Podcast: Verizon-Apple, Apple App Store, AMD RX6800 GPUs, Microsoft Pluton, Apple Diversity

on November 21, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing Verizon’s recent 5G Swap offer with iPhone 12, Apple’s changing of their App Store fee for developers, reviews of the new M1-based Arm Macs, reviews of AMD’s latest Radeon 6800 GPUs, analyzing the potential impact of the Microsoft’s new Pluton security processor for PCs and its partnerships with AMD, Intel and Qualcomm, and chatting about the new inclusion and diversity officer at Apple.

Gaming Consoles’ Battle Royale

on November 19, 2020

I lost count of how many times, over the weeks leading into the release of Microsoft Xbox Series X and Series S and Sony PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, I was asked which model will sell more. Sales figures often make the headline, but I think this year, there is much more interesting conversation to be had on gaming as a form of entertainment and its role during the pandemic.

It is clear to me that gaming has been changing in more ways than one. First of all, gaming has been democratized by smartphones when we think of the number of people who would consider themselves “serious gamers” and how non-console gaming is no longer seen as inferior. Technology on smartphones and PCs has been keeping pace, if not outperforming in some respects, to deliver a rich and immersive experience that is different because content developers have embraced these devices and created content tailored to them. Titles like Fortnite and Pug G proved the opportunity for success in both brand share and revenue.

With broader appeal came the added value of game streaming as a form of entertainment in its own right. This, in turn, helped expand gaming even further and not just from a number of gamers’ perspective but as a revenue source for merchandize and a content category that drives a level of attention never quite seen before.

A Different Approach to Gaming

This is the backdrop for the market in which the new consoles landed following a clearly different strategy Microsoft and Sony are taking to the reinvigorated gaming market. As much as we can compare and contrast the four options consumers have across Microsoft and Sony, there is more than the hardware that comes into play when these two companies think about their addressable market.

It is clear to me that Microsoft is focused on reaching gamers wherever they might be. Whether you play on Xbox, a PC, or an Android phone, as long as you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, you are guaranteed an ample selection of titles and an experience that can connect you and your gamer friends across devices. Considering that the cloud is at the center of Microsoft’s business, it is easy to understand the shift to game streaming. The recent acquisition of Bethesda Softworks speaks precisely to developing a strong pipeline for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate’s subscribers. As Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said:

“Gaming is the most expansive category in the entertainment industry, as people everywhere turn to gaming to connect, socialize, and play with their friends. Quality differentiated content is the engine behind Xbox Game Pass’s growth and value—from Minecraft to Flight Simulator. As a proven game developer and publisher, Bethesda has seen success across every category of games, and together, we will further our ambition to empower the more than three billion gamers worldwide.”

On the other spectrum of the console world, we have Sony, which sees the future of gaming centered on a much more immersive experience where all senses come together to elevate your gaming experience on a console.  In an interview with the Washington Post, PlayStation’s President and CEO Jim Ryan said:

“We want to give gamers clarity, we want to give them certainty. We want to future proof them so that they know the console they buy will be relevant in several years time. It’s a considerable capital outlay, and we want to make sure people know they are buying a true next-generation console.”

The approach here is about delivering the best hardware and purposefully designed content that can elevate each other. Sony’s first-party content like Astro’s Playroom guide PlayStation 5’s users through the new DualSense controllers while offering content creators an opportunity to see what is possible. Staying focused on console gaming will limit overall reach, but it also means engaging with the most profitable audience.

Covid’s Impact on Demand

 Strategy aside, both Microsoft and Sony face the difficulty of predicting demand in a market that has never quite seen so many different variables playing both in favor and against sales.

Covid’s impact on the economy has dampened consumers’ confidence, negatively impacting spending on non-essential items. Yet, spending more time at home has created a stronger craving for content and entertainment, which might benefit from some redirected discretionary budget that would have otherwise gone to eating out or other entertainment such as movies, theater, and other social activities.

The launch of the new consoles was quickly followed by a worsening of the pandemic and the start of what political and health experts started to call a “dark winter.” The prospect of having to spend the next two to four months at home might drive more consumers to make the investment after initially having dismissed it as unnecessary as life was reopening to the old routines.

We also have to remember that TV and movie productions have also been impacted, limiting new content reaching consumers during the next six to twelve months. This leaves a void that gaming can certainly help to fill. Some big titles like Halo have also been delayed, but the catalog of existing games is so wide on both Xbox and PlayStation that consumers would not be worried that their investment might not payback.  Considering the growth in games sales seen thus far, as reported by NPD at a record $11.6 billion in the April to June timeframe, there is clearly a lot available to purchase. This was an increase of 30% when compared to the same time period in 2019, and a 7% increase over the first quarter of 2020 (January – March) record $10.9 billion.

Time will tell, but I am confident the renewed and expanded love affair with gaming will remain strong even when life will return to be lived out and about.

 

Podcast: Apple Arm-Based Macs, MediaTek Summit

on November 14, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Ben Bajarin and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the debut of Apple’s Arm-based M1 processor and the new Mac Mini, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro that include them and discussing the news from Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek’s Summit event and the new low-cost 5G modems and Arm-based, Chromebook-focused SOCs that they unveiled.

Custom Mac Silicon Frees Apple to Iterate, or Not, as it Pleases

on November 13, 2020

Apple’s event this week brought a few surprises (three new Apple-Silicon based Macs, not just one) as well as some frustrating nonsurprises (no touchscreens, no LTE or 5G, and no new entry-level starting prices for notebooks). Based on Apple’s deliberately vague testing proclamations, the M1 system on a chip (SoC) certainly appears to be a powerful performer that will also offer substantial battery life improvements. We will know more about both in the coming days as reviewers begin the process of benchmarking and real-world testing. What is clear, however, is that the M1 has already caused Apple to radically rethink the role the processor plays in differentiating products in its lineup. Just as important, I believe it will give Apple significantly more freedom to iterate around its Mac form factors, features, and, eventually, prices.

Three New Macs
I won’t go into too much detail about the new Macs, as Carolina covered those details in her excellent day-two column. Like her, I wasn’t surprised that Apple chose to effectively hold the line on its pricing (with the exception of the $100 drop on the Mac Mini) because it needed to establish out of the gate that the M1 isn’t a low-cost alternative to Intel, but a powerful custom-designed replacement that merits like-for-like pricing.

