Collaboration Among the Tech Giants

One of the interesting dynamics to observe in the tech industry is the reputations and relations companies have, not only with the public but also among other companies, including their peers. For the former, Apple, Google, Uber, Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung, and others enjoy very positive relations with their customers. We interact with many of these companies and their products multiple times a day, whether it’s to make a purchase, use one of their devices, or access their services. It’s become so routine, we wonder how we ever got along without them.

But the dynamics vary more widely when we look at how these companies relate with their peers, partners, and competitors, at least from what we are able to see publicly.

Google, Uber, and Amazon, as examples, seem to enjoy strong relations with other companies that have come to depend on them for growing their commerce and selling their products. Amazon has built a huge business with their AWS (Amazon Web Services) that depends upon strong business relationships. Similarly, it’s now working with scores of companies to integrate their Alexa voice technology. Uber and Google have strong relationships with automobile companies collaborating in the development of autonomous cars. Each company benefits from these collaborations, even if they compete in other areas.

Apple, on the other hand, seems to be different. Whether it’s intentional or a result of their history of preferring to do everything themselves, they seem to have more difficult relationships with other companies and do far fewer collaborations. They seem, at times, to be less likely to be trusted, not unlike Microsoft of many years ago. Rarely do you see Apple working in collaboration with Google, Amazon or the car companies on really big initiatives. Apple Mail struggled to work well with Gmail and it took more than a year of haggling back and forth to fix it.

Even with suppliers, the relationships can get very rocky and public, namely their fights with Google, Samsung and now Qualcomm, the latter two suppliers to Apple of critical elements of their products.

Apple’s struggle to work closely with the automobile companies to integrate the iPhone has been far less successful than what they originally set out to do — building the entire user interface for the automobile companies. While the Apple CarPlay integration has found good acceptance along with Google’s Android Auto, the auto companies see them as interim solutions until they can develop their own.

Apple’s inability to build Apple TV into a stand-alone service to compete with the cable companies, a goal once stated, has also failed to materialize, likely a result of the entertainment companies not trusting Apple after what they did to the music business.

Perhaps this is intentional or a reflection of their history of being so innovative and adverse to what other companies were doing. It’s the walled garden approach that’s worked so well for their products. I’m not suggesting what they do is wrong. It’s just different in an industry that’s full of competitors that are also collaborators.

The Unintended Consequences of a Single Design Decision

Being involved in the design and development of consumer products, I’ve seen how a single design decision can have huge unintended consequences and change an entire industry — for the better or the worse.

As a positive example, when Apple decided to design notebooks using aluminum housings and abandon the industry’s use of plastic with ugly vents and screws, they created a huge industry of automated machining of solid aluminum blocks. That industry has now made it possible for other notebooks to use the same processes to create their own products.

Another example is when Apple decided that thinness was a major goal for its mobile products. The unintended consequences have had a huge impact, likely beyond the original intention, but one that’s impacted performance, features, user satisfaction, and the entire industry.

Some of those consequences are:

Shorter battery life – Making phones and notebooks as thin as possible and then making them even thinner in each subsequent generation resulted in less volume for batteries. But because the one dimension that reduces a battery’s capacity most is its thickness, battery life of iPhones and MacBooks have suffered. Battery life of iPhones and the latest line of MacBook Pros are well below expectations and are one of the major user complaints. So much so, the battery indicator no longer displays time left. And, since a battery’s life is based on the number of charging cycles, smaller batteries need more recharging cycles, resulting in a shorter life.

Fragility – The thinness of iPhones has resulted with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus actually bending in normal use and the need for protective cases. Samsung has shown, with their Galaxy S7 Active, that a phone can be made with a rugged, waterproof enclosure that’s only a few millimeters thicker. Speaking of Samsung, there’s even speculation that their problem with the Note 7 phone catching on fire was a result of trying to beat Apple in the thinness competition.

Reduced number of ports – With thinness comes the need to remove many of the legacy ports designed for thicker products. While leaving them out makes it possible to reduce thickness, it requires carrying more dongles to connect to our other devices.

Loss of features – iPhones still don’t have NFC and wireless charging, likely a result of insufficient space. Magsafe, one of the most innovative features ever created for notebook computers, has been eliminated to make the new MacBook notebooks thinner. With its removal is the loss of the battery charging indicator.

Typing errors – Thinness has led to notebook keyboards with reduced performance compared to the iconic keyboards used in products like the ThinkPad. Key travel has gone from 3 mm to under 1 mm, causing more errors.

What’s ironic is these consequences might have just resulted from an Apple executive saying. “I want our products to be as thin as they can be”, walking away, and then everyone taking the person literally. How likely is it that, when that request was made, anyone was thinking of any adverse outcomes? Well, perhaps a few engineers that were told not to be negative and be a team player.

The lesson is that an arbitrary goal for a product’s requirement can have far-reaching effects on the company’s products, as well as an entire industry, and few may be aware of that when it all began.

Fake Tech

There’s fake news, fake science, and now, “fake tech”. Fake tech is a term that came to mind while reading about the augmented reality startup Magic Leap. The company has raised $1.4 billion based on videos created to demo its technology. But new information has surfaced that indicates these videos were created using special effects, simulated by a New Zealand company that specializes in such things. While it’s not clear how real the company’s technology is, you could describe these simulated presentations as fake.

Then there’s Theranos, the health technology company that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for its fingerstick and microfluidics technologies that promised to revolutionize blood testing. The company’s value was as high as $9 billion before it was discovered that much of its technology was more wishful thinking than real. Apparently, its charismatic leader was able to persuade a number of luminaries to serve on its board while others, including Walgreen’s, made huge investments based on fake evidence or no evidence at all.

Because technology is often complicated and overwhelming to those without science or engineering training, potential customers and investors are not equipped to make knowledgeable assessments and therefore follow the crowd of believers, not wanting to be left behind.

But as many of us working in Silicon Valley know, there’s a propensity for entrepreneurs to take on tasks that may seem insurmountable, or even impossible, that can lead to real innovation and breakthroughs. Along the way, with the need to attract investment, employees and customers, it’s easy for the promises to get ahead of the reality. People want to believe and can easily fall prey to those leaders who may be better at promoting than the actual science.

In the case of Theranos and Magic Leap, there were early warning signs, such as the companies’ refusal to provide real demos. In both cases, the truth came out when former employees came forward with their stories. In the case of Theranos, an intensive investigation by the WSJ did much to undermine the company’s credibility.

I’ve also experienced fake tech on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. There are products described with seemingly impossible claims that can’t be verified by the host sites. So, anyone with a clever idea and a simulated video can raise money proposing an idea that’s impossible to do. Some may know it’s impossible but many don’t know what they don’t know and believe it can be accomplished with enough money.

In addition to these, there are more nuanced examples of fake tech practiced by major companies that rely on exaggerated claims to garner publicity and boost their stock. While perhaps not completely fake, they are a lot less than what they seem to be.

Uber claimed they were beginning to use driverless cars in Pittsburgh when, in fact, they were starting to test the cars with a professional driver at the wheel. Amazon announced last year they were going to begin delivery of packages using drones, yet it will be years away.

In these cases, the press jumped on these stories, encouraged by the companies’ professional PR people, skilled at creating headlines out of bits of truth, and playing to the strengths and weakness of gullible reporters. While perhaps not factually inaccurate, the results were closer to almost-fake tech.

What fuels fake tech is what fuels fake news — the need to create headlines that result in clicks, eyeballs and hence, dollars. The need to get above the noise and stand out in some way. Too often, there are reporters not trained in science or technology that fall for these stories without a critical eye. They too want to believe and, as a result, promote a story without understanding the nuances behind it.

What’s the solution? Good reporting by trained journalists that understand basic science. Reporters that have a skeptical eye who understand they can’t accept all they are told. The need to assess claims using industry experts without financial ties to the company or its investors. Reliance on industry analysts who have seen and heard it all before and are not taken in by unsubstantiated claims.

The Importance of the Quality Engineer

When a new product is introduced at a company event, it’s the executives, design engineers, and industrial designers that get the all of the credit. But behind every new product is engineers that focus on quality and reliability that rarely get much recognition.

Their role is not a glamorous job; it requires more discipline and less creativity than the designers. They often focus on the negative, trying to find problems with a product before it’s shipped. They’re also the ones that can require the designers to go back and redesign and delay a product’s introduction, subjecting themselves to lots of pressure.

Their job is to simulate the worst cases the product will experience before it’s shipped, taking on the role of the customer. They’re not the most popular members of the team; they are sometimes seen as a traffic cop. Design engineers focus on creativity and invention. The product is their baby and no parent wants to be told their baby is flawed or has a wart.

If a company’s executives or board wants to know how a new product is really doing, the quality engineers are the ones to ask. They have all of the statistics because their job is not only to be sure the product will last but to monitor how well the product is performing once it ships. They’ll tabulate the complaints, analyze the returns, and report back to the design team what needs to be improved.

Yet, in spite of their efforts to provide an objective account of a product’s performance before it ships, they’re occasionally overruled. Companies often ship products with the expectations of getting returns, based on a calculated decision. You just hope that doesn’t happen when safety is involved.

When Samsung shipped the Galaxy Note 7, both the initial and the redesigned versions, it’s hard to believe the quality engineers were happy and not overruled.

I’ve often thought how valuable it would be if we, as consumers, had access to the quality information before buying a new product. Our buying decisions would be much more informed.

We’d know the likelihood of a product needing to be repaired, see a list of the most frequent failures, and be able to make a clear comparison between competitive products before purchasing. But, of course, this information is closely guarded and rarely available. The best we can do is to consult things like Consumer Reports who tabulate experiences of their customers for a few category of products.

