The Four Screws


Rather than comb through the avalanche of blog posts regarding yesterday’s Apple keynote, I again decided to wait until I could watch it at leisure and make up my own mind.

Retail and results aside1, it was classic Apple, even down to Tim Cook’s deadpan jokes, and anyone who takes time to watch will quickly cast aside any lingering doubts they might have regarding his new role as CEO.

And yes, like most Apple keynotes of late, it built up slowly, predictably (and let’s face it, boringly) up to a launch that was quite predictable in retrospect - more so if you flush out all the rumor junk memes that were floating around for weeks.

But Apple tightened a few important screws yesterday, and it was fun to consider the implications.

iOS

Ignoring the whimsy of Cards (which seems like a delayed response to the demise of iCards, and obviously something Apple themselves parted with uneasily), most of the iOS updates were little more than a rehash, and there are only three things worthy of note as far as I’m concerned:

  1. I hope Reminders syncs with iCal on the desktop properly, including all metadata
  2. Reading List sync could make a sizable dent in my Instapaper usage (sorry, Marco)
  3. At long, long last, we can finally flag e-mail messages2.

The rest is, well, humdrum - even the Reminders geofencing option was something you could do on ancient Nokia devices by using the cell ID API.

iCloud

And on the topic of fences, I’m still on the fence myself regarding the (additional?) lobotomy Apple is performing on MobileMe, especially where it concerns the removal of iDisk functionality without anything measurably better taking its place.

Having apps use a common API to sync documents atop iCloud is fine, but the file and folder metaphor is likely to stick around for a good while yet, and dropping all support for it is, well, ridiculous. Still, as long as Apple doesn’t ruin my e-mail archives when I switch over, I suppose I won’t miss it directly (not with the amount of alternatives out there, even besides the ubiquitous Dropbox).

The Find my Friends app, though, is clever. Really clever, especially where privacy controls are concerned. But iTunes Match is fiendishly brilliant, and I can see myself using it once they manage to cut through what must be an interminable pile of red tape and make it available outside the US.

The 4S

Incremental improvement is a staple of Apple’s product cycles, and that’s what we got across the board. This is where Apple started tightening the screws, but not by outperforming the competition. No, the one interesting enhancement for me (besides the camera sensor and post-processing) was Apple’s own internal optimization of both CDMA and GSM into a single system board.

That is probably their biggest and most understated achievement, given that it breaks down the number of models to essentially… One.

Sure, there are different storage capacities and casings, but the operational savings in production and component integration are sure to provide a considerable boost to their bottom line.

Their keeping around the 3GS was a surprise, though. I suppose it is by now much cheaper to make (Apple would never get caught out with a stockpile of unused parts) and hope that means iOS 5 will not be much more demanding than 4.3 (even though I expect some pain when upgrading my 3GS), but I think it serves another purpose - more on that later.

Siri

The second screw was the usual “one more thing”. Traditionally, that is an additional (and very hard to duplicate) differentiator, and Apple chose to do voice this year, something other smartphones can’t match yet (at least until Google jacks up their voice APIs another notch).

The word that immediately comes to mind is cute, although that might seem disparaging of the kind of integration they’ve accomplished across applications and Siri’s colorful history. But I was instantly reminded of the “egg freckles” cartoon from the Newton era, and the press is already harping on about possible parallels.

I personally love Wolfram Alpha and use it regularly, though, so I might just be jaded where it regards having easy access to arcane snippets of information. Also, my experiences with voice recognition software have been mixed, to say the least - not only would Siri have to be a polyglot to be useful to me, it would also have to take into account rather more strange contexts than were demoed.

But the possibilities are staggering when you consider accessibility and the multitude of impairments that make Siri appealing to millions of people (Apple’s own video portrayed a blind woman using it). And I’m rather curious as to the degree of integration third-party applications will be able to enjoy to extend Siri and make it even more useful, but it’s early days yet.

Realistically, it might well turn out to be another FaceTime.

Global Reach

This is the third screw, and yes, it was a topic of my earlier impressions on the Kindle Fire as well. I think it’s worth comparing notes here, even considering the wide chasm between their aggregate offerings (the cheapest iPod is more expensive than a Kindle, and the iPod Touch costs the same as the Fire)

Amazon is apparently having trouble ramping up production of the Fire to meet domestic demand - let alone worldwide, but Apple has made it easier on themselves to sell as many iPhones as possible come Christmas by keeping a tight rein on their industrial design and manufacturing pipeline3.

Which is interesting, considering that Amazon is currently being touted as aiming to produce “devices for the common man” and yet is apparently powerless to do so at the same scale as Apple, who is vilified for doing “elite” and “high-end” devices and yet are eating everyone’s lunch.

Tightening the Final Screw

But the most telling point? The market share pie chart that Tim Cook showed where they humbly admit to owning only 5% of the global mobile market. The whole market, including feature phones.

A lot of people will point at that chart and say it’s a way to weasel out and downplay comparison with, say, Android market share. But I think it points the way forward for Apple’s ambition.

And keeping the 3GS on the portfolio seems like a pretty good way to keep a sizable amount of pressure the competition - especially by taking advantage of it being a far cheaper device to produce (mere plastic, less flash, cheaper screen) and pricing it at a feature phone level with a contract - which is something you could already see in parts of Europe a couple of months ago as carriers prepared to dump stock (it being free in the US is just a tighter twist).

So I’m betting we’ll be looking at a trifle more than 5% when the iPhone 5 comes along next year and Tim updates that chart…


  1. I’ve long given up on there being a wholly owned Apple Store in Portugal, so I won’t bore you with my take on their retail strategy other than it being eminently suitable to increasing sales as much as possible. ↩︎

  2. I’ve only been complaining about it since the original iPhone came out… ↩︎

  3. They haven’t given any details on whether Portugal is part of the 70 countries where they plan to launch by the end of the year, but I have no illusions regarding their priorities and volume shipments - I’d love to get one for Christmas, but they’re sure to be in very short supply, and I’m anticipating a reprise of their older launches here… ↩︎