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#1538: Apple announces “One more thing” event, Apple search engine, Apple’s record Q4 2020 results, Apple Watch setup headaches, HomeKit Secure Video

It’s time for “One more thing.” That’s right, Apple has scheduled another event for 10 November 2020. Could it be the unveiling of Macs with Apple silicon and a release date for macOS 11 Big Sur? Apple tweaked search in iOS 14 to be less reliant on Google, leading some to speculate that Apple may be working on its own search engine. The company posted a strong Q4 2020 with record revenues thanks to burgeoning Mac and iPad sales, but the delayed iPhone 12 release hurt profits. Josh Centers bought an Apple Watch as a gift for a relative, but numerous setup headaches cause him to urge caution with such gifts and when working on others’ devices. Finally, Glenn Fleishman, author of Take Control of Home Security Cameras, explains HomeKit Secure Video and how it can help you keep an eye on your home while ensuring your privacy. Notable Mac app releases this week include SoundSource 5.1, BBEdit 13.5.1, Fission 2.6, Zoom 5.4.1, and Alfred 4.2.

Josh Centers 9 comments

Apple to Close Out 2020 with “One More Thing”

Here we go again. Apple has announced a third and presumably final 2020 event for 10 November 2020 at 10 AM PST. You can add it to your calendar to make time zone math easier.

In previous events, Apple has unveiled new versions of the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and HomePod, so we anticipate this event focusing on the Mac. Specifically, on the first wave of Macs with Apple silicon and perhaps providing a glimpse of the overall roadmap of the switch from Intel. It’s also likely that Apple will announce the release date for macOS 11 Big Sur.

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, one of the most reliable purveyors of Apple rumors, says that Apple will announce a line of Apple silicon laptops with new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models. Gurman notes that Apple also has a redesigned iMac and a new Mac Pro in the works.

Could there be anything else? There are two devices that Apple hasn’t updated recently that the company could slide into this event:

As always, you can watch Apple’s announcement with us by joining us in the #events channel of our SlackBITS group—it’s always an enjoyable time. To join the group, go to slackbits.herokuapp.com, enter your email address, and agree to the code of conduct. You’ll receive an invitation in email right away.

Josh Centers Adam Engst 9 comments

Is Apple Building Its Own Search Engine?

Changes to search in iOS 14 have Ars Technica and other outlets speculating that Apple could be building its own search engine as an alternative to Google. Although some searches still point to Google, others bring up direct links to Web sites.Apple search results in iOS 14

Google has just been hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the United States government, which could also hurt Apple (see “US Justice Department Files Antitrust Suit Against Google,” 20 October 2020). A detail in the government’s suit suggests that Google pays Apple $8–$12 billion every year to make Google Safari’s default search engine, boosting Apple’s Services revenue significantly.

But there’s more to the speculation than that: in 2018, Apple hired John Giannandrea, the former head of Google search. Apple has also posted several job openings for search engineers. Plus, observers have often noticed more hits from Applebot, the Web crawler that Apple announced in 2015. And, of course, Apple prefers to rely on other companies for core capabilities as little as possible, Apple Maps and the move to Apple silicon being obvious examples of that.

It’s also possible that pundits are reading too much into this.  It’s hard to see Apple enthused about having to give up $8–$12 billion in revenue and take on the significant expense of trying to build a search engine that meets users’ needs. Apple would have to either eat the loss and the costs or attempt to expand its ad business to take up the slack, neither of which seem appealing.

Michael E. Cohen Josh Centers 7 comments

Apple’s Q4 2020 Marks Record Revenues but Lower Profits as Mac and iPad Boom

Reporting on its fourth-quarter 2020 financial results, the company’s second quarterly report since the start of the continuing global pandemic, Apple announced net profits of $12.67 billion ($0.73 per diluted share) on record-setting revenues of $64.7 billion. The company’s revenues beat the year-ago quarter by 1%, but profits were down by 7.4% (see Apple Q4 2019 Breaks Records Despite Slipping iPhone Sales, 30 October 2019).

Apple Q4 category revenue over time

The reason is the huge year-over-year drop in iPhone sales, which fell 20.7% due to the delay of the iPhone 12 models (see “Apple Q3 2020 Breaks Records While the World Burns, Next iPhone to Be Fashionably Late,” 30 July 2020). Losing those sales accounted for Apple’s year-over-year decline in profits, although they’ll undoubtedly boost the Q1 2021 results next quarter.

Q4 iPhone revenue over time

But the flip side is the astronomical growth in Apple’s other businesses to help offset the lower iPhone sales. Revenue for every category outside of the iPhone grew by double digits.

iPad revenue rose by a whopping 46% year over year, bringing in $6.8 billion. Mac sales broke a new record in Q4 2020, with an amazing 29.2% year-over-year increase that accounted for over $9 billion in revenue, the category’s largest increase ever “by far,” according to Apple CFO Luca Maestri.

Q4 iPad revenue over time

“Both Mac and iPad are incredibly relevant products for our customers in the current living and working environments,” said Maestri. He also cited strong back-to-school sales for the massive increase.

“Normal will become something different,” CEO Tim Cook said, “because people are learning that there are aspects of this [remote work and teaching environment] that work well, and so I don’t believe we will go back to where we were. iPads and Macs are even more important in those environments.”

