What is a “Great Product”?

Rod Hall, JPMorgan, after cutting Apple Watch estimates in half: “We think it’s a great product; it’s just that the traction for these watches, people still haven’t figured out what they want to use them for.

Takeaway: Great products need not a purpose or reason for its target demographic to use.

(Th)Air and Back Again – A MacBook’s Tale

What 13″ laptop is 1.1″ thick and weighs 5lbs?

An Apple MacBook, from 2008.

Why is that relevant? To put the MacBook Air into context. When the MacBook Air was released in 2008, its svelte 3/4″ “thinness” and 3lbs was a revelation, showing what mobile productivity could feel like. Today, nearly every consumer 13.3″ notebook >$500 is 3/4″ thick and less than 3.5lbs, touchscreen included. Even the MacBook Pro, which is a distinctly more capable machine, than the Air, is hardly thicker at all and only 0.5lbs heavier.

Meanwhile, the new 12″ (retina) MacBook is 25% thinner and 1/5 lighter than an 11.6″ MacBook Air and provides 12.5% more screen area (not to mention a drastically increased resolution). In comparison, the new MacBook is once more a mobility revelation. Importantly, the form factor size and weight reductions did not come at the expense of solidity, much performance (within 15% of a latest generation MacBook Air) or battery life. I played around with a co-worker’s MacBook, recently, and it is mind-boggling object to behold.

And it’s because of this progress that I believe we will soon see the MacBook Air, as we know it today, go into retirement. I’m guessing two versions of an “all new” MacBook will take its place, one with the same 12″ size as the current MacBook, and another in the 13.5-14″ range and 1/3 pound heavier, to give it some distinction from its smaller counterpart. Similar to the original announcement, the release should happen in late Q1, in time to address the college graduation season and continue to be fresh, going into back-to-school.

Skylake-Y seems like a shoe-in, with its performance profile very similar to Broadwell-U, in all but the most intensive, long-running operations, where the limited thermal headroom will crimp performance. In order to hit the psychologically and advertising-important “starting at $999″, I think the smaller, 12″ version will come with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The larger ~14” version likely starts at $1299, with an upgraded processor and 256GB storage.

The odd-duck MacBook Pro with optical drive notwithstanding, Apple hasn’t long carried 3 notebook line-ups for long, so unless one believes instead the new MacBook or the MacBook Pro line will disappear, it’s only natural that the in-between MacBook Air merges into the more distinctive option, shortly. It’ll also help with the naming, back to good old Pro and non-Pro.

I’ve been using an iPhone 6 as my primary device since launch day, 9/19, and iOS, at length, for the first time since the iPhone 3G-era. That was during the days of iPhone OS 2.0, which brought along the App Store, officially supporting third party apps for the first time. For the past 9-10 months, I’ve used a Lumia 1520 and Nexus 5 interchangeably, getting to know their hardware, software and ecosystems. At this point, I understand what each Windows Phone and Android have to offer, and surprisingly, after nearly a year, neither device feels outdated (a sign of slowing generational leaps in smartphones, surely?). However, I’ve been itching to see where Apple is and experience the “just works” commentary I hear from users and the top-rated app ecosystem. Here are my early thoughts in two sections, Hardware and Features.

Hardware

  • It looks less “distinctly-iPhone”, with its larger size, rounded and curved corners and nondescript back. The Apple logo and the round home button on the front remain, so don’t worry, folks will still know you’re using one. Given so many phones are using the chamfered-chrome-band look, recently, perhaps this move to less glamorous accoutrements will, ironically, make it more distinctive.
  • First impression upon taking it out of the box was one of amazement of its thinness and lightness, having come from primarily Lumia devices over the past couple years.
  • My second impression was that it’s hellishly slippery. The very finely anodized aluminum contributes, as does the fact that it’s so thin (and rounded). I don’t even have clammy hands to help; it’s like holding a wet rock.
  • Apple barely met the competition on display resolution this generation (and undershot a bit with the iPhone 6). However, the selection of in-cell touch (LCD display + capacitive sensors being one and the same) and cover glass make displayed contents appear to be splayed directly on the glass’s surface. Contrast is also very good, maximum brightness very high, meaning viewing quality, both indoors and outdoors, is relatively high.
  • When the rumored iPhone 6 chassis first leaked, I was convicted that they were fakes, due to the unsightly plastic antenna domain dividers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; they were the real thing, and the lines remain ugly. I specifically picked the color variant that I thought would make it show up the least, Space Grey.
  • The aesthetic problem with the antenna lines are two-fold, in my opinion: first, they’re too thick to look well-integrated, and second, the way they wrap around the top and bottom curved portions of the phone make them appear less like a deliberate part of the design. Instead, it’s as if the phone was designed without them, then realized, shoot, antenna performance sucks!
  • I picked Space Grey, and the curved black display and bezels blend together into a smooth, monolithic mass. From the front, it’s nice and minimalistic. I like it.
  • The camera bump is a non-issue (thus far).

