Apple's Quest to Kill the Dongle

Apple's impressive adapter line-up. Consider this their Most Wanted List.

Apple's impressive adapter line-up. Consider this their Most Wanted List.

Abdel Ibrahim at AppAdvice had an interesting take on what could be Apple's view of the future of dongles:

With the introduction of the new MacBook Pro, Apple has made it clear that it believes that USB-C is the future. Not only are they saying it’s the future for external peripherals like monitors, and external hard drives, but they’ve also abandoned Magsafe, the company’s beloved charging port, in favor of it.

But what most people aren’t realizing is that while Apple is making a record number of dongles and adapters, what they’re doing is trying to kill them off.

He makes a compelling argument. In short, Apple is trying to unify the ports on their Mac lineup. Outside of the MacBook Air and previous generation MacBook Pros, all of Apple's newest notebook models contain USB-C and only USB-C ports. (Yes, I'm ignoring the headphone jack; Apple ignored it on the iPhone 7, so I think I can safely do so here.)

While, in the short term, it might require people to buy adapters and dongles to connect things like SD cards and existing USB peripherals, it also is moving Apple's line to a single, and quite versatile, port. 

If we widen our view, Apple's quest to kill the dongle has been happening for a while. Most recently, Apple's removal of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 means wireless headphones are a more valuable option. But those headphones would work on more than just the iPhone. And to connect to anything else, you don't need a certain cable or port.

Going back further, Apple's removal of the ethernet port on the previous MacBook Pro models could also be seen as this intention. Wireless is how the majority of users connect their notebooks, even in a work environment. But while wireless was a capable alternative for ethernet in 2012, USB-C was still too early to replace everything else. But in 2016, it's capable of doing it all.

Many may complain about the design of the new MacBook Pro, but I would argue that this is one of the target designs they had wanted to do for many years. And in the end, it'll only be a temporary pain point. 

My take on the leaked MacBook Pro image

You'd think Apple would hold back some things from their OS updates. This is straight from macOS Sierra's 10.12.1 update.

Some thoughts:

  • The model would appear to be a 13-inch MacBook Pro, yet it shows speakers no the sides. If the MacBook Pros are to have a smaller footprint, then the keyboard is likely to shrink. My guess is it's using the same keyboard found in the MacBook. This leaves room for the speakers.
  • Touch ID coming to the Mac is a great move. But how is it being implemented? Apple has been adamant about security on their iOS devices, which is why the Secure Enclave is so important. To include Touch ID on the Mac, Apple is likely also including a secure chip, possibly the same Secure Enclave found in the iPhone 7. 
  • As rumored, the function keys are gone. In their place seems to be an OLED touch bar. Some say it'll be running on an ARM chip, with comparisons being that of integrating an iOS device into the Mac. How much access will developers get to this? And will someone hack it to run UIKit?
  • Speaking of Touch ID, it is a dedicated part of the touch bar. Note the outline on the far right, similar to the ring around the home button on iOS devices.

While this takes away some of the magic of the Apple event on Thursday, I am excited to hear more about these Macs and what else is new and improved in them. If Apple is okay adding new chips to support the touch bar, are there other hardware improvements, even more custom silicon, worth mentioning?

Accidental Obsolescence

Years ago, I remember hearing the term 'planned obsolescence' being thrown around. The context was typically surrounding Apple and their upgrade cycle. The idea was that Apple would not support their devices for more than two years, forcing users to upgrade to continue to receive support.

If you look at the first few iOS devices, it could be easy to see that. The original iPhone receive its last software update, iPhone OS 3.1.3, in February 2010, just over two and a half years of availability. It didn't stand a chance of receiving iOS 4. In fact, if you look at the history of iOS releases in general, each has typically left behind some device or another.

Yet, despite older devices eventually having to fall by the wayside, something interesting began happening with the iPad 2.

