Apple is serious about Bendgate

Josh Lowensohn for The Verge:

In case you hadn’t guessed, Apple doesn’t often show this room to outsiders. The only reason I’m here today is because Apple’s latest iPhone, the iPhone 6, bends.

Remember when Steve Jobs revealed Apple’s super secret antenna testing room to a select group of journalists during the infamous iPhone 4 Antennagate? Same thing here. Apple is taking Bendgate very seriously.

The wearable - A question of convenience

In a couple days, Apple is poised to release its first new product category since the iPad. Like the iPad, Apple’s new wearable device (“the wearable”) will sit between two existing product categories. The iPad sat between the iPhone and the Mac. The wearable will sit between wristwatches and the iPhone. At the original iPad announcement, Steve Jobs asked, “Do we have what it takes to establish a third category of products?” He followed, “The bar is pretty high. It has to be far better at doing some key things. We think we have the goods.” The question now is, can Apple create yet another product category between wristwatches and the iPhone? Do they have the goods?

The Wristwatch

My wife surprised me with a beautiful Swiss watch as a wedding gift. A carefully crafted system of springs and gears keeps accurate time within a margin of seconds per year. It’s a mechanical watch, recharging on my wrist as I wear it. It only requires minor maintenance every five years to keep it tuned and accurate. It is waterproof to a depth beyond my diving ability. It will surely outlast me. The perfect timepiece. Tough competition for a new product category of wearable devices. The wearable will undoubtedly be a worse wristwatch. While keeping only slightly more accurate time, it may not always display the time at a glance. It won’t be as waterproof or durable. It won’t stand the test of time. More importantly, it will require a battery that needs to be recharged every day or so. Traveling? Bring an extra charger. Forget to charge last night? Head to work without a watch.

The iPhone

The iPhone was a revolution in computing. A pocket-sized, touchscreen, internet-connected computer with an interface so intuitive that anyone could use it. The world in your pocket. And tough competition for a new product category. The iPad succeeded by improving upon the iPhone in two ways: screen size and battery life. A larger display gave app developers a larger canvas to work with and users more to look at while consuming content. Over ten hours of battery life allowed users to enjoy the larger display for longer. The wearable, however, will have neither of these. Instead, it will have a smaller display and less battery life. Thus, the wearable will have to differentiate itself from the iPhone in some other ways. Importantly, Apple must convince consumers that they should purchase, carry, and charge another electronic device in addition to their existing iPhone. A tall order indeed.

Convenience

Steve Jobs’s aforementioned statement with respect to the iPad holds true to the wearable. It has to be far better at doing some key things. While the iPad was “better” due to a larger display and great battery life, the wearable has to be “better” through convenience. To succeed as a new product category in the long-term, the wearable must present users with conveniences that outweigh the inconveniences of paying for yet another device, wearing it every day, charging it often, and interacting with a tiny display. Below are some areas where the wearable might prove to be a compelling new product category by adding convenience to the user.

Information
The ability to glance at one’s wrist and obtain important information without retrieving an iPhone from a purse or pocket is compelling. Walking down the street, riding in a cab, attending a meeting, or enjoying a dinner are all situations where retrieving a phone is inconvenient or even downright rude. The ability to easily glance at your wrist to get relevant information quickly and discreetly provides clear value. The quality and quantity of information is key. Merely slinging every notification from your phone to your wrist is a common complaint from those reviewing the latest Android Wear devices. Apple isn’t likely to make the same mistake.

Health and Fitness
While many phones, including the iPhone 5S, provide fitness tracking capabilities, the wearable may provide some distinct advantages. If the wearable can be used for health and fitness tracking without a paired iPhone, it will be more convenient to use while working out or running (especially if it can play music locally). In addition, the wearable device may passively collect information, such as heart rate, while current heart rate monitoring on phones like the Galaxy S5 require a user to manually open an app and perform the operation.

