Sour Apples

Putting the premium into pricing

Apple has been raising prices across all of its product lines, most famously with the iPhone X last year, the first smartphone to sell for $999 ($1349 Canadian). This year’s “budget” phone, the iPhone Xr sells for $749 ($999 Canadian).

Other products that have seen significant price increases since 2016:

  • MacBook Pro
  • MacBook Air
  • Mac mini
  • Apple Watch
  • Apple TV
  • iPad Pro

The only product to see a substantial price drop is the base model iPad, which went from $499 to $329 after Apple reverted a lot of the improvements found in the iPad Air 2 to better differentiate the iPad from the iPad Pro. Technically the Mac Pro (see below) has also seen a price drop, but it is dead hardware.

If you look at the above list, you may be wondering what is missing? Here’s the short list:

  • MacBook
  • Mac Pro
  • iMac Pro

The MacBook has not seen any upgrades other than minor processor updates since it debuted in 2015. It has not been updated in over a year.

The Mac Pro was released in 2013 and in 2017 Apple admitted its design was “thermally constrained” (it overheated) and promised a new model…in 2019.

The iMac Pro was introduced a year ago and has seen no updates since then.

Older iPhone models also get discounted, but these are, well, old phones. Apple can’t sell them at the same price as current models, so their hand is forced here.

The argument can be made that Apple is justified in that many of these products have seen more than just incremental updates. The iPad Pro, for example, has smaller bezels and Face ID. The MacBook Air now has a high resolution display. And so on.

But other companies regularly improve products without significantly increasing prices. And a lot of these upgrades are simply Apple catching up to the current market.

The Mac mini, left untouched (including its price) for more than four years was upgrade this year, with the base model sporting an unimpressive Core i3 CPU, a measly 128 GB SDD and at least, mercifully, 8 GB of ram. But these specs rank it is as merely average for a desktop PC, even slightly below (most desktop PCs start with Core i5 CPUs, unless they are specifically budget models, which the Mac mini is absolutely not). Where the base price of the mini was once $499 it has skyrocketed to $799 ($999 Canadian). It’s not a bad system, but it’s a terrible value. Unless you are absolutely wedded to macOS, it makes little sense to buy it.

The Apple watch this year got a 30% larger display…and a 20% increase in price. What was once $519 Canadian is now $649 Canadian.

The so-called Apple Tax has been around nearly as long as the company itself, the idea that you pay a premium price for premium products. Given Apple’s record revenue and profits, it would seem people are happy to pay these premiums. But Apple is now pushing pricing to ever-higher levels, often with little to no justification. The new MacBook Air finally has a high definition display, catching it up to…the entire rest of the laptop market. And for this Apple now charges $200 more ($350 more Canadian). Some people will keep paying, no matter the price increase, because they value Apple’s devices so highly.

But the last year has seen sales of Apple devices either go flat (iPhone), decline (iPad) or decline sharply (Mac). When this happens to a company that wants to keep its revenue steady, they generally do one of two things:

  • cut prices, hoping to boost sales sufficiently to make up for lower revenue-per-unit
  • raise prices, hoping to boost revenue-per-unit enough to offset the lower sales

The first is basically hoping to turn around flat or declining sales, the latter is accepting the declines and trying to make more money from your remaining customers. Apple is taking the second approach, and this is one of the few times I think people saying “Steve jobs would never have done this!” are actually right. He would not have raised prices to simply maintain revenue. He would have pursued new products and product lines. Apple is doing this, to an extent–rumors persist that an Apple car is still in development, for example, but the company seems to be moving away from things to services and counting on them to help keep revenue up. The services range from iCloud storage to Apple Music and the iTunes store. And this part of Apple is growing.

So maybe Apple is content to squeeze as much as they can from their hardware sales, knowing that the established base of devices (100 million Macs, over a billion iOS devices) is sufficient to keep services growing for a very long time.

These apples cost too much

For me, though, everything is just too damn expensive now. I was originally thinking about upgrading my Series 2 Watch to the Series 4, or getting one of the flagship phones. But the prices are just too high. I’ll keep and continue to use the devices I have, but when it’s time to replace what I have, I think it will be easier than expected to extract myself from the hallowed Apple ecosystem.

Here’s a current-gen list of replacements. The ones in bold I already have:

Apple device Non-Apple replacement
iPhone 8 Google Pixel 3
Apple Watch Series 2 Garmin Forerunner 645
MacBook Pro without touch bar Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon
Apple TV 4K Xbox One
iPad Pro 10.5″ No replacement
Apple Music Spotify
iCloud storage/Photos OneDrive

In most cases the replacement either costs less (eg. Pixel 3) or does more (eg. Xbox One). Without even trying, I am already partly ready to make the jump.

Why do I have no replacement for the iPad Pro? Android tablets have never really established themselves (a lot of this can be blamed on Google not pushing the form factor more or doing more to get developers to make tablet-specific apps) and the market has largely been ceded to the iPad. When my iPad Pro is ready for replacement, I’d consider buying a refurb, used or waiting for a sale (not from Apple itself, of course). But everything else is ready for the switch and in a way I’d look forward to it, not just because Apple’s stuff is so expensive now, but because I’m growing increasingly weary of the limitations Apple imposes as it insists it knows better than its users. iOS is particularly bad for this, letting you do things like use different browsers, then having all web links open in Safari, anyway. I’m tired of getting a second-rate experience because Apple wants so much control over my experience. All they do now is largely get in the way.

And the iPad Pro is wonderfully adept hardware, shackled to what is still essentially a phone OS. They added a USB-C port to the newest models, but plug in an external drive to copy files and nothing happens. Apple doesn’t support that, unlike any other tablet out there. It’s silly. And fir this they want you to pay ultrabook laptop prices.