iPhone 6 - DisplayiPhone 6iPhone 6 - Camera

Features

  • I’m now addicted to unlocking my phone with Touch ID. One lazy press of the home button, with my thumb, and I’m taken to the home screen, even though I have my work Exchange connected and corporate security policies applied. It’s also a fantastic way to skip typing passwords. It might be my single favorite feature, because it’s fast and reliable (camera performance rivals for this prestigious award).
  • Regarding display resolution, mentioned above, one way Apple makes up for no-longer-class-meeting specs is in font rendering. In apps that are updated for the display resolution of the iPhone 6 (largely the first party apps, at this point), text is incredibly narrow, smooth, and clear. Reading web content maintains this crispness, while fitting more content onto the display, now that it’s larger.
  • The rear image sensor remains 8MP in resolution, but optics and processing have been marginally improved (see this wonderful comparison of iPhone family camera IQ). Most significantly, phase-detect autofocus (on-sensor) has been added, helping in two regards: faster autofocus and more reliable focus tracking (with continuous autofocus). The second benefit supports grabbing in-focus, fast action, 240fps video.
  • The practical benefits, for me, (I care largely about stills) are insanely quick and accurately focused photos. The focus and shot-to-shot performance difference versus my Lumia 1520 (which, albeit isn’t known for quick autofocus) is similar to a DSLR versus a point and shoot camera. And though the final image quality isn’t as good as what the Lumia 1520 can achieve, it’s more consistent, giving me more confidence I can get at least a shot. Additionally, taking panoramas is an incredibly smooth experience, and the stitching speed and quality are top tier, as I discovered first-hand at Mount Rainier, the first weekend out with it.

rainier_ios_pano

  • I’ve become unfamiliarized with iOS since I last used it many, many years ago. I’m still a huge kludge, not yet habituated with the information and interaction hierarchies, particularly, as some common actions are quite different from Windows (Phone) or Android. For example, I constantly look to the bottom of apps for more options, settings, only to have to remind myself that they’re largely in the central settings store. I’ve not yet decided whether one is worse or better, just different, at this point.
  • Most interactions in iOS are highly polished, though. At least on latest-generation hardware, all the animations and transparency effects are smooth, menus well thought out, and a general air of cohesiveness and consistency is found throughout. The icons and colors haven’t grown on me, yet (it feels a bit… amateur?), but at least they’re everywhere. A few head-scratchers and complaints do exist:
    • In the notification drop-down, I really want a single gesture to dismiss items. Instead, you swipe to the left, then hit a small (x) target.
    • In the same area, app notifications are not cleared after visiting the app directly and viewing the reason for the notice in the first place (a very common example of this is email). Instead, one must manually dismiss the notification.
    • Speaking of notifications (:)), if I step away from my phone for a while, during which time, I receive a notification, no indication is made in the status area that I have pending notifications. It’s a surprise every time – ooohh, do I have notifications? Ahhh, not this time!
    • The little bubbles atop app icons indicating the number of missed items does not get dismissed after entering the app; only when your email inbox is clean, clean, clean, will that number go away. So, it’s a perpetual reminder that I’m very bad at triaging my inbox.
    • I’ve been spoiled by Windows Phone’s amazing handling of contacts, intelligently linking them if you have multiple input contact services, (such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Lync, etc.) and reducing clutter in your contacts list. iOS does nothing of the sort. Not only is the contact list a bee’s nest to navigate, it also complicates other apps that use your central contact list. For example, I ended up with 2-3 duplicate “favorite” entries for many, many contacts in WhatsApp. I went from 99 suggested to 43 real.
    • I’ve also been spoiled by the fantastic inbox productivity apps in Windows Phone, particularly as it pertains to supporting Exchange (the reason might be a no-brainer). Neither iOS nor Android do as a good of a job of exposing rich options for managing email-calendar invites and neither do a job at all of displaying Information Rights Managed email. I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that, though…
  • Top tier apps are impeccably polished, not to mention anything you’ve heard of is available, of course. They’re all fast and fluid, use reasonable layouts (although very, very few take advantage of the increased screen real-estate of the iPhone 6, much less the 6+), and I haven’t seen app crashes, thus far.
  • I’m not blown away by having so many apps at my fingertips, though. I don’t seem to have the urge to explore a bunch of apps. Perhaps that’s what using an app-deprived ecosystem does to you. You don’t know how to behave in the presence of them anymore. Assuming battery usage is a good indicator of what I use on my phone and how frequently, my iPhone is where apps go to die: 39% Email, 22% Safari, 11% Home & Lock Screen, 6% Messenger, 4% Stocks, 2% Calendar, 2% Gmail, and nothing else creeps above 1%.

