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Main article: IPhone

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China attacks Apple for allowing Hong Kong crowdsourced police activity app

13:41 | 9 October

Apple’s decision to greenlight an app called HKmaps, which is being used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong to crowdsource information about street closures and police presence, is attracting the ire of the Chinese government.

An article in Chinese state mouthpiece, China Daily, attacks the iPhone maker for reversing an earlier decision not to allow the app to be listed on the iOS App Store — claiming the app is “allowing the rioters in Hong Kong to go on violent acts” (via The Guardian).

HKmaps uses emoji to denote live police and protest activity around Hong Kong, as reported by users.

The former British colony is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China that’s been able to maintain certain economic and and political freedoms since reunification with China — under the one country, two systems principle. But earlier this year pro-democracy protests broke out after the Hong Kong government sought to pass legislation that would allow for extradition to mainland China. It’s policing around those on-going protests that’s being made visible on HKmaps.

The app’s developer denies the map enables illegal activity,

its function is “for info” purposes only — to allow residents to move freely around the city by being able to avoid protest flash-points. But the Chinese government is branding it “toxic”.

“Business is business, and politics is politics. Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong. But people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts. Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision,” the China Daily writer warns in a not-so-veiled threat about continued access to the Chinese market.

“Providing a gateway for ‘toxic apps’ is hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, twisting the facts of Hong Kong affairs, and against the views and principles of the Chinese people,” it goes on. “Apple and other corporations should be able to discern right from wrong. They also need to know that only the prosperity of China and China’s Hong Kong will bring them a broader and more sustainable market.”

The article takes further aim at Apple — claiming it reinstated a song which advocates for independence for Hong Kong and had previously been removed from its music store.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment.

A few days ago the company was getting flak from the other direction as Western commentators

to express incredulity over its decision, at the app review stage, not to allow HKmaps on its store. The app’s developer said Apple App Store reviewers had rejected it citing the reasoning as “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement”.

Yet, as many

at the time, the Google-owned Waze app literally describes its function as “avoid police” if you take the trouble to read its iOS listing. So it looked like a crystal-clear case of double standards by Cupertino. And, most awkwardly for Apple, as if the US tech giant was siding with the Chinese state against Hong Kong as concerned residents fight for their autonomy and call for democracy.

We asked Apple about its decision to reject the app at the App Store review stage last week. It did not provide any comment but a couple of days afterwards a spokesman pointed us to an “update” — where the developer tweeted that the iOS version was “Approved, comming soon!” [sic].

At the time of writing the iOS app remains available on the App Store but the episode highlights the tricky trade-offs Apple is facing by operating in the Chinese market — a choice that risks denting its reputation for highly polished corporate values.

The size of the China market is such that just “economical deceleration” can — and has — put a serious dent in Apple’s bottom line. If the company were to exit — or be ejected — from the market entirely there would be no way for it to cushion the blow for shareholders. Yet with a premium brand so bound up with ethical claims to champion and defend fundamental human rights like privacy Apple risks being pinned between a rock and a hard place as an increasingly powerful China flexes more political and economic muscle.

Wider trade tensions between the US and China are also creating further instability, causing major operating headaches for Chinese tech giant Huawei — with the Trump administration pressuring allies to freeze it out of 5G networks and leaning on US companies not to provide services to Chinese firms (leading to question marks over whether Huawei’s smartphones can continue using Google’s Android OS, and suggestions it might seek to deploy its own OS).

The going is certainly getting tougher for tech businesses working from East to West. But it also remains to be seen how sustainable Apple’s West-to-East democratic balancing act can be given heightened and escalating geopolitical tensions.

 


0

iPhone 11 Pro is the most accessible iPhone yet

17:30 | 7 October

Last year’s iPhone was an outlier for me. Although I reviewed the then-new iPhone XS line, the model I ultimately chose for myself was the “lesser” iPhone XR. I chose it mostly for aesthetic reasons. As much as I appreciated its well-rounded technical merits, I was downright giddy at the notion I could have an iPhone in my favorite color: blue. I’ve not once regretted my choice nearly a year later. Color aside, the XR was—and remains—a terrific device.

