Tag Archives: Apple

Thoughts on The Watch

There are a couple of things that have occurred to me about Apple’s latest new product line. The first is that fashion and rapid technology upgrade cycles don’t really mix.

Thinking about the evolution of the iPhone (a product whose significance has been compared to the Apple Watch)

apple watcheach new iteration was thinner, more powerful, and larger than the one before. In the case of the watch, I very much doubt the screen will become larger – wrists aren’t going to get any larger any time soon (though I suppose we could get a widescreen version at some point!) but undoubtedly they will be thinner and more powerful. With technology doubling in power every 12 to 18 months it would be remarkable if they didn’t.

That will be OK for those who paid £300-£400 for their watches – Apple customers have shown themselves to be quite happy shelling out this kind of fee every couple of years for an upgrade. But what does this mean for those customers who paid £10,000 for a gold watch? Will they be happy with a watch which is thicker and less powerful that the current model? Especially when a few years down the line it probably won’t even run with the latest version of iOS.

This could lead to some very dissatisfied customers – unless Apple comes up with a way to overcome this. One way might be to offer a technology upgrade service. Send in your £10,000 watch and Apple will retrofit the latest innards, upgrading your family heirloom to the latest, greatest tech. There are all sorts of implications and challenges with this approach – logistical and manufacturing complexity, weakening the bond between this year’s shape and desirability and so on.

And I don’t think a trade-in will work – people current buy expensive watches to keep, not to exchange in two years.

The second observation is not so much that the launch of the watch is the first time online has been pushed ahead of the physical experience – though that is obviously true. It is that mobile was where Apple was most prepared and efficient. At 8.05am we were still waiting for the Apple online store to come back online (it was promising to be open for buisness at 8.01am). The iPhone app, though, was functioning smoothly and to plan. The combination of a physical Apple Store as a showcase for the physical product, and the Apple app as the way to purchase seems to be the ideal future for Apple. After I had bought via the app I was invited to take a survey of the experience by Apple which asked a large number of detailed questions about the online experience. It seems they are determined to get it very right.

Apple’s $10,000 watch

Apple is known for expensive technology. But for the extra money we have always received higher quality, better usability, superlative design. But with the announcement of a $10,000 solid gold watch today, I wonder if they have made a tactical mistake.

There is no way to argue that the watch itself (functionality, form, impact) is worth that amount of money. After all you can get exactly the same for under $400 – albeit in aluminium.

And, while buying an expensive mechanical watch is an investment is something with staying power – watches can be handed down across the generations – Apple’s version is going to be obsolete in a couple of years. It probably won’t even tell the time five or six years down the line when the software is updated.

Apple is the uncompromising, innovative guardians of good, user-let design is the model we have been used to. Apple as the flashy luxury brand pandering to the super-rich may not play quite as well.

Time will tell.

Short and long-term innovation

It’s the mobile innovation season again. Apple launched the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the latest operating system iOS 8, announced the much-anticipated Apple Watch and last week launched new iPads. Google unveiled plans for the new Nexus 6 phablet and the Nexus 9 tablet and a new Android operating system, Lollipop.

But what does this innovation actually amount to? Our phones are now bigger and even thinner – so much so that they bend if we accidentally sit on them.

Apple-Watch-logo-main1Apple is very focussed on getting all their technology to work “seamlessly” together. After Yosemite we should be able to start a Keynote presentation on our iPhone, pick up on our iPad, finish off on our Mac and then show it on our Apple TV, controlled by our Apple Watch. It’s clear that Apple’s future growth is going to come from getting us to buy more things and updating those we already have on a regular cycle.

Google, to some extent, is on the same merry-go-round. It too has watch software, a desktop (Chrome), phones, tablets and a TV streaming device, the Chromecast.

But Google also has Glass – a product still not ready for prime-time which has come in for increasing criticism after the initial burst of enthusiasm wore off. This Guardian review sums up the ambivalence well. What Glass does point to is a different interpretation of the way things will develop in the future.

