AirPods

Several days ago my daughter and I went to Palo Alto, California on a daddy-daughter outing. First we stopped by Blue Bottle Coffee. I ordered an Americano and she got a hot chocolate. “Too sweet,” was the verdict. The Americano was a little over-extracted  and had more bitterness than what I would have preferred. Expensive and less-than-perfect. While we were waiting, a tall thirty-something man walked by and I noticed his AirPods.

Both left and right ones were in, and both were sticking out — not down like you normally see them in ears — but sticking out about 30 degrees. This otherwise good-looking man looked downright idiotic to me with those goofy-looking things sticking out of his ears. That’s what I thought anyway. But what I really wanted to know was what my daughter thought of the look. I spoke quietly into her ear, “Hey, there are these white wireless earplugs some people wear to listen to music and make phone calls. If you see someone with them on, let me know what you think of them.” She scanned the area and spotted someone wearing his AirPods. These weren’t sticking out.

“They’re weird looking.”

Apple & Music

1000 songs in your pocket. That was the promise Steve Jobs delivered with the original iPod. Apple focused on quantity because when it was announce in 2001 we wanted all of our music, nicely ripped into mp3 format, with us wherever we went. Other mp3 players used flash storage; the original iPod used a small hard disk called Microdrive by IBM that enabled every music lover to take all their music with them wherever they went.

Of course the iPod had a headphone jack, because people who love listening to music know you get higher quality with an actual connection.

Fast foward to 2016. The iPod is no more. The iPhone subsumed the iPod, all versions of it, except the iPod touch. And Apple has decided the headphone jack needs to go in the then new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. For those who have headphones and prefer to have a physical connection to the iPhone, Apple included a dongle. Apple threw in a dongle for all you music lovers.

From a company who catered to people who love music and up-ended the portable music player market we now have an iPhone — that almost completely eliminated the need for an iPod — without a headphone jack. Apple seems to be having problems remembering its heritage and solving problems no one seems to have. Are there any music lovers out there who wanted Apple to get rid of the headphone jack in the iPhone?

Apple seems to be less interested in people who love music and more interested in people who turn on music in the background.

PS: Several months ago Tim Cook did a video interview on Bloomberg and claimed that Apple deeply cares about music. He was talking about the HomePod as something that will bring a great music experience in the home. In light of the decision Apple has made to get rid of the headphone jack on the iPhones I find it a little paradoxical to hear Tim Cook say that Apple cares deeply about music. Compared to other smart portable speakers the HomePod likely will have better audio quality, but is that saying much?

DxOMark

Marques Brownlee has a great commentary on smartphone DxOMark ratings (it’s a YouTube video). The MKBHD video explains how these ratings are calculated (it’s kind of a black box), and what you should look for to find the right smartphone for you based on what type of photos you like to take.

The highest DxOMark-rated Pixel 2 might not be the best smartphone for you, depending on what camera feature you think is most important. If you’re into portraits the best smartphone according Brownlee, based on zoom and bokeh sub-ratings on DxOMark, is the Samsung Galaxy Note 8. Definitely check out the video; you’ll learn a lot about DxOMark. I know I did.

Low-Margin Hardware

Low-margin hardware brands can’t sustain their business by only selling you low-margin hardware. They need to find other ways to generate profits, and one way is to collect your data and sell it to the highest bidder.

OnePlus runs OxygenOS, which records data:

  • when you lock or unlock the screen
  • when you open, use, close apps
  • which WiFi networks you connect to

And some more:

  • your phone’s IMEI
  • your phone number
  • your mobile carrier

Security researcher Chris Moore says with the last three data points it’s not hard to identify you. But OnePlus doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem and points out you can easily turn off the data collection (the first set of three data points), but not the second set of three data points.

Most smartphone manufacturers hardly make any money selling smartphones. With Apple capturing 80%? or more of smartphone industry profits and the rest going to Samsung, the rest are either breaking even or losing money. So how do they then make money selling smartphones?

By collecting your data and selling your data.

According to AndroidPolice, that cute smart speaker that Google came out with? Home Mini. It got caught recording everything. A defect, affecting only a small number of units, says Google. What if no one had found out? Does Google make enough money selling you a Home Mini for $50 to keep going? Probably not. The Home Mini is a cute, cheap conduit that serves up your data to its search-based increasingly AI-based ad-selling money-making machine.

