Apple Fitness+ Built to Help You Keep Fit Wherever You Are

on December 17, 2020

This week marked the launch of Apple Fitness+, the workout service that Apple announced back in September, together with the new Apple One subscription bundle. I spent some time checking out the trainers and some of the videos across a range of workouts. While jumping around to check everything out and have a sense of the service, I was glad to see that diversity and inclusion were clearly top of mind for Apple. There’s a good mix of female and male trainers. There are different body types, skin colors, ethnicities, and even accents all represented. The trainers are making an effort to be as inclusive as possible by suggesting modifications to the workout for beginners and using sign language to welcome and encourage users who might be hearing impaired. I also noticed different-limb people are working out in the studio with the trainers.

As expected, the overall number of trainers is still limited, but I do not doubt that it will grow over time as the user base grows. It will certainly be interesting to see if the talent acquisition battle in tech will expand to include trainers, given how much of the experience is directly linked to them.

Apple Fitness+ vs. Peloton

The first class I took was a cycling class as I was curious to compare it to my Peloton experience.

First, let me say that I’m not a hardcore Peloton user. I just started at the end of September, and I am on ride 61! I got to Peloton with a good dose of skepticism. I really wasn’t interested in the whole Peloton Tribe, class and instructor fandom thing that I saw so many users talk about all the time. And yet, in such a short while, I came to change my mind about those instructors and how much they drive the actual engagement.  Peloton also offers quite a range of instructors in a similar way to what I explained about Apple Fitness+. I made an effort to try out different instructors gravitating towards US-based and UK-based instructors and ultimately favoring women over men. I then landed on two particular trainers, Tunde Oyeneyin and Ally Love, who I find to offer the right balance of carrot and stick, but most of all, some inspiration and mind release at a time when we all can do with some. I also appreciate the effort by Peloton in creating theme-based classes rooted in celebrations like Black History Month, International Women Month, or LGBTQ or different music, which is used as a way to open people up to something new.

With this as my experience backdrop,  the other day, I got on my Peloton, I set it on “just ride” where you see your stats, but there is no instructor, and I started a workout with Apple Fitness+ and Sherica.

You start the workout, and your Apple Watch is in total sync with the device you are using, being the iPad, Apple TV, or the iPhone. You can control your workout from the device or right from your wrist. I used my iPhone set on the side of the bike for this specific workout but I would turn to Apple TV and the larger screen experience it would offer if it were not so early in the morning. I could see my heart rate data, where I ranked on the Burn Bar, and the workout’s elapsed time. The data displayed made up for some of the data I usually see displayed on the Peloton screen. Sherica was an excellent instructor, maybe a bit less polished than those I rely on the most with Peloton but effective nonetheless. One thing that struck me was how much she was panting, which made me feel better about my own panting, of course. This is not something I ever notice with Peloton instructors even when they say they are finding the workout hard. What I missed the most in my workout experience, which shows Apple’s limitations of not being able to tap into the equipment you might be using, was the resistance set up.  The instructor could only suggest increasing or decreasing resistance, but there was no base of reference for any adjustment I was making. This made me feel a disconnect between the call out on the RPM and how hard the instructor wanted me to work. In the end, I burned more calories and reached a higher output goal than I usually do when not taking a class, proof that I worked harder than I do on my own even if I did not benefit from an “informed” instructor.

The more I thought about my experience, the more I came to conclude that the narrative around Apple not wanting people to go back to the gym when they reopen is a false one. On the contrary, Apple is clearly thinking about the opportunity that the gym will offer to drive value through the Apple Watch’s connection to the equipment. Remember that Apple already started to drive integration between Apple Watch and gym equipment such as treadmills, ellipticals, indoor bikes, and rowers. Think about going back to the gym and using any equipment, your Apple Watch, and AirPods and do a class without having to pay a personal trainer or pay extra for a class. It seems like a compelling proposition to me.

One Service Can Fit All

The ultimate hook Apple Fitness+ offers that will create real stickiness to the service is flexibility. It ranges from providing a quick workout with no equipment needed while you’re at home or on a business trip, to coming with you to the gym and be that loyal fitness coach who supports you through your effort to stay fit and healthy.

One interesting thing I noticed with Apple Fitness+ is that the workouts seem to end quite abruptly at the end of the allotted time, but this is because the different workouts are intended to be added to one another to create a longer workout session. So while Peloton has a warmup and a cooldown period with the ability to add more if you want to, Apple offers a warmup but no cooldown. Apple also provides specific videos that walk you through equipment setup, posture, and so on, while Peloton reminds you of how the bike works at the start of every workout. As a user, you can skip this part, but I am guessing given that Peloton is responsible for the bike, they are addressing any possible liability by providing the reminder.