In March 2011, Apple unveiled the iPad 2. It was thinner than the original iPad, included both a front and rear facing camera, and packed the Apple designed A5 chip. While not incredibly more powerful than iOS devices sold in the previous year, the iPad 2 currently holds an incredible distinction: it supported six iOS releases! Only now, five years after introduction, is Apple letting the A5-family go. It launched with iOS 4.3.5 and will end with iOS 9.3.5, the most current stable release of iOS.

iOS 9 stands as a unique iOS release: it is the only major iOS version to not drop support for a device. In other words, all iOS 8 capable devices were able to get iOS 9. Given these recent trends, it's likely that a good number of iOS devices, especially the 64-bit ones running the A7 chip or newer, will be supported by iOS releases for years to come.

That all said, I'm sure any iPad 2 owner can tell you: The device ran smoothest with iOS 4 and slowest with iOS 9. But given that each release adds new features of some kind, it's only an eventuality that hardware cannot keep up with the software running on it. But to support major OS releases for six years is quite a lot, at least in the mobile space. Apple, thankfully, has the advantage of controlling both the hardware and software that goes into their devices, allowing them to tweak and manage every aspect. Because of the limited hardware options, it's also easy for them to maintain support for older devices if need be.

Accidental (They didn't mean to)

By comparison, take a look at the recent news regarding Android devices running certain Qualcomm chipsets:

Not all of the big Android phone makers have announced their plans for the Nougat update [Android's latest OS release], but if you look at Sony’s and Google’s and HTC’s official lists (as well as the supplemental lists being published by some carriers), you’ll notice they all have one big thing in common. None of the phones are more than a year or two old.

After doing some digging and talking to some people, we can say that it will be either very difficult if not completely impossible for any phone that uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 or 801 to get an official, Google-sanctioned Nougat update (including the Z3). And that’s a pretty big deal, since those two chips powered practically every single Android flagship sold from late 2013 until late 2014 and a few more recent devices to boot.

This situation has far-reaching implications for the Android ecosystem. And while it can be tempting to lay the blame at the feet of any one company—Google for creating this update mess in the first place, Qualcomm for failing to support older chipsets, and the phone makers for failing to keep up with new software—it’s really kind of everybody’s fault.

While the Android ecosystem allows for a great amount of variety and customization, it also can lead to situations like this. In this case, it looks likely that Qualcomm themselves have decided to stop supporting that chipset. Given that Android updates require sign-offs from multiple parties, just one can provide a roadblock.

This sets off a vicious cycle—OEMs usually don’t update their phones for more than a year or two, so chipmakers don’t worry about supporting their chipsets for more than a year or two, so OEMs can’t update their phones for more than a year or two even if they want to. It turns the 18-month minimum target that Google has been silently pushing for the last half-decade into less of a “minimum” and more of a “best-case scenario.” And people who don’t buy brand-new phones the day they come out are even worse off, since most of these update timelines are driven by launch date and not by the date the phones were taken off the market.

This isn't the first time we've seen a premium or flagship handset losing support before the intended date. But for smartphone users, does the idea of an 18-month support window make you feel comfortable? I know I wouldn't like that.

Google's (soon to be rebranded) Nexus line might be the best supported for Android updates, but I wonder if Google will do more to tighten down the Android experience on their own devices. Will they move to take more control of the entire experience and limit situations like this? Can that even be done? One thing's for sure: I doubt Google intended for Nougat to be limited in release. Yet, through no direct fault of their own, this is the current situation.

3D Touch - The Future of Apple's Interfaces

In 2014, Apple announced the Apple Watch. While many were expecting a shrunken iPhone on your wrist, Apple instead focused on a new experience. The Digital Crown, for instance, let users scroll their content without blocking most of the screen with their finger. To add further interactivity to apps, they also introduced something new: Force Touch.

In 2015, Apple added Force touch to the Mac lineup with the new MacBook, updated MacBook Pros, and the new Magic Trackpad 2. Later that year, the iPhone 6s was launched with a Force Touch capable display, branded on iOS devices as 3D Touch.

On each platform, the concept of Force Touch or 3D Touch acts a bit differently. For instance, with watchOS, Force Touch is really a required element to provide more interactive options without sacrificing screen space. On the Mac, default implementation seems to duplicate 3-finger taps while providing a few useful improvements, such as making use of the Taptic engine to provide feedback to the user's finger.