At a fundamental level, choosing the iPhone XR was more significant than a favorite color or a willingness to accept some technical differences. As a visually impaired person, foregoing the XS meant I was purposely giving up a pivotal accessibility feature—the OLED screen—that would have made my experience with the device more accessible. In hindsight, the fact I decided on the objectively worse phone in the XR speaks volumes about how great it was as a product, and how color can spark such raw, immense delight.

This year, there is no blue iPhone. Without the emotional appeal of color in the equation, I’m reminded once again why the best iPhone money can buy—the iPhone 11 Pro Max—is the best, most accessible iPhone for me.

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The Awesomeness of OLED

Apple provided me with two review units: one white iPhone 11 and one midnight green iPhone 11 Pro Max. As of this writing, I’ve had both phones for close to two weeks and I’ve spent roughly a week with each phone. I also have my year-old XR handy as a reference tool.

While I have spent lengthy time with OLED displays before—my iPhone X had one and, on a much smaller scale, every Apple Watch has had one—coming back after a year with my XR’s Liquid Retina LCD screen was quite literally eye-opening. Even with my poor eyesight, I immediately could notice a substantial difference in quality after putting my XR (and iPhone 11) side by side with the 11 Pro Max. For two years now, Apple has rightfully boasted about the XR’s (now 11) LCD screen being the best in the industry. It is ridiculously good, but the Pro’s OLED display is itself so good that I’ve wondered during testing how I was able to live happily with my XR last year.

In practice, the Super Retina XDR display on the 11 Pro Max is appreciably better in all phases. In addition to being physically larger (albeit not by much), the 11 Pro Max display’s brightness and sharpness make everything I see on my device much easier. It reduces eye strain and fatigue, which are constant battles for me. iOS 13’s new dark mode looks fantastic on OLED screens; I have it set to automatically switch from light to dark at sundown, and use apps like Twitter and Things in their pitch black modes at nighttime. Although there are dark mode skeptics, I personally find it to be a welcome reprieve during evening hours, and the credit is due to the Pro’s OLED display.

I started my testing with the iPhone 11 Pro Max for a few days, then switched to the regular 11 for another few days. After using both, knowing their respective screen technologies, I instantly knew which model I preferred. I could use the iPhone 11 with no problem, but having access to both phones reaffirmed to me just how superior OLED is for my vision. For my needs, it’s OLED or bust.

Apple iPhone 11

Three years with Face ID

I’ve written about my trials with Face ID before. As we collectively enter our third year with Apple’s facial recognition system, I think it’s worth briefly examining where it stands in context of the new iPhones and accessibility.

Apple says Face ID in the new iPhones is “up to 30 percent faster” while working from further away and at more angles than before. I cannot tell how much better it is in these regards; it’s Face ID and it seems to work just as well as it ever has. My strabismus still seems to wreak havoc on the phones’ TrueDepth camera system.

I set up Face ID on my 11 Pro Max and turned off Require Attention so that I needn’t look directly at the camera to unlock my phone. (When you do this, Apple blasts a modal alert on screen saying Face ID won’t be as secure as it could be. Fair enough, but it’s a trade-off I have to make in order to use it.) It’s worked like a charm, as usual.

What’s interesting, though, is what happened when I switched to the regular iPhone 11. I set up Face ID, but forgot to go into Settings and disable Require Attention. I suddenly realized this the other day, as I had clearly forgotten Face ID settings don’t sync from device to device. In hindsight it’s impressive how much Face ID has seemingly improved at recognizing my gaze. Whether it’s purposeful on Apple’s part, I don’t know, but I think it’s telling that I was unlocking my phone and paying for Lyft rides pretty much hassle-free for days with Require Attention on by default.

My strabismus still makes me an edge case, so I prefer Require Attention be disabled, as it’s the path of least resistance. Yet the happy accident I had regarding Require Attention led to a pleasant surprise. I can’t say it’s directly attributable to this generation of Face ID, but it’s an improvement regardless.

Adieu, 3D Touch

Like the much-maligned Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro, I have long been an ardent supporter of 3D Touch. I wrote about how it could positively impact accessibility when in debuted with the iPhone 6s four years ago, and missed it with my XR.

