Tagged: Apple

My top 3 features wish list for the iPhone 6s (or whatever they call it)

If the rumours are true, then September 9 will be the date that Apple reveals what’s next for the iPhone. When that day rolls around, some have predicted that Tim Cook will show off all kinds of new toys including an updated Apple TV and a device that industry watchers insist on calling an ‘iPad Pro.’

A new Apple TV almost seems inevitable, but I’m not going to hold my breath on the iPad announcement – typically Apple reserves a separate event for iPad launches so even if there’s some truth to an iPad Pro (yuck, I hope not), it won’t show up at an iPhone event.

With that said, here’s what I’m hoping for–with the caveat that Apple almost always delivers something else–for the next iPhone:

  1. Wireless charging: This has shown up on Samsung phones like the S6 line and it’s a great convenience for devices that need daily charging. Granted, Apple took some of the pain of charging away with the reversible Lightning connector (something that almost all Android phones lack thanks to microUSB), but given the high degree of interest in wireless charging (you know something is mainstream when IKEA decides to back it), this one just makes sense.
  2. Hi-res audio support: It’s always felt a little weird that Apple, a company that pretty much single-handedly created the market for legitimate purchases of digital music downloads, has been so reticent about supporting hi-res audio formats. They don’t sell them and their iPod, iPhone and iPad devices won’t play them natively. And yet, they own Beats, a brand of luxury-priced headphones and audio accessories aimed at exactly the kind of people who would appreciate hi-res. I’d really like to see a built-in 24-bit capable DAC in the next iPhone so that music fans don’t have to resort to clunky external DAC/amp accessories just to get a better portable listening experience.
  3. Water resistance: While it’s true that Apple probably makes a nice little business on repeat iPhone sales thanks to its users being butterfingers around toilets and other bodies of water large and small, surely that would be eclipsed by the number of people who would happily upgrade their existing non-water resistant iPhone to one that could handle the occasional immersion in water. Now, keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be as water proof as the Sony line of Xperia phones (though man, would that be nice!)… instead, it merely needs to offer the same resistance as the budget-priced Moto G 3rd Gen which, at $199 offers better water protection than an iPhone costing 6x that amount. We just bought one for our daughter as her first phone and the price was only one consideration – the water resistance was the other.

OK, there you have it–3 features which I think would be big, beneficial improvements to the current iPhone design and which, unless I’m badly mistaken, shouldn’t even drive up the cost to Apple by a huge amount, given that some or all of them are already in-market on phones that cost less than the iPhone.

What would you like to see on the next iPhone?

Clever, clever Apple

Tim Cook at Apple's 2014 WWDC event in San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Andy Ihnatko.

Tim Cook at Apple’s 2014 WWDC event in San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Andy Ihnatko.

Yesterday’s WWDC keynote was full of surprises. It was notable not only for what it contained (updates to both iOS and OS X) but also for what it didn’t contain (no new hardware). And while most of the commentary thus far has centred around the new features of Apple’s two platforms, I think it’s worth looking a little closer at what these features mean, especially as it relates to the competition.

Blurring the lines between desktop and mobile

Have you noticed that as we’ve embraced mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, we seem to be living in an increasingly fractured world? Yes, it’s true that you can get to social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter easily from any device and there’s no noticeable difference when switching other than screen size, but what about other tasks? We’ve been forced to find workarounds to overcome the fact that our so-called desktop machines (which more and more are laptops, not true desktops) and our mobile devices don’t talk to one another. Evernote. Dropbox. Google Drive and Google Docs. Office 365. Gmail. As good and useful as these products are, they’re band-aids. They exist because mobile operating systems and their desktop equivalents have never really known how to help users transition seamlessly between them.

What’s peculiar is how accepting we users have become of this situation. Signing up for and managing a raft of products, services, accounts and passwords, all so we can keep our digital lives within easy access from whichever device we’re working on.

Well, what if all of that went away?

It starts with iCloud Drive

If I were the CEO of Dropbox, yesterday’s keynote would have sent a cold chill down my spine. That’s because Apple’s announcement of an extension to iCloud called iCloud Drive, is a direct competitor. Dropbox is great because it’s simple. It is nothing more than a place in the cloud where you can store your files, retrieve them from anywhere and share them with anyone. The problem with simple though, is that it’s easily duplicated and improved upon. Because iCloud Drive will offer the exact same feature set, but will also be a native component of both OS X and iOS, it will be easier to use than Dropbox. Especially if you work a lot in Apple’s own suite of productivity tools: Keynote, Pages and Numbers (collectively known as iWork). And while Apple’s pricing of iCloud Drive makes it more expensive on a per MB basis that Google Drive, it’s cheaper than Dropbox. Can you guess which company Apple has targeted with this move?

It continues with Handoff

Of course, simply embedding a Dropbox knock-off into the OS isn’t going to change anyone’s world overnight (well, unless you’re Dropbox’s CEO), because being able to store files in the cloud isn’t new and it wasn’t hard to do prior to iCloud Drive. It’s best to look at iCloud Drive as a highway or rail system. You need it to help people get from A to B, but without a car or train, it’s only half of the solution.

The other half is breaking down the barriers between devices. If you’re working on a proposal on your Mac using Pages and you’ve got to leave the office or home to make a meeting in an hour, why should you have to save your work and email it to yourself (if you haven’t embraced the cloud yet) or save it to Dropbox (or even iCloud) and then retrieve that document on your iPad when you’ve boarded the subway? Or what about that detailed email you were in the middle of composing but weren’t quite ready to send yet?

With Handoff—a feature that you will forget about almost as soon as you start using it—as long as you’re signed in with your Apple ID, all of these activities will follow you from one device to another, as though you had never switched at all. At launch, Handoff will work with Apple’s core apps like Mail, Safari, iWork etc., but developers will be able to add Handoff to their apps too.