Q4 Mac revenue over time

Put simply, despite the iPhone’s delay, the Mac and iPad both saw rapid sales growth due in part to a wave of kids suddenly thrust into remote schooling and employees working from home. “Demand exceeded our expectations around the world,” Maestri said.

Apple’s Services category enjoyed yet another record-breaking quarter, with 16.3% annual revenue growth, for a total of $14.5 billion in revenue. Apple cited strong growth from the Apple Store, Apple Music, and Apple TV+. The latter seems to be taking off, with Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s first bonafide hit, emerging as both a critical and audience favorite. It’s worth noting that Services revenue also includes billions of dollars of payments from Google for the default placement of its search engine on Apple devices.

Cook let an additional little nugget drop: the Apple One service bundle is slated to launch on 30 October 2020. See “Apple Subscriptions Expand with Apple Fitness+, Apple One Bundles” (15 September 2020).

Payments by Apple Card and Apple Pay, part of the Services category, continue to accelerate, with the popularity of contactless payments rising notably because of customer resistance to handling physical cash and cards during the pandemic. Cook reiterated the theme of a “new normal,” saying that this shift in customer behavior will likely persist in years to come.

Q4 services over time

Wearables, Home, and Accessories had yet another strong quarter, with revenue up 20.8% year over year for a total of $7.9 billion. The Apple Watch Series 6 launched before Q4 ended on 26 September 2020, which may have helped that category’s revenue increase.

Q4 wearables over time

Another area where Apple saw some pain is in the Greater China region. While Apple posted steady numbers or slight growth in most regions, revenues fell by 28.6% in China. Other regions, however, seemed to take up the slack, with European sales, for example, totaling over twice the revenues from China.

Q4 regional revenue over time

During the quarterly investor call, Cook mentioned that Apple was supply constrained on the iPhone 12, Mac, iPad, and some Apple Watch models. It remains unclear whether Apple is overwhelmed with demand or suffering from the supply chain hiccups that have hit many industries this year; Apple’s sales results suggest both.

Pointing out that Apple’s watchwords are “resilience” and “hope” in the face of current conditions, Cook said, “We feel great optimism about the road in front of us.” Maestri continued that theme, predicting double-digit growth in equipment sales.

As it faces a future that’s more unpredictable than ever before, Apple will need both hope and resilience in the months ahead, but, judging by this last quarter’s performance, it may well continue beating expectations through the first fiscal quarter of 2021.

Josh Centers 23 comments

I Bought an Apple Watch as a Gift. It Turned into a Tech-Support Setup Nightmare

My wife and I have a relative with a severe case of atrial fibrillation, and it had recently gotten so bad she had to have surgery to correct it. Unfortunately, after the surgery, she still had heart flutters, which the doctor said were normal and should pass with time.

I know from personal experience how stressful it is to worry about your heart rate and rhythm. I’m not an Apple Watch zealot, but it is comforting to perform a quick ECG and see that things are more or less normal (see “I’m a Paramedic: Here’s How the Apple Watch Series 4 Will and Won’t Save Lives,” 3 October 2018). I had long been considering giving our relative an Apple Watch to help monitor her atrial fibrillation, but the surgery finally pushed me to do it. It also didn’t hurt that there are currently some excellent sales on the Apple Watch Series 5, which is more than sufficient for ECG tracking.

The main concern, though, was the worry that I would be giving her a box of headaches. This person isn’t a geek, though she has more technical aptitude than many of her peers. We also checked in advance to make sure her iPhone would work with the Apple Watch Series 5. She has an iPhone 6s, the bare minimum iPhone required to support the Apple Watch.

Unfortunately, my gift did indeed turn into a box of headaches, at least for me. I was able to resolve all the problems in the end, but the road to success was longer and bumpier than it should have been.

The Brick in the Road

I surprised her with the Apple Watch, gave her a brief overview of how to set it up, and left her to it. Typically, I would have sat there and helped her set it up, but we’re still maintaining social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, the Apple Watch setup is straightforward: scan the star pattern with your iPhone and you’re off to the races. Or so I thought.

She called me via FaceTime a couple of days later because she was having problems setting up the Apple Watch. After some troubleshooting, I directed her to Settings > General > About to learn what version of iOS she was running. She was still on iOS 11. Oh, dear.

Next, I guided her through updating to iOS 14, crossing my fingers that nothing would explode in the process. But in Settings > General > Software Update, no Install Now option appeared. Here’s something for a future Bad Apple column. The text informing her that she did not have enough free space to install the update was not only minuscule, but it was darkish gray on a light gray background. She’s older and couldn’t even see it! I could just barely make it out over FaceTime. For a company that touts its accessibility advantages, bad Apple!

The iOS 14 update required about 4 GB of free space, and this was a 16 GB iPhone. Even though she doesn’t use her iPhone that much, it was still full. I walked her through Settings > General > iPhone Storage and had her turn on all the suggestions, like offloading unused apps, deleting old conversations, etc. I had her delete the Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps, which have a habit of bloating in size. I also verified that iCloud Photo Library was enabled in Settings > Photos and that Optimize iPhone Storage was turned on.

Unfortunately, those efforts reclaimed only about 3 GB of space, and I was hesitant to have her start deleting pictures and videos. I decided the best course of action was to have her drop off the iPhone and Apple Watch so I could take care of the rest.

