Ditching jack

I’m starting to buy the logic of ditching the 3.5 mm traditional headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and using the single lightning port for headphones instead. I’m not saying I’d have voted to do it, but there’s at least a defensible argument to be made.

Before I get into that, though, let’s just stop and marvel at the totally tone-deaf claim by Phil Schiller that dropping the port was an act of “courage.” Not only is that borderline offensive in a world where real people are doing real courageous acts every day, saying it in that venue and with that attitude does nothing but perpetuate every negative stereotype of Apple being run by elite, out-of-touch individuals with an over-inflated sense of their own importance. It will end up immortalized along with “you’re holding it wrong” atop the list of inartful Apple quotes. It’s far worse than “you’re holding it wrong” because that comment was off the cuff and arguably misconstrued while “courage” was written into a presentation that’s been weeks or months in the making. It was intentional. And it was just plain dumb. Like, a flinch-when-you-hear-it kind of dumb.

Anyway, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to how I use my iPhone since the rumors started getting serious about the headphone jack going away. The design of anything (from a phone to a car to a camera app), is about tradeoffs. And those tradeoffs are about balancing the possible against use case scenarios. As in, what does the designer think the user of the product will need it to do and how is any given use case prioritized over others? In my personal experience, over the past several months, the number of times I needed to listen to my phone over its headphone jack and charge it at the same time have been zero. That was surprising to me, but it’s true. Most of the time, I listen to my phone over Bluetooth. At home, in the car, at work. Either Bluetooth or Sonos via wifi. When I use headphones, it’s in scenarios when I wouldn’t be charging it anyway (shopping, exercising, etc.). So, for me, losing the ability to charge and use headphones at the same time is will lead to essentially no impact whatsoever to my enjoyment of the product.

My bet is, I’m not unique. My bet is Apple knows exactly how many users are like me. Not a company to live and die based on focus groups, they nonetheless are very much aware of how people are using their stuff. This is probably not the very earliest time they could have dumped the jack, but it’s the earliest time they could do it where the majority of their customers wouldn’t be radically inconvenienced.

Phil said in an email to a customer that there’s a $39 fix for those who are in need of using headphones while charging. It’s the Lightning Dock. It’s probably the case that most of the use cases for needing both ports at once outside an automobile involve a stationary fixed position like sitting at a desk or laying in bed. In those cases, the dock is a good solution. I can see the need for sitting somewhere where a dock doesn’t work, like a plane or on a train, when one would want to listen to their phone and plug it into a charger at the same time. I bet in a matter of weeks (if not sooner) there will at least be announcements of if not actual releases of external battery chargers with headphones jacks on them.

The car is interesting since older models don’t have Bluetooth and are a great place to top off a charge while listening through the speakers while driving around. That’s done with a cheap cassette adapter that plugs into the headphone jack. Those folks, too, have an option, though, in that there are Bluetooth versions of cassette adapters on the market already and they’re also pretty darn cheap (under $20).

Many will lament having expensive headphones that now will require a dongle to use. I get that. I’m in the same boat. How much of a bummer that is depends a lot on what the dongle is like. Does it bend easily? Does it stay on the headphones well? Well enough that leaving them together all the time is no big deal? But the bigger question from a product design standpoint is what am I getting in exchange for this inconvenience? Here’s my list based on their presentation:

  • Longer-lasting battery. The iPhone 7’s battery lasts, on average, two hours longer than the iPhone 6s, according to Apple. Some of that is probably optimization in iOS 10, but I’m guessing a bit more space for extra ions is also contributory.
  • Non-mechanical Home button. This is a big deal in that the Home button is used, like, a zillion times on my iPhone and is often the component to fail if something does. iPhone 7 has a taptic Home button like the new MacBook’s trackpad. It’s solid. No clicker. It just feels like it clicks. The room they needed for that taptic engine is at least partially where the headphone jack used to be.
  • Water and dust resistance. No hole for a Home button or headphone jack means no access points for water and dust. This is a major new feature for the phone and one Apple is heavily promoting. It is the case that other smartphone manufacturers have made water resistance phones with headphone jacks but it’s also possible Apple’s phone is more resistant for not having that port. I don’t know for sure.