Multiple, smart environments

Have you noticed the way that Microsoft put such a huge emphasis on making all of their versions of Windows 8 look and work similarly regardless whether you were using a full PC, tablet or smartphone? On the one hand, it creates a familiar environment on all of your devices. On the other hand, it completely misses the point. When it comes to smart devices, we need smart operating systems. That doesn’t mean making all of these machines operate the same way, it means designing operating systems that make using these devices as easy and simple as possible.  To achieve this, function must follow form, not vice versa.

Apple clearly gets this. Instead of doing a full revamp of OS X to make it a desktop version of iOS, or trying to cram a full version of OS X onto an iPad (ahem, Microsoft Surface), it’s letting the devices themselves dictate the right user experience, while silently and invisibly connecting these disparate device in the background.

Continuity is one more reason to buy  a Mac

While I absolutely believe that Apple has made these enhancements to help their customers further simplify their lives and eliminate some of the pesky irritations that our multi-device world has created, they’ve significantly strengthened the Apple ecosystem at the same time.

Because while iCloud Drive will offer easy access to cloud-stored documents for Windows users too, in order to benefit from the full package that Handoff offers, you’ll need to own Apple hardware.

And while it’s true that more and more people are beginning to work exclusively on tablets and smartphones, there’s still plenty more who want a full PC. If that’s you, and you don’t yet own a Mac, Apple’s Continuity (the name they’ve given the suite of products and services that enable this seamless switching process) is a compelling reason to buy one.

One more thing

There’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs that “a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s been true of Apple’s products more often than not. The iPod, iPhone, iPad… few of these were products that customers had been shouting for ahead of their debut, and yet, once they got their hands on them, they realized they were the products they wanted. Apple’s new direction for software, in the form of Continuity, is another example of something that few people realized they needed or wanted (because we’ve all become so used to the band-aids). But I think that once people start using it, they’ll wonder how they ever got along without it.

Google’s PhoneBloks concept is exciting and it’s never going to work (for the mass market)

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When you love tech (sometimes just for tech’s sake), it can be pretty heady stuff to read up on the projects that Google has on the go. Consider this incomplete list, it’s really quite extraordinary:

You’ve got to hand it to Larry and Sergei. When they dream, they dream big. How cool is it that a couple of guys who came up with a better way to index the web are now in a position to influence the course of human history?

But when you roll the dice on monster concepts, you’ve got to be prepared when some of them don’t pan out. Of the items on the list above, there’s a good chance that all but the space elevator and human lifespan will make it from concept to reality. Even the driverless car–an idea that we were scoffing at less than 6 years ago–is real, and it works and they’re even legal in some places.

What I like about all of these projects is that there is a strong chance that if they work out as planned, they will see mass adoption. A lot of people are going to want the benefits these projects will offer.

But I can’t say the same for Google’s most recent foray into the future: Project Ara.

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Project Ara is Google’s concept for a modular smartphone platform. You may have heard of this already under the name PhoneBloks. Turns out, they were once separate efforts that are now united under the combined Google/Motorola banner (even though Google has agreed to sell most of that company to Lenovo).

It’s a fascinating and wonderful idea: What if, instead of having to trade in, sell, or giveaway your old phone when newer features hit the market e.g. a fingerprint scanner or better WiFi, you could simply upgrade just that component, leaving all of the phone’s other features and functions untouched? Moreover, what if you could choose from several sizes of device and then customize exactly which of these modules it came equipped with when new, knowing you could swap the modules later if you needed something different?

It sounds like techno-nirvana, especially for those of us who grew up playing with LEGO and admiring the component Hi-Fi systems our parents had lovingly assembled in the family room.

But as appealing as this concept might be for the small percentage of folks who value versatility and upgradeability over simplicity, PhoneBloks will never reach a mass market and that’s why its future is bleak.

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Don’t get me wrong, I would like PhoneBloks to succeed, but after watching industry trends for the last 20 years, these are the factors that are going to work against it:

Design

Though the name makes it obvious (as do the product renderings), let’s not forget that these phones will be well, blocky. Even if the modules themselves end up with gently curved corners and are made as low-profile as possible, it’s physically impossible to create a phone using swappable modules that can be as thin and light as a phone that embeds these components internally. If the PhoneBloks concept takes off, after a few generations the modules might actually evolve to the point where they don’t protrude from the phone’s frame. But even if that happens, the overall product will remain larger and bulkier than an equivalently equipped embedded-design.

The Myth Of Upgradeability

One of the core beliefs that the PhoneBloks concept is based on is that consumers really want to be able to change their phone’s capabilities over time. And while that might be true of certain elements (like wishing you could have a better camera or be able to access Siri) the market has proven itself exceptionally willing to forego features like expandable storage or even replaceable batteries. Just think, back in 2007 when Apple launched the iPhone, people who were used to having BlackBerrys and feature phones scoffed loudly at the iPhone’s sealed battery (not to mention its pathetic battery life). Once BlackBerrys and other competitors started shipping with expandable storage via MicroSD cards, these same people scoffed again at Apple’s apparently disdainful decision to only offer the iPhone in set storage sizes (8, 16, 32 etc.) But we’re all familiar with what happened. The market decided, much to the surprise of tech pundits and Apple’s competitors alike, that these things just don’t matter as much as everyone thought. Did consumers wish that Apple had offered these two features? Perhaps. But you’d never know it by looking at the sales numbers.

The Myth Of Customization

It seems especially true in western countries—and no more so than in the U.S.—that a person’s individual nature is considered holy. We are all unique, with our own personalities, and thanks to our freedom within our wonderful democracies, we get to express these personalities any way we see fit. Or so the theory goes. From that belief comes the notion that what people value is the ability to make an object “their own” through customization. And sure enough, this is true in areas like people’s homes, their choice of clothes, makeup, vehicles and consumption of the arts. Everyone picks what she or he likes. Everyone’s different, right? Actually, no, we aren’t.