Once I had the iPhone, my plan was to update through iTunes (my iMac still runs macOS 10.14 Mojave), which Apple suggested would let me update the iPhone without clearing more space. I first made sure there was an iCloud backup, and then I also backed up with iTunes. That was the smartest move I made in this entire story. Always make backups before embarking on efforts like this!

That’s because the update halted halfway through with the dreaded “unknown error” message. The iPhone’s screen went dark, and I began to panic.

iPhone unknown error

Fixing the Brick

I break my own stuff all the time, which doesn’t bother me much because I have spares, I keep backups, I usually have the knowledge to fix things, and hey, it’s my stuff and I’ll break it if I want to. But messing up someone else’s iPhone, just to get an Apple Watch working that they never asked for, well, that’s more stressful.

I tried an iTunes update. I tried a restore. I thought maybe the problem was between iTunes in Mojave and iOS 14, so I connected the iPhone to my MacBook Pro running 10.15 Catalina. That meant downloading iOS 14 yet again, and the experience is even worse in Catalina’s Finder than it is in iTunes because there is no progress bar, just an anxiety-inducing and completely unhelpful spinning gear.

At one point, I considered calling Apple support or making the long trip to Nashville and braving a plague-filled mall so I could hand the iPhone off to the Apple Store’s Genius Bar. I couldn’t even put the iPhone into recovery mode; all I saw was an Apple logo and then a blank screen. But Catalina could still see the iPhone, so I tried to maintain my composure and kept at it.

After numerous tries, the Restore option eventually worked, such that I was able to install iOS 14 successfully and get the iPhone to boot. Next, I had to set the iPhone up and hope I could recover from one of the backups I’d made.

Restoring the iPhone

The first wall I hit was Activation Lock, since I hadn’t thought to ask for her Apple ID password. (Admittedly dumb on my part.) Unfortunately, she was at lunch when I encountered it, so I couldn’t contact her immediately. I spent about an hour worrying if she knew the password. By the way, I had not told her I had bricked her iPhone and was unsure if I could restore the data. I saw no need to concern her if I could avoid it—we bought the Apple Watch to help with heart problems, not to cause more! Thankfully, she remembered the password, I used it to get past Activation Lock, and I moved on to the next step.

She also volunteered the passcode to her iPad, and I was glad she did because the next hurdle was two-factor authentication. My stomach did another flip when I saw that screen because I did not have her iPad handy, but I learned a fun fact: if you don’t have a spare Apple device handy, Apple will text the 2FA code to your iPhone and even fill it in automatically. But then iOS asked for the iPad’s passcode, and thankfully I had it.

Here’s where something finally went right. I connected the iPhone to iTunes on my iMac and restored the backup without any issue. After the restore was complete, I checked Mail, Messages, and Photos, and sure enough, everything was where it was supposed to be!

With the iPhone updated to iOS 14, seemingly running fine, and with its data restored, it was finally time to set up the Apple Watch.

Time Flies When You’re Not Having Fun

Needless to say, given that this entire situation was cursed, I hit snags when setting up the Apple Watch. I decided to update the watch to watchOS 7 when prompted, just so that’d be one less thing to do later. If you’ve never updated an Apple Watch, it’s a slow process. The iPhone must first download the update and transfer it to the watch through Bluetooth, and the watch must then install it. There’s a good reason we keep encouraging TidBITS readers to install watchOS updates at night.

I was worried because I encountered numerous problems installing watchOS 7 on my Apple Watch Series 4. It took multiple attempts over the course of an afternoon, evening, and the next morning to get the install to take, and I had to re-download it several times. Even after that, I encountered a serious battery drain issue that forced me to unpair and re-pair the watch. Happily, it’s working well again.

Thankfully, when working with my relative’s Apple Watch Series 5, I did not encounter those specific problems. However, I did have an issue where the Watch app on her iPhone said the update was still installing, while the watch itself was prompting me to set it up from the iPhone. After waiting a while, I force-quit the Watch app and restarted the setup process. The Watch app again informed me that I needed to update the watch, and I dutifully agreed. Fortunately, after a bit of a wait, it realized the watch already had watchOS 7 installed and proceeded with setup.

I quickly managed to configure the basic aspects of the Apple Watch, after which I decided to go all the way by setting up a watch face, enabling ECG, and turning on the heart rate and atrial fibrillation notifications.

Setting up ECG in the iPhone’s Health app was far fussier than necessary. First, it told me it was unable to confirm my location. Due to regulatory issues, the ECG capability is available only in certain countries. I realized that the problem stemmed from the iPhone trying to use the cellular network to verify my location. The clue was that it told me to make sure a working SIM card was installed.

Unable to confirm location

I don’t have cellular service at my house (no thanks to Verizon—you can see why I’m not holding my breath on 5G), so I had to take the iPhone and the Apple Watch, hop in the car, drive five minutes down the road, avoid being hit head-on by a tractor, and park the car at a country store that has cellular coverage. Sure enough, the iPhone immediately passed the location check. Apparently, Wi-Fi and GPS aren’t sufficient to make sure you’re in the correct country. Neither is Wi-Fi Calling, which is what I use for cellular service at my house.

This is nuts. Cellular connectivity should not be required to determine which country I’m in for ECG. I understand that Apple has to do some sort of verification to keep the legal beagles happy, but this information could easily be extracted through Wi-Fi or GPS. The United States is a big country, and absolute precision is not required.

