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iPhone 12: Apple’s Secret Weapon

Over the last week or so, a diagram has been making its way across the pillars of the social cross — Twitter, Insta, blogs, YouTube. It’s purportedly from that internal December iOS 14 build, the one that everyone and their Animal Crossing pals now seemingly have access to. And it shows the new iPad Pro LiDAR Scanner — that’s LIght Detection and Ranging — but in fully Digivolved iPhone 12 Pro form.

That’s lead to a ton of people telling all of us, over and over again, just exactly what it is.

But… I’m way more interested in WHY it is.

See, Apple doesn’t talk about future products. You know it. I know it. Every financial analyst who’s ever squandered a question on Apple’s quarterly earnings calls… impotently trying to get Tim Cook to do just that certainly knows it.

But there are a couple of future products that Tim Cook and Apple HAVE been willing to talk about publicly…

and kind of frequently.

That’s automation and augmented reality.

Now, coverage often conflates automation with automobiles, but Tim Cook has flat out said it goes much further than that. And I can get into just how far exactly in a future video. Let me know in the comments if you want to see that.

They’re intertwined in that both require technology that can pull in data about the real world. In other words, scan and ingest the environment around them — and us — understand what it is, meaning, tell a person from a tree from a car from a rock from rain, and then help us in ways that appropriate to that understanding, like by giving us better directions or warning us of dangers — bus, bus, BUS! — or just making us smile as adorable detective Deadpool pikachu runs behind the chair in the coffee shop.

And, I think the reason Tim and Apple… Tim Apple… are willing to talk about these future products is that… they’re not really products. They’re core technologies.

Think of it this way: Most current Apple products have screens. Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, Mac. Pro Display XDR… is a screen!

The screen isn’t a product. It’s a technology. A component. And a ubiquitous one at that.

I think, in the near future, automation will just be an extension of machine learning and augmented reality, just another end point, just another quote-unquote screen, for the visual display of data.

Same way things like AirPods and the HomePod are already bridging into near- and far-field audio AR as part of the bigger drive towards ambient computing.

There’ll eventually be a range of verbosity vs. visualization based on what we’re doing at the time and the capabilities of the device. From jogging to driving to sitting on the sofa, and from speakers to watches to cars. Again, topic for another video.

To get to really good AR, we’re going to need really good components along the chain. Starting with scanners.

Apple’s been working on computational cameras for almost a decade. Most of us started really noticing with the iPhone 7 Plus and Portrait Mode, where it could understand depth enough to generate virtual bokeh.

Next was the iPhone X and the TrueDepth system. Not just for Portrait Mode or Portrait Lighting, but because it started boiling us in the AR water of Animoji and, later Memoji.

Sure, you could look at all that like a lame way to turn your face into a poop emoji… once and then never look at it again. But people aren’t always comfortable with new technologies, especially when they’re sensory things like AR, so getting us to play with changing the world we see through real-time depth effect, or even ourselves by throwing on a silly virtual mask, it helps ease us into everything coming next.

And now it’s all just surfaced in better Snap and Insta filters.

Now, on the iPhone 11, we have things like semantic rendering which can not only distinguish faces in scenes, but parts of faces. And the LiDAR camera on the back of the new iPad Pro, which scans objects in front of us, like a lower resolution but longer range version of what the True Depth camera does TO us.

Add that to ARKit, Apple’s frameworks for augmented reality, which have gone from horizontal to vertical to irregular surfaces, single person to multi-person experiences, object placement to object occlusion, and the list goes on.

The LiDAR Scanner in particular makes all of that not only faster — near instant — but better, including creating accurate measurements, topological 3D meshes, better object occlusion, and better real-world physics simulations.

The only problem… and it’s a big honking problem… is that there’s almost no reason for a regular person to use any of it yet. There are few compelling AR experiences still and no killer LiDAR apps.

That’s why I said in my iPad Pro 2020 review that most of its appeal would be for developers working on just exactly those kinds of LiDAR and AR apps. And, in fact, it was super smart for Apple to seed this iPad Pro to those developers now, well before the iPhone 12.