The truth is, while we might have differing tastes on small things like the colour of our walls, or brand of footwear we’re loyal to, on a massive scale, we’re far more alike than we’d like to think. Not convinced? Just look at the success of a store like IKEA, or a movie like Frozen, or a musician like Bruce Springsteen. We might not all like the same things, but when we do agree, we agree on a massive scale. So it follows from this that, despite our whining about wanting choice and customization, what we really want is the same thing that a lot of other people want: a really good experience. We happily join the crowd when we find one.

We even have a recent example of customization’s failure to win over a mass market: Last year, Motorola debuted the Moto X, a really well-built, well-designed Android smartphone. It had a competitive feature set, it scored highly with reviewers, and it had a killer feature that should have catapulted it to dominance: In the U.S. you can order it online and pick from a wide variety of case colours and materials including real bamboo and wood. If there was any truth to the notion that the market was being heavily underserved in the area of choice, the Moto X should have been a runaway success. After four months on the market, it had reportedly only sold 500,000 units – a tiny number when compared to the 33.8 million iPhones Apple sold during a similar period. So much for wanting to be different.

The Enduring Appeal Of “New”

PhoneBloks should be lauded for their environmentally-conscious goal of not tossing out a phone simply because you want a feature upgrade. So-called “built-in obsolescence” is a drag. Why won’t my first generation iPad run Apple’s latest version of iOS, for instance? It just makes a ton of sense to stick with the product we bought and then, over time as things change, we just upgrade the parts that need upgrading.

Except that human beings are a peculiar species. We can simultaneously acknowledge the logic of such an idea, while we gaze longingly at the brand-new, shiny model. It’s possible to upgrade a car through the dizzying array of aftermarket products. But most of us don’t. It’s possible to upgrade the components of a desktop PC (as long as it’s not an iMac!) but apart from more RAM, most of us don’t. Even when faced with one of the most popular upgrades of all time: the home reno, it’s amazing how many people will opt to sell their house and buy one that already has the features they want.

We love what’s new, even when it’s only a little better than what we currently own. Especially when buying new won’t break the bank. We see this every time Apple releases a new iPhone model. A huge chunk of the early buyers are always existing iPhone owners, many of whom are upgrading from the immediately prior model.

So despite being able to soup-up a PhoneBloks phone hot-rod style, the mass market will continue to value a shiny new phone over a shiny new Blok.

So What, Who Cares?

If you’ve been thinking throughout this piece that I’m being thick, and that of course the PhoneBloks concept isn’t for everyone, I know what you mean. After all, why get all negative over a new idea just because it won’t resonate with a mass audience? And how do you really know? After all, it hasn’t even hit the market yet and the idea has almost a million supporters. Plenty of successful ideas started small, right? Ahem, Facebook! Yes, yes and yes.

It’s absolutely true that PhoneBloks needn’t achieve iPhone-like sales figures in order to prove itself a successful model for the smartphone industry. But it’s also true that it must nevertheless achieve a minimum level of adoption in order to simply stay alive. Given what I’ve outlined, I just don’t think this will happen. And it’s a shame, because ideas like PhoneBloks are what we need to spark the next round of innovation in an industry that has become dominated by two giants.

Waiting for an Apple iWatch? Don’t hold your breath.

Last week, I finally received my Pebble smart watch. You may recall hearing about the Pebble back in April of last year. At the time, it garnered a lot of press, not only because it was a pretty cool device being created by a small startup and not one of the major players, but also because it broke all of Kickstarter’s records to become the most funded project to-date.

Pebble Smartwatch

The Pebble smartwatch in black, with mag-power cable attached.

The Pebble isn’t so much a new idea (the concept of a smart watch has been floating around in one form or another for years) as it is an evolution of popular notion: a watch that is less time piece and more a wearable computer, possibly as an accessory to a smartphone.

The success of the Pebble project immediately gave rise to rumours that Apple themselves had started work on a smart watch product. The idea gained instant currency because of the iPhone, and the inclusion of watch faces on the 6th generation of their iPod nano, a feature which spurred many entrepreneurs to devise watch bands for the squarish, touchscreen media player. Further fueling the fire were other smart watch projects from companies like Sony and Motorola. Surely Apple would join the fray.

Those rumours have only grown in recent weeks with talk of Apple placing orders with Corning Glass, the maker of Gorilla Glass, for curved glass lenses. It was just too much in the way of coincidence for those seeking verification of the mysterious “iWatch”.

But before we start readying our wallets and our wrists for this next magical and revolutionary product, let’s consider a few reasons why Apple might disappoint those hoping for a wearable with the famous bitten-fruit logo on the back.

1) Apple has a history of staying focused on products that fulfill needs that consumers don’t even know they have until Apple shows them the latest gadget. Though this pattern hasn’t been in evidence much lately what with a few year’s worth of purely iterative launches, an “iWatch” would need to have serious wow factor in order to meet the criteria for a new Apple product.

2) Apple doesn’t play around with niche products. With the possible exception of the Mac Pro, all of Apple’s current line of devices are mass market crowd pleasers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the iPhone and iPad, each of which has recorded sales in the millions of devices annually since launch. An Apple watch would be a risky play. Yes, most people wear watches. But no one company dominates the watch market. It is heavily commoditized and new styles appear every day. Watches have become fashion accessories, even amongst men, with plenty of folks owning more than one and switching up the watch they wear according to outfit they’re wearing or the event or activity they’re participating in. A smart watch wouldn’t be very helpful if you weren’t wearing it, and if you are wearing it, you’re not wearing another watch at the same time. So it had better be VERY helpful if it’s going to be the last watch you ever put on. Apple’s ability to design beautiful devices is the stuff of legend but they have never had to design a device that by its very nature, is a part of a person’s wardrobe. Phones are returned to pockets or purses when not in use. Tablets, laptops, media players are merely tools. Yes, it helps if they look appealing but it isn’t mandatory. A watch is a different story altogether. Can Apple or any company for that matter design one that will be appealing to both sexes, complimentary to  – or at least not detracting from – most outfits, and still offer that wow factor I mentioned earlier? If the answer is no, Apple has a problem. Because they need to sell millions of their iWatch. The 80,000 that Pebble racked up won’t even pay for the software this thing will run.