I thought I was done, but Apple Legal threw me another hurdle. The Health app next asked if I’ve ever been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation by a doctor. The person I was setting the watch up for has been, so I answered Yes. That prompted a dialog saying, “These notifications are not designed for people who have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.” There was no error message, but I was not allowed to continue until I selected No. Technically, that wasn’t a lie because at least I have never been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.

Notice that afib notifications aren't for people with afib

Once I managed to set up the ECG feature, I drove home to build her watch face with the appropriate complications. She had already told me she preferred analog faces, which nudged me toward the Infograph face introduced with the Apple Watch Series 4. I wanted to set up complications for the following:

  • Rain chance percentage
  • High and low temperature
  • Sunset time
  • Activity
  • Calendar
  • Heart rate
  • ECG
  • Battery percentage

I knew ECG was supposed to be an option because it is on my Apple Watch Series 4, but I didn’t see it in the Watch app! I thought maybe I was looking at the wrong complication slot because not every complication is available in every slot. I then thought that perhaps I had to run an ECG before the complication would appear, which made a certain amount of sense given the weird hurdle around ECG. But no, that didn’t do it either. Finally, I thought to press on the Apple Watch’s screen to edit the watch face there. Sure enough, the ECG complication was available on the watch, but not from the Watch app on the iPhone. I have no explanation for why this might be.

Apple Watch setup for my relative

With everything finally done, my wife and I delivered the newly updated iPhone and properly configured Apple Watch. Within a couple of minutes, I had walked my relative through taking her pulse and getting an ECG reading. She was absolutely delighted. The Apple Watch is an amazing piece of technology, but the onboarding process can stumble badly in the real world.

Later that night, I received a message saying she’d broken the watch. I quickly figured out that she had merely added a second watch face, and I explained how to switch between them. That’s the sort of tech support I like giving because it means the user is enjoying their technology, playing around with it, and learning how to use it. One thing I love about Apple’s products is that I can usually hand one to someone, and they can explore it without doing any real damage.

I often complain about the constraints Apple puts on its devices, but there is a flip side: those constraints give the less tech-savvy more freedom to explore.

The Apple Watch Is Not a Great Gift

I learned a few things during this experience.

  • Gently prompt loved ones to keep their devices up to date, and help them do so if necessary. We’ve said this before in TidBITS, and my fight with upgrading from iOS 11 to iOS 14 hammers it home: the longer you wait to upgrade, the more likely you are to have significant problems in the process (see “Why You Should Upgrade (On Your Own Terms),” 4 September 2015).
  • Always make backups, preferably multiple backups. In this case, I could have restored from either iCloud or iTunes, but you never know what might render one or the other of those backups useless.
  • Get all the login information before you mess with someone’s device without them present. You will almost always need it for something. Also get passcodes for any of their other devices.

All that said, I doubt I will ever buy an Apple Watch as a gift again, except maybe for my wife. There are just too many questions involved: watch size, their preferred color and material, which band type they would most like and its color and size, do they have the right iPhone, is their iPhone up to date, etc.

For one of the simplest devices in Apple’s lineup, the Apple Watch is one of the most difficult to give as a gift. I’ve given iPads and even iPhones as presents, and although they are far more complex devices, they aren’t nearly as challenging to set up because they stand on their own.

Another relative asked me why the Apple Watch can’t work on its own like any other watch. It’s a reasonable question because, with Wi-Fi and optional cellular connectivity, it would seem that it could work with at least limited functionality without needing a companion iPhone.

Adam and I debated the possibilities for a while, focusing on setup and authentication, but we figured that we should get some expert input. So I posed the question to our friend David Shayer, who worked on the Apple Watch during his time at Apple. The answer, he said, comes down to power consumption. Apple takes every available measure to maximize battery life. The Apple Watch supports both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (to the iPhone) for accessing the outside world, but Bluetooth uses far less power than Wi-Fi. As a result, watchOS is designed to use Bluetooth to request data from its companion iPhone instead of getting it directly over Wi-Fi whenever possible.

Apple has taken a step toward eliminating the need for a companion iPhone by introducing Family Setup, which lets people set up an Apple Watch for a family member. Unfortunately, there are a couple of things that make Family Setup impractical for many people:

  • You need a cellular-capable Apple Watch, which is not only more expensive but also requires a monthly fee from your carrier, assuming your carrier supports the Apple Watch. Apple now has a note saying, “A cellular plan isn’t required to set up an Apple Watch for a family member, but is necessary for some features.” The company doesn’t specify which features require cellular access, but it likely includes any that need to use the Internet.
  • When you set up an Apple Watch for someone else, these features aren’t available: irregular heart rhythm notifications, ECG, Cycle Tracking, Sleep, Blood Oxygen, Podcasts, Remote, News, Home, and Shortcuts. The first two limitations would have defeated the purpose of buying the Apple Watch for our relative. We suspect these features rely on a directly paired iPhone for storage and display of the personalized data associated with the feature. As it stands, the Health app, for instance, can store and display data only for the iPhone’s primary user. Without multi-user support baked into iOS, these features would need significant reworking.

In the end, as attractive as the Apple Watch is, it’s such a personal item that it simply doesn’t make sense as a surprise present. Perhaps Apple could build an online tool that would help customers gift an Apple Watch to someone within certain limitations and let the recipient personalize it as they want, chipping in the extra amount if they want a more expensive band, for instance.