Apple’s removal of 3D Touch lends credence to the cons I outlined in my 2015 piece—namely, that it was too complex (for users and Apple) and it was too undiscoverable. The Apple community at large has felt this way about the feature since the beginning, especially bemoaning how it never percolated across iOS devices, most notably the iPad.

iOS 13 has brought Haptic Touch, first introduced with the iPhone XR last year, as a replacement for 3D Touch. It’s more or less equivalent; iOS 13 has expanded Haptic Touch’s scope so as to pick up many of 3D Touch’s tricks. These include Quick Actions on home screen icons and message previews in Mail and Messages. And importantly of course, these features work on iPads running iPadOS.

From an accessibility perspective, I have enjoyed having access to these shortcuts again on my iPhone 11 review units. I missed them during my time with the XR until now; the contextual menus throughout the OS really do cut down on excessive swiping and tapping. I like how Apple has grown Haptic Touch for the most part. I cannot tell an appreciable functional difference between it and 3D Touch in terms, say, starting a new email or text message from the home screen.

Where I believe Haptic Touch is a regression from 3D Touch is in performance. Accessing Quick Actions or link previews, for instance, feels like it takes forever relative to before. It isn’t so bad to the point that it’s unusable, but it’s definitely noticeable. More importantly, it causes Haptic Touch to lose a bit of the luster that makes haptic feedback such a promising assistive technology. Where 3D Touch always felt instantaneous, Haptic Touch, capable as it is, feels slower, thus ruining the fun a little. I assume this latency can and will improve over time, but count me as one who misses 3D Touch in the new iPhones.

[gallery ids="1885238,1885228,1885236,1885214,1885218,1885223,1885222"]

Miscellany

A few cursory notes on the new iPhones worth mentioning.

SIM card swapping. This is an extremely first-world problem, because I am privileged in the sense I get to review new iPhones every year. But this is an accessibility matter! Every year I get a new iPhone (or multiple iPhones) for testing, I’m reminded just how inaccessible the act of swapping my SIM card can be. It is a test of my visual acuity and fine-motor skills, both of which are not strong suits of mine. Especially on the midnight green, where the finish is so dark on the sides I can hardly see where the SIM tray is, moving between three iPhones can be quite adventurous. (I remember the jet black iPhone 7 having the same issue in terms of finding the SIM tray.) I like that Apple provides users with the SIM tool; the SIM card dance isn’t their fault. Still, as a visually impaired reviewer, I felt compelled to share this bit of accessibility minutia.

Color. Speaking of color, I do like the new midnight green finish a lot. The CW’s Arrow is my favorite television show, and the shade of green strikes me as the iPhone Oliver Queen would choose.

Battery life. One of the iPhone 11’s biggest selling points is the dramatically increased battery life. I’ve long compromised my battery—on an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch—because I need to run my devices with maximum screen brightness in order to see. That I can do so on iPhone 11 and still mostly benefit from the battery gains speaks volumes about Apple’s battery work. I can go a whole day, using my phone normally at max brightness, and not stress about conserving my battery or finding an outlet somewhere.

Portrait (pig?) Mode. Seriously, Portrait Mode on the new iPhones was made for pigs.

The bottom line

It’s a testament to the “completeness” of last year’s iPhone XR that I was so happy with it. Yes, it was beautifully blue, but it was also a damn good all-around iPhone. Apple describes the iPhone 11 as having “just the right amount of everything,” the iPhone for everyone, but that tagline could just as easily apply to the XR. Even today, the XR is a great phone if you can do without the second camera. The iPhone 11 is simply a better iPhone XR.

The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro are close enough, spec-wise, that if it the regular 11 came in blue, I might’ve been tempted to upgrade to that. There’s a reason Apple offers iPhones in a rainbow of colors; the psychological impact color has on consumerism is a very real phenomena. Perhaps someday soon there will be a blue iPhone with a Super Retina OLED display. That said, while both iPhones are highly impressive, I’m happy with the Pro for the upgraded screen quality and three cameras. You really can’t go wrong with either iPhone 11, but for this year anyway, the return to OLED was the clincher for me.