See, on a relatively niche device, no one is going to knock Apple too hard for not having relatively bleeding edge features fully fleshed out yet. At iPhone scale, they’ll be knocked, hard. Like influencer posting super inappropriate meme hard.

So, half the battle is getting devs with the new iPad Pro to ramp up and push out hella cool LiDAR apps.

The other half is Apple, if not leading the way — because with the iPad Pro launching a couple weeks ago, means the way is already under way — but taking the lead this fall and showing what an AR camera system is really capable of.

Maps is an obvious example. Google’s already shown off AR in their maps. For people like me, who are EXTREMELY directionally challenged, being able to see exactly where to go, or exactly what something is, can be a game changer.

The new Find My network and AirTags are another. My AirPod is in the room. Great, I know that already, genius. Thanks. Where in the damn room? I can’t hear it… oh, look, AR is showing its outline right there, under the cat pillow on the couch… damn cat pillow.

For us nerds and creators — same thing, really — the ability to scan random objects into 3D, USDZ AR files, like Alex Lindsay and Brianna Wu have been talking about for years now, just opens up so many more possibilities to so many more people.

For everyone, having high quality AR capabilities built into the rear camera, not just the front, where you can change the environment like the Clips app, but on Hulk serum, and add objects and characters, and basically paint into real world space, could, sure, be a one-time thing like Memoji, or a phenomena when apps like Insta and TikTok pick it up and run with it.

But, even that…

Even that….

Just like the LiDAR camera on the iPad Pro seems like a developer tool for the LiDAR camera on the on iPhone 12, the LiDAR camera on the iPhone 12 may end up seeming like a developer tool for what comes next.

Because having to hold an iPad or iPhone up to experience this wondrous new world of AR isn’t cool. Not having to hold up anything and experiencing it all — now that’s cool.

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Apple, Dark Sky, and the future of hyper-personal weather

March 31 on the Dark Sky Blog, Adam Grossman dropped these bombshell announcements:

  • Dark Sky has joined Apple.
  • There will be no changes to Dark Sky for iOS at this time.
  • The Android and Wear OS Apps will no longer be available for download
  • Same for the actual weather parts of the website.
  • The API will no longer take new signups but will continue functioning through the end of 2021.

Now, Dark Sky was really only available in the U.S. and U.K., so this doesn’t affect most of the world. Though, people in the U.S. and U.K. who preferred it are obviously super affected by this.

The API part sucks for apps like CARROT and WeatherLine, at least in those countries, but it sounds like they’ll be ok.

A lot of people are upset about losing the Android app, which I totally get.

Dieter Bohn, in his Processor newsletter, said it felt petty, both fairly because that’s how Android users feel, and wildly unfairly because Apple doesn’t run a charity.

But… it’s actually not odd to me that Apple is killing the Android and Wear OS apps. It’s odd to me they’re keeping the iOS app.

The Dark Sky team is going to be just loaded up at Apple, similar to how the Workflows team was before Siri Shortcuts was announced. And, they kept the Workflows app going in maintenance mode, but they didn’t have an Android version to maintain.

Beddit, which hasn’t seen an Apple rebirth yet, dropped Android support a while back.

Beats, which became Apple Music, still has both iOS and Android versions.

My guess with Beats is that staying cross-platform gives them a better chance at throwing big numbers up against Spotify, especially for family subscriptions for mixed-device households. In other words, it’s a competitive space where Apple has to go to customers, not the other way around. Same reason TV+ was announced for Samsung before it even launched.

Dropping the Android app makes me think Apple isn’t planning a subscription weather services. At least not yet.

And if the idea of a subscription weather service sounds funny, remember many weather apps are subscription based because they have to pay for the weather data.

Apple could more easily swallow the costs for an iOS-only service, or, rather, subsidize them with hardware profits like it does iMessage and FaceTime.

But why would Apple want a hyper-regional, hyper-localized weather app?

My best guess is to make it less hyper-regionalized and add the hyper-localized features as data layers to iPhones, Apple Watches, and whatever comes next.