Glenn Fleishman No comments

Apple’s HomeKit Secure Video Leverages iCloud Storage and Preserves Privacy

Streaming your home security camera’s video to a company’s cloud storage may feel fraught. Even if you trust the company, and it properly encrypts video both in transit and at rest, the encryption keys are almost always controlled by the firm, not by you. That means employees of the company could gain access. That might be fine—you trust them, in this scenario. But then consider: anyone who obtains those keys illegitimately—a disgruntled employee, a cracker, an overweening government agency, and so on—can also see your video. They may be able to log in from anywhere in the world to view stored footage and watch your live feed, too.

Let’s also be frank. Even with everything managed perfectly, who among us really wants Amazon (Ring), Google (Home), or smaller but still massive consumer electronics firms to have streaming video access to our houses? It just feels wrong. I try to keep the so-called smart stuff out of my house, and my wife is an even bigger resister. (We do use Siri because we more or less trust Apple’s privacy stance so far, even after the company’s misleading and now corrected privacy missteps; see “Apple Workers May Be Listening to Your Siri Conversations,” 2019-07-29.)

Apple has pursued a privacy strategy for personal and intimate data that tries to walk a middle path between options unappealing to many: either storing video locally on hardware you own and have to manage and troubleshoot in your house or relying on fast broadband and cheap cloud storage to push it offsite for lower costs and better access in case of theft, disaster, or equipment failure.

Apple’s approach cleverly solves the problem by creating encryption keys on devices that rely on biometric data (backed by a passcode) and then securely storing them in the Secure Enclave built into every iPhone and iPad, and Macs with Touch ID. Since no one, not even Apple, can access those locally stored keys, the company can remotely sync and store data encrypted by those keys on its iCloud servers while providing a strong assurance of protection from crackers—or even pressure from the highest levels of domestic and foreign governments.

This is how Apple ensures that iMessage conversations can’t be read even if intercepted, and how it protects your credentials stored in iCloud Keychain. It’s how Photos syncs sensitive facial recognition data for the People album. And it’s how Apple architected HomeKit Secure Video, a feature that’s a free bonus when you pay for iCloud storage at the 200 GB or 2 TB level, whether for individual use or for a Family Sharing group. Video stored this way doesn’t count toward your storage total. However, the 200 GB plan allows just a single camera to be connected; at 2 TB, you can stream up to five cameras.

HomeKit Secure Video requires the use of a compatible third-party camera. iMore lists 11 cameras across several manufacturers that now offer HomeKit Secure Video support. Notably, once you set it up, the manufacturer can’t access the camera, and you can’t configure video-storage features or access stored video through the maker’s apps. (You may still need the vendor’s app to install firmware updates, and control and set certain camera-specific features, like pan and tilt.)

Wired Logitech camera
We have a wired Logitech Circle camera pointing at our front walk and porch, which helps us know when packages arrive and when (not if) cats, rats, and raccoons visit us at night.

Instead, you use the Home app in iOS, iPadOS, or macOS. Over two dozen home security cameras include basic HomeKit support, like letting you control limited settings or view a live feed, but you use those cameras’ apps for most features. With a camera that supports HomeKit Secure Video, however, the Home app becomes the place you configure the camera, the source of notifications, and your hub for viewing live video or clips. Anyone on your local network can access it, although you can restrict that, too. While not all HomeKit-enabled devices need a “Home hub”—an iPad, HomePod, or Apple TV—HomeKit Secure Video requires a hub. (The bonus is that the hub enables both local and remote access.)

I purchased a Logitech Circle security camera in mid-2018 before my family left on a long trip, and the original Circle and Circle 2 (AC-powered models only) can now upgrade to HomeKit Secure Video with a beta firmware release. I recently took the plunge and have found it a generally positive change, though there are drawbacks in controlling the level of notifications and getting a broad sense of activity across time. (Logitech also now offers Circle View, its least expensive model, which works only with HomeKit Secure Video.)

Working with HomeKit Secure Video

Apple continually asks more of its Home app in iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, but at least—unlike the days of iTunes feature-cramming—Home is correctly limited to physical devices that enable us to control and monitor various aspects of our home. HomeKit Secure Video fits neatly into that category.

Once you’ve installed or updated a security camera that has been updated or configured to use HomeKit Secure Video, you may have to do as a little as open the Home app and configure the device. In the case of my Logitech Circle, I didn’t have to claim the device or even add it manually. It automatically appeared as an option available on the local network.

For the best experience with video, use the Home app in iOS or iPadOS. The Home app for macOS is relatively new, and few features are available in macOS 10.14 Mojave—you can mostly just view the live feed. In 10.15 Catalina, you can view clips and make some changes to settings. (I haven’t yet tested it in the upcoming 11.0 Big Sur.)

In all versions of the Home app, a thumbnail of live video from the camera appears when you open the app. Tap it, and you can access clips and more settings. I’ll focus on the iOS/iPadOS 14 version of Home for simplicity’s sake.

The camera feed in Home

Apple designed HomeKit Secure Video around capturing video clips only when the camera detects motion. It makes this feasible by letting you mark capture zones within the field of the camera’s vision that trigger recording. The Home app sends those parameters to the Apple-compatible firmware in the camera, which relies on them for making decisions about when to record. You can set notifications separately, so you can be notified for only some of the events that trigger recordings. There’s no limit on clips, but Apple retains them on just a 10-day rolling basis.