Payments
It is likely that Apple’s wearable will be integral to its new payment initiative. Others, such as Google and mobile operators, have tried to gain widespread adoption of mobile phone payment systems for years, without success. Despite having the infrastructure available, users still don’t pay with their phones. It’s simply not more convenient to pull out a phone than to pull out a wallet. A wearable device on your wrist might be just what the doctor ordered.

Location-awareness
At Tuesday’s event, Apple is likely to expand on its HomeKit initiative, and the wearable will be at the forefront. Further, Apple’s iBeacon technology pairs perfectly with the wearable. By associating a user with locations, such as home, work, or a store, the wearable may provide location-aware features with real-world places. While it makes for an intriguing demo, all of these location-aware functions can be performed with the iPhone. It is difficult to see an advantage that the wearable has over an iPhone when it comes to location-awareness, but such functionality lends itself well to marketing.

Fashion

Fashion is a wild card. Fashion is not rational. Those who seek to be fashionable often incur inconvenience for the sake of appearance. Whether it’s paying significantly more for lower-quality products or wearing uncomfortable shoes from the best designer, fashion doesn’t always make sense. Apple has recently recruited several influential members of the fashion industry to join its ranks and has invited many influential journalists from the fashion industry to the wearable announcement this week. Apple very clearly understands that what it can not make up for in convenience, it can with fashion.

Is the PC back?

Horace Dediu:

What has been discussed as a cause for the moderation of market contraction is the expiration of Windows XP support. Certainly that seems plausible and is supported anecdotally. If it’s true then the PC respite may be transient.

PCs (including Macs) are likely making a comeback because tablets are declining. Both Samsung and Apple, the world’s largest tablet producers, have had disappointing tablet sales so far this year.

When the iPad launched, it was great. Not because it was a new category of device, but because it was a larger version of the iPhone that was already great. Bigger was better. This shiny new giant iPhone was so great, in fact, that people rapidly tried to use it for school, work, and other productivity tasks that were previously done on a PC.

During this time, PC sales slumped as many made do with older machines while they played with their shiny new iPads. It took a few years, but it has finally sunk in that the iPad actually inhibits productivity. While Tim Cook might be able to use an iPad for 80% of his work, most people simply can’t do real work on a tablet as efficiently as on a PC. Now, rather than using new iPads with aging PCs collecting dust, it has reversed. iPads are aging and new PCs that are thinner, lighter, and faster are making a comeback.

The Android screen fragmentation myth

As someone who develops for Android and iOS I get asked the same question over and over again by people: “Is developing for Android screens a huge pain? How on earth do you cope with the thousands of screen sizes available?”

The answer tends to surprise pretty much everyone: It’s not that hard, and honestly causes us less headaches than most people imagine.

For developers targeting Android 4.0+, display size fragmentation is a thing of the past.

Product announcements and innovation

On the eve of WWDC, John Gruber’s latest series of posts got me thinking about the very different product announcement strategies taken by Apple and Google.

Tomorrow, Apple will likely announce several innovations, either as new products or improvements to existing products. These innovations have largely been kept behind a shroud of secrecy and will likely be available to developers and customers in short order.

Last week, Google announced its latest innovation in self-driving cars. We’ve long known about Google’s efforts in this area, however, the latest announcement brought it even closer to reality. With respect to Google’s announcement, Gruber writes:

This is why I’m so skeptical about Google today. Their biggest, splashiest product announcements are for things like Glass and these new self-driving cars. They’re closer to being real products than Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator, but they’re not real products.

First, let’s get Glass out of the way. Google Glass is a real product, and an extremely innovative product to say the least. While it is expensive and in an open beta, anyone can buy and use Glass. Second, it is clear that Google’s self-driving cars are not real products yet, but that does not mean they are not innovative or raise concerns about Google. Google just has a different strategy than Apple. Google innovates in the open and Apple innovates behind the scenes.

Apple’s strategy has advantages. Apple’s competitors don’t know what it is working on and can often be left playing catch-up after a product is announced. Apple’s customers are rarely left disappointed that a previously-announced product is delayed or canceled. Apple’s strategy also has disadvantages. Apple does not have the input of the public during product development, which leads to a gamble on how the final product will be received. More importantly, Apple is considered by many to be a slow-moving company struggling to innovate, despite announcing several very innovative products each year.