 


0

UK privacy ‘class action’ complaint against Google gets unblocked

17:39 | 2 October

The UK Court of Appeal has unanimously overturned a block on a class-action style lawsuit brought on behalf of four million iPhone users against Google — meaning the case can now proceed to be heard.

The High Court tossed the suit a year ago on legal grounds. However the claimants sought permission to appeal — and today that’s been granted.

The case pertains to allegations Google used tracking cookies to override iPhone users’ privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser between 2011 and 2012. Specifically that Google developed a workaround for browser settings that allowed it to set its DoubleClick Ad cookie without iPhone users’ knowledge or consent.

In 2012 the tech giant settled with the FTC over the same issue — agreeing to pay $22.5M to resolve the charge that it bypassed Safari’s privacy settings to serve targeted ads to consumers. Although Google’s settlement with the FTC did not include an admission of any legal wrongdoing.

Several class action lawsuits were also filed in the US and later consolidated. And in 2016 Google agreed to settle those by paying $5.5M to educational institutions or non-profits that campaign to raise public awareness of online security and privacy. Though terms of the settlement remain under legal challenge.

UK law does not have a direct equivalent to a US style class action. But in 2017 a veteran consumer rights campaigner, Richard Lloyd, filed a collective lawsuit over the Safari workaround, seeking to represent millions of UK iPhone users whose browser settings his complaint alleges were ignored by Google’s tracking technologies.

The decision a High Court judge last year to block the action boiled down to the judge not being convinced claimants could demonstrate a basis for bringing a compensation claim. Historically there’s been a high legal bar for that as UK law has required that claimants are able to demonstrate they suffered damage as a result of data protection violation.

The High Court judge was also not persuaded the complaint met the requirements for a representative action.

However the Appeals Court has taken a different view.

The three legal questions it considered were whether a claimant could recover damages for loss of control of their data under section 13 of the UK’s Data Protection Act 1998 “without proving pecuniary loss or distress”; whether the members of the class had the same interest as one another and were identifiable; and whether the judge ought to have exercised discretion to allow the case to proceed.

The court rejected Google’s main argument that UK and EU law require “proof of causation and consequential damage”.

It also took the view that the claim can stand as a representative procedure.

In concluding the judgment, the chancellor of the High Court writes:

… the judge ought to have held: (a) that a claimant can recover damages for loss of control of their data under section 13 of DPA, without proving pecuniary loss or distress, and (b) that the members of the class that Mr Lloyd seeks to represent did have the same interest under CPR Part 19.6(1) and were identifiable.

The judge exercised his discretion as to whether the action should proceed as a representative action on the wrong basis and this court can exercise it afresh. If the other members of the court agree, I would exercise our discretion so as to allow the action to proceed.

I would, therefore, allow the appeal, and make an order granting Mr Lloyd permission to serve the proceedings on Google outside the jurisdiction of the court.

Mishcon de Reya, the law firm representing Lloyd, has described the decision as “groundbreaking” — saying it could establish “a new procedural framework for the conduct of mass data breach claims” under UK civil procedure rules governing group litigations.

In a statement, partner and case lead, James Oldnall, said: This decision is significant not only for the millions of consumers affected by Google’s activity but also for the collective action landscape more broadly. The Court of Appeal has confirmed our view that representative actions are essential for holding corporate giants to account. In doing so it has established an avenue to redress for consumers.”

Mishcon de Reya argues that the decision has confirmed a number of key legal principles around UK data protection law and representative actions, including that:

  • An individual’s personal data has an economic value and loss of control of that data is a violation of their right to privacy which can, in principle, constitute damage under s.13 of the DPA, without the need to demonstrate pecuniary loss or distress. The Court, can therefore, award a uniform per capita sum to members of the class in representative actions for the loss of control of their personal data
  • That individuals who have lost control of their personal data have suffered the same loss and therefore share the “same interest” under CPR 19.6
  • That representative actions are, in practice, the only way that claims such as this can be pursued

Responding to the judgement, a Google spokesperson told us: “Protecting the privacy and security of our users has always been our number one priority. This case relates to events that took place nearly a decade ago and that we addressed at the time. We believe it has no merit and should be dismissed.”