Is the future pear-shaped?

It will be interesting to see where Apple is in a year. During its last quarterly report the company announced it would no longer report unit sales. The tech market, already going bear, did not react well, and Apple’s stock has shed much of its value and has yet to recover.

Some dismiss the decision to not report unit numbers, as Apple is again expecting record revenue in the next quarter, but really, there is only one reason to start hiding the numbers–it’s because they expect them to go down. And they will. I am curious to see where the declining sales and higher prices intersect, and how Apple will react if and when they get to that point. It’s hard to imagine them cutting prices, but it’s happened before. It’s entirely possible Apple will ride out their flat or declining sales with ni major impact to the company’s bottom line. I don’t think that will be the case, though.

We shall see.

iPad Pro update correction

9to5Mac has an article speculating on a possible October event by Apple in which they might reveal updated iPad Pros. I noticed one error in the article and have corrected it below.

You may accuse me of being cynical, to which I would offer:

  • The pricing of the MacBook introduced in 2015
  • The pricing of the redesigned MacBook Pro in 2016
  • The pricing of the iPhone X in 2017
  • The pricing of the iPhone XS Max in 2018 (also candidate for Worst Smartphone Name 2018)

All of these products saw hefty price increases or were introduced at high prices.

You might counter with a few examples, like:

  • 2017 iPad dropping from $499 to $329 vs. previous gen iPad Air 2
  • AirPods at $159 being priced competitively with other true wireless ear buds
  • Apple Music for $9.99 a month
  • Mac Pro got improved specs at the same price in 2017

To which I would counter:

  • The iPad was cost-reduced to create an artificial distinction between it and the “Pro” line of iPads, with several features made worse than the previous $499 iPad Air 2, notably the 2017 model being heavier, thicker and with an inferior display. The base line iPad may cost less now, but it’s also worse than what Apple offered as the base line previously.
  • AirPods is valid. I think Apple really wanted to carve out market share here. They will offer upgraded AirPods in 2019, with an upgraded price. The original model for $159 will go away.
  • Prediction: In two years Apple Music will be $11.99 per month, eventually rising to $14.99 in five years. Every other streaming service will match Apple’s prices.
  • The Mac Pro is still overpriced and outdated

The rumored improvements to the iPad Pro seem to be extremely thin bezels and Face ID. I don’t find the bezels overly big now on my iPad Pro 10.5″, but sure, make them a littler slimmer if you insist, as it makes the display larger without bumping up the physical size of the unit. They’re also said to be adding Face ID. This also seems like a step backward. On the iPhone I rarely unlock it without also holding it up. I often unlock my iPad when it is laying flat on a desk, a situation that will not work with Face ID.

And that really seems to be about it. Neither of these will dramatically change what an iPad Pro (or any iPad) can do. It’ll still have the same OS, the same limited multitasking, the same everything else, just a little faster and shinier than before. And I fully expect this to cost at least $100-$150 more U.S. I would be willing to bet the iPad 10.5″, rumored to be morphing into an 11″ device with the slimmer bezels, will go from a base price of $869 Canadian to a starting price of $1099. Maybe more, especially if they dump the 64GB model and start at 256GB.

As the total sales volume of iPhone and iPad have flattened (or in the case on the Mac, declined significantly), Apple is shoring up its revenue by raising prices across the board, offering lower prices only where they are deliberately seeking to gain market share or to further justify price differentials between lines, as is the case with the iPad and iPad Pro (the iPad pricing can also be seen as Apple trying to make inroads to the education market and an attempt to shore up a shrinking iPad market). As I mentioned when the iPad Pro was first introduced, this is not sustainable, as Apple will reach a point where people will not buy. The danger there is if they go too far–even by just a little–they risk having sales plummet as people look elsewhere and begin removing themselves from the Apple ecosystem. This wouldn’t happen quickly, of course, but it has the potential to upend the company.

Mostly I don’t mind paying a premium price for a premium product, but I think Apple is starting to trade a little too much on the supposed Apple tax. They don’t need to make that much money. Some would say “let them charge what the market will bear” but the problem with that is a lot of people fundamentally lack common sense. Yes, that is cynical, but the evidence is abundant. I wish it weren’t.

If Apple raises the price of the iPad Pro 10.5/11 inch model by “only” $100 Canadian I will make a new post loudly proclaiming I AM WRONG AND ALSO A BAD PERSON.

It’s 2015 (or 2014 or 2013) forever in the Apple store

In an Ars Techinica guide on building a custom PC, the section on storage features this comment:

Looking at the Tech Specs for the Mac mini on apple.com yields this under storage:

On the one hand you have a guide to building a PC published in May 2018 that acknowledges the ascendancy of the Solid State Drive (SSD) over the traditional spinning platters of a hard disk. It refers to slower 5400-rpm drives as hideous. Then, hopping over to Apple’s web store, you find the base model of the Mac mini and lo, just like those scurrilous OEM vendors, the Mac mini comes with a 5400-rpm hard disk. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider the Mac mini listed has not seen a change in price or specification since October 2014 (as macrumors.com notes, that was 1297 days ago).

This isn’t even Apple’s most outdated computer. The Mac Pro (which the company has promised will see an update in 2019) was launched in December 2013. Even if the new model ships in January 2019 it amounts to a minimum of just over five years between hardware updates. They did it at least cut prices in April 2017. The base model for this vintage machine is now a mere $3499 Canadian.

The MacBook Air, the “affordable” Mac laptop, received a minor processor speed bump in 2017 that was likely due to the slower processor no longer being available in bulk anymore. Other than this–and that CPU bump did not change the actual model of CPU–the Air has not been updated since March 2015, when it was updated to a 5th generation Intel processor (they are on the 8th generation now).

