Bloomberg On Apple's 2017 iPhone Lineup

19 April 2017

Bloomberg:

Company engineers in the past have also experimented with integrating cameras into screens, another person said.

All the new iPhones will run iOS 11, a mobile operating system that will include a refreshed user-interface and will be announced in June at the company’s annual conference for developers, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Putting fingerprint sensors and cameras under the display appears to be possible with current technology. The problem is doing it at scale. Apple needs components that are able to be produced in high yields, so it can push out tens of millions of iPhones every month and meet consumer demand.

Earlier in the article, Bloomberg says that Apple has tested screen-integrated fingerprint sensors in some iPhone 8 prototypes. I sure hope it can deliver on that — it would maximise the bezel-less nature of the front face and differentiate it from the Android competition. Integrating the FaceTime camera below the display feels further away and an obvious point of future improvement.

The industry rumour was that Samsung wanted to put a fingerprint sensor in the screen for the Galaxy S8 but couldn’t workaround manufacturing bottlenecks, and they resorted to putting a standard scanner on the back of the phone. I hope what Samsung couldn’t achieve for the spring, Apple can pull off several months later in the fall. Touch ID on the back is just janky.

Regarding iOS 11 having a “refreshed” design, who knows what that means. Without specific details, you could argue every version of iOS has seen a visual refresh in one way or another. It’s not out of the question to expect a more significant design update this year though; some accommodations for bezel-less iOS devices (and various affordances for more productive iPad ‘pro user’ features) seems inevitable.

New Zelda Sells More Than A Million Copies In Launch Month

14 April 2017

Nintendo:

Nintendo Switch, the new home gaming system that people can also take on the go, has sold faster in its launch month than any other video game system in Nintendo history. The Nintendo Switch system sold more than 906,000 units in March, according to the NPD Group, which tracks video game sales in the United States. That makes Nintendo Switch one of the fastest-selling video game systems of all time. Notably, this sales surge was accomplished in a nontraditional month for a console launch.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game sold over 1.3 million units. That total includes more than 925,000 units sold for Nintendo Switch and nearly 460,000 units sold for the Wii U console.

With more copies of Breath of the Wild sold for the Nintendo Switch than Nintendo Switch consoles, I don’t think it’s a reach to say that Zelda carried the Switch through its launch month. The reality is Nintendo cannot pump out AAA games every thirty days, as much as I like the company and the games it makes, I am still skeptical about the Switch’s longer-term market success.

I don’t think you can make any conclusions from this data about how well the Switch was received beyond the fact people like Zelda and wanted to play the new Zelda, which got perfect scores from many review sites. Framed another way, the Wii U is still a dead console despite it achieving half a million game sales from a single title, in March.

The New Mac Pro

4 April 2017

Daring Fireball:

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis. They’re also working on Apple-branded pro displays to go with them.

The new Mac Pro has gone from a question of if to a question of when. It is a real shame that the rollout of the trashcan’s replacement is so protracted; Apple isn’t even confirming that it is coming in 2018, just ‘not this year’.

I would be shocked if it wasn’t ready to reveal sometime next year, even if the availability slips into 2019, but who knows. It is unprecedented for Apple to pre-announce anything really this far out but what I found especially intriguing was that they tipped the hat on new pro-focused iMacs as well as the Mac Pro itself.

This non-event event wasn’t just about the existence of the Mac Pro, although that leads headlines, it was about Apple’s commitments to the Mac in general. I think Apple saw that Tim Cook’s vague comments about the ‘pro market’ were received badly, for good reason, and they had to do something more drastic. This break from the normal secrecy is a huge statement of their seriousness.

Apple also announced that they are developing a new external display — my favourite news of the day. The LG 5K UltraFine is a mediocre product even when you ignore the silly WiFi router interference problems that plagued its debut. A display is a critical part of the Mac experience. As such, I very much believe Apple should make their own displays for as long as they sell Macs, something which they have firmly signalled they will be doing for a long time.

