Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Apple Watch Series 3

When I bought the first generation of Apple Watch a couple of years ago, I had trouble convincing my wife that I should spend our hard-earned on it. I had trouble convincing her probably because I had trouble convincing myself. When she asked what I could do on it that I couldn't do on my phone, the list was pretty short, and there were so many drawbacks to the form and the capabilities that she just couldn't understand my interest.

The best explanation that I could muster was that I wanted to be a part of this conversation about the next generation of computing. I wanted to be a participant in the early evaluation of wearables, so that I could understand if it was a fad or the future. I've found that I really enjoy my Apple Watch, but not for the reasons that I anticipated, and not for the reasons that Apple guessed when Tim Cook described it in 2014 as:
A precise timepiece, a new intimate way to communicate from your wrist, and a comprehensive health and fitness device.
Only the description of the Apple Watch as a "health and fitness device" has proven to be true. (Just as the phone app is a pretty insignificant part of the iPhone, the "precise timepiece" description is pretty insignificant when describing the Apple Watch.) The second item, "a new intimate way to communicate" has been, up to now, the least accurate proposition about the use of the Apple Watch. Users generally found no utility in the "new intimate" ways to communicate, and they dismissed them.

Apple yesterday released the Apple Watch Series 3, which provides a cellular connection to the watch. This allows Apple to take another swing at revolutionizing communication from the wrist, by setting the Apple Watch free from its tether to the iPhone. It seems clear that this is the functionality that Apple wanted to release from the beginning, but that technology needed to catch up before they could make a cellular capable watch for the masses.

I can't overstate how big this development is for the Watch, and I can't disagree more with Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times:
The cellular version completes a long-term vision for the Watch — to liberate you, in some small way, from Apple’s best-selling phone. In a demo, an Apple employee made a live call to the keynote address from a paddle board in the middle of a lake.
This is a slightly risky strategy, of course; Apple doesn’t want to kill its golden iPhone goose. But the new cellular watch is unlikely to be a replacement for the phone, just a high-priced complement.
The reason I disagree with Manjoo is because Apple is happy to kill its golden iPhone goose. It happily let the iPhone kill the iPod, is happy for iPads to kill MacBook Pros, is happy for Apple Music to cannibalize song download sales. If the market is going to move on to something new (and it always does, eventually), then Apple will actively hasten the old product's demise, by investing in the new.

And I can't overstate how big this development is because it points the direction for the watch to take over from the phone. Not just the Apple Watch taking over from the iPhone, but the connected watch overtaking the phone as the essential connectivity device. Captain Picard didn't carry around a PADD all the time, but he always had his communicator on his shirt. In this (and in so many things), we can learn a lot from Star Trek.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Apple event September 12, 2017, focused on AR and VR

According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple will hold its (basically) annual iPhone announcement on September 12.

From the rumor mill, they will release three versions of the iPhone: super special (no name, yet), 7S Plus, and 7S.

They are also rumored to release an Apple Watch with a cellular connection, so that it no longer needs the iPhone to stay connected.

It also sounds like they might update the Apple TV hardware to handle 4K video. Though this rumor is popular, I'm not sure it has been connected to the September 12 event. Apple TV isn't important enough to have its own event, though, so unless they want to also have an October event with new Macs or something else, it seems like they will probably release it September 12.

I'm most excited about this event because of Apple's focus on Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. Apple's June WWDC keynote is usually a harbinger of the hardware that will be announced in September. Apple can't spring software on developers, so Apple announces and discusses the pre-release software in June, and then come September, they release beautiful hardware to do awesome things with the software (1).

At the June WWDC, Apple heavily focused on AR and VR software. So much so that almost everyone expects some announcement of hardware focused on AR and VR. It seems like this hardware will probably be some type of custom chip to better handle AR and VR without killing the iPhone battery. More exciting, though a lot less likely, would be some new product, like VR goggles or AR glasses, that accelerate Apple's somewhat belated entry into the fields. The supply chain is so extensive, though, that it doesn't seem like there will be any product like this, since we haven't heard any rumors about it.

I'm also interested to see updates on the products that Apple has already announced, but which won't be ready for release at the September event, namely, the HomePod (and to a lesser extent, the iMac Pro). Fingers crossed we get an update that everything is on track. The previously announced release date of December puts customers in a weird place, since Christmas shoppers don't know if they should wait for the HomePod or buy other presents. Ideally for customers (and if Apple wants to sell a boatload for Christmas), Apple will refine the release date to December 1, but my guess is that Apple isn't confident enough to say that (if they were, they'd probably have them out for Black Friday.)

Oh well, only about a week to wait to have at least a few questions answered.