These three models represent distinct segments in the market:

  • Mac mini: affordable, entry-level Mac
  • MacBook Air: affordable, entry-level Mac laptop
  • Mac Pro: high-end professional workstation

By refusing to update any of these machines, Apple has demonstrated it doesn’t care about these segments. By continuing to sell them for years without updates is both an embarrassment for the world’s richest company and a sign that leadership is not managing the product line in a healthy manner. It also shows a certain level of contempt for the customer. I mean, they could at least drop the prices. They did for the Mac Pro, but even at the reduced prices, it’s a poor value for a pro workstation, given design issues and now obsolete expansion (Thunderbolt 2, etc.). But a semi-obsolete Mac mini at half its current price would at least seem palatable.

But even when you look at the product that makes over half the revenue for Apple–the iPhone–you see the same creeping inability to cull older products. Apple might argue that they are covering different price segments, but other companies actually build products for each segment instead of just continuing to sell old hardware. Even Apple has done this–the new iPad is only $329 U.S. because Apple reverted back to the cheaper iPad Air for much of its design and hardware. But the iPhone line is an array of eight models going back to 2015.

What I’m saying is Apple is doing very well for being so indifferent, sloppy and lazy with so many of its products. I’m kind of jealous.

AirPods: Surprisingly decent (my review)

There’s probably several hundred million reviews out there for Apple’s true wireless earbuds known as AirPods, so I’m not going to go on at length about them. But here are a few thoughts after having them for several months.

Setup on my iPhone 6 was effortless. Bluetooth devices often have trouble pairing and Apple aimed to fix this with a custom W1 chip that makes pairing with an Apple device painless. And it works.

I got my AirPods after a critical software update that expanded the actions you could take by tapping the pods, as well as allowing separate actions for left and right. For me I chose Pause and Next Track for left/right as they are the most common options I use, other than volume control (which is not an option). I skipped the “Hey Siri” integration because if I want to talk to Siri, I’ve always got my watch with me. While having controls on the AirPods themselves is nice, the reality leaves something to be desired. More on this later.

The fit is nearly identical to the existing EarPods and really, apart from the long “stem” these could easily be mistaken for the same. It’s a bit disappointing that Apple didn’t try to push forward more on the design. Luckily, the EarPods fit well in my ears, so the AirPods stay in securely, too.

This is important because one of my regular uses of the AirPods is when jogging. Because they aren’t sealed, they allow other sounds to be heard (traffic, marauding bears, my wretched gasping breath, etc.) In the times I’ve used them on runs I’ve never felt them  budge and the freedom of going true wireless is great. I’ve also done workouts on elliptical trainers and treadmills with the music on my watch playing through the AirPods, no phone needed, and again it’s great to have music for workouts without any wires.

The sound quality is not great but it’s perfectly decent. I have lousy ears but to these lousy ears the sound quality seems a little better than the EarPods. They won’t replace a pair of good quality headphones but for their size they do a good job of pumping out music without noticeable distortion, even if the overall presentation is slightly flat.

The battery life is perfectly fine for my usage. Apple promises five hours and I generally don’t use the AirPods for more than an hour at a time before they go back into their handy and compact charging case. The case is small enough to easily carry in a pocket and does a good job of boosting the battery life by proxy. It’s rare that I put the AirPods on with them charged below 100%. Being able to see the charge by flipping open the case near my iPhone is nice, too (it pops up an animated card similar to the one you see when pairing the AirPods).

I’ve worn them a few times when the weather has been a bit misty and while others report no issue wearing them in the rain, I’m hesitant to do so, simply because they cost $200+ rather than the $35 of the EarPods. I’ll probably get braver as they get older because going wireless is so much better when running.

On the downside, the controls are fussy. You double-tap to invoke an action and I find, especially when jogging, that the AirPods happily ignore the taps. I can be rapping on them like an insane woodpecker and they do nothing in response. I discovered you can tap the back of your ears to activate the controls, but sadly, this is also somewhat inconsistent. The inconsistency means that if I want to skip a track I usually just hold up my watch and tell Siri to skip to the next song. The lack of volume control is also a major omission. While I can use the watch for this, it’s not as easy to do while running as an actual physical control on the earbuds would be.

They have dropped connection a couple of times, but only briefly. Otherwise the connectivity has been very solid, something I really never expect with a Bluetooth device. It’s been a pleasant surprise here.

Recent rumors suggest Apple is developing new AirPods that can work with hands-free Siri (no interest) or offer actual water resistance (very interested). The latter is rumored for 2019, though, to which I say boo.

Overall, I’m surprised at how much I like the AirPods. I have come to terms with the weird look of them, which is mitigated partly by their increasing proliferation, but wouldn’t object to a tweak to the stems to make them shorter or…something.

On a scale of 1 to 10 Steve Jobs Cooing Over the iPhone 4 On Stage, I rate the AirPods 8 Steve Jobs Cooing. There is room for improvement here but they are a very solid version 1.0 product.

+ Things I Like:

– good fit (for my ears, anyway)
– comfortable (for the lengths of time I wear them)
– perfectly decent sound quality
– quick, painless Bluetooth pairing
– almost never lose connectivity
– very good battery life for true wireless earbuds
– charging case is compact and insures the AirPods always have some charge in them (assuming you periodically top up the charging case itself)
– automatically stops playing music when you remove one from your ear

Things I Don’t Like:

– controls are flaky and unreliable
– no volume control
– you can get them in white, white or white
– they still look kind of funny
– no water resistance limits their use for outdoor activities (unless you’re willing to risk it)
– reasonably priced for the product category but expensive in Canadian dollars (currently $219)

Bad design: The iMessage Fireball

In the interest of keeping to a complaint-free lifestyle, I’ll emphasize again for Bad Design I am doing a couple of things:

  • pointing out the bad design as a way to highlight how something should not be done, even if it seems logical or a popular way to go, in the hope that it encourages others not to repeat what I feel are mistakes in design
  • offering a solution or alternative design that addresses the flaws

And I only pick a lot on Apple because I own and use a lot of Apple products (which I will address in another post) and because as the world’s largest, richest company, they have the power to influence a lot of others (see Samsung and its weird and lawsuit-attracting tendency to follow Apple’s designs very closely).