I will continue to explore workouts and take more bike classes, but I will not cancel my Peloton subscription just yet. I am curious to see how Apple will grow Apple Fitness+ because it seems to me that this might be the first product that they aimed at the broadest set of users by appealing to first-time users and fitness enthusiasts. One aspect I am particularly interested to see is how Apple intends to facilitate discovery. This is not something you can walk into an Apple Store and try, which makes me think that the tie into gyms makes even more sense if Apple can link the subscription to the gym and users log into equipment through their Apple ID. Time will tell, but considering Apple made Apple Watch the center of the Fitness+ experience, I expect Apple to make a significant and prolonged investment in the service.

Podcast: Cisco WebexOne, Marvell Open RAN, Facebook Antitrust, T-Mobile 5G, Windows Arm 64, Google Workspace

on December 12, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Carolina Milanesi and Bob O’Donnell analyzing the news from Cisco’s WebexOne conference, discussing new chips from Marvell for the 5G Open RAN market, debating the Facebook antitrust news, talking about T-Mo’s new 5G Mobile hotspot and related plan, Microsoft’s addition of support for 64-bit Windows app emulation on Arm-based PCs, and Google’s addition of new features for Workspace that make it easier to operate with MS Office files.

PC Technologies and Product Categories to Watch in 2021

on December 11, 2020

As the year winds down, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big product announcements and technology shifts we’ve seen inside this tumultuous year. While we’re all hoping 2021 will at some point bring our lives back toward something more like normal, the impact of COVID on the technology markets will carry on throughout the year. What follows is not so much a list of predictions but a list of PC-focused topics worth continuing to watch closely in the new year.

Sustained PC Growth
As we entered 2020, the conventional wisdom pointed to a flat to modestly down year for traditional PCs, which had just seen the final commercial laggards make the move from Windows 7/8 to Windows 10. Early in the year, as China faced the first pandemic-forced shutdowns that would impact the supply of PCs (for the world) and demand for the products inside the country, it looked as if the pandemic might have a broadly negative impact on the PC Market. We know now that wasn’t the case, and as consumers, businesses, and schools around the world moved to live, work, and learn from home, demand for especially notebook PCs skyrocketed. Throughout the year and into December, we’ve seen demand far outstrip supply, and as we head into 2021, a great deal of that demand is still waiting to be filled.

Expect the first half of 2021 to drive very good PC volumes. At present, the second half is less clear, but assuming the supply chain can finally catch up with existing demand, we are likely to see volumes drop off some by then. The real question: Once we’ve widely distributed vaccines, and the world returns to whatever the next normal looks like, will the PC retain its newly reestablished important role? Or will it slide into the background again as people shift back toward greater mobility, putting down their notebooks and picking up their smartphones again? We’ll be watching closely to determine if 20/21 sets a new, lasting TAM for PCs or if the market quickly reverts to its pre-2020 rhythms and market totals.

Expanded Silicon Diversity
One genie that’s not going back into the bottle is the industry-wide shift toward great silicon diversity in PCs. For a very long time, Intel ruled the PC space, with AMD playing the foil to its total market dominance. After several years of process challenges, missed deadlines, and product shortages, Intel finds itself in a dramatic battle with a newly resurgent AMD that not only has highly competitive products but the institutional patience to grow its share at a deliberate, sustainable pace. Of course, in the past, Intel has often done its best work when under challenge. With its first 11th Gen Core products shipping now to consumers, a new Evo platform story to tell, and the Vpro-branded commercial products set to hit in 2021, Intel is ready for battle.

Beyond X86, we’ve got smartphone silicon behemoth Qualcomm continuing to iterate on its PC-focused Snapdragon chips, too. While it has yet to have a breakout hit in the space, product wins with vendors including Microsoft, Samsung, Lenovo, and others suggest there is market viability if it keeps iterating.

Finally, this quarter Apple began shipping its first Apple Silicon-based products in new Macbook Airs, Macbook Pros, and Mac Minis. Many were disappointed Apple didn’t target a lower price point with these new products. Still, I expect they will do just that at some point in the future, as the company shifts toward a model comparable to their iPhone lineup that sees the current lineup shift downward in price but stay in the market, as the next generation of products launch. In the meantime, Apple seems to be driving substantial performance gains from its new chips, although there will be heated discussions about the veracity of those claims and the benchmarks that drive them well into the new year. All told, 2021 should see some fascinating movements in silicon.

5G PC Attach Rate
Another silicon-based area to closely monitor in the new year is the growth in cellular-connected PCs. This has long been a favorite topic of mine, as in the “before days,” I traveled extensively and had little use for a PC without an LTE connection. While few of us are traveling at present, an unexpected side benefit of an always-connected PC has been the ability to use the LTE (or in some cases now, 5G) modem instead of connecting to an overcapacity home broadband network. While your partner, children, relatives, and others fight over limited throughput on the router for Zoom calls, Youtube streams, and the like, a user with a connected PC can collaborate with relative ease.

