Sunday
Jan012017

AirPods Review

When Phil Schiller took the stage at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, he had a difficult job ahead of him. Apple had just announced its new iPhone 7 line and he was tasked with defending one of the company’s most controversial design decisions in over a decade. Since the very first iPhone in 2007, Apple had built a standard headphone jack into every model of their wildly popular smartphone. The rumors had been flying for almost a year that they had decided to remove this ubiquitous port and the anger was palpable. The rumors, this time, were spot on.

Schiller’s defense came in waves. First, he reassured the audience that an adapter for existing headphones would be included with every iPhone 7 shipped. Then he moved on to address the issue directly:“Now some people have asked why we would remove the analogue headphone jack from the iPhone. I mean it’s been with us a really long time. I’m sure you know that the source of the mini-phono jack is over a hundred years old used to quickly exchange in switch boards. Well the reason to move on-I’m going to give you three of them, but it really comes down to one word: Courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us. And our team has tremendous courage.”

The courage line was mocked mercilessly in the media for weeks to come. Despite the sincerity of its delivery, Schiller's spirited defense came across as hyperbolic at best and out-of-touch with reality at worst, but it got me thinking. According to Aristotle, courage, like all virtues, lies in between two extremes. At the one end of the spectrum is brashness (thrasus), and on the other end, fear (phobos). The courageous person knows when it is appropriate to be bold and when it is appropriate to be afraid. Does removing the headphone jack from the iPhone qualify as courage or is it an instance of brashness? I think the answer to that question depends largely on how successful Apple is in realizing its vision for wireless audio and the AirPods are their first articulation of this vision.

The Problem of Wireless

If we were to think about headphones knowing nothing about their real-world constraints, I think we would obviously prefer them to be wireless. In other words, the idea of having independent objects that we place in our ears is obviously preferable, all things being equal, to having these objects in our ears tethered by wires to our devices. This idea is so compelling that a robust market for bluetooth headphones that do away with the wire that connects the earphones to the device, but keeps the wire between the earphones, exists.

Why doesn’t everyone use bluetooth headphones given the obvious appeal of fewer wires? Setting aside the unavoidable issue of price, I think it comes down to the following four issues:

First, you need to pair the bluetooth headphones to your device in a frustratingly laborious process that is far less user-friendly or reliable than the simple act of sticking a connector into a headphone jack. Second, as a result of bluetooth headphones’ reliance on a wireless connection, the sound will from time to time drop out while you are listening. This is a problem that afflicts some sets worse than others, but none are immune. Third, in order to maintain as consistent a connection as possible, bluetooth audio is compressed and this negatively impacts the way the audio sounds. Finally, wireless headphones rely on batteries to work which means that you have yet another device to worry about charging.

My question when I first got my hands on the AirPods was simple. How many of these problems has Apple managed to solve?

Pairing

When it comes to pairing, the AirPods are really great. Hold the charging case near a device running iOS 10 or later, flip open the lid and tap connect. It’s easier than plugging a connector into a headphone jack and the cherry on top is that it then automatically pairs to any Apple device logged into the same iCloud account. This is Apple at its finest. They took an awful, clunky process and made it delightful and easy.

Reliability

To address the issue of reliability, Apple developed an in-house chip called the W1. This chip is Apple’s hardware answer to the performance problems that have plagued bluetooth since its inception. I’m happy to report that it’s another home run. The AirPods are easily the most reliable bluetooth headphones I have ever used. On occasion, I do hear a tiny echo as the individual earbuds sync and they are still not as rock solid as wired headphones, but I’d say that they are 98% of the way to the reliability of wired headphones. And they have very good range on top of that. I have to get roughly 80 feet away from my phone before the signal starts to cut out.

Sound Quality

The sound quality of the AirPods is adequate. They don’t sound great and they don’t sound terrible. They’re just okay with Apple's signature emphasis on mids and neither the highs nor the lows getting much love. I’ve listened to bluetooth headphones that sound better and I’ve listened to bluetooth headphones that sound worse. Whatever hardware magic is happening with the W1 chip, it is obvious that these are bluetooth headphones that sacrifice quality for reliability. If most of your listening time is devoted to music, there are better options out there. For podcasts and audiobooks, however, the AirPods are perfectly serviceable.