Home screen shortcuts introduced in iOS 9

Home screen shortcuts introduced in iOS 9

On iOS, at least with iOS 9, the introduction of 3D Touch seemed like a gimmick to some. Live Photos required 3D Touch to move, yet can be activated by a long press on older devices. On the home screen, a hard press shows app shortcuts. And the concept of peeking and popping into content lets user quickly glance at information before committing to loading a certain view.

On Android, some said that the idea of detecting pressure on the screen was an old concept. Yet, looking at what was introduced early in the Android SDK showed those functions to be based more on the size of the tap than the actual pressure. In other words, it wasn't truly making use of a pressure sensitive display.

That's not to say that no Android device has a pressure sensitive display. Huawei beat the iPhone 6s to market with the Mate S and its pressure sensitive display. Yet, despite launch in 2015, we have yet to see many major flagship Android devices come with that feature. Even the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy Note 7 devices this year fail to include that functionality.

Following the introduction of the iPhone 6s, word began to spread of Android manufacturers coming out with their own displays. The recently released Android N was said to include support for their own implementation of 3D Touch, but the feature has now been reportedly moved to a maintenance update to the OS. Do Google, Samsung, and other Android manufacturers just think this is a useless gimmick?

3D Touch in iOS 10 enable app widgets to be previewed

3D Touch in iOS 10 enable app widgets to be previewed

If we look at Apple, however, we see a different picture. iOS 10 seems made for 3D Touch. The lock screen experience, and notifications in particular, truly benefit from 3D Touch. Having been running the iOS 10 developer beta on my iPhone 6s, I can say that my use of 3D Touch has greatly improved over iOS 9. In fact, when I switch to a non-3D Touch device, such as my iPad Air 2 or an iPhone 6 Plus used for app testing at work, I find myself trying to hard press the screen to perform certain actions.

While the implementation isn't complete on the Mac, I fully suspect Apple will be making further use of Force/3D Touch on all of its devices. In fact, I would be surprised if this year's iPad updates didn't include some level of 3D Touch. And the rumored MacBook Pro update? It'll definitely have a Force Trackpad. But in the coming months and years, I'd suspect Apple will add more 3D interactions to macOS.

All of this shows something that Apple excels at: taking their control of the hardware and software of the iPhone to make a unique experience. If Android supports pressure touch in the future, not all manufacturers will. It'll introduce another level of fragmentation to their ecosystem. Yet, for Apple, adding this capability to their line is no trouble at all, and I'm convinced that the use of 3D Touch will only improve with each generation of Apple's operating systems from now on.

Associate, an affiliate linking app for Amazon

For many bloggers and publishers, affiliate linking programs are a common way to boost your income when talking about products and services. Popular programs in the tech space include iTunes and Amazon (both used here at Noted), but a plethora of programs exist online across all manner industries. 

While gaining a small kickback from links on the site and social media is pleasant (and crucial for maintaining a business for many), often the process of generating those links is not. Clunky link generators or manually embedding tracking codes in links make the process tiresome and time-consuming. 

Developers Squibner solved the problem on iOS for iTunes links with Blink, a simple, intuitive and straightforward link generator for the iTunes Affiliate Program that allowed iPhone and iPad users to quickly create links to apps and media with embedded affiliate tokens and campaign tags. As a frequent Blink user, my process went from minutes of typing and fiddling to just a few taps (app links in this post were created using Blink on my iPad). 

Squibner is now turning its attention toward Amazon with its new offering, Associate. Launched today, Associate does for the Amazon Associates Program what Blink did for iTunes. Having tested the app for a week in beta, I can confidently state that Blink users will feel right at home with Associate's powerful in-app search, customizable link styles and variety of export options. Associate also has a Share Sheet extension that makes creating Amazon affiliate links from other apps — be it Amazon's own app, the web or any other app with a Share button — a breeze and, with support for Split View, you can be easily generate links on one side of the screen and insert them into your text editor on the other. 

Associate is a must-have tool on iOS for any member of the Amazon Associates Program. It does all of the hard work in converting your links and allows you to get back to work.