iOS Utilization

Summary

There’s generally much to like about the iPhone 6, and while I’m not certain I’m any longer a representative smartphone user, I’ve had my memory refreshed as to why so many people prefer iOS and the iPhone hardware ecosystem. They generally look nice, developers put the most effort into their iOS app manifestations, and there are some genuinely excellent capabilities that many people care about, from a consistently good camera to simplifying security with Touch ID (and I’m looking forward to Apple Pay, as well). It’s also interesting to note that it’s been the first time in many generations since Apple’s hardware industrial design prowess has been questioned, with both the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch questioned for the camera bump, antenna lines, indistinctiveness or gaudiness of design.

It will bear watching whether this is a temporary bump in the road, one smoothed out by the evolution of tastes over time, or something more persistent, an indication of a missing filter in Steve Jobs. iPhone 6iPhone 6iPhone 6 - Curved DisplayiPhone 6

iPhone Camera IQ Progress

Lisa Bettany takes a comprehensive look at the iPhone’s rear-facing camera image quality comparison across scenarios, through the years. The first iPhone was average at the time, but Apple made significant improvements through the iPhone 5. Looks like the 6 brings some additional detail and noise performance enhancements.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the iPhone 5S launch is what lives within: the new A7 SoC. One of the first shipping 64-bit ARMv8 designs, and certainly for the consumer market, folks may wonder, why? Why did Apple feel the urge to go to a 64-bit architecture, one that doesn’t have much opportunity to stretch its legs on a 4″ phone? Was it simply to keep consistent with the next generation iPad? If you believe the A#/A#X pattern will continue with this generation, that must certainly contribute to it; however, the question remains: does the move to 64-bit on an iPad make sense enough, right now, to outweigh the cost and complexity?

There are plenty of arguments to be made on that point. Instead, I think it points to a new direction. Think about the iPads you see people using. How many of them are wrapped in cases? And, how many of those cases have keyboards attached to them? Even more, how many times have you seen folks typing furiously on those iPads+keyboards, just like a laptop? The answer is, a lot, especially for a something that was originally defined as a consumption device.

Combine that tendency with strong enterprise interest in the iPad and you have a new product opportunity, a sell-up option from the basic iPad, combining an attached (or detachable) keyboard with the touchscreen, all running iOS. Think of it as a touchscreen MacBook Air, but thinner, lighter and providing all-day battery life. The A7 (or A7X variant for a tablet-sized product) would really be able to stretch its legs, injecting a lot more performance headroom and scale in a device designed for productivity.

Here’s a quick comparison of the existing MBA and iPad: MacBook Air 11.6″

  • Intel Core i5
  • 4GB memory
  • 128GB SSD
  • $999

iPad (4th Gen)

  • Apple A6X SoC
  • 1GB memory
  • 128GB eMMC
  • $799

There are several ways this scenario could play out. Here’s one: an “iOSBook” 64GB SKU at $899 and a 128GB SKU at $999 while maintaining similar or better margins than the existing iPad (greater margins than the existing MBA).

Compared to Qualcomm’s SoC ASPs of $22, in-house production of the A# SoC is probably about the same, given the larger die, and much, much lower than the $120 ASP Intel is purportedly getting for their chips across the board (the i5 in the MBA is likely above this average). Meanwhile, an extra 1GB of memory, larger touchscreen and the keyboard attachment (or chassis) may offset the chipset cost reduction. Now, you have an ~12” iPad, 2GB memory in a roughly clamshell form factor.

In terms of positioning, there’s some trade-off in performance relative to the MBA, but it contains a much higher resolution display and touchscreen with all the familiarity and apps of iOS (prevalent compared to OS X). For most people, this “iOSBook” would be more than sufficient, and if peak performance is paramount, then the MBA and MBP are still there for customers’ choosing.

There are rumours from the supply chain that Apple is testing a larger display for an iPad, slightly under 13″. While it could be a big tablet, perhaps it’s the panel for something a bit different. 🙂