Category Archives: apple

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Book review: After Steve by Tripp Mickle

This is billed as a book about a company, but is more accurately described as about two people, Tim Cook and Jony Ive, respectively CEO and former Chief Design Officer at Apple, one of the world’s biggest and most profitable companies. The author Tripp Mickle is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal where he covered Apple for four years.

Mickle has a thesis: that under Cook Apple’s profitability has flourished but its design-led innovation has faltered, damaged in 2011 when co-founder Steve Jobs died at the age of 56. “It’s unclear if design will ever regain its position as the dominant voice over product direction,” he writes. In his epilogue, Mickle says that “Cook’s aloofness and unknowability made him an imperfect partner for an artist who wanted to bring empathy to every product.” The author mentions several times that Cook “seldom went to the design studio to see Ive’s team work.”

The book has amazing detail and represents the outcome of interviews with “more than two hundred current and former Apple employees” supplemented by further interviews with their family members, friends, suppliers of Apple, competitors, and government officials. There is lots of dialogue in the accounts of key incidents, drawn either from recordings or “reconstructed based on the recollections of people familiar with the events described.” As you read, you feel immersed in the company. It is a great achievement, particularly (as the author also notes) considering that “at Apple, current and former employees adhere to a strict code of silence.” There is a thick section of notes and references.

After Steve then is essential reading for Apple watchers. That said, I have a couple of reservations. At 512pp this is a lengthy work and for me, too long. It is occasionally repetitive, the writing is professional but at times pedestrian. Further, if your interest is in Apple the company rather than Cook and Ive, it is overly focused on those two people.

This last point is perhaps why Mickle misses the impact of Apple Silicon, the series of ARM-based processors which began with the A series and took over from Intel as the technology in Mac computers from November 2020 with the launch of the M1. Recently Apple has announced the M2 with claimed performance improvements of up to 18% for the CPU and 35% for the GPU, compared to the M1.

Apple Silicon matters because it dramatically improves over x86 in its power/performance ratio, making the company’s laptops and iPads a delight compared to their competition. It may not be design-based, and it builds on ARM and the work of others, but it is a huge advance and gives the company’s hardware an edge over its Windows and Android competition that is hard to counter. Johny Srouji, in charge of Apple Silicon? Not mentioned by Mickle.

I would have preferred the book to be shorter (though researchers may be glad of its detail). What of its central thesis? Mickle makes the point that Apple Watch has a disappointing lack of focus, which I agree with, and that projects like the Apple electric car appear to have faltered. The Beats acquisition had a mixed outcome, and this was a puzzle to me too. Apple did not need Beats, its culture was alien, and my sense is that Apple Music would have flourished equally well without it.

I do think though that since Jobs Apple has developed something with iPhone-level impact and that is Apple Silicon and the M series in particular. I also think that Mickle misses something of the big picture. Buying a smartphone or computer? There is the Android jungle, or the Windows jungle, or Apple. For many it is hardly a choice; and the fact that this is more than ever true more than a decade after the passing of Jobs is huge credit to those involved and makes the accusation “how Apple became a trillion-dollar company and lost its soul” ring just a bit hollow.

Rumours of a new Mac Mini? It is about time.

Bloomberg is reporting rumours of a new Mac Mini in time for the back-to-school market this year. The source of the rumours is claimed to be “people familiar with the plans”.

Apple is also planning the first upgrade to the Mac mini in about four years. It’s a Mac desktop that doesn’t include a screen, keyboard, or mouse in the box and costs $500. The computer has been favored because of its lower price, and it’s popular with app developers, those running home media centers, and server farm managers. For this year’s model, Apple is focusing primarily on these pro users, and new storage and processor options are likely to make it more expensive than previous versions, the people said.

You can still buy a Mac Mini, but it has not been updated since 2014, making it particularly poor value. It is useful for developers since a Mac of some kind is required for iOS and of course Mac development. It is also handy for keeping up to date with macOS.

The latest rumours sound plausible though the prospect of being “more expensive than previous versions” will not go down well with some of the target market, who want to minimise the premium paid for Apple products. Another reason why the 2014 Mac Mini is unappealing is that additional RAM is factory-fit only, which again means extraordinarily high prices. Check out the iFixit teardown:

Unfortunately, the RAM is soldered to the logic board. This means that if you want to upgrade the RAM, you can only do so at time of purchase.

Will Apple do the same again? It seems likely. My guess is that the new Mac Mini (if it exists) will be even smaller than before, but just as hard to upgrade.