And with that, I present:

The iMessage fireball

For those unfamiliar with Apple’s message app, it works like most text messaging apps and allows people to send and receive messages across Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPad, Watch and Mac. If you send a message to a non-Apple device, it shows in a green bubble as a regular text message. If you send a message to an Apple device, the bubble turns blue and it becomes an iMessage, sent through Apple’s servers.

With iOS 10 Apple revamped the Message app, expanding what you can send.

When you are in the Message app, tapping on the App Store icon presents a small black window that you can doodle and do other things in (it defaults to this, though tapping the icons to the left or right of the heart will allow you to use stickers from other apps, search for images and more):

By tapping on the horizontal gray line above the window it expands to give you more room and also exposes a small information icon in the lower-right corner that, if tapped, presents an explanation for the various actions you can perform:

The Heartbeat option only works if you are wearing an Apple Watch, as it includes a heart rate monitor.

The first option is Sketch and it seems pretty straightforward. Draw with one finger.

The next option is Tap. What is a tap? There is no explanation.

The fourth option, Kiss, puts a pair of lips in the window.

Let’s go back to the third option, Fireball. This puts an orange fireball-like blob in the window and as long as you keep pressing you can move it around. As soon as you release, the Fireball message sends.

Bad design #1:

Some actions send the message instantly, others require you to tap a send button to send it. This is inconsistent and can result in messages being sent prematurely.

Bad design #2:

There is no explanation for what a Tap is. The others are straightforward, but what is a Tap? It’s a ring that dissolves. If you do a bunch of taps in succession you can send multiple rings–er, taps–but if you pause too long the message auto-sends. I am unsure as to why anyone would ever want to send a Tap.

Bad design #3:

The Fireball and how it is invoked. Like the Tap, I’m not sure why you would send someone a Fireball. It looks more like a glowing orange ball than an actual fireball and it also auto-sends. The worst part, though, is that to invoke it you press your finger on the screen. You might think this is the same thing you do to make a Sketch, but there is a subtle difference. The difference is so subtle that you may find yourself sending off fireballs when you meant to start a sketch, and you may receive fireballs for the the same reason. In fact, since iOS 10 launched I have only sent two fireballs deliberately. The first was to see what it looked like, the second as a joke. Pressing the screen is a very basic gesture and it shouldn’t be tied to a fairly obscure action that few people would seemingly ever use.

Solutions

Bad design #1: Require tapping the Send button for all actions before the message is sent. Give options to edit or cancel the message.

Bad design #2: Rename Tap to Rings. Change text to “Tap with one finger to place one or more rings.”

Alternate solution: Remove this option altogether if it is seldom-used.

Bad design #3: Change the action required to invoke the Fireball to something that is not likely to be used accidentally, like tapping with three fingers.

Alternate solution: Remove this option altogether.

My personal feeling is the Tap and Fireball options could be removed. I have no evidence to back this up, but based on anecdotes and my own experience, neither is used much at all and the Fireball is almost exclusively used unintentionally.

Apple, January 2018: 10 years after the MacBook Air

(My previous look at Apple’s line-up was done in August 2016 and can be found here.)

Today is the 10th anniversary of the MacBook Air, so it is perhaps appropriate to take stock of Apple’s product line as we look back at the debut of the laptop that ushered in many of the design choices (thin, light, etc.) Apple still follows today.

In recent times Apple has faced criticism from a couple of fronts: neglecting certain devices, abandoning standard ports, raising prices to new extremes, introducing “gimmicky” tech and so on. Are the criticisms fair? In some cases yes, in others it’s more complicated.

Here’s a breakdown of where every Apple product is at.

Disclaimer: I am not an industry insider, Apple evangelist, tech guru or even a love guru. I’m just someone who has long been fascinated by Apple and its products, decisions and impact on the world of consumer technology.

I’ve gone from owning a single Apple device–an iPod Classic–to the following (I’m excluding obsolete devices like my iPod nano, may it rest in peace):

  • Phone 8 (just acquired)
  • iPad Pro 10.5″
  • MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (2016 model)
  • Apple Watch Series 2
  • Apple TV 4K

Basically I own nearly everything Apple currently sells. I don’t have a Mac Pro, but I do have a 2011 iMac 27″ from work I use for PD.

On to the products:

iPod
As expected, Apple killed off the iPod nano and Shuffle last year, leaving the iPod Touch as the only iPod (which got its last significant hardware update in July 2015). I will boldly predict the Touch will get the axe in the next year or so, finally ending the iPod line.

iPhone
The bulk of Apple’s revenue continues to come from the iPhone, now over a decade old. I remember when we had fuzzy 3.5″ screens–and we liked it!

Last year Apple made the controversial move to eliminate the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, even as the rest of the phone was just an iterative design on the previous 6s, which was an iterative design on the 6. Some phone manufacturers have followed suit with the jack removal, notably Google with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. It remains to be seen if the rest of the industry follows through. My prediction is the headphone jack will be a scarce thing on most smartphones within two years.

Meanwhile, Apple released three new phones last September. The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are again iterative designs, with some tweaks, like glass backs to allow for wireless charging, along with the usual processor and camera improvements. More attention was given to the iPhone X, a near bezel-free design that forsakes the home button and Touch ID for Face ID, introduces an OLED display and, of course, adds animated poop in text messages. The most controversial part was probably the price–$1,000 (over $1300 in Canada with exchange rate).