What’s truly remarkable about this product launch is that by using the same chip across a new Mac Mini, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro, Apple effectively eliminated one of the key ways the PC industry (and Apple itself) has traditionally segmented its products. Processor performance level and branding have always been a primary differentiator in the market. With the M1, Apple says the quiet part out loud by acknowledging that a single chip, placed into three different thermal envelopes, will drive three different performance levels.

That last part is going to fry a lot of people’s noodles, especially those who have traditionally made buying decisions based on the often small but highly marketed speeds and core count of one system’s processor over another. You can see it now as buyers wrestle with a decision between buying a fanless MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro that offers improved performance predicated entirely on the fact that it has a fan that lets the M1 processor run faster, longer than the one in the Air. Ultimately, I expect that the M1 and Apple’s subsequent Mac processors will lead an increasing percentage of their customers to think less about the processor and what its esoteric speeds and feeds mean to them. But this transition will take time, and it will cause some hand-wringing along the way.

One of the early issues with the shift to the M1 is RAM limitations. All the new Macs offer a standard starting RAM allotment of 8GB and a maximum of 16GB. For years it has been notoriously hard—if not impossible—to add aftermarket RAM to a Mac, but with the M1, it is simply not possible because the memory is part of the SOC. This 16GB limit likely isn’t a dealbreaker for most MackBook Air buyers. Still, it has caused a small but vocal minority of Mac diehards to pump the brakes on new MacBook Pro and Mac Mini purchase because they are unwilling to buy a system with less than 32GB of RAM. Here’s the thing: Conventional wisdom (and experience) may dictate that power users need 32GBs, but that may not be the case with the M1’s Unified Memory Architecture. We will have to wait for the benchmarks and real-world testing to know for sure.

Another notable thing about the new M1-based Macs is that they all support just two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports, whereas some previous versions of both the Mac Mini and MacBook Pro offered up to four. It is unclear if this is an M1 limitation or an Apple design decision. However, this too may be a dealbreaker for some users, who—in the case of the Mac Mini or MacBook Pro—will then need to look back at the legacy Intel-based products still on offer or wait for subsequent product launches.

No Touch, No LTE, and No New Form Factors…Yet
I was not surprised that Apple opted to go with its existing chassis for these product announcements. Particularly in the Tim Cook era, Apple tends to be quite deliberate when it comes to new product designs, so it made sense that the new products look just like the old products. It was also not shocking that Apple did not add a touchscreen to the Mac and did not roll out an LTE or 5G option for the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. And to many people’s disappointment, the company did not introduce a new lower-priced notebook. However, the fact that Apple did not do any of this week doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future.
In fact, I see that as one of the great benefits of the move to Apple Silicon. While the company decided the shift to the M1 was enough change for 2020, the flexibility inherent in rolling its own silicon—and knowing the ramifications of a future chip in terms of battery life, performance, heat, I/O, and cost—uniquely positions the company to iterate on the Mac in ways it has never done before.

Obviously, there will be new designs, likely in the service of Apple’s obsessive drive to make everything thinner and lighter. With its own silicon on board, Apple will be free to make design changes without waiting on a partner or making concessions for features it deems unnecessary for the Mac. I’m less convinced Apple will add a touchscreen to the Mac, even though many of us have pushed for it for years. However, the support for iOS apps, enabled by the M1, could mean Apple rethinks this position in the future. There is a slightly better chance that Apple eventually rolls out a Mac with cellular connectivity. This would require a fundamental redesign of its notebook chassis, and if it were to happen, it would likely occur using a 5G radio. There is a great deal of interest in connected PCs today due to the massive shift to work from home, but it’s clear Apple won’t be moving quickly to try to catch that wave.

Finally, I expect Apple to eventually roll out more affordably priced Mac notebooks (note I didn’t say low-end). It is instructive to look at how Cook has approached this in his other categories. Traditionally, it was with waterfalled products—last year’s iPhone drops in price, the previous year’s product also decreases in price, and Apple keeps selling them to reach a wider audience. More recently, the company has launched purpose-built products designed to appeal to more value-oriented buyers, such as the second-generation iPhone SE and the Apple Watch SE. I suspect Apple will begin the process here by waterfalling M1-based products into lower price points as it announces new products with next-generation M-Series processors.
By shifting its lineup away from Intel, Apple will no longer have to deal with people always pointing out that it sells products with years-old chips that look dated versus the other PC players. Yes, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and others will always ship products with the latest Intel processor. But, Apple will argue, this two-year-old M Series processor is still competitive because it is custom-designed to run this product.

I’m eager to see the first benchmarks and to test out one of the new Macs myself. If the new M1 performs as well as Apple suggests, then this silicon transition is likely to have a much more significant impact on Apple (and its competitors in the market) than any previous transitions. This has been a resurgent year for the PC category, and things just got a whole lot more interesting.

Apple’s One More Thing Turned Out to Be Three

on November 11, 2020

Apple announced its transition to Apple Silicon back in June. Since then, industry watchers have been formulating a hypothesis on which Mac will be the first model to sport Apple’s new silicon design. Over the past few events, leakers had left only a few surprises for the official event, but for the “one more thing” event, Apple delivered at least a couple from a device launch perspective as well as its strategy.

A More Aggressive Transition

The MacBook Air was the best bet when guessing where Apple would debut its own silicon. A very popular model in the portfolio, the MacBook Air, would appeal to users who care about mobility, battery life, and a slim design but don’t usually run very intensive workflows. Expectations were met as Apple introduced the MacBook Air as the first home for the new M1 chip.

But Apple did not stop there!

After the MacBook Air, Apple added the M1 chip to a new Mac mini, a model that Apple updated back in 2018. The Mac mini is Apple’s most affordable Mac, and the newly launched model starts at $100 less than its predecessor. This is the only price concession Apple made contrary to what some industry watchers were expecting. Some analysts argued that the in-house design would allow Apple to lower prices without necessarily impacting margins. I was somewhat skeptical of such a move for two reasons. First, Apple is not under any time pressure to get market share. Over the past couple of quarters, sales have been growing due to higher demand driven by Covid-19 and supply issues on the Windows camp. Second, aggressive pricing might have sent the wrong signal on how competitive the new silicon was compared to Intel’s designs. Given the times we are in when people are re-evaluating the tools they are using while working from home, the Mac Mini certainly offers Apple an interesting opportunity.