The Charging Case

The charging case, which is roughly the size and shape of a container of dental floss, is a very elegant solution to three separate problems. The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is the pairing process. Flip open the case, and you’re ready to go. The second is the problem of losing something as small as an individual AirPod. When you take them out of your ears, you are encouraged to place them in the case by the clever way in which the magnets to suck them into position. It’s just plain fun to do and it’s much easier to keep track of the case than the individual earbuds. The third problem that the case solves is battery life. The AirPods are tiny and together they can give you up to 5 hours of playback. But when you put them back in the case, they recharge. With a fully charged set of AirPods and charging case, you get a combined total of 24 hours of battery life. This mitigates the need to constantly have the headphones plugged in when they’re not in use and has made battery life a non-issue for me.

Fit and Comfort

I find the AirPods to be extremely comfortable. Your milage will vary on this as everyone has differently shaped ears and I really wish Apple had avoided a one-size-fits-all approach here. The AirPods are Apple’s second wearable computer. How cool would it have been if they had set up audiology stations much like the Apple Watch stations at every Apple Store where you could get custom-molded tips for the AirPods? On the other hand, the fact that the AirPods don’t really create any kind of seal with your ear canal, means that you have more situational awareness when walking around in the world. This makes them great for walking outside in urban areas, although they don’t read socially like headphones, so you’ll notice people trying to talk to you when they’re in. The AirPods are now my workout headphones and unlike their wired brethren, they have never fallen out of my ears during a workout. They have also very quickly become my new favorite way to take long phone calls, thanks to some noise-cancelling magic that they are able to pull off with the two microphones.

New Problems

While the AirPods seem to have solved quite a few of the issues that have plagued bluetooth headphones, they have also introduced a new category of problem. In order to make them so small, Apple was either unwilling or unable to put basic physical controls on the earbuds. Instead, they chose to rely on a combination of gestures and Siri to get the job done. Removing an AirPod from your ear will pause playback and putting it back in will resume playback. This is a clever idea that works well when you’re out shopping and you want to interact with a salesperson. For volume control, you need to double tap on one of the AirPods to invoke Siri and say “Volume Up” or “Volume Down”. I find this to be the weakest part of the AirPods experience. First of all, the gesture isn’t reliable enough for something as basic as volume control. Second, double tapping on the AirPod generates discomfort. But worst of all, you are forced to interrupt whatever it is you’re listening to every time you want to change the volume. A workaround for these new problems is to use the Apple Watch to control playback and volume, which is what I do, but even this is an inferior experience to the physical buttons that all other bluetooth headsets offer. Not to mention that those who don’t sport an Apple Watch are out of luck.

Wrap Up

As a first articulation of Apple’s vision for wireless audio, the AirPods are a remarkable achievement. The tech giant has managed, once again, to solve a whole series of existing technological problems in a mostly elegant way that materially improves the user experience. Many of these benefits can only be enjoyed when the AirPods are used in conjunction with other Apple products, but the improved reliability gains of the W1 chip extend to any device that supports bluetooth. These headphones are not for audiophiles. If sound quality is your number one priority, I'd still recommend that you look at a set of wired headphones. But the convenience factor of the AirPods proposition is so compelling that I find myself using them for everything but serious music listening and audio/video work. I think it’s too early to judge whether Apple’s removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone was courage or brashness, but overall, the AirPods are a strong supporting argument for it being the former rather than the latter.

Friday
May152015

Apple Watch Review

The Apple Watch has landed. It's Apple's first new product category since the iPad(2010) and the company's first new user interface since the iPhone(2007). But unlike previous product launches, Apple is struggling to come up with a coherent marketing message for their wearable. A legitimate question that I often hear is "Why would I need an Apple Watch if I already have a smartphone?"That ordinary people are asking this question half a year after Apple announced the product is evidence that the company has done a poor job telling its story. What I realized when my watch finally arrived was that I had three specific questions:

1) Is it a good watch?

2) Do I want to walk around with a small computer strapped to my wrist?

3) Is Apple's implementation of wearable computing compelling?

I've been living with the Apple watch for two weeks now and here are my answers.

Question 1: Is it a good watch?