Google’s strategy of innovating in the open has the opposite effect. Google’s competitors know what it is working on and customers can be disappointed by delays or canceled projects. However, Google’s final products can be fine-tuned during development based upon real customer data. Further, and most importantly, Google is widely viewed as a fast-moving and innovative company, irregardless of whether its pre-announced innovations become real products, or real successes.

Our love affair with the tablet is over

Zal Bilimoria writing for Recode:

It comes down to size. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of people who use tech every day are just fine with having two primary computing devices: One for your pocket and one for your desk. Tablets are trying (and failing) to be portable enough to go everywhere, yet large enough to be multipurpose. Despite all the keyboard origami and elaborate ways to make your tablet into a laptop, it isn’t one.

Fantastic piece on the current state of tablets. The iPad was quite exciting when it launched, mainly because it was a big, beautiful, version of the measly 3.5” iPhone screen many people already loved. But as the resolution and size of phone displays has improved, little room is left for a tablet in most people’s workflow. On the go, or sitting around the house, a phone with a 4-5” display works great. And in the office, you need a laptop or desktop PC to do your work. Tablets aren’t going anywhere, but they also aren’t going where everyone thought they would in 2010.

iOS X

Apple’s executives recently dismissed the possibility of iOS and OS X merging into a single operating system:

“We don’t waste time thinking, ‘But it should be one [interface]!’ How do you make these [operating systems] merge together?’ What a waste of energy that would be,” Schiller said.

“To say [OS X and iOS] should be the same, independent of their purpose? Let’s just converge, for the sake of convergence? [It’s] absolutely a nongoal,” Federighi said.

Dr. Drang has a nice piece on the subject where he correctly notes that touch targets on OS X would be too difficult to use on a touchscreen:

This is exactly what Federighi was talking about. Targets in Windows—which is what he was using, of course—and OS X aren’t designed to be hit with a finger. They’re designed to be hit with the much more precise tip of a mouse pointer.

But I don’t think people actually want to use a touchscreen on a laptop. Keyboards and trackpads work just fine. For example, many Windows PCs have touchscreens these days and relatively expensive MacBooks without touchscreens are consistently outperforming the PC market. If laptops with touchscreens were so desirable, people would buy them.

Instead, those who ask for iOS and OS X to merge really just want iOS to do more, especially on the iPad. The iPad is undoubtedly a beloved device and people want to use the iPad for as much as possible. While the iPad does many things better than a laptop, it is lacking in some key areas:

Keyboard and touchpad: I rarely see an iPad without a third-party keyboard. It’s absolutely necessary for serious typing. And constantly reaching up to tap the screen when using a third-party keyboard gets old pretty fast. A keyboard cover with trackpad similar to Microsoft’s Touch Cover would do the trick quite nicely. It’s shocking that Apple hasn’t released one of these yet.

Multitasking: And by multitasking, I’m referring to the pain you feel any time multiple apps or windows are required to complete a task on the iPad. The ability to view just two windows, or two apps, at the same time would be a huge improvement.

File management: One of the biggest features missing from iOS and OS X is cloud storage and syncing for files. I know, iCloud can store and sync files for each app, but most people don’t work that way. It’s why Dropbox is so popular. Several great third-party solutions are available and generally work well, however, they aren’t baked into iOS, which can be frustrating at times.

It doesn’t appear that the recent comments from Apple’s executives preclude any of these improvements, which can all be done solely in iOS without integrating anything from OS X. It should be encouraging to Apple that people want to use the iPad for more tasks. Hopefully Apple is listening and it makes iOS a little bit more powerful so we can use our beloved iPads even more.

Lenovo to acquire Motorola Mobility from Google for $3B

Google acquired Motorola in 2012 for $12.5 billion, so a $3B selling price seems like a huge loss. But there are some details that many have missed.

First, according to Michael J. De La Merced at NYT DealBook:

When Google bought Motorola, the hardware maker had about $3 billion in cash on hand and nearly $1 billion in tax credits. So that brings the original deal’s net price down to about $8.5 billion.