The next best alternative is to access customer reviews, surveys, and complaints from the web. While it’s impossible to determine the specific percentage of returns, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that can help. It’s easy to Google a problem we encounter and see if others have had similar problems.

A case in point. Almost a year ago, my daughter gifted me a Fitbit Charge as an incentive to be more active. But, after nine months, I’m on my fourth unit. The silicone rubber band on two units simply peeled apart, and a third unit had a defective battery that lasted less than a day. The products were never abused or used near water. While statistically surprising, I initially assumed I just had bad luck. When I mentioned this to others, two relatives and a friend, each of the three had to replace theirs several times. And, after searching through the company’s blogs and online reviews, I’ve found scores of users experiencing similar issues with many of the models.

Now, any product can expect to have a small percentage of defective units and, when you sell millions, the actual number of defects can be large. Typical return numbers for defects in the first year for a well-designed and manufactured product range from about half a percent to 2%. More than 3% is considered very high.

It’s hard to know what the true percentage of Fitbit defects are from this anecdotal evidence. Based on my experience, I bet it’s very high.

But considering the poor performance of the company’s stock in recent days, if I were a stock analyst, I’d want to understand how big a problem this is. Ask the quality engineers and you’ll get a better predictability of Fitbit’s fortunes than asking the CFO.

Fitbit offered this response when I asked them about their product quality issues:

The quality of Fitbit products and the health and safety of our customers are our top priorities. We conduct extensive testing and consult with top industry experts to develop stringent standards so that users can safely wear and enjoy our products. We also are committed to delivering a superior customer experience. We respond quickly when customers report issues and strive to work closely with them through our customer service channels to ensure their satisfaction. If consumers have any questions or concerns, they can contact us at

While much of this may be true, their product reliability is not there yet.

How does a Problem Like the Note 7 Happen?

Those involved in the design and manufacturing of hardware products understand that one of the most important phases of the process is testing. That’s the point when all of the assumptions that have been made need to be validated. The only way to do that is to build hundreds or thousands of units and subject them to a battery of tests. Even then, you might still find problems not anticipated once devices get into the hands of thousands of customers but the goal is to be sure they are relatively minor.

The basic tests conducted include subjecting the products to a wide range of temperatures, humidity and physical abuse, including shock and vibration. The goal is to insure the product performs the same before and after and that the product remains intact and safe. Other tests include real life user testing and measurements to insure the product complies with regulatory requirements.

The testing typically takes several months to perform properly by a large group of quality and manufacturing engineers. Companies have rooms full of test equipment, including large ovens, shake tables, and fixtures that exercise buttons and switches millions of times to simulate actual use.

Yet, in the case of the Samsung Note7, it is puzzling they claimed they were able to identify the problem with their initial shipment, fix it, test it, and ship a half-million replacement units in just two weeks. That just doesn’t compute and apparently, that suspicion was verified by the failures of the second batch of units.

So now, it’s quite possible the problem might have been caused by another component that interacts with the battery, rather than the battery itself.

Testing of smartphones is particularly important because batteries pack a huge amount of energy into a small volume. They contain circuitry to prevent a run away condition should the battery or charging circuitry fail or go out of spec. The batteries are custom made to fit into the allotted space. Often, several companies or divisions are involved: the company building the battery cells, the company packaging the battery and adding the circuitry and connector, and the company putting the battery into the phone. But here’s another opportunity for error. The company doing the assembly may have assumed the battery integrator has performed sufficient testing. I’ve often found communications and clear division of responsibility among companies are often a weak point.

Yet in spite of a product passing all of this testing and having a sound design, there’s another thing to be worried about. It’s how well the product is manufactured on the assembly line. Most lines rely on the use of many workers that perform the assembly operations and not on automated assembly using robotic equipment. Each operator has instructions and tools to do a job that varies from attaching a circuit board assembly to the chassis, positioning and screwing the display in, or soldering a large component in place.

But it’s not uncommon for an operator to make a mistake: not tightening a screw sufficiently or shorting out a circuit. To minimize this, other operators are interspersed in the assembly line to test the partial assemblies, and then the completed product will go through some functional tests to insure it’s working.

But mistakes do happen. One electronic product I was involved in had a screw that was not tightened sufficiently. With little effort, it came loose and rattled around inside the product. That could be catastrophic because the metal screw could short out a battery or blow a circuit. In this instance, the line was building two thousand units a day on two 8-hour shifts and, by the time the problem was discovered, 8,000 units were effected. It was traced to one operator on one shift that failed to tighten the screw, even though she had a calibrated screwdriver that should have prevented this. So, one individual that might have been distracted or wasn’t sufficiently trained, caused a massive problem that required thousands of units to be opened, fixed and reassembled.

Imagine a factory building 100,000 units a day and you can see how a small error can have huge consequences. Much like the analogy of a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway across the globe.

The First Time Google Alerted Me to Leave for an Appointment

The first time Google alerted me to leave for an appointment, it was one of those “Aha!” moments. I thought to myself, “That’s amazing!” as I realized it was smart enough to check my calendar, learn where and at what time my appointment was, calculate the time I needed to leave to arrive on time, and then sent me an alert to depart.

But how quickly we adapt and take much of this for granted. Now there are numerous apps that make decisions and are trying to think for us. They monitor our email, calendar, and location and, using artificial or some other sort of intelligence, take action we’d normally do on our own.

TripIt will detect when you’re emailed an itinerary from an airline and add the flights to your calendar. Waze will determine when a traffic jam occurs and route you around it. Google will determine when an appointment invite is emailed to you and put it on your calendar. So many apps now have this level of intelligence to create an action without our intervention.

I’m finding, however, as this occurs more frequently, there are numerous errors that occur. I need to intervene more often and make corrections because the assumptions these apps make are usually based on fairly primitive logic. Not every mention in an email is meant to be actionable. Not every itinerary is yours and needs to be scheduled. While the apps try to be helpful, there are many times they get it wrong; perhaps 25% of the time.

As an example, a misaddressed email sent to me contained a receipt for train tickets bought in the UK and TripIt added it to my calendar. I received a Google Now alert to leave for a meeting, even though it was a phone meeting, whose invitation was emailed to me and contained an address. Sometimes I find an action is created twice because more than one app is monitoring the same thing. A plane flight will often show up twice on my calendar, put there by both TripIt and Google. And now the Calendar on iOS 10 is starting to look for events to add automatically. Yes, I can go back to each of the apps’ settings and turn some off or others on. But as more apps do this without asking, it’s time-consuming. Clearly, the simple logic that awed me the first time may not be sufficient without becoming much more intelligent.

It’s not that big a deal right now since we can make these manual corrections and learn which apps work well and which do not. But it shows there are some serious challenges the software has to overcome to work reliably enough so we won’t turn it off and avoid using it all together. Some apps will need to be more careful or less aggressive than others. Some will be very aggressive and make many more assumptions. The burden is on us to filter out what doesn’t work and use what does.

While these new capabilities are designed to simplify our lives, for now, they seem to be requiring more time to manage because of the unintended consequences.

What needs to be done? The software needs to learn our habits and preferences and tailor their actions on an individual basis. They need to query us sometimes before taking action. When Waze sends us on a circuitous local route with numerous turns through a sketchy neighborhood to avoid freeway congestion, it needs to inform us what it’s doing, what to expect, and ask us if we really want to do it.

This is an exciting area with lots of potential to think for us, but we’re just in its infancy and there’s a lot more room for improvement.

What am I Missing About Self-Driving Cars?

It seems every automotive company, as well as Uber and Lyft, are touting the imminent arrival of self-driving cars. In an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Travis Kalanick announced Uber would be adding self-driving cars this month, working to modify some Volvo vehicles. Ford’s CEO Mark Fields claims they will be offering self-driving cars soon and Lyft and GM are rolling out a plan as well.

The automotive industry has been notoriously slow in adding innovation, often taking two or three years to make a minor change that could affect drivability, reliability or safety. Yet all of these companies are throwing caution aside and expecting to put thousands of cars on the streets and highways before there’s been sufficient testing.

Rarely does any product or technology come without unintended consequences. A recent fatal crash of a Tesla was attributed to the driver’s recklessness and relying too much on the car’s sensors that apparently were blinded by the sun. Problems like this are to be expected. There are millions of combinations of traffic situations, interactions with objects in the road, bicyclists, pedestrians, the environment, human behavior, and other diversions. It’s impossible for engineers to anticipate every situation. Engineering is imperfect and design is only improved by identifying the issues, the corner cases, and the missing assumptions, fixing them, and then more testing.

Unlike other products where a phone call might not go through or an app crashes, failures of self-driving cars are much different: people will die. It will take the testing of hundreds of vehicles for thousands of hours to refine and prove out the design. Compounding this is there is not one standardized approach, where the industry learns from each participant and sets requirements for performance and testing. 

Instead, we have dozens of companies, all taking their own approaches with some relying on subcontractors and all leading to a very confusing environment. Companies that have done their homework, such as Google, are unlikely to share their learning with companies it considers competitors.

And considering we have companies like Uber (who have never developed hardware and likely have little understanding of hardware issues) putting cars on the road, we may have a disaster in the making. Uber in particular has not been a shining example of maximizing the safety of its customers with the failure to do adequate vetting of its drivers, based on charges by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office.

Bringing on self-driving cars prematurely is the best way to kill a technology. Every incident, injury or death will be greatly magnified in the press and, even though the fatality rate might be much lower than conventional cars, it could kill the industry or severely slow it down before it gets started.

Don’t get me wrong. I think self-driving cars will be one of this century’s greatest technical achievements. But I am just astounded at how little work has been done by the companies planning to populate our streets with two-ton vehicles being controlled by software but little testing. 