3) Battery life is a major concern. It’s bad enough that iPhones and almost every other smartphone on the planet require charging every 24 hours or less depending on usage. But we’re reasonably content to go through this exercise in exchange for the seemingly endless number of ways these devices improve our lives. Could the same be said of an iWatch? Right now, unless you own a Pebble or one of the handful of other smartwatches on the market, you probably only think about what keeps your watch running every few years when the battery finally dies. Is the mass market ready for watches that are as high maintenance as phones? Again, the answer depends on just how useful this device turns out to be. Keep in mind, the more wonderful a watch like this is, the more power it will consume. Even the Pebble, with its monochrome e-paper display and limited processing power requires charging every 7 days according to the company’s claims – it’s probably more frequent in the real world. If an iWatch is a colour, touchscreen device with Bluetooth (all very likely specs) we can expect to have to charge it at least once every 48 hours – possibly more if it displays a watch face 24/7.

Now that I’ve thrown cold water in the whole iWatch idea, it’s probably worth mentioning that such a device would have to offer at least a minimal amount of water resistance, if not the ability to withstand showers and the occasional dip in a pool. The Pebble can do this and it drastically increases the likelihood that owners will wear it during key activities like working out.

Bottom line: I don’t think Apple is going to be launching an ‘iWatch’ anytime soon.

So what about that whole curved-glass thing? Am I saying that was all just B.S.? Not necessarily.

When it comes to curves in the Apple design language, they seem reserved for the corners. Keyboards, mice, iMacs, iPads – heck even Apple TVs all have curved or rounded corners. But the screens on these devices? Flat. Very flat.

The only product that I can remember ever possessing a curved glass screen was the 4th and 5th generation iPod nanos. They were gorgeous devices, with a double-curved body (thus the need  for a curved lens for the screen) and a built-in camera on the 5th gen. Interestingly, this was the last of the non-touchscreen nanos.

But there’s one other product that Apple still makes that features a very similar double-curved body. The Apple remote. It ships with the Apple TV and is a delightfully understated chunk of solid aluminum with a simple set of controls embedded in the top, curved surface.

So bear with me now, because here comes the crystal-ball part: What if Apple is nearing completion of its heavily rumoured yet still unannounced next-gen Apple TV product?

Much has been speculated with regard to this theoretical product, mostly because of the tantalizing quote from Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs in which he said:

I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use […] It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.

Words like those are hard to dismiss. While I’m still not convinced that Apple is ready to market an actual TV set, I strongly suspect that they are hard at work on the next generation of remote control. If I’m right, it will share much of its physical DNA with the existing Apple remote, but with a much more advanced set of capabilities. It will need a screen. That screen will be curved.

Apple remote

The current Apple remote. A lovely, simple design that makes use of a double-curved block of aluminum.

If that doesn’t seem like a stretch, this next part ought to get you questioning my sanity:

That curved screen will not be touch-sensitive. I know, crazy right?

But here’s the thing with using touchscreen devices for remote controls: they suck.

A really great remote becomes an extension of your arm. You can leverage its most commonly used functions like changing the channel or muting the volume without ever looking down at the device. Touchscreens simply can’t deliver that kind of experience. You need buttons. Well-placed, well-shaped, buttons.

Loewe Assist Remote Control

The Loewe Media Assist remote control with colour display screen. Could this be the next Apple remote?

If you’ve used the existing Apple remote, you know what I mean. The raised surface of the round directional ring, the slightly depressed design of the centre enter key, and a similar difference in tactility between the menu and play/pause buttons – these elements combine to make the Apple remote a device that you never need to look at. Within minutes of picking it up for the first time, your thumb knows exactly where it need to go.

I predict that Apple’s next TV product will combine this kind of superb blind-operation with a display capable of giving you more information when you want it.

Now if you’d like a rumour to back up this wild speculation, here it is: Apple is supposedly in talks to acquire Loewe, a high end European consumer electronics company that builds HDTVs and – you guessed it – remotes with built-in screens. The rumour has been circulating since mid-2012, and just like rumours of an Apple TV product, it refuses to die.

Okay, your turn… does this all sound like a reasonable interpretation of what we know so far or should I be paying my doctor a visit for a re-evaluation of my meds?

Feature image credit: Gizmag.com

Amazon doesn’t need bricks and mortar, it just needs a better app

If you’ve never heard of the word “showrooming,” you might not be aware of one of the most fundamental shifts in retail. Heck, you might even have showroomed and not even known you were doing it.

Here’s how to tell: If you’ve ever been in a store and pulled out your smartphone to see if another retailer or online store has the product you’re looking at for a better price, you’re a showroomer. It’s a growing trend and it has retailers rightfully worried.

The biggest benefactor of showrooming is Amazon.com. eBay, Kijiji and Craigslist pick up a lot of business this way too, but the sheer size of Amazon’s catalog paired with a high degree of customer loyalty means they win.

You’d think that the company would be doing whatever it could to facilitate showrooming. The most obvious way to do so would be to create iOS and Android apps that let you scan the UPC barcode of the product in question, to trigger a quick lookup on Amazon’s website. What could be easier? Companies like CNET have had this functionality built-in to their apps for years.

And yet, rumour has it that Amazon has bricks and mortar ambitions of their own.

Now while I have tremendous respect for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his team, this strategy – if indeed real – seems out of sync with the company’s strengths. Considering that the company only makes a single product line – their highly successful Kindle readers and tablets – they aren’t in the same game as Apple, Microsoft or even Google who arguably have strong reasons to give consumers a physical place to experience their products.