(1) Of course, this isn't a hard and fast rule. From WWDC, it seems like Apple wasn't going to make many updates to the Apple Watch. As a customer who is eagerly awaiting a cell-connected Apple Watch, I was hoping to get at least a hint from WWDC that the watch would be updated, but instead I found out that I could get a Buzz Lightyear watch face. If the rumors are true that Apple will release a cell-capable watch, I'd argue that WWDC didn't betray the surprise at all.

Monday, August 28, 2017

ApplePay really is awesome...since every store (in Poland) accepts it

So, though I am generally an Apple fanboy who would buy Apple-branded ice for my igloo, I was a little skeptical about ApplePay when it was released. There just isn't much friction when I use my credit card at a store, so I wasn't quite sure what problem ApplePay was solving. Add to that the fact some banks weren't supporting it (in 2014), and the fact that most US stores don't support it (even now), and ApplePay was relegated, in my mind, to a back burner somewhere between "Ping" and the iPod HiFi (1).

However, that has all changed since I moved to Poland in late 2016. In Poland, nearly every store supports NFC cards, so my ApplePay is crushing it. All the Polish cards have NFC, so people are waving their cards around like, um, cards, but here are a couple of reasons why ApplePay wins:

  1. I have multiple cards on one device, so I can quickly pay for restaurants with my Chase, and other stuff with my Priceline Visa. 
  2. For bigger purchases, everybody with an NFC card has to remember a PIN (and enter it while looking over their shoulders). I just use my thumb on Touch ID, and I'm done. 
  3. Because I can pay for stuff with my phone, which is always with me, I don't need to carry my wallet. One less thing to worry about.
So much winning! (Really!)

I know I'm pretty lucky. I bank in the US, and by 2016 pretty much all banks had started supporting ApplePay, and I'm using ApplePay in Poland, where all the terminals have switched over to NFC. (Polish banks, alas, don't support ApplePay, yet.) But, even if it is just luck, it shows me the potential to live in the future as Apple envisioned it. It shows me how things might be back in the US if NFC takes off for transactions. 

It also shows me another example of a country that gets to jump past established economies because they didn't have entrenched interests. (Poland, being communist until 1989, had largely a cash economy until the early 2000s, I've been told. So, when payment technology popped up here, it didn't have to compete with earlier technology, but instead had to compete only against cash.) (2)

One final thing: I'll address this in a future post, but being able to use ApplePay everywhere will get even better if your watch has a cell connection, and obviates the need for a phone. Going on a run and want to grab a Powerade from Tesco? Yes, please.

(1) Those are deliberate examples, since Ping can be seen as a precursor to the massive Apple Music business, and the iPod HiFi can be seen as the grandfather to the hopefully massive HomePod business. 
(2) On the negative side, I should note that the ubiquity of credit card terminals here is related to early credit card number theft. Waiters always bring the terminal to your table, and never take away the card, because no one trusts anyone to not steal their number. That also pushes the rise of PIN transactions, which haven't really caught on in the US, probably because they solve a problem that most people don't have.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Apple building new US factories, says Trump

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Trump said Apple will build three new plants in the US:
Mr. Trump, in a 45-minute interview with The Wall Street Journal, said Mr. Cook promised him Apple would build “three big plants, beautiful plants.” Mr. Trump didn't elaborate on where those plants would be located or when they would be built.
As noted in the article, if this is true, it would be a sea change for Apple. The article suggests that these factories would be Apple owned and operated, not contract manufacturers:
Building three manufacturing plants would be unprecedented for Apple as it only has one plant of its own currently in Cork, Ireland, where it has operated since 1980 and benefits from lower taxes on overseas profits. Apple instead primarily relies on contract manufacturers such as Foxconn, Pegatron Corp., Wistron Corp. and others to make iPhones, iPads and Macs. 
Many long time Apple followers will remember that Apple's return to profitability in the late 90s was driven as much by Cook's supply chain efficiency as it was by Job's new products. Cook pruned Apple's excess inventory, shut down their own plants, and developed/expanded the relationships with contract manufacturers. Without Cook's efficiency, Jobs might not have had the resources or the time to Make Apple Great Again™.

If it is true that Apple is building new factories in the U.S., there might be a couple of drivers: 1) the products can be priced with a high enough premium that the additional costs are easily passed along to the customer (Mac Pro, or iPad Pro, or iPhone Pro?); and 2) because building the plants advances Apple's other priorities (overseas profits repatriation, political goodwill with administration). It's just too expensive to build electronics in the US for it to be a great business decision on its own, especially with a competitive market (like the regular iPhone.)

