Bill Graham II: The Revenge

5 September 16

It’s getting harder and harder to get excited for these September events. Here’s the TL;DR version – iPhone with minor improvements, Apple Watch with minor improvements, new bands, iOS available in X weeks, macOS available in X weeks, tvOS available in X weeks. Apple Music/iCloud is fixed and really will work this time, honest. Mass-appeal band plays it out.

Let’s trudge through the particulars and do the long-form version.

Well you’re a bright ray of sunshine

The iPhone, as has become traditional, is largely a known thing by now. Leaks have been steady for over a month. It’s basically the same look as the iPhone 6/6s but with 50% fewer gaps on the back for antennas. The home button is now force touch and haptic. The innards are now water “resistant” up to a meter. The display will have a wider color gamut. The Plus and maybe the regular size will likely work with the Apple Pencil.

Oh, and someone forgot to put in an audio jack. I hope someone got fired for that one.

The camera has been upgraded on both, undoubtedly, but the Plus is getting an even bigger upgrade, with what appear to be two cameras that will add telephoto and wide-angle capabilities.

And this phone will come in colors! Well, more accurately, shades. In addition to metallic grey, metallic beige & metallic pink, we will also see a metallic black and shiny black. They’re dropping metallic extra grey.

Nothing in the above is really a big deal. These are slow, iterative changes. But there are three things that are worth noting about this iPhone. So let’s talk about what seems odd about this model, and what it could mean.

When you say talk, you mean lecture

The first thing people have jumped on is the lack of an audio port. What’s strange about this lack of a traditional audio jack is that there seems to be no rational explanation for it. Yes, the jack is old tech, and has a few inherent liabilities when it comes to designing a product. It’s big, it’s clunky, makes waterproofing tough, requires a cord that’s prone to tangling, doesn’t give you power or control options and it collects lint easily.

Over the past several months, almost half a year, tech pundits have been debating this change relentlessly. It’s been though enough discussion, that I think we’ve actually come to a conclusion on this point. The arguments offered towards keeping the jack are strong. The arguments for getting rid of it are weak.

But if you look over Apple’s history with the audio jack and headphones, you’ll notice that they have been fighting the audio jack for over a decade. The 2nd gen iPod got a Frankenstein connector that was designed to add control features back as far back as 2002, another strange version a year after that, and Apple’s made several alterations to the cord since then to accommodate a microphone. The control features on the cord have had a few changes, and there are even incompatibilities with some devices and headphones. The original iPod shuffle, for instance, can’t take the modern Apple earphones, without some jiggering. Even the Mac has had an intermittent relationship with having an audio input jack.

On the iPhone, the jack was at first on the top, then on the bottom, making users pocket their iPhones upside-down when listening to them. The standard Apple headphones have had varying cord lengths, trying to find the divine, perfect length of cord, ensuring that half of the users find it too long, and half too short. There are Apple patents that show a half-rounded jack to keep devices thin, and attempts to make the jack smaller.

What this all indicates is that the industrial design team at Apple hates, hates, hates the audio jack and the cord that comes with it. They have been trying to run a way around it for a very long time and now have just decided to say “fuck it.” So now, we’re going to get to see how bad an idea this is. Is this a bad idea Apple will just stick to their guns on, and force everyone else to change? Or will the jack reappear in a future model to thunderous applause?

Either way, this change doesn’t feel genuinely necessary. It’s going to hurt. It’s not like the floppy drive thing back in the 90’s, excising a fading technology that had been around for less than 20 years. The audio jack has been around for over a century because it worked so darn well for everyone. To get rid of it shows the fine line between innovation and hubris. This really feels like a mistake. Worse yet, it feels like a ploy to add more profit, sending you to Apple and Beats for the replacements.

And I do expect Beats to have some products ready. If they don’t, there’s essentially no reason for Beats to exist within Apple’s structure.

The second thing to note is for the first time in the history of the iPhone line, we’re getting a third model based on the same case design. Internally, there’s changes, but externally, this phone is going to look nearly identical to the 6 and 6s.

There are two ways to look at this – that Apple is on a new three-year plan for new models, keeping the same external design for one more round. The other argument is that whatever Apple had planned for this year is delayed. If the “real” new iPhone 7 is delayed, and this iPhone doesn’t make a splash on features, the wise move might be to wait for next year.