Most people won’t want video recorded when they’re home, and the Home app can determine when you or your family members are present based on the location of everyone’s primary devices. That’s useful for some options. (In the days of COVID-19 that’s largely moot, but it won’t always be the case.)

Unusually for Apple, HomeKit Secure Video provides a huge number of options and settings, which interact in a complicated way. There’s no assistant to set up a camera for the first time, and it took me a while to figure out the ideal approach that would record just what I wanted and not notify me every few seconds.

Click the gear icon with the camera live view showing to make changes. Here’s what I choose to configure for my camera:

  • Set up Activity Zones: In Select Activity Zones, draw areas by tapping four corners. You can tap the object and tap Clear to remove it or Cancel to avoid committing all the zones you’ve drawn. If you want to capture outside a given area, you can tap Invert Zones and the Home app does just that. Our camera captures part of the sidewalk and a nearby street, so I configure zones just where people would cross on our front walk and the porch at the front door. This means I might miss some action, but someone would have to be nearly floating above the porch for them not to trigger the zone. Activity Zones in Home
  • Define recording options: Tap Recording Options, and pick different options for When Home and When Away. These settings let you, for instance, disable recording when anyone is in the house (Off) but stream to the Home app and record clips when you’re away. But there are many more combinations. Since we receive packages constantly and have animal visits at night, I chose to stream and record while both home and away.
  • Limit which kinds of motion: Tapping Recording Options > More Options exposes the capability to limit recordings (for both when home and away) to specific motion: people, animals, and vehicles. I picked people and animals, as other motion hasn’t seemed useful. (This is also the buried location where you’ll find the command to wipe your iCloud storage of recordings, even though they’re available only to you and those you invite.) More Options for camera in Home

    Cat in camera
    We don’t have a cat, but HomeKit Secure Video reveals that this black-and-white fellow (at bottom left-of-center) likes to visit our house regularly.
  • Recognize faces: HomeKit Secure Video can capture the faces of people who appear in recorded clips. Because Apple is using a local hub to make certain kinds of decisions and to encrypt video with your device-based keys, you can choose to match captured faces against people you marked by name in Photos. Tap Face Recognition to enable the feature, and you can opt to match against your Photos Library. You can also control it so only you see matched names, not everyone, by tapping Your Name’s Library. Opt to not use the Photos Library, and you can still see recently captured faces in the Recent list and tag them with a name, as well as identify people who are part of your household. You can tap faces to match them against people in your Photos Library as well. I opted to enable this setting.

    Face Recognition options
    You can control whether faces recognized from your Photos Library are labeled for other people in your Home group.

    HomeKit facial recognition
    With Face Recognition on and linked to my Photos library, the Home app informed me that I was identified in this clip as I scrubbed over it.
  • Tweak notifications: It’s easy to become overwhelmed by notifications. Tap Notifications, and you can set parameters to reduce them. For instance, you can opt to get messages only during certain times (though it also obeys Do Not Disturb settings on your device), and choose between being notified when any motion is detected (way too much unless you live in an incredible still place) or just when clips are stored based on your recording options. When you receive a notification, you can tap it to open the Home app, open the camera item, and play from the beginning of the clip. After some trial and error, I’ve gotten notifications working appropriately, with the one exception of when a family member is working in the front garden, which triggers the process repeatedly. It would be nice to have the choice of “only notify once every X minutes.” HomeKit camera notification settings

You review clips in the Home app. Tap the live image and you can scrub back and forth among clips all the way to 10 days before. You can also tap calendar days at the top of the window. Clips display icon tags if they record particular kinds of video, such as a silhouette of a person, animal, or vehicle. If Face Recognition is on and someone or people are recognized, their name appears as you scrub over a clip. Tap a clip and it starts to play.

You can tap the Share button and then trim a clip or send the whole thing to any destination in your Share options.

Enjoy Peace of Mind While Saving Money

HomeKit Secure Video comes with a lot of advantages that start with privacy and security. But it’s also a win in terms of cost. While many security cameras include some cloud-based storage for free with the purchase of a camera, it’s often no more than 24 hours’ retention or has other strict limitations, such as a total number of motion-triggered clips.

In contrast, HomeKit Secure Video will store as many clips as are triggered with a rolling 10-day history at no cost above the existing payment for iCloud storage. That beats the typical charges from security-camera makers. Logitech, for instance, has two plans for its original Circle and Circle 2 cameras:

  • For 14 days of clip storage without zone-based triggers and without person detection, Logitech charges $3.99 per month for one camera or $6.99 per month (or $69 per year) for a household plan of up to five cameras.
  • If you want features comparable to those Apple provides with HomeKit Secure Video, but with much longer clip storage (31 days versus 10), Logitech charges $9.99 per month (or $99.99 per year) for a single camera or $17.99 per month (or $179 per year) for up to five cameras in the same household.

Some services are much cheaper and offer more storage than Logitech. Amazon’s Ring Protect plans allow storage of up to 60 days of clips and still images at $3 per month ($30 per year) for a single device or $6 per month ($60 per year) for unlimited devices and an option for professional alarm monitoring with an optional Ring Alarm device installed.