 


0

The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

19:20 | 26 September

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers – Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event – an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire someone who knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies who seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple – at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multicolour palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerThen from a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together – and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use – all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in ‘frenemy’ territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages like Anker, too.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and they key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most – namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify) then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and for between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

 


0

Apple’s iOS and iPadOS 13 support multiple PS4 or Xbox One controllers, which could be huge for Arcade

16:56 | 26 September

Apple’s iOS 13 update (and the newly-renamed iPadOS for iPad hardware) both support multiple simultaneous Bluetooth game controller connections. Apple added Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controller support in the updates, and after doing some digging, I can confirm that you can use multiple of either type of controller on one iOS device running the update, with each controlling a different player character.

That’s the good news: The bad news is that not many games take advantage of this right now. I wasn’t able to find a game in Apple’s new Arcade subscription service to try this out, for instance – and even finding a non-Arcade iOS game took a bit of digging. I finally was able to try local multi-controller multiplayer with Horde, a free-to-play 2-player co-op brawler, and found that it worked exactly as you’d expect.

With Arcade, Apple has done more to re-invigorate the App Store, and gaming on iOS in particular, than it has since the original launch of the iPhone. The all-you can game subscription offering, which delivers extremely high-quality gaming experiences without ads or in-app purchases, has already impressed me immensely with the breadth and depth of its launch slate, which includes fantastic titles like Where Cards Fall, Skate, Sayonara: Wild Hearts and What the Golf, to name just a few.

Combine the quality and value of the library with cross-play on iOS, iPadOS, Apple TV and eventually Mac devices, and you have a killer combo that’s well-positioned to eat up a lot of the gaming market currently owned by Nintendo’s Switch and other home consoles.

Local multiplayer, especially on iPads, is another potential killer feature here. Already, iPad owners are likely to be using their tablets both at home and on the road, and providing quality local gaming experiences on that big display, with just the added requirement that you pack a couple of PS4 or Xbox controllers in your suitcase or carry-on, opens up a lot of potential value for device owners.

As I said above, there’s not much in the way of games that support this right now, but it’s refreshing to know that the features are there for when game developers want to take advantage.

 


0

Amazon might reveal fitness-tracking Alexa wireless earbuds, Echo with better sound this week

22:27 | 23 September

Amazon is building wireless earbuds that offer Alexa voice assistant access, and fitness tracking for use during activities, according to a new report from CNBC. These earbuds, combined with a new, larger Echo designed to provide more premium sound, could feature into Amazon’s hardware event taking place this Wednesday in Seattle, though the outlet is unclear on the release timeline for this gear based on its source.

These earbuds would be a major new product for Amazon, and would be the company’s first foray into personal health and fitness devices. While Amazon has either built or bought products in a wide range of connected gadget categories, including smart home and smart speakers in particular, so far it hasn’t seemed all that aggressive in personal health, even as Apple, Samsung and others have invested heavily in these areas.

CNBC’s report says that these new Alexa buds will have an accelerometer on board for measuring motion, and will be able to also provide distance tracking, calories burned and pace – in other words, all the things that you’d expect to track with a fitness wearable like the Apple Watch or a Fitbit.

Leaving aside their fitness features, earbuds would provide Amazon a way to deliver a more portable Alexa for people to take with them outside of the house. The company has partnered with other headphone makers on similar third-party Alexa integrations, and they’ve also experimented with bringing Alexa to the car, for instance, but it’s largely still a home-based assistant, successful as its been.

Helping the appeal of these reported new products, the buds are said to be retailing for under $100, which will put them at a big price advantage when compared to similar offerings from either dedicated audio companies and headphone makes, and to potential rivals like Apple’s AirPods. Though the report indicates that they’ll still rely on being connected to an iPhone or Android device for connectivity, as they won’t have their own data connection.

Amazon is also readying a bigger echo that has a built-in woofer and overall better sound than its existing lineup, according to CNBC . That mirrors a report from July from Bloomberg that also said Amazon was readying a high-end echo, with a planned launch for next year.

