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    iOS 11 Goes Public: But Take a Deep Breath First…

    June 27th, 2017

    Just days after Apple released the second developer beta of iOS 11, it was time for the public to get involved. It’s part of Apple’s Public Beta program, where brave customers have their chance to try out beta operating systems.

    In the past, all the action revolved around macOS and iOS, but this year you’ll also have a crack at tvOS 11, which requires the fourth generation Apple TV. If you have an older Apple TV, you’re out of luck. In addition to these three, developers are also getting a chance to use watchOS 4, but you really don’t want to risk your Apple Watch to such an experience. While there are ways to restore a Mac or an iPhone or an iPad, an Apple Watch that becomes a doorstep would have to be returned to Apple for repair.

    While I used to have spare computers on which to try out new things, today I have one iPhone, one iMac and an old MacBook Pro. My wife’s iPhone 5c is not on the list of supported devices for a new iOS version. Since she depends on her iPad for lots of things, I am not going to put her in a position to have to cope with the uncertainties of beta software. That’s my cross to bear; it helps keep the marriage happy.

    So I decided to give iOS 11 a try. Maybe I just like to live dangerously, but you can restore the device if all goes badly. It’s all explained in an article from Mac Rumors. You may never have to take that step, but it’s surely worth a try.

    Long and short: I did decide that maybe Apple fixed enough of iOS 11’s worst bugs to make it reasonably useful for beta testing, and thus I set up my iPhone 6 to receive the update. The first step is the most important — backup your data. Don’t take chances!

    You will then download a device profile from Apple’s beta site on the unit itself. Once that’s done, it restarts, and it’s ready to receive the iOS 11 updates.

    From there, the setup process is identical to installing any OS update. You will download future updates on the unit itself, via General > Software Update. It works the same as any iOS update.

    Indeed, if I actually didn’t look at my iPhone a bit more carefully than usual, I might not have immediately noticed much had changed, until I began to look around and brought up the Control Center, which received a major overhaul. The installation process was seamless, and reasonably quick, on a par with most OS updates.

    I was pleased to see that performance hadn’t suffered noticeably. Sometimes an early beta can cause stuttering and frequent app crashes. Of course, I haven’t used it long enough to really see where the problems might lie. I even opened the Lyft and Uber driver apps to see if they’d go online and do their stuff. I went offline right away, because I’m in no position to receive riders until I have a replacement car. My VW was totaled last week after being struck by a pickup truck. The week went downhill from there.

    So I sat back and began to look through the changes.

    Some of the key improvements include:

    • Revamped Control Center
    • Updated interface design elements
    • Drag and Drop
    • iPad Dock
    • New Finder-style Files app
    • Siri improvements
    • Peer-to-peer Apple Pay
    • Do Not Disturb driving mode

    I won’t have a chance to look over the iPad Dock — which is similar to the macOS Dock — until I install iOS 11 on Barbara’s iPad; that awaits a final or near-final version. But I’ve seen the photos. It does appear Apple is making a concerted effort to make these tablets more suited to doing productive work by borrowing a few ideas from the Mac. I’ll leave it there, because I do not wish to bore the reader with my endless complaints about iPads.

    That said, I do like the refined interface quite a bit.  In Mail, one visible change is the large bold text for Mailboxes. The rest of the look and feel seems smoothed out, as if Apple’s designers went through all the elements carefully. Of course, things are apt to change from early beta to final release. But it’s all moving in a good direction, and I positively live in Mail, so I’ll give it the full workout in the days ahead.

    One thing I did notice right away: Formatted messages appear to load faster.

    Moving on to Safari, again the general impression I received was of improved snappiness. While given a distinct iOS look and feel, the Files app displays folders and files in a familiar fashion. Nobody accustomed to a standard graphical user interface, be it macOS, Windows or even one of those Windows-style Linux distributions, will have a lick of trouble with it.

    And then there’s Siri. According to Apple, Siri has a more natural voice, and machine learning makes it (I hesitate to say her) smarter.

    Now up till now, I’ve used Siri sparingly. Even setting an alarm can be difficult, because any lack of prevision can gum up the works. But I did notice a smoother, more expressive delivery. That is promising, but Siri can still be obtuse. So, for example, I asked a question that Siri previously failed to answer properly. All I wanted to do was to have all inactive alarms, those switched off, deleted. Try as I might, Siri didn’t understand. Siri for iOS 11 fared no better. But I’ll wait until the beta process is further along before reaching any conclusions; I remain optimistic that things will get better.


    In the Wake of the VW Diesel Scandal

    November 9th, 2016

    I should feel lucky. I’ve owned several VWs over the years, but never considered a diesel option. Not that I had any prejudice against a different kind of engine — I owned one of Mazdas original rotary engine cars in the 1970s — but the value proposition just didn’t make much sense to me.