The thing that makes Glass work is the voice interface and that is an area Google has been investing a lot of time and effort in – and with striking results.

Research by Stone Temple Consulting set out to compare results from Google Now, Siri and Cortana from Microsoft. And Google came our firmly on top – the chart here summarises those results.


Stone Temple summarise their findings like this:

So there you have it. As of October 4, Google Now has a clear lead in terms of the sheer volume of queries addressed, and more complete accuracy with its queries than either Siri or Cortana. All three parties will keep investing in this type of technology, but the cold hard facts are that Google is progressing the fastest on all fronts.

Google has been taking the whole artificial intelligence space more seriously than any other technology company. They have bought some serious talent like Demis Hassabis, the founder and chief executive of Deep Mind, the artificial intelligence business bought by Google for £400m at the start of the year.

On a visit to Microsoft way back in the 1990s I heard the head of Microsoft Research say that consumers already knew what they wanted – it was the Star Trek computer. This means a universal interface which is largely neutral about the actual device it is using at a particular moment in time.

Apple’s business model I think largely rules it out as a contender. It is too invested in creating physical devices and it is telling that it already let the Siri team depart when their work is clearly not done. (They have founded their own business called Viv aimed at delivering their version of the Star Trek computer.)

But with its heavy focus on understanding and organising knowledge, and its commitment to the development of powerful AI, my money is on Google to finally deliver the vision. And whether we access that through Glass, or through an Android-powered watch, or for that matter on the iOS platform, I’m not sure they particularly care.

Has Apple lost its innovation mojo?

Has Apple has lost its innovation mojo? Yes, according to many pundits who weighed in immediately following last Tuesday’s announcements of the iPhone 5S and 5C. 

Comments from The Guardian were typical: “Once a company renowned for breaking new ground, Apple is turning into a typical American corporation” says the sub-head. 

treading water is what Apple has done ever since, sadly, it lost Jobs. Under the turtlenecked-one, we got the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, one after another. Since Cook took over as boss in 2011, there has been reiteration rather than innovation. The iPad, except smaller. Now with a sharper screen. In pink. Ho hum. 

Tech site CNET took a very similar line. The “5 disappointing things about hte iPhone 5S” are listed out: the screen remains the same; a faster processor – it’s only just a phone!; no improvement in battery life; still no 128GB model; a little catch up, no innovation.

The iPhone 5S has exactly what was expected: a faster processor and a better camera (one that merely catches up to the cameras in some other phones). Those features aren’t “wow” — they’re “meh.”

And news network CNN concurred. “Underwhelmed. That, in a word, was the response in many quarters to Apple’s rollout of two new iPhones on Tuesday,” its piece began. However, what followed was a more balanced round up of views. On the one hand: 

“Much-hyped iPhone announcements from the tech giant did little to stop (Apple’s) year-long descent into stagnation,” wrote Marcus Wohlsen in Wired, a CNN.com content partner. “Though the faster, sleeker, more powerful phone is unarguably cool, the steps forward are still incremental. And incremental isn’t what the world expects from Apple.”

One the other, however, 

“In most cases Apple does not walk on others’ paths,” she said. “They create their own and stick to it. This is not necessarily the easy way to do it in the short term, but assures that they remain in control.”,

quoting Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst with Gartner Research.

And there were still others with a more subtle interpretation of innovation, such as the Innovation Excellence blog which wrote: 

I truly believe that the kinds of things that will come out of the BLE technology built into the new iPhone 5S in combination with the new fingerprint authentication will represent a quantum leap in the value we extract from our smartphones in much the same way that the AppStore that came along a year after the launch of the original iPhone.

And another Wired article with a more positive take:

The bottom line is that there’s a lot more to the iPhone switching to a 64-bit processor than hype. While the applications for it might be limited right now, Apple is paving the way for improvements that we’ll see trickle into the iPhone over the next few years. 

