As a veteran Apple observer and enthusiast, I look forward to every Apple keynote presentation with interest, and when possible, an optimistically cleared-off portion of my calendar so I can watch the live stream. I’ve rarely been disappointed, iPod socks aside. But this time around, even after the stream became watchable, I spent most of the time scratching my head, saying (metaphorically), “Huh? I don’t get it.”
Ironically, Apple started the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch keynote with a video celebrating people who “see things differently.” I don’t think my reaction is what they had in mind. Naturally, I don’t expect to be the perfect target for everything that Apple does, so here’s what I expect to get eventually, and what I think will continue to befuddle me.
Venti, Vidi, Vici? -- Oddly, one-third of the big news from the event was definitely big and not particularly news, as predictions of supersized iPhones littered the Internet prior to the event. I come not to bury the iPhone 6, but to praise and eulogize the iPhone 5.
“Eulogize? Aren’t you jumping ahead, Porten? The 5s and 5c are still available in the Apple Store.” Yes, that’s true; as is usual with new iPhone releases, the older models have dropped into the “free or cheap with contract” bargain bin. But that’s also the place where old models go to die. With the exception of the iPhone 5 sort of being resurrected as the iPhone 5c, I can’t think of an example when Apple has spiffed up an older iPhone — and the iPhone 5 was the top model prior to the release of the 5s.
Meanwhile, I have extensive pre-release experience with an ersatz 4.7-inch iPhone, thanks to an ongoing dispute with A Titanic & Terrible carrier that holds the lock on my iPhone 5. When I switched to T-Mobile in early 2013, it seemed silly to own two iPhones, so I picked up an HTC One; this phone, coincidentally, has the physical form factor of an iPhone 6, and the pixel resolution of an iPhone 6 Plus. I regularly carry both phones, using the HTC One as a tethered hotspot to give my iPhone an always-on Internet experience. (And thanks to Google Voice, I can pick up a call on either phone.)
My experience using both phones is that the iPhone normally rides in my pants pocket and is my go-to device, while the HTC One stays in my backpack performing hotspot duties. That’s partially because I prefer iOS to Android, but more due to the physical form factor. Although Jeff Carlson says both iPhone 6 models fit in a pants pocket (see “Apple Announces iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus with Larger Screens”, 9 Sep 2014), he also apparently lives in a future cashless world with biometric locks. Where I live, I carry metal keys and coins, which rule out my front pockets for phone toting lest I scratch my gizmos. My HTC One sticks out of my back pocket, the better for it to be pickpocketed or accidentally slide into someone else’s comfy chair; it fills me with dread even before I do something as risky as sit down. The iPhone 5, meanwhile, gets safely covered with fabric in a back pocket, and even has space to squoosh out of the way when I sit down. [Editor’s Note: TidBITS editor-in-chief Tonya Engst, who has to put up with the impractical pockets in women’s clothing, wasn’t pleased about the size change from the iPhone 4S to the taller iPhone 5s; she’s even less amused about what the iPhone 6s might look like next year when it’s her turn to upgrade. -Adam]
Don’t get me wrong; more screen real estate is nifty, and I’m sure both Apple and third-party developers will put it to good use. Clearly, at least ten million people disagree with me. But I can’t tell the difference between true 1080p video and other HD content on my HTC One 1080p screen, and I doubt that will be different with the iPhone 6 Plus 5.5-inch display. By all means, Apple should be giving larger screens a try; I’m just surprised and miffed (of the “I don’t get it” variety) to see the svelte iPhone 5 apparently deprecated. Unless Apple pulls a first-time reach into the bargain bin next year for an internal update to the old form factor, will we smaller phone aficionados have to permanently do without an A8 chip, voice over LTE, and higher-quality slo-mo videos, let alone the upgrades of 2015?
Granted, other iPhone 6 features, such as optical stabilization and higher resolutions, probably won’t fit in the iPhone 5 form factor. Nor is Reachability strictly necessary (despite my continually wanting to call it Reacharound), although it does solve one-handed problems I have with both my iPhone and my HTC One.
Watching the Clock for an Apple Watch -- Now that I’ve wedged my head firmly into my back pocket, I’ll take it out and look wristward. Keep in mind, I’ve reviewed several competitors in the smartwatch market (see “Four Smartwatches Reviewed: Cookoo, Martian, MetaWatch, i’m Watch”, 31 Jul 2014). Again, I’m clearly in the minority with my lack of “getting it” regarding the Apple Watch; witness the standing ovation Tim Cook received when he announced it, even before any details were shared. He claims that Apple will “redefine what people expect from this category,” and I agree with him — the Apple Watch will definitely be the bar that any smartwatch over $300 will have to hurdle. (While leaving space in the market for Pebbles, Metawatches, and Martians in the roughly $150 category.)