Some or all of these new hardware devices could make their debut at Wednesday’s event, but it seems likely a lot of what we’ll see will be a surprise.

 


0

Natural lighting is the key to Apple’s remodeled Fifth Ave. store

20:23 | 17 September

When it opened in 2006, Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship quickly became a top destination for New York City residents and tourists, alike. The big, glass cube was a radical departure from prior electronics stores, serving as the entrance to a 24-hour subterranean retail location. Location didn’t hurt either, with the company planting its flag across from the Plaza Hotel and Central Park and sharing a block with the iconic high-end toy store, FAO Schwarz.

Since early 2017, however, the store has been closed for renovations. Earlier this month, the company took the wraps off the outside of the cube (albeit with some multi-color reflective wrap still occupying the outside of the familiar retail landmark). Last week, the company offered more insight into the plan as retail SVP Deirdre O’Brien took to the stage during the iPhone 11 event to discuss the company’s plans for the reinvented space.

Fifth Ave 1

During a discussion with TechCrunch, Apple shed even more light on the underground store, which will occupy the full area of the Fifth Avenue plaza. As is the case with all of Apple’s flagships, light is the thing here — though that’s easier said than done when dealing with an underground space. Illuminating the store is done through a combination of natural lights and LEDs.

When the store reopens, a series of skylights flush on the ground of the plaza will be doing much of the heavy lifting for the lighting during the day. Each of those round portholes will be frosted to let the light in, while protecting the privacy of people walking above, with supplemental lighting from silver LED rings. That, in turn, is augmented by 18 (nine on each side of the cube) “sky lenses.” Oriented in two 3×3 configurations, the “sculptural furniture” will also provide seating in the outdoor plaza.

Of course, the natural lighting isn’t able to do all of the work for a 24-hour store. That’s complemented by a ceiling system that uses a similar stretched fabric-based lighting system as other Apple Stores. Here, however, the fabric will take on a more cloud-like structure with a more complicated geometrical shape than other Apple stores. The fabric houses tunable LED lights that react to the external environment. If it’s sunny outside, it will be brighter downstairs. When it’s cloudy, the lights will dim.

In all, there are five modes tuned to a 24-hour cycle, including:

  • Sunrise: 3,000K
  • Day: 4,500K-5,250K (depending on how bright it is outside)
  • Sunset: 3,000K
  • Evening: 3,250K
  • Night: 3,500K

Screen Shot 2019 09 17 at 12.21.48 PM

Sunrise and sunset are apparently the best time to check it out, as the lights glow warmly for about an hour or so. There are 80 ring lights in all, and around 500,000 LEDs, with about 2,500 LED spotlights used to illuminate tables and products inside the store. The natural lighting also will be used to keep alive eight trees and a green wall in the underground space. 

The newly remodeled store opens at 8AM on September 20, just in time to line up for the new iPhone.

 


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I hope Apple Arcade makes room for weird cool shit

22:04 | 16 September

Apple Arcade seems purpose built to make room in the market for beautiful, sad, weird, moving, slow, clever and heartfelt. All things that the action, shooter and MOBA driven major market of games has done nothing to foster over the last decade.

I had a chance to play a bunch of the titles coming to Apple Arcade, which launched today in a surprise move for some early testers of iOS 13. Nearly every game I played was fun, all were gorgeous and some were really really great.

A few I really enjoyed, in no particular order:

20190524 WCF GameplayScreenshot wcf screenShot mcFishShakeJump 1080

Where Cards Fall — A Snowman game from Sam Rosenthal. A beautiful game with a clever card-based mechanic that allows room for story moments and a ramping difficulty level that should be fantastic for short play sessions. Shades of Monument Valley, of course, in its puzzle + story interleave. Super satisfying gameplay and crisp animations abound.

20190729 Overland GameplayScreenshot 09 Basin

Overland — Finji — Overland is one of my most anticipated games from the bunch, I’ve been following the development of this game from the Night in the Woods and Canabalt creators for a long time. It does not disappoint, with a stylized but somehow hyper-realized post apocalyptic turn-based system that transmits urgency through economy of movement. Every act you take counts. Given that it’s a rogue like, the story is told through the world rather than through an individual character’s narrative and the world does a great job of it.