The big surprise of the event, however, was that the M1 chip made its way into the 13″ MacBook Pro. Most people expected that support for what is considered the most popular Mac model and the model that appeals to more pro users might come in a second wave in 2021 once Apple has some time to put the M1 to a real-world test.

Such a broad portfolio right out of the gate shows the confidence Apple has in its solution overall. The combination of silicon, OS, and apps optimization that Apple claims will deliver unprecedented performance.

The other surprise and sign of confidence on Apple’s part was timing. While we knew a launch would happen before the end of 2020, Tim Cook even confirmed that during the latest earnings call, most expected the first product to ship in 2021.

Macs Get iOS Apps but No Touch

It was fascinating to notice that, at least on Twitter, not many people commented on the lack of touch. It seems as though most have given up even on the idea that Apple might change its mind about adding touch to the Mac.

The M1 ability to support iOS apps without developers having to optimize them would have been the perfect reason to add touch to the Mac. Although they might still not believe in vertical touch, Apple could have explained that they thought users might want that option.

An alternative that could have met users halfway was to add the same cursor solution Apple put on the iPad Pro’s Magic Keyboard, something I hypothesized since the product was released.

Instead, we have neither.

Maybe this is so that developers actually choose to optimize their apps for the Mac so users can have a better experience. It will certainly be interesting to see if Apple can replicate the developer engagement they had on the iPad. You might remember that when the first iPad came to market, Apple had the 2X option that made iPhone apps run on the larger iPad screen out of the box without developers having to do anything. That played a significant role in helping people see the iPad’s potential, but the actual value came when apps were purposely designed for it. With the Mac, Apple was never able to replicate the success of the iOS app ecosystem. The numbers just did not make it worthwhile for mass-market app developers to invest in the Mac. The hope now is that, as volumes grow from the appeal of the consistency between iPhone and Mac experience, developers might feel different about their investment. If this plays out, Apple would be able to achieve even more differentiation against Windows-based PCs, which should be the ultimate game.

The M1 performance and OS optimization might be enough to get Mac users to upgrade, but Apple cannot stop there. We know switching OS is a much bigger decision for people to make, especially in an enterprise environment. iOS apps’ support can really facilitate that move. It would be much easier for an enterprise that is already supporting iOS devices to justify expanding to the Mac than it ever was to think they needed to add Mac support to their Windows support.

No New Designs

Another expectation people had was that together with the new silicon, there would be a new Mac design for whatever product Apple decided to ship first. This did not turn out to be true. Another clue on how Apple is thinking about the transition to its own silicon design.

The shift is not about differentiating within their portfolio, which would have been easier with a new hardware design. The M1 is about perfecting the Mac formula. Changing the design would have distracted from the true value of these new products. It would have diluted the impact of what Apple is building. Some of the benefits the M1 brings could have enabled a change in design, shaving a couple of millimeters here and there or maybe using a different screen technology. Had Apple done that, like for like comparisons with current products might have been harder to make.

At the “one more thing” event, Apple sold one thing only: the power of vertical integration, what they learned, and made them so successful with the iPhone. If you buy into it, Apple will have a much stickier proposition than any hardware design change they would offer.

Oculus Quest 2: Ready For PrimeTime?

on November 2, 2020

I recently started testing the new Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality (VR) headset from Facebook, and it’s a very good product. As I noted back in September, it’s an evolutionary step up from the original headset, with a handful of technical improvements, delivered at a substantially lower starting price ($299). I expect the Quest 2 to sell very well, bringing quality VR to a much wider audience than ever before.

Smooth Setup Experience
The Quest 2 is slightly lighter and smaller than its predecessor, and I found these decreases made it noticeably more comfortable to wear. Some reviewers have complained about the Quest 2 head strap, which is all fabric versus the plastic one on Quest, but I didn’t have any trouble adjusting the fit to my head. That said, it’s clear the new head strap was an area where Facebook shaved cost, and the company offers several after-market versions (starting at $49) for those who want something more robust. The other area where Facebook saved some money is the inter-pupillary distance adjustment. While the original Quest had a slider that allowed for precise adjustments, the new Quest has just three settings. I used the default middle setting, so this also wasn’t an issue for me.

After completing the physical adjustments, running through a setup tutorial, and installing a system update, I was off to the races. I don’t remember much about setting up the original Quest, but with the Quest 2, Facebook has created a smooth and mostly frictionless experience that should be straightforward for even a VR novice.

Notably Better Display and Next-Gen Silicon
One of the significant changes with the Quest 2 is the shift from dual OLEDs to a single, fast-switching LCD that offers 1832 x 1920 resolution per eye. The display supports a 72Hz refresh rate at launch, and a future software update should enable a faster 90Hz refresh rate. In a word, the display looks fantastic. I found the new screen to be even more immersive than the Quest, although when you’re fully engaged in a great game or app, you stop paying too much attention to the pixels. After spending about 30 minutes in the Quest 2, I put on the original Quest, and at this point, the screen enhancements were much more noticeable. Perhaps the most significant improvement on the new headset is the much less perceptible screen door effect.

The Quest 2 also includes a faster processor, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2, and more RAM than the original Quest. I didn’t notice better performance with my existing apps, but I suspect that we’ll see more software take advantage of the better silicon over time. I also expect the new processor to help drive a better PC-tethered experience through the Oculus Link. I haven’t yet acquired the right USB Type C cable to test this feature, but I look forward to doing so soon (and playing Half-Life: Alyx).

The other update to the Quest 2 is to the touch controllers. The new version has a slightly wider, rounder surface area where you place your thumbs. I don’t find them to be noticeably better than the original versions, although I do wish they were plug-in rechargeable versus a standard AA battery. One thing worth noting is that since the launch of the original Quest, Facebook has rolled out hand-tracking capabilities, and I was able to set this feature up in the Quest 2. At present, the apps I’m using require controllers, so I used hand tracking primarily for navigation. But I’m excited to see more apps use hand tracking, as it has the potential to increase the feeling of immersion inside VR dramatically.