Apple hits it out of the park on the three primary factors I previously identified: “glanceable” information, two new control surfaces, and functionality as a plain old watch. But what surprises me about the Apple Watch is that it’s so damn fiddly. Take the process for launching a new app: Press to go to the home screen. Rotate the “digital crown” to zoom out to see your app icons. Slide around to the region where your app lives, then rotate the crown to zoom in, then slide around a little more until your app is front and center, where hopefully you’ll tap in the right location and not launch the app next door. I think this is probably the best possible way to present a hundred app icons on a tiny screen; I also think that this is going to require some hand-eye coordination to get it right the first time.
Likewise, what happens when those hundred apps pummel your Apple Watch with notifications? I wrote that I wanted to see “an app store of [watch] widgets to give me better ideas” of what could be done with a smartwatch; it only now occurs to me that the Apple Watch may be too much of a good thing. The announcement of WatchKit ensures that there will be hundreds to thousands of apps available for the Apple Watch soon after release. Trust my experience with other watches: you’re going to want to limit incoming notifications to those that are “wrist worthy,” which means tons of fiddling with either Apple Watch or iPhone host applications to narrow down the number of haptic taps on your wrist for attention. (Although if Apple provides a way to modify the taps you receive based on the type of notification, I’ll call that a sheer genius interface.)
Finally, I’m interested to know what limitations of the Apple Watch appear when it’s not being used within range of a required iPhone. There are situations when you want a watch to replace, not augment, an iPhone, so what will an Apple Watch be able to do all by its lonesome? Likewise, see my earlier comments about bigger iPhones; although I’m glad that the iPhone 5 is supported by the Apple Watch, I wonder what iPhone 6 users are expected to do when out for a run without a requisitely sized pocket in their spandex. (Or as Geoff Duncan asks, will overalls make a hipster comeback?)
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Apple Watch? -- Pardon my Latin again, but I’d like to segue here to what I think the Apple Watch might have gotten right, or at least, what I’ll be looking for in launch day reviews.
I’m heartened that Apple agreed with me on having built-in Siri, and I’m hoping that this means less fiddling: “Hey, Siri, launch Activity” (so I don’t have to search for it on my home screen) is much easier and faster. The question here is whether key Siri functionality will be fast enough to improve on a touch user interface; I assume some of what Siri does is built into the Apple Watch, while the rest of it will be shipped off to the required nearby iPhone. In my review of the Martian, I was less than excited about its Siri functionality (due to handoff delays), and I was generally down on having a two-way wrist microphone in my smartwatch; here I’ll want the watch-Siri experience to be seamless — by which I mean, “damned near instantaneous” — in order to make it something that’s better than reaching for an iPhone and possibly improves on the fiddliness required by tapping and rotating.
I’m fascinated by Apple’s unstated promise about the Apple Watch: that it’s literally going to make you into a better person. At least, that to me is the subtext of the entire health-and-fitness genre of included Apple Watch apps, let alone what will be available from third parties. When a smartwatch is keeping track of how often you stand up and how much time you spend at your desk, it effectively gamifies every minute of your life. Even we Philadelphians (diet: hoagies and cheesesteaks) who don’t exercise regularly will be provided with manageable and simple reminders to make minor changes that add up to a healthier lifestyle. Fitness apps have previously targeted the fitness-as-lifestyle folks; these are apps for the rest of us. I wonder if we’re ready for them.
I’ll also be watching — no pun intended — to see whether the Apple Watch literally changes the social norms by which we all interact. Apple decided to make the Apple Watch’s notifications invisible to other people — not the case for many other smartwatches, where the vibrator may create a public buzzing noise — which raises a question I asked in 2013 (see “Pondering the Social Future of Wearable Computing”, 29 May 2013):
In the parlance of anthropologists, the culture surrounding mobile phones is “thick”: a set of rules and norms that vary depending upon who you are, whom you’re with, where you are, and dozens of other factors that are all instantaneously processed and coded.... The amazing thing is that we’ve developed such a thick set of rules for handheld Internet computers after only five years.
Your dinner companion glances at his watch — to check the time? Check a Facebook update? Read a text message? ... You [don’t] know if your companion is choosing to do this or responding to an alert. Does that make a difference? Does the content of the alert make a difference?
With the Apple Watch, Apple is betting that we’ll learn a new set of rules surrounding the meaning of “glancing at my watch,” which in these pre-Apple Watch days is generally taken to mean “I’m bored” or “I’m waiting for something more important than, uh, you.” In this case, Apple may have outsmarted itself; the feature that turns on the screen when you lift and turn your wrist also makes it more difficult to check your watch covertly. The question is how this will be interpreted by everyone else -- and that’s likely to change over time depending on how quickly all smartwatches are adopted by the general public.
This is the primary meaning I’m assigning to my deprecating assessment of the Apple Watch as “too fiddly,” because I think it will be socially acceptable to glance at your watch occasionally, and much less so to fiddle with it. The Apple Watch demos beautifully, but the question of how acceptable it’s going to be will come down to how often it requires no interaction aside from a glance. My prediction: better than any smartwatch before it, but poorly enough that we’re going to have to come up with new rules for what’s socially “wrist-acceptable.”