    Here’s why: A car with a diesel engine costs several thousand dollars more. Depending on fuel prices, diesel fuel may cost more too. Right now, we’re talking of up to 15 cents per gallon more than regular here in Arizona, although that state of affairs can be reversed as prices change. The picture may be very different where you live.  So in Europe, it’s more advantageous to buy a diesel car.

    Supposedly diesel engines last longer, but a VW service writer I have known for a while told me that scheduled maintenance is more expensive. Recent VW diesels also require that you also add a diesel exhaust fluid, usually called urea, at regular intervals to help control emissions. Despite routinely getting more than 40 miles per gallon on the highway, the diesel engine proposition is not as economical as it seems to be for a passenger car or SUV.

    Indeed, it may well be that the initial refusal to set up a system requiring urea is why VW engineers decided to cheat the system beginning in 2009. So when the vehicle was placed on a dynamometer to test emissions levels, the vehicles would pass with flying colors. But the software was designed to turn off emissions controls under normal use, thus emitting up to 40 times the legal limit.


    And it wasn’t just for VW vehicle sold in the U.S. Millions of cars around the world were also programmed to cheat the system, and VW has been forced to pay through the nose for its transgressions. The fixes are less severe in Europe and are already being performed, but the authorities in this country wanted to exact blood in the form of a settlement exceeding $15 billion. It means that people who bought the offending vehicles can sell them back to VW, or break their leases without penalty. They will also receive up to $10,000 in good will payments. In addition to fines, VW must invest billions to develop electric cars. But that’s where the industry is moving anyway.

    Those who want to keep their cars can still get the free fix from VW — when and if it’s approved — and still be eligible for the goodwill payments. U.S. dealers are also getting chunks of cash to help compensate for lost business. So far this year, sales in this country down over 13% for the first 10 months of 2016 compared to the previous year. But that’s not as bad as it seems, because 25% of VW’s U.S. sales were diesels before the ax fell.

    While it appears most customers will take the settlement, some will, and can, opt to sue, and individual states can also take separate legal action. So far, it doesn’t seem any other car company has pulled a similar stunt, although some, such as Ford, Hyundai and Kia, have been accused of faking fuel economy ratings.

    To be fair, I think VW should be forced to pay billions of dollars to European customers too, but that might be enough money to sink the company, thus leaving hundreds of thousands of people out of work, and abandoning tens of millions of loyal VW customers. So the eye-for-an-eye approach isn’t practical.

    But even after the settlement is history, VW will have to find ways to keep customers with an expanding lineup that is meant to appeal to changing tastes. At a time where regular passenger cars aren’t doing so well, VW has announced the Atlas, a three-row SUV that will debut in the U.S. next year. It’s designed to appeal to a class of customers that VW has not, as yet, been able to reach, but represents a major growth segment of the market.

    And what about those responsible or this outrage? Well, VW initially claimed it was all the fault of some wayward engineers who confronted a problem not easily solved, to tame diesel engines to meet tightening emissions requirements around the world. But it’s hard to believe key executives didn’t sign off on this scheme — even though they deny it. So the corporate bloodletting may not be over, but if some executives have to be fired, or imprisoned, because they cheated customers, so be it. Large corporations are generally treated far-too-lightly when it comes to breaking the law.

    But what about the cars themselves?

    Well, VW still has a lineup of unique vehicles that have an offbeat appeal. Believe it or not, they still sell a car labeled Beetle, but it has only a passing resemblance with the rear-engined classic that made the company famous. The version sold in this country, dubbed A5, is built in Mexico and based on the Jetta compact. It’s actually a pretty good car, though hardly space efficient if you need to carry passengers in the rear seat. It has a starting price of just under $20,000, but prices can soar to over $32,000 for the fancier R-Line SEL.

    I nearly bought a Beetle once, several decades ago, when it cost around $2,000. That car had a manual transmission and forget about air conditioning. As I recall, even the radio was optional.

    I’ve owned two Passats, VW’s midsized family car, over the years. I’ve also spent some time riding — and occasionally driving — a friend’s Passat. As I wrote last year, Robert, a client, last year bought a closeout 2015 Passat Limited, a special configuration that was available briefly until the 2016 models arrived.

    Now the American Passat is a special version, assembled in Chattanooga, TN, which is larger and a little softer riding than its European counterpart. Thus it loses a tad of its sporty Teutonic appeal.

    The other day I called Robert to see if a recent problem with his MacBook Air had returned. The discussion moved to cars, and he told me that his dealer offered him all sorts of discount incentives, and a generous trade-in allowance on his car, so he opted for a 2017 Passat SE. His monthly payments were essentially unchanged for a car that cost a couple of thousand dollars more.