Source: The Verge

 

What comes after user-friendly design?

I was going through my RSS feed and came across an article titled “What Comes After User-Friendly Design?” The thought that popped into my mind was, “Are we even good at user-friendly design?”

Are cars user-friendly? Are smartphones user-friendly? Are computers user-friendly? Are vacuum cleaners user-friendly? Are homes user-friendly? Are dishwashers user friendly?

In my world the answers to these questions are no, no, no, no, no, and no. Look around and you’ll see that almost everything is very much user-unfriendly. What do you mean what comes after user-friendly design? We’re not even close to designing user-friendly stuff.

Notch

An irregular notch with slimmer bezels. Or a straight line with thicker bezels. I think I’ll go with the straight line.

I like straight.

All of those sensors to make Face ID work need to be put somewhere around that area where the front-facing camera is located. Apple decided to make the transition to a more secure authentication method, from Touch ID to Face ID, hence the notch. Although I don’t think it was necessarily an either-or decision. Apple could have kept Touch ID and added Face ID.

Imagine thinner but straight bezels on top and on the bottom with both the familiar home button (Touch ID) and the new Face ID. I’d think with the two combined it would be an exponentially more secure authentication method.

But that would have gotten in the way of the slimmer bezel design. I have issues with really slim bezels (read: iPhone 7s) but Apple, along with Samsung, LG, and a bunch of other smartphone brands, seem to think we all want slimmer bezels. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like thick bezels (read: Sony Xperia XZ Premium). But I don’t want super-thin bezels either, especially on top and on the bottom. What I want are thick-enough bezels to securely and comfortably hold my phone. I think LG and Samsung did the right thing: slightly thicker bezels for the forehead and the chin.

The screens on the V30, the S8, and Note 8 are nice and straight, too. No weird-looking notch. And just because many of us might some day get used to a weird-looking notch doesn’t make the notch not weird looking.

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus look good, but man, no headphone jack though.

Privacy, Security, and Apple

[ TechCrunch / Matthew Panzarino ] Apple is the only company I trust to keep my privacy and security as high a priority as building a great product. That’s because to Apple it’s the same thing. At least that’s how I think about Apple. Is Apple perfect? No. I would have preferred a more secure authentication method: an iPhone 7s with Face ID and Touch ID. But there’s no turning back time; Apple has built the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X. So let’s get on with figuring out what we can about Face ID.

Matthew Panzarino asks questions about Face ID and Craig Federighi answers them:

When it comes to customers — users — Apple gathers absolutely nothing itself. Federighi was very explicit on this point.

“We do not gather customer data when you enroll in Face ID, it stays on your device, we do not send it to the cloud for training data,” he notes.

There is an adaptive feature of Face ID that allows it to continue to recognize your changing face as you change hair styles, grow a beard or have plastic surgery. This adaptation is done completely on device by applying re-training and deep learning in the redesigned Secure Enclave. None of that training or re-training is done in Apple’s cloud. And Apple has stated that it will not give access to that data to anyone, for any price.

Apple couldn’t, even if it was forced to by law enforcement. Your Face ID data is never in Apple’s hands. Face ID data is a mathematical model stored in the Secure Enclave. Your face cannot be reverse-engineered even if Apple or anyone else accessed that mathematical model, not that Apple or anyone else can. The only place where your Face ID exists and will continue to exist is the Secure Enclave in your iPhone X. Until you reset your phone, of course.

What if law enforcement whether at the airport, border crossing, or when you’re taking photos demands you turn over your iPhone? Squeeze. Federighi explains all you have to do is press the volume button — either one — and the power button at the same time. This squeeze disables Face ID and forces you to use your passcode to unlock your iPhone X. As far as US law is concerned law enforcement can force you to unlock your iPhone using your fingerprint and most likely your face, but not your passcode.

Face ID will most likely become the de facto authentication standard for all Apple products. I expect to see most of Apple’s product lines that have an embedded display — iMac, MacBook, iPhone, iPad — to shift toward Face ID. (I think it might be a while for Apple Watch to get it though.) I also have a sneaky suspicion the notch design will be tagging along in all future iPhones and iPads. Thankfully MacBooks and iMacs have big enough top bezels to fit all the sensors required to make Face ID work.

iPhone 7s

Here’s what I would have liked.

