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    A New Way To Deliver an Apple TV? Give Them Away!

    August 22nd, 2018

    It’s no secret that the Apple TV isn’t doing terribly well compared to similar gear from Amazon, Google and market leader Roku. While Apple was the pioneer in this space, it took far too long to modernize the product.

    Even when Apple introduced an all-new model in 2015, it made it much more expensive, yet still lacking 4K support at a time when tens of millions of TV sets featured the higher resolution capability. So it left the customers with a dilemma. If they still wanted to stick with the Apple ecosystem, the entry-level 32GB model was $149, compared to $99 for the third generation model before it was discounted.

    I suppose some might have found the new features, which included an enhanced remote, and Siri and app support, to be reasonably compelling, but did it really matter? How many people really strayed beyond iTunes and Netflix anyway.

    In 2017, Apple discovered 4K. Rather than keep the same price, or, better, reduce it, the entry-level unit was priced $30 higher. This may have been necessary to the bean counters who evaluated such matters as the price of raw materials and such, but it made even less sense.

    Other than Apple’s ecosystem, the $99.99 Roku Ultra offered a similar lineup of useful features, including 4K and HDR. If you just wanted Netflix and maybe Amazon Prime, Hulu along with VUDU for movie rentals, the $69.99 Roku Streaming Stick also features 4K and HDR.

    When you look at the numbers, paying $179 for an Apple gadget seems outrageous.

    Now some might cite the same argument for a Mac or an iPhone, but it’s not valid. Compared to premium PCs, the Mac is in the same ballpark. Compared to premium smartphones, so is the iPhone, and you can make the same argument for the iPad or an Apple Watch.

    None of this justifies paying $79 more for an Apple TV 4K compared to a Roku Ultra beyond the commitment to Apple’s own services. The added features just aren’t compelling enough for most people, and picture quality isn’t so much different. A TV set’s own upscaling of HD content produces similar results, except for the HDR enhancements.

    As most of you know, I haven’t been using my vintage third generation Apple TV since late 2017. When VIZIO sent me a 4K TV for long-term review, I tried out its embedded SmartCast app, which is based on Google Chromecast. My iTunes movie library is scant, and it was easily transferred to Movies Anywhere so I can play them on almost any streaming device. The VIZIO remote offers one-touch access to Netflix, Hulu, VUDU and other services with a decent interface.

    If the price of an Apple TV 4K was cut in half, I still wouldn’t buy one even if I had the spare cash, and I suspect a lot of devoted Apple customers have come to the same decision for various reasons.

    So what is Apple to do, other than cutting the price to a sensible level?

    It’s doubtful Apple will join its competitors and license Apple TV technology to a TV set. I actually think it would be a good idea, but would probably work only if tvOS took over a TV’s interface completely. Coming up with something similar CarPlay is a half-baked solution.

    Is there another alternative for Apple?

    Well, apparently there is, although it apparently involves sometimes giving an Apple TV 4K away. This is what DirecTV apparently did for a while to launch its NOW! streaming service. If you signed up for three months at $35 per month, and paid the total of $105 in advance, a 32GB Apple TV came along with the package. To some, it was a great way to get one cheap, since there was no requirement to keep the service after that period.

    Just recently, I read a report that Charter TV, the second largest cable provider in the U.S., will offer an Apple TV 4K to pay-TV customers along with a Spectrum TV app. This means you may be able to bypass the service’s own DVR. I am not at all sure whether it’ll be offered for sale, for rent, or both.

    According to a published report from Bloomberg, Verizon plans to offer an Apple TV or Google TV when it rolls out its 5G broadband to homes, which is due later this year. I’m not at all sure how an Apple TV will be offered, and whether it will embed a Verizon app of some sort with a streaming service offering.

    I suppose it’s possible that Apple is poised to launch its own streaming service, something rumored for years before it was reported that it couldn’t strike deals with the entertainment industry. But with Apple busy creating original TV shows, maybe there will be an offering that will mix content from iTunes, including TV shows, with the new programming. That is if Apple doesn’t make it part of Apple Music.

    But is giving away an Apple TV as a premium for pay-TV systems, or allowing them to offer it cheaply, going to save the Apple TV? Consider the value of replacing set-top boxes with an Apple gadget that offers a custom app to navigate these services and manage time-shifting.