The $329 iPad

22 March 2017

Apple:

Apple today updated its most popular-sized iPad, featuring a brighter 9.7-inch Retina display and best-in-class performance at its most affordable price ever, starting at $329 (US). Designed for unmatched portability and ease of use, along with incredible performance and all-day battery life, iPad is the world’s most popular tablet and the primary computing device for millions of customers around the world. Through the more than 1.3 million apps designed specifically for iPad, customers can do even more, from learning to code with Swift Playgrounds and reading books on the large screen to boosting productivity through Microsoft Office and using multitasking features like Split Screen.

Heavier and thicker than an iPad Air 2, with a worse screen, but faster CPU and most likely the same 2 GB RAM. The big difference is the price, the new iPad starts at $329 for 32 GB configuration.

People wanting a tablet to watch videos and check Facebook can be perfectly satisfied by this iPad (which I consider an ‘iPad SE’ to clarify things in my head). The price cut helps drive adoption by schools and educational institutions, as well as make it an easier sell for mainstream customers. Heavy iPad users will obviously want to wait for the updated iPad Pro lineup to get their hardware fix, which is obviously in the wings but not quite ready for launch.

Even though the $329 iPad isn’t unequivocally superior to the iPad Air 2, Apple still opted to discontinue the Air 2. This is fine, I think. Apple has sacrificed some elegance in the mid range to create a $270 price gap between the 9.7-inch iPad and the iPad Pro. It’s up to the consumer if they want to pay the Pro premium for the additional features, which often requires additional purchases to take advantage of ($99 Pencil and/or $169 Smart Keyboard).

With the replacement of the iPad Air 2 and removal of the iPad Mini 2, Apple has simplified the overall lineup from five iPads to four: two sizes of iPad Pro, the iPad, and iPad mini 4. I think it won’t be long before the iPad mini is dropped too. It sticks out as ‘unfinished business’ purely from its name, now the only iPad with a number in its title, and I think Apple’s ultimate move will be to cull it and position the cheap 9.7-inch iPad as a ‘good enough’ successor.

Apple's Spring Announcements

22 March 2017

The way Apple chooses to announce new things acts as a strong signal about how they should be perceived. Apple set expectations for yesterday’s news by updating the website and sending out press releases. They did not call the press to a media event.

That’s not to say these announcements wouldn’t have featured in a keynote, if Apple had hosted one. The red iPhone color is a big deal; the first new iPhone color ever to be launched outside of the yearly refresh cycle. Apple executives could have waxed lyrical for a solid five minutes about how good it looks and how they are helping to battle AIDS in their partnership with PRODUCT(RED).

They also would have had ample opportunity to demo the new Clips app live with some cheesy videos courtesy of Craig Federighi, and expounded upon Apple’s efforts in education and business to introduce the $329 iPad.

However, Apple could not (and did not) make a keynote out of just the products they released yesterday; a $329 old-design iPad, new Watch band colours, the Clips app, and a red iPhone. None of those are the main course of an event.

Perhaps Apple had originally planned to do a spring event to feature new iPad Pros, especially the widely-reported 10.5-inch bezel-less model. It would have incorporated the red iPhone and the $329 iPad as part of that event. Then, a spanner in the works meant the iPad Pro releases would have to wait. Alternatively, maybe the Pros were always scheduled for later in the year.

Either way, the fact Apple felt the need to announce some stuff standalone yesterday strongly suggests to me that a 2017 spring event is not going to happen. If there was going to be an April event, Apple would have held the red iPhone unveiling for that stage. They didn’t — so it follows there is nothing to hold it back for. I would bet Apple has nothing more to say about new stuff until June, with WWDC.

For even more supporting evidence to this, look at the Clips app. It’s an independent piece of software, there are no pressures from the supply chain about fixing down dates. Apple has the freedom to announce it and release it whenever they want, on a whim. Apple chose to announce Clips yesterday … yet it doesn’t launch until ‘early April’. That means there can’t be an Apple event in early April, otherwise Apple would have kept it under wraps for a few more weeks and demoed it for the first time at the event.

Digitimes Expects New iPads To Be Announced In April

14 March 2017

Digitimes:

Apple has moved ahead the production for its planned new 10.5-inch iPad to March instead of an earlier timetable set for May-June and is expected to unveil the new iPad at a product event to be held in early April to mark the inauguration of Apple’s new headquarters in California, according to Taiwan-based supply chain makers.