Apple’s Stellar Customer Support

Apple is criticized about a number of things because they’re at the top and we expect them to be perfect. But there’s one area where Apple is perfect and beyond criticism: their stellar customer support. With Apple, the relationship with a customer doesn’t end once the sale is made. It usually begins.

The computers, tablets, and phones we use, day in and day out, inevitably need to be repaired. After all, they’re complex devices and subject to abuse, being dropped, banged up, or more. We carry them everywhere. While the engineers can strive to make the products reliable and simple to use, inevitably there’s a level of complexity that requires the need for customers to get help.

Of all the companies making consumer electronics, Apple was one of the first to recognize this and to do something about it. After all, an important purchase consideration is that what you buy can be repaired without giving it up for days or weeks or sending it off to a repair center.

Apple has continued to improve the process to where their service and support is far beyond anything else that exists at retail. Its network of stores with friendly help, Genius Bars, and on-line support are stellar. While their products are as reliable as any brand, they know problems occur and are equipped to deal with them.

I’ve used Apple support numerous times to fix a defective trackpad or home button, replace a spent battery and, most recently, to repair my iPhone 6 and never had to wait more than a few hours for a repair.

To show the system at work, let me take you through a recent incident I encountered to fix my iPhone 6 that I noticed one day was slightly bent. I couldn’t imagine how it happened, as I keep the phone in a battery case that adds rigidity to the phone’s thin structure.

That’s when again I entered “Apple Support World”. I called their toll free number and, after a short wait while listening to my choice of music, I was connected to a live, intelligent and caring individual located in Georgia. I explained the problem but she told me the phone was out of warranty, being 3 years old.

I pushed back, explaining how carefully I treat my phone and would not expect them to repair a product I abused. We had a thoughtful conversation in which I explained that my on-line searches indicated this was not a rare problem, perhaps attributable to the phone’s design to make it so thin. In fact, I learned the 6s incorporated some improvements to reduce this problem according to some reviewers.

The agent then elevated the issue and I soon was speaking with her manager, Erica. After listening carefully to my problem, Erica said, “I am taking ownership of your problem and I will get your phone fixed at no cost to you.” She gave me her name, phone number, and email in case I needed to contact her again.

She directed me to a nearby Apple store and said she would call me after I had a chance to visit. She said they will know to repair or replace the phone because she was putting this information into my record they would see when I arrived.

While I couldn’t get an appointment for a few days at any of the nearby stores, I went to the Carlsbad, CA store and signed in for a walk-in appointment. They said it would be a two hour wait and they would text me 20 minutes before. I immediately received a text telling me I had been added to their queue and, an hour later, I received another text that they were running ahead of schedule and to come in 20-30 minutes. The text even offered reply options, if I needed an extra 60 or 90 minutes.

Back to the store and, after another short wait, I was in the hands of a Genius bar employee who looked at the phone, ran some tests, and replaced it. We ran into a problem when restoring the new phone but the technician spent 20 more minutes to figure it out and soon I was on my way home.

It’s a huge effort and expense to create this support structure that all works so well together. The on-line support, the stores, the equipment to diagnose, and the personnel to make things right. In any comparison of product costs, the support behind it is one of the most important features. In my case, it was worth hundreds of dollars. While we buy an Apple product for its design and features, it’s their support structure that’s equally important and builds loyalty.

While waiting in the store, I had a chance to observe the dozens of people coming in with damaged phones, dead iPads, and broken computers. Every single customer was greeted by polite employees, asked to sign in and eventually given similarly good service. The employees to a fault were respectful, helpful, explained carefully what they found and, in most cases, sent customers on their way after addressing their problems. In a few cases, customers were asked to leave their product for an hour or two to be fixed or, on rare occasions, given the bad news that something more serious needed to be done, requiring leaving the computer for a few days.

Other consumer retailers have made some attempts to provide personal service by opening company stores, but that’s where the similarity ends. Sony opened several but they were never able to provide support, instead sending customers to their 800-line, which, in my experience, has been dreadful.

Microsoft also has stores but are not able to provide much support. In fact, last week I was invited to a Microsoft Store opening in the Fashion Valley shopping center in San Diego. It was actually the relocation and reopening of their store from the first floor to the second into a smaller space to what they called a “more intimate” location. Their former location was a few doors from the Apple store and it was evident each time you walked passed the two stores, one was always full and the other was nearly empty.

So, while I’ve occasionally considered switching to Android or Windows, I’m always reminded of the support available to every Apple customer. That keeps me and millions of others coming back.

When a Hardware Product is Done

We all know how software is really never done. There are always new updates to refine, fix and add another feature. But what about hardware? Are there some products you can say are mature and need no more changes? They are done, finished?

That’s not something we frequently encounter when it comes to high-tech products. We’ve lived in an environment of constant change and improvements, not only in the product but in all of its components. New computers were driven by faster processors, sharper displays, and better batteries. When we’re in the midst of this for so many years, it’s hard to realize when it’s coming to an end.

The thought of a product being “done” occurred to me with smartphones. Clearly, they have become very mature. They’ve evolved through successive generations to be not only good enough but, so good, there’s essentially nothing left to do to make them much better.

That’s contrary to how we’ve grown up with technology. There’s always something more to add, to fix, to improve. But there are signs that may no longer be the case and, like a refrigerator or dishwasher, or the more closely related personal navigator device (PND), the need to upgrade is more dependent on when the product wears out and becomes too expensive to fix.

What are those signs of maturity? When successive products are virtually identical, require a long explanation to describe what’s changed, or when the focus is on new colors or more memory. Or when the manufacturers start cutting prices to stimulate sales. The PND category reached that point several years ago. Navigation devices that used to sell for up to $500 can now be bought for under $100.

Take Samsung Galaxy phones as an example. The differences between the S5, S6, and S7 models are minor. They’re mostly cosmetic such as adding curved edges to their display and performing minor tweaks. In the case of the iPhone, the changes made to the 6s series from the 6 series was adding a second level of touch to the display that offers minimal benefits. From all indications, the next generation will have only minor changes as well.

What are other signs of maturity? The processors and displays become so good that further modifications bring no real benefits. Companies need to spend more time to explain what’s new. Minor improvements are hyped and exaggerated. New models differ only in cosmetics or new industrial design.

So what does a company that’s steeped in hardware innovation do when their major product line has reached this state? That’s clearly a predicament for companies such as Apple and Samsung, where each has come to depend on their customers buying in short one or two year cycles. Samsung has many other businesses to rely on and grow: Flat screen TVs, appliances, and a robust component business selling memory and processors. Apple has a bigger challenge because they have only a handful of other products and none with the impact of the iPhone.

The answer is, there is little they can do to make the same impact as before. They need to find another product category that can pick up the slack or dramatically change the phone entirely. Or reduce the price to attract those that could not afford it at the current cost. That’s the predicament Apple is in. Their major product line, amounting to about 80% of their revenue, has matured to a level that is so good, fewer and fewer owners find a need to replace it.

Replacing the phone or any hardware device these days has also become an anathema to those sensitive to the environment, a growing part of the population. It’s better to keep your product, whether a phone or a car, longer rather than add to the junkyards and the recycling of electronic waste. For these, it’s wiser to stick with the old than show off the new.

So the challenge for Apple is to come up with something so compelling, we will want to buy the new product. Do we think its possible?

For me, it would be a battery with twice the life, or a drop-proof, waterproof phone. Nothing else would do it, except perhaps a major redefinition of what a smartphone is. What would it take for you to upgrade to a new model?

Apple has A Reputation for Discarding Legacy Features before the Competition

Apple has a reputation for discarding legacy features on their products well before their competition and sometimes before their time. Each time it does so, it creates a firestorm of reaction. You might think Apple does it just for publicity’s sake.

But looking back, their decisions have generally proved to be insightful, if not always understood. I recall the fury over the sealed-in batteries that allowed Apple to reduce the size of their phones and notebooks. It was driven by design but also by longer lasting batteries. Everything Apple does has a strategic short term and long term purpose.

Now, Apple is rumored to be removing the venerable 3.5 mm headphone jack that’s been on nearly every portable radio, TV set and phone since the fifties.

While I think it’s not a particularly wise idea, because, like the battery decision, it doesn’t benefit their customers in the short term, it’s not done on a whim or out of ignorance. While many of us may not agree, here are my nine reasons that likely led them to this decision:

1. Engineers prefer digital – It’s a digital world and Apple’s engineers want to keep things simple. Using the headphone jack to answer your phone and manage audio playback is currently somewhat hokey. Digital makes it simpler and more versatile.

2. Audio quality in not a priority – High quality audio has never had the importance to Apple as its camera image quality. Photos keep getting better, but music quality remains mediocre. So eliminating the headphone jack that delivers quality analog music to analog devices, such as headphones and speakers, is not a concern.

3. Banking on Bluetooth – With Apple not focusing on high quality audio, it’s likely they see the future of audio will be Bluetooth. So, having a single connector for both the audio connection and for recharging the phone is just a temporary inconvenience.

4. Capturing $2 to $3 from every headphone sale for a Lightning connector provides a nice revenue stream for Apple. It also provides market intelligence that lets Apple and its Beats group know what their competitors are doing. They also stand to benefit from all the accessory companies that will make adapters that go from 3.5mm to Lightning for our existing headphones and for charging and listening at the same time.

5. Improves two-way communications – The Lightning connector provides a two-way digital path for communications between the headset and phone. That makes it preferable for supporting Siri, voice search, and other new features on the phone that go well beyond the headset being used just for music.

6. To be different – Apple loves to be different, often for the sake of being better, but sometimes just to be proprietary and special. They are not big players in standard organizations and, just as USB-C is becoming a standard on Android phones, Apple chooses their own path.