Apple Paying the Piper -- This brings us to the third part of Apple’s announcement which left me confused: Apple Pay. To be clearer, Rich Mogull and Adam Engst already discussed the sordid cesspit that is our current credit card system (see “Apple Pay Aims to Disrupt Payment Industry”, 09 Sep 2014), which basically functions on the principle that the vast majority of people who see your credit card are decent human beings, the vast majority of the time. It is instantly obvious why Apple Pay should succeed, on its security provisions alone.
The issue comes with using Apple Pay, especially in its early adoption. Cook cited 220,000 points-of-sale, which sounds impressive until you think of the 30 million businesses that exist in the United States. You can leave your wallet at home and still buy a bottled water while out for a run, but only if you stop at a Walgreens or McDonald’s. For the time being, Apple Pay faces the same problem that bedevils other payment methods like PayPal and LevelUp: needing to remember the limited list of businesses where the thing will work.
Let’s be generous and assume that by mid-2015, Apple Pay is accepted at some number of businesses that we can call non-anomalous. You’re at a point-of-sale, and you can pay with either Apple Pay or a credit card. If you’re wearing an Apple Watch, it’s pretty much a done deal — there’s nothing more convenient than waving your hand like you’re Mandrake the Magician.
But if you’re still in the Watchless community, Apple’s supposition is that it’s easier to take an iPhone out of your pocket than it is to reach for a credit card. Unfortunately:
- That iPhone 6 is closer to the size of a checkbook.
- If I drop my credit card, it won’t shatter.
A credit card is valuable, but cheap to replace. Apple Pay flips this equation exactly: an iPhone 6 and an Apple Watch are worthless for accessing your bank accounts, but expensive to replace. Cook suggested that you could use your iPhone 6 to pay at a drive-through; I’d be leery of that for the same reason that I’m not going to repeat the demo and take optically stabilized movies with an iPhone 6 Plus from a moving bicycle.
It’s not that tapping an iPhone to a payment platform is a particularly dangerous thing to do. It’s that it’s a slightly dangerous thing to do one-handed when you’re distracted by something else, and that describes the experience of shopping. Multiply that by the two hundred times a year you buy something, or by the millions of times Apple Pay will be used: we’re going to hear, on day three of Apple Pay or sooner, about some poor schmo who broke his iPhone and Apple wouldn’t replace it. That means Apple Pay isn’t a free service any longer, because I wouldn’t use it without signing up first for AppleCare+.
Credit cards as we know them deserve to die. And the fact is, they’re going to, as the United States finally catches up on the chip-and-PIN technology that makes the system more secure in Europe. As I understand it (and thanks to Rich and Adam again for that), Apple Pay is better than chip-and-PIN for a half-dozen different reasons; it’s just that with Apple Pay, a new credit card will cost you $200 or more if you break the one you’re using.
What to Watch For -- That sums up why I’m unlikely to be an Apple upgrader in 2015. But I’ll be looking with anticipation (and some trepidation) at the September 2015 iPhone rollout to see if iPhone 5-sized phones are included in the upgrade, or if they’re doomed to be the next iPod classic: a long lifetime with no love. (My prediction is that this is exactly what will happen. What would you call one? The iPhone 6s Minus? The iPhone 6s mini? The iPhone 6s nano?)
I also believe the Apple Watch will be a success, selling primarily to the kind of people who signed up for a Pebble when it was a Kickstarter project — particularly those who are that kind of person but who didn’t actually get a Pebble. I’m off this upgrade path primarily because I’m off the iPhone upgrade path — if there were a compelling iPhone 6 option that didn’t have the size drawbacks of my HTC One, I’d consider it. And while the Apple Watch is compatible with the iPhone 5, I’ll be looking to see if it works with my (admittedly bizarre) situation of having my iPhone off-contract but online. Even if it is — at that point, I’m making a decision to live in an Apple ecosystem, whereas I’ve spent the last two years switching between iPhone and Android. (This decision point is also created by the purchase of an Android Wear watch; however, I expect the Apple Watch to be much more successful in terms of mindshare and sales than any Wear watch.)
As for Apple Pay, I think it will work great in the few places it’s offered, but I doubt we’re going to see the takeover of the American financial system. Where Apple Pay could make serious inroads is in two categories: Apple Watch owners, because it’s so damned easy, and online payment, about which Apple Pay details remain slim.
So for those of you keeping score: I seriously doubt any of these rollouts will be a failure. I just think that, if you’re not already using your iPhone 6 and squirrelling money away for an Apple Watch, more caution is warranted for 2015 than is usually the case with Apple rollouts. And that having been said, I’ll certainly come back to TidBITS to eat my claim chowder if I end up sporting any of these devices next year.