Tag Archives: commentary

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 ~ 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 ~ 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.

Tuesday Talk ~ What happened at Apple in 2016?


original-mac-ad-hello-1200x800

What happened at Apple in 2016? New products were released, and they were good, but they seemed slow in coming. Some ship dates slipped considerably: the Pencil in 2015 and then AirPods (which have only just started arriving) last year. There have been supply misjudgements which is odd for a company run by the supply-chain expert (Tim Cook), once heavily leaned-upon by Steve Jobs.
The much-anticipated late-2016 MacBook Pro certainly arrived late in the year, and although it debuted a truly useful new technology (the Touch Bar), it seemed like Apple was waiting for new processors and eventually couldn’t wait any longer. This was in the face of criticism that the MacBook Pro hadn’t been updated significantly for four years (four years!), quite a hiccup in this most stellar line of Macs. Meanwhile, iMac has started to noticeably lag, the mini looks like a very stagnated platform – and don’t even mention the overpriced, underpowered Mac Pro.
iPhone SE clearly surprised Apple with a much higher demand than expected. Forecast models seem out of sync with buyer demands, and you have to think Apple can afford great depth of talent here.
iPad (and, to be fair, all other tablets) have been languishing in sales, seemingly failing to reach the potential once promised. It’s a closed platform (of course). As the Mac Observer has observed, “Like the original Mac, Steve Jobs conceived of the iPad as a closed, friendly, appliance” but now its arc has hit the same limits the original Mac hit.
AirPort has been languishing and then, unannounced, Apple seems to have dropped its entire AirPort team, making people wonder just what is in store for their easy-to-set-up and almost flawless, not to mention attractive, Apple wifi network devices AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule. Perhaps the Apple display partnership that sees the Apple Thunderbolt Display gone and the company touting products by LG in its stead (the 4K and 5K UltraFine displays) will become the new business model across wifi too. But does that mean Apple is losing its grip, or simply concentrating where it should be?
Apple has always shifted  its focus around product groups, but it’s hard to believe resources are so  constrained at the tech giant it can’t actually cope with long-standing product lines any more. Former Apple employee Chuq Von Raspach thinks Apple’s view of its users doesn’t match its actual users, which is quite an indictment of a company that has always excelled at using data to sell data platforms.
Apple’s approach has been super successful over the decades, and some companies like Pearl Automation have taken aspects of the Apple process and ditched others. But this poses another concern – this is yet another company created by former Apple employees.

Let’s hope that Apple has been putting its house in order for 2017.

Tuesday Talk ~ tribes and where Apple is at


(Image from a Mac Observer video showing the 1989 Macintosh Portable up against the Late 2016 MacBook Pro)
(Image from a Mac Observer video showing the 1989 Macintosh Portable up against the Late 2016 MacBook Pro)

Apple is still super successful, still shipping new things, still innovating. However, considering its massive R&D spend, it’s voracious buying of one tech startup and innovator after another, somehow shipping dates slip, gaps between product releases seem to be expanding and some anomalous products emerge. For example, iPhone 7 ships without an audio port, just Lightning one end and USB the other, then a month later Apple ships the new MacBook Pro with an audio port and no way of directly connecting the new iPhone without buying the Apple Lightning to USB-C Cable as an extra.
I can’t think of another time when you could directly plug two Apple products into each other. But more worrying is the long gap between the original 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina Display and the Late 2016 MacBook Pro: four years before a major case change and real laptop innovation. Really, Apple couldn’t have done this faster, with all its power, talent and resources? While I appreciate Apple’s long-held predilection to only release products that are absolutely ready (the other tack would be exemplified by Samsung’s disastrous incendiary smartphones), this still seems a weirdly convoluted process.

Some think the criticism of Apple has taken a disturbing new turn. Once upon a time it was almost laughable. People who knew very little about Apple would post the most ridiculous criticisms. (That said, I still hear them sometimes: ‘Apple isn’t compatible’. ‘Apple is just for home use …’ Duh!)
However, that’s changing: now people who love Apple products – absolute devotees like (and including) me, are criticising Apple too. There are distinct Apple tribes, according to some, and they clash. These come under Audiophiles, Applications and Technical Professionals, at least according to the Mac Observer.
But there’s another tribe the article above doesn’t mention: those who buy Apple’s products just because they like them – their use doesn’t go very deep, and actually, they don’t really care who makes what. Apple can act overly entranced with this big, often uncaring tribe, and to me, this is the real problem.
As for the more deeply-engaged tribes enumerated above, I’m not sure I buy this argument, at least for myself: I usually get on with any other Apple fan of any category. In my experience, we all feel we’re in the same boat.
But that boat is listing.