They also added a much better camera, a brighter more colorful display, and stereo speakers. None of those are in the vicinity of the headphone jack, but every open space in that case is utilized so a gain on one end probably means more space for something else in another spot.

Apple will always (always always) choose the pain of transition over holding on to “the way things have always been done” if the tradeoffs are good enough in their estimation. Apple is usually really good at timing these transitions so that the benefit of the transition makes sense to consumers once they see it in action. That list is long and goes all the way back to dropping the SCSI interface, the ADB port, or the floppy drive.

People are really pissed about this though. I’ve never seen more shitshows being thrown on social media from people I know, let alone the press, over any other decision Apple has ever made. I’m not entirely certain this will be one of those things people get over in the near term, but I do think that the idea of losing the port is more troubling to people than not having it will ultimately end up being.

What I do know is the Apple haters out there will hate Apple all that much more if, in six months, this kerfuffle goes the way of “antennagate” (i.e., nowhere). Chances are, that’s what will happen. Folks will grumble and upgrade when they need to anyway and then forget what they were complaining about once they adapt. Whatever the case, Apple should focus on selling the logic of the move and not invoking bullshit platitudes.

But yeah. Not saying I would have ditched the jack.

iPhone 6s

I’ve had the iPhone 6s now for about 24 hours. It replaces an iPhone 6 which replaced an iPhone 5S which replaced an iPhone 5 which…well, you get the idea. I’ve had every iPhone going back to the first one. Here are some random observations after my first day with it.

  • To my hand, it’s noticeably thicker and heavier than the 6. Not by much. Only .02 mm thicker, according to Apple, and just 14 grams heftier, but I could tell when trying to. My cases all seem to fit, however.
  • The damned thing is fast. The “s” is thought to stand for “speed” and it’s noticeably quicker in things like app switching, web page loading, and camera functions.
  • The TouchID is now essentially instantaneous in unlocking the phone. So quick, it’s nearly impossible to read the notifications on the screen before it brings up the home screen.
  • The home button is a little clicker than the 6’s. Crisper and sharper.
  • The Taptic Engine creates a much more authoritative vibration than whatever made the 6 vibrate. Like the difference between a ’78 Cylon and a ’04 Cylon. 
  • 3D Touch is pretty nifty, though I admit I’m still training myself to use it. There aren’t a lot of apps that support it yet, but I’m sure there’ll be more soon. Next time I’m using my iPad I’ll probably press down on the screen expecting something to happen in the same way I used to wait for my iPad Air to unlock just by leaving my finger on the home button. 
  • It may be my imagination or that the new phone has arrived during a slightly less greasy moment of my life, but it seems like the 6s screen doesn’t get as smudged as much the 6 screen did. 
  • I can see the difference the 12 megapixel camera makes. I’ve only taken a couple of shots but the detail seems sharper. Still a hell of a great camera.

Needless to say, my ninth iPhone is the best I’ve ever had. Should a normal person upgrade from the 6? I dunno. 3D Touch is cool and the camera is better, but not having 3D Touch means not missing it and the 6’s camera is already pretty damned good. Most of the speed increases are incrementally small and the kind of thing you soon adjust to either way. If you’re using any other iPhone, upgrading to the 6s is a no-brainer.

Cont blocked

iOS 9 introduced the option of blocking web ads and tracking scripts in Safari and a lot of the internet lost its shit. Moral introspection ensued as blocking plug-ins shot to the top of the App Store charts.

I work in digital marketing so I do get that Apple’s move here threatens to severely knock my universe out of balance, but I also acknowledge that the world of online advertising has become actively hostile to those for whom the ads are intended. Bloated pages suck down mobile user’s metered bandwidth and waste their time loading, not to mention the “ads” that automatically redirect site visitors to app stores or other destinations and those that block page content or so crowd it out that it’s hard to find, let alone read. Publishers have allowed advertisers to absolutely ruin the web experience in too many cases in exchange for the few shekels they get in return. The question isn’t why has Apple allowed this to happen, the question is what took so long?

Apple, of course, makes next to nothing from advertising (iAds aside which are of negligible import to anyone). Their business model is based on hardware revenue and those sales are founded on exceptional consumer experience and today’s online advertising model does nothing but erode that. It’s in Apple’s interest to allow its consumers this kind of control. Simple as that.