The way I see it, a good watch needs to do three things:

A. Tell the time

B. Be comfortable

C. Be fashionable

In terms of telling the time, the Apple Watch is a bit of a mixed bag. As a result of battery constraints, Apple chose to keep the watch screen off by default until it is activated. This puts the Apple Watch at a disadvantage when compared to all traditional watches and even some smartwatches, because the time is not always visible. To address this concern, the Apple Watch's gorgeous display turns on when you raise your wrist to your face, but this gesture doesn't work consistently and often requires an exaggerated arm movement. Moreover, the screen never stays on for more than a 15 second interval unless you are directly manipulating it. This is a big knock on the Apple Watch as a watch. I understand that given the current battery technology, it was a necessary compromise, but in the world of traditional watches, battery life is simply a non-issue and part of the Aristotelean definition of a watch is that it persistently tells the time.

As far as comfort goes, I think the Apple Watch is great. During the long waiting period(I placed what must have been one of the very first preorders back in April), I set up a couple of appointments at the Apple Store to try on the various models and band options. Personally, I find the Apple Watch Sport to be the most comfortable. The Sport's body is made of aluminum which makes it lighter than the stainless steel or gold models and the fluoroelastomer band is really nice and supple. I've worn watches for most of my life and I'd go as far as to say that this is the most comfortable watch I've ever had on my wrist.

Unfortunately, I don't find the Apple Watch to be particularly fashionable. I've always preferred circular faced watches and Apple's is both squarer and bulkier than my tastes allow. While beautifully made, it is shaped like a throw pillow and sits a little high on the wrist. And though it is smaller than it appears in Apple's PR images, it's still a little computer strapped to your wrist and the more expensive models and nicer bands don't change this. Simply put, it's thicker than a watch should be. On the other hand, the actual watch faces are very stylish and far more customizable than legacy time pieces. Apple pushes its digital advantage here by giving you control over elements of the watch face like the color of the second hand, or how detailed the numbers are. On some of the faces, it even lets you customize "complications"-little bits of useful information that you can select to always be available on your chosen face. 

Question 2: Do I want to walk around with a small computer strapped to my wrist?

After two weeks of use, I finally see the benefits of wearable computing. The most obvious come in the form of little conveniences. There is a class of interactions that simply makes more sense from the wrist. Having quick access to weather information and sunrise/sunset times(my chosen complications), being able to quickly reply to a text message, fitness tracking, walking directions, paying for groceries, controlling the TV, knowing the minute a delivery arrives, and calling an Uber are all clear arguments for the convenience of wearing a computer on your wrist. It's true that most if not all of these activities can be done with a smartphone, but add up enough of these time-saving advantages and you reach a critical mass. For me, the Apple Watch, even in its current 1.0 state, crosses that threshold with aplomb. It makes these tasks quicker and more convenient than they are on the phone and therefore earns its keep on my wrist.  

Question 3: Is Apple's implementation of wearable computing compelling?

Having accepted that wearing a computer on my wrist makes sense, a separate question is whether Apple's vision for wrist computing is compelling. To answer my final question, I'm going to focus on the Apple Watch interface.

Hardware

The first hardware novelty here is the digital crown. As a result of the small dimensions of the screen, the design gods at Apple recognized that the navigational gestures that work so well on the phone would not work on the watch, because your fingers would either obscure or miss the virtual objects you were trying to manipulate. To solve this problem, they came up with the digital crown, which borrows from the design language of traditional watches. Depending on where you are in the watch's interface, moving the digital crown will either scroll up and down or zoom in and out. It has a nice feel to it and it's clear that a lot of thought went into the precise manner in which it interacts with the watch's interface. The crown also doubles as the main hardware button on the watch, giving you quick access to the multiple levels of the interface(the second button which looks like the sleep/wake button on an iPhone is dedicated to getting you to your favorite contacts and Apple Pay). The digital crown is a welcome innovation. It works flawlessly and feels necessary on a device of such diminutive dimensions.

 

The second hardware novelty is a feature that goes by the unfortunate name of "Force Touch". The Apple Watch's screen is the first in the company's product lineup that can tell how hard you are pressing on it. This pressure sensitivity is used to provide a whole new plane in the watch's user interface. By literally adding a dimension to the touch screen, Apple has elegantly bought itself extra space on the watch. Depending on where you are in the interface, a force touch will often reveal hidden options. For the most part, it works like a charm, but every now and again, I find myself inadvertently knocking the watch and activating it by mistake. 