Ready for Prime Time?
All told, I’m very impressed by the Quest 2, and the product should sell very well for Facebook this holiday season. In fact, in many countries—including the United States—we are still dealing with a pandemic where the infection rates are going up instead of down, which means smart people will be spending more time at home in the coming months. Throughout much of 2020 VR headsets and the Quest, in particular, have been nearly impossible to buy as demand radically outpaced supply. Our view into the supply chain suggests Facebook has placed massive orders for the Quest. Even so, the headset initially sold out (it’s available again now). However, accessories for the device, including the previously mentioned headstrap, are pretty hard to come by.

So I think the Quest 2 will sell very well through the end of 2020 and into 2021, even as it faces stiff competition from the launch of new consoles from both Microsoft and Sony shipping this month. The Quest 2 should please existing VR users looking for an upgrade, and it will delight anyone who has never used VR or whose only VR experience was in an early smartphone-based product. The Quest 2 is also poised to help drive the continued robust adoption of VR in business.

Is the Quest 2, and VR more broadly, ready for a move into the mainstream? That’s still unlikely. But with each iteration, the hardware gets better and less costly, and the experience more immersive and enjoyable. What the market needs now is more mainstream content. To date, gaming remains the primary consumer driver, and while it is obviously a lucrative market, it’s not going to win over everyone. To date, there’s still no killer app that would make the average consumer buy into VR. Facebook has long suggested that social could be that use case, and there’s no doubt that games with a social aspect have legs in VR. When Facebook launches its upcoming Horizon social platform (currently available as an invite-only beta), we’ll get a chance to see if that is what VR needs to win over the masses.

Podcast: AMD Radeon 6000, Lenovo TechWorld, Tech Earnings, Cisco Partner Summit

on October 31, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing AMD’s purchase of Xilinx and the debut of their Radeon 6000 GPUs, chatting on news from Lenovo’s TechWorld event, analyzing quarterly earnings from Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and more, and speaking about Cisco’s Partner Summit event.

Podcast: Qualcomm 5G Summit, Apple iPhone 12, DellTechWorld, Citrix Workspace Summit

on October 24, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the news from Qualcomm’s 5G Summit event, discussing initial real-world 5G performance of the iPhone 12, chatting about Dell Technologies’ new Project Apex “as a service” offering news from their DellTechWorld event, and reviewing the latest news on employee experience from Citrix’ Workspace Summit event.

Rethinking Apple’s Smart Car Project

on October 20, 2020

I suspect many of Apple’s loyal followers have been watching, with interest, Apple’s rumored secret smart car project. If that is you, then you know that the company has a great deal of interest in the automobile’s future, and perhaps, vehicle transportation in general.

Because it is a secret project, there is a lot of speculation about what Apple is doing. Some think Apple is making an actual smart car and should buy Tesla to jump-start their automotive vision.

Others believe they are interested in re-inventing the dashboard and making it smarter. I just got a new car with many bells and whistles, but I am still amazed at how badly the dashboard is designed. The screen is touch, and all the commands must be done through the smart screen.

While it works OK, it is by no means smart and is distracting while driving. When I need to do something simple like changing a radio channel or even changing the screen data, I need things like mileage, water gauges, etc.. I have to take my eyes off the road to see these extra screens.

Apple Car Play makes this dash smarter to a degree with its voice commands, but even then, I still have to take my eyes off the road at times to see the data that comes back to me via Siri commands.

I have another view of what I believe Apple is doing. As you know, Apple has another secret project in the works around Augmented Reality. They have already shown their hand in AR via the iPhone and iPad. They have primed developers with tools to make AR apps for these two platforms.

The third platform that AR will impact Apple will support will be AR/VR goggles or glasses. These glasses are by far the most personal way to deliver AR, and rumors suggest Apple could release their glasses as early as 2021.

While I am excited about AR glasses, I think Apple has a fourth AR platform in the works that is a vital part of their smart car vision.

I have never thought Apple was doing a car but did consider them making the dashboard smarter had some legs. But I believe that Apple’s big smart car project is more of a marriage of their AR and smart cars’ visions.

In this case, the AR visuals will be built into the Windshield and powered by an Apple computer built into the car to deliver AR-based info and content via the Windshield.

Some time ago, discussed with two automotive glass display executives about AR, and one of their “visions” for Windshields was to not only make them smarter but use it to display AR content too.

Imagine if arrows on the windshield display tell you to turn via Apple Maps are visible on your Windshield. Or if any data you need pops up on the Windshield, so you never take your eyes off the road.

I think it is more than plausible and feasible that Apple’s smart car project is more a marriage of their secret smart car and AR project.

There is one other way to deliver AR to automobiles and trucks without it being in the Windshield.

In a recent article in Digital Trends, written by Luke Dormehi, he interviews Jamieson Christmas of Envisics.

According to the article, “Mr. Christmas believes that he’s found the perfect use case for real-life augmented reality holograms. What Envisics has developed is a headset-free, in-car holography system that aims to transform the way we view the road. How? By giving your car an AR overhaul more in line with the kind of HUD technology you’d ordinarily find in a fighter jet or a commercial aircraft worth many millions of dollars.”

The article goes on to quote Mr. Christmas:

“We really are the Retina-grade display of the automotive world,” he said. “Our devices typically work at three to four times the resolution of the human eye. You’re left with an image clarity far beyond that which you would normally experience in a vehicle. Our displays can work to tens of thousands of candelas of brightness, which enables you to see this in the most extreme environments.”

The first-generation version of the technology, projecting a virtual instrument cluster, is available in current Jaguar Land Rovers. The second-gen version, which will go significantly further, is set to appear in GM’s Cadillac Lyriq, currently set for launch in March 2023.”

I encourage you to read the Digital Trends Article and more of Mr. Christmas’s vision as he goes into a lot of detail on how this works.

Envisics approach would be fascinating because it could deliver this to existing cars, which would be a huge market.

While I suspect Apple is watching what Envisics is doing closely, I am more inclined to think that any Apple smart car AR vision would be more focused on being built into vehicles. Of course, this would need auto dealers and Windshield display manufacturers partnerships with whom Apple already has excellent relations today.