The 10.5-inch iPad will target education and business sectors, and together with an upgrade 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the two models will be Apple’s mainstream products for the mid-tier to high-end tablet market in 2017, said the sources.

Digitimes doesn’t have insight into Apple’s marketing plans so the line about Apple holding an event to mark the ‘inauguration’ of Apple Park should simply be ignored, but I tend to believe the rest of the report. After all, Digitimes isn’t the only source here: KGI said Apple would debut three new iPads in early 2017 back in August.

The 10.5 inch iPad probably shouldn’t be thought of as a whole new addition to the lineup, I see it as the continuation of the 9.7 inch iPad Pro line. The major design change will be the introduction of an edge-to-edge display, which allows it to feature a larger 10.5 inch screen in a chassis that is the same physical size as the current 9.7 inch iPads. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 10.5 inch iPad keeps the same 2048×1536 resolution; the bezel-less appearance serves an aesthetic purpose more than a functional one.

I was surprised that Digitimes says the 10.5 inch and 12.9 inch models will target business and education; I think it’s well established that schools’ budget means they tend to look for the cheapest offerings in the category. It seems like they would opt for the revved 9.7 inch iPad, expected to debut at lower price points to capture customers with more price-sensitive wallets.

Apple Park

23 February 2017

Apple:

Apple today announced that Apple Park, the company’s new 175-acre campus, will be ready for employees to begin occupying in April. The process of moving more than 12,000 people will take over six months, and construction of the buildings and parklands is scheduled to continue through the summer.

Steve would have turned 62 this Friday, February 24. To honor his memory and his enduring influence on Apple and the world, the theater at Apple Park will be named the Steve Jobs Theater. Opening later this year, the entrance to the 1,000-seat auditorium is a 20-foot-tall glass cylinder, 165 feet in diameter, supporting a metallic carbon-fiber roof. The Steve Jobs Theater is situated atop a hill — one of the highest points within Apple Park — overlooking meadows and the main building.

Whilst the main campus building literally looks like an unclosed ring, I never expected it to be called Infinite Loop. It’s a dated reference to technology which doesn’t gel with the modern Apple’s image. Apple Park is a perfect choice of name; descriptive and meaningful without being too oblique.

Employees start moving in April but the Steve Jobs Theater, where Apple intends to do most of its media keynotes going forward, is listed as opening ‘later this year’. It’s not clear if that means later than today or later than April. With a spring media event likely in the offing, I’m sure Apple would love to host it at their new campus theatre. If they can’t make the spring event, then its first public use would be the fall event, as the sheer number of WWDC attendees means it has to be held at a convention centre in San Jose. The September 2017 event would be a fitting kickoff for the venue, as well. Radical new iPhone, radical new campus.

Swift ABI Stability Delayed Again

17 February 2017

Swift Evolution:

Since July, we now have a much better understanding now of how to achieve ABI stability, with an ABI Manifesto detailing the list of all language/implementation work that is needed to achieve ABI stability. We have made substantial progress in that work during stage 1, but much remains to be done. Once Swift achieves ABI stability the ABI can be extended, but not changed. Thus the cost of locking down an ABI too early is quite high.

Given the importance of getting the core ABI and the related fundamentals correct, we are going to defer the declaration of ABI stability out of Swift 4 while still focusing the majority of effort to get to the point where the ABI can be declared stable.

In practical terms, there are very few advantages to Swift achieving ABI stability. The primary benefit is that it would allow Apple to ship Swift frameworks on its operating systems, rather than ones written in Objective-C. It would also reduce Swift compiled application size by a few megabytes as apps would no longer have to include copies of the compiled standard library.

In the scheme of things, these benefits are not critical to reap. The scope of Swift project is far wider than that. Improvements to compiler bugginess, optimisation and language feature development help a much bigger audience. Thinking egotistically as as a solo (indie/contract) developer, those changes mean everything and ABI stability means nothing.

Hence, I am not upset that ABI stability will not be achieved this year. I am disappointed that the Swift project is once again deferring a milestone goal, the same goal in fact. In the Swift 3.0 planning stages, ABI stability was touted as a headline change. A few months in, the core team pronounced it was too early and became a leading Swift 4 priority.