Associate is available for iPhone and iPad for $4.99

Apple invests $1 billion in China's Uber

Reuters:

Apple Inc said on Thursday it has invested $1 billion in Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing, a move that Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said would help the company better understand the critical Chinese market.

The move aligns Apple with Uber Technologies Inc's chief rival in China, as automakers and technology companies forge new alliances and make cross investments. General Motors (GM.N), for example, recently bought autonomous driving technology company Cruise Automation and has also taken a stake in U.S. ride-sharing company Lyft.

That's a huge investment into a ride-hailing service. And while there's something to be said about understanding a critical market, does this investment benefit existing products or future ones?

I like where Glenn Fleishman went with this tweet:

Apple won't always be the iPhone company

Apple is not your typical company. But it isn't just the way it is organized that sets it apart. It also has to do with how Apple spends their R&D money. While many companies spend their money looking into a bunch of ideas, Apple instead focuses on products. But what is Apple doing with all of their R&D spending?

Neil Cybart has a great article at Above Avalon that looks into Apple's R&D trend.

People are focusing on the wrong thing when analyzing Apple's path forward in the face of slowing iPhone sales. Instead of debating how much Apple will try to monetize the iPhone user base with services (not as much as consensus thinks), the company is instead planning its largest pivot yet. There are only a handful of logical explanations for Apple's current R&D expense trajectory, and all of them result in a radically different Apple. In a few years, we are no longer going to refer to Apple as the iPhone company.

It's a fairly bold statement to say that we won't always refer to Apple as the iPhone company. But if their increase is spending is indeed to focus on new products, perhaps something as different as a car, then it may not be a farfetched idea.

Ultimately, this requires some longer term thinking than your average financial analyst. Wall Street is always focused on the short term. But Apple is focused on the future, even if they don't publicly tell us what they are working on. This leaves everyone thinking Apple has fallen behind. In reality, they're planning the next revolution.

Check out Neil Cybart's entire post at Above Avalon. When you're done, you too may see the high possibility of Apple's coming pivot. The big question remaining: what product is going to identify Apple next?

Marco Arment's new Mac app: Quitter

Marco Arment, famous for apps like Instapaper and Overcast, has just released his first Mac app. It's relatively simple but can have a profound impact on your productivity. Marco detailed the reasons for creating the original scripts in a blog post entitled Automatic Social Discipline.

Essentially, the app lets you specify certain applications to watch, an amount of time to check for inactivity, and whether you want to quit or hide that particular app. This is great for closing unnecessary apps in the background on your Mac while you're working. That way you can stop getting all of those Tweetbot notifications that might otherwise interrupt you.

I started using it today on my work Mac. Instead of killing apps, I'm choosing to hide the corporate email client. I think it's a visual distraction and, while I want it open to notify me of new email, I don't want it to stay up in case I forgot to close it.

I haven't set it up on my personal Mac yet, but I'm sure I'll be doing that soon.

If you're a Mac owner and want to try and remove some distractions in your life, check out Quitter. It's currently free on Marco's website.

David Smith after a year of wearing Apple Watch

David Smith:

I remember being rather skeptical of Apple’s original marketing of the Apple Watch as “our most personal device ever”, but a year later I must say that it would be a hard case to make that something that has been physically attached to me for 83% of my life is anything other than personal.

Thankfully, David is someone that will dig into numbers. In this case, it's seeing how many hours a day he's worn his Apple Watch since first putting it on a year ago. I know I'd love to see what my numbers reveal. Since using Sleep++, I'm sure I'm in the 20+ hours a day category.

Cheap router blamed in hack attack

If you thought cutting corners might not be so bad, check out this news report from the BBC:

Hackers managed to steal $80m (£56m) from Bangladesh's central bank because it skimped on network hardware and security software, reports Reuters.
The bank had no firewall and used second-hand routers that cost $10 to connect to global financial networks.

I can understand wanting to save on some hardware costs. But no firewall? For a bank? Someone didn't do their job. It could've been much worse had it not been for human error on the part of the thieves:

A spelling mistake in one of the transfer orders alerted bank staff and meant the hackers only managed to steal $81m.