Apple has a mixed track record with international, I’ll give you that. TV+ and Music launchd in well over 100 countries each. Apple Cash and Apple Card are still U.S. only and Apple News, barely more than that. Which is super frustrating to customers who feel like they pay more for the products but get less in terms of features. Again, if you want to see a video on that, let me know in the comments.

But, the ability to have precise precipitation forecasts, down to the minute, down to the meter, could be beyond compelling.

Neil Cybart on Above Avalon said much the same. That building it into Apple Watch today, and into a future range of wearables, would be a benefit — Apple would have the best solution for hyperlocal weather on the market.

And, I’ll add, in an incredibly convenient and context-appropriate way.

Apple also likes to control as much of its own core technologies as possible. They used to use Yahoo! For weather. Currently, The Weather Company.

As best as I understand it, and please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong, the data mostly comes from government organizations, but it’s the packaging and feature sets that get built on top of it that are key.

IBM bought the Weather Company and Weather Underground, and could go a long way towards locking up these kinds of services.

If Apple really can build out Dark Sky, big if, this could go a long way towards both protecting and improving a key data type for Apple’s customers.

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Facebook (and Zoom) and capitulating privacy in the age of isolation

According to Motherboard, Facebook approached the NSO Group to try and buy a tool that would let them better spy on a specific subset of their users. Because of course they did.

This all from court documents revealed as part of Facebook’s ongoing lawsuit against NSO for helping governments hack WhatsApp, which Facebook owns.

Facebook, as everyone knows, is the behemoth social network that’s been accused of a series of reprehensible privacy and decency violations against its users.

The NSO Group is the hugely controversial supplier of spyware like Pegasus and hacking tools to nation-states, among others.

The subset of users Facebook reportedly wanted to target was us, iPhone users.

Now, Facebook apparently didn’t actually want Pegasus proper, which is used to remotely infect and spy on phones. They wanted Pegasus technology to make their own, existing Facebook spyware better.

See, in a previous scandal — it’s legit hard to keep up — Facebook was accused of pushing a VPN app named Onavo Protect on their users without properly disclosing that Facebook owned it and was using it to harvest our behavioral data to monetize, and to target competition.

You know that old cliche that big internet companies don’t sell our data because it’s too valuable? Yeah, Cambridge Analytica proved they do indeed sell our data because metastasizing is even more valuable.

Now, Facebook was eventually forced to pull the VPN from the App Store and Google Play Store, and sunset it.

But, like any vampire, it’s blood sucking continued. Techcrunch reported that Facebook had rebranded Onavo Protect as Research, used its massive advertising engine to target desirable demographics, including teen agers, offered them $20 for participating, and then abused Apple’s enterprise distribution system to infect their iPhones with it.

And yeah, that’s how valuable our data is to them. Block them from offering free services to get it and they’ll become desperate enough to pay for it. Topic for a future video.

But, according to Motherboard’s report, even after all that, Facebook still couldn’t harvest as much data from iPhone users as they could from Android users, and so wanted the Pegasus parts to make sure we were all being equally violated.

Now, Facebook says NSO is misrepresenting all this to try and distract from the lawsuit. But, Facebook doesn’t refute the claim in any other way. No denial, no context, no explanation.

And here’s a little secret decoder ring for corporate PR: If a company is in the right, they’ll usually hold their ground and say so in simple, plain language. If they’re on shaky ground, they’ll try to angle and change the point of discussion. If they done wrong, they’ll flail about in a desperate attempt to distract from the topic.

NSO Group just said they only sell to government agencies and law enforcement, so they talk-to-the-handed Facebook and wouldn’t comment further.

In terms of reactions so far, there haven’t been many. At least not that I can find. It’s up on TechMeme but, Apple site’s aside, almost none of the major tech sites have covered it, and I haven’t seen it talked about in my Twitter feed either.

The big exception is John Gruber from Daring Fireball, who repeated what he’s said before:

Facebook is a criminal enterprise.

Ryan Mac from Buzzfeed tweeted a reminder to whatever the NSO says with 10 lbs of salt, but that it was an incredible accusation in a formal court filing.

A New York Times reported tweeted that it was very disturbing if true, but that tweet seems to have been deleted.