I don’t expect a radical shift toward LTE/5G enabled PCs for employees working at home. Still, I expect many companies to look at this option as they continue to figure out where their workforce will sit in the future and how they will pay for connectivity. As more organizations shift toward smaller office setting designed to facilitate meetings versus housing the entire staff every day, connected PCs make even more sense from an infrastructure built-out perspective. One thing is clear: The PC vendors need to build better relationships with the powerhouse carriers in all regions to make these types of technology shifts possible.

Accessories Bonanza
PCs have seen the most headlines, but accessories are a category that has also enjoyed a banner year in 2020. With so many people outfitting home offices, or kitchen tables, with all the pieces necessary to drive productivity, we’ve seen huge growth in monitors, webcams, microphones, keyboards, mice, and headsets. For a time, midyear, it was literally impossible to buy a brand-name webcam anywhere.

I expect these categories to continue to see substantial volumes through much of 2020 as consumers, companies, and schools continue to adapt to what will likely be a mix of in-person and from-home activities throughout this year. Hastily purchased accessories will get replaced by better quality ones. And in many situations, we may see people looking to procure one set of accessories for use at home and another for us at work. Products that help users efficiently shift between smartphone and PC, PC and tablet, and tablet and smartphone will be in demand. Expect growth in the ear-worn wearables category to continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

Here Comes DaaS
Finally, to close out, I return to Device as a Service (DaaS), one of my favorite topics. All signs point to the pandemic as a driving force in many company’s broader digital transformation efforts, of which DaaS can be a crucial part. For many, shifting from a traditional model of procuring, deploying, and managing devices themselves to one where they pay an OEM or MSP to do this work offers clear advantages in terms of efficiency and workload. Based on my conversations with players in this space, COVID has accelerated many companies’ interest in DaaS, especially as they look toward the future of their distributed workforce and how they equip them to drive productivity. Expect to hear a great deal more about DaaS in 2021 as companies of all sizes take a closer look at the benefits it offers.
This has been a very challenging year, and like most people, I’m eager to close out 2020 with an eye toward a challenging but hopeful 2021. Many thanks to all who read me here at Techpinions. Happy Holidays and I look forward to seeing you all in 2021.

My Experience with The Mac mini M1

on December 9, 2020

For the past few weeks, I have been using the M1 power Mac mini as my primary day to day computer. I have not lived through as many Apple processor transitions as others who have been sharing their thoughts, but I vividly remember Apple’s transition to Intel. Ever since the late ’90s, Mac’s have been my primary computers. I have fond memories of bringing my Mac into meetings with PC OEMs and Intel in the early 2000s and always taking flack for not using Windows and Intel or what some would call a real work computer. Which is why I found it ironic after Apple switched to Intel how many Macs I saw floating around Intel when I was there for meetings. That’s another story.

During the Intel transition, the first Macs running Intel Silicon had a somewhat rocky beginning with many apps not optimized for x86. Rosetta handled the translation of code from Apple’s PowerPC architecture to Intel’s x86. The main thing about that transition that was burned into my mind was endless bouncing icons (the action an icon performs in the dock while it is opening on macOS) and how many times the app either never opened, requiring me to force quit or did not open requiring a total restart. Once apps were open, I recall the experience being mostly solid, with the exception of some frequent crashes. Still, those minutes wasted opening an app as Rosetta translated is burned into my memory.

Rosetta 1’s translation abilities were dependent on the code and Intel’s processing power back at that time, which is not what it is today as the x86 architecture is far more sophisticated and powerful. Given the underlying technology at the time during Apple’s transition from PowerPC to x86, some of these hiccups are understandable in retrospect. Still, many of us early users remember the pain of that transition.

Fast forward to today, and the current experience I’ve had with the M1 powered Mac mini, and it is night and day. After a smooth migration to the Mac mini M1 from my 16″ MacBook Pro, I started instantly picking up some work where I left off on the MacBook. I had a little flashback anxiety as I first launched Superhuman, the email client I run for Gmail, which is fairly lightweight. The Superhuman icon started bouncing in the dock and did so for 20 seconds or more. I briefly had Rosetta 1 deja vu. I immediately quit the app to try again to see what would happen, and it opened instantly. I quit again and opened several times, and each time, it opened instantly, to my relief. I then went on to open nearly all my other applications, which I knew were not M1 native-like Office apps, Zoom, Slack, some audio apps I use for editing audio. All of them took 20-30 seconds at first open but then opened each time instantly after.