    That might be a worthy goal, one that will save Apple TV. If I had the choice, the Apple TV 4K would probably be superior to the set-top boxes from the cable and satellite providers. Well, if Apple also offered a cloud-based DVR system.


    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.


    Does Apple Plan to Do Less for iOS 12?

    January 31st, 2018

    In recent years, Apple has been criticized for trying to do too much, releasing OS updates with missing and/or delayed features. Or, worse, lots of bugs to drive users crazy. Despite assurances by Apple that its monitoring fewer problems nowadays, facts are nasty things that often get in the way.

    Consider two embarrassing problems for macOS High Sierra, which was touted a mainly a performance update with few compelling new features. So imagine the bug where you could gain root access on your Mac without a password, or a related problem involving App Store preferences. There was silly stuff for iOS 11 too, a perfectly stupid autocorrect bug involving the letter “i.”

    In other words, clearly obvious problems that you’d think a first-year programming student would discover in routine testing. How did Apple allow them to clear quality control without a WTF?

    During the WWDC, Apple gave a compelling presentation about a new file system, APFS, which had already shown up in an iOS update and would finally premiere on the Mac. It would offer improved performance and security and I was anxious to see it in action.

    Unfortunately the first release version was basically limited to SSDs. If your Mac had a Fusion drive, the combo of a large HDD and a small SSD, APFS didn’t survive the beta process. Apple said it would come in a future release, but four months later, with macOS 10.13.4 reportedly under beta test, it’s nowhere in sight.

    Does that mean it won’t show up until macOS 10.14? Maybe never?

    Unfortunately, the news media, when given the opportunity to talk to an Apple executive, seems to forget to ask questions about such matters. Evidently a new file system that will improve the reality of storage devices isn’t considered terribly important. To be fair, the debut of APFS on iOS and related gear occurred with little fanfare and almost free of glitches. But the storage device situation for Macs are far more complex and confusing, so I suppose I shouldn’t expect too much.

    In any case, Apple has suffered from bad publicity for its lapses. I can agree with the suggestion that the OS developers are taking on too much and not being given enough time to get the job done.

    Maybe Apple is getting the hint. There are published reports that some features expected for iOS 12 will be pushed off to iOS 13 to give the company additional time to deliver a more solid release. Such features reportedly include a new home screen, augmented reality enhancements, improved photo sorting, a long-awaited upgrade for Mail and other enhancements.

    As a practical matter, I’d welcome improvements to Mail, which has changed only in modest ways over the years. It’s one of my two most used apps; the other being Safari.

    But I have to say that, if true, Apple is taking the correct approach. Features should not be promised unless there’s a reasonable assurance they will be ready and working by the day of release, though I realize sometimes unexpected problems arise.

    But it does remind me of a common problem that has afflicted Microsoft over the years, boasting of new Windows features that never seem to see the light of day.

    Of course, Microsoft is rarely attacked for such lapses, or for OS updates that cause boot loops or the failure to get past a startup screen. I suppose that’s considered par for the course — for them. But as I’ve said many times, Apple is judged by a different set of rules. Rightly or wrongly, it is perceived as a builder of premium-priced gear, which means it has to meet higher standards.

    So obvious carelessness in quality control, and being able to login without a password is about as bad as it gets, shouldn’t occur. Maybe the lack of APFS support for Fusion drives isn’t a serious issue for most people, but Apple needs to keep Mac users up to date on what’s going on.

    Even if iOS, macOS, tvOS and watchOS become more reliable, Apple needs to be more proactive in describing changes. The lack of an explanation of how Apple prevented sudden shutdowns on iPhones with the iOS 10.2.1 update has caused no end of trouble. It’s not that throttling performance on devices with deteriorating batteries was a bad move, but a couple of sentences of explanation would have done a world of good.

    True Apple has apologized, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Even though the forthcoming iOS 11.3 release will allow you to check on battery health, and even switch off the controls that reduce performance, that hasn’t halted the class action lawsuits.

    It has also been reported that the the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission may conduct an investigation to determine if Apple violated securities laws in failing to give adequate information in the release notes for the original 10.2.1 update.

    I don’t pretend to know securities laws, but that seems a bit much. Apple might have to settle the lawsuits in some fashion, maybe with coupons for free battery replacements and such, but one hopes it’ll be an object lesson about not properly informing customers. That, and not trying to do too much with future OS releases, ought to really help as Apple takes on new projects going forward.


