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Apple Watch: Um, Apple Watch
Wednesday, 2014 September 10 - 12:59 pm
I've always called my Apple posts "Apple Watch", but now there's an actual Apple Watch so maybe I should call them something else.

So the big Apple event was yesterday... here's a brief recap and my opinions.

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus

It's tempting to type "iPhone 6+", but Apple carefully spells it "Plus" on the web site in every instance. I can't recall the "Plus" moniker being used since the Mac Plus was introduced in 1986. I suppose it's appropriate.

Perhaps the most important new feature of the new models (one that will drive upgrades) is Near Field Communications (NFC), which enables the new Apple Pay payment system... I'll get to that in a minute. But first, let's talk about what people will notice the most: size.

The iPhone 6 goes to 4.7 inches, while the iPhone 6 Plus is in the "phablet" category (gawd, can we come up with a better name? like Big Ass Phone or something?) at 5.5 inches. The latter size is clearly an effort to compete in a high-end market niche where Apple had not been competing before. It's one thing to cede the low-end bargain basement market to the likes of Samsung and HTC, but quite another to cede a premium customer market that was clearly looking for specific things: a big screen and more battery life. It's the same reason Apple created a range of different iPods back in the day: you don't want to make an "umbrella" for your competitors.

To address the issue of one-handed use, Apple has an interesting workaround: you lightly tap (not click) the home button twice, and the top half of the screen moves to the bottom half. Touch the on-screen control you need, and then the screen restores back. It seems usable in practice, but to me any kind of hack like this means the ergonomics of the product are wrong to begin with. A better solution might have been a design mandate: "all apps on the iPhone 6 Plus must put its primary touch targets on the lower half of the screen"; but I guess with a billion apps out there, it might be unreasonable to expect that.

Some apps are already being modified to take advantage of the expanded screen real estate: you can get multi-column views in Mail, for example. But that seems like an extra hurdle for developers, dealing with even more screen sizes and geometries than before. It was one thing to require Retina and non-Retina graphic assets in an app; now you have to deal with four different geometries. Hopefully the fragmentation won't become too big of a problem. I suppose the 3.5" non-Retina display is on its way out anyway.

The phones partially mitigate the size increase by being thinner: 6.9mm for the iPhone 6 and 7.1mm for the iPhone 6 Plus. So there's some hope that these things will still be pocketable. Hopefully Apple will reduce the bezel sizes when we get to the iPhone 7 so we can still get the larger screens without the extra bulk.

Other than the size, the iPhone 6 models come with a largely-expected assortment of improvements:
  • more speed: in the form of an A8 processor and an M8 motion coprocessor;
  • better camera: \"focus pixels\", which presumably means fast phase-detection autofocus; 240fps slow-motion video (wow!); and, optical image stabilization, but only on the iPhone 6 Plus;
  • better display: a new polarization filter for viewing in bright conditions, and another filter that helps off-axis viewing

One other potentially interesting feature: the phone now has a barometer. This will help with altitude tracking. Just a toy, or a precursor to new navigation functions? We'll have to wait and see.

The low-end models are still 16GB, but the upper tiers are now 64GB and 128GB. The iPhone 6 is priced at $199/$299/$399 with a two-year contract; the iPhone 6 Plus is an additional $100 at each tier. The iPhone 5S is now available at $99/$149 for 16GB/32GB; the 8GB iPhone 5C is now free with contract.

Is the iPhone 6 a worthy upgrade to the iPhone 5? To be sure. But Apple had two far bigger announcements to make.

Apple Pay

It's here: the long-anticipated "iWallet", a phone-based payment system. Apple will store your credit card information with your iTunes account. To make a payment, you hold your phone close to a point-of-sale terminal and use the Touch ID fingerprint scanner. Apple will generate a secure one-time account number and security code, and transmit the data over NFC. The cashier never sees your name or the card number; all of the information is hardware-encrypted; and (perhaps in a nod to the celebrity photo hacking scandal) Apple made a point to note that it will never store your purchase information on its own servers.

