waves when it appeared in 2013 but that’s a very long time ago in computing terms, but the little mini has done sterling duty in many pro environments as a file server. Sure, the MacBook Pro had a refresh last year, and this was significant, although not significant enough for some, but even that seemed tardy.

Meanwhile we have the uncertainty about the little Air line, which now seems like an iPad with a keyboard and ports, and the confusing MacBook, an overpriced machine (over NZ$2000!) with limited options aimed at … who, exactly? And why?
John Martellero reckons Apple has it’s eye on the ball, but it’s not the same ball everyone else has their eye on. This is Jobsian, anyway.

Where does all this leave pro users? Tim Cook has made vague promises that Apple is not forgetting its pro users but … it’s been forgetting them for a while, starting with the thoroughly mishandled launch of Final Cut Pro X that turned so many pro users against Apple. And that situation still exists, despite major efforts to redress those issues with what is now superb video editing software.
The proof is in the pudding. And we want that pudding this year, please. Because ordinary Mac users are starting to be affected by all this, too.

Tuesday Talk ~ Post PC and iPad toast


macpro-inside

Steve Jobs would have turned 62 last week, and among many of the quite revolutionary things he said, in this case near the end of his time, was that the PC era was over. He imagined iPad would embody its replacement. However, Macs are still selling in large numbers, although sales aren’t growing, while iPad plateaued a couple of years back and has been sitting at the same level. In fact, all device sales have plateaued; the point is Mac sales took a whole lot longer to level out. So today, it looks like iPads haven’t replaced Macs, and although some people use them as their primary devices, they tend to accompany rather than to replace, at least for users with needs beyond the superficial.

For those who only browse, email/message and read, iPads are ideal tablets. For those wanting to do serious work, it really depends on the work. Apple’s beefy, powerful iPad Pro is really just an untethered Cintiq-style drawing device. Sure, you can also browse, email/message and read, and you can conceivably rough-out a sound or film project, but serious users will soon end up on a PC of some sort because the manipulation, although direct (via fingertips and maybe a stylus) on a tablet, still lags behind what’s possible with a keyboard and mouse/trackpad/etc.
As soon as you start adding physical input devices (apart from the Pencil) to iPads, well hell, you may as well have a Mac and be done with it.

It’s the portable Macs that have really worked for Apple. As Apple Insider points out, If you’re still wondering why Apple hasn’t updated its desktop Macs (the mini and Pro), their relative importance to Apple’s revenues certainly plays a factor. Apple sells truckloads of portable Macs, and comparatively few iMacs and even less of the overpriced, underperforming Mac Pros.
Many think the Mac Pro will soon disappear altogether, especially since it needs a monitor as a separate purchase, and Apple’s nomination for that vaunted position, in place of its own overpriced but excellent monitor, is the very troubled LD UltraFine.
This sounds doom and gloom, but the fact remains the large iMac is all-round wonderful: beautiful, powerful and with a truly excellent display. Most videographers and audio engineers are more than happy to work on these, and they’re saving money. Apple could do a lot to make these even better, if the Pro gets the heave-ho. 

Gloom and doom? I don’t think so. It’s easy for me to sound sour in these columns, but around the time Apple releases a great new iPhone, we could also be getting Kaby Lake MacBook Pros, awesome new iMacs and an iPad revision. To me, that’s good times and lots to look forward to. I won’t be missing the Mac Pro, and most  pro users have abandoned these long ago anyway, for cheaper faster PCs. They might be pleased to come back to Mac just for the superior operating system.

Tuesday Talk ~ Smartphones and predictions


(iPhone 8 concept image from iPhone8i)
(iPhone 8 concept image from iPhone8i)

In 1984, Apple, which had already been making computers since 1977, introduced the Macintosh. The ease of use and all-in-one form factor changed the computing industry, although the ‘real’ computer users scoffed. That said, the Mac didn’t really take off until the Desktop Publishing revolution happened a couple of years later.
In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod and dramatically revolutionised portable music. The hegemony of the iPod was only really broken by smartphones, which gradually became everyone’s default music vessels.