"They designed the system to not trust them"

Rich Mogull at Securosis:

Last Friday I spent some time in a discussion with senior members of Apple’s engineering and security teams. I knew most of the technical content but they really clarified Apple’s security approach, much of which they have never explicitly stated, even on background. Most of that is fodder for my next post, but I wanted to focus on one particular technical feature I have never seen clearly documented before; which both highlights Apple’s approach to security, and shows that iMessage is more secure than I thought.
It turns out you can’t add devices to an iCloud account without triggering an alert because that analysis happens on your device, and doesn’t rely (totally) on a push notification from the server. Apple put the security logic in each device, even though the system still needs a central authority. Basically, they designed the system to not trust them.

Rich takes a very interesting look at iMessage security. Basically, saying iMessages are encrypted end-to-end is not the entire story. There's more going on that I, honestly, didn't expect. It might be a bit technical for some people, but this is definitely worth reading.

Over 400K pre-orders for Tesla's Model 3

Reuters:

Electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors has received almost 400,000 orders for its latest car, the model 3 sedan, its CEO said on Thursday.

"We are now almost at 400,000 orders for the model 3," Elon Musk told a conference held in the Norwegian capital. He added that the interest in the model had "surprised even us".

On April 7, the company said it had received over 325,000 reservations for the model 3.

I just hope that Elon's surprise doesn't mean they're unprepared for this many pre-orders. In their Model 3 unveil, he noted that their future production capacity would be around 500,000 vehicles a year (or 9,500 to 10,000 a week). Unfortunately, according to their website, their current capacity is around 100,000 (or 2000 a week). Hopefully, all of the pre-order deposit money (400,000 * $1000 = $400 million) will be spent increasing that capacity.

That also means increasing their battery production. Their main factory for the Model 3 batteries isn't even complete yet. If the Model 3 pre-order numbers keep rising, though, by the time they start shipping in late 2017, who knows how many car orders they'll have to fill?

Rose Gold MacBook

When Apple introduced the new MacBook design last year, some called it the MacBook One. That, of course, was because of its single USB-C port.

In a press release today, Apple has announced an updated MacBook: same design, latest processors, and the first Mac with the Rose Gold color option. Until the other Macs get that option, I'll call this the Rose Gold MacBook.

As an update, it's a seemingly minor one. Looking at processor speeds alone, you'd think there was no update at all. But moving to Intel's Skylake processors not only bring some improved battery life but also some performance improvements.

If you've held off on the new MacBook, this might be the one for you. If you must have everything Rose Gold in your life, this is a must buy for you. Otherwise, if you need a powerful laptop, like me, stick to the MacBook Pro line.

Another piece of news in Apple's press release today: All 13-inch MacBook Air models now come with 8 GB RAM standard. From a performance standpoint, that's a good minimum to have. That only leaves the 13-inch MacBook Pro (non-Retina; remember this one?), 11-inch MacBook Air, and Mac Mini base models starting with 4 GB. While not terrible, any new Mac purchase should be of an 8 GB or higher configuration. It's one of the requirements for future-proofing your purchase.

Algorithmic photos by Instagram

According to a blog post by Instagram, they'll soon be showing photos in a new, sorted order. Their algorithm will sort through your feed and show you items that they 'believe you will care about the most.' They'll look at content, your relationship with the one posting the photo, and the time the photo was posted. Given Instagram is owned by Facebook and has been for a while, I'm surprised this feature is only now coming to the photo network.

While reorganizing your photos with their smart algorithm, Instagram says they won't be removing any. At least, they won't be doing so from the beginning. Instead, they'll be focusing on optimizing the order of photos first. Given how scrolling Facebook's smart feed will never reveal certain posts, though, it'll only be a matter of time before certain photos never make it into your Instagram feed.

I'm mixed on this change. So long as there is an option to view the timeline in chronological order, I'm all for giving this change a try. But as with Facebook's news feed, I don't like missing things that I would've been interested in seeing had it not been for a computer assuming I didn't want to.