Of course, publishers need money to publish. The rush towards ad blocking doesn’t spell the end to an ad-based model, it spells the end of the crazy bullshit model that’s evolved organically and unchecked. We as consumers either have to pay sites to read them or we have to let them show us ads (or maybe a little of both). Expecting the web to be delivered free of any charge is totally unrealistic and ultimately unethical. 

The top-selling iOS blocker, Crystal, is now allowing what they call “acceptable ads” from marketers who pay for the privilege safe passage through their filter. They’re teaming with Eyeo, the company behind the browser plug-in AdBlock Plus, and using their database of more than 700 advertisers who meet Eyeo’s criteria. I put it on my phone the day iOS 9 dropped and my recollection is it was free at that time, but it’s currently 99¢. So Crystal is trying to profit from both ends of the pipeline while Eyeo only does so from the advertisers. Since Crystal didn’t say anything about this possibility when it launched, a lot of people are pissed. 

In theory, I think this is the right path for those of us who know that there must be some exchange of value in order to maintain a thriving content model on the web. If the ad industry won’t or can’t abide by acceptable, self-imposed guidelines, then I suppose it’s not unexpected that others like Eyeo would do it for them and that consumers would pick which model they like best. As I said, I don’t think this spells the end of the “free web.” I think it spells the end of the version we have now. Or, at least, the beginning of the end. It’ll be rough sailing for some smaller sites and I expect a lot of them will fade away. But the status quo is not acceptable (and it’s only getting worse). 

A not insignificant shelter in the storm of consumer’s ad-blocking fury on iOS is the niggling detail that content blockers only work in Safari. They don’t apply to web views within apps. That means if you click a link in Facebook or any other app that opens that URL without switching over to Safari (using something called WebKit, the default behavior of most apps on iOS), then the content blocker isn’t engaged. In keeping an eye on my own behavior, I see that the vast majority of my web visits happen outside Safari. Probably north of 80%. Until such time that Apple extends ad blocking functionality to these WebKit sessions, the real impact won’t be felt. But if/when that does happen, shit’s gonna get real.

Apple Watch Impressions

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I’ve had my stainless steel Apple Watch with its link bracelet going on ten days. More than long enough to form an initial impression of the thing.