Scuttlebutt suggests the X sold very well in the first month, with sales falling off notably after, mirroring what happened with the original iPhone in 2007. Back then Apple responded with a price cut. Would they do it again? There’s certainly enough of a gap between the 8 and X to allow for one. Apple hasn’t been cutting prices much lately, though.

Also, the iPhone line-up is a bit bonkers right now. Apple is selling:

  • iPhone 6s and 6s Plus
  • iPhone 7 and 7 Plus
  • iPhone 8 and 8 Plus
  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone X

No iPhone SEX yet, though.

That’s still eight models to choose from. I expect the 6s and 7 to be culled when the next phones come out in September. There are rumors the SE will be updated, which seems entirely plausible.

I think Apple will forge ahead with its iPhone plans regardless of sales for the next year or two. Price cuts are possible, but I think they’ll only happen if sales begin to fall off significantly.

iPad
Last year Apple made the difference between the regular and pro versions of the iPad more distinct, by introducing an iPad (called…iPad) that was in some ways better than the iPad Air 2 (faster processor) but in some ways worse (the screen, size and weight are closer to the original Air). The big change, though, was the price. Instead of the usual $499, it now sells for $329. Apple refreshed the iPad Pro 12.9″ and ditched the 9.7″ Pro, replacing it with a 10.5″ model that is only slightly bigger, thanks to slimmer bezels. The Pro iPads can in some cases equal the performance of decent laptops. The refreshed 2017 line-up saw the first increase in revenue and sales in years, though the difference between revenue and sales gains suggests more people were buying the $329 model.

The overall line-up has been simplified, too, down to four:

  • iPad
  • iPad mini 4
  • iPad Pro 10.5″
  • iPad Pro 12.9″

For the first time, each iPad offers a different size.

I don’t anticipate any dramatic developments for iPads this year, though Apple will continue to push the Pro models as replacements for laptops. I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance the mini will get killed, It hasn’t been updated since 2015.

Apple TV
Apple introduced a 4K version of the Apple TV last year, alongside the current model. It costs a little more and is the priciest Apple TV to date. Unless you’re deep into the Apple ecosystem and have a lot of media purchased through iTunes, there remains little reason to pay the premium when other streaming devices can do what the Apple TV can at much lower prices.

The app store is somnolent. Not dead, exactly, but not particularly alive, either, but it is Apple TV’s biggest differentiating factor compared to other streaming boxes.

Apple Watch
The watch went from an ill-conceived fashion accessory to a fitness-focused device and in the process has claimed most of the smartwatch market, setting companies like Fitbit back on its heels. Last year Apple introduced the Series 3, which includes LTE, making the watch more independent of the iPhone. Overall, the Apple Watch has found its niche and is doing well after a slow start.

I don’t expect any big changes this year, but a redesign is a small possibility. Additional sensors may be added, but I’d expect those to come in 2019 or later.

HomePod
Originally scheduled for December 2017, it’s been bumped to early this year. Many are already declaring it a failure in the making, overpriced ($349) compared to the competition and saddled with inferior voice recognition (Siri vs. Amazon’s Alex or Google’s Assistant). I tend to favor this view. I think the demand for a premium speaker with voice activation is even more niche than something like the watch. It’s kind of like Apple TV–you’ll pay more but if you’re deeply invested in Apple products, the high price might be worth it.

I’m hedging on a prediction here, but leaning toward flop, with a retooling within the year or quiet exit from the market. Then Apple will buy Amazon. :P

And the Macs:

First, my one BOLD Mac prediction: Laptop Macs will support touch no later than 2021.

Mac mini
Nothing has changed since my last overview in August 2016. These aging machines are still selling at the same prices as they did when they were actually new, an embarrassing low light in a line-up that has mostly seen updates over the past year. Apple’s made vague comments indicating support, but nothing more.

I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance the Mac mini will be killed off in the next year. If not, I’d wager on a radical redesign (even smaller and completely sealed).

Mac Pro
Last year Apple admitted the “trashcan” Mac Pro was a mistake–a cool-looking design that was self-defeating because it couldn’t properly dissipate heat. So not so cool after all. They have promised a new modular Mac Pro, but so far no specs or release dates have been forthcoming. The current Pro has seen price reductions but it still isn’t exactly cheap.

iMac
Apple made a few improvements to the iMac line last year, updating processors, displays and including new options in some standard configurations, such as a dedicated graphics option for the 21″ model and fusion drives as standard for the entire 27″ line. The core design remains unchanged and was last updated in 2012.

I’m not expecting any big changes this year, but I am reasonably confident that sometime before the end of 2019 the iMac will get a full redesign–and be even less user-accessible as a result.

iMac Pro
Who wants a $5000 all-in-one? Apple thinks professionals will, so they’ve stuffed professional-grade components into the standard iMac case. It’s only been out for a month, but one retailer has already offered a $1,000 discount, which seems a bit ominous for a new product. Also, unlike other iMacs, users can’t upgrade the ram themselves, it now has to be done by a dealer.

This seems very much like a stop-gap until the revised Mac Pro debuts. I predict the iMac Pro will never see any updates and will be killed off sometime after the new Mac Pro debuts (in Apple time this could still be years).

MacBook Pro (non-Retina)
This was finally killed off, long after it had become outdated. This was the last Apple laptop to ship with an optical drive.

(Old) MacBook Pro (Retina display)
Only the 15″ model survives, the last Pro with a non-butterfly keyboard. I expect it to be axed from the line-up within the year, joining its 13.3″ brethren in the Mac graveyard.

MacBook
Still the only Mac available in four colors. Get your Rose Gold fix on here. Not much has changed with the MacBook, though it got an improved version of the butterfly keyboard. A processor update and optimizations added another hour of battery life.