The third hardware novelty is what Apple calls its "Taptic Engine". For many years now, our phones have had a vibrate option for times when audible ringing is socially inappropriate. The Apple Watch takes vibrations to the next level. Unlike an ordinary vibrating motor, the Taptic Engine feels more like a series of subtle taps on your wrist. It's more discrete and far quieter than a phone vibration and it's configurable. Apple spent a lot of time designing the patterns of taps so that with a little practice, you can tell by tap pattern alone what your watch is trying to communicate. One series of taps indicates an incoming phone call, another that you are receiving a text message, yet another pattern signals email. One of the most ingenious uses of this feature comes when you are getting walking directions from the watch. A different pattern of taps tells you at the appropriate time whether to turn right or left. Two weeks in, I'm still learning the different patterns, but I'm most of the way there and it's already proving to be a subtle and powerful way of distinguishing notifications without looking at the watch face. 

Software


There are three layers to the Apple Watch's operating system. The primary layer is the watch face. There are ten faces to choose from and some are more configurable than others. 
If you do choose a watch face that allows for complications, these will appear directly on the face and act as launchers for their respective apps(the weather complication takes you to the weather app, the stopwatch complication takes you to the stopwatch app, and so forth). Swipe up or down on the watch face and you get to the secondary layer. An up swipe gets you to your Glances. These are little cards of useful information as well as some controls for the watch and phone. You choose how many of these you want and in what order they appear through the companion iPhone app. A down swipe on the watch face gets you to your notifications.

Notifications are one of the Apple Watch's marquee features. It should be stated that the way iOS handles notifications leaves a lot to be desired. Until a few years ago, the user had almost no control over which notifications appeared and even the latest iterations of iOS have been rife with the unwanted intrusion of rogue notifications. The Apple Watch largely solves this problem. It took me a good 4 days to understand which notifications I did and did not want to appear on my wrist. What I realized was that when a person that I cared about was trying to directly communicate with me, I wanted that to appear on my wrist and nothing else. So I left the phone and text notifications on as well as Whats App. And for the first time since the fork, I felt grateful that Facebook Messenger was a separate app, because it meant that I could leave its notifications on while switching off all other Facebook notifications. Email was the trickiest part of this process. What I ended up doing was expanding my VIP list to people who's incoming emails I wanted on my wrist and disabled all other email notifications. 

It's not a perfect system, but I've reached a kind of equilibrium where almost everything that appears on my wrist is welcome. The watch is also smart enough to realize when you are on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac and not duplicate notifications that you have already seen on those devices(Hallelujah). I recognize that not everyone has my communication priorities, but the granularity of the system is such that if you invest the time you will have much better control over your notifications and even earn some peace of mind for your efforts.

 

The final layer of the watch interface is the app launcher. I do not have the words to express how much I hate this part of the Apple Watch. Click on the digital crown once when you have your watch face up and you are brought to a honeycomb-like array of tiny, circular watch app icons. My theory is that Jony Ive was watching Cosmos and shouted "Eureka! A Universe of apps!" and we're now all saddled with this abomination. An unruly grouping of tiny touch targets that diabolically resist your intentions, the app launcher on the Apple Watch seems to be the very thing that Apple worked so hard to overcome in the rest of the interface. Why is it here? I understand that Apple sees the watch as a new platform and that third party apps will likely come to define the watch in ways that we can't even imagine. But it's also clear that Apple launched the watch well before they were ready for third party development. The Watch Kit SDK that they released is so limited that it all but guaranteed a generation of useless third party apps. And man alive are they useless. Unless you like waiting for apps to load or looking at spinners, I would recommend avoiding third party watch apps at all costs. Apple should have held off on this part of the equation until they were really ready and maybe left the app launcher off the watch entirely. It feels like it's in conflict with the more rational parts of the interface. 

Wrap Up

So what do I think of the Apple Watch? I think it's a useful product that will only get more useful with time. I enjoy the zen of having achieved notification equilibrium. I also like how easy it is to quickly respond to text messages and see my heart rate. And I haven't even mentioned Siri, which for some unknown reason works much better on the watch than it does on the iPhone(my theory is that we hold the watch closer to our mouths). I also find the health tracking/motivational features to be superlative.