7. Apple’s world revolves around Apple products – While we may buy a headphone for uses beyond our phones, such as a stereo system or a music player, and a new connector complicates our decision, that’s not a concern for Apple. They could care less their millions of users will need to buy a $30 adapter to use their current headphone.

8. Benefit to Beats – The Lightning connector and future enhancements to it will give the Beats’ headphones group the inside track for adding new features. It also forces the many other headphone companies to re-engineer their products.

9. Moving audio out of phones – While some competitive phones are adding high-resolution playback capability, Apple has elected to move it to the headphone using enhanced Lightning cables that can contain their own DAC. Along with eliminating the audio jack, it helps protect their phone margins.

While Apple has had success at going their own way with other changes, including eliminating the floppy drive, this decision may prove to be much less popular. Of course, I said that before and was wrong. Can lightning strike twice?

Apple and the Expectation Of Perfection

Last week, I turned on my computer and was greeted by an email message from Apple saying my account was locked and I needed to reset my password. While resetting was simple, I was greeted with requests to enter my password no less than two dozen times on my iPhone, iPad and MacBook over the next two days. Sometimes they took; other times they didn’t. I needed to enter the password for email, iCloud, my calendar and numerous other apps.

This seemed so unlike the Apple experiences I’m used to. No reason was given why the account was locked and I was surprised Apple required repeated sign-ins for accounts all linked together with the same password. If this were my Windows computer, I’d probably just dismiss it as another problem with Windows 10. But Apple?

Apple has done such a good job of setting the standards for excellence that, when they falter, we are quick to criticize. But it’s not because most of us just want to be critical. It’s because we want Apple to continue to excel and because Apple has set our expectations so high.

This event has been symptomatic with other recent experiences with Apple products, particularly in keeping them competitive. It seems once they get a product released and the bugs addressed, the teams go off to do other things. While it may be more glamorous to invent an entirely new product, continuous improvement on existing products, even the mundane, is important.

I recently reviewed Fantastical, a calendar app from Flexibits replaces the Calendar on all Apple’s platforms. It’s the product Apple should be doing, with a better interface and a “natural language” ability to enter appointments. Simply type in a phrase like, “lunch with Tim on Friday”, and the appointment is set. It also incorporates to-dos and reminders, something Apple has never adequately addressed.

Apple’s mail client has also failed to keep up with the competition. Many of us suffered for more than a year when Mail didn’t play nice with Gmail, causing mail to take hours to retrieve and send. Apple blamed Google, yet other email apps, such as Postbox, worked just fine.

I’ve been enamored most recently with Email, an email app for my iPhone that’s faster, can unsubscribe you from spam, and even lets you recall an email within a few seconds of sending. I’m also using Google’s new keyboard that is far superior to Apple’s. Apple has failed to develop a good app for managing photos, giving up on Apeture and now offering iPhoto that’s mediocre compared to competitive offerings.

Now, maybe Apple intentionally decided they can’t be the best in all areas and are allowing third parties to compete. But, if that’s the case, it seems a major shift from the Apple of old that wanted to be the best at everything it does.

Apple has been a master at using communicating and convincing us they are different and special, even about the small stuff. I remember vividly the PR leading up to the Apple Watch where Jonny Ive raved about the winding stem of the watch, how precise, how special, how great it was. He expounded about the special aluminum and steel alloys used in the Watch’s cases. If these mundane details are training us to pay attention to things we might normally have ignored, what do they expect from us when they fail to meet our expectations elsewhere?

Apple has two choices. One is to get more aggressive in improving their own software. Study the competitive offerings and upgrade their own products. Or, better yet, be more aggressive in acquiring companies that have already proved what they can do.

Every time I use the mapping app Waze, I wonder why Google acquired it rather than Apple, particularly when Apple Maps has been so troublesome. It wasn’t due to a lack of money. Perhaps there’s a feeling within Apple that they can do everything better on their own. But evidence shows more and more this is not the case.

Hardware Upgrades Offer New Opportunities

Software upgrades are commonplace. We have them in apps, video games, computer software. Pay an additional amount and the products can seamlessly acquire new capabilities.

Now, there’s an equally seamless hardware upgrade: Tesla will upgrade the battery in an owner’s $71,000 Model S70. The owner pays an additional $3250 for the company to do an over the air upgrade to activate an additional battery that’s built into the car. Once activated, the 240 mile range electric vehicle increases it to 260 miles, turning the car into a Model S75.

No, they don’t teleport the battery over the air. It’s already built into the car. You might think Tesla shouldn’t charge extra for hardware that’s already there. But actually, it’s quite ingenious. A clever way for Tesla to sell their car at a slightly lower price, knowing they’ll recoup a profit from many of the buyers later on.

It also allows Tesla to produce fewer variations of the car, simplify the design, and eliminate the labor and inconvenience of installing an upgraded battery. But its biggest advantage might be customer satisfaction: giving the owner a way to improve his driving distance with a phone call or tap on the display.

Is this the beginning of something new? Just imagine how hardware upgrades, or “in-hardware purchases (IHP)”, might offer designers and marketers all sorts of new possibilities. A company could sell a phone or computer with built-in memory that can be expanded with an online purchase. Cameras could have features turned on for an extra charge, such as increased resolution or a wider zoom range. Tablets and computers could have built-in cellular modems in all of their models. An over-the-air purchase would turn on the cell service.

Yes, these add costs to the bill of materials, but that’s offset by simplifying the supply chain, reducing inventory and shortening the buying decisions. Additionally, the new revenue stream of after-sale purchases provides a competitive advantage and customer convenience.

There’s also a precedent for Tesla’s IHP. GM cars offer OnStar that, when activated, turns on a built-in cellular modem to connect and make calls. There are probably numerous other examples we’ve just not noticed.

Building in extra hardware that can be enabled after the purchase can not only be done for making a new sale but also to improve performance. The Chevy Volt is powered by a battery that typically needs to be recharged 5-7 times per week, depending on the owner’s driving habits. But, just as they do on our phones and computers, Li-Ion batteries deteriorate after successive charges. Chevy solves this issue by only using 10kWh of the Volt’s 16.5kWh battery capacity. This allows the car to maintain the same driving range on the battery, even as it degrades with use. As the battery’s capacity diminishes, more cells are turned on, maintaining the same performance for the life of the car.

Imagine if Apple or Samsung did this with their phones. Instead of a battery needing to be replaced after 2-3 years, just turn on a spare cell to maintain the original performance.

But IHP applies to more than just tech hardware. Several trends are at work that make hardware upgrades more practical. More devices are connected than ever, particularly in the IoT area, and the cost of hardware is falling, with computers-on-a-chip costing under ten dollars and large displays not much more; tablets cost as little as $25.

Companies need new sources of revenues after the initial purchase, beyond just offering an extended warranty. Appliances, such as refrigerators, washers, dryers, and HDTVs could come with a built-in computer, display, speakers, or an Echo-like device activated as an option by the customer. That provides an aftermarket sale direct to the manufacturer plus the option of recurring revenue.

The opportunities are endless and only subject to the imagination of engineers and marketers.

The Challenges of Retail for Startup Hardware Companies

In a recent column, I covered some of the challenges entrepreneurs have in getting their products into retail. This column explores the issue in more detail. It’s based on an interview I had with James Berberian, an experienced sales executive who has sold consumer electronics products for his entire career, including nineteen years with Targus, where he grew their worldwide sales to over half a billion dollars in 2011, the year that he left as VP sales.

P: What are some of the misunderstandings an entrepreneur in a new product company has about retail?

J: Companies introducing their first new product are usually unprepared and don’t realize how difficult selling a product can be. Even after they make their first sale to a retail account, they’re about to discover the job of selling has just begun. Retailers expect the company to generate demand for their products. And getting the product to sell at the retailer is the only measure of success.

Most companies underestimate the cost it takes to sell a product. They’re excited the store’s buyer likes their product and has put it on the shelf but that means little. They need to be prepared to spend anywhere from many tens of thousands to a few hundred thousand dollars.

P: What is the state of the retail environment with regard to selling consumer electronics and what has changed?

J: Consumer Electronics at retail has consolidated tremendously. Circuit City, CompUSA, Good Guys, Lechmere Sales, The Wiz, and many more big box stores (large chains) have gone out of business. While some of this has been caused by online sales, particularly Amazon, it’s also the result of a new, younger generation of consumers more tech savvy who don’t need a salesperson to explain the product.

Online resources such as YouTube, product reviews, and gadget blogs help with the purchasing decision and explain how to set up and use the products. Customers are much more comfortable buying without seeing the product first. Online has become more convenient and has eliminated all the risks of buying sight unseen. Amazon refunds your money back the day a return is shipped. And many buyers know more than the salesperson and prefer not to interact with others for assistance.

P: Who are the five most important retailers today?

J: Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and Amazon

P: What are some of the costs a product company faces in going retail?

J: Packaging costs, point of purchase displays, and distribution costs. Retailers often want the package to be designed just for their store. A product selling for $100 or more often requires a display. They’re expensive to build, set up, and maintain. Distribution costs are higher.

If a company wants to get their product into retailers and has only one or two items, they’ll be directed to a distributor, who already has a relationship with the retailer. The distributor’s role is to inventory, take orders, ship, process returns, and invoice the retailer. For this, the distributor charges 5% to 12% of the selling price. Lastly, a company will need a rep firm or sales staff. Rep firms, consisting of an independent sales force, are usually the most effective at gaining sales without the overhead costs of a large sales staff. They will take a 3% to 6% commission.

P: Should a product company try to sell to as many retailers as possible?

J: No, to be successful at retail and protect your selling price, don’t have a goal to sell to everyone. Focus on selling to several strategic retailers. If you sell to everyone, your price point is degraded, your major retail partners will want to differentiate, and will often replace you with one of your competitors. Retailers don’t want to sell the same product as their competitors. While it’s counterintuitive, you can end up selling less when you have too many retailers.