So, it’s possible that reporters just don’t think there’s any there here, that commenters see it as two controversial companies just going at it, or that people are just busy with other stuff during all this shelter-in-place.

It’s the latter possibility that concerns me, though.

We’ve seen with Zoom, which has become massively popular thanks to social distancing, that people have been willing to put longer range concerns about privacy and security on hold for the immediate convenience of social connection.

Zoom has a history of, at best, playing fast and loose with security and privacy, and at worst having a reckless, borderline malicious disregard for it. Everything from secretly installing servers on the Mac to secretly channeling data to Facebook to secretly routing data through China, to failing to provide basic safeguards for users.

It’s a chilling mess that I would never use or recommend using during normal times, but that the people I care about and want to stay connected with are using right now.

Facebook is the same. I deleted almost all my data and stopped logging into the blue app following Cambridge Analytica, but now I’m worried about family and friends for whom Facebook is effectively the Internet. And, of course, I never stopped using Instagram, because Insta.

Walt Mossberg, who pretty much invented personal technology journalism, expressed just exactly that a couple weeks ago.

The deal with the devil that I’ve made for myself is that I won’t actively use Zoom or Facebook but if the people I care about reach out to connect through them, I’ll respond.

But I'm terrified that if I sacrifice privacy and security in the name of convenience and connection, I'll end up with none of it.

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Forget iPhone SE vs. iPhone 9 — How will Apple launch it?

Last Thursday, Zac Hall from 9to5Mac reported that the long-rumored and widely anticipated next-generation entry-level iPhone would be called the iPhone SE, would come in red, white, and black, with up to 256 GB of storage, and most importantly, the launch was imminent, as soon as last Friday.

Obviously, the Friday part didn’t pan out, which is the problem with these kinds of timelines. If someone tells you something is imminent, it could mean anything from the very next moment to… well, who knows when?

Right after that, people started searching Apple.com and found a few things already branded with the iPhone SE name, and not from the 2016 original.

Now, I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for everyone on all the teams at Apple trying to coordinate product launches while sheltered at home, that are suddenly all online, and with schedules that shift weeks every week, but maybe it goes go to show you why that store often gets taken down for big releases.

Anyway, Jon Prosser of Front Page Tech, who is absolutely not Bryce Walker, previously reported that the iPhone 9 would tentatively be announced on or around April 15 and ship on April 22.

His use of the iPhone 9 name there was just a placeholder.

As I’ve said before, the iPhone SE or iPhone 9 makes a ton of sense to me. It serves multiple markets, just like the original: For people who want top of the line cameras and performance but either still prefer a Home button and Touch ID, just don’t want to pay more than $400, or both. It also continues Apple’s efforts to increase entry level value as the high end costs may continue to rise. More on that in a future show.

And yeah, it’s interesting that one of these reports has a name but no firm date, and the other a date but no firm name.

See, my understanding of how Apple handles names is that there’s like a hero name that goes on top of the list. Then, a long list of alternatives. And those are just scrutinized for everything from sentiment to what they sound like or translate into in other languages, and a dozen other things. Often, but not always, the hero name wins. Just not MacBook Stealth. Thankfully.

But, unlike hardware and software, where a lot of people have access to specs and builds even early on, the name is just a marketing thing until collateral, packaging, and advertising has to go into production, which is much later in the cycle.

There was also some talk of Apple arranging the release to counter-program the OnePlus 8 announcement scheduled for April 14th.

Now, anything’s technical possible, but my take is:

  1. It would be unusual for Apple to want to share a news cycle. Why compete for coverage when they could go the next day and just subsume it? I mean, the Apple people will cover the iPhone and the Android people will cover OnePlus, but why split attention with the general tech people if you can just get your coverage out on top?

  2. I just don’t see Apple caring that much about OnePlus. Maybe Samsung or Google, but even then, Apple’ strikes me as that rich cousin that just picks the perfect date for them to show up and take your guest room, not even thinking about any other cousin who might already be there or already scheduled to show up. Focus is just the equal and opposite of tunnel vision.

So, I think the 15th would be smarter just from the perspective of maximum launch effort. But we’ll see.