Would these rumoured stores be a new take on the book-seller? That also seems odd. Let’s face it, if they simply added a barcode scanner to their Kindle app, every single bookstore on the planet would become an Amazon bookstore. Prefer e-reading? Buy the book immediately and have it delivered to your chosen device before you can pass by the physical cash register on your way out. Want a physical copy? You’ll probably get a better price on that too.

The current belief is that these stores will sell high-end devices like laptops and tablets in addition to Amazon’s own Kindle line.

If this is true, Amazon might need to watch their backs…. Showrooming could just as easily turn the tables on them too.

Update, Feb 21: Well lookee here… Amazon.ca announces new shopping apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone. I guess that dollar store crystal ball I bought might be working better than I thought ;-)

Image credit: LuxuryLuke via Flickr.com

It's time for Apple to bring Automator to iOS

Have you noticed that, for the first time in recent memory, Apple seems to have pulled back on its blistering rate of new, innovative product launches?

Consider the fact that although the company refreshed virtually every product in their line-up this year, and even introduced a new, smaller iPad, not one of these products is an innovation in the market. They are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

This innovation “lull” comes at a dangerous time for Apple. Its core product lines: the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac (including desktop and laptop models) are under the kind of competitive pressure that hasn’t been seen in years. Android as a mobile OS has finally come in to its own, and is seeing huge success, especially in its Samsung Galaxy SIII guise which, for the first time since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, has outsold Apple’s flagship.

At the same time, Microsoft is taking the enormous gamble of leap-frogging Apple in the desktop OS market with Windows 8 – an OS that fuses touch-based computing and classic mouse-and-keyboard computing into a single experience.

Some might say that this situation is a natural part of the technology life-cycle. Product innovation happens in waves, especially at the hardware level. Perhaps we’re simply in the trough of a hardware innovation wave.

That being the case, the obvious place for Apple to try differentiating itself (until its next revolutionary product) is with software. The company already enjoys an enviable ecosystem where hardware and software are designed in lock-step, ensuring that the one always complements the other. But it’s time to do more.

Apple seems to have overlooked one of the most promising areas of mobile computing: contextual task automation. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that they’ve missed this boat. After all, Mac OS X has some of the most powerful automation tools of any OS: AppleScript and Automator.

Between these two tools, users can exercise almost any level of control they desire over the functions of their Macs. Automator provides a graphical way of doing so, and requires no programming knowledge whatsoever. AppleScript can fill in the blanks, giving power-users even greater control.

If you’ve never heard of these tools, or you have but have never used them, there’s a good reason: task automation on computers is largely used by professionals to speed up workflows by having the computer complete certain repetitive tasks. But its power is limited by the number of contexts users find themselves in. Given that the average PC, whether desktop or laptop, has no GPS, accelerometer, compass, barometer, phone or proximity sensors, it’s almost deaf, dumb and blind compared to a smartphone (bad analogy given that all PCs have webcams, mics and speakers, but bear with me).

But mobile devices are a different story. They’re with us wherever we go and connect us to every type of information imaginable. Best of all, they have a high degree of contextual awareness thanks to the various sensors mentioned above. This fact has not been lost on the Android camp.

Recently, two examples of contextual automation have caught my attention. The first is the Motorola ATRIX HD LTE, an Android smartphone that Motorola has customized with various options including something they call Smart Actions. At their core, Smart Actions are simply a way for a user to create “if/then” conditions for just about any situation s/he can think of. One fabulous example: IF I’m driving and someone texts me THEN send the following automatic reply “Thanks for your text. I’m currently driving and will respond when it’s safe to do so.”

There are dozens of such useful conditions that users can customize (the phone ships with several pre-programmed options).

The other example was demo’d for me last week: Sony’s new “Bond Phone”, the Xperia T, comes with Smart Connect, a free Sony app that can be installed on any Android 4.0 device. Much like Smart Actions, Smart Connect lets you script trigger events in addition to managing certain external devices like Bluetooth headsets.

So why then, has Apple ignored such a fantastic opportunity to be the dominant player in contextual automation?

Not only does the Cupertino juggernaut have a wealth of experience in this area, they have a uniquely synchronized set of hardware, software and services. Imagine the possibilities for a customer who is fully committed to Apple’s ecosystem and owns an iPhone, iPad, iMac, Apple TV and several AirPlay-compatible speaker systems.

Here’s just one scenario…

Our happy-go-lucky Apple user is strolling home after getting off the bus/streetcar/subway, while listening to her favourite podcast on her iPhone. But as she arrives at her front door, the podcast still has 10 minutes left. As soon as she unplugs her EarPods, her iPhone automatically routes the podcast over AirPlay to her speakers in the living room. A text message is sent to her boyfriend who is working abroad, letting him know she’s home if he wants to FaceTime before he turns in for the night. Because the time is now 5:30 p.m., her notifications preferences switch so that new emails from work no longer trigger sounds or vibrations, but personal emails still do.

Needless to say, that was the best I could do off the top of my head, but clearly the possibilities are endless. But there’s no reason why Automator for iOS shouldn’t be social too. I could see an entire scene developing around such an app, with users sharing their favourite scripted events and even in-app purchases, so that developers with a knack for AppleScript could sell advanced Automator processes designed for professionals of all stripes.

So readers, what say you? Would Automator for iOS be the kind of thing you’d like to play with? Or are you content with the existing automatic processes within iOS? Or does Siri do all of your bidding?

Let us know!

Apple's Lightning to 30-pin adapter is here, but do you want it?

When Apple debuted the iPhone 5 way back in September, it confirmed several rumours at once:

  • The new iPhone was thinner, lighter and had a bigger screen than previous models
  • It would be the first iPhone with 4G/LTE connectivity
  • Google Maps would be replaced with Apple’s home-brew Maps App
  • And, the 30-pin dock connector that had been the de-facto connection for nearly all of Apple’s portable devices for a decade, was no more. In it’s place, a new, smaller connector known as Lightning.