Yes, this could be a more futuristic approach, but Apple plays for the long term. That is why I believe Apple’s smart car strategy is very AR focused and designed to change the way intelligent vehicles are created in the future.

Apple Takes Another Swing at the Smart Speaker Market

on October 19, 2020

Apple kicked off its annual iPhone launch event this week by announcing the $99 HomePod mini. I’m excited to try the product, which utilizes several pieces of custom silicon, leverages the company’s strong position in categories such as smartphones and wearables, and once again emphasizes Apple’s research into delivering high-quality sound. All that said, while I’m sure a good number of consumers entrenched in the Apple ecosystem will buy the HomePod mini, I’m still not convinced the product will dramatically change Apple’s overall fortunes in the smart home market.

Impressive Tech
The HomePod mini is an impressive bit of tech, all wrapped up in a 3.3-inch tall, acoustically designed seamless mesh fabric that comes in space gray or white. It leverages Apple’s S5 chip, which first shipped in the Apple Watch Series 5, as the brains of the operation. That’s a notable change from the full-sized HomePod, which uses an A8 chip that first shipped in the iPhone 6. In addition to driving smart assistant functions, Apple says the S5 drives computational audio that adjusts dynamic range and the speaker hardware to optimize sound based on the content that is playing.

The HomePod mini also includes Apple’s U1 ultrawideband chip, which Apple started including in iPhones in 2019, and added to the Series 6 Apple Watch. When you bring a U1-enabled iPhone close to the HomePod mini, it sees the phone and offers up handoff opportunities. For example, if you are listening to music on your phone as you enter the room with the HomePod Mini, you can transfer the audio over to the smart speaker.

Perhaps the most compelling new feature is Intercom, which lets you leverage multiple HomePod speakers (including the original) to make house wide-announcements using a new feature called Intercom. Yes, competitors such as Amazon’s Echo already do this, but Apple’s special sauce is that in addition to its smart speakers, the message will also play out over all the iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and AirPods in the house, as well as through CarPlay.

Like the original HomePod, which sells for $299, the mini will offer multiroom audio, stereo pairing, and smart hub features. However, it does not support spatial awareness or home theater with Apple TV 4K like its bigger brother.

Apple’s Challenges
The new HomePod mini is a huge step in the right direction for Apple and should help it make inroads into the smart speaker category where its original, high-priced HomePod has languished. But as Ben noted earlier this week, the elephant in the room remains the issues with the “smarts” behind its smart speaker: Siri. As a smart assistant, it is still not very good. And while Apple can point to stats about how much better Siri is than before, the fact of the matter is that the company has a huge job ahead of it in convincing people who have had poor experiences with Siri to keep coming back and trying it again.

I test a great deal of hardware, and I have easy access to the smart assistants from Amazon, Google, and Apple. And in my personal life, I always use the first two before I turn to Siri. In fact, the only time I use Siri is on the Apple Watch, when I’m on the go. My experiences with Siri have been so frustrating that I took the extra step of installing Amazon’s $50 Echo Auto in my vehicle so I can access Alexa there instead of using the Siri on the iPhone sitting on my passenger seat.
And it is easy to fixate on Siri’s issues versus the smart assistants from Amazon and Google, but Apple’s challenges extend beyond that. In China, for example, companies such as Xiaomi, Alibaba, and Baidu all have voice assistants that my colleagues there say perform better than Siri. According to IDC’s Smart Home Tracker, China is the second-biggest smart speaker market behind the U.S.

Beyond the Siri issues, one of the other significant challenges Apple faces is the fact that many early adopters have already chosen their smart assistant. We have standardized on Echo (seven and counting) in my house, and our utilization has only gone up during the pandemic. It is mostly basic stuff, loads of timers, weather reports, music and podcasts, and occasional questions about store closing times or random facts. We also use Alexa to turn off lights, and we use it all the time to call other rooms or make household announcements (which now show up on our iPhones running the Alexa app).

And while the HomePod mini’s $99 price is way more attractive than the HomePod’s current $299, it is nowhere close to the Echo Dot’s list price of $50, and the fact that you can often buy the Dot for $30 or less. And that is a bit of an issue, as smart speakers really begin to show their value when you have more than one. Part of the reason we standardized on the Echo was the simple fact that it was affordable to put them throughout the house. I have no doubt that the HomePod mini will sound better than my current third-generation Dots, but in my house, sound quality is important only in a few rooms, and frankly only matters to me.

Finally, it is important to note that while Apple did say that the new HomePod Mini would support some third-party music services, it doesn’t include currently offer support for Spotify. For many, that will be a dealbreaker, and I hope it is a fix Apple can make soon after launch.

Still a Growing Market
While Apple certainly faces some serious challenges in the smart speaker market, the HomePod mini’s introduction puts it in a much better competitive position. And its ability to leverage the iPhone to drive interactive experiences with the speaker could be a difference-maker for many. If the company can better leverage its HomeKit capabilities to make its smart speaker a more capable home automation hub, that should resonate with many people, too. Finally, there are undoubtedly plenty of Apple customers who have waited on the smart home sidelines for the company to field something more competitive before jumping in.

In fact, while we’ve seen the smart speaker category expand at a very rapid pace in the last few years, we still plenty of growth in the coming years. According to IDC’s Smart Home Tracker, smart speaker volumes will grow at a double-digit pace next year, pushing toward 160M units worldwide. With the new HomePod mini, I expect Apple will grab a more significant share of that pie. To do so, however, the company must keep pushing. In addition to continued work on Siri and the inclusion of Spotify, one other thing I’d like to see Apple do is to iterate faster in hardware. It announced its original HomePod way back in 2017 (and launched it in early 2018). This market—and its competitors—are evolving too fast to wait years between product announcements.

Podcast: Apple iPhone 12, US 5G Networks, HomePod Mini

on October 17, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell discussing the news from Apple’s big launch event with a detailed analysis of the latest iPhone’s new features, its 5G support, and its impact and opportunities for US 5G carriers including Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T.