P: What sort of profit margins are needed by the retailers? In other words, what does my product need to cost me to sell for $10 at retail?

J: Accessories require a 65 to 50-point margin (retailers pay $3.50 to $5 for a $10 retail product), hardware requires 35-45 pts., and a powerhouse brand such as Sony or Apple, require an 8-15 points margin. When you add distribution and rep commissions, a hardware product that sells for $10 needs to be made for as little as $2.50 or $3.

P: What are some of the biggest surprises in working with retailers?

J: A retailer may ask product companies to take back a competitor’s inventory as a condition for selling their product. They may force a company to take back the first order if the product doesn’t sell.

If a product has no intellectual property or patents and it’s successful, the retailer may copy the product and sell it under their own store brand. Designing and building products used to be a specialized skill, requiring a relationship between a brand and factory in China. Now, virtually anyone can get products built. Retailers are very aware of what products cost and, of course, they know what sells, as they are closest to the consumer. (Start-ups worry about the Chinese, but they should worry more about the retailers.)

P: Is selling a product in the Apple Store a big benefit?

J: Yes. It adds credibility. Buyers from the large retailers notice and it can help you gain distribution. But there is a downside. If a product is sold in an Apple store and then is removed within 60 days, buyers assume it has failed.

P: With all these challenges should a company ignore retail and focus on just online sales?

J: Yes. Margins are a lot less using retailers than selling direct online. Retail adds many extra costs and lots of frustrations. But most consumer product companies cannot afford to ignore retail. Retail today is still the 800-pound gorilla and moves a huge amount of product, much more than online does for most categories. There are many customers that still want to visit a store and touch the product, as well as a surprisingly large number that don’t have a credit card and cannot buy online.

P: Finally, what advice do you have to an entrepreneur who has had a successful Kickstarter campaign, has developed the product, and now is faced with selling the product to consumers? What are his priorities?

J: The very next thing I would do is to find a way to reliably source the product and hire independent rep firms to cover the country. A company can have 20-25 sales reps on location selling their product for no out of pocket cost until sales are made. Instead of spending on costly ads and rarely impact sales significantly, spend on a retailer’s program to make them successful in selling through the product.

Is Retail Hindering Product Innovation?

As I work with tech startup companies to create and manufacture their new hardware products, one of the frequent challenges is the difficulty in meeting their sales expectations. All of the excitement and anticipation during the development and manufacturing phases invariably collide with the harsh reality of the marketplace. “Build it and they will come” rarely works and disappointment invariably follows.

In fact, the design and manufacturing of the product, no matter how complex, is often easier and less costly than creating large sales. And it’s become even more difficult with the changing retail landscape.

There are numerous reasons for this disappointment, starting with the expectation that a company’s new product will be as compelling to others as it is to them. Being so close to their product for so long, they assume others will instantly appreciate all of its benefits. That rarely happens. The word needs to get out; the new product’s value needs to be explained, compared and justified. The buying process is not instant and takes considerable time.

For a new consumer product to succeed, it needs to reach a wide and receptive audience. While it begins with a strong PR campaign and online reviews, that’s rarely enough to sustain sales. Ultimately, the product needs to get in front of customers so they can see it, touch it, and experience it.

It used to be much easier to do that than it is today, with a large number of retail stores and the substantial customer traffic roaming the aisles, looking for something new. In my case, I used to visit electronics stores a few times a month but rarely do so anymore.

It’s become less appealing and more difficult for product companies to get into retail. With the shrinking number of stores and falling profits, there’s less shelf space to display new products. Lower profits mean less capable sales people and fewer sales.

In many instances, retailers no longer buy a product but, in reality, take it on consignment. They don’t tell you that, but that’s usually the way it works out. They’ll send the product back if it doesn’t sell and will often delay payments for 90 or 120 days. Some retailers are well known for shorting the returns to eke out some more profit.

Even if a company gets their products onto the shelves, there’s no guarantee of success. The company needs to create demand to pull the products through. It’s all about sell-through, not sell in.

With the retail channel becoming so difficult, many companies need to sell their product on their own website, Amazon, or through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, supplemented by online advertising. Amazon has become the go-to replacement for major retailers, at least at the onset. It’s easy to get a product onto Amazon and the initial user feedback in reviews can often help jumpstart sales. Amazon also provides useful sell-through data and offers an assortment of marketing services. But in my experience, rarely can Amazon or any online merchant match a strong retail presence. Retail presence catches eyeballs and creates awareness, unlike Amazon, which first requires that you be alerted to the product’s existence.

One company I worked with thought they were doing well on Amazon until their product was featured on an end cap display at Target. In one weekend they sold more than they had in six months on Amazon. Getting a product into a chain with 1500 stores and selling just 2 items a week per store amounts to 180,000 units a year.

While Kickstarter and Indiegogo were originally established to fund the development of new products, increasingly these sites are being used simply to pre-sell products and get paid in advance. That reduces the cash flow demands of building hardware, contrasted with the demands of the slow paying retail channel but it doesn’t necessarily translate into sales beyond the initial buyers.

So this is the challenge: It’s becoming easier than ever to build new products, yet it’s becoming more difficult to sell large volumes, as retailers are shrinking. In fact, the retail channel is becoming the major hindrance to a product’s success and a deterrent to product innovation.

Apple and innovation

With Apple’s announcements this past week, it’s been fascinating to read analysts’ and reporters’ comments about whether Apple is still an innovator. Critics cite the modest improvements made in the recent revisions of the iPhone line as demonstrating Apple’s failure to innovate.

When I did a search for “Apple innovation”, up came dozens of headlines like this from the past half-dozen years:

“Apple swiped ideas from Google and Microsoft”

“Apple’s Core Problem Is That It Can No Longer Innovate”

“This Is Why It Feels Like Apple Stopped Innovating”

“Here’s Proof of Apple’s Downward Fall From Innovator to Imitator”

Yet, I can’t think of any company as innovative as Apple. Just in the last few years, they’ve been one of the leaders in new patent filings, are impacting the health industry with new tools and platforms for medical researchers and patients, and have made contributions to material science and manufacturing processes. 

Product innovation for Apple goes beyond adding new features or creating new hardware. It’s in areas not readily visible, their seamless integration of all the pieces that creates a great user experience. All the pieces work smoothly and logically together — hardware, software, services and even support. 

Yet, Apple is not always first with what we think of as innovation. They avoid adding features that add complexity or impacts user experience. Compared to Android phones, the iPhone is more “rigid” and less “flexible” but generally easier to use. 

It reminds me of how Walt Mossberg once defined what he considers to be a great consumer electronic product:

“The attributes of an excellent product as “so useful in function and clear in its operation that its user, within days or weeks, wonders how she ever got along without it. This is not the same as having long lists of features, specs, speeds and feeds. In fact, my rule is that, if a product claims to have, say, 100 features, but an average person can only locate and use 11 of them in the first hour, then it has 11 features.”

The iPhone and iPad certainly meet this definition. It’s been responsible for it being adopted by everyone from toddlers to the elderly. 

Yet, with all this said, there’s a strong case to be made that Apple’s is not moving fast enough, while their competitors are catching up and even overtaking them in some areas. Like the old Avis slogan, being number two has made their competitors such as Samsung try harder. That became evident when I recently reviewed the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and the new Galaxy S7 Android phones.

As a long time iPhone user, I’ve always found Android phones to be more complex to use and aesthetically less appealing, but after adding the Google Now Launcher interface that strips away all of the crapware the cellular companies load, hides the duplicate apps, and replaces Samsung’s launcher, these phones were a delight to use.

The interface was clean, intuitive and simple. That allowed the hardware to shine through. The displays were brighter and sharper, the phones were more responsive, and their batteries got me through a full day. The new Gmail and Calendar apps were more attractive and usable as well. I was able to set up the second phone by just touching it to the first while they communicated wirelessly with each other.

Suddenly, my iPhone 6 lots much of its appeal, particularly the need to use a battery case to get through the day. The Galaxy S7 has fast charging that recharges in a little more than an hour and can survive a soaking that destroyed my last iPhone. Adding Samsung’s wallet case turns the phone on and off when flipping the cover and I can buy an accessory to charge the phone wirelessly. What great phones!

Now in fairness to Apple, their phones are about to go through a major upgrade, and they’ll have a chance to respond. But based on these Samsung models, it’s going to be hard to upstage them. 

While Samsung and Android may still lag behind Apple’s user interface experience, these other advantages improve the user experience in other ways, like working from morning to night.

It’s interesting to speculate how Apple allowed this to happen. Has it been due to being overly conservative, arrogant, or out of touch with their competitors? Or has Samsung just out-innovated Apple in areas where it really counts?

How Safe are We from Our Apps?

Like many others in the tech community, I applaud Apple’s efforts to encrypt the iPhone to protect our privacy. But there’s been noticeably little attention given to the impact of apps on that same privacy.

I’ve always been surprised at how many permissions some apps requests before they can be installed. They typically request access to our contacts, location, calendar, email and sometimes even our mic and camera. Yet, rarely do the apps explain why they need all of this information or what they plan to do with it. In fact, many of the items they ask to access have no bearing on the app’s functionality. I’ve yet to come across an app that allows us to selectively accept or reject these permissions item by item.

So the question is, how serious an issue is this when it comes to protecting our privacy and how do Android and iOS phones compare?

I posed this question to Amit Ashbel, a Cybersecurity professional with The Israeli-based company provides services that review software code for vulnerabilities and has published a notable report on this subject, “The State of Mobile Application Security, 2014-2015”.

He pointed out mobile apps have two main attack vectors: (1) The operating system and (2) The application installed on the device.