Thankfully, these changes won't be coming for a couple of months. And they promise to listen to feedback along the way. Let's hope I truly don't miss any photos that I'd love to see.

Source: Instagram

iOS and Android encryption

One of the reasons Apple has been requested to build a backdoor into iOS is because the FBI can't access the data on a certain iPhone directly. To get into the encrypted device, they need the correct PIN. Then they'll be able to access the data they want.

By default, all devices running iOS 8 and above are encrypted. Whether it's your new iPhone 6s or your grandmother's iPad 2, if it has the OS installed, the content on it has been encrypted to some degree. The best way to see how many iOS devices are encrypted is thus by seeing how many are using those operating systems.

Directly from Apple, we can see the breakdown of iOS usage across all iOS devices. All iOS devices running iOS 8 and up are encrypted, thus leading to the conclusion that 94% of all iOS devices have encryption enabled. I would say 'by default', but Apple's control of the operating system and limitations to the user prevent someone from 'disabling' that encryption.

Android, meanwhile, can't boast those same numbers. In fact, it's a lot harder to make a proper estimate of how many Android devices are encrypted. CNN's Jose Pagliery:

Google introduced encryption on Android in 2011, but it was buried deep within a phone's settings. Not until late 2014 did Google begin asking customers if they wanted to encrypt their phones during the setup process.
Although 97% of Android phones have encryption as an option, less than 35% of them actually got prompted to turn it on when they first activated the phone. Even then, not everybody chooses that extra layer of security.

While the option has been there, most users simply don't enable device encryption. It was enabled by default with the Lollipop update. And while Android's next version, Marshmallow, requires encryption to be enabled, the number of devices currently running it is only 2.3%. And even then, such encryption is only enforced on "high-performing devices". With the plethora of Android devices available out there, it's likely that consumers are not always buying or owning such a device.

If the San Bernardino terrorists were using Android devices, we probably wouldn't have seen any government requests at all. Chances are the device would either be on an older OS version or simply not be encrypted at all. If this had been the case, this situation could've been a lot different than it has played out.

'Security is an endless race'

Craig Federighi, Senior Vice President of Software Engineering at Apple, in an Op-ed at The Washington Post:

That’s why it’s so disappointing that the FBI, Justice Department and others in law enforcement are pressing us to turn back the clock to a less-secure time and less-secure technologies. They have suggested that the safeguards of iOS 7 were good enough and that we should simply go back to the security standards of 2013. But the security of iOS 7, while cutting-edge at the time, has since been breached by hackers. What’s worse, some of their methods have been productized and are now available for sale to attackers who are less skilled but often more malicious.

Some people see Apple's stance as siding with 'terrorists'. Just look in the comments section of any number of online articles on the Apple vs FBI issue and you'll see such remarks. But security has needed to improve to keep hackers out. The (unfortunate?) side-effect is the government's inability to get into a device. Should that be backtracked for everyone so a minute number of devices can be inspected?

Also notable from this article: yet another Apple executive telling the situation as it is. The government's request is as simple as he makes it: they miss the security level of iOS versions gone by. But Craig is right when he calls security an "endless race". The smarter the engineers creating new technology become, the smarter malicious players become, too.

Hours 2.0 and Hours for Teams

Jeremy Olson of Tapity:

I was a dreadful time tracker myself so I understand deeply why people hate tracking their time. I am convinced time tracking itself isn’t the problem — in fact, now that I track every minute of my time, I am much more productive because I am conscious about where my time is going. No, the problem is that time tracking tools have not been designed to be really good at tracking time as you go.
That changes today with the launch of Hours.

I've been a consultant for three and a half years, and tracking time was a difficult thing for me to do for a long while. When Hours was first released in the Summer of 2014, that all changed. I, too, can say that I have become more productive.

Hours 2.0 brings new features for teams, reports and analytics, and support for more devices and the browser. The iPhone app gets a newer look, support for 3D Touch shortcuts on the home screen, and data syncing with the new Hours for Teams.

Whether you're a freelancer or not, tracking time on your Apple Watch or wanting to do so in the browser, this is something worth looking into. Definitely check it out!