    The SE offers such extras as a moonroof and a blind spot monitor plus support for Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. The blind spot feature flashes amber in the sideview mirrors as cars are passing beside you before they reach your field of vision. I wonder how many accidents will be avoided that way. I spent a few minutes looking it over, before he let me take him to a nearby fast food restaurant for a light lunch. VW has spruced up the exterior somewhat, made it more slippery in wind tunnel testing, and, with a few other tweaks, improved fuel economy ratings slightly. The interior is also less plain than before, giving it a little more of the allure of a low-rent Audi A6. Otherwise, it feels and drives about the same as its predecessor.

    In short, it’s a pretty good car.

    So I do hope VW can now begin to move past its self-generated scandal and get back to building great cars. I also hope the authorities will be checking all auto makers more carefully than ever, just in case another company tries to pull a stunt that cheats the system, and customers.


    The Apple Car May Never Be

    October 18th, 2016

    Apple’s participation in the auto business has been on a fairly basic level. With CarPlay, you can “play” or stream some apps from your iPhone onto your vehicle’s infotainment system. While you can keep tabs on email and other messages, it works best with mapping and music. Unfortunately, it’s also somewhat awkward to use, because you have to connect your iPhone to the auto’s USB port with a lightning cable.

    I’ve had limited opportunities to use CarPlay, since a couple of friends have new cars that support the system. But to be fair to everyone, car makers generally also support Google’s competitor, Android Auto, which is meant to offer similar features.

    Eventually, you’ll be free of the need for cabling. Beginning in 2017, the BMW 5 Series sedan will support the wireless version of CarPlay. But it’s an expensive alternative, since the 5 Series usually costs upwards of $50,000 unless your dealer is offering a smokin’ deal.

    Other than wireless, where is Apple going with its auto initiative? Well, not so long ago, rumors arose about the rise of Project Titan, said to be the code name for an Apple R&D program that would reportedly result in the production of what the media referred to as an Apple Car.

    But this is something Apple has never confirmed, even if the company admits to being interested in the automobile business. But remember, Apple expressed interest in the living room and the best they have offered, so far, is a revamped Apple TV. That’s not even a half step.

    Now after months of reports of hirings, people are reportedly being let go. The reputed project leader, Steve Zadesky, reportedly left Apple earlier this year admit reports of a lack of focus. Former Apple hardware executive Mike Mansfield took over, and there are published reports of further bloodletting, mostly people who are skilled at engineering the components of a motor vehicle in place of people who are focused on software development. So Dan Dodge, the creator of BlackBerry’s QNX car platform, is said to have taken on a greater role at Project Titan.

    So what’s Apple really up to?

    Understand that Apple routinely engages in different R&D projects, but few of them result in an actual retail ducts. Take several years of reports that Apple was developing a smart TV set. The rumors were fueled by comments by Steve Jobs, in Water Isaacson’s authorized biography, that he had devised a magical TV interface, the best ever. Maybe so, or maybe he was just saying things to freak out the rest of the industry. At one time even Lenovo, known primarily as a PC maker, was said to be building a TV set for the Asian market, but it never saw the light of day.

    In the end, there is no Apple smart TV. Perhaps some prototypes were sampled, but at the end of the day Apple decided there was no place for it in a highly saturated marketplace. It’s not the same as digital music players, smartphones and tablets, and even smartwatches, where there were untapped markets that Apple found ways to exploit.

    But the same may be true for the auto industry. There are loads of players, many of whom are busy developing electric cars and self-driving systems. There is already an active and potentially successful car company that some consider to function in the spirit of Apple, and that’s Tesla Motors. Yes, Tesla isn’t making money yet, and hasn’t demonstrated it can build hundreds of thousands of affordable electric cars, the forthcoming Model 3, each year. But recent reports indicate that production problems with existing models have been largely overcome, so it’s too early to write them off.

    Other car companies are doing their part. GM Chevrolet Bolt, a head-on competitor to the upcoming Tesla midsize vehicle, promises a driving range of over 200 miles and a price similar to the Model 3.

    Stung by problems meeting U.S. emissions requirements with its diesel engines, Volkswagen is going electric too, having already demonstrated a potential future design. So your next Passat may well be powered by a battery rather than a gas engine, or perhaps it’ll be a lineup of all-new models with different names.

    Into this crowded marketplace, there may be no place for an Apple entry. Tesla has already assumed some of the qualifies of Apple, such as having its own factory dealer network to avoid the Persian bazaar atmosphere of the typical dealership. And I’m sure most of you have stories about dealing with car stores at different levels, and being treated like dirt even when you’re attempting to make what may be one of the most expensive purchases in your entire life. How can that be a good thing?