Ashbel noted Apple does a good job in securing its operating system and significantly limits the user’s access to core OS level controls. Google takes a different approach and enables more flexibility which, at times, might expose the OS to more risks. Neither Google nor Apple do a good job in securing the apps, because neither company seem to analyze the apps for security vulnerabilities they may expose the user to.

The task to analyze code is obviously immense. The iOS platform alone has more than 1.5 million unique apps, downloaded over 75 billion times!

But according to Ashbel, the vulnerabilities exposed by the apps are less a result of the developers intentionally compromising our data and more the result of poor coding that allows others to attack our phones and obtain that personal data.

The Checkmarx and AppSec-Labs study identified the top seven development sins based on testing hundreds of applications of all types, from banking to games to utilities:

1. Authentication/Authorization – Acting on or accessing data without sufficient permissions, such as bypassing the security pin code and allowing access to personal information

2. Availability – Issues resulting in denial of service from the application or part of it that can result in crashes

3. Configuration Management – Incorrect or inappropriate configurations

4. Weak Cryptography – Breaches related to insecure ways of protecting data

5. Information Disclosure – Exposure of technical information such as application logs

6. Input Validation Handling – Results of mishandling data received from the user

7. Personal/Sensitive Information Leakage – Exposure of personal or other sensitive data such as passwords, documents, credit card numbers, etc.

In comparing iOS and Android, the report finds few differences:

It is a common myth that the iOS development platform is more secure than the Android equivalent for several legitimate reasons:

a) iOS has more restrictive controls over what developers can do and tight application sandboxing
b) iOS applications are fully vetted before being released to customers – preventing malware from entering the Apple App Store

Yet, in the field of pure application security where vulnerabilities are built in the code or into the application logic, the story is quite different.

Our statistics show the distribution of vulnerability exposed by severity is almost identical between iOS and Android applications with a slightly higher percentage of critical vulnerabilities in iOS applications.

40 percent of iOS vulnerabilities were critical or of high severity, compared to 36 percent of the Android vulnerabilities.

The conclusion is there’s more vulnerability from apps, due to the way they are coded, rather than from intention. But, because of poor coding, it’s even more of a reason not to provide access to information not needed for the app to function properly.

What does Ashbel do when loading apps on his Android phone? He reads the permissions carefully and, if they ask for access to information not needed, he says no.

One would think as part of the approval process to allow an app to be sold in their stores, both Apple and Google would require the permissions asked by the apps are just what’s needed. Perhaps they need to begin examining the app’s code in greater depth. After all, Apple has raised the importance of securing the personal information on our phone and that should include all areas of vulnerabilities.

Uber and Safety

When it comes to developing new products, I’ve always found the idea to be the easy part. It’s the execution that’s really the hard part. Execution requires implementing all of the tiny details to get everything just right. Miss one important detail and it can lead to failure.

I thought of this same issue with regards to Uber over the past several days with it being in the news. The Uber idea is brilliant, one of the best to come out of the tech industry since perhaps Facebook. The company has gotten most everything right, except one: its approach to the safety of its customers. Does that make Uber vulnerable?

Now, Uber is not going to fail but its success can seriously be affected if customers begin to worry about their safety. Even when the odds are tiny, consider how many people are afraid to fly after a serious plane crash.

Had I not covered two incidents of Uber customers this past summer for the San Diego Transcript, I might have felt differently when reading about how an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, MI was charged with gunning down a half-dozen people at random. I found Uber brings some of this on itself with its own indifference and stubbornness. They are not doing everything they can to protect their customers. That was my conclusion after covering these two events and interviewing the victims.

A friend of mine, a female Silicon Valley executive, experienced a harrowing experience when she took an Uber on what should have been a ten-minute drive from one part of San Francisco to another. The driver took a long route onto a congested freeway, even though the driver’s GPS suggested a local route, and then went into a frenzy when she questioned him. The driver sped down the breakdown lane past stopped traffic to his left and cut across several lanes of traffic, threatening to let her out on the freeway. She was fortunate to get out when the car stopped several blocks from her destination.

A second victim called right after this first story ran. Her Uber driver took her in the opposite direction to where she was going and told her he was going to show her “a good time”. She only got the driver to relent when she started filming him and threatening to call the police.

In each instance, neither was able to reach Uber to report these incidents. Uber has no phone number to report problems.

The first victim was able to reach Uber only by tweeting. The company’s response was to send a link to fill out a form and a $5 refund. The second victim called the police and, when she finally was able to reach Uber, they said the driver has a known hearing problem and blamed her for misunderstanding him. She also discovered when she tried to give the police the driver information and license number from her phone, the Uber app deletes that information once the ride begins.

In each case, the victims felt Uber showed indifference and denial.

Think about this. In each case, a life was put in danger. Yet, Uber did not react as any of us would if we saw a person in harm’s way. It’s lunacy that Uber does not provide a phone number to report incidences of this type. You would think the company would want to know whenever such incidents occurred.

Any company experiencing the rapid growth Uber is going through can’t possibly prevent the hiring of problem drivers. Some bad ones will get through their screening system. And proper vetting is likely one of their biggest costs, perhaps next to legal.

But even after the killings in Kalamazoo, Uber insisted they plan no changes to their screening process, which currently requires that an applicant submits their name, birth date, social security number, vehicle registration, insurance, license, and a vehicle inspection report.

Yet, they are facing lawsuits from several cities, including San Francisco, for not doing enough to screen drivers, exaggerating how safe they are, and allowing convicted felons to become drivers. Uber does not do any face-to-face screening nor do they do fingerprint checking, something most law enforcement agencies recommend.

Uber just settled one lawsuit for $28.5 million for, among other things, claiming it was “the safest ride on the road”. Clearly Uber can do more to protect its customers.

Crowdsourcing and Its Impact On Product Creation

In the many years of working with companies developing consumer hardware products, few developments have had such an impact on the creation process as crowdfunding. Adding a crowdfunding campaign, such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, has now become as important and as routine as the other steps in the development cycle.

On the surface, crowdfunding seems like an easy way to raise money and avoid giving up equity. It’s also a way to get initial feedback from potential customers about your idea, a real-life marketing test before you’ve built your product. A positive response can validate a product idea and encourage more investors. A lackluster one may mean the idea doesn’t resonate and may not be as good as you thought. It reminds me of companies in the 80s that put a tiny ad for a product in Popular Science to see how many people would order it before it was even developed.

Raising money for hardware has always been a problem with venture investors, whose dislike for hardware products goes back to before the disk drive industry. So crowdfunding has become a welcome alternative. While investors may dislike hardware, millions are anticipating the next hardware gadget, and plenty are willing to fund it.

But, I’ve found the money raised is accompanied with some serious issues that significantly affect the creation process. I call them “Kickstarter dollars” and they have a lower exchange rate than normal dollars.

In the usual creative cycle, a product is announced after its design is conceived, engineered, samples built, tested and refined few times. Based on market testing and feedback from alpha and beta testers, the product usually goes through a number of changes. Its cost and schedule are the outcome of all of these activities.

The product comes to market when it’s ready, not on a predetermined date. The design process follows a logical, proven path. Cost accounting and establishing the MSRP is not done until the design is completed, the manufacturer has had a chance to build a few hundred units, and negotiations take place. There’s just no way to accurately estimate the cost of a new product before it’s designed.

But crowdfunding flips this around. Rules require the product specs, cost, and schedule are committed near the beginning of the development process, often before its features are set, staff hired, a manufacturer has been selected, and the costs have been determined. As a result, the campaign makes commitments often impossible to meet.

Developing a product is quite complex and creates a lot of pressure on the team members. Adding the element of crowdsourcing adds even more. Everything is being done under the scrutiny of the backers. While they have no visibility in day to day issues, you can feel their presence, their need for frequent updates.

When the product takes longer, costs more, and the pressure mounts, the company is more likely to make decisions based on schedule over function or quality. The product released is more likely to be flawed.

The biggest problems occur when crowdsourcing is done by those with limited experience developing a product and they create unrealistic goals. More times than not, the product will never see the light of day. At last count, about 70% of the campaigns that were funder failed to deliver the product.

The outcome for products designed by experienced design teams who are better able to estimate and plan have a much better chance for success, with or without a crowdsourcing campaign. They know that the crowdsourcing campaign is the easy part of the development cycle.

Nielsen Ratings: Too Primitive to be Accurate?

Six weeks ago, I received a call asking if my wife and I wanted to become a Nielsen family, allowing the ratings company to track the TV and radio programs we watch and listen to. We gave it a little consideration and then said yes; it would provide us a chance to “vote” for the shows we typically watch and, we assumed, it would be something easy and transparent to do.

The company explained how it would provide us with tracking devices we would wear that would detect which programs we watched throughout the day. They worked by listening to an audio signature broadcast by each show. We also would be paid up to $50 per month. It seemed simple and straightforward.

A few days later, we each received a package that contained the device we’d carry with us. It was surprisingly bulky and archaic looking. In fact, it looked similar to one of the old SkyTel pagers from the mid 90s with its belt clip and small display. It came with a charging cradle and AC adapter, where it was to be put back each night to charge and to communicate the day’s results to Nielsen using its built-in cell modem.

We were told we’d need to wear the devices everywhere we went through the day, even when we left our home. Another module was provided for each of us that plugged into an outlet to detect when we were gone.

When the pager was put into the charging cradle, we’d be awarded points based on how long we wore it during the day. These points were converted to chances to win $15,000 in a drawing. In fact, nearly all of the company’s communication motivating us to wear the device was predicated on earning more chances to win their lottery. Little was communicated about the value of providing them and their clients with accurate viewing information.