Why PC Vendors are Watching Mac Sales Closely

on October 15, 2020

For many years, Apple’s Mac has had a solid run in customers buying computers from Apple. In the last year, Apple has continued to sell over 5 million units per quarter. On the other hand, Windows PC sales dominated pretty much the rest of the market. In the last quarter, according to Gartner, Lenovo sold 18,310 million units, HP sold 15.446 units, and Dell sold 10.827 million PCs. Thanks to demand during the pandemic, Apple sold 5.513 million Macs in Q3, up 7.3% over the same quarter in 2019.

While the Mac has never been a major threat to the big PC makers to date, they still watch Apple closely, especially for any innovations Apple may add to the Mac that might impact the market and, ultimately, their future designs.

But when Apple announced that they have moved on from Intel’s CPU’s to their own, the PC makers have become even more interested in Apple being a potential threat to their PC dominancy.

The biggest reason is that Apple now controls its processor destiny as well as its cost, to a degree. Conservative estimates for a Core i7 processor from Intel cost as much as $80-$90+ per chip. That, along with Apple’s premium pricing model, always kept the Macs well over the same laptop’s price from computers in the Windows camp using the same processor.

For Windows laptop makers, their sweet spot for most of their profits come from making laptops in the $599-$899 range. While they all make Chromebooks priced mostly under $400, margins are slim to none. That is why most of them try to pack as much technology as possible into their laptops in their sweet spot range and market them aggressively. Of course, they all sell even more expensive laptops, but most of the profits and volume come from products in the $599-$899 range.

Apple recently announced a MacBook Air with 256 gigs of storage for $899, the only MacBook to even touch the high end of the Windows PC maker’s sweet spot. But this uses a low-end Intel Core i3 processor and has only eight gigs of memory. Dell sells at Latitude 3510 laptop with an Intel Core i7 processor and 500 gigs of storage for $899.

Apple has invested a great deal in their processor design. Their new A14 Bionic chip is expected to be on some of their laptops, perhaps before the end of the year. Apple has most likely already amortized some of the costs of their designs and using their processors, and they no longer pay the Intel tax.

This shift from Intel to Apple’s homegrown processor has some Windows laptop vendors more worried about Apple potentially threatening their core laptop business. The two price points they are the most worried about, should Apple decide to be more aggressive, is in the range of $799-$899 and using their most powerful A14 Bionic processor. Note this article from Ben Bajarin analyzing how a lower cost Mac entry point could dramatically increase the Macs PC market share.

There is a sense that should Apple offer a Mac in this power and price range; it could pressure their bottom lines. Apple has a great marketing machine, and they are showing more marketing focus on the Mac these days.

Suppose they make a lower cost/higher performance Mac that broaches on prime Windows laptop territory. In that case, it can impact all of the traditional Windows laptop vendors.

This issue is causing some of the PC forecasters to struggle with 2021 forecasts. Apple has not said when we would get our first Mac’s with an Apple homegrown processor, although there are rumors that Apple might hold another event in November to launch the first models.

A more likely scenario is that they launch A14 laptops in early Q1 and market them aggressively. If so, Apple could increase its Mac’s unit sales and potentially decrease some Windows PC sales in the near future.

I have had many discussion’s with Windows Laptop vendors over the years about Apple. These talks were always about Apple, not threatening their overall market position, especially in corporate markets.

Only in the last three months, since Apple announced they were leaving Intel and moving to their own silicon, have I heard a potential concern about Apple making a bid for what is their sweet spot.

Without knowing what Apple will bring to market with its chips and its pricing, it is hard to forecast Apple’s Mac growth at this time. However, their competition is rightly concerned about an Apple move in its direction and will be watching Apple closer than in the past.

Apple’s Patient Strategy for the Home

on October 14, 2020

Apple’s strategy for the smart home has been one of the areas I’ve been most critical. Mostly out of frustration when I see Amazon and Google flooding the market with options for smart home control centers. At Apple’s fall launch event yesterday, their smart home strategy becomes more clear and quite differentiated.

For as far behind as Apple has seemed in the home, the caveat in our analysis was always that Apple owned the pocket more than Amazon, and even Google to a degree. I always felt if Apple could better leverage its end computing devices, mainly the one you have with you at all times, they could catch up quickly. I use these words catch up somewhat lightly because, in Apple’s mind, they were never behind, but that’s a different story.

The broader picture Apple painted was how much stronger their HomePod + all other devices strategy could come together now that a $99 HomePod is an option, and you can have one in many rooms of your house. Where this story came together was with Apple’s Intercom feature, where when you want to send a message to your family, it can play on not just the HomePod/HomePod mini in the house but any device, including AirPods.

This image demonstrates Apple’s ability to leverage the numerous other devices in the home and outside the home and glue them together with the presence of a smart speaker. What this highlights again is Apple’s ability to integrate and how a solution can cleanly tie together the more devices you own. Many of the voice assistant products from Amazon and Google feel more like island experiences where the device does what it does, and that’s it. Largely that is because Amazon and Google may have an Echo in a room in the house, but they don’t own all the other common endpoints most consumers care about used daily.

The elephant in the room for this strategy is, of course, Siri. And while I admit Siri is still weak in many of the areas where Alexa and Google Assistant are strong, the more consistent parts of the Siri experience that do shine are the ones where you don’t have to talk to Siri.

Overall, Apple’s positioning of Siri was telling. While I blatantly disagree with calling Siri a world-class assistant as they did, Siri is, for now, a mostly competent assistant for what it is designed for. Apple gave examples of Siri in use cases I’ll bucket as automation, facts, and anticipation.

For automation, I’ve long argued that is all people do with smart assistants mostly anyway. Things like to set the alarm, play music, set a timer, or simply turn off a light. All you are doing is using your voice to complete an action you would have otherwise had to use your fingers for. This is easily the dominant use case for voice assistants today, and Siri is competent here.

Facts had traditionally been Siri’s weakness, and even study after study we did on how people use smart assistants, we did not find facts or general information to be a top use case for any assistant other than Google’s. While it is nice Apple added more facts to Siri’s knowledge base, it is unclear to me if there is much value here for Apple/Siri.

Anticipation is the most interesting category for me. This is where Apple owning the pocket of its customer can reveal the most value in Siri. And most interestingly, the best examples of this today show up in situations where you don’t talk to Siri. Siri suggestions in things like contacts, mail, apps, and others are looking at behavior and attempting to limit steps you need to take to get to the desired action. These are the powerful areas where Apple can press on their advantage of owning the pocket and do more than Amazon can and Google to a degree.