20190517 Oceanhorn2 Oceanhorn2 Screenshot 7

Oceanhorn 2 — Cornfox & Brothers — The closest to a native Zelda you’ll get on iOS — this plays great on a controller. Do yourself a favor and try it that way.

20190712 Spek GameplayScreenshot Spek Screen C 3

Spek — RAC7 — One of those puzzle games people will plow through, it makes the mechanics simple to understand then begins to really push and prod at your mastery of them over time. The AR component of the app seems like it will be a better party game than solo experience, but the effects used here are great and it really plays with distance and perspective in a way that an AR game should. A good totem for the genre going forward.

I was able to play several of the games across all three platforms including Apple TV with an Xbox controller, iPhone and iPad. While some favored controller (Skate City) and others touch controls (Super Impossible Road), all felt like I could play them either way without much difficulty.

There are also some surprises in the initial batch of games like Lego Brawls — a Smash Brothers clone that will be a big hit for car rides and get togethers I think.

My hope is that the Apple Arcade advantage, a set price and prime placement in the App Store, may help to create an umbrella of sorts for games that don’t fit the ‘big opening weekend’ revenue mold and I hope Apple leans into that. I know that there may be action-oriented and big name titles in the package now and in the future, and that’s fine. But there are many kinds of games out there that are fantastic but “minor” in the grand scheme of things and having a place that could create sustainability in the market for these gems is a great thing.

The financial terms were not disclosed by Apple but many of the developers appear to have gotten up front money to make games for the platform and, doubtless, there is a rev share on some sort of basis, probably usage or installs. Whatever it is, I hope the focus is on sustainability, but the people responsible for Arcade inside Apple are making all the right noises about that so I have hopes.

I am especially glad that Apple is being aggressive with the pricing and with the restrictions it has set for the store, including no in-app purchases or ads. This creates an environment where a parent (ratings permitting) can be confident that a kid playing games from the Arcade tab will not be besieged with casino ads in the middle of their puzzle game.

There is, however, a general irony in the fact that Apple had to create Apple Arcade because of the proliferation of loot box/currency/in-app purchases. An economy driven by the App Store’s overall depressive effect on the price of games and the decade long acclimation people have had to spending less and less, down to free, for games and apps on the store.

By bundling them into a subscription, Apple sidesteps the individual purchase barrier that it has had a big hand in creating in the first place. While I don’t think it is fully to blame — plenty of other platforms aggressively promote loot box mechanics — a big chunk of the responsibility to fix this distortion does rest on Apple. Apple Arcade is a great stab at that and I hope that the early titles are an indicator of the overall variety and quality that we can expect.

 


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iFixit gives Fairphone 3 a perfect 10 for repairability

18:15 | 11 September

Here’s something the hermetically sealed iPhone can’t do: Score a perfect 10 for repairability.

Smartphone startup and social enterprise Fairphone’s latest repairable-by-design smartphone has done just that, getting 10/10 in an iFixit Teardown vs scores of just 6/10 for recent iPhone models.

The Fairphone 3, which was released in Europe last week with an RRP of €450, gets thumbs up across the board in iFixit’s hardware Teardown. It found all the internal modules to be easily accessible and replaceable — with only basic tools required to get at them (Fairphone includes a teeny screwdriver in the box). iFixit also lauds visual cues that help with disassembly and reassembly, and notes that repair guides and spare parts are available on Fairphone’s website.

iFixit’s sole quibble is that while most of the components inside the Fairphone 3’s modules are individually replaceable “some” are soldered on. A tiny blip that doesn’t detract from the 10/10 repairability score

Safe to say, such a score is the smartphone exception. The industry continues to encourage buyers to replace an entire device, via yearly upgrade, instead of enabling them to carry out minor repairs themselves — so they can extend the lifespan of their device and thereby shrink environmental impact.

Dutch startup Fairphone was set up to respond to the abject lack of sustainability in the electronics industry. The tiny company has been pioneering modularity for repairability for several years now, flying in the face of smartphone giants that are still routinely pumping out sealed tablets of metal and glass which often don’t even let buyers get at the battery to replace it themselves.