We both took our responsibilities seriously, although we could care less about the drawings. Our focus was to be sure we used the units as much as possible. After all, with perhaps 40,000 households determining the content of TV, our choices of what we watched could help some of the programs we enjoyed.

But after a few days, my wife started getting calls and emails from Nielsen reminding her to wear the device more often. She often didn’t wear the pager, just placed it next to her on the couch when she watched TV. She had no belt to clip it on or large pockets to carry it in. But that created a problem: after 30 minutes of detecting no motion, its light would start blinking, requiring her to move it to keep it engaged.

Clearly, with its large belt clip, the device was not made for her nor for most women to conveniently carry. She surmised the product was likely designed by a man with little thought given to making it more convenient for women to use. I had to agree and wondered whether this might even bias the ratings.

It was also inconvenient for her to carry the device whenever she went out of the house. I could clip it to my belt for the day and forget about it but that was not an option she had.

Soon we learned that every time we went away for a few days, we would need to let Nielsen know by calling them and using a touch-tone phone to provide the start and stop dates, much like cancelling a newspaper delivery. Even though we did this, one of us would sometimes get a call after we returned asking why we weren’t using the device. After more than a month of being a Nielsen family, we each received a $7.50 check for our participation.

We finally decided participating was just too complicated and time consuming: the charging of the device, carrying it everywhere we went from waking up to going to bed, the incessant emails and calls, and signing off and on when going out of town.

What was so surprising to me was, in this era where there are so many technically innovative products being developed, the Nielsen solution was so archaic and technically deficient, particularly when it impacts the shows we watch. You have to wonder how accurate their ratings are when their measuring methodology requires so much effort.

And you would think Nielsen could be sampling a much larger and more diverse population using crowdsourcing through the use of an app on a smartphone, rather than using such primitive hardware. It would know exactly where we were at all times, could communicate the information to Nielsen’s cloud in real time, and we’d be more likely to have the phone with us all the time. Clearly this is an opportunity for another company to do a much better job.

Based on this experience, when I now look at Nielsen ratings, I have a lot less confidence in their numbers.

A Challenge to the Automobile Companies

One of the highlights of this year’s CES was, literally, carloads of new technology shown by the automotive companies from Detroit, Europe, Korea, and Japan. Everything from self-driving vehicles to tablet-sized displays to 20 speaker audio systems. The automotive industry seems to have embraced new technology, with many of the companies opening research and development centers in Silicon Valley, hoping perhaps to catch some of the Tesla brilliance.

I truly hope this marks a turn for the better from the industry’s normally slow, lumbering approach to incorporating technology in their products. They’ve been great at showing flashy technology of the future, but it’s taken years to implement even small changes. An auto executive once told me a new feature typically takes three years to show up, because models for the next two years were already “put to bed”. Three years is almost an eternity in tech.

Based on my own observations and experience with several auto companies’ navigation systems, count me skeptical. Navigation has been one of the most promising areas at the intersection of technology and automobiles, yet progress has been dismally slow. Today’s GPS differs little from those of five or ten years ago. User interfaces remain well behind our phones or computers and no company can match the navigation capabilities offered by Google navigation on our smartphones.

My wife’s Toyota Highlander is a good example. From the display to the user interface to the poor logic, it’s a real mess. Display resolution and touch sensitivity can’t compare with a $250 tablet. The controls for commonly used functions are hidden in menus. One of the most annoying features is you cannot enter a destination with the car in motion, even though the car knows there is a passenger in the front seat. And I’ve yet to find speech recognition on any car that’s good enough to use regularly.

With few exceptions, navigation systems still require you to enter a street address rather than a landmark as you can with Google. As a result, many of us abandon this expensive option and use our phones instead, or no longer buy the navigation option.

And for those that do use their car’s built-in navigation, the cost to keep it current is exorbitant, typically $200 for an update. And if you want to see traffic, expect to pay at least that amount for a yearly subscription.

My plea to the automotive companies that are promising all of this new technology would be to show us now what you can do with navigation. Figure out a way to do as good a job as Google Maps. And, if you can’t, at least provide a built-in mount so I can hang my phone on the dashboard instead of using the cup holder.

Apple’s Poor Repairability Ratings: Not What They Seem?

I brought my iPhone 6 in for service at an iPhone store a few weeks ago. Its home button had a double click that didn’t always register. A genius bar employee diagnosed it and it was repaired in about an hour. But, in order to replace the button, the entire front assembly including the bezel, display, and touch screen was also replaced.

In another experience a year ago, the case of my MacBook Pro along with the keyboard were replaced when the trackpad stopped working.

This is quite a change from how products used to be designed for repair, where a single component would be replaced.

In reviewing many of Apple products’ construction on the iFixit site over the years, you can see that Apple designers have changed many of the rules of mechanical design. Instead of designing for easy repairability of each component, such as the battery, display or switch, they’ve created products in which many of the parts have complex sub-assemblies, held together with adhesive or clips not designed to easily come apart, and instead designed to be replaced as an entire unit. As a result, these products receive a low rating from iFixit for repairability.

Perhaps it’s important to make it easy for repairs to be done by those without extensive training to disassemble and remove defective components. Swapping out a module is a lot easier and faster than removing one component buried deep under other components. Cost of manufacture can be much less if parts are not needed to be separated after assembly. The replacement parts, of course, are much costlier, because a good display is discarded along with a bad home button.

This is another area where Apple’s design methodology has bucked conventional thinking. While I can only surmise all the reasons, it makes sense from the standpoint of providing the type of good service I received, available in most all of their stores: the product was repaired quickly in an hour or a day. From that perspective, repairability is great. And that counts more than an iFixit rating.

I suspect much of the motivation behind this design methodology is also to make their products as thin and light as possible. Batteries no longer need to be enclosed in housings mounted in place to allow their removal. Instead, the bare batteries are glued to the enclosures. The iPhone’s non-removable battery caused an uproar but now this is becoming common practice, as exemplified by Samsung’s latest series of Galaxy phones. The elimination of a couple of walls of enclosure translates directly into a thinner product.

But this design approach also burdens the cost of recycling. It’s much more labor-intensive to separate the parts for recycling. You wouldn’t want to throw a battery along with a printed circuit board assembly and an aluminum housing all stuck together into the same recycling bin. The question becomes how well Apple considers the recycling of their products when designing them.

Significant New Products for 2015

Here’s my take on some of the more interesting and significant products for 2015.

Apple Watch: The eagerly anticipated Apple Watch finally arrived and, once again, showed Apple’s unrivaled skills in design and integration of software and hardware. While not a must have, it’s a useful tool for helping us do small tasks. It’s significant because it gives us the best wearable yet and has the potential to do much more.

Microsoft Surface 4: Microsoft took a huge chance on their all-in-one tablet and computer platform and endured (deserved) derision for its early models with the Windows 8 operating system. But with Windows 10 and their latest generation surface hardware, they have a compelling product that provides a real alternative to Apple’s two product approach. Microsoft’s vision of carrying an all-in-one device instead of a separate tablet and notebook now looks prescient.

Apple iPad Pro: As a large tablet, the iPad Pro is more of an evolutionary product that brings the first really useful pen(cil) to an Apple product. But it also could be Apple’s early efforts at building a portable notebook using the iOS operating system, a toe in the water to Apple’s all-in-one offering.

HP Sprout: This unusual looking desktop computer is a product from the future available today. It’s a computer, touch tablet display, scanner, camera and projector integrated into one. As a result, it offers huge versatility as a home and business work center that can bring the real and virtual together. Its touch mat sits on the desk and can work as a second screen or be used to interact with the computer like a tablet. Its camera can scan physical objects to combine with virtual ones. It’s the most imaginative product from HP since the all-in-one printer.

Amazon Echo: This clever product puts another device on our desktop or kitchen counter that is as close to magic as anything this year. It’s surprisingly good speech recognition and intelligent programming let you access a wealth of information and entertainment from the internet, as well as performing simple tasks like keeping lists.

Blackberry Priv Phone: Clearly a product more significant to Blackberry than the rest of us, it’s the first smartphone with a very good physical keyboard and access to all of the Android apps. After reading the fascinating book, “Losing the Signal”, about Blackberry’s former tone-deaf management, it’s good to see this effort to gain back relevancy.

LG 55” OLED TV: The promise of affordable OLED HDTVs was realized this year with LG offering a 55-inch model for just $1799. OLEDs offer more contrast and deeper blacks than LCD displays and are what Samsung uses on their Galaxy phones.

Chevy Volt: While we all lust for a Tesla, the new 2016 Chevy Volt is a more affordable ($35K) way to drive on electric power with the advantage of no “range anxiety”, as it shifts to its gas-powered motor when the batteries run out. It provides 50-60 miles on a single 3-hour charge and gets about 40 mpg. The second generation Volt has an all new look with many improvements over its predecessor, the car I’ve been enjoying for the past two years.

Ring: In spite of some difficulties installing it and an occasionally slow response, this replacement for the front doorbell provides an added level of protection few of us have had. It’s a replacement for the peephole in that it lets you see who is at the front door over your phone from wherever you happen to be. It’s emblematic of the many new Internet of Things products we’ve seen this year and just the beginning of what we can expect in 2016.

Drones: 2015 was the year of the drones, with dozens of new models launched this year. Representative of this category is the popular DJI Phantom 3 Standard Quadcopter Drone with 2.7K HD Video Camera at $700. This robust model has a built-in video and still camera that can stream images a half mile away and it flies for 25 minutes on a charge. Just be sure to register it.

Last but not least is the Tesla Powerwall, a 230-lb home battery that charges using electricity when the rates are low at night or from solar panels during the day. It provides power during the times the rates are high, independence from the grid, and an emergency backup.

Thoughts on the 2016 CES

I have a couple of thoughts about CES, the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every year. The first is a personal one about attending and the second about the significance of CES in the world.