We are beginning to see more of Apple’s home category start to take shape. When they created a subcategory for home out of “other” from a revenue standpoint is indicated they had more products and services than just HomePod in the pipeline. The smart speaker market is a relatively large one with estimates of the current installed base being ~280m smart speakers worldwide. Amazon having the largest chunk of that, and an interesting question is how loyal will current iPhone owners are also Echo owners be to the product when they see more of the ecosystem value and price of HomePod mini. A study we did months after HomePod was released showed price as the major barrier for people to purchase one and the vast majority (54% of people saying they would be very interested in a lower-priced HomePod mini. A note I read from Morgan Stanely indicated the lower-priced HomePod Mini increases Apple’s total addressable market by ~4x.

The lack of Spotify could be an interesting problem for Apple, although I do hope Apple works with Spotify to support the service as it will greatly aid in the value proposition. Other areas to watch are ways Apple can tie HomePod nicely into Apple TV and perhaps even with things like AppleTV+ with unique audio experiences. Another angle for Apple to drive up HomePod’s base is to offer the Mini as a bundle with other hardware via promotions.

Ultimately $99 is a much more aggressive price for the Mini and a key strategy for the home for Apple in my opinion, and HomePod Mini should help Apple gain ground against Amazon and Google and lay a deeper foundation for Apple’s ecosystem.

The iPhone 12 Family Future-Proofs Apple’s Lineup

on October 14, 2020

At the “Hi, Speed” event Apple aired on Tuesday, it was all about the iPhone. Of course, it was about the iPhone 12 new models, all four of them, but the iPhone was front and center even as Apple introduced the new HomePod Mini and Apple’s vision of the smart home.

Many have covered all the speeds and feeds of the different models, so I will not spend time doing that. If you have missed something, you can easily find a model comparison on the Apple website. What I want to spend time on are a few key bigger picture points that help to position the new models in the market and broader Apple context.

The Super-cycle

I was asked several times whether Apple would see a super-cycle with the iPhone 12, and the answer I gave was honest but not very helpful: it’s complicated. All things equal, Apple has the perfect product lineup: new design, four products that span a wide enough price range, and a new technology, 5G.

However, the reality is that the iPhone 12 models are hitting the market during an economic downturn and, in the US, a time of considerable uncertainty. There is a high degree of reliance on technology that we all have experienced during the pandemic, which might counter this market negativity by encouraging an upgrade cycle for the device that we still all turn to the most: the smartphone.

On Apple’s side, there is a user base with the largest proportion of users falling into higher-income brackets, a factor that will soften the impact of the economic downturn. Outside the early-adopter group looking for the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, and likely to jump on the new products as soon as they are available, we might see a more spread out cycle. This is because different countries are opening up more while others are fighting the threat of a second wave of the pandemic.

Three LTE models remain in the portfolio, iPhone SE, iPhone XR, and iPhone 11, which will continue to drive some decent volume for Apple both from users who are upgrading from older models as well as for users and markets moving to 5G more slowly. Being a year old or less, combined with the value Apple always provides through software updates, gives buyers choosing these models confidence in their purchase.

5G

Apple had a slide during the event that said “5G just got real.” Depending on where you sit on the 5G hype cycle, you either think that 5G has been real for over a year now or, that we are still all waiting for it to be real. As it’s often the case, the truth is somewhere in between. 5G has been available in many markets for a while, but networks’ coverage and performance still leave much to be desired.

I did not think Apple would make a big deal out of 5G, and by and large, that was the case. Tim Cook reminded us of the privacy and security benefits of 5G over Wi-fi. The rest of the time dedicated to the topic was spent explaining how Apple differs in its implementation of 5G.

Apple made a couple of interesting decisions given when they are joining the 5G party. First, as expected by most, the full iPhone 12 family is 5G. Apple highlighted its space efficiency, which allows enough room for multi bands support.
In the US, the entire iPhone 12 family supports mmWave rather than just having one Verizon model. This helps Apple with economies of scale and better production and inventory management at a time when the pandemic is making it harder to forecast. With mmWave support spread across the family, the premium that we have seen other manufacturers put on the Verizon skew is less evident but might become more apparent as we see pricing in other regions.

The second interesting decision was to apply AI to 5G through “smart data mode.” This means that the iPhone smartly decides when to use 5G or LTE based on speeds and use cases. When your iPhone doesn’t need 5G speeds, it automatically uses LTE to save battery. But when 5G speeds matter, the iPhone 12 starts using it. Apple also delicately pointed out that users will experience different 5G speeds based on where they are located.

iPhone SE vs. iPhone Mini

When the iPhone SE was launched in April 2020, I wrote:

“The iPhone SE feels like a different kind of product, though. It is not a model we should expect to be refreshed with the regular cadence we see in the rest of the portfolio. Instead, it’s a product that serves the purpose of getting the most pragmatic users to upgrade after holding on to their phones for years. These users might be coming from a hand-me-down or a secondhand iPhone or even be Android users looking for their first iPhone… If I had to guess when a good time for the next refresh of the iPhone SE might be, I would say that in another four years sounds like a good time considering that by then, 5G will be truly mass market.”

After this week, I have started to change my mind, and I am guessing that the iPhone SE we have in the lineup today might be the last model that will bear the name. Going forward, the iPhone Mini will reflect a more compact form factor with all the essential features and a lower price point. Next year as the iPhone 13 Mini is introduced, I would expect to see the iPhone 12 Mini hitting a price point much closer to the iPhone SE, which will probably remain in the portfolio perhaps till 2022.

iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. iPhone 12 Pro

At the other end of the iPhone 12 Mini, we find the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. After a couple of years of providing parity of features but a difference in size in the high-end models, Apple returned to making the largest model the one with the best camera system. When Apple first did this with the iPhone 6Plus, they were unprepared by how much the mix skewed towards the larger size. Users were prepared to buy a larger device to take advantage of the superior camera system.