And don’t forget the sale of Motorola’s set-top and modem unit to Arris in December of 2012 for $2.35B, which brings the net price down to $6.15B. Google is getting $2.9B from Lenovo, which leaves it with a $3.25B loss.

But, according to Google’s press release, it is keeping most of the Motorola patent portfolio:

Google will maintain ownership of the vast majority of the Motorola Mobility patent portfolio, including current patent applications and invention disclosures. As part of its ongoing relationship with Google, Lenovo will receive a license to this rich portfolio of patents and other intellectual property. Additionally Lenovo will receive over 2,000 patent assets, as well as the Motorola Mobility brand and trademark portfolio.

Google valued the patent portfolio at $5.5B when it acquired Motorola. There is some speculation that the Motorola patent portfolio isn’t as valuable as Google originally thought, but it is surely worth something, which brings Google’s net loss even lower and likely close to zero.

The future of TV is already here

Two years ago, I decided it was time to cut the cord. My Comcast cable box had broken down again, the interface was terrible, and it was expensive. I hastily canceled my subscription and returned the ugly cable box in the same day. There was no plan to replace it. I had an Apple TV, but didn’t use it much. I had heard of HD antennas, but never tried one. New Year’s Eve 2011 was spent on the couch, not watching the ball drop on network TV, but streaming a low budget local New York telecast from my iPad to the Apple TV. My wife was not thrilled. Fast forward two years later and we’re in TV bliss: paying less money for a better TV experience. Cutting the cord isn’t just for geeks anymore. Anyone can have a better TV experience and save money in the process. Here’s how I did it.

The Setup
There’s a small investment required to cut the cord and still watch your favorite shows. For around $150 total, buy a Mohu Leaf HD antenna ($40) and either an Apple TV or Roku (your preference, both $99).

The Leaf antenna looks like a laminated piece of paper with an attached coaxial cable. The coaxial cable connects to the antenna input of your TV. Most TVs will automatically scan through all channels and save each available channel. I get around 20 free channels using the Leaf, including ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC in crystal clear HD. You’ll be amazed at how much TV you can watch for free with just the Leaf antenna. Local news, sporting events, and network prime-time TV are all available for free.

For all other content, the Apple TV has worked great for me. While many have speculated when TV is going to move to an a la carte model, few realize that it’s already here. iTunes offers almost every show from most major networks on an a la carte basis. Is Mad Men the only show you want on AMC? Great, just buy the season. New episodes will be available the day after they air. Some shows, like Mad Men, even include special behind-the-scenes features that aren’t available to cable subscribers.

The Apple TV interface is vastly superior to any cable box. It includes a “Favorites” page where you can pin your favorite TV shows, which is much better than trudging through a massive list of channels. Instead of remembering when to DVR a show, the Apple TV simply adds a badge to each icon when a new episode is available. If you buy a season, you’ll get an email when new episodes are available.

After 6 months or so, I realized that buying network shows like Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, Shark Tank, and Master Chef added up quickly. These are available for free using the Leaf, but only if you want to watch them live. Enter Hulu. For $7/month, Hulu provides a wide range of TV and movies, including the latest episodes of almost every network show. For me, Hulu acts as a DVR for the network shows you don’t watch for free using the Leaf.

Netflix provides even more TV shows and movies, and includes original series, such as House of Cards. I watch Netflix the least and its library seems to be getting worse, but I still keep it around for House of Cards and an occasional movie.

The combination of the Leaf, iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix provides more than enough TV to watch on-demand, and I’m able to watch everything I want, usually without commercials, and for less money than a cable subscription.

Savings
My Comcast bill was $175/month for internet and cable. Over a two-year period this costs $4,200.

I typically spend $30/month on TV shows from iTunes. This includes individual episodes, which cost $3/episode and entire seasons, which range from $15-45/season. Hulu and Netflix each cost $7/month. The combination of iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, plus the up front cost of $150 and my monthly internet bill, costs $3,054 over the same two-year period, a savings of nearly $1,200.