Apple announces the iPhone 7s and the iPhone 7s Plus. Almost everything looks the same as the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, but almost everything has been improved.

Let’s start with the inside. A11 Bionic chip with Neural Engine, M11 motion coprocessor, better f/1.8 12MP camera, etc. — basically all the new innards of the iPhone 8. But with the new TrueDepth camera from the iPhone X; there’s enough room in the fat forehead for all those sensors.

The entire front glass will be black, to hide the TrueDepth camera. Face ID in conjunction with Touch ID would have made the iPhone 7s the most secure, even more secure than the iPhone X. Put your finger on the Touch ID sensor while looking at your iPhone 7s to unlock. This has to happen simultaneously. Touch ID is something millions of us are used to, so building on what we are familiar with by adding Face ID would have been a much smoother UX transition as well as a more secure one.

The display itself would be the same — 4.7-inch Retina HD display for the non-Plus version and the 5.5-inch display for the Plus version — except that it would not be LCD but OLED: Super Retina HD. The displays would be True Tone and HDR would be fully supported.

The back would have been glass, like the iPhone 8 and X, to enable magnetic charging.

This iPhone 7s would have been great.

Disappearing Bezels on Smartphones

When I hold smartphones with very thin bezels — Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is a good example — I feel uncomfortable. It’s not a physical thing. The curved screen and the body feels smooth, a nice feeling. The discomfort is more psychological.

The feeling that I might make the phone do something I didn’t intend to do. That’s the uncomfortable feeling I get when I’m holding a smartphone with very thin bezels. The only surefire way of holding a smartphone like a S8 is to slightly cup my hand, let the smartphone rest in it, while using my pinky to prevent it from sliding down.

If I try to grip the smartphone using my thumb and pointy finger I don’t get a reassuring experiencing. I don’t get the feeling I have a firm hold. I am not sure this expensive thing won’t slide out of my hand if I try to do some things with it. There is simply not enough non-screen bezel to firmly hold on to. There’s none on top, bottom, left, or right. LG’s V30 might have just enough, but I haven’t had the chance to play it with yet.

The bezels on the iPhone X seem a little thicker on the sides (in the portrait orientation) than the S8, but I don’t think there’s enough bezel for me to hold with my pointy finger and thumb; I’m fairly sure I’ll have a similar psychologically uncomfortable experience.

Although I have knocked the design of fat foreheads and chins on modern smartphones — the latest being Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium — I think I’m changing my mind, a little bit. I don’t like huge foreheads and chins, but I do like and want there to be enough so I can get a good grip without worrying I’ll engage something on the touchscreen I didn’t intend to, or drop it. I don’t think there’s an optimal absolute thickness; the thickness of the forehead and chin will depend on how long, thick, and heavy the smartphone is so it will vary among different smartphones. The goal of the forehead and chin is to engender confidence that we can firmly hold the smartphone and that we won’t accidentally touch-engage something we did not intend to.

Yes, software can reduce unintentional touches to some degree but I’ll bet it can’t completely eliminate them. And because of that the uncomfortable feeling will remain, just less and less intensely. This is the reason why I will probably not jump on the iPhone X bandwagon. I want to be able to firmly grip my smartphone knowing I will not unintentionally touch-engage something and that it won’t slip out of my fingers because there’s little to nothing to grip; I want a psychologically comfortable experience, and I’m willing to deal with a little more forehead and a little more chin than the latest and greatest smartphones with ultra-thin bezels.

Super Retina

I thought adding prefixes like Super to a sub-brand like Retina to a piece of technology to make it sound more awesome was something companies like Samsung did. Here is an hideous example: HD Super AMOLED Plus.

Unfortunately Apple is doing it too. I should have known this would happen eventually. The writing on the wall was when Apple added the Plus suffix to its larger-sized iPhone, in addition to the ‘s’ (to denote speed). Here: iPhone 6s Plus. Ugh.

If (when?) Apple introduces a larger iPhone X, and based on the company’s nomenclature up until this point, the larger iPhone X would probably be called iPhone X Plus. And, it would feature a Super Retina display.

“iPhone X Plus with Super Retina display.” Sounds uncomfortably similar to how Samsung marketing folks might go about naming their stuff.

Update 2017.09.16 10:50: It’s actually worse. I forgot the HD part. Apple calls the new OLED display in the iPhone X “Super Retina HD”. Terrible.