What makes Rosetta 2 unique this time around is Apple is translating more like an ahead of time compiler (AOT) than a just in time compiler (JIT). Upon first open, Rosetta 2 is essentially translating all the x86 application code into native M1 instructions, which it will then run at each new open. This is the key experience that led many reviewers to remark on how well x86 apps performed on the M1 and how it felt like a native app. That’s because it basically was a native app after Rosetta 2 translation was performed. This is a huge advantage to Apple being the designer of the Mac CPU. Rosetta could, for the first time, be optimized and co-designed with the M1 and have unique knowledge of each other. This was not a luxury Apple has had in past silicon platform transitions.

I timed each non-native app’s translation process upon first open, and the average time was 26.7 seconds. That’s basically the time it took for the M1 to translate an x86 app to native M1 code. This is pretty impressive when you consider all that is going on under the hood.

Once the translation process was complete, all my non-M1 native apps performed just like I was used to on my Intel-based MacBook Pro. To have a reference, I timed how long it took the same apps to launch on both the M1 and my Intel-based MacBook Pro (2.4 GHz 8 Core i-9 processor). The table below shows the average time to launch, in seconds, and be usable of each app on each system. I timed each app five times and then averaged each out.

M1 Mac mini Intel 16′ MBP
Superhuman 4.41 6.61
Zoom 2.52 2.12
Word 0.94 0.97
Excel 1.89 2.52
Slack 5.65 2.87
Powerpoint 0.97 0.95
Teams 4.05 3.91
Outlook 1.03 0.95
Photoshop 6 7.5
MS Edge 1.81 1.35

As you can see, each system had comparable app times. What was surprising was how none of my work-flows were interrupted as I moved from the Intel MacBook Pro to the M1 Mac mini. Literally zero disruption.

In terms of speed and performance, while I’m not a benchmarker, I did try and tax the M1 system in various ways I could with the software I have. Below was the CPU performance while I opened a native x86 app to run Rosetta 2 translation, scrubbed a 4k video in real-time, while on a Microsoft Teams video call (Teams not optimized for M1). I know it is a weird workflow to test, but it was the most CPU intense software at my fingertips.

As you can see, the spike was caused by the Rosetta 2 translation but never during this 1-2 min span did I see the system become sluggish, unresponsive, or have the spinning rainbow of death known on macOS.

What I found most intriguing about this CPU chart is the M1 has four performance cores and four low-power cores. This CPU chart shows that even the four low-power cores kick in, to a degree, during CPU intensive applications and are not just primarily there for lower-performance tasks.

Suffice it to say, the M1 has gone beyond my expectations right out of the gate, and from the reviews, it looks like I’m not alone. And any localized issues experienced by anyone with some non-optimized apps will be a thing in the past by the end of next year when nearly all, probably all, macOS apps will be optimized for the M1.

The M1 and the future of Macs
I wanted to conclude with a few thoughts on the role the M1 will play for the future of the Mac and Apple Silicon. I’ve long been bullish on Apple’s ambitions with custom silicon since Apple has helped establish the trend of specific purpose silicon away from the old world of general-purpose silicon. We also know Apple’s growing team of in-house silicon designers in-house, which gives them a huge advantage in custom silicon. What is exciting about Apple now challenging their silicon team with setting a new bar for high-performance computing is how those efforts will benefit Apple as a whole, not just with M1 Macs.

The work the team puts in to push the limits of performance-per-watt in high-performance applications will, likely, trickle down to things like iPhone, iPad, future augmented or virtual reality, and more. Meaning, this effort will yield fruit across Apple silicon, not just for Mac hardware.

Having experienced some of the latest processors from Intel and AMD, I am convinced Apple will set a new bar not just in notebooks but desktop and workstations as the M1 scales up to those classes of machines. And this leads me to the last point I want to make.

Apple making processors for Macs is extremely good for semiconductor competition. Not to say that AMD and Intel have been standing still, but both those companies have been focusing on competing with each other and largely competing in the datacenter when it came to pushing performance and high-performance design and applications. Apple has now created a new dynamic where both these companies are now competing with Apple to bring its PC customers a solution that will compete with M1 Macs. If they don’t, Apple could run away with the high-end of the PC market, which would have a drastic impact on the PC category, one I’m not sure Intel, AMD, and the PC OEMs have fully realized yet.

Podcast: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, AWS reInvent Conference, Android Enterprise Essentials

on December 5, 2020

This week’s Techpinions podcast features Ben Bajarin and Bob O’Donnell discussing the debut of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip and its potential impact on the premium smartphone market, analyzing the news on custom chips, new computing instances and new hybrid cloud options from Amazon’s AWS Cloud computing division, and chatting about the debut of Google’s Android Enterprise Essentials for simply and securely managing fleets of business-owned Android phones.

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.