The Lightning connector was pitched as having two big up-sides for consumers:

1) It’s smaller, and though Apple never said so, it’s more durable

2) Because the connector is identical on both sides, you can’t insert it incorrectly.

Ironically, it was probably this last point that earned the Lightning it’s name, despite the obvious connotation of faster connection speeds. Just ask Marc Saltzman what he thinks of that little piece of labelling from Cupertino!

Needless to say, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing after the announcement: “What am I going to do with all of my existing dock accessories now?”

Apple’s reply was a calming reassurance that there would be Lightning-to-Dock adapters available soon after the iPhone’s launch, and that this would be an adequate solution.

So far, so good. Except that “soon” turned out to mean “well over a month” and as far as it being an adequate solution (my words, not Apple’s), the jury is still out.

To be clear, Apple doesn’t just make one Lightning adapter accessory; they make several. The Lightning-to-30-pin adapter comes in two flavours: A cable-based version ($45) that gives you some flexibility in placement of your Lightning-based iDevice, and a small, stubby “ultracompact” unit ($35) that is presumably intended for dock-wielding gadgets like charging stations, alarm clocks and speaker docks.

It’s the latter version that I finally got my hands on last Friday, in eager anticipation of being able to once again charge my iPhone without cables running all over my bedside table.

Alas, when I tried it out, I discovered that one of the Lightning connector’s strengths is now its greatest annoyance, for me at least.

The Lightning connector is actually amazingly well-engineered. The size, shape and design make it unique amongst the world’s growing digital connection universe. One the best parts is the way the male end is designed to snap-in to the female receptacle. It does so with authority, making it the Mercedes car door of the connector world. Once seated, it stays put, requiring a healthy – but not difficult – amount of force to dislodge it. Lightning manages to walk that remarkably thin line in consumer electronics between ease of use and sturdiness of design.

Aye, but there’s the rub: the new Lightning connector is so good, it overpowers the older 30-pin connection. In practice this means that seating the adapter in your dock, then sitting your iPhone 5 onto the adapter results in a stronger bond between the iPhone and the the adapter than between the adapter and the dock.

Oh look, there it is, my faithful Panasonic RC-DC1. It's a terrible alarm clock, but it looks nice and it has a charging dock so my wife doesn't complain about all of my cables.

And here comes Apple's Lightning-to-30-pin dock adapter to the rescue so I can dock my brand-new iPhone 5. Yay!

It really is a cute little thing isn't it? And so easy to slip on top of the Panasonic's existing 30-pin connector.

Hey, will you lookit that? The iPhone 5 just snaps right on! Hmm. Seems to look a little top-heavy. Oh well, I guess as long as I don't bump it when I reach for that superbly placed snooze button, I should be ok. Right?

Good morning world! Good morning fully charged iPhone 5! Come here, let me embrace your svelte body that I might better enjoy reading my emails from the previous 7 hours. Wait, what's this? An unsightly plastic growth seems to have appeared overnight... Doh!

So now, every time I reach for my iPhone 5, I must yank the adapter free from the base of the iPhone, in order to re-seat it on the dock. Every. Single. Time.Could this scenario I have just described be unique to my particular dock-adapter-iPhone combination? I doubt it. As I said, it’s a by-product of how wonderfully sturdy the new Lightning connector is. Unfortunately, consumers won’t see this as an all-round positive until we’ve replaced our existing 30-pin dock accessories with Lightning-based ones.

And at the rate 3rd-party Lightning-based accessories are appearing on the market (hint: you can’t find any yet), we might be waiting a long time.

Related: Check out Wired Magazine’s feature on accessory makers that have had their product plans (nearly) sidelined by Apple’s Lightning.

Changes at Apple may mean a whole new look to iOS, Mac OS

Could the current look of iOS be headed for a major overhaul?

Today, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook announced two major departures from the company’s senior management.
SVP of iOS Software Scott Forstall will be leaving the company sometime next year, as will SVP of Retail Operations John Browett who had only recently joined the company, replacing the man who pioneered the Apple Store and Genius Bar concepts, Ron Johnson.

While Browett’s departure likely won’t signify big changes for Apple’s products since retail is a secondary focus for the company, Forstall’s influence has been significant.

Forstall was the person behind the development of the iPhone’s software – now known as iOS – software which powers the vast majority of the products that Apple sells from a revenue point of view. If you’ve ever swiped, tapped or downloaded an app on one of Apple’s iPhones, iPods or iPads, you’ve experienced Forstall’s work.

And though there’s no question that iOS has been an unqualified success, lately there has been a certain amount of criticism that its user interface is stuck in the past, supposedly suffering from its reliance on skeuomorphism. That is the $100 word which designer-types use to describe software elements like icons, which resemble their real-world counterparts. One famous example is the faux leather-and-stitching that is visible around the border of Apple’s Calendar app. This skeuomorphism has been a hallmark of Apple’s software design language for years, and the practice can be credited with giving all of Apple’s technology a friendly, approachable look that places people immediately at ease, thereby reducing any stress or anxiety that might come as a result of using an unfamiliar gadget. This success notwithstanding, it has been reported by some sources that this element of graphic design is not viewed by everyone at Apple with the same enthusiasm.

Some tech bloggers, most notably Sam Biddle at Gizmodo, have openly criticized Apple’s ongoing use of skeuomorphism, while his colleague Jesus Diaz, suggested that Apple’s SVP of Industrial Design, Sir Jony Ive, was no fan of the practice either.

Forstall’s exit from Apple could signify a victory of sorts for Ive. According to GigaOm’s Erica Ogg, he will “become responsible for a new Human Interface.” Of course, there’s also a chance that Fortsall is being made to pay a hefty price for the decision to launch Apple’s in-house Maps app, before it was ready-for-primetime.