Once criticism shifts to a sense of betrayal, as it has with some people I know (in this case, over the Mac Pro, and the new MacBook Pro simply isn’t powerful enough to placate them), mark my words: it’s really hard to come back from that.
I’ve never thought ‘Apple can do no wrong’. I’ve had plenty to criticise over the years, but the bottom line is what usually keeps me with Apple. And it’s a very attractive bottom line:
Great products.

Tuesday Talk ~ Danglin’ in Dongle Dell


dongles-640x495

Apple’s new MacBook Pro, with no Thunderbolt and no USB, leads to all sorts of interesting scenarios: what next? What will the next iMac have in the way of ports? A USB-C port is versatile and no mistake: you can charge through it, run storage devices through it (if you have the right adapter dongles), run extra monitors through it (if you have the right adapter dongles). But an iMac doesn’t need to be charged,  and not that many people run extra monitors off them, even though that can be extremely useful.

Meanwhile, every MacBook user now has to buy dongles (danged dangly adapters) to plug in anything they already own: USB ‘thumb’ drives, Thunderbolt and USB hard drives, external monitors, wired Ethernet (still way faster than relying on wifi), external monitors and, here’s the real kicker, even your Apple iPhone!
That’s right – Apple has made a phone that won’t plug plug into it’s own new Mac. Weird, because this is still far and away the best method to get photos off your iPhone and to set it up (iTunes allows a fast, deep setup of any plugged-in iDevice). Of course, with an evolutionary step in rolling out new ports, there’s always going to be an interchange period, but still.
That said, a Touch Bar keyboard for other Macs would be most welcome. Apple does hint at obtuse and fuzzy futures, and it’s gratifying that a workforce that has expanded by four times since 2009 is actually doing something over at Cupertino, but we need concrete evidence.

At least Apple has, for a timedropped the prices on all its dongles, and many other companies have come to the party with their versions (Moshi’s Multiport will suit many), but crikey, I already regularly carry four. How many more will I need? And I’m not going as far as ExtremeTech, who recently posted that Apple is now a dongle company that happens to make smartphones and Macs, but they have hit on something. Apple now has a confusing lineup of iDevices, a confusing lineup of Macs and a Christmas tree of fiddly dongles. This was the company once lauded for its streamlined simplicity.

Where to now? We actually don’t know what Apple is thinking, doing or planning until Apple actually releases something. There has been lots of critique thanks to the new Macs (Mac Observer has a good roundup and Horace Dediu has published a good piece too.

I feel very uncomfortable at the negative criticism (even when I’m taking part) because at the end of the day, I want Apple to keep providing the products I want to have. I’ve been working at a local museum two days a week, and for the first time in my life, I’ve had to use a PC.
It’s bloody horrible, in every way imaginable. But eventually, I do get the work done. Yuck – is this really going to be my future?

Tuesday Talk ~ Radio, radio


radioWhat’s the point of music radio any more? I have very ingrained radio habits. I listen to NZ National from 7am till about 1, to catch up on what’s going on in the world from the country’s best journalists, then I switch to Auckland’s BFM, which I prefer for the music, some of the Wired journalistic-style features and, let’s face it, the consistently funniest ads you’ll ever hear. My only gripe with BFM is that some of the DJs think I want to hear them discourse at length about whatever takes their fancy. They’re wrong.

But I was listening to BFM the other day when I realised the DJ was actually playing tracks from Apple Music. I’m not saying I could figure this out due to some kind of extremely fine-tuned musical perception combined with my long time close association with all things Apple, because no – I knew because he said so!
Now, in iTunes, you can listen to radio without even using Apple Music. Open iTunes, make sure you’re on Music, and along the top centre, you’ll see Library (your music), For You (Apple Music), Browse, Radio and Store. Yes, it’s called Radio.
There’s plenty there, and it’s well worth a look, but the difference between that and Apple Music is that Music has you pay a subscription but then it curates to your tastes, even making suggestions to encourage music discovery, which is really cool (Spotify and the like does the same thing).
Which brings me back to BFM. I listen to BFM because about half the music they play, at least, is music I like, and it’s been my primary source of music discovery since the 1980s. With Apple Music, I would get a more tailored experience, discover new music, no ads at all (even though BFM’s are very witty), and no annoying DJs who wrongly assume I will be dazzled by their brilliance about everyday life when all I want them to do is put another track on.