What about HBO and ESPN?
These are the two outliers. They both have apps on the Apple TV, but they won’t work without a cable subscription. HBO does provide series for purchase on iTunes, but not until long after they originally air. Personally, I’ve decided not to watch these channels, however, I can appreciate that this is a deal breaker for some. At least HBO’s CEO doesn’t care if you use a shared HBO Go password.

What next?
There is much speculation about Apple’s plans to release a TV. In my opinion, Apple won’t be releasing radical new hardware, but instead will improve the current Apple TV hardware incrementally, improve the user interface, and, most importantly, deliver new content deals with media companies. Until now, Apple TV has been a “hobby” for Apple, but it has sold millions of units and spent years fine-tuning the experience and adding content. Don’t expect it to throw that all away. Instead, expect it to put the Apple TV front and center and run with it. It’s been a great experience for me and I could see it going truly mainstream with some small improvements and marketing dollars.

Will a larger iPhone cannibalize the iPad?

Lots has been written about Apple’s product design decisions and its response, or lackthereof, to competing products. Generally, Apple has a track record of making the right call. It famously rejected netbooks, for example. However, waiting this long to release a larger iPhone may go down in history as a misstep that allowed competitors, such as Samsung, to gain traction in the smartphone market.

While many have argued that Apple should skip a larger screen device, the popularity of phones with screens 5” or larger is now too much to ignore. So why has Apple waited to release a larger iPhone? My theory: the iPad.

When the iPad was released, many called it “just a large iPhone.” Despite its success and versatility, the iPad really is just a large iPhone. Since the iPad was released, iOS has remained largely the same between the two devices. Sure, the iPad displays more information and has more screen real estate for developers to utilize, but so will a larger iPhone. Suppose we have a 5-6” iPhone. Would it be fair to call the 8” iPad mini “just a large iPhone.” I think so. And if people already own a 5-6” iPhone, will they still want an iPad? I guarantee this question has been on the mind of Apple executives. Apple has never been scared to cannibalize its own products, but the this might be an exception to the rule.

Apple to release iPhones with bigger screens this year

This piece is quite interesting. Not only does it speculate on two larger screen iPhones (4.5” and over 5”), it gives some insight into the development of these phones and the future, or lack thereof, of the iPhone 5C.

First, it looks like the iPhone 5C was a dud and the strategy of wrapping the old phone in new plastic colors (what looks new is new) didn’t work:

Both new models are expected to feature metal casings similar to what is used on the current iPhone 5S, with Apple expected to scrap the plastic exterior used in the iPhone 5C, these people said.

Second, the article claims that Apple’s over 5” iPhone is only in preliminary development. If true, this is quite surprising. Large phones have been popular for a few years and I’d be surprised if Apple hasn’t been development iPhones of many sizes for that long or longer:

The smaller of the two models is further along in development, and is being prepared for mass production, the people said. The larger-screen version is still in preliminary development, they said.

A new year

A recent article from the Atlantic on how “the stream” crested in 2013 really made me think about this site and what I’m adding to the world. The aforementioned article cites a great piece by Robin Sloan, where she defines two types of internet media:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

There’s way too much flow and not enough stock. My goal for Virtual Pants in 2014 is to add some stock to the world and stop adding flow. The goal is one article each month that will be relevant for at least a year. In-depth reviews of big products, technology tutorials that help people, exhaustive analysis of important issues, and maybe an interview or two. Things that will stand the test of time and add real value. I’m looking forward to it and I hope you enjoy.

Having fun at Microsoft's expense

Great piece by Der Spiegel on new NSA documents. Not only can the NSA intercept mail-order laptops to implant spying hardware and software, but they like to poke fun at Microsoft while spying using Windows error reports:

Although the method appears to have little importance in practical terms, the NSA’s agents still seem to enjoy it because it allows them to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the Seattle-based software giant. In one internal graphic, they replaced the text of Microsoft’s original error message with one of their own reading, “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.” (“Sigint” stands for “signals intelligence.”)