I would not recommend that anyone buy the more expensive Apple watches. The mid-range model is made of nicer materials(stainless steel and sapphire), but it's expensive and heavy and not really more fashionable. To be honest, I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing any Apple Watch with a suit, and that includes the absurdly priced Apple Watch Edition with its fuck-the-poor gold body. We all know that next year's model will be thinner and more capable, so it just doesn't make any sense to spend more than $400 on a first generation product.

Is the Apple Watch Sport worth $400? Right now, it does an excellent job of managing notifications, tracking your health, responding to text messages, and paying for things. If you own an iPhone 5 or later and this combination of conveniences appeals to you, then $350/$400(38mm/42mm) seems like a fair price. If not, maybe sit this round out and wait for next year's model. The 2015 Apple Watch is like the ambitious, but overloaded first season of a new TV show that's shaping up to have a lot of potential. My bet is that the show gets leaner and more compelling in the second season, and that by the third everyone will be watching.

Monday
Sep152014

Apple Watch

It’s been four an a half years since Apple introduced a new product category and the presentation of Apple Watch was without a doubt the most important moment in Tim Cook’s career. Brimming over with pride, Cook gave a nod to his mentor Steve Jobs by telling the packed-to-capacity audience at the Flint Center that Apple had “one more thing” to share. It’s clear to anyone who watched the presentation that Mr. Cook lacks the charisma and polish of his legendary predecessor, but the important question is whether his stewardship of the company lives up to the gold standard that Jobs set. The Apple Watch is our first solid look at Tim Cook’s Apple. It’s not the first product introduction he has presided over, but it is easily the most significant.

There are many things that Apple seems to have gotten right here. For starters, in contrast to Google’s flagship wearable, Google Glass, the Apple Watch is something that normal people will wear. Cook and co. understood that wearing something is a fashion statement and the thought that Apple put into customizability is both incongruous with the company’s our-way-or-the-highway ethos and a necessary condition for success in this space. Moreover, Apple understood that on a device this small, the user interface needed to be rethought. To this end, they invented two new input methods. The first is the digital crown, which ingeniously borrows from the traditional watch interface that everyone already knows how to use. The second is “force touch” which allows the watch’s screen to tell the difference between an ordinary tap and a press.

At a simple level, one could argue that the Apple Watch primarily does three things: It tells the time, it is a fitness tracker, and it is a second screen for iPhone notifications. But Apple has much larger ambitions. The home screen is already populated by a “universe” of apps and Apple introduced the product before it was ready to ship to give third party developers time to design for it. Some of the built-in applications reveal that Apple sees this in part as a new way of communicating. They showed off a doodling app that allows people to send each other simple drawings and animated emoji. As charming as that demo was, I have some concerns about Apple's latest product.

First and foremost, I worry about the battery life. Apple intimated that it would need to be charged every night. That means that in the best case scenario, the battery life will be something like 12 hours. And while I appreciate the thought they put into the charger(it magnetically snaps on to the underside of the device), my current solar-powered watch has literally unlimited battery life and my previous watch lasted 10 years on a single battery. I understand that given current battery and display technologies, this sort of battery life is impossible to achieve on a device as sophisticated as the Apple Watch, but this is a problem. When I wore a Jawbone UP, I found myself having to recharge it every 10 days. While slightly annoying, it was manageable. The way I see it, there is a sort of loose equation when it comes to charging a device. The more important that device is to my day, the less annoyed I am when it comes time to charge it. I don't mind charging my iPhone every night, because it is so important to how I function in the world that it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know that I’ll feel the same way about the Apple Watch. If I only had to charge it once a week that would be a different story, but every night?

My second concern is the larger vision for the product. Apple clearly sees this as a new platform, but I don’t know that a watch ought to be a platform. In a way, I think that Android Wear better understands what people want to do with a watch than Apple Watch. It goes without saying that Apple appears to have nailed all the design details of the hardware and software in a way that Google did not(although it should be mentioned that as of this writing, Android Wear is shipping on products that you can buy and the Apple Watch won't be available until sometime next year). But the fact that the Apple Watch still requires an iPhone to function begs the question of why it should be its own platform as opposed to simply an extension of the iPhone. Perhaps Apple is relying on developers to answer that question and perhaps we will look back at this moment of confusion with 20/20 hindsight. But right now, it seems to me that Apple’s vision is a little blurry.