So, radio, it might be time to reinvent yourself and ask once again ‘what do listeners actually want?’

Tuesday Talk ~ The Cult of Mac is getting anxious


(Image from Pinterest)
(Image from Pinterest)

Here we are, all hanging on for new Macs. I know at least ten people in the same boat as me. We’ve been clinging on to our Macs, keeping them running, afraid to upgrade because we know, or at least think we know (while definitely fervently hoping) that a new model is imminent. This goes specifically for the MacBook Pro, which hasn’t had a full update (just some some minor refreshes) since 2012.

It’s worse for Mac Pro users …if there are any left. When that first round Pro tower came out in 2013, it was expensive but hey, it was the fastest and best. However, that didn’t last long and even a year later you could get a higher-specced PC for considerably less. This has been very difficult for Pro users to swallow, and some have even jumped ship to powerful Unix boxes while others must be thinking enviously along the same lines.
It’s not as if other manufacturers failed to notice Pro-user unhappiness, making more easily expandable, higher-specced and cheaper PCs available. The Pro hasn’t been updated in three years. Meanwhile, the excellent, but overpriced (going by the competition’s prices) Apple Thunderbolt display has been cancelled entirely, with no replacement. Luckily there are excellent high-quality displays you can plug in, in their stead, but the Thunderbolt offered some handy extra ports. But there are no rumours that Apple is even looking at a Pro update. Pro users who wanted to stay with Apple have been buying very well-specced 27-inch iMacs instead.
Apple has almost limitless resources, yet seems to have chosen to all but abandon its strongest, and most powerful, supporters.

Leaving Mac lines to languish is starting to affect sales. According to both Gartner and IDC, during the third quarter (3Q) of 2016, Apple shipped five million Macs – down from 5.4 million in the year-ago quarter, according to Gartner or from 5.8, according to IDC: a 13.4% decline. You can’t blame this on sales lost to iPad, since tablet sales aren’t picking up the slack. And there is no way on Earth that a powerful iPad even begins to be able to do what a good MacBook Pro can do, even if the latest iPad Pro outperforms the overpriced, virtually port-free MacBook. The problem, everyone agrees, is the stale Mac line-up.

Of course, the MacBook Pro is strongly rumoured to be undergoing work and everyone has been hoping it will arrive by the end of this October, although that date is getting uncomfortably close. For a professional user, an Air or worse, MacBook just can’t even begin to cut it. With a good MacBook Pro, you really can produce an entire movie, soundtrack and plenty more. It’s a really strong machine. And it has a good array of ports – if Apple cuts these, there will be a lot of disappointment.
The tragedy of all this is that if Apple doesn’t produce something spectacular, the professional crisis will depend and maybe even become a tipping point.

Tuesday Talk ~ Apple’s ‘Walled Garden’ took a couple of turns with iOS 10 and iPhone 7


(Image from Lydiard Park, UK)
(Image from Lydiard Park, UK)

Apple has long been accused of being a ‘walled garden’. This has several meanings. For an Apple user, it means the more Apple devices you have, the better, as they all communicate with each other to make your life easier. They’re all ‘in the garden’, if you will. This metaphor does not suit, say, someone who wants an Android phone but uses a Mac. The other criticism comes from developers: Apple ‘walls off’ its apps and the OS so you have to work within this environment. You can’t modify the environment itself, only the stuff in the flowerbeds. Developers like messing with the system – this represents a type of digital freedom, sure, but it also leads to multiple versions of the system, which is what you have in the Android world. Your app may work on your phone with your OS, but it won’t necessarily continue to work once you change phons or systems. This frustration is much, much rarer in the Apple world.
But, as I sometimes tell groups a little fatuously, a walled garden is more secure (true enough: Apple’s security record remains stellar) and besides, ‘gardens are nice’.

These criticisms have resurfaced lately with iPhone 7, since the only port into the device now is an Apple-designed port, that being the Lightning connector. That means everything interpreted though this port has to be mandated and controlled by Apple, or at least fit its Lightning guidelines. As Engadget points out, to create devices for the Lightning port, accessory makers have to sign up for Apple’s MFi (Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad) program.