  • My first and most significant gripe about the watch is how long it took to get. While I appreciate this is near the front of the line for first world problems and I do my best to keep things in perspective, from the standpoint of someone who’s been playing the necessary game to snag Apple gear as soon as possible for many years, this experience has been the most disappointing. I got up in the middle of the night and had my order confirmation about five minutes past the appointed hour, but my watch was among the last of the initial orders to be shipped by Apple. Based on what I’ve read and the experiences of friends who ordered them, the delaying factor seems to be the steel link bracelet band. Had I ordered it with a sport band, I would have had it weeks earlier. In fact, I did order the sport band, but as an additional band, not the one packaged with the watch. I’d have preferred to see Apple sell the watches separate from the bands and ship them as soon as at least one of the ordered bands was also ready. It would have made this customer happier, at least.
  • Physically, I think this watch is one of the best made, most beautiful things I’ve owned. The way the link bracelet adjusts for size requires no tools and is one of those pure “why hasn’t everyone done it like this” moments you get from Apple when they’re hitting the ball with the fat part of the bat. I love how the light plays over the links in the brush steel band and the dense feeling of the watch itself when holding it in my hand. It’s pure and perfect in its form. The screen is beautiful with totally black blacks and saturated colors. I can’t imagine how the quality of this thing could be improved.
  • Most of the reviews or impressions I’ve read of Apple Watch have been from men (only one woman that I can recall) who don’t normally wear watches. I do normally wear them and consider myself a “watch guy” (though the most expensive I’ve had up to now was maybe three-quarters the price of Apple Watch). I also prefer bigger faces and heavier, chunkier G-Shock-type styles over sleek and thin Movado-style designs. All that to say I find the 42mm Apple Watch to be little too small for my wrist. It feels small and even dainty compared to every other watch I wear (and I have about 24 of them). I’d very much like to see a bigger option in the future. 
  • The relative daintiness of the watch leads me to feel as though the screen is too small. I find it ironic that my own personal preference has been against Apple’s steady movement to ever-larger screens on their mobile devices and here I am complaining about this one being too small, but it is. About half the time, I mess up entering my unlock code because the numbers are too small to hit cleanly. Same goes for the little app icons. I have to stop and carefully aim or else I’ll hit the wrong one. I also find myself tapping on screen elements like “back” and “cancel” several times before they work. I’d love to know what a 45mm or even 48mm screen would feel like.
  • The thing I was most excited to try was the fitness functionality. I’ve had multiple devices over the years in my search for the Goldilocks fitness tracker. So far, Apple Watch appears to be the closest I’ve come to satisfying my needs, but Fitbit’s new Surge looks to have many of the same features and at one quarter the price I paid. Regardless, the best part of Apple Watch’s fitness functionality for me is the heart rate monitoring. I had a Basis band when they first came out and was very disappointed in the lack of accuracy while measuring heart rate. Apple Watch, when compared to my Precor treadmill’s heart rate measurement (which compares very well to my Polar chest monitor) seems to be consistently a few beats per minute lower when running. The first time I ran with it, it wasn’t accurate at all. It bounced around from 215 bpm to around 50 bpm, both totally outside the realm of possibility (I should be from 158 bpm to 163 bpm). But since then, it’s been pretty well dead-on when I’ve done spot checks both against the Precor and counting my pulse against a second hand. Ultimately, I trust the numbers it’s giving me. I have noticed that it seems less accurate when doing weight training or other non-cardio activities, though. 
  • I really dig the Activity app. It gives you gentle reminders on how you’re doing throughout the day and, while it does track steps, doesn’t use them as a metric. I was a big fan of the Nike FuelBand and it’s use of the Fuel system of turing all kinds of effort into a measurable metric and Activity feels similar to that. In addition, the use of concentric circles makes seeing your progress at a glance easy even with it’s shrunken down to the size of a watch face complication. The Activity app includes achievements but, in typical Apple fashion, there’s no built-in awareness that these are things someone might want to share on Twitter or Facebook. You can’t even share them from the companion iPhone app.
  • Speaking of which, Facebook it totally missing from Apple Watch. You can set up the watch to pass along the notifications you get on your phone, but there’s no Facebook app. No way to use the voice recognition to update your status, no way to peruse some kind of abbreviated feed. Nothing. Twitter is present, but the app is pretty lame. You can view “top trends” or recent tweets from your stream, but it starts with the most recent, not where you last read to. That’s not how I use Twitter.
  • Considering all the consternation about battery life prior to its release, it’s one feature that’s been nothing at all to worry about. Very often, at the end of the day, I still have in the neighborhood of 30% battery left. The only day it went into the red zone by 5:00 PM was right after I installed the Misfit fitness app. I put it on the night before, looked at it for three seconds, then forgot about it. Next day, the watch was already at 83% when I left the house. It was at 18% when I left work and was 10% by dinner. After I ditched the Misfit app, the mysterious energy drain disappeared and it’s been back to more than amply charged all day long. Even on those days when I run or workout with it. An hour of working out, by the way, during which the workout app is active the whole time and measuring heartbeat continuously eats about 10% of the battery’s reserve. 
  • I’m somewhat annoyed that the workout app I prefer on my iPhone (Strava) won’t recognize the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor, either on the iPhone app or its watch app. That input only seems to be available to the watch’s workout app.
  • The non-Apple apps in general are too slow to be useful. You want something that will be responsive since it’s supposed to be a quick access kind of thing but most of them just take too long to load their data across the iPhone’s bluetooth connection. I look forward to truly native third-party apps that are supposedly coming later this year.
  • I find using Apple Watch as a phone (that is, placing a call on it and using its mic and speaker to communicate) to be awkward. On the one hand, the mic is excellent and sounds like any other bluetooth device to those you’re talking to. However, the speaker is ridiculous. Near impossible to use outside. Also, there’s just the dorky Dick Tracy feeling of talking into one’s watch I have a hard time getting over.
  • Apple Pay has worked flawlessly the few times I’ve tried it. The closest using Apple Watch has made me feel as though I’m living in the future.

