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    Newsletter Issue #989: The “iPhone SE is Too Cheap” Report

    April 22nd, 2020

    Despite all the critical misgivings, the original iPhone SE was a hit with the audience to which it was marketed. While Apple had moved on to handsets with 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays before the spring of 2016, there were millions of customers who thought they were too large. A four-inch display was quite enough, particularly for those with small purses or pockets.

    We can argue the value of larger displays, maybe, but the public mostly made its decision. After Apple executives, including marketing VP Philip Schiller, denigrated the large Samsungs and other handsets as being too inconvenient for one-handed use, it was clear that the public just didn’t care. Soon as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus arrived in 2014, sales soared. A pent-up demand that Apple wasn’t admitting to was filled.

    All right we know that when Schiller was saying no to any iPhone larger than the iPhone 5s, Apple was already designing handsets with larger displays. Typical of Apple, it was all marketspeak. First attack the competitor’s product, then release the “superior” alternative.

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    There’s Yet Another Rant About Apple and Mac Users

    June 11th, 2018

    Over the years, some tech pundits have decided that Apple really needs to drop the Mac. To them, it has outlived its usefulness and, besides, far more money is made from selling iPhones.

    But it’s a good source of hit bait to claim that “Mac users don’t really matter to Apple.”

    Indeed, Apple has, at times, made it seem as if that claim was accurate. The Mac mini has not been refreshed since 2014. After releasing a total redesign for the Mac Pro in late 2013, Apple appeared to drop the ball and mostly abandoned that model.

    When a new MacBook Pro was launched in late 2016, some thought the claim that it was a professional notebook was a huge exaggeration. It was thinner, in the spirit of recent Apple gear, but the highly touted Touch Bar, powered by an ARM system-on-a-chip, was thought to be fluff and not much else.

    Apple also got dinged for things it had never done, such as supplying a model with 32GB of RAM. But that would have required using a different memory controller that might have impacted performance and battery life. In comparison, most PC notebooks were also limited to 16GB. A future Intel CPU update will offer an integrated memory controller that doubles memory capacity.

    Just after Christmas, a Consumer Reports review failed to recommend the 2016 MacBook Pro supposedly due to inconsistent battery life. After Apple got involved, it turned out that CR’s peculiar testing scheme, which involves disabling the browser cache, triggered a rare bug. After Apple fixed it, a retest earned the MacBook Pro an unqualified recommendation.

    Was all this proof that Apple just didn’t care about Macs?

    Well, it’s a sure thing the Touch Bar wasn’t cheap to develop, and embedding an ARM chip in a Mac is definitely innovative. But Apple’s priorities appeared to have gone askew, as the company admitted during a small press roundtable in early 2017.

    The executive team made apologies for taking the Mac Pro in the wrong direction, and promised that a new model with modular capabilities was under development, but it wouldn’t ship right away. There would, however, be a new version of the iMac with professional capabilities. VP Philip Schiller spoke briefly about loving the Mac mini, but quickly changed the subject.

    Before the 2017 WWDC, I thought that Apple would merely offer more professional parts for customized 27-inch 5K iMacs. But such components as Intel Xeon-W CPUs and ECC memory would exceed that model’s resource threshold. So Apple extensively redesigned the cooling system to support workstation-grade parts.

    The 2017 iMac Pro costs $4,999 and up, the most expensive, and most powerful, iMac ever. You can only upgrade RAM, but it’s a dealer only installation since it requires taking the unit completely apart, unlike the regular large iMac, where memory upgrades are a snap.

    Apple promised that a new Mac Pro, which would meet the requirements of pros who want a box that’s easy to configure and upgrade, would appear in 2019, so maybe it’ll be demonstrated at a fall event where new Macs are expected.

    But Apple surely wouldn’t have made the commitment to expensive Macs if it didn’t take the platform — and Mac users — seriously. The iMac Pro itself represents a significant development in all-in-one personal computers.

    Don’t forget that the Mac, while dwarfed by the iPhone, still represents a major business for Apple. Mac market share is at its highest levels in years in a declining PC market, serving tens of millions of loyal users. When you want to develop an app for iOS, tvOS or watchOS, it has to be done on a Mac. That isn’t going to change. In addition, Apple is porting several iOS apps for macOS Mojave, and developers will have the tools to do the same next year.

    According to software head Craig Federighi, iOS and macOS won’t merge and the Mac will not support touchscreens.

    Sure, the Mac may play second fiddle to the iPhone, but that doesn’t diminish the company’s commitment to the platform. But it’s still easy for fear-mongering tech pundits to say otherwise, perhaps indirectly suggesting you shouldn’t buy a Mac because it will never be upgraded, or that upgrades will be half-hearted.

    Perhaps there’s an ulterior motive behind some of those complaints; they are designed to discourage people from buying Macs and pushing them towards the latest PC boxes that, by and large, look the same as the previous PC boxes with some upgraded parts.