In fact, the Swift 4 open-source development structure was purposefully split into two phases, devised specifically to focus solely on ABI stability matters in the first phase. Phase one is now over, yet ABI stability is still nowhere close to being achieved, although there are now more formal plans about what needs doing. The reasons given for delaying it this time is that it would take too much time to implement the plans (and there are still several ABI-affecting things that need to be designed).

I would argue it was obvious from the outset that there was never going to be enough time in this development cycle to do it and that freezing ABI prematurely would be damaging. The fiasco is a prime example of project mismanagement that ultimately distracted everyone involved from achieving other meaningful, feasible features. The idea of achieving ABI stability should never have been on the table for Swift 4, let alone Swift 3. I hope that the next time ABI stability is brought up on Swift Evolution, it is appropriately timed.

That being said, with the course correction now in place, I look forward to everyone focusing on things which I deem important and useful for improving Swift, like completing the generics system (which was also deferred from Swift 3, for what it’s worth).

Planet Of The Apps Trailer Released

14 February 2017

As expected, it’s a consumer reality show like Shark Tank but focused on app entrepreneurs. It doesn’t represent a diverse view of the worldwide App Store developer industry … but I wasn’t expecting it to. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any ‘reality’ TV that does justice to real life. Hopefully, the series is entertaining to watch.

I still question the distribution strategy, wherein Planet of the Apps is only accessible inside the Music app and requires an Apple Music subscription. This feels like something that should be freely broadcast to anyone who wants to watch it; it’s advertisement for iOS through and through.

Carpool Karaoke makes more sense as premium content for Apple Music (it’s about music for one) but I think it might just go entirely ignored. The Late Show segments are viral phenomenons on YouTube with millions of views. That just isn’t going to happen for Apple’s series because there is no ability to share it with your friends; it’s soloed within Music and iTunes, plus it requires upfront payment to view.

iOS 10.3 CarPlay Adds App Shortcuts In Sidebar

13 February 2017

9to5Mac:

The biggest change with CarPlay in iOS 10.3 beta is directly on the Home screen. Three app icons now appear on the status bar. These apps a smaller versions of the primary app icons on the Home screen and stay in view eve when you’re in other apps. This makes it possible to switch between CarPlay apps without pressing the virtual Home button and going back to the Home screen each time.

While there are three app icons visible here, it isn’t exactly the last three opened apps that CarPlay picks. Instead, think of each app icon as a category: navigation, communication, and entertainment.

This is a well done feature. More than a naive list of the three most recently used apps, the sidebar reserves space for three specific purposes; one spot for maps, one for music / podcasts apps, and one for phone calls / messages. These categories map to the most common actions people want to do in a car — hands free chat, getting directions and playing some music. Subtle animations complement the behaviour and signpost state changes with smooth motion.

In iOS 10.3 beta 1, the time was squished down right next to the home button making the whole interface feel cramped. In beta 2, the time is centred in the available gap between the elements which gives it room to breathe. Much better.

On the CarPlay home screen, it does look messy as so many of the apps are duplicated as sidebar icons. I would hide the quick launch tray on the home screen and show the car manufacturer’s app in the top left corner instead.

OLED iPhone 8 Reportedly Priced Above $1000

8 February 2017

Fast Company:

A special 10th-anniversary edition of the iPhone is expected to be the ultimate iPhone, and it’ll come with a price tag to match—very likely north of $1,000, says a source with knowledge of Apple’s plans.

At first glance, a $1000 iPhone sounds ridiculous. A four digit price tag certainly evokes the necessary sticker-shock clickbait. If you think about and make some guesses though, it’s almost a non-story. A top-spec iPhone 7 Plus 256 GB model costs almost that much ($969) new from the Apple Store today.

With the forerunning rumors indicating Apple will be releasing both the radically-new OLED ‘iPhone 8’ and two cheaper iterative ‘iPhone 7s’ models (colloquially named), it is pretty logical for the amazing all-glass bezel-less monolith to be premium priced.