In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, which kicked off the smartphone revolution. Steve Jobs, in his announcement, hoped for just one percent of the worldwide mobile phone market share! That would have been 10 million phones in 2008. Apple sold 4.7 million iPhones in the first three months, but the first Android phones came out in November 2008, which has remained the only real competitor. In 2010, Jobs met with Google exec Eric Schmidt and threatened him over copying features for Android… Schmidt had been on Apple’s board.
Android had 43% of the smartphone market by mid 2011. Android’s share is now dominant, largely due to lower-price models, but it’s unlikely Apple will reduce prices since it’s just not the way the Inc works.
But this year, Apple releases it’s tenth anniversary model (nominally, iPhone 8) and already pundits reckon it will cost over US$1000 (about NZ$1400). This is really steep when you can get capable smartphones for a couple of hundred these days, so Apple had better make something pretty compelling for that price. NZ$1400 makes me quail, frankly, and I need a new iPhone this year.

Apple is a very different company in 2017. iPhone changed everything after it was introduced in ’07, including Apple revenue which is now dramatically in the iPhone camp, but Apple was ‘like the wild west‘ ten years ago compared to its rigid structures and hierarchies in ’17. Back then, things were hard to control, but it also meant potentially crazy ideas could sometimes flourish.
Former Apple engineer Bob Burrough reckons Tim Cook has tried to eliminate executive conflict within Apple and grow middle management — but so doing, has crippled the Mac maker’s old spirit.
There does appear to be a lack of cohesion; Jobs’ megalomaniac vision certainly managed to focus things. Chinese telephonics and networking giant Hawaii reckons it can overtake Apple in 2018. Apple has some work to do, for sure. But on price? The cheapest iPhone Apple sells is the US$400 iPhone SE. Huawei’s least expensive smartphone retails for about US$50. Flooding the market with cheap always works, of course, but great is still great.

iPhone 8 needs to be really great.

Tuesday Talk ~ Not on my watch


img_0848

Is it time to admit Apple Watch is a success? Apple CEO Tim Cook has stated the last holiday period was the company’s “best quarter ever” for Apple Watch, both in units and revenues, “with holiday demand so strong that we couldn’t make enough.” Yet the tech community seems to think it’s not doing well, or even that it’s a failure.
John Gruber just thinks it should be considered a watch, rather than a ‘smartwatch’. In September last year, Gruber points out, Apple Watch sales were second only to Rolex. Strangely, perhaps, when I tried the first version of the Apple Watch, what put me off was the lag in many operations. Once I had to send a unit back, I found the thing I missed the most was having the time on my wrist at all, so I went out and bought a watch which cost me just NZ$100 (about US$73). Couldn’t be happier.
Of course, I never got to try the second version of the Watch (Series 2), so I never got to compare. Which at least spared me from spending another few hundred dollars on something with an Apple logo on it. What did impress me was superb build quality and very clever design, I loved being able to choose my Watch faces, and I loved the wonderful ease of changing straps – still a finicky mission on a normal watch.
I figured I would have got used to all the great features if it wasn’t for those little lags that, eventually, stopped me even trying to do things, although I understand the latest versions are significantly faster, by up to 50%. But if you’re still not satisfied even after updating to watchOS 3, which also added speed enhancements, it is possible to speed a Watch up via various settings.
Series 2 has its own GPS which means you don’t have to have your iPhone on you to track fitness etc – this never actually bothered me as I cycle and walk with my iPhone in my pocket anyway.

But hey, I’m not wearing an Apple Watch. I’m wearing a Timex Weekender. What about you?

Tuesday Talk ~ Apple fandom and logic


(Image from TechEBlog)
(Image from TechEBlog)

How can we tell if our love for Apple is logical or biased? That was a headline on the Mac Observer. I guess this is a question we all ask ourselves sometimes. I definitely had a very biased view of Apple once I first started using a Mac in 1989, because I could actually do things, create things and work out how things worked with a Mac, whereas in those days other computers pretty much needed a degree in rocket surgery to even print out a page (but pat yourselves on the back, you people).
By the time I became editor of NZ MacGuide magazine (2002-2007) things changed for me, partly because I started to realise how difficult Apple was to deal with. Basically, Apple was (and is) very secretive and suspicious, but this was amplified through the lens of Renaissance Inc, which had the only legal NZ Apple import/distribution license in that period. Renaissance never seemed to really know where it stood with Apple, and seemed scared of losing its exclusive deal, so any secrecy and suspicion was both obfuscated and amplified.
Things became a lot better once I forged a relationship with actual Apple staffers, and although they were always (and understandably) very guarded, they’re a fine bunch of interesting and creative people. Information from them has always been first class.