I don’t expect any changes in design, though processor updates seem to be happening on a yearly basis, provided there is an appropriate CPU available. This will be the eventual MacBook Air successor (see below).

MacBook Pro (2016/2017)
In October 2016 Apple introduced an all-new design for the 13.3 and 15″ MacBook Pro. The changes:

  • dropped all legacy ports in favor of USB-C
  • added an OLED Touch Bar to replace the function keys on all but the base 13.3″ model
  • changed the keyboard, using an updated version of the butterfly mechanism featured in the MacBook, with firmer keys and very little travel
  • the usual display and processor updates
  • thinner and lighter
  • touch pads the size of the landing deck of an aircraft carrier. In the case of the 15″ model, two aircraft carriers.

Both models were refreshed less than a year later with newer processors, but no other notable changes.

The revamped models have been controversial. The Touch Bar has its advocates, but seems underwhelming 15 months after its introduction. The new keyboard mostly inspires love or hate (I find it strangely unsatisfying to type on–not bad, just kind of joyless).

Apple is unlikely to retreat from any of the design choices made (USB-C, for example, is now on nearly all notable PC laptops, albeit often with a legacy port or two still included), though dissatisfaction with the revised keyboard, as well as production problems plaguing both the 2016 and 2017 models may lead Apple to further revise the butterfly mechanism.

The Touch Bar may live on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets quietly dropped in a few years.

MacBook Air
Today, the MacBook Air is 10 years old and it’s been almost that long since its last update, ho ho. It did get a minor speed bump last year (some believe this only happened because the slower CPU Apple was using was no longer available), but has seen no significant updates since 2012. Most assume it lives on in the line-up as the “affordable” MacBook.

It will likely linger on until Apple is willing to drop the price of the MacBook. The difference is currently $999 vs. $1299. It seems unlikely Apple will reduce the gap soon. Maybe by the end of 2019? There’s also the possibility Apple will just kill off the Air and force people to move to the $1299 MacBook (or $1299 base MacBook Pro).

Other stuff
There are no strong rumors regarding other new Apple products, though they continue to work on Augmented Reality and the retooled car project (shrunk down from an entire Apple car to merely making other cars more Apple-ish).

Summary
Apple updated a lot of their devices through 2016 and 2017, to the relief of the faithful, but many of the updates came with controversy and some products still linger around as reminders of the bad old days (hello Mac mini).

Apple’s next quarterly call is coming in a few weeks and while they should report record revenue and profits, it seems likely it will come in the shadow of slowing iPhone X sales. Apple has raised the prices of almost all of its devices–the iPad Pros cost more, the phones cost more, the new MacBooks cost more, the iMac Pro requires you to sell body organs–leaving me to wonder how sustainable it all is, especially when there are indicators that people will scoop up more affordable Apple offerings (the new iPad) while largely staying away from ones that offer poor value vs. the competition (Apple TV).

My hunch is that Apple is poised for a downturn. Nothing like the near-bankruptcy that preceded Steve Jobs’ return in 1997, but something significant enough to prompt the company to react. How it will do so–or if such a downturn even happens–remains to be seen.

Curious design: Music controls through self-abuse

Apple’s AirPods work like some other true wireless Bluetooth earbuds in that you operate the controls by tapping on the earbuds directly. iOS 11 allows for different controls for the left and right bud, though the controls themselves are limited to only:

  • previous track
  • next track
  • play/pause
  • Siri
  • off

Still, this covers my needs for the most part, especially when running. This MacRumors article on using the AirPods revealed a trick I was unaware of:

Tap Your Ear

You don’t necessarily have to tap right on your AirPod to use the double tap gestures. Many people prefer to tap softly on the back of an ear instead. It’s a little less audibly jarring and it works just as well.

I verified this on my run today and it is entirely weird to control music by bapping on your ear. It was a tad inconsistent, which no doubt made for a strange sight to others on the trail (“Why does that man keep hitting his ear?”) but the same can be said for the controls in general, they just seem a lot harder to execute when jogging.

Still, the novelty of hitting my ear to skip to the next track may never grow old. Or at least not until I remember I can just tell Siri to do it instead.

Can Apple save the iPad? (Answer: maybe)

Back on December 28, 2015, I wrote this post mulling over Apple’s iPad line-up. I ended with this:

The iPad Pro is still a bit if a mystery in how it will play out but I think its high price will keep it from breaking out and becoming a huge seller. And people considering a Surface Pro are probably still more likely to get a Surface Pro, if only to overcome the limits of iOS that the iPad Pro still has to contend with (some would argue–as I would–that Windows 10 is a better operating system for productivity than iOS 9).

Rumors are circulating that Apple will reveal its next revision of the Apple Watch at a March 2016 event–about three months away as I write this– and the event may also reveal the follow-up to the iPad Air 2. If this turns out to be accurate, it will be interesting to see what the next iPad will look like and if the delay in updating it is due to product drift and uncertainty or because Apple is poised to bring some truly new features to the iPad.

Having an iPad Air myself, I admit I wouldn’t mind the lighter Air 2 but given the differences between the two models, I can’t justify the expense of upgrading. I’m curious to see if Apple can talk me into parting with my money in 2016.

Addressing each paragraph some 15 months later:

  • analysts have suggested that the iPad Pro models comprise about 7% of total iPad sales, so my thought here seems to have panned out
  • there was no follow-up to the iPad Air 2. Instead, Apple introduced the 9.7″ iPad Pro. With a few extra features, it had a much higher selling price than the Air 2–$599 U.S. vs. $399 for the iPad Air 2. The Pro retained everything from the 12.9″ version save for coming with a slightly slower version of the A9x processor and less ram. It did improve on the 12.9″ in terms of color support and a higher-resolution camera.
  • I did get an iPad in 2016, but it was the iPad mini 4, to replace my now-dead (and officially discontinued) mini 2.