Forbes summed it up best for me with “7 reasons the new iPhones are starting to look good” (5 plays 7!). The bottom line for Forbes:

Innovation is unquestionably becoming less glitzy but that’s because Cook is updating Apple at the platform level. In place of Jobs’ charismatic feature, design and miniaturization-led innovation, he is giving his team space to build the boat: a device platform that is powerful enough to integrate many more services, gives developers more scope; allows the iPhone to interact with more devices around the body and in nearby locations. 

In the end this more subtle interpretation of the Apple strategy sounds to me more convincing. 

A tale of two service cultures

In February I bought myself a Nexus 7, the 7-inch tablet made for Google by Asus. I bought it from Currys as, since the demise of Comet in November last year, this is just about the only electrical chain around.

My early experiences were good; I found the interface less polished than IOS (I’ve been an apple user now for at least seven years) but I liked the integration with Google’s product suite and some things, such as Google Now which predicts what you are going to need and gets it before you need it, were very impressive.

As far as the hardware goes, the build quality seemed good, but the battery life wasn’t a patch on my iPad 3 – that will go a week between charges with light usage; the Nexus seemed to need charging every two days.

And therein lay the problem. Sometime in the week of the 20th May the Nexus 7 ran out of power and when I came to recharge it nothing happened. It wouldn’t turn on at all. So on Saturday 25th I took it back to Currys expecting to get a free replacement. No such thing.

First off, I waited in line for a customer service rep to serve me. Despite the apparent abundance of staff in the Catford store, nobody seemed particularly keen on eye contact and I waited for 10 minutes before one of the staff reluctantly called me forward.

I was told they would need to send it back to Asus for repair. Fair enough. I filled in the form, left my telephone number and went home.

Three weeks later, getting a little concerned that I hadn’t heard anything, I called the number on the repair receipt only to be told that it could take up to six weeks to be returned.

A week later I received a call to say it had been returned to the shop and I duly collected it on June 18th. When I got it home I charged it up and set it up again (it had been returned to factory settings) and all seemed well, until a couple of days later it was again without charge. This time it would start up but then would promptly shut again with a message that I should connect the charger (which was in fact connected). Testing with another Android charger got the same result.

So back to Currys. And another wait in line for one of the numerous staff to decide they would have to serve me, which one eventually did. Now it has been sent off again (to Asus in Amsterdam, I’m informed) and I now face another up to six week delay before I get the device back again.  (Incidentally, while I was waiting there was a man returning a Dyson vacuum cleaner under a 30 day trial scheme advertised on Currys own website. He was told he couldn’t return it because it had been opened(!) Only when he showed them a print out of their own website offer was his money reluctantly refunded.)

I bought my Nexus in the first place to road-test Android as an alternative to IOS. So far the experiment isn’t going Android’s way.

Contrast this with my only real product problem with an Apple product. Three years ago my iPhone started to drop calls unexpectedly. I booked a Genius Bar appointment online and turned up at my allotted time in the Bluewater Apple store where my name flashed on the screen. I went up to the counter and explained the problem. The “genius” (as I suppose you call them) plugged the phone into some diagnostics and confirmed that was the problem and then promptly gave me a brand new replacement phone and offered to set it up for me. This, despite the fact that the phone was 18 months old at that stage and clearly out of warranty. I don’t know whether this is typical of Apple customer service but it left me impressed. And the contrast with my latest experience with Currys couldn’t be sharper.

Now there is effectively only one electrical superstore chain there is little incentive for things to change at Currys, but clearly there is an opening the market for a retailer to provide an offering based on knowledgable and service-oriented staff. One day maybe such competition will come.

Data comes into its own

It is axiomatic that we are now drowning in data. Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt famously said we now create as much data is two days as we did from the dawn of humanity to 2003.  And there is now a big business in providing tools to help us deal with this avalanche.

But it turns out there is a big prize for companies that master their own data and put it at the heart of their decision-making. +Steve Lohr The New York Times recently reported on new research setting out to quantify the effect:

The data explosion is also an enormous opportunity. In a modern economy, information should be the prime asset — the raw material of new products and services, smarter decisions, competitive advantage for companies, and greater growth and productivity.