In summary, I have yet to have a “Oh, that’s why I bought this thing!” moment. Someone on Twitter suggested to me that the watch was a beta product. I don’t think that’s right. It’s supremely well finished, both physically and from a software perspective. But it’s limited. It feels more useful than the first gen iPhone, but the first iPhone was significantly more revolutionary and felt as much every time you used it. So it’s clearly a 1.0 product but in a world with greatly increased expectations. 

The activity features are pretty great, but only the Sport model is reasonably priced if that’s how you’ll primarily be using it. I find that it’s basically a “push” device for me in that it’s there to allow me to see notifications without taking my phone out of my pocket or flipping it over. But then, usually, there’s little I can do with the notifications without using the phone. You can use the watch to make short, canned replies to messages, but typically if I’m in a spot where I don’t want to use my phone, I’m certainly not in a place to use speech-to-text. So out comes the phone anyway. 

I think, in time, Apple Watch will be amazing. There’s all kinds of things I can imagine that a device that knows you, specifically, are using it could come in handy. It could replace website passwords, it could open your house, start your car. But right now, it’s early days and very limited. I am not sorry I got it, though. Even with all its shortcomings, I find that I want it on my wrist more than any other of my watches. I hope that Apple moves quickly to make this a more fully-formed product and doesn’t let fashion or an overdeveloped concern for a specific style to get in the way of enhancing its appeal and functionality. 

Get bent

I’m not sure if bendgate is going to be a real thing or not. The media loves to swoop down on these issues when they pop up because if there’s something other than winning the American public loves, it’s seeing someone else screw up. Of course, other metal phones bend, too. Just as other phones had reception issues if you blocked their antennas with your hand. But those phones don’t have Apple logos on them.

I had an iPhone 5S that bent. It was in my pocket while I was hiking and I took a tumble and landed on it. Even though it was in a LifeProof case, it ended up getting bent. The Apple Store guy said it wasn’t an issue covered under warranty or Apple Care since it was still functional. Luckily, the headphone jack eventually got jacked and I was able to exchange it. I imagine the standard line from Apple will be the same for pocket-bent Sixes.

I don’t have my iPhone 6 yet so I’ll withhold final judgement, but I had already formed the suspicion that Apple’s drive to make the thinnest phone possible had gone too far. I based my thinking on the dubious design decision that gave us the camera bump. I’d rather they made the phone that much thicker in exchange for better battery. Nobody — not one person — outside Apple headquarters has said the 5S was too thick but plenty (like, everyone else) have said a longer battery life would be swell. Jony Ive might rather make a phone thin enough to shave with, but I’d bet most users would trade in a  millimeter or two for a 5-10% increase in battery life (a number I just totally made up — no idea how much extra battery they could have put in there if the phone was thicker). Now, we’re presented with the prospect that the phone is excessively bendy due to its extreme thinness. And this is another smack against the larger size. Of course when you make something too big to fit comfortably in a pocket, there’s going to be issues. Either it’ll dig into you or it’ll give in to the pressure.

I’m a huge fan of Apple design and always have been, but sometimes it seems like they make decisions in favor of aesthetics over how real people will use their devices. Off the top of my head, I think of the beautiful yet rediculously scratch-prone iPod backing and the too easily nicked chamfered edge of the iPhone 5 and 5S.

Design is about trade-offs. That’s one of its core tenets. In this case, I wonder if Apple is too willing to trade durability and practicality for an arbitrary aesthetic. The camera bump is arguably a subjective design choice (though I’d argue back that instability when laying on its back on a flat surface impacts its functionality, if just a little). Durability is not subjective.

It is not unreasonable for a person to think that among the elements tested during the design of their nice new phone was whether or not it would stand up to being used in exactly the way every single person in the world with pockets uses them.

iPhone Day

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iPhone Day 2014 has dawned anew. The eighth annual mass-demonstration of orgasmic consumerism that will result in another unprecedented transference of wealth from millions to just a few.

As usual, there is a large dosage of animus:

It may be my imagination, but this “haters gonna hate” thing seems to ratchet up with each successive launch. What I don’t get is why. Does a large portion of the population ridicule another for standing in line for Rolling Stones tickets? Or to get into a great breakfast spot on a Saturday morning? Or for Transformers 16? OK, maybe for the Transformers.

Bloomberg reported:

At Apple’s store on Fifth Avenue in New York, police officers put up barricades as the line stretched more than 10 blocks and the crowd cheered continuously for the 15 minutes before the phones officially went on sale.