Will Tim Cook’s Apple continue the company’s streak of category-defining products? Will the Apple Watch become the new gadget that everyone needs? It’s too early to predict, but the ambition, the focus, the drive, and the taste are very reminiscent of Apple’s best work. And only a fool would bet against that.

Tuesday
Nov262013

iPad Air vs. iPad Mini with Retina

When Apple introduced the original iPad Mini last year, they marketed it with the phrase “Every inch an iPad”. What they were getting at was the fact that despite its diminutive dimensions, the Mini could run the rich library of iPad-optimized apps which was and still is the iPad’s greatest strategic advantage over its competition. While technically true, the every inch an iPad line rang a little false. After all, the mini had a last generation A5 processor and its display was not retina quality. True, its new dimensions made it possible for the first time in the iPad’s short history to credibly use the device one-handed, but the reading experience was subpar and the performance was merely adequate.

For those in the market for a tablet, the decision about which iPad to buy last year was therefore rather simple. If you wanted something light to consume content on, the mini was a credible if somewhat overpriced option, but for anything more, you’d have wanted a full-sized iPad. Fast forward a year and both product lines have now received an update. The full-sized iPad is now a full half pound lighter and goes by the name of iPad Air, and the iPad Mini has a retina-class display and the same beefy A7 processor as its larger sibling.

When I walked in to the Apple Store, my expectations were shaped by last year’s disappointment. I noted then that the Mini held a kind of internal contradiction in that its form begged to be used for content consumption like reading books and magazines, but the subpar quality of the display made the experience inferior. This year, Apple has moved the goal posts. The first thing I thought when I held the new iPad Mini in my hand was that line from last year: Every inch an iPad. This year it’s actually true and it makes the decision about which iPad to purchase much more complicated. Not only has the weight differential between the iPad Air and the iPad mini shrunk dramatically, but the performance gap has as well. It’s like Apple saying that screen size should be the only determining factor in the decision. Do you prefer to read paperbacks, or are you a hardcover kind of person? To be sure there are a couple of technical differences between the two models that go beyond screen size. The iPad Air has a slightly faster variant of the A7 processor and its screen has slightly better color reproduction, but in the real world, neither of these factors really matter. The only two factors that you need to think about when deciding between these two models is screen size and weight.

If you are looking for a device to create on, if you plan to draw, or make music, or edit photos, then the iPad Air is still your best bet. The additional screen real-estate is really necessary for these sorts of tasks. Moreover, for many people, the iPad can now credibly replace their laptop. While it hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves, the A7 processor that runs Apple’s new line of products is the biggest innovation from Cupertino this year. Through a series of brilliant decisions, Apple managed to cram an enormous amount of computing power into their new mobile processor. To get a sense of just what a leap forward the A7 represents, understand that its performance is equal to that of high end laptops that were shipping in 2008. If you are thinking of buying an iPad to replace your laptop, the Air is the one you want.

If, on the other hand, you aren’t looking to replace your laptop, but to supplement it, my recommendation would be to go with the iPad Mini. While the weight differential has been reduced and it is possible to hold the iPad Air in one hand for longer periods of time, it’s still not a one-handed device. The new Mini’s display is excellent and being able to hold it in one hand makes it an ideal device for long-form reading. And thanks to the A7 it’s responsive and finally lives up to last year's marketing line "every inch an iPad."

Wednesday
Sep112013

Reading the Tea Leaves: Post-Jobs Apple

The iPhone is Apple’s most profitable product line and it just received an interesting revision. On the surface it’s not that impressive. In the immediate wake of the announcement, the stock took a hit and the narrative that the post-Jobs Apple Inc. can’t innovate appears to have gone unchallenged. Wall Street, however, has never understood Apple and the company’s policy of secrecy forces us to interpret its strategy based on what it does. Here is my take on what this latest move means.