Here is the full press release from Apple:

Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services

Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi Add Responsibilities to Their Roles

MARKHAM, Ontario—October 29, 2012—Apple today announced executive management changes that will encourage even more collaboration between the Company’s world-class hardware, software and services teams. As part of these changes, Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi will add more responsibilities to their roles. Apple also announced that Scott Forstall will be leaving Apple next year and will serve as an advisor to CEO Tim Cook in the interim.

“We are in one of the most prolific periods of innovation and new products in Apple’s history,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “The amazing products that we’ve introduced in September and October, iPhone 5, iOS 6, iPad mini, iPad, iMac, MacBook Pro, iPod touch, iPod nano and many of our applications, could only have been created at Apple and are the direct result of our relentless focus on tightly integrating world-class hardware, software and services.”

Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design. His incredible design aesthetic has been the driving force behind the look and feel of Apple’s products for more than a decade.

Eddy Cue will take on the additional responsibility of Siri and Maps, placing all of our online services in one group. This organization has overseen major successes such as the iTunes Store, the App Store, the iBookstore and iCloud. This group has an excellent track record of building and strengthening Apple’s online services to meet and exceed the high expectations of our customers.

Craig Federighi will lead both iOS and OS X. Apple has the most advanced mobile and desktop operating systems, and this move brings together the OS teams to make it even easier to deliver the best technology and user experience innovations to both platforms.

Bob Mansfield will lead a new group, Technologies, which combines all of Apple’s wireless teams across the company in one organization, fostering innovation in this area at an even higher level. This organization will also include the semiconductor teams, who have ambitious plans for the future.

Additionally, John Browett is leaving Apple. A search for a new head of Retail is underway and in the interim, the Retail team will report directly to Tim Cook. Apple’s Retail organization has an incredibly strong network of leaders at the store and regional level who will continue the excellent work that has been done over the past decade to revolutionize retailing with unique, innovative services for customers.

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.

Could this be the start of a whole new look to Apple’s software, on all of their devices? It certainly looks that way.

Sync readers, do you feel it’s time for a change in Apple’s software, or are you happy with the current look & feel?

 

 

One month with the Apple iPhone 5

I’ve never driven a Porsche 911 and I’ve certainly never reviewed one. But I imagine that getting your hands on the latest 911 is a little like getting your hands on a new iPhone.

Apple’s iPhone is their 911. It’s the one product the company makes that has wowed journalists and buyers alike for what seems like (at least in tech terms) forever. And just like Porsche, Apple has methodically rolled out changes with each new model that improve on the previous device while staying true to the core elements that have made the iPhone the most iconic device in consumer technology. The iPhone 5 – which is actually the 6th generation of the iPhone – does just that.

I’ve been using the iPhone 5 as my daily smartphone for one month, and everyone who has spotted me with the device has wanted to know what I think.

The answer is simple: It’s a great device.

But let’s put that assessment in context. Prior to getting the iPhone 5, I had been using an iPhone 4S for about a year, and the iPhone 4 before that. So for me, that sense of incremental improvement is particularly acute. The iPhone 5 is a great device, because it improves on a series of smartphones that were already great devices.

If you’ve owned an iPhone in the past, the latest version will feel completely familiar – almost eerily so. I can’t think of another player in the smartphone market, with the possible exception of RIM’s BlackBerry, which has stuck so strictly to  its original form factor and user experience. Even if you were to upgrade from the very first iPhone, you would be comfortable with the 5 within, well, 5 minutes.

That said, here’s a brief run-down of some of the iPhone 5’s most notable features:

The Screen

In Apple’s own way (which is to say somewhat grudgingly) they have acknowledged that there is a benefit to be had with a larger screen. But also, true to their vision, they only increased the height of the iPhone 5’s screen, not the width. This means you get one extra row of icons on every screen and apps have a slightly larger canvas on which they can get clever with interactivity. But in practice, you get used to this larger screen instantly – you don’t even realize the extra room is there. Perhaps that was the idea. And even though much fanfare was made about this change when Apple announced it, I don’t think it’s reason enough to buy the iPhone 5. The reason is that none of the benefits of the large-screen phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III or the HTC One X are present on the iPhone 5. Those other phones actually increased the relative size of objects on the screen, by making *both* dimensions of the screen larger. You get more room for web pages and the text is larger and therefore easier to read. Since Apple kept all of the proportions the same, but added a bit of extra scrolling room, nothing appears “bigger”.

The Body

If Apple can lay claim to one undisputed title, it would be for industrial design. There is nothing like the iPhone 5 on the market that approaches its simplicity and elegance. It’s a delight to hold. If thinner and lighter are qualities you appreciate, you’ll love this phone. But there is a natural ergonomic price to be paid when you go this thin. It gets a little harder to hold securely. With previous models, gripping the phone meant that your thumb naturally rested on the side unless you were using it to tap in a phone number or trying to text one-handed. But with the iPhone 5’s rail-thin design, there is a tendency even for someone with relatively small hands like myself, for the thumb to roll forward onto the front edge, rather than sit squarely on the side. Having less surface area in contact with your skin means poorer overall grip. I have a feeling that this iPhone will not only break sales records, but also set new records for the number of times it gets dropped.

But that might not result in the tragedy so often associated with dropping an iPhone 4 or 4S. Those models were clad in glass on the front and back, whereas the iPhone 5 uses mostly aluminium on the back panel. It may get scuffed, but it is far less likely to break, and of course shattering is highly unlikely. Only time will tell if the 5 proves more durable than its glass-jawed predecessors, but it seems like a good bet.

The Lightning Connector

What happens when a company changes a connection that has been standard on all of their devices for 10 years? You get a lot of frustrated users. There’s no kind way to say it: By adopting the new Lightning connector which graces all of Apple’s new products, they have made every existing accessory that depended on the older 30-pin connector, obsolete. Unless that is, you opt for the $35 Lightning-to-30-Pin Adapter, which as of the writing of this article, was still unavailable for testing. Even with the adapter, it’s unclear whether older accessories like alarm clocks with built-in docks will be as functional. I can only imagine the stress that your 30-pin dock will have to endure with the added leverage of the adapter plugged in and moved around daily.