The central distinction, says the WSJ piece, is between decisions based mainly on “data and analysis” and on the traditional management arts of “experience and intuition.”

Those that adopted “data-driven decision making” achieved productivity that was 5 to 6 percent higher than could be explained by other factors, including how much the companies invested in technology.

But becoming a data-driven company is hard. Many organisations are built on the belief in the wisdom of the senior team and their “experts”. Experience and gut-instinct still hold a lot of sway. Take Apple – Steve Jobs’ profound intuition and almost supernatural sense of what makes a good product produced legendary results. Now he’s no longer there the risk is that the vacuum will be filled by people with less than superpowers and poor decisions will be taken (the maps fiasco may have been the first).

Contrast that with Google – the epitome of a data-driven company, perhaps. My favour supporting anecdote, which I have blogged about in the past,  is the story that the company doesn’t put down any paths until the grass between new campus buildings is worn down, thus ensuring the tarmac gets laid where the Googlers actually do walk. A great example of data-driven decision making in action.

Will maps be Apple’s Waterloo?

Even while Apple’s stock hit an all-time high of $700 on Monday and the iPhone 5 is heralded as the fastest selling iPhone ever with over 2m ordered in the first 24 hours, criticism of a kind never seen before has been sweeping the web driven by the new Apple maps app.

Apple made the decision to replace Google maps because of the growing and fierce competition between the two companies for the future of mobile development. However, normally loyal iPhone users have been highly critical of the decision, with features such as street view and transport times particularly lamented.

Apple was quick to say it was responding to criticism and would improve the application, but the fact remains this is looking like quite a misstep.

Coupled with this are the on-going issues with Siri, the iPhone’s “personal assistant”, which is being given a run for its money by both Google Voice and S Voice, the new voice assistant from Samsung.

The big question to my mind is who is best equipped to deal with a world in which consumers value easy to use (but very hard to do) services like maps or artificial intelligence, more than features inherent in the devices themselves. In other words; who is better in the cloud?

When we look back on this period in five or 10 years time I wonder if we will be saying that this was the historical moment when the world’s largest tech company peaked?

Will Apple miss the next big thing?

Will Apple be smart enough to capitalise on the next big opportunity in personal computing – turning the smart phone into the CPU for computing anywhere?

I remember back to the time when there was a huge debate about “convergence” – the big question about whether consumers would accept one multi-functional mobile device (the Swiss Army Knife approach) or would want a series of specialized devices such as a phone, camera, GPS. MP3 player and so on. The iPhone settled that debate completely with hardware and software (apps) which cater for just about every need. It now seems incredible that anyone even argued the point.

Well, we are fast approaching a re-run of that debate. Why have a computer and a smartphone when you could use a phone as your CPU, operating system and file store and simply link via Bluetooth to a screen, keyboard and mouse? Any why not make that screen your TV?

Apple is actually very well placed to make this move. It is already converging its operating systems – OS X looks increasingly like IOS especially after Mountain Lion. And they produce a superb range of Bluetooth-enabled peripherals and brilliant screens.

But this is a big leap for a company which makes so much money from computer hardware – $6.3bn in the last quarter of 2011. Risking that is a big bet for any company, let alone one that is riding the wave with its iconic highly designed and desirable computers.

If not Apple, then maybe Android? Already there have been Android phones launched with full versions of Ubuntu Linux loaded on them.  And Android’s makers Google doesn’t have a hardware business to cannibalise. In fact, it would make massive sense for Google to back a move like this – it is trying to push an alternative to Microsoft’s Office Suite (Google Apps) and what better Trojan Horse than consumers determined to carry their computing device with them wherever they go?

Even Microsoft may be better placed to capitalise on this trend than Apple. Microsoft doesn’t actually make computers (although their OEM partners clearly do) so although there would be much painful disruption if Windows 8 became the operating system on choice on the mobile portable computing device of the future, the company could but only profit in the long run.

I may be wrong, but I bet we will see this trend play out; it remains to be seen who will ride the wave.