Another good quarter for Apple, but Huawei growth and Samsung decline is the real Smartphone story

Apple has reported its “best June quarter ever” with revenue up 17% year on year. iPhone unit sales were flat, but higher average prices bumped up revenue.

More significant though is the rise of Huawei, now number two in unit sales after Samsung and ahead of Apple. Here are the latest unit sales for the top ten vendors according to preliminary figures from IHS Markit:

Global smartphone shipments by OEM (million units)

Rank

Company

Q2’18

Market Share

YoY

Q1’18

Q2’17

1

Samsung

70.8

20.6%

-10.8%

78.0

79.4

2

Huawei

54.2

15.7%

41.0%

39.3

38.5

3

Apple

41.3

12.0%

0.7%

52.2

41.0

4

Xiaomi

33.7

9.8%

45.6%

28.4

23.2

5

Oppo

31.9

9.3%

4.5%

25.9

30.5

6

Vivo

28.6

8.3%

20.3%

21.2

23.8

7

LG

11.2

3.3%

-15.5%

11.3

13.3

8

Motorola

10.0

2.9%

41.5%

8.7

7.1

Others

62.8

18.1%

-33.3%

80.4

94.2

Total

344.6

100.0%

-1.8%

345.5

350.9

Source: IHS Markit, Smartphone Intelligence Service, 2018.

What is notable is that the number one vendor Samsung suffered a 10% year on year decline, but Huawei grew units by an amazing 41% to become number two ahead of Apple, by volume.

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Huawei P20 Pro

Note that Apple has not declined as such. This is about Huawei winning sales both from Samsung and from other vendors. If the trend continues, Huawei is on track to overtake Samsung in another few quarters.

Samsung remains the premium Android brand though it has struggled to come up with compelling reasons to keep upgrading its high end devices. A new Galaxy Note is on the way and may be the distinctive new model that the company needs.

That said, it will take more than that to disrupt Huawei. In one sense, there is nothing very complicated about Huawei’s success: it has delivered devices both via its Huawei and Honor brands that are well made and which offer the best value proposition on the market. That does not make them the best in absolute terms (I would rather have a Samsung), but that is not the most important thing. Chatting to a Three salesperson in a shop recently confirmed this: they sell more Huawei/Honor than any other brand, because customers look at what they get for their money.

It is logical that as Android devices have become thoroughly commoditised, that Chinese vendors can achieve better value than their competition thanks to the cost-effective manufacturing capacity available in their own country.

Xiaomi, another Chinese company, confirms this trend, with its units up over 45%, growing faster than Huawei.

On Face Unlock

Face unlock is a common feature on premium (and even mid-range) devices today. Notable examples are Apple with the iPhone X, Microsoft with Windows Hello (when fully implemented with a depth-sensing camera like Intel RealSense), and on Android phones including Samsung Galaxy S9, OnePlus 6, Huawei P20 and Honor View 10 and Honor 10 AI

I’ve been trying the Honor 10 AI and naturally enabled the Face Unlock, passing warnings that it was less secure than a PIN or password. Why less secure? It is not stated, but a typical issue is being able to log in with a picture of the normal user (this would not work with Microsoft Hello).

Security is an issue, but I was also interested in how desirable this is as a feature. So far I am not convinced. Technically it works reasonably well. It is not 100% effective, especially in either bright sunlight or dim light, but most of the time it successfully unlocks the Honor phone. It is all the more impressive because I sometimes wear glasses, and it works whether or not I am wearing them.

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I enjoyed face unlock at first, since it removes a bit of friction in day to day use. Then I came across annoyances. Sometimes the face recognition takes longer than a PIN, if the lighting conditions are not optimal, and occasionally it fails. It has introduced a touch of uncertainty to the unlock process, whereas the PIN is fully reliable and controllable. I tried the optional “wake on pick up” feature and again had a mixed experience; sometimes the the phone would light up and unlock when I did not need it.

Conclusion? It is something I can easily live without so a low priority when choosing a new phone. Whereas fingerprint unlock, now that the technology has matured to the point of high reliability, is something I still enjoy.

Chromebooks get more useful as Linux comes to Chrome OS

At Google’s IO conference under way in San Francisco, the company has announced the ability for a Chromebook to run Linux applications.

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“Support for Linux will enable you to create, test and run Android and web app for phones, tablets and laptops all on one Chromebook. Run popular editors, code in your favourite language and launch projects to Google Cloud with the command-line. Everything works directly on a Chromebook,” says product manager Ton Buckley. “Linux runs inside a virtual machine that was designed from scratch for Chromebooks. That means it starts in seconds and integrates completely with Chromebook features. Linux apps can start with a click of an icon, windows can be moved around, and files can be opened directly from apps.”

