Apple’s big Special Event last week was marked by a noticeable lack of excitement in the days running up to it. A few years back, everyone would have been on tenterhooks, but it seems that it’s increasingly becoming a so-what event. If you use Google Trends to search for the word iPhone, you’ll find that it used to peak around these events, but they’re no longer generating the level of interest that they used to. If you filter those searches down to news mentions, it’s apparent that these Apple events are not really news anymore.
It should have been a good Christmas for Apple. Millions of happy Apple fans were likely to unwrap one of their products on Christmas Day. But just a week before, Apple got a present it really didn’t want. The news broke that they had been releasing updates which slowed down the performance of older phones.
The reason for doing this is that as lithium batteries age, their performance gets worse. If you keep on putting the same demands on them, there is a double risk – they may degrade faster and need to be replaced, or in an extreme case, they could fail, possibly disastrously. So, there is a definite logic in trying to limit those demands to keep the user physically safe.
However, it’s a difficult concept to sell. Consider if an automotive manufacturer were to do the same thing with your electric car. If you bought the car on the basis that it had a top speed of 80 mph and a range of 200 miles, you’d probably be rather irate if, twelve months later, you discovered that they’d decided to restrict the top speed to 35mph, in order to ensure that the range didn’t fall below 200 miles. But that’s what the headline claims against Apple are implying – that unbeknownst to the users, software updates are deliberately throttling back the phone’s performance. The electric car example above is not a valid comparison, but to understand why requires a level of technical knowledge that few journalists or lawyers possess. They’d rather cast Apple as the villain, turning this into an Applegate conspiracy. Viva fake news.
On 7th September, Apple announced the demise of the 3.5mm audio jack. Alongside that, they introduced their Airpods, helping to stoke the momentum for a new world of hearable devices, The loss of the jack was a move which generated howls of anguish from the wireophile community, along with a flurry of speculation about how Airpods worked as well as what Apple’s new W1 wireless chip was doing.
Having been working with wireless standards and hearables for several years, much of that speculation seemed ill-informed. Once Airpods come to market in October, companies like iFixit and Chipworks will take them to pieces and we’ll have a better idea of exactly what Apple have done. But those first tear-downs are still a few months away. So I thought it would be interesting to try a speculative teardown, based on how I might have designed them, and on the limited information which is in the public domain. I also think I know what Apple’s second wireless chip will be, and it’s not the W2.
I’ve just sat through Tim Cook’s Apple announcement, and amongst the shiny stuff was something really important – ResearchKit. Most smartphone users probably don’t realise how much data their devices are capturing all of the time, or that some of it is quietly being used to influence apps such as the games they play. The point is, that for the first time ever, aspects of our health and lifestyle can be captured easily. For medical researchers, access to this personal data could transform the way we perform research on disease and aging. Even where research projects are able to monitor patients today, the sensors are often unwieldy and it’s difficult to get volunteers to sign up and stay engaged. To be effective, medical research needs data – not just from ill people, but from those at all stages of the continuum of health and illness. The issue has always been how to get hold of it.
Most people have never heard of Appcessories, but they’re set to become one of the biggest growth areas of the decade, with a potential market value of over $130 billion by 2020, as shown in the new report “To Ubiquity and Beyond”. Most analysts have missed them, as they’re made possible by the convergence of a set of disparate elements coming together, most notably the incorporation of Bluetooth Smart in mobile phones and tablets, low cost and easy to use silicon for hardware developers, and published APIs which allows developers of phone Apps to talk to connected devices. Throw in the innovation that is arising out of crowd-funding initiatives like Kickstarter and indiegogo and you have the ingredients for a new revolution in connected consumer goods.
What is an Appcessory? Think of a cuddly toy for your three year old which interacts with the story on her tablet. Think of the stylus you use for sketching on your iPad, where squeezing it changes the thickness or colour of the lines you’re painting. Or a motor and rudder you clip on a paper plane which lets you control its flight by tipping your smartphone from side to side. LED lights that come on when you enter the room, which you can program the colour of, or which even sense your mood from the way you’re walking. Armbands that know you’re about to point at the TV and tell it to change channel before you even move your finger. Clothes that tell you they need washing. Many things that until recently were the preserve of science fiction, but are about to become possible and eminently affordable.
Last month, Nest Labs managed to haul in a further $80 million of VC funding for their Internet-connected smart thermostat. That’s good news for Nest, but makes one wonder what the investors are hoping to get back? There is no questioning its success in the US. Nest claim to be shipping about 40,000 