We have considered getting a second camera to point at another angle from our house due to increased animal and human activity. With Logitech’s service, I would have to up my $99-per year Logitech Circle plan to $179 per year. With HomeKit Secure Video, I would only have to shell out for the cost of the device.

I can only imagine that Logitech and other companies have been willing to support HomeKit Secure Video to reach customers they would otherwise miss, as well as have their products available for sale in the Apple Store and promoted by Apple as part of a home solution. That explains why Logitech created the Circle View, as something Apple can sell as an ecosystem solution with no additional configuration.

HomeKit Secure Video is especially beneficial for camera companies that just want to sell hardware and don’t want the fuss of building and maintaining the back-end infrastructure. Because costs don’t go up for owners with a 2 TB iCloud plan—and the jump from $2.99 to $9.99 per month isn’t that much in any case for the combination of storage and security camera capture—it’s an easier sell to get people to buy more cameras, too.

However, Apple also creates a situation that most equipment makers hate: all cameras that support HomeKit Secure Video are equal in the eyes of the Home app. Just as with smart switches and other devices, you can mix and match HomeKit-equipped security cameras based on the hardware features you want, since all the software options are normalized.

The deep integration across Apple’s platforms and software is also a bonus, providing more security, presence, and identity options than I would ever be comfortable with when using any other company’s products.

HomeKit Secure Video Limitations

Since I spent two years using the fairly good Logitech Circle software, available from both a Web app and mobile app, I have a firm basis of comparison with HomeKit Secure Video. Some of the missing features are obvious shortcomings that Apple could easily add:

  • No daily recaps: Many home-security cameras offer an option to generate a recap of the last however many hours or days, stitching together sped-up clips. This can be useful if you want an overview of what was happening around your house while you weren’t around or were sleeping. Apple could add this easily to a future update.
  • Only 10 days of video storage: HomeKit Secure Video includes just 10 days of clip storage. That’s great at no additional cost, but Apple could let users pay for 30 or 60 days of clips.
  • No continuous video storage: Some services allow continuous recording, which is useful mostly for business purposes, in which you need to show a negative—that something didn’t happen or that your capture zones omitted. (If part of an omitted area of a capture zone is very busy, you might miss something relevant to a theft or delivery.) It’s difficult to see this happening unless Apple were to offer a higher tier of storage.
  • No “privacy zones”: I can’t criticize Apple for not having a feature that’s rare, but Amazon’s third-generation battery-operated Blink cameras now let users paint “privacy zones” that are blacked out while recording and in live video to prevent capturing activities that you don’t want—or that might even be illegal to record, depending on the expectation of privacy as interpreted by the laws in your city, state/province, or country. Every camera system should offer this, and I would expect Apple to understand its importance.
  • Better notification controls: Other camera systems seem better at not over-notifying users. When family members repeatedly go in and out of the house or walk around the front, I receive a barrage of notifications. HomeKit Secure Video could be smarter—particularly with facial recognition enabled—about reducing push messages and bundling or summarizing information.
  • Cloud-only storage: Apple is storing your data in the cloud, even though it’s processing and encrypting it locally with device-based keys. Some people may find the whole idea of cloud-based access a non-starter. In that case, you do have modern choices for security cameras that are affordable and keep video entirely on a local networked drive. Lorex Technology and Zosi Technology both offer multi-camera systems that work around a hub. While they both have remote-access options, you can disable that and keep all video local.
  • Can’t control motorized cameras: If you have a camera that can rotate, pan, or tilt its lens, like the Eufy Indoor Cam 2K Pan and Tilt, the Home app cannot yet move it. You have to use the vendor’s app to adjust the lens.

Balance Security and Convenience

As a reluctant adopter of technology designed to monitor and control my home, I’m surprised at how comfortable I am with HomeKit Secure Video. Apple could further improve and refine it, bringing its weaker areas up to par with competing services. But you can’t beat a service designed to maintain your privacy and security that won’t cost a cent more for many Apple users who are already paying for additional iCloud storage.

For more about home security camera choices, privacy issues around using them, and how to make buying decisions, see my book, Take Control of Home Security Cameras.

Watchlist

SoundSource 5.1 No comments

SoundSource 5.1

Rogue Amoeba has issued SoundSource 5.1, adding a new Headphone EQ effect and updating the Audio Capture Engine to version 11.2.2 with full support for Mac Catalyst apps (such as Apple’s Voice Memos and Podcasts; see “How Catalyst and SwiftUI will Change App Development,” 13 June 2019). Built using data from the AutoEq project, the Headphone EQ effect provides automatic custom calibrated audio equalization for thousands of headphone models. The audio control utility now automatically uses its lowest latency mode when adjusting voice chat (VoIP) applications, enables you to move third-party audio effects between audio sources via drag-and-drop, improves handling of audio from the Home app, patches a memory leak that could occur when unpinning popovers, and enables disabling of meters in SoundSource’s main window. ($39 new with a 20% discount for TidBITS members, free update, 15.8 MB, release notes, macOS 10.13+)