Assuming the OLED iPhone is bundled with 256 GB storage, a $1000 price point is only slightly higher than how the status quo stands right now. Apple can afford to start the base price of its fancy new model so high because it will also offer the iPhone 7s model at the usual storage tiers and price points.

This strategy will no doubt push iPhone average selling price upwards with a good mix of buyers opting for the shiny new stuff (myself included), which is clearly a goal for the company as unit sales growth lessens. With all that in mind, a rumor saying the next flagship iPhone will be circa $1000 isn’t all that crazy. Who knows if Fast Company’s source is reliable.

Apple Designing Low-Power ARM Chip For Future Mac Laptops

2 February 2017

Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. is designing a new chip for future Mac laptops that would take on more of the functionality currently handled by Intel Corp. processors, according to people familiar with the matter.

The chip, which went into development last year, is similar to one already used in the latest MacBook Pro to power the keyboard’s Touch Bar feature, the people said. The updated part, internally codenamed T310, would handle some of the computer’s low-power mode functionality, they said. The people asked not to be identified talking about private product development. It’s built using ARM Holdings Plc. technology and will work alongside an Intel processor.

What’s funny about this is that Apple is adding a new ARM chip, in addition to an Intel CPU, for better power efficiency. In general, the path to improving battery life in devices is about miniaturisation and simplification; less chips, smaller chips, new processes and architectures for existing chips. Squeeze more transistors into the same space and use the leftover area to pack in battery cells.

With laptops, the tolerances aren’t as punishing. There aren’t the same constraints as an iPhone. Adding a dedicated ARM chip for specific tasks will wring out some extra battery life. Nevertheless, it goes against the grain and doesn’t make sense long-term.

If the main processor was a custom ARM chip too, you could incorporate the low-power magic into it and not need an additional part. Less chips, even better battery life. This is already happening in the iPhone (the A10 Fusion) and has to be the roadmap for the Mac. The technical roadblocks to ditch Intel and x86 will take time, and some points cannot be overcome in advance, but that has to be the target. The goal.

For the sake of completeness, an alternative route would see Apple getting control over x86 chip design and itself creating power efficient silicon that includes all the necessary Power Nap, Touch ID and Touch Bar features. I think this is far less likely because Apple will want to build on its knowledge of producing ARM chips for iPhone and iPad, not start a whole new team for a unique architecture.

Apple Reports Record Revenue In Latest Earnings

1 February 2017

Apple:

“We’re thrilled to report that our holiday quarter results generated Apple’s highest quarterly revenue ever, and broke multiple records along the way. We sold more iPhones than ever before and set all-time revenue records for iPhone, Services, Mac and Apple Watch,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “Revenue from Services grew strongly over last year, led by record customer activity on the App Store, and we are very excited about the products in our pipeline.”

iPhone, Services, Mac and Watch set revenue records. What flagship Apple product line continues to flounder? iPad. Specifically, Apple announced sales of 13 million iPads for Q4 2016, down from 16 million in the same period a year ago. It’s the only black mark on the books again.

Tim Cook said on the earnings call that they are in the early innings of smartphones and there is much work to do. If that’s the case, Apple has a ton of work to do for the tablet space. The rumoured trifecta of new iPad hardware is a good baseline to incentivise some sales but the software is the limiting factor. iPad components are beefy whereas the OS and app ecosystem is immature and neglected.

There are so many places iOS needs to improve to be a productivity machine. Everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea that iOS needs an overlapping windowing model like the Mac, and that split view doesn’t suffice. That might be the case, I don’t think it is a certainty. That discussion is almost a distraction though — there is so much other stuff that could be made better about the iPad software stack.

So many basic computing tasks are convoluted and messy on the iPad we know today. Tasks like tweeting an image embedded into a webpage in Safari, playing background music without getting interrupted, collating a handful of attachments from different recipients and sending them off in a new mail message, and so many other things that people want to do every day. Heck, it’s still not possible to look at two emails side-by-side.

I love my iPad Pro as an entertainment device but I hit walls constantly when I want to use it for more than that. I want Apple to push it so much further and I believe there is plenty of runway before we have to discuss if, and to what degree, iOS should envelop desktop metaphors.