    So where does Apple go if there’s no Apple Car? If it can’t conquer Detroit, perhaps there will be something that I call Apple Drive, an autonomous driving system that  would be licensed to auto manufacturers. I suppose the main question is how it would be integrated with existing onboard systems on a car, unless devised a set of minimum requirements for safety, braking and handling that could be abstracted in the new Apple system.

    According to the latest Project Titan scuttlebutt, Apple will decide by late 2017 what direction to take, or even if the project is destined to continue.


    Electric Car Charging Systems and Compatibility

    May 26th, 2016

    Consider this scenario: You’re taking the family on a long trip, and the gas gauge is about to hit the empty zone, and you soon locate a sign about gas stations at the next exit. With fingers crossed that there’s enough gas left in the tank, you turn to the offramp and, within a few minutes, you pull up at the first source of fuel.

    As you pull, you see a huge sign saying that the type of gas supplied only works in a Ford. But you’re driving a Jeep. What do you do?

    So you drive to another gas station, only to discover that it only supports a Honda or a Toyota.

    It’s the picture of absurdity. You buy fuel based on the octane rating. If you have a diesel vehicle, there are fewer sources of fuel, but one is essentially as good as another. How could it be otherwise?

    But now imagine you are driving a motor vehicle that’s 100% electric. While you can plug it into a handy outlet at your home, what about on the road? Well, Tesla Motors has a reported 600 charging stations around the world for its cars. It’s not a lot by any means, which may argue against buying one in many cities, but at least you know where you stand. As the user base, so will the number of charging facilities.

    In passing, I wonder how Tesla will cope with those 400,000 preorders for the Model 3 mid-sized sedan that’s supposed to start shipping by the end of next year. If they can somehow manage to increase production to respectable levels — and it’s clear they are trying — that will create a situation where many more charging stations will be required.

    Now consistent with all those rumors that Apple is developing a car, perhaps one in direct competition to a Tesla, there’s a report from Reuters that Apple is engaged in talking to companies that build charging stations. The end result would be to roll out charging stations around the world, same as Tesla, for the Apple Car.

    All fine and good.

    But I have a question: Would an Apple Car be able to hook up to the connector at a Tesla station for rapid charging? Would a Tesla be able to hook up to Apple’s charging station? Assuming they all use standard power plugs, no doubt they’d work just fine. Having both companies providing charging facilities would only make it more convenient for customers who buy these vehicles.

    But if there are fast-charging schemes and other technological differences that might reduce compatibility, that would have to be considered. Ideally, companies who build electric cars would want to get together to make sure that customers have the widest possible selection of charging facilities. In these early days of mass-produced electric cars, any non-compatibility question would be a disservice to drivers.

    I suppose that Apple and Tesla might need to work together in other ways. In 2014, Tesla broke ground on a Gigafactory, a huge battery plant, in Sparks, Nevada. Production of battery cells is set for 2017, and it is supposed to reach full capacity by 2020. The latter is when Apple might be ready to begin building cars; that is, if all the rumors are correct. At the very least, Apple is spending lots of time and R&D money exploring the possibilities.

    Assuming Tesla has the capacity, wouldn’t it make sense to sign up Apple as a customer? Indeed, if production capacity isn’t sufficient, it might provide reason to build a second or a third battery plant to handle the needs of both companies.

    Sharing technology is nothing new in the car industry. Various industry players have long cooperated on various technologies for the sake of economy of scale, and to benefit all those involved. Indeed, it is reported that Volkswagen once attempted to make a deal with Mercedes-Benz for its BlueTEC diesel emission control technology. However, the engineers (and perhaps the bean counters) at VW decided that they could do better to control emissions all by themselves.

    And that’s where the VW cheating scandal began. But that’s way beyond the scope of the article. What’s important to me is that electric car makers need to consider possible interoperability standards, so everyone is on the same page when it comes to charging stations and other facilities needed to keep your vehicle running. An Android smartphone and an iPhone can, assuming product support, work on the same wireless carrier or ISP.

    If Tesla’s dream comes true, there will someday be thousands of charging stations. As technology improves, the cars will spend more time and more miles on the road before charging is needed, and it will take less time to bring the battery back to full capacity so you can continue on your trip.

    This is obviously quite early in the game, but Apple will no doubt not get involved in building and selling cars until all the potential downsides are considered and solved. I would also expect that the Apple Car would differ from the Tesla in some way to make it a compelling alternative. Apple, remember, doesn’t just duplicate what other companies do, but expands the state of the art while resolving problems that improve the customer experience.

    However, I doubt I’ll be buying one, ever, unless the price hits an affordable level, and I have the money to make that investment. I might just be too old to care, but it’s nice to dream, or visit an casino bonus to get off some steam.