Squinting at the screen in Google’s photo, above, it looks like the Linux VM runs Debian.

Coupled with the existing ability to run Android apps, the announcement makes Chromebooks more attractive for users (and I am one of them) who would previously have found the operating system too restrictive.

Buckley presents the new feature as primarily one for developers. You will be able to build and test Android applications directly on the Chromebook. Given the operating system’s native support for Android, this should be an excellent machine for Android development.

One of the first things I would install would be Visual Studio Code, presuming it runs OK. Thanks to .NET Core, ASP.NET development should work. The LAMP stack running locally would be great for  PHP development.

Personally I would not only use it for coding though. The ability to run LibreOffice would be great, for example. There are also a ton of handy Linux utilities for admins.

Top feature: security

The key attractions of Chromebooks (aside from low prices from OEM vendors) is security. They are popular in education for this reason. They require less management than PCs because the operating system is locked down and self-patching. The new feature should not compromise security too much, because Linux runs in a VM and in the worst case resetting the VM should clear any malware – though access to user documents could make malware running in the VM quite disruptive.

Apple’s iPad Pro is another capable device with a locked down OS, but does not run Linux applications.

What about Windows? Microsoft has tried and so far failed to lock down Windows in a manner acceptable to its customers. Windows RT was the first attempt, but users found it too restrictive, partly because the Windows 8 app ecosystem was so weak. Windows S is another attempt; but progress is slow. Microsoft has also weakened the security of its modern app platform to make it more capable, even to the extent of allowing desktop applications into the Windows Store. The approach taken by Apple and Google, to design a new secure operating system and make it gradually more capable, is more viable than Microsoft’s work in the opposite direction.

Your favourite article on The Register, and what that says about technology and the media

I’m at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and meeting people new to me who say, “who do you write for”? I’ve been struck by several separate occasions when people say, after I mention The Register, “Oh yes, I loved that Apple article”.

The piece they mean (not one of mine), is this one by Kieren McCarthy. It recounts the Reg’s efforts to attend the iPhone 7 launch; or more precisely, efforts to get Apple PR to admit that the Reg is on a “don’t invite” list and would not be able to attend.

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Why does everyone remember this piece? In short, because it is a breath of reality in a world of hype.

The piece also exposes hidden pressures that influence tech media. There are more people working in PR than in journalism, as I recall, and it is their job to attempt to manage media coverage in order to get it to reflect as closely as possible the messaging that that their customers, the tech companies, wish to put out.

Small tech companies and start-ups struggle to get any coverage and welcome almost any press interest. The giants though are in a more privileged position, none more so than Apple, for whom public interest in its news is intense. This means it can select who gets to attend its events and naturally chooses those it thinks will give the most on-message coverage.

I do not mean to imply that those favoured journalists are biased. I believe most people write what they really think. Still, consciously or unconsciously they know that if they drift too far from the vendor’s preferred account they might not get invited next time round, which is probably a bad career move.

Apple is in a class of its own, but you see similar pressures to a lesser extent with other big companies.

Another thing I’ve noticed over years of attending technology events is that the opportunities for open questioning of the most senior executives have diminished. They would rather have communication specialists answer the questions, and stay behind closed doors or give scripted presentations from a stage.

Here in Barcelona I’ve discovered the Placa de George Orwell for the first time:

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Orwell knew as well as anyone the power of the media, even though he almost certainly did not say what is now often attributed to him, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

Still, as I move into a series of carefully-crafted presentations it is a thought worth keeping in front of mind.

Finally, let me note that I have never worked full-time for The Register though I have written a fair amount there over the years (the headlines by the way are usually not written by me). The more scurrilous aspect of some Reg pieces is not really me, but I absolutely identify with The Register’s willingness to allow writers to say what they think without worrying about what the vendor will think. 

Office 2016 now “built out of one codebase for all platforms” says Microsoft engineer

Microsoft’s Erik Schweibert, principal engineer in the Apple Productivity Experiences group, says that with the release of Office 2016 version 16 for the Mac, the productivity suite is now “for the first time in 20 years, built out of one codebase for all platforms (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android).”

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This is not the first time I have heard of substantial code-sharing between the various versions of Office, but this claim goes beyond that. Of course there is still platform-specific code and it is worth reading the Twitter thread for a more background.

“The shared code is all C++. Each platform has native code interfacing with the OS (ie, Objective C for Mac and iOS, Java for Android, C/C++ for Windows, etc),” says Schweibert.

Does this mean that there is exact feature parity? No. The mobile versions remain cut-down, and some features remain platform-specific. “We’re not trying to provide uniform “lowest common denominator” support across all platforms so there will always be disparate feature gaps,” he says.