Both Phone 12 Pro models offer the ability to shoot in RAW format, meaning that the user can manually make the photo look its best rather than having the iPhone automatically do it for them. For video, both Pro models support HDR video with Dolby Vision, up to 60 fps, and even better video stabilization. The iPhone 12 Pro Max takes the pro camera experience even further with a new ƒ/1.6 aperture Wide camera with a 47 percent larger sensor delivering an 87 percent improvement in low-light conditions. It also includes the expansive ultra-wide camera and a 65 mm focal length Telephoto camera for increased flexibility with closer shots and tighter crops. Combined, this system offers a 5x optical zoom range.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max impact might end up being quite different from what we saw with the iPhone 6 Plus. The iPhone 12 Pro Max might not end up skewing sales volume, but it might certainly capture new generators of creators, a segment that Apple has always cared a great deal about and that over the years have become more and more mobile-focused.

Much like many users buy into 5G to future-proof their smartphone purchase for a few years, it seems to me that Apple has used 5G to rethink its iPhone portfolio setting it up in a way that makes it easier for buyers to pick the right product for them. I will be sharing more about the iPhone 12 cameras, the new MagSafe wireless charging, and 5G performance as I test the devices between October 23 and November 13. With no MacBooks being announced at the “hi, Speed” event, I am also guessing we will have “one more thing” from Apple before the end of the year.

Podcast: Nvidia GTC, Arm DevSummit, Google Workspace, AMD Ryzen 3, Big Tech Antitrust

on October 10, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the news from Nvidia’s GTC Conference and Arm’s Developer Summit, as well as the potential impact of a merger of those two companies, discussing the latest version of Google’s productivity suite, chatting about the latest desktop CPU introductions from AMD, and pondering the potential impact of the US government’s huge new report on potential antitrust concerns with Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

Google Workspace Elevates Collaboration by Focusing on the Task at Hand

on October 7, 2020

In July, Google gave us a taste for a more integrated collaboration experience when it brought Meet and Chat into Gmail. This week the metamorphosis continued as G Suite becomes Google Workspace. Back in July, I looked at the news from a communication vs. collaboration perspective, making the point that communication is really at the center of  Google’s collaboration strategy. However, this week, as Google talked more about Workspace and how it plans to deliver a more integrated experience across collaboration and communication, it seemed that content is at the center of the Workspace and att the center of collaboration.

With Workspace, Google is addressing some specific issues. First, the fact that due to Covid-19 collaboration has changed. Of course, we have all experienced that in one way or another and when we move past the hours of video analysis one aspect that really has changed is that you are likely to be collaborating more with people outside your organization. This is because those face to face meetings which would have been independent of the work to be done are now happening online. This means that the tools must be more flexible when it comes to sharing information and collaborating than they might have been before.

Second, Google wanted to address first-line workers by making them better connected with their own organization which is likely not in the same place as they are. This goal of connecting people to get the job done extends to reaching consumers, the final user of whatever product businesses are trying to sell. By doing so, of course, Google bridges the consumer and the business world by giving people (2.6 billion MAU) tools they are already very familiar with.

While we will eventually go back to an office, we will face a more heterogeneous work environment we did before the pandemic. This means that connecting people who are not physically together in a rich but simple way will remain a priority for a long time.

Workspace also builds on Google’s focus on delivering helpful technology. This has become the big theme that brings together the different areas of the company from the CEO Sunday Pichai to the Head of Made by Google Rich Osterloh. Helpfulness in this case comes from a simplified user experience by also from the intelligence that Google is able to offer on top. One of the features that better explain this balance between simplicity and richness is “picture in picture” which gives you the ability to hear and see people you are collaborating live with on a document. This featured was launched in July for Gmail and Chat and it will soon also include Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

Not Just a Rebranding

I am sure, given there isn’t an actual new product, one could be tempted to see this as a rebranding exercise. But the new features that have been introduced and the way all the tools come together really speak to the direction Google is taking with productivity and the G Suite name no longer fitted with that vision. Workspace is no longer a bunch of apps that take care of the different tasks you need to perform, it’s an orchestrated experience empowered by AI. I wish there was a different name than Workspace, to be given to this hub especially considering consumers will have access to it as well. The name is often seen as a location, a landing place, which, although technically correct, fails to convey the active lift these tools deliver. Yet, it is certainly a better illustration of the experience Google wants to deliver compared to G Suite.

Google also introduced a new pricing plan that adds one level for medium businesses and now takes Workspace from small businesses all the way to large enterprises in a more granular way. Mostly the difference in price accounts for the number of users, cloud storage size, and security features. Not much has changed with the first two levels, Basic and Business still priced at $6/user and $12/user. The new tier called Business Plus edition offers enhanced capabilities for $18/user to those organizations that might be large in size (up to 250 users) but don’t need the entire enterprise-level offerings. I would argue this last one is the category where Google has a lot of opportunities and where organizations might have struggled in the past to feel their needs were properly addressed.

Betting on Content Rather than Meetings

There were two aspects of the announcement that I found particularly clever and I want to highlight.

One is that Google does provide the option not to sign up for the whole experience. Thanks to Workspace Essentials ($8/active user), which lets a business get started with video and collaboration without having to replace their current email or calendar systems. This can lower the barrier of entry considerably if you think about how much more effort and disruption migrating mail and calendar system represents for an organization. It might also help Google entering businesses dominated by Microsoft with a “land and expand” tactic. Our data points to a lot of crossover within organizations between Office 365 and Google Workspace especially for Docs that remain the preferred tool for collaboration. This is not a new offering but it is certainly one that has become much more relevant in the current environment when digital transformation is accelerating but also when IT professionals are already extremely stretched.

The second aspect that I believe will give Google an advantage long term is centering the Workspace experience on the content to be created or the task to be completed rather than the way in which one will do so. There are many collaboration hubs offered by the likes of VMWare, Citrix, and of course, Microsoft. Office 365’s Workspace equivalent is Teams where users are led to choose how they work together first. In other words, I get to Microsoft Teams to do a video call or a chat while I get to Google Workspace document or email and then decide how I communicate with others bout the task at hand. Albeit subtle, I think the approach Google is taking might better withstand the return to the office and a shift back towards face-to-face meetings when we will eventually be able to do so.

It will be fascinating to see how all these different hubs will drive value to users. Locking people in is never a good approach. Creating different points of entry and delivering value across the board will ultimately determine the success across a workforce that is probably the most varied in both age and skills than it has ever been.