I used to be that guy in line, but I’m not anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m older now (though I’d hate to think so), but I’m content ordering my phone like a civilized person and having it delivered to me, even if that means I’m not one of the first on the planet to post to Facebook from its virgin touchscreen.

I’d wait at the Apple store with hundreds or thousands of others. This is more social event than product launch. You do this to be with your tribe. Not unlike going to a collegiate sporting event. You all get to discuss the phone and the company and how long you’ve been an Apple customer (extra cred awarded for having owned a Mac from the years during Steve’s exile). It’s a warm and comforting thing, really.

Maybe that’s what the haters hate on. They have nothing like this. Their tribe (assuming the vast majority of them are non-Apple users) is significantly weaker. There is no binding energy in their brand affiliation. No embrace of kindred spirits. Perhaps they’re jealous.

To be sure, there must be a large number of people in the Apple Store line who were previously not Apple users. I remember what it was like in 1998 to use a Mac. We were few and very far between. So a large percentage of these cheering fans (and fans they are) must be converts. Know what they say about former smokers being the most virulently anti-smoking people there are? I bet it’s the same for Apple fans. Former Galaxy and Dell users cheer and sit on the cold Fall pavement with as much if not more excitement as someone who’s first Apple product was beige with a built-in screen.

In the last few years I waited, I did so at the AT&T store. There were fewer people and the phones were just the same. I lost the tribal element. These were more goal-oriented business-like folk who wanted to get in and get out and get on. I’d hear the Apple crowd chanting (yes, chanting) at the other end of the mall and feel a little sorry. For myself. For leaving their happy embrace. For being efficient rather than ecstatic.

So today, I’ll look at the throngs of hopeful iPhone buyers sitting in New York or Chicago or Sydney or London while waiting for my AT&T shipping notification email. I miss them. I’m happy for them. But it’s nice not to have to get up hours before dawn and sit in the dark. Alas.

Exactly like that but totally not

Over on Recode — oh, sorry…I mean Re/codeUncle Walt posits that Apple is like a movie studio.

Studios release blockbuster franchise movies every few years, and then try to live off a series of sequels until the next big, successful franchise. We are in the early stages of one such project right now: On May 2, Columbia Pictures will release “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the first of what may be several sequels to the original 2012 film, that was itself a reboot of an earlier series.

Looked at in this way, your almost-new iPhone 5s and iPad Air are mere sequels, iterations of Apple blockbusters that rocked the world when they first appeared. The same goes for your MacBook Air, which has gone through many changes and improvements since Mr. Jobs theatrically slid it out of a manila envelope in 2008 to show how thin it was.

He uses the word “iteration” there but I think he confuses its meaning with the word “derivative.” Iteration implies methodical incremental improvement which, I think, any casual observer would see has been the case with the iPhone and iPad and pretty much everything Apple makes. Constant improvement. Sometimes not earth-shattering by themselves, but when taken in aggregate, adding up to a pretty big deal.

In contrast, Spider Man reboots are derivative. You are literally retelling the same story with minor changes around the edges which, in itself, is derivative of its comic book source material. It might be better or it might be worse. The only thing you can count on is it will be in some way different. But not. The goal isn’t to improve Spidey, only get you to see him again with another actor’s face (and, let’s be clear, to enable Sony to maintain their license to Marvel’s IP).

Movie sequels almost (almost) always do worse financially than their predecessors. Which Apple “sequel” has sold more poorly than the device it replaced? Also, with a few notable exceptions, qualitatively the originals are better, too (Empire Strikes Back and Godfather II being the most obvious examples I can think of). Movie sequels are often a crass attempt to pull more treasure from a productive hole. See Jaws 2, Poltergeist IIMatrix Reloaded, etc.

I also have to wonder what would qualify as a “game-changer” from Apple? Which game are we looking to change? From a financial aspect, there is no way for Apple to create something that generates the kind of revenue iPhone does. Not unless they branch out into oil production or auto manufacturing.

Apple is solely focused on making great products. Sometimes they change games, sometimes they “merely” make those games better to play. But they don’t make ill-conceived bullshit to give tech writers something to natter on about. Walt, of all people, should know better.