    But since Intel has run late with recent CPU upgrades, Apple has often been forced to wait for the right components before refreshing Macs. That doesn’t excuse the way the Mac mini and the MacBook Air have been ignored, but I’ll cut Apple some slack with the Mac Pro, since a major update has been promised for next year.

    Now this doesn’t mean the Mac isn’t going to undergo major changes in the coming years. Maybe Apple is becoming disgusted with Intel’s growing problems in upgrading its CPUs, and will move to ARM. Maybe not. But that’s then, this is now.

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    The Apple Store — 17 Years Old!

    May 16th, 2018

    To understand what the Apple Store meant to me, let me tell you a personal story. In the 1960s, I had a hobby, building radio and general audio gear. Some of it I bought for myself, others I assembled for friends — at no charge. Well, I was a teenager, living at home. I wasn’t rich, but I had a tape recorder and a radio and a mic, so I was mostly happy.

    In those days, I made periodic trips to one of the early consumer electronics stores, Lafayette Radio. After going bankrupt in 1980, its assets ended up in the hands of the company that eventually became Circuit City.

    After moving to the Phoenix area in 1993, I shopped occasionally at a local Circuit City, but mostly for CDs. If I wanted a new Mac, I went online and saved money. It’s not that Circuit City didn’t carry Macs. They had some, and I remember visiting the retailer a few years later and seeing a few dusty models placed haphazardly on a single display table off to the rear somewhere. Most had been left off. The few that were running mostly displayed a Hypercard slide show that didn’t really entice anyone to buy anything.

    Besides, the salespeople were busy encouraging you to check out the real center of the action, the PC tables.

    I recall a report some time later, about Steve Jobs admonishing Apple dealers to give Macs a fair shake. Make that demanding in very raw language. It was, after all, vintage Steve Jobs.

    Apple finally decided to go its own way, by establishing its own retail chain. Jobs recruited former Target retail executive Rom Johnson to help him design the new stores.

    When the first two Apple stores had their grand openings in 2001, in Glendale, CA and Tyson’s Corner, VA, the tech pundits were skeptical. Other electronics manufacturers, including Sony and Gateway, launched chains of branded stores, but they really didn’t go anywhere.

    In large part, it’s because they were just ordinary retailers, only focused on a single brand. So why go to one when you could get the very same merchandise at the same price — or less — at a store with a far greater selection?

    Apple’s approach was to customize your shopping experience with a specialty boutique with what appeared to be a remarkably noncommercial approach to retail sales. For one thing, you weren’t confronted with greedy salespeople trolling for a sale. Indeed, nobody pushed you to buy anything, or even to leave if you just wanted to just hang out.

    If you had a problem with your Apple gadget, there was the Genius Bar where you could get advice, or authorized repairs by a factory trained specialist.

    As a contributor to the Arizona Republic, and later Gannett and its national newspaper, USA Today, I attended two of the openings in the Phoenix area. At the Chandler, AZ Fashion Center, I met  Johnson, then Apple’s retail chief. I also got an Apple Store T-shirt.

    I remember the opening ceremony, where the newly-minded employees welcomed customers with loud rounds of applause.

    In 2002, I received a VIP invite to attend the grand opening of an Apple Store in New York’s SoHo district. I was part of an exclusive group that included Apple executives, even Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller, fellow tech reporters and a smattering of show business types.

    While there, I had a chance to speak with Jobs for a few moments before he pulled his usual stunt to end a conversation, which was to walk away in mid-sentence. But I also spent several minutes speaking with the comic actor Tim Allen, who stared in one of my favorite movies, “Galaxy Quest.”

    Recalling that the film ended in a way that a sequel might have been filmed, Allen said that one key factor that hurt the effort was a motorcycle accident that actor Daryl Mitchell, who portrayed the starship’s navigator, suffered the previous year. The mishap left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the handicap, by the way, Mitchell has remained active in show business. These days, he’s a featured player in a hit CBS series, “NCIS: New Orleans.”

    But there’s still hope for a “Galaxy Quest” revival on Amazon, despite the 2016 death of Alan Rickman, another star of the cult classic.

    Now my feelings about the arrival of the Apple Store in the Phoenix area were mixed. Before they arrived, I made a decent income as a Mac consultant. But Apple could provide much of what I offered, at least to people who didn’t mind carrying their gear to the store, at no charge. It didn’t take long for most of my clients to choose the obvious alternative, even when I lowered my hourly rates.

    At first I focused on older gear, mostly Macs that were too old for Apple to provide direct support. As my customers grew older, however, that business mostly faded.

    Despite my bittersweet feelings about the matter, I do get to an Apple Store from time to time to check out the new gear. Overall, the shopping experience remains mostly good, but the Genius Bar is often overwhelmed, so you have to reserve a session before you pay a visit.