For the next few weeks, we’ll be hearing a lot about CES, where nearly 4000 companies will be previewing their new products to 200,000 attendees spread among a score of hotels and convention halls.

But if you’re interested in being first to learn about these new products, you’re better off staying home and following the news on the internet. Figuring out what to see and where it’s at requires careful planning. No matter how much time you have, you can’t possibly cover more than a small fraction of the exhibits. Products are spread far afield among exhibit halls that take a lot of time to get to. Taxi lines of an hour wait are typical to get from one location to another. Once you get to the halls, you’ll need another 20-30 minutes to navigate the crowded aisles to find a particular company.

But even if you manage to deal with most of these challenges, you will only see the public version of CES and not the private one. That’s where many of the most interesting new products and technologies are shown, off the main exhibit floors in hotel suites and meeting rooms spread among the Las Vegas hotels. Admission is limited to a select few and by invitation only, including a small number of press, customer and industry analysts.

So my advice is, unless you need to go for other reasons, such as an important business meeting, you’re better off sitting in front of your computer in the comfort of your home and letting others do the work for you, discovering what’s new and significant.

In fact, business meetings are the most compelling reason to go to CES. With people coming from all over the world, it is a perfect time to network, make deals and find new business.

My second thought relates to what has enabled the consumer electronics industry, exemplified by CES, to become as big as it is, as represented by this largest trade show in North America. Yes, there are huge companies such as Samsung, Sony, and Intel, but these hardly represent the areas of growth. The real growth is the result of the new ideas and the increasing ability for tiny companies and entrepreneurs to bring out new products.

The increase in the consumer electronics industry is a result of innovation from entrepreneurs in the U.S. as well as in other regions and the relative ease of going from a concept to a manufactured product. There’s an unspoken partnership between entrepreneurs and China. Chinese manufacturers enable the entrepreneurs to realize their dreams and the entrepreneurs keep the Chinese economy growing.

As a result, China has effectively created new jobs in the U.S., not taken them away as some politicians would have you believe. And the jobs they are creating are higher paying ones.

It’s called the “Smiley Curve effect”, a term I first came across in the article “China Makes, The World Takes” by James Fallows in The Atlantic, one of the best articles ever written about China’s consumer manufacturing industry.

Fallows explains:

“The curve is named for the U-shaped arc of the 1970s-era smiley-face icon, and it runs from the beginning to the end of a product’s creation and sale. The significance is that China’s activity is in the middle stages—manufacturing, plus some component supply and engineering design—but America’s is at the two ends, and those are where the money is. The smiley curve, which shows the profitability or value added at each stage, starts high for branding and product concept, swoops down for manufacturing, and rises again in the retail and servicing stages. The simple way to put this—that the real money is in brand name, plus retail—may sound obvious, but its implications are illuminating.”

He uses an example of a Windows laptop, but it applies to almost all hardware products:

“The generic Windows-style laptops I saw in one modern factory might go for around $1,000 in the United States, with the retailer keeping less than $50. Where does the rest of the money go? The manager of that factory guessed that Intel and Microsoft together would collect about $300, and that the makers of the display screen, the disk-storage devices, and other electronic components might get $150 or so apiece. The keyboard makers would get $15 or $20; FedEx or UPS would get slightly less. When all other costs were accounted for, perhaps $30 to $40—3 to 4 percent of the total—would stay in China with the factory owners and the young women on the assembly lines.

“In other words, Chinese workers making $1,000 a year have been helping American designers, marketers, engineers, and retailers making $1,000 a week earn even more.”

So, when you see all of the companies at CES, either in person or on the internet, remember how many of them have benefited from this phenomenon.

Sad State of Retail Apps

I was having coffee with a friend this past Saturday morning when I noticed his leather wallet case on his iPhone 6 Plus. I googled the brand a few hours later, found the $27 case on Amazon, and purchased it. That same evening, the doorbell rang and an Amazon driver handed me the item.

This experience has been repeated by millions of people over the past few weeks. Amazon continues to transform the shopping experience, much in the way Polaroid transformed the photo experience, eliminating the need to wait. The impact Amazon is having clearly has to be a big concern to retailers.

A few years back, we heard lots of ideas about how retailers could use technology to improve their shopping experience. There was talk of in-store mapping, location technology, and even face recognition software. Analysts described how this would allow physical stores to better compete with online shopping, to improve the experience, make it more convenient, and even fun. There was talk of walking into a store with your phone and being recognized, suggesting items you might be interested in buying, based on previous purchases, and guiding you through the store, all done with a mobile app.

So how is all this going? Based on my survey of several major retailers, not very well. If there is technology being developed in this area, it certainly wasn’t visible in any of these stores where I shop. There were a few nuggets of ideas, but nothing that showed much imagination.

In my survey, I downloaded the mobile apps from Target, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Sephora, Nordstrom’s, and Bloomingdales, and signed up with each of them. I used each app for at least a week and visited all of the stores to see how the apps enhanced my shopping experience.

Sadly, the results were disappointing. First, the apps were primarily just mobile versions of the websites with a focus on online shopping from a phone. Few were designed for use in the physical stores. In fact, none of the retailers even promoted the mobile apps in their stores. It seemed the physical stores and the online entities were entirely different operations.

Most provided online product search, reviews, ordering, and the option to pick up merchandise at a store or shipped to home. Most had the ability to create shopping lists and provide a list of store locations.

But none of the apps came close to the potential of what a mobile app could do to entice you into their stores. While most of the stores had public WiFi, none of the stores reached out to me as a customer via the app proactively, even when connected. None identified I was in the store, nor told me about or directed me to sales in progress. And none allowed me to do self-checkout using the app in the way the Apple stores allow.

I would have loved to see a help function where I could press a button on the app and have a salesperson come to me. I would have liked to have been able to search for an item and have the app direct me to the location of the product in the store. I’d love an app that allowed a sales person to direct me by name and let me know about a new product my past purchases showed I might like.

I can understand why some shoppers might want to maintain their privacy and not be recognized while shopping, but I know there are many shoppers that would opt-in to make their store visit more useful with much more thoughtful interaction compared to impersonal online shopping.

While most of the apps seemed to emulate one another, the quality of execution varied widely. Those from Wal-Mart, Sephora, and Kohl’s were the best, while the Target app was the worst of the group with its confusing interface split into several different apps.

The most technically advanced features in these apps were barcode scanners you can use in the store to learn more about a product or check a price. Wal-Mart had a clever feature that allowed you to scan your receipt using its mobile app and it would compare the prices you paid with neighboring merchants and match any lower prices. Sephora allowed a shopper to use their own image to learn how to apply makeup using its app.

However, with Amazon’s same day delivery service being expanded, retail stores will need to work much harder to get you to pay them a visit. Their big advantage once was that you get the product the same day, but even that advantage is disappearing.

A New Battery Case from Apple

As popular as the iPhone 6 is, it has one huge weakness — one of the shortest battery lives of any smartphone. That’s because Apple has prioritized thinness over runtime. As an iPhone 6 user, it’s hard to get through the day without needing to charge my phone. Often, the battery is dead by 2 or 3 pm.

Now, Apple has introduced its own snap-on battery case, much like the cases from Mophie and many others that have been available for years. Battery cases or power cases, as they are often called, contain a second battery that can double the run time.

The Apple version works on the 6 and 6S and has some unique features but battery life is not one of them. It extends the normal battery life by about 80%. Apple’s case is a compromise between providing sufficient added power, while not making it as bulky and heavy as other cases.

Many of the reviews appearing from the Wall St. Journal, The Verge, and Engadget, assess the Apple case as simply an over-priced version of a Mophie case with a smaller battery. But, after using the product for a few days, most of the reviews completely miss the point. These reviews take a very simplistic approach: How does the product compare with others based on what the reviewers deem to be important, namely battery size versus cost. In my opinion, this is not what should be important.

If I were Apple’s marketing chief, my design brief to the engineers would be to come up with a solution that is able to get a heavy iPhone 6/6S user through the day without running out of power. You want to insure a user away from home or the office need not search for a plug until he is home in the evening. At the same time, I’d ask for a solution that minimizes the case’s bulk and weight and makes it as convenient as possible to use. In other words, find the right balance.

In my use of the product, Apple has managed to “thread the needle” and come up with an optimum solution. The added battery capacity solved my problem of running out of power in the middle of the afternoon and took me to late in the evening instead of only mid-afternoon. A larger battery that lasted to midnight or 3 am would not provide me any added benefit.

By using a smaller battery, Apple eliminated the huge appendage of other cases that often doubled the phone’s thickness and made it hard to hold and slip in a pocket. The Apple case maintains the thickness of the phone in a moderately sized case around its perimeter and adds thickness to the middle of the back only. That makes the phone as easy to hold and grasp as an iPhone 6 with just with an ordinary case on it.

The Apple case is also much simpler to use than other battery cases. It uses a lightning connector instead of a USB connector, allowing you to use one cable to charge the combination or either alone.

There is no need to manage or worry about which battery to use. Like other cases, the connector on the case charges both the phone’s battery and its own simultaneously. In use, the case’s battery discharges first, eliminating the need for a user-selectable switch. Battery life of both is precisely displayed on the display, eliminating the need for LEDs used by other makers.

Unlike the competitors’ case made of hard plastic, the Apple case is made of silicone rubber that provides a firm grip and is easy to put on and off. It provides a raised ridge around the screen that is better able to absorb a drop.

So no, the Apple case does not have the biggest battery, but it does offer the maximum utility for what I would define a battery case should be: Enough power to get a heavy user through the day and evening, in an easy to hold package that makes it much more likely you’ll keep the case on the phone all of the time.

Apple’s new SmartCase comes in gray or white and costs $100.