Now, I’m not going to get into the how’s and why’s of leaks at this point, but if you’re curious about that whole process, let me know in the comments and I’ll cover it in a future show.

But, 9to5Mac has historically had excellent sources for their Apple reporting, part of which went to Bloomberg with Mark Gurman, but much of which remains with their reputation and current slate of reporters.

Meanwhile, Jon Prosser has been on absolute fire lately with sourcing that’s turned out to be accurate on a growing number of stories.

And, since most of us are stuck at home right now, there’s nothing like a little, hot blogger on YouTuber drama action to keep us all distracted and all up in the popcorn emoji.

But, personally, I’m actually less interested in when the iPhone SE slash 9 is launching and more interested in how Apple plans to handle the launch.

Prior to shelter-at-home, my prediction was a repeat of the 2016 March event with the new iPhone SE story being told much in the same way as the previous iPhone SE story, just with familiar form-factor swapped in for preferred size.

Now, with shelter-in-place, we’ve seen how Apple handled the MacBook Air and iPad Pro updates last month. Those weren’t huge updates that really needed new features demonstrated live on stage. I mean, LiDAR would have made for a great demo, but we’ve already had pretty much everything else shown off back in October of 2018.

The new iPhone SE strikes me as very much the same. Sure, an Apple events brings with it a ton of attention that translates directly into marketing for whatever new products are shown off.

But, given how much so many of us are just looking for things to talk about right now, it’ll set social media on fire no matter what.

So, Apple Newsroom release with some Apple YouTube videos and media follow up just makes the same kind of sense that does.

As to how Apple plans to sell the iPhone SE, absent Apple Stores and during what for many is a huge financial crunch period, well, that’s even trickier.

Apple could just drop the new iPhone SE same way they did the new iPad Pro, and let people who really want or need it place their orders and take their deliveries.

There might be some push-back on Apple releasing products right now in general, but:

  1. They already did with the iPad Pro and MacBook Air, and…
  2. Huawei just did with the P40 and the aforementioned OnePlus is about to with the 8.

Apple is subject to way more scrutiny than pretty much any other company in the tech space, so I expect pushback regardless, and whether or not they release new products because they’re releasing new products or not, but we’ll see.

My guess is that Apple is applying the Nick Fury principle here: "Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on."

Just as the iPad Pro was justified as a high-end niche product that only be who could afford it, would afford it, the iPhone SE will be justified as a low-cost product for those who need it most in a time when they may need it most.

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iPhone 11 Review: 6 months later

The iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro were really well reviewed when they first came out, especially the cameras, battery life, and the lower price on the base model 11.

There were also some criticisms though. Namely, the lack of faster charging options and accessories, USB-C, and just how buggy iOS 13 was at launch.

But, times change. Hardware gets worn. Software gets updated. New competition comes out. Expectations change. And so do circumstances, especially right now when many of us are rightfully stuck at home and depending on our phones in very different ways than we’d planned to. It makes the whole question of what to buy and when to buy it just alternate reality different than it was at launch.

So, I’m going to deep dive into all of that, right now. Video version available now you can find the text version up as my first, new Monday column over at iMore.

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Amazon Prime now selling and renting directly on iPhone or iPad — but how?

Nick Statt, writing for The Verge

Amazon’s Prime Video iOS and Apple TV apps now let customers make in-app purchases, including renting and buying films and TV shows. The change marks a huge shift in Amazon’s approach to the App Store, which mandates a 30 percent cut on all in-app purchases. Prior to the change, Amazon would not allow you to rent or buy content on the Prime Video app, instead, directing users to a web browser to avoid the App Store fee.

Now, when users log in to the Prime Video app, there should be a message reading, “Browse, rent, or buy new release movies, popular TV shows, and more — now within the app.” (Big thanks to George Watson, who tipped us off to this change.)

Apple originally didn't allow in-app-purchases in the App Store. Free apps had to stay free. When they changed that policy, they created a new one that didn't allow linking out from the App Store to another transaction service. For digital goods, at least. It never covered physical goods.

In other words, Apple didn't want every app in the App Store to suddenly go free and link back directly to the developer for payments as a way to do an end run around the 30/70 revenue split. To stick Apple with the hosting but deny them the transaction.