It would also be interesting to see possible locations of the plants, since states have become so willing to provide tax incentives for major manufacturing investments. I'm sure every state development office is salivating now over the thought of an Apple plant in their jurisdiction. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Academic versus industry research

Apple just launched the Machine Learning Journal for Apple researchers to release their work to the broader public. They've published one write-up on improving synthetic images for supervised training of neural nets. This comes after Apple has started allowing researchers to publish academic papers. (The write-up on seems to be the same submitted academic paper, only written for a wider audience.)

As an Apple fan with a Ph.D. in the sciences, I'm excited for the glimpse into what Apple is pursuing in artificial intelligence and machine learning. However, after a decade working in the software industry, I'm reminded that industry research and academic research are related, but not the same.

Industry is driven to create value for a few different individual stakeholders, including customers and shareholders. Because those groups are fickle, industry needs to continue innovating, or they risk not getting the next paycheck (or investment). The companies that don't worry about customers and shareholders aren't around anymore. But as described in The Innovator's Dilemma, industry is often incremental, and has trouble making huge leaps.

Whereas academics favor knowledge over delivering value. Individual academics choose autonomy and intellectual curiosity over compensation. (Take a look at salaries in academics versus industry, for positions with roughly the same skill sets, for this stark difference.) To go further, I would posit that academic research is successful specifically because it doesn't have such a focused pursuit as industry.  Research is often a random walk, and to keep it open allows more unexpected results. However, academic research sucks at delivering actual value to the masses. Putting a paper on arXiv so that 17 people can read it is not changing the world.

What I love is seeing industry work in tandem with academic research. So that we can have the momentous discoveries that only come from the random walk of academic research, with the specific payout to customers that only comes from industry. Maxwell discovers the equations of electromagnetism, and Apple uses them to make sure I can watch cat videos on a train.

Apple, unlike most companies, has the scale to support a fully academic research team. (It could fund the entirety of MIT for ~96 years.) Other companies in the past have also supported academic research teams (IBM and AT&T come to mind, with spectacular results.) So, Apple probably doesn't have to worry so much about this dichotomy between academic and industry research. It seems like everyone will be a little happier, though, if they recognize (and capitalize on) the different motivations of different researchers. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

HomePod: Why I'll be buying one in December

The most exciting announcement in last Monday's keynote of WWDC was the introduction of HomePod, Apple's new home speaker with integrated Siri.

For a little while, I've been considering a new voice device, a la Amazon Echo, or Google Home. I do a lot of cooking, so setting timers easily will be great. And checking on the weather. And how traffic is looking on the way into the city. Also, since I have young kids, I want need to interact without using my hands. Voice interaction isn't everything, but for some subset of computing tasks, it is easily the quickest form of input. (See the number of times the crew of the Enterprise says "Computer, ...")

However, I'm a little paranoid about the security and privacy of my personal data, including what is said in my house. That has prevented me from getting a Google Home or an Amazon Echo. The "always listening" aspect of the devices—integral to functionality—is terrifying for privacy.

Google especially has a business model that benefits from leaking personal data, in a way that supports their advertising products. I'm not saying that I won't use any Google products. I love their search and their e-mail and I'm comfortable with the trade-off of privacy versus functionality, in those products, but I don't want to go so far as putting an always-listening Google device in my home.

Amazon is a little better, and has fought the release of an echo recording in an Arkansas murder case, but I don't trust that Amazon will protect my privacy at the expense of their business. (As a short aside, as an Arkansawyer, can't we aim a little higher when it comes to articles about technology in Arkansas? A murder case [or a neo-nazi hacker] shouldn't be the only time I see Arkansas show up on ArsTechnica.)

In contrast to Google and Amazon, Apple has specifically made privacy a centerpiece of their business, even in a way that negatively affects it. They fought very publicly with the FBI so that they wouldn't need to unlock an encrypted iPhone, and internally they safeguard customer data in a way that makes it difficult to use it for internal data analysis. The privacy stance that the company takes internally is probably one of the reasons why Siri hasn't kept pace with other voice assistants.

However, this is the perfect trade-off for me, since I am paranoid about my data, and about what is said in my house.

One small blemish on the HomePod (for me, at least) is the focus on music. I know that music is important to lots of people, and that online services (like Apple Music) are growing significantly for the company, so it makes a lot of sense to make music a centerpiece of the HomePod. However, music is not important to me: I don't care to listen to it. I'm counting on the fact that the HomePod will be good at everything else (including audiobooks.)

Another small thing is the price. I wish Apple would work a little harder to pull the HomePod down under $300. Ideally, it would be around $199 or maybe $249. However, the $349 won't stop me. That is why come December, I'll be ordering a HomePod.