That said, the Lightning connector is a *very* nice design. It’s small, sturdy, clicks into place with a decidedly satisfying popping sound and is reversible which means no more looking to see which way the plug is facing. Would everyone have preferred an existing standard like MicroUSB? Sure, but that’s not how Apple rolls.

The Software

Surprisingly, the most controversial feature of the new iPhone wasn’t a feature of the phone itself. Instead, it was what Apple had done to iOS6 – the latest version of iOS that runs all of Apple’s mobile products. With iOS 6 getting its debut alongside the iPhone 5, it was the first time consumers had a chance to play with the more than 200 new features Apple had introduced. But not all of the 200 changes were additions. Some were removals of features. The popular Maps app which had always been powered by Google’s excellent mapping data, got ditched in favour of Apple’s own proprietary mapping product – a move that resulted in one of the rarest events in the tech world: Apple’s CEO apologizing for the quality of their product and actually suggesting alternative apps in the short term. I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive study of the new Maps app – others have already done that. Suffice it to say there are good parts (fast rendering, free turn-by-turn navigation, 3D view of major urban areas) and bad parts (inaccurate driving directions, old data, no more Google Street View).

Maps wasn’t the only shocking change. Gone too was the native YouTube app. This was the more puzzling of the two Google-related changes. With Maps, you could see that Apple wanted to stop working with Google and start promoting their own product. But Apple doesn’t own and, as far as we know, has no plans to compete with Google’s video behemoth YouTube. So why Apple chose to remove the handy YouTube app remains a mystery. Functionally speaking, the change has been mostly mitigated by Google – the YouTube website which the Safari browser takes you to when you choose to watch a video – does an excellent job of creating a mobile-friendly interface. It’s still not quite as clean as the native app, but it’s surprisingly good all things considered. Plus, if you simply want to browse YouTube, Google has released their own standalone iOS app, which works well.

Of course iOS 6 brings lots of other great features such as panoramic photos, enhanced Siri capabilities, integrated sharing via Facebook and Twitter and Personal Photo Streams (to  name just a few). There’s certainly lots to like about this update.

4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution)

The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone that comes equipped with the latest standard in high-speed mobile data known as 4G/LTE. In theory, you should be able to get download speeds up to 75mbps and uploads of up to 25. In practice, it’s usually less, but it’s still amazingly fast – usually faster than the connection you have at home. But finding an LTE signal can be tricky. Coverage can be spotty, even in areas that show as being covered on your carrier’s map. But perhaps more importantly, is the toll that LTE takes on battery life. In my semi-scientific comparison, I found that using LTE reduced battery life by about 10%. That’s not awful, but if you’re the kind of person who finds they can barely get through a day on a single charge, you might want to leave LTE turned off until you absolutely need the extra speed for a specific task.

The EarPods

Yep, that’s the name that Apple has given its newly-redesigned ear-buds. They’re still white. They still have that handy in-line remote with microphone, but now they possess a distinctly bulbous look which lets them sit just a little more securely in your ear. They do not provide much in the way of sound isolation, and despite Apple’s claims that they have figured out a way to coax $100 sound out of $30 ear-buds, I found that I could barely detect a difference when I tested the new EarPods against the previous design. They sound a bit better, but I’m hesitant to even say they’re 10% better than the older design. It’s hardly a deal-breaker. After all, the old ear-buds weren’t shunned by users – I still see their hallmark white cables on tons of people every day. What is a bit odd is the carrying case that Apple thoughtfully included with the EarPods. Odd in the sense that it is not a very friendly piece of plastic. The combination of having to seat the EarPods just so in the case’s contours and needing to wrap the cables so that the in-line remote end up in its allotted groove, and well, it’s a bit frustrating.

In the end…

If you’re of the opinion that iPhones are just for the feeble-minded followers of the cult-o-Apple, the iPhone 5 isn’t going to change your mind. Quite the opposite. Because it embodies all of the attributes that have made the iPhone the enormous success that it is – and then some – you will not want this latest version either. For you, may I recommend the Samsung Galaxy S III.

But if you like the way Apple has carved out its approach to the mobile space, the ease-of-use that pervades all of the company’s products or just the envy-inducing  design of the iPhone 5, I can wholeheartedly say you won’t be disappointed.

(Image credit: Apple Inc.)

One year later: Apple remembers Steve Jobs

steve jobs

Revere him or revile him, there’s no denying that Steve Jobs was one of the most influential people of his generation. The mark he made on computing, consumer electronics, music and film was enormous and his influence will likely be felt by all of these industries for years to come.

Today is October 5, 2012, one year since Steve Jobs passed away from complications relating to his fight with pancreatic cancer.

As a tribute to their fallen leader, Apple has created a fitting memorial in video form – a highlight reel of Jobs’ biggest accomplishments during his time at the company he founded, accompanied by some of his more memorable quotes and a hauntingly beautiful cello soundtrack performed by one of Jobs’ favourite musicians, Yo-Yo Ma.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO since Jobs’ death, added his thoughts to the Apple.com homepage today:

Steve’s passing one year ago today was a sad and difficult time for all of us. I hope that today everyone will reflect on his extraordinary life and the many ways he made the world a better place.
One of the greatest gifts Steve gave to the world is Apple. No company has ever inspired such creativity or set such high standards for itself. Our values originated from Steve and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple. We share the great privilege and responsibility of carrying his legacy into the future.
I’m incredibly proud of the work we are doing, delivering products that our customers love and dreaming up new ones that will delight them down the road.
It’s a wonderful tribute to Steve’s memory and everything he stood for.
Tim.

[Video/photo credit: Apple Inc.]