And I can still make and do things. Despite still not having a degree in rocket surgery, I can still make music, films, magazines and all sorts of other things with my Apple gear, and my iPhone is my always-available smart assistant. I am living in the future.
Windows and Android have made huge strides to offer similar attributes, largely thanks to Apple’s efforts (if even only by competing with what Apple does) but I’m so imbued with Apple operating procedures they’re like foreign languages, and every unwilling experience with them is an infuriating battle.
Of course, this is the same for people coming over to the Apple world, many of whom I have personally introduced to macOS and iOS over the years either through my Mac NZ efforts, via email or in person when I present to individuals and groups. This is a relatively easy process: explain the paradigm, introduce a few concepts and off they go.

So, am I still biased? Of course, but I have come to realise Apple has flaws. The child labour thing in Asia horrified me and I was very glad Apple made moves to address this (and of course, HP, Samsung, Dell etc were all using the same factories with the same conditions, they just never seemed to get caught in the searchlights). Not paying tax sickens me – I know there are New Zealanders who have similar beliefs and I think they should be allowed to not pay tax, since they consider this unjust.
Fair enough, don’t pay tax – but then they should be banned from using our roads, public lighting, hospital emergency rooms, parks and schools. This tax issue is less clear with Apple – the Inc makes an absolute fortune, which it constantly trumpets, yet also chooses to avoid paying tax because it’s found a ‘legal’ loophole.
And I feel abandoned on the Mac front sometimes, and critical of Apple’s direction, as should be clear from my posts under this heading. And I have to admit these things have shaken my loyalty.

But hey, I still love my Apple gear. I’m still happy and productive. And that’s still the bottom line.

Tuesday Talk ~ doom and undoom


(Image from Business Insider)
(Image from Business Insider 2012)

Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist, reckons ‘the age of Apple’ is over. But I don’t think there ever was an age of Apple, apart from for Apple fans. I mean, if you’re happy with Android, you will look back on the smartphone era as your Android era.
There were ages. There was the age of the PC, and that of the desktop publishing revolution, the time of the digital music player, and that of the smartphone then the tablet, sure. Apple was at the forefront of all of these, but never exclusively ruled any to greater and lesser extents. Apple at first didn’t have the marketing or financial muscle to rule its markets, and then only ever became an effective player in them, even when it was largely responsible for entire categories coming to public attention in the first place. Actually, the only category I can think of that Apple did almost exclusively dominate from beginning to end was the iPod, since no other music player came even close to surpassing it in use, sales or public perception.
As a man of experience, Thiel should know that making any kind of sweeping pronouncements is not worthy. But hey, Thiel works for that inconceivable blow-hard Donald Trump as his ‘Silicon Valley evangelist’. You really can’t expect much considered comment, or even intelligence (beyond finely-honed and single-minded opportunism) from such a figure. Unless you are a fan of the greedy, of course.

Apple has always been about making unapproachable technology approachable. Back in the day, what was holding up PC adoption was the amount of training and knowledge required to make a computer do … anything. Apple fundamentally changed that with the introduction of the Mac’s Graphic User Interface, or GUI, which made the interface and operation of personal computers conceivable for almost any user. This approach has been the real bedrock of Apple ever since, and remains so, which is why longer-term Apple users roll their eyes when people speculate about what the next major technological revolution from Apple will be.
They’re missing the point – better to focus on what’s difficult about technology that Apple decides to make usable.

Even so, Apple has been beavering away. Can you think of ten new Apple technologies Apple introduced in 2016? Nor can I, but there were at least ten significant ones. Ceramics, machine learning, differential privacy … all these things will come into play more and more as Apple evolves its personal computing platforms. Remember, Apple plays a long game, not a short one – Steve Jobs envisaged the iPhone 25 years before it was possible to create it. That’s the real reason Apple is still here, and still very powerful.

But this does all bring to mind Apple’s profit margins. They’re unacceptably high, in this day and age. iPhone sales have been static for a while, and iPad declining. Why? I really think price: once you can get something almost as good for a third the price, ‘almost as good’ becomes pretty compelling.
Most people will deal with a reboot, crash and slowness once in a while for an extra $700 in their back pockets.