Did the iPad Air 2 replacement finally come out in March 2017? Yes…sort of.

The new iPad (yes, it’s just called iPad, the whole Air line is dead now) improves on the iPad Air 2 in two ways: it has a brighter display and a faster A9 processor. It is the same as the iPad Air 2 in most other ways, save for these:

  • it is thicker and heavier, matching the specs of the iPad Air
  • it does not have the Air 2’s laminated, non-reflective display
  • it costs $329 U.S. vs. the (now discontinued) Air 2’s price of $399

As the price of the entry-level iPad Pro 9.7″ model remains unchanged at $599, there is a now-even-larger gap in price between the two of $270.

This is not the first time Apple has introduced a product that combined old and new tech at a lower price, as they used the same tactic when they brought out the iPhone SE last year. I think they’re trying to do the same thing now, creating a good entry-level tablet that can compete with a lot of the cheaper (but not insanely cheap) Android tablets, and also act as an enticement for people with iPads dating back to the first through third generations (2010-2012) to finally upgrade.

The lower price also makes the Pro models “look” more pro. This seems to be Apple’s strategy going forward. Where once there was one iPad for all and you just chose between wifi/cellular and storage sizes, you now choose between those things as well as weighing the additional features of the Pro line–the smart connector, Pencil support, better sound and so on.

In other words, Apple has eliminated the standard iPad in favor of a low-end and high-end line, similar to how they bifurcated their laptops into MacBook and MacBook Pro, and their phones into the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus (currently).

The question is, while the strategy has worked for the laptops and phones, can it work for tablets? Remember that figure I quoted above where only about 7% of all iPad sales are for the Pro models? I don’t think that’s going to change much without price drops. Those may come in time (Apple did reduce the pricing on the 128 and 256 GB versions of the Pro) but until that happens, if it happens at all, Apple seems to be pinning hopes of reviving the iPad’s sales by switching to a model of high volume and (relatively) low pricing, an unusual strategy for the company to make with one of its flagship products.

I suspect this isn’t going to work all that well. The lower-priced iPad will definitely pique interest with some but it’s fundamentally the same thing Apple has been making for seven years, just a bit cheaper now, and the iPad Pro models remain incredibly expensive in comparison, doomed to remain niche products, especially since the extra features they offer are poorly utilized by iOS (perhaps that will change with iOS 11, but I wouldn’t count on it).

If Apple went a bit further with the pricing–say, dropping the iPad to $299, that might help goose sales, as would dropping the 9.7″ Pro down to the original iPad price of $499. In the end, it’s not just the price that holds people back from buying, though, it’s what the product offers, and for many, the iPad simply doesn’t offer enough compared to a larger phone or smaller laptop. And Apple, which has tied iOS to both the iPhone and iPad, has done little to allow the iPad to stand apart as a unique device.

A rumor suggests a 10.5″ (or so) iPad is due out this year that will sport a nearly bevel-free design and a virtualized home button. While these features are intriguing, they don’t suggest the fundamental experience of using the device would be any different (and as a likely replacement for the 9.7″ Pro model it will probably be even more expensive). Again, Apple seems content to fiddle with the hardware and to an extent, the pricing, while ignoring the software side.

If they want people to buy more iPad Pros, they have to reduce the price. It’s that simple.

If they want the iPad as a whole to bounce back in sales and thrive (as much as any tablet can nowadays), they need to do more–a lot more–on the software side.

The new iPad will snare some people hanging onto old iPads, but it’s not going to turn around the overall decline of the line. Perhaps such a task is impossible, but Apple’s multi-faceted approach to solving the problem is missing at least one essential facet.

Apple’s MacBook Pro $trategy

Apple had its “Hello again” event today and much like Microsoft at their event yesterday, Apple used theirs to announce really expensive products.

In all, they revealed new MacBook Pros and new (Canadian) pricing for the MacBook–$100 higher.

The MacBook Pro line-up previously started at $1549 for the 13 inch model. Today Apple showed off two new 13 inch models, a non-fancy one positioned as a sort-of successor to the MacBook Air and a fancy one with better specs and the somewhat controversial OLED touch bar that replaces the row of function keys.

The prices are $1899 and $2299 respectively, or as I like to put it: LOL WUT

These prices make Microsoft’s Surface pricing seem almost reasonable by comparison.

Almost.

It also seems a little weird that Microsoft is arguably being more innovative with its Surface Studio than Apple is with its MacBook Pro. At the very least it feels like Microsoft has done more to earn its premium pricing.

And while the newest Surface Book is too expensive for me, the other models, now with newly-reduced pricing, is something I’m actually considering again. The bang-for-the-buck on the MacBook Pros is way too far out of whack for me to seriously consider them. It’s disappointing but not surprising. Apple seems determined to prop up declining revenue with significantly inflated pricing.

Oh well. At least my iPhone is nearly paid for.

That whole iPad tablet thing

There have been a few famous tablets over the years. Moses brought a few down from Mt. Sinai you may have heard of, for example. I’d like to talk about one that is a little more current–specifically the iPad, introduced by Apple in 2010.

At the time one of the most amazing things about the iPad was not its relatively svelte design, power or display but its price–$500 was seen as a veritable bargain for a piece of Apple hardware. People were impressed, the iPad sold millions, the improved iPad 2 sold millions and everyone was happy ever after.

Until Apple’s 3rd quarter (Apr-Jun) of 2013, when year over year sales of the iPad declined for the first time. Sales remained flat for awhile but starting in the 2nd quarter (Jan-Mar) of 2014, sales of the iPad have declined year over year for every quarter–seven quarters in a row so far.