iPhone 5C

Until yesterday, Apple’s strategy was to keep older model iPhones around to offer up at lower prices. This worked well for them in subsidized markets, although it didn’t really do anything for them in markets where people pay full price for their phones up front. When the rumors of a new plastic iPhone emerged a few months ago, most analysts took this to mean that Apple would finally be trying to compete in the unsubsidized smartphone markets with a significantly lower-cost iPhone. While the iPhone 5C is essentially a repackaged iPhone 5 and is cheaper than the new flagship iPhone 5S, it is not built to compete in the unsubsidized markets. Apple has chosen instead to make their midrange phone more attractive by differentiating it from last year’s model. The pundits were wrong. Apple is essentially staying the course. They are building premium devices and ignoring the low-end unsubsidized market altogether.

iPhone 5S

The new flagship device looks almost identical to last year’s iPhone 5 which continues Apple’s tic-toc strategy of innovation followed by refinement. This year’s refinement, however, includes three major components that hint at Apple’s overall strategy moving forward: 

1) Thumbs Up

The most obvious new feature of the iPhone 5S is the fingerprint scanner built into the home button. When rumors of this feature hit the internet, speculation about Apple’s intentions ran rampant. It was clear that this would be a simple way to unlock the iPhone, but two important questions arose. First, would this be another Siri-like moment of over-promising and under-delivering? Given our terrible experience with existing fingerprint scanning technology, would Apple's implementation be qualitatively different? Second, how deeply would Apple integrate this technology into the phone? 

Based on preliminary reports, the answer to the first question is that Apple has achieved a major breakthrough in fingerprint scanning technology. It is accurate, quick, and secure. The answer to the second question is very interesting. While it’s not as deeply integrated into the phone as it might be, Apple is shipping the 5S with the ability to use the fingerprint scanner to purchase content from the iTunes Store. This means that they are confident enough in their breakthrough to use it for their own business. The theoretical possibilities for a fingerprint scanner that works and is secure are tantalizing. Aside from standing in for any password that you would ever need to enter, given the right kind of adoption, it could eventually replace the credit card as the default method of payment.  

2) Photographic AI

The improvements that Apple has introduced to their camera are impressive. With an ordinary camera, even something as sophisticated as a high-end DSLR, the on board computer is clever enough to guess in some situations what the proper exposure ought to be for any individual image. Pro photographers understand that this automatic exposure detection system is mostly useless and with the exception of autofocus, typically do not rely on it for critical photographic decisions. With the iPhone 5S Apple has added a sophisticated artificial intelligence to the equation. The intelligence knows not only about basic exposure, but also about motion blur, color temperature, and skin tones and it uses this information on the fly to make better images. Apple can do this, because they have an incredible custom-built chip inside the phone that is capable of processing hundreds of parameters per second. For amateur photographers, this means that photos will more often than not look right. For pros, it might mean that more attention can be paid to composition. Of course, it’s still a tiny camera with a tiny sensor and a fixed focal length lens. Unlike the company formerly known as Nokia, Apple hasn’t overcome this fact by “reinventing zoom” and it remains to be seen how well the iPhone 5S camera performs against the incredible Lumia 1020. But Apple is pushing the state of the art forward and their moves in this space are slowly but surely redefining the craft of photography. 

3) Motion Detection

Buried in the news about the more flashy features of the 5S was the fact that Apple had included an “M7” chip in the device to precisely track a user’s motion and allow for a whole new class of apps. Products like the Fitbit and the Jawbone Up have been doing this for quite some time, but I think this is Apple tipping its hand toward a new product category. There’s a lot of smoke around the idea of Apple working on some kind of wearable device. I believe these particular rumors and I think that Apple’s move in this field will likely come next spring and involve this new sensor. 

Wrap Up

The question of whether or not Apple Inc. can innovate in the post-Jobs era remains an open one. This coming year will likely bring new product categories which will answer that question definitively one way or the other. It’s possible that Apple are past their prime. Personally, I am encouraged by the fact that they are taking their time and refining existing product lines even as they lay the groundwork for whatever is next. On the other hand, this is the first year in which the iPhone is not the all round best smartphone money can buy. It’s certainly still a contender. But there are three or four other phones out there that are as good or better, depending on your particular needs. And Google has brought the manufacturing of the Moto X back to the US, which makes it a more ethical purchase. Is Apple in trouble? Far from it. They will sell as many of these new iPhones as they can make and have the biggest quarter in the history of the company. But there’s no getting around the fact that they are not as dominant in this space as they used to be. Hopefully this will inspire them to double down on innovation. If the last few years have shown anything it's that the industry needs an Apple that's foolish and hungry.