However, the same can’t be said of iOS 10. iOS is now much more open than it was three years ago. IOS 7 was a huge visual overhaul, but it was nearly as locked down as the previous versions. The following year, Apple started opening things up. Now, claims Engadget (again) iOS is nearly as open as Android, at least as far as users are concerned. Look at the new Messages, for example: you can add stickers, draw on photos, send your heartbeat and even use other apps from inside iMessage.

I haven’t seen an iPhone 7 yet (anyone got one and willing to comment?). Going by the specs and reviews, it’s a brilliant iPhone in every way. But now we’re already wondering what next year will bring, with even Fortune posting a speculative piece on what Apple might offer for an iPhone. Why? Next year is the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the first iPhone, which appeared and changed everything in 2007.

Tuesday Talk ~ Apple and shooting for the Moon (September is close)


(Image from space.com)
(Image from space.com)

After Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, with no product announcements, everyone’s waiting with increasing impatience for new products from Apple. Probably iPhone 7, probably MacBook Pro, which hasn’t had a real refresh for four years. Possibly Watch 2, possibly … it gets vaguer after here. The Mac Pro could do with some love too, but Apple’s unlikely to release too many things at once. I mean, it’s possible, as Apple has the resources to, crikey, build a station on the moon if it really wants to.
But  that’s one thing I don’t expect to be announced.
On the boring front,  iOS 10 and macOS Sierra are on the way. I’ve seen the betas of these and they offer improvements and refinements, but hardly great leaps. I mean, Siri on Mac? I don’t use Siri on iDevice. I’m sure some people do, but who are they? To me it’s a brilliant gimmick. I only ever use it when I show people. They say ‘Wow!’ too, but I really doubt they go away and use it.

iPhone 7 — The rumours about this have been all over the place. Even the leaked pictures of possible cases vary widely. You have to wonder if Apple has been adding to the confusion here. But almost certainly, the camera will be better. I say this as the camera has been improved in pretty much every prime release of iPhone, and even between some prime and ‘s’ version iPhones, this has happened.
Maybe it will get Pencil support, as why not? However, for me, the whole point of computers and devices is so I wouldn’t have to use a pen or pencil, partly because I can’t draw and partly because my handwriting is so awful, even I can’t read it. But that’s just me: plenty would find that useful, and iPad Pro certainly supports it well. But as other commentators have pointed out, next year is the 10th anniversary of iPhone, and that’s when a truly groundbreaking new iPhone could be expected, rather than this year.
iOS 10 gets rid of the swipe to unlock gesture (boy, is it hard to retrain your fingers here!). Unlocking now is a second press of the Home button. These will therefore wear out quicker, so they need some engineering anyway. Perhaps that’s why there are rumours of haptic feedback, as in the trackpad of the MacBook. Apple’s in that realm already, and is sure to expand that into other Macs, so why not?

Watch 2 — The limitations of the current, initial Apple Watch are: dependency on your iPhone to do the real processing, and general slowness and lag. It seems obvious a new version would improve on these two points as Apple’s engineers get better at smaller/faster, which has always been their forté. The promised new watchOS will place more demands on the hardware, so it will have to be better. How much better? We can’t know yet.  But to me, the Watch isn’t truly useful yet, so I don’t have one.
Speculation elsewhere talks about GPS radio and a built-in barometer, but I don’t know. In my experience, these ‘well-connected analysts’ are living in the same informational vacuums that we all exist in, when it comes to Apple, despite their protestations to the contrary. But I guess we’ll see.

MacBook Pro — As I’ve said before, it’s likely a new MacBook Pro will have some of the features debuted in the MacBook: a slimmer design partly thanks to a new screen hinge, a bigger high-tech trackpad, but hopefully a decent array of ports, or pro users simply won’t buy them. Along with this, better battery tech, a faster latest-gem Intel CPU, and hopefully excellent graphics cards.

And in future? Orange Peel Investment’s Scott Tzu believes in a  seismic sentiment change regarding the upcoming iPhone 7. He thinks the hype surrounding the iPhone 8 will be ‘unbearable’, so Apple could “very well be sitting at all-time highs just 12 short months from now.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of others continue predicting Apple’s imminent demise.

Why doesn’t this matter? They always have been.