Apple Will Soon Let Developers Reply To App Reviews On The App Store

24 January 2017

Apple:

When iOS 10.3 ships to customers, you will be able to respond to customer reviews on the App Store in a way that is available for all customers to see. (This feature will also be available on the Mac App Store.)

Adding the ability for developers to reply to reviews is handy, and widely requested by the community at large for years, but there are downsides. There is a high probability that the reviews section in the App Store becomes the de-facto customer support channel because that’s what users will see first. However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Traditional application support software is feature-rich and sophisticated refined over many iterations and versions — standalone companies exist to fulfil this need. Technically, I find it hard to believe that Apple’s infrastructure for composing replies and triaging incoming comments will be up to scratch. iTunes Connect is not known for its ease of use or flexibility. Big companies are not going to like it because it inevitably won’t scale well to managing hundreds of reviews every single day and small indie devs are burdened with another job to do that they might not be able to justify.

I would also guess that the system is going to be pretty limited, like not supporting image attachments (for screenshots) or clickable outbound links. I’m also interested to see whether Apple will allow developers to ask the customer for contact information — like an email address — so they can continue their assistance outside of the iTunes sandbox.

There is also the other can of worms regarding the usual flaws of online communication. The reviews for apps are bad enough as it is and the ability to reply may exacerbate the problem rather than make it better. A badly worded response from a developer can easily incite an angry customer, even if the intention was to be helpful.

Customer support threads could also just clutter up the comments, depending on how they are presented in the interface, which results in a detrimental experience for customers who are simply trying to determine if an app is good or not.

The developer reply feature is not active in the current iOS 10.3 beta so it’s hard to say if this is a legitimate concern. I am secretly hoping Apple takes this opportunity to revamp the design of the reviews section in general.

Whilst Apple should offer the ability for developers to respond to reviews, it shouldn’t become a mandatory thing. I believe Apple should let developers choose whether they want to enable replies for their app; this preference would then be shown to customers when they go to leave a review so they can know whether to expect a reply or not. If developers choose to opt out, the App Store is no worse off than how it has been for the last decade.

New AirPods Ad

17 January 2017

This advert strikes a nice balance between being obvious and abstract. There’s a subtlety to the commercial that I like; it conveys the idea of wireless AirPods giving freedom without saying it. The dancer strafes up the side of buildings in a way that is somewhat realistic, it has an ethereal quality about it which makes the viewer question what parts are camera tricks and what bits are just good dancing.

I also think the choice to make the ad monochrome is interesting given the products on display are also white. Rather than filtering the video to single them out (like a Pleasantville effect), the AirPods blend in with the scenery. The beat at the end where the person takes the earbuds out to hear the sounds of the ‘real world’ is a great touch, too.

Apple Announces 'Record-Shattering' Numbers For App Store Sales Across 2016

5 January 2017

Apple:

Apple today announced that the App Store welcomed 2017 with its busiest single day ever on New Year’s Day, capping a record-breaking holiday season and a year of unprecedented developer earnings and breakout app hits. In 2016 alone, developers earned over $20 billion, up over 40 percent from 2015. Since the App Store launched in 2008, developers have earned over $60 billion, creating amazing app experiences for App Store customers across iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV and Mac. Those efforts helped kick off 2017 with a remarkable start, making New Year’s Day the highest single day ever for the App Store with nearly $240 million in purchases.

I wonder what the growth numbers would look like if games revenue was excluded. How much of that 40% growth is accountable to crappy freemium pay-to-win mobile games? I don’t think the App Store outlook is bleak but its health is not solely defined by how much its revenue increases year-over-year. A platform that can cultivate hundreds of addictive gambling ‘games’ — and nothing else — is not what I would consider a success.

Apple doesn’t release breakdowns of the headline statistics so it’s impossible to know if that is the truth, of course, but it is certainly true that the top grossing apps on the store are all freemium games with purchasable digital currencies. In the same press release, though, Apple lists quality non-freemium apps such as Prisma, Lumino City, Procreate and djay as being among the ‘most successful’. The definition of success (profit, revenue, or download count?) is unclear but it is encouraging to see those apps featured as examples of developers that are thriving.