The third aspect of the new iPhone to think about is the increasing differentiation between the Plus and the regular. It already had a bigger screen, better battery and destabilization, but now it’s getting even better cameras, and it will likely work with the Pencil.

When you also consider that the “small” end of the iPhone is now the iPhone 5 SE, that makes the “regular” iPhone 4.7 somewhat superfluous. It doesn’t have the whiz-bang cool features of the Plus, and it’s doesn’t have the one-handed usability and portability of the SE. Does it need to be in the lineup at all? And if it does, can it be as expensive as it is and still sell?

There’s also a possibility that the Plus will become two models, if you go by some of the leaks. There could be an iPhone Plus and and iPhone Pro, the Plus having a single camera and no Pencil support, and the Pro a Plus-sized phone with the dual camera and Pencil support.

So taking all that in, the only reason to keep the 4.7 is if it’s in the sweet spot between the big and the small. Users might not feel that that’s the case.

State your conclusion!

With these three factors in play, it’s hard to see this iPhone as positioned for success. One can also see the SE getting a boost in sales, as people go for the headphone port and the smaller size.

It’s certainly not a lock that that this iPhone is going to be a disappointment, but no single feature appears to warrant excitement about the new iPhone, and there are already, before the launch, several reasons to pass on buying it. Apple’s leaving themselves liable not only to bad press but competitors as well.

I’m not predicting doom, just malaise.

…And the Watch?

The Apple Watch did exactly what we all feared, and slid right off people’s wrists into their dresser drawers, resting with Sacajawea dollars and old business cards in the very back. The messaging features failed to do much more than make people retrieve their connected iPhones to answer, and the 3rd party apps were almost universally underwhelming. The only usable feature for most people has been the fitness applications, and this is where the future lies for the Watch.

Rumors say we’ll get GPS on the watch, and this will be an intriguing boost to it’s fitness tracking capabilities. My expectation is that Apple will re-focus the watch around fitness, with a “sportier” version, and putting the luxury aspects aside for now.

If you follow some of the scuttlebutt surround the Apple Watch development, there were stories that Apple chose to remove some sensors from the watch to avoid it becoming subject to FDA approval as a medical device… And because the design team wouldn’t allow sensors in their fashion-minded bands.

That could be changing. If Apple has decided that the Watch is no longer a fashion/luxury product, and directed the design team to make it a fitness product, those band-mounted sensors could return and expand the health-sensing aspects of the Watch. If Apple sells a health band as a separate device, then the Watch itself might not be subject to FDA approval – just the band.

Like you know how the FDA medical device regulatory system works

It would also not be surprising for the Watch to get some satellite devices, such as a shirt-mounted heart sensor, shoe-mounted sensors and even ear-mounted sensors. The satellite health devices would make the Watch the centerpiece of a new health push for Apple. No rumor I have seen yet suggest this as a possibility, it’s just speculation on my part.

Otherwise, the Watch did not prove itself as a fashion trend, did not sell very well to the average schmoes, and did not ignite people’s passions or developer’s imaginations. Another year of marketing the Apple Watch like the previous year will result in continued mediocrity.

And that’s the show!

Then comes the big announcement.

Wait, what?

I wish I knew what it was, specifically, but it’s got something to do with Apple’s services.

This isn’t on any of my rumor sites!

As big a deal as a new iPhone is, the event is missing a lot. Macs are not being introduced. iPads were already taken care of. iPods are on the protected species list. It wouldn’t be much of an event with just revised iPhones and a revised Watch. Not that Apple isn’t capable of disappointing, but these two items aren’t going to take that long to talk about. There has to be something else, and I think it’s going to be services-related.

True, the introduction of the new OSes may take some time, but there’s a hole the size of a new product in the event agenda. That new product could be a variety of things, and all I can do is guess. So here are my best guesses:

  • Apple TV content, plans for future announced
  • Apple Music expansion (Better support for small labels, more exclusives, more artists)
  • iCloud expansion (A new 2TB plan was recently announced. Why?)
  • iOS social apps (Video sharing, Android support)
  • Apple Pay peer-to-peer

You could also choose multiple items from that list, too. Hey – crazy idea. Maybe it’s something no-one’s even speculated on of before. Wouldn’t that be a kick? Something new, that nobody’s blathered on about for months before it was announced? An actual surprise?

Final idea: this year, they end the event with U2. Because it’s never been more relevant.