Even the online version of Office shares much of the code. “Web components share some code (backend server is shared C++ compiled code, front end is HTML and script)”, Schweibert says.

There is more news on what is new in Office for the Mac here. The big feature is real-time collaborative editing in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. 

What about 20 years ago? Schweibert is thinking about Word 6 for the Mac in 1994, a terrible release about which you can read more here:

“Shipping a crappy product is a lot like beating your head against the wall.  It really does feel good when you ship a great product as a follow-up, and it really does motivate you to spend some time trying to figure out how not to ship a crappy product again.

Mac Word 6.0 was a crappy product.  And, we spent some time trying to figure out how not to do that again.  In the process, we learned a few things, not the least of which was the meaning of the term “Mac-like.”

Word 6.0 for the Mac was poor for all sorts of reasons, as explained by Rick Schaut in the post above. The performance was poor, and the look and feel was too much like the Windows version – because it was the Windows code, recompiled. “Dialog boxes had "OK" and "Cancel" exactly reversed compared to the way they were in virtually every other Mac application — because that was the convention under Windows,” says one comment.

This is not the case today. Thanks to its lack of a mobile platform, Microsoft has a strong incentive to create excellent cross-platform applications.

There is more about the new cross-platform engineering effort in the video below.

Wind up your iPhone–this is not a wind up!

I have long thought that the solution to the difficulties we have keeping mobile devices charged is to make more use of the energy created by our bodies as we move around.

Once long ago I had a mechanical watch whose automatic winding worked perfectly; I never had to think about it.

Today I received news of something which is not quite that, but which still sounds useful. An iPhone case equipped with a dynamo so you can turn a handle to recharge it.

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Claiming to be the “World’s first dynamo-powered iPhone case”, the AMPware Power Generating iPhone case offers up to 2 hours phone use from “10 minutes of winding”.

Let’s note that 10 minutes of winding feels like a long time when you are doing it. However, if you are stranded without power it could be most useful.

Currently the case is for iPhone 6 and 6S only. Cost is £69.99 from The Fowndry

Visual Studio Code: an official Microsoft IDE for Mac, Windows, Linux

Microsoft has announced Visual Studio Code, a cross-platform, code-oriented IDE for Windows, Mac and Linux, at its Build developer conference here in San Francisco.

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Visual Studio Code is partly based on the open source projects Omnisharp. It supports Intellisense code completion, GIT source code management, and debugging with break points and call stack.

I have been in San Francisco for the last few days and the dominance of the Mac is obvious. Sitting in a cafe in the Mission district I could see 10 Macs and no PCs other than my own Surface Pro. Some folk were coding too.

It follows that if Microsoft wants to make a go of cross-platform C#, and development of ASP.NET MVC web applications beyond the Windows developer community, then tooling for the Mac is important.

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Visual Studio Code is free and is available for download here.

The IDE will lack the rich features and templates of the full Visual Studio, but if it is fast and clean, some Visual Studio developers may be keen to give it a try as well.

The Watch

I am in San Francisco so naturally I looked into the Apple Store to see the Watch.

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The poor old Apple Store is stuck behind a crane and a lot of fencing but there was still a good crowd there.

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There are watches behind glass, watches you can play with that are firmly attached to the counter, and watches in drawers which you can try on under the guidance of a rep, but which are disabled (the buttons do nothing).

A few observations.

It is a lot of fun. I found it easy to navigate using the main menu (a heap of icons, as you would expect), and zooming/tapping to explore.

There are two physical buttons, the crown and a pushbutton. The pushbutton only does two things (I was told by the rep), one press for the contacts app, press and hold for Apple Pay. Can you configure this? Apparently not.

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The crown is a  select button if you push it, zoom (or something app-specific) if you spin it, and Siri if you press and hold.

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Most of the features are things you can already do with a smartphone, excepting the fitness sensors of course, but this is on your wrist and therefore handier.

Maps is useful; it might be worth it just for that.

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Note that the watch is largely a remote for an iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone (or it is out of charge) it is not much use. The rep thought it would still tell the time but wasn’t sure.

I tried on a couple of models, one the Sports with a cheapish strap ($400; the base model is $349), and another with a stainless steel band ($700). Both were comfortable and I was especially taken with the stainless steel edition.

There are plenty of things about the gadget that are annoying. The need for daily recharging is one, the dependence on an iPhone is another. However it is elegant and delightful so I imagine all will be forgiven, among the Apple community at least.

How do I buy one? Online only, I was told, and delivery maybe in July.