The list of retailers that are signed on to use Apple Pay isn't terribly large yet, but it does include McDonald's, Subway, Macy's, Walgreen's, and Whole Foods. I'll only really be impressed when Wal-Mart, Target, and more grocery stores get on board. If the payment system isn't ubiquitous, it means I still have to carry a credit card around. I wonder if the point-of-sale terminals will be universal and support Android-based payments too? That might push retailers to get on board faster. Oh, Home Depot might be eager to give this a shot, given its recent data breach.

Apple Pay can also be used for online purchases through supported apps. That's just as important as physical point-of-sale purchases, since online purchases are just as vulnerable to hacking.

Reportedly, Apple has negotiated a pretty sweet deal with the credit-card issuing banks: not only will Apple take a cut of the purchases, but the overall fee for the retailer is lower. In exchange, Apple will assume part of the liability for fraudulent purchases (the thinking is, fraud will be much more difficult with the added security that Apple is providing). That makes this system difficult to copy even for a company as big as Google: it takes a lot of negotiation and coordination to get all the pieces of this in place.

Unfortunately the point-of-sale terminals will probably only work with the iPhone 6 due to its reliance on NFC... unless you buy the Apple Watch, which also supports it.

It's a good first step. Can Apple make this work where others (including the likes of MasterCard and Google) have failed? I think they can.

Apple Watch

And speaking of the Apple Watch... this was the blockbuster announcement of the day. It's really a watch, first and foremost; I had predicted (and hoped) that it would be something more innovative. The screen is square; I had predicted round. It's $349; that's more expensive than I'd expected too. So I guess it's safe to say that it's not quite what I had wanted, and I may not be an early adopter.

It's sleeker than the monstrous Galaxy Gear watch and offerings from other companies like Pebble, but it's still a little chunky. It comes in two sizes, which is nice: 38mm and 42mm. My current watch face is about 34mm across the face and bezel; 38mm would be just about the size limit for my skinny wrists. It looks to be about 14mm thick, which is 50% thicker than my current watch. So like I said... it's a little chunky for my tastes. But not obscenely so.

It operates tethered to your iPhone (iPhone 5 or newer), not as a standalone device; that makes sense when you consider things like battery life and size, but it also means that the value proposition goes down: it doesn't replace your phone, it's an expensive accessory for it.

So what do you do with it? Telling time is a major function, obviously; it also has fitness tracking features (it measures heart rate and tracks your daily activity); it can notify you when you get messages and allow you to generate brief replies; and you can use Siri with it. You can use it to control your Apple TV (but with on-screen controls, though, not by gesturing, which would have been cooler). All of that was expected. Oh, and you can use it with Apple Pay, as I mentioned.

But what I'm missing is the killer app, the thing that makes the Watch a necessity instead of just fun. Frankly I can do just about everything the Watch does without the Watch itself, just by pulling out my phone (which I keep out in front of me most of the time anyway). It might be more useful for people who keep their Big Ass Phone in their purse or something.

There are plenty of important things we don't know about it. Does the display stay on all the time, or do you have to shake it to wake it or something? What's the battery life? (Rumors are that it's poor.) Is it water resistant? (Looks to be, but the description doesn't say.) How loud is the speaker? How easy is it to mute and unmute? Can you control the brightness? Can you see the screen when you're outdoors in the sun? Questions, questions. Like most products, the difference between good and bad is in the execution, not the concept.

Frankly, I don't quite get it. Maybe the killer app has yet to be written. Or maybe in practice it'll just be so wildly convenient that we'll wonder how we lived without it. But at the moment, I just can't see this displacing my actual watch, which is stylish and doesn't need daily recharging.

Interestingly, Apple stock is up slightly today at $100.40 (as of the time this was written); usually the stock plummets on any announcement because it's been inflated by rumor. This time the drop came earlier (people are starting to see the pattern, I guess) so by the time the announcements came, value had been built back into the price.

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Posted by Ken in: techwatch

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