Reasons for the declines have been attributed to various factors but the main ones people cite are:

  1. Cheaper alternatives, mainly in the Android tablet market and in the forked version Amazon uses for their tablets
  2. Longer upgrade cycles; people upgrade phones every two years, tablets get upgraded more like computers, so some may hang onto their iPads for 3-4 years before feeling a need to update
  3. The rise of larger smartphones has eaten away some of the tablet market
  4. The rise of smaller, lighter ultrabook laptops has likewise eaten into the tablet market
  5. Hybrid devices like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 have lured away some people who wanted something more powerful than an iPad
  6. The iPad hasn’t changed fundamentally since its introduction over five years ago. Compare the original iPhone and its capabilities to the current iPhone 6s and the difference is fairly dramatic

The reason I decided to write this is because I think Apple’s iPad strategy is muddled right now and what they are doing is unlikely to reverse the declining sales (it should be noted that in Q4 2015 Apple sold 9.88 million iPads–the lowest number since Q3 2011–but that’s still an awful lot of iPads, so it’s not going away anytime soon, regardless).

Let’s see how Apple is addressing the above factors.

  1. Cheaper alternatives. Apple is never going to produce a bargain-priced tablet. Apple doesn’t do bargain-priced anything and that’s okay, no one expects them to. But they had to do something to bring pricing down and their solution has been to retain a selection of previous generation models at lower price points. Hence you can get the current iPad Air 2 for $499 or the previous generation iPad Air for $399. This is probably the best Apple can do here. They are never going to compete against Amazon’s $50 tablet-soon-to-be-in-a-cereal-box approach.
  2. Longer upgrade cycles. This is something Apple has no real control over. It affects all tablets, so it’s not a problem specific to Apple. Would dramatically different iPads spur people to upgrade sooner? It’s possible but it’s just as likely it could push people into keeping what they have if the new version deviates too much from what they expect an iPad to do.
  3. Larger smartphones. Apple has chosen to go the route of cannibalization here by introducing the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in 2014 with larger 4.7″ and 5.5″ displays. While they’d prefer people buying an iPad and an iPhone, having them buy a larger iPhone is better than having someone eliminating both and getting a big screen Android phone instead.
  4. Smaller, lighter laptops. Apple is again going with cannibalization by introducing the MacBook, a 12″ laptop that weighs less than two pounds, comes with a single USB-C port and is available in three different colors–just like an iPad! Price-wise it’s in an entirely different market but design-wise it’s definitely the first step by Apple toward making a laptop that is as light and portable as a tablet.
  5. Hybrid devices. Apple executives like to make fun of products until they decide to do their own take on a particular device a few years later. Such is the case with the iPad Pro and its optional keyboard and stylus. Apple’s take on a Surface Pro-style device is more iPad and less laptop than the Surface but it’s clear Apple is trying to pull away sales from Microsoft’s hybrid while also attempting to expand the iPad’s reach.
  6. The 2015 iPads all do the same things the original did in 2010, they just do it faster while weighing less and looking better. This is one area where Apple does not appear to have a plan–or has yet to reveal it.

Looking over the list, Apple is clearly doing some things to address problems with declining iPad sales, even if some of those–like the introduction of larger iPhones–help the company more than they do the iPad itself. The reason I stated that Apple’s iPad strategy seems muddled is tied directly to its current iPad lineup and how it’s evolved over the last year.

In 2013 Apple introduced the iPad Air. The next year they brought out the iPad Air 2, a faster, thinner, lighter model. This year Apple did not update the Air–the primary iPad model–at all. They refreshed the iPad mini by replacing last year’s embarrassing iPad 3, which only added Touch ID–something Apple apparently thought people would be happy to shell out an extra $100 for–with the iPad mini 4. They also introduced the iPad Pro, the really big iPad. They retained the iPad Air and iPad mini 2 as “budget” alternatives.

The mini sells well but it doesn’t sell as well as the 9.7″ model. One could argue that its sales may decline even more as larger phones encroach on its space–a 5.5″ display is closer to a 7.9″ display than 9.7″, after all (Apple doesn’t break out sales per iPad model but industry fancypants generally agree the 9.7″ model is the main seller). The iPad Pro, while still fundamentally an iPad, is so much larger and more expensive that it is likely to draw people looking for its unique qualities rather than as a general tablet. Someone who just wants a good, solid iPad still has the iPad Air 2 and despite it being a year old, it is still a fine tablet. But by not updating its main model, Apple seems to be saying it doesn’t know what to do with it. They can probably make it faster, maybe a little thinner (they are hitting limits in this area) but is that enough to woo people to upgrade? It doesn’t look like it, but at the same time no update at all makes the iPad Air 2 feel a bit forgotten and again, it’s their primary iPad.

Will the improved mini 4 turn sales around? It’s unlikely, though the improvements are welcome.

The iPad Pro is still a bit if a mystery in how it will play out but I think its high price will keep it from breaking out and becoming a huge seller. And people considering a Surface Pro are probably still more likely to get a Surface Pro, if only to overcome the limits of iOS that the iPad Pro still has to contend with (some would argue–as I would–that Windows 10 is a better operating system for productivity than iOS 9).

Rumors are circulating that Apple will reveal its next revision of the Apple Watch at a March 2016 event–about three months away as I write this– and the event may also reveal the follow-up to the iPad Air 2. If this turns out to be accurate, it will be interesting to see what the next iPad will look like and if the delay in updating it is due to product drift and uncertainty or because Apple is poised to bring some truly new features to the iPad.

Having an iPad Air myself, I admit I wouldn’t mind the lighter Air 2 but given the differences between the two models, I can’t justify the expense of upgrading. I’m curious to see if Apple can talk me into parting with my money in 2016.