BBEdit 13.5.1 No comments

BBEdit 13.5.1

Bare Bones Software has published BBEdit 13.5.1, a maintenance update that follows the recent release of the feature-filled version 13.5 (see “BBEdit 13.5 Offers Mid-Cycle Efficiency Improvements,” 19 October 2020). The long-standing text editor adds a new Compare Using BBEdit item to the Services menu to start a Find Differences operation, corrects sort ordering of the list in the Rescued Documents window, resolves a crash when trying to report “These files are identical” using a sheet in the document’s window, adds an entry to the Markdown cheat sheet for titled image placement, fixes a bug in which untitled document rescue didn’t take place when “Make backup before saving” was turned on, ensures that PDFs are explicitly excluded from consideration as possible text files, and works around a macOS bug in which sandboxed processes were not allowed to send Apple events to BBEdit (breaking automation operations initiated by Automator, MarsEdit, Keyboard Maestro, and probably others). ($49.99 new, free update, 18.7 MB, release notes, macOS 10.14.2+)

Fission 2.6 No comments

Fission 2.6

Rogue Amoeba has issued Fission 2.6 (a maintenance release that’s been a year in the making), bringing full compatibility with macOS 11 Big Sur and adding support for Opus audio files. The audio editor also raises compatible sample rate formats to 384 kHz, ensures devices with changing channel counts appear correctly in the output device selector, allows AIFF files larger than specs to load, improves chapterized files, makes alignment corrections for slider knobs, resolves a crash that could occur when no audio devices were present, updates error reporting in Fission’s Batch Converter, and increases minimum system requirements to 10.13 High Sierra. ($29 new from Rogue Amoeba with a 20% discount for TidBITS members, also available from the Mac App Store, free update, 11.1 MB, release notes, macOS 10.13+)

Zoom 5.4.1 No comments

Zoom 5.4.1

Zoom updated its eponymous videoconferencing app to version 5.4, enabling meetings to be scheduled with Join Before Host set to allow participants to join 5, 10, or 15 minutes before the start time. The release synced both the main contacts folder and sub-folders from Office 365, added the capability to search through starred messages (or filter a search to only starred messages), improved pre-assigned Breakout Rooms behavior, and updated Proximity share to support specific apps and computer audio. Zoom 5.4 also began the rollout of end-to-end encryption for meetings as part of a 30-day technical preview (for more details, see “Zoom Rolls Out Preview of End-to-End Encryption,” 30 October 2020). Shortly after this release, Zoom 5.4.1 was issued to fix minor unspecified bugs. (Free, 23.9 MB, release notes, macOS 10.9+)

Alfred 4.2 No comments

Alfred 4.2

Running with Crayons has published Alfred 4.2, a maintenance update that prepares the keyboard-driven launcher for the release of macOS 11 Big Sur. Alfred 4.2 also improves error reporting when unable to obtain Alfred update data, moves clipboard/snippet viewer preview text to the top left for easier visual scanning while scrolling, and improves memory management in the File System navigation summary panel. (Free for basic functionality, £23 for Powerpack, 3.1 MB, release notes, macOS 10.11+)

ExtraBITS

No comments

Zoom Rolls Out Preview of End-to-End Encryption

Zoom is currently rolling out end-to-end encryption for its videoconferencing service as a 30-day technical preview, which started in the middle of October and will run through the middle of November. End-to-end encryption will generate and store the keys for already-encrypted conversations on the participants’ machines, rather than on Zoom’s servers, ensuring that no one compromising Zoom’s servers could intercept your conversations. Zoom originally planned for end-to-end encryption to be a paid feature, but it will be available to free users as well. However, enabling it disables some other Zoom features, including telephone dial-in, join before host, cloud recording, streaming, live transcription, Breakout Rooms, polling, 1:1 private chat, and meeting reactions. If you don’t need those features and want the extra security, you need to enable end-to-end encryption at the account level. It’s probably overkill for most Zoom users, but we’re pleased to see the company offering it as an option for those who need it.

Zoom encryption settings

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David Bowie’s 1999 Insights into the Internet

To mark Internet Day on October 29th, the BBC resurfaced Jeremy Paxman’s 1999 interview with David Bowie, in which the two discussed the broader implications of the Internet. Paxman held the firm position that the Internet was merely a tool, but Bowie’s thoughts were much more prescient. (Keep in mind that Bowie had launched his own Internet service provider, BowieNet, in 1998.) Bowie talked about the fragmentation of society that he saw as beginning in the 1970s and (correctly) predicted that the Internet would further fragment things away from a world where there were “known truths and known lies” toward a world where there are “two, three, four sides to every question,” something that would be simultaneously “exhilarating and terrifying” and would “crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

In 1999, Bowie couldn’t have predicted YouTube, social media, information wars, and the emergence of a “post-truth” era, but he had the insight to know that the Internet was more than just another fax machine. “It’s just a tool, isn’t it,” Paxman asked, clearly skeptical of Bowie’s ideas. “No, it’s an alien lifeform,” Bowie replied with a grin. Game, set, and match to David Bowie, who died in 2016.

2 comments

Apple TV Is Coming to Xbox Game Consoles

Apple continues to extend the availability of Apple TV content beyond its walled garden. The Apple TV app is coming to Microsoft’s current Xbox One and upcoming Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S game consoles when they launch on 10 November 2020. The app will likely be identical to what you can find on other third-party TV platforms. We’re intrigued to see how Apple works with other platforms when it suits the company’s needs. It’s hard to imagine alternative-platform support for the upcoming Apple Fitness service given its tight integration with Apple hardware, but could there be other versions of the Apple News and Apple Books apps in the works?