To wit: An iFixit Teardown of the Google Pixel rates battery replacement as “difficult” with a full 20 steps and between 1-2 hours required. (Whereas the Fairphone 3 battery can be accessed in seconds, by putting a fingernail under the plastic back plate to pop it off and lifting the battery out.)

The Fairphone 3 goes much further than offering a removable backplate for getting at the battery, though. The entire device has been designed so that its components are accessible and repairable.

So it’s not surprising to see it score a perfect 10 (the startup’s first modular device, Fairphone 2, was also scored 10/10 by iFixit). But it is strong, continued external validation for the Fairphone’s designed-for-repairability claim.

It’s an odd situation in many respects. In years past replacement batteries were the norm for smartphones, before the cult of slimming touchscreen slabs arrived to glue phone innards together. Largely a consequence of hardware business models geared towards profiting from pushing for clockwork yearly upgrades cycle — and slimmer hardware is one way to get buyers coveting your next device.

But it’s getting harder and harder to flog the same old hardware horse because smartphones have got so similarly powerful and capable there’s precious little room for substantial annual enhancements.

Hence iPhone maker Apple’s increasing focus on services. A shift that’s sadly not been accompanied by a rethink of Cupertino’s baked in hostility towards hardware repairability. (It still prefers, for example, to encourage iPhone owners to trade in their device for a full upgrade.)

At Apple’s 2019 new product announcement event yesterday — where the company took the wraps off another clutch of user-sealed smartphones (aka: iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro) — there was even a new financing offer to encourage iPhone users to trade in their old models and grab the new ones. ‘Look, we’re making it more affordable to upgrade!’ was the message.

Meanwhile, the only attention paid to sustainability — during some 1.5 hours of keynotes — was a slide which passed briefly behind marketing chief Phil Schiller towards the end of his turn on stage puffing up the iPhone updates, encouraging him to pause for thought.

Apple 2019 event

“iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 are made to be designed free from these harmful materials and of course to reduce their impact on the environment,” he said in front of a list of some toxic materials that are definitely not in the iPhones.

Stuck at the bottom of this list were a couple of detail-free claims that the iPhones are produced via a “low-carbon process” and are “highly recyclable”. (The latter presumably a reference to how Apple handles full device trade-ins. But as anyone who knows about sustainability will tell you, sustained use is far preferable to premature recycling…)

“This is so important to us. That’s why I bring it up every time. I want to keep pushing the boundaries of this,” Schiller added, before pressing the clicker to move on to the next piece of marketing fodder. Blink and you’d have missed it.

If Apple truly wants to push the boundaries on sustainability — and not just pay glossy lip-service to reducing environmental impact for marketing purposes while simultaneously encouraging annual upgrades — it has a very long way to go indeed.

As for repairability, the latest and greatest iPhones clearly won’t hold a candle to the Fairphone.

 


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Razer made a case for cooling iPhones while gaming

01:00 | 11 September

Razer’s efforts to build a game-centric smartphone haven’t exactly caught the world on fire just yet. Still, mobile gaming is a huge business poised to get even bigger, with services from big names like Apple and Google waiting in the wings.

Seeing as how accessories have long been the company’s bread and button, products like Arctech are probably an easier way for the company to ensure it’s got a horse in that race. The product is a phone case specifically designed to help stop phones from overheating during resource-intensive activities like gaming.

Thermaphene

The product uses Razer’s proprietary Thermaphene technology sandwiched between microfiber lining and an outer casing with perforations to help let the heat out. Per Razer,

Thermaphene is a thermally – conductive material that dissipates heat. In independent testing against similar style cases, the Razer Arctech case maintained temperatures up to 6° Celsius (42.8 Fahrenheit) lower than the comparison case.

There are two versions of the case, Slim and Pro, the latter of which offers added protection for up to a 10 foot drop. As for why the company’s launching today, in addition to the Razer Phone 2, the Arctech will be available for all of Apple’s new iPhones. The Slim runs $30 and the Pro is $40. They’re both available starting today.

 


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