Thanks to giant games like Candy Crush and Pokemon Go, and on-again-off-again relationships with streaming video providers like Netflix, that's allowed App Store revenue to explode of the last decade. Since App Store revenue is a huge part of services revenue, and Apple has told investors to expect a huge increase in services revenue, it's something Apple probably wants to protect.

But, it's also an old, outdated system that results in impossible margins for middle vendors or extreme inconvenience for customers.

Basically, if Amazon wants 30% from content creators to aggregate videos for Prime, and Apple wants 30% from Amazon to aggregate Prime for the App Store, and the content creator still wants 70%, it breaks the math.

A few years back Apple dropped the second year subscription revenue share down to 15%, but that still makes multiple middle vendors tough. Neither Amazon nor Apple can earn together what they would earn separately, selling directly.

So, did Apple drop the rate for individual purchases (full out or rental), did Amazon agree to cut Apple in (full share or partial), and if they came to a deal, is it a new deal for everyone or something special for Amazon and maybe just other major vendors?

Unclear.

It seems clear, if and when we emerge from COVID-19 and regulatory attention turns back to tech companies, App Store policies will be front and center.

That's why it would behoove Apple to come up with something more modern, something that lets them defray the cost of hosting the App Store and serving free apps, but also drives revenue based on security, privacy, and convenience, rather than policy, and that allows all these apps to provide better and more convenient experiences for all their mutual customers.

Maybe this updated Amazon implemenation could be a first step towards that?

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CNET: Armed with the iPhone 8, canvassers go all-in with tech

Lynn La, writing for CNET

In an effort to make the door-to-door process, which is the most laborious and expensive part of the census, faster and more efficient, the bureau is arming 500,000 enumerators with the Apple iPhone 8. But as the census goes mobile, instantaneously beaming respondents' answers to data centers and cloud servers, it opens itself up to those who may want to access or manipulate such valuable information. The stakes to pull off a census have always been high, but with this year's adoption of new technological methods, the pressure to succeed is even higher.

Simple and familiar to use, easy to carry, always connected — sounds like the right tool for the job.

"We are proud that the US Census Bureau will use the iPhone for the collection and management of 2020 census data," said an Apple spokesperson. "The census is an important constitutional cornerstone that aims to ensure every one of us has equal representation, education and access in America."

Now they just have to find out how well the government software works, both in terms of reliability and security.

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Hello (Again)

As of this week, I've left iMore/Vector, and their parent company, Future PLC, and started my own, independent YouTube channel. But hear me out!

I’m fascinated by Apple. I’ve been covering the company since the launch of the original iPhone, and they’ve come to touch just so many aspects of our culture, our relationships, our lives. They’ve become the lens through which many of us experience the rest of consumer tech as well, from Google to Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, and more.

I also love the news. I have a Sorkin-esque romantic ideal about how facts righteously presented can inform and empower us.

I spent the first 10 years of my career in product marketing, learning how tech companies position their products and problems from the inside. I spent the last 10 in tech media, learning how those products and problems affect all of us.

Now I want to spend the next 10 years right here with you. Talking not just about Apple, glorified or vilified, but about all the tech that affects all of our lives. And not just about the news, about what’s happening and when, but diving deep into the analysis behind it, the how and the why.

Most importantly, I want to start a new conversation with you about what’s real and what’s not, what’s fact and what’s not, what’s serious and meant to help and educate us and what’s just sensationalism, desperate to manipulate and exploit us.

And, as a community, I think we’ll be able to figure it all out… together. 

It starts here with this brand new channel and a brand new… mostly daily analysis show, because that’s just what I do. But I have a few other, really exciting projects coming up that I can’t wait to tell you about as well.

And here’s where you come in. I’m starting fresh. Starting over. Building everything all back up from the ground up from the ground up. And I need your help to do it. So, go subscribe my new YouTube channel, set that bell gizmo to always, it’s the only way YouTube will actually tell you when each and every new episode goes live, share this new channel with everyone you know so we can get this all going again fast.

Thanks for your support. Let's do this.