    The Apple Software Defect Freakout

    December 20th, 2017

    Apple can’t get a break. Software glitches that are not terribly unusual on other computing platforms garner amazing amounts of publicity when it happens to an iPhone or a Mac. That the average price of Apple gear is higher — even though usually competitive — means they have to answer, I suppose, to a higher authority.

    Most recently, Apple had to rush out a fix to address a root bug in macOS High Sierra, which allowed you to gain root privileges on a Mac — meaning you’d have full control of your computer without restriction — without a password. Clearly a foolish error, Apple fixed within hours after the flaw was revealed to the public.

    That should have been the end of it, until it turned out that, if you installed the macOS 10.3.1 update after running that fix, the bug would return.

    As a practical matter, there are always security flaws that will allow someone with access to a computer to take it over, more or less. The root bug didn’t come into play unless someone had physical access to your Mac. It wouldn’t just happen.

    Still, there are just so many ways you can attack this boneheaded move. Mistakes happen, but was this one sufficient to condemn Apple forever? What about all the other bugs that have appeared in previous macOS and iOS updates. Three years ago, an iOS 8.0.1 update had the side effect of partially bricking newer iPhones. That’s far worse than granting hackers easy access, because it meant no access.

    Even though Apple pulled that update within less than an hour, and released a fixed version, 8.0.2, the very next day, the affair got plenty of coverage from cable news talking heads. The affected iPhones could be restored, and would soon be back to normal, but it was still a big inconvenience. I suspect Apple’s support lines were clogged for days.

    Again, this all happened in 2014, and there are other software and hardware flaws over that years that were troublesome to greater or lesser degrees. I still remember buying a Power Macintosh 8100 in 1994, because the experience was memorable, but not in a pleasant way.

    Adding RAM was a treacherous process, which required you to physically remove the logic board after disconnecting some delicate wiring harnesses. In retrospect, the process was actually easier than pulling one of today’s iMacs apart. But once reassembled, it was crash city because of a seriously buggy Mac OS update. Sure, that didn’t happen under the watch of Steve Jobs or Tim Cook, but it illustrates something long-time Apple customers know full well. The products are pretty reliable and long lasting, but they are far from free of glitches.

    Despite this clear and obvious fact, some of Apple critics seem to think that the High Sierra bug, and some particularly irritating ones with iOS 11 that seemed near as foolish, represent a serious decline in the quality of Apple’s software.

    It’s easy to claim that they are doing too many things, releasing too many products — after a period in which people claimed they released too few — and need to spend more time and resources making sure that all or most of the serous bugs are fixed before release.

    There’s certainly plenty on Apple’s plate, with four OS platforms — iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS — to actively support, not to mention amazingly sophisticated hardware.

    Even if the number of bugs per product is the same or less — something Apple has claimed from time to time — once you add them up, it means there’s more to complain about. Having a larger customer base means that every one of those bugs impacts more people.

    So I can understand why some tech pundits will complain about a rapid decline in the quality of Apple’s products, even if serious bugs are usually fixed quickly. If you buy a flawed gadget, one that clearly doesn’t work or work properly due to a hardware defect, Apple will replace it without question. They are known to establish extended repair programs to fix hardware defects even a few years after the product goes out of production and warranties have expired.

    How can that happen if Apple’s gear has always been perfect?

    While Apple should be justifiably embarrassed when stupid mistakes are made, those mistakes will continue to occur until robots take over the entire development, testing and manufacturing process. Or maybe not even then. After all, how can robots be perfect if they are created by humans?

    But whenever you find something with an Apple label on it to complain about, consider the competition and how often bugs appear on those products. Consider Windows patches that cause boot loops — repeated booting without end – or the complete failure to start. Consider smartphones with biometrics, such as facial recognition and iris sensors, that can be easily defeated with digital photos.

    Sure, Apple’s Face ID and Touch ID are not perfect, and there are elaborate methods to defeat them, but they deliver a high degree of security for most users. The biometric flaws I mentioned in the previous paragraph, which impact a Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8, don’t seem to stop some reviewers from praising them to the skies. Imagine if you could defeat an iPhone’s biometrics as easily. You’d never hear the end of it.

    Now since Apple has never been perfect, it’s hard to claim that there are sudden declines in quality control. One surely hopes that Apple learns from its mistakes and, as with the rest of us, strives to do better the next time.