    As to Ron Johnson, he finally left Apple and went on to JCPenney to overhaul the shopping experience over there. But it proved to be a poor fit, and Johnson departed after the struggling retailer’s situation only worsened from his attempts to move them upscale. These days he’s connected with Enjoy, a startup that hopes to overhaul the shopping experience.

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    Sir Jonathan Ive and a “Renewed” Commitment to Apple Design

    December 12th, 2017

    Funny how some Apple critics are so often proved wrong.

    Take the claim that, when Sir Jonathan Ive became Apple’s Chief Design Officer in 2015, it was the first step on the road to leaving the company. Maybe he’d just gather up his family and return to the UK, or perhaps find another gig. In the meantime, other Apple executives reportedly took the lead in product design.

    Ive allegedly focused most of his efforts on finishing up the new Apple “spaceship” campus said, in part, to represent a memorial to the memory of Steve Jobs.

    In 2016, Apple delivered fewer new products than usual. The iPhone 7 was regarded as, at best, a subpar upgrade, although it did fairly well in sales. Macs were virtually ignored until the end of the year, except for a minor speed bump upgrade for the MacBook.

    The long-awaited MacBook Pro refresh was controversial. It was thinner, lighter, and the changes weren’t believed to represent a commitment to building a professional notebook computer. It was more about needless fluff, and don’t forget the Touch Bar. And what about such neglected products as the Mac mini and the Mac Pro?

    Were both on the chopping block?

    So what role did Ive play in those designs anyway? If his attention was focused elsewhere, did he at least spend a reasonable amount of time with the new product prototypes before approving them? Did he take advantage of that authority, beyond recording marketing videos to extol the new products?

    What was really going on at Apple? Had the company lost its way? Could it even survive without Ive working hands-on to make sure all designs past muster?

    Despite the skepticism, there was reportedly high demand for the new MacBook Pros, with sales results showing slight increases. So did Apple nail the design, or were customers overanxious because they’d waited so long for a new model? But why would they pay several hundred dollars extra for an inferior product?

    2017 started off quietly, until Apple summoned tech journalists to participate in a roundtable discussion with Apple executives. In a sense, it was mea culpa time, as Apple admitted it goofed with the Mac Pro design. An all-new modular version was being developed, but without a promised ship date; well, maybe hint that it might arrive in 2018. A new iMac would incorporate pro features. Marketing VP Philip Schiller said a nice thing or two about the Mac mini, but reminded his audience that it wasn’t the focus of that session.

    After rumors arose over a bunch of Mac updates for the WWDC, Apple confirmed them and then some, releasing new versions of the MacBook, MacBook Pro and iMac. The latter two were fairly significant in terms of performance boosts. A matter of catching up?

    The high-end iMac wasn’t just a few models with faster parts. It was a whole new model, dubbed iMac Pro, with darker colors, and a revised thermal design to accommodate professional parts, including an 18-core Intel Xeon processor. Prices start at $4,999, and it will soar to several times that if you customize the unit with all the available options. According to Apple, it will be available to order on December 14th.

    The Home Pod, more speaker than a “smart” gadget, is delayed until 2018. The Mac Pro is still forthcoming, and when Tim Cook said nice things about the Mac mini, it seemed to be a reasonable assurance that a new model will probably arrive next year.

    Loads of new stuff was introduced at the September iPhone event. In addition to a traditional iPhone upgrade dubbed iPhone 8, the long-rumored 10th anniversary version, the iPhone X, arrived with the promise of delivery in early November. Despite predictions that it would be back ordered for months, production problems were quickly resolved, and you can order now one in the U.S. and wait no more than two to four days to receive one. Or visit your nearest Apple Store and stand a decent chance of finding the one you want.

    Now that the new Apple campus is open, it is reported that Ive is back running the design team. While the critics point to a bunch of missteps over the past couple of years, you also have to compare Apple’s results with other companies.

    Most all new Apple gear ships with a hardware or software defect of some sort. The iPhone X does appear to be a winner for the most part. Consumer Reports claims it’s not quite as tough as it should be, though you have to expect at least some damage after 50-100 drops to a hard surface. The Samsung Galaxy S8 doesn’t seem to fare much better. But watch Apple find ways to make the 2018 version stronger.

    It’s easy to suggest that the lack of new products in 2016, and some controversial design choices, were all about Ive ceding responsibilities. But if he signed off on designs that others created, it’s still his fault. Besides, if a new product came across his desk that doesn’t meet his standards, don’t you think he’d send it back with recommendations (or demands) for change?

    Despite all the speculation, it’s really hard to know what really happened behind the scenes when Ive’s focus was more on the campus than the next Mac or iPhone. Maybe after someone leaves Apple, there will be a tell-all. Or maybe things worked out pretty much the way they would have worked out anyway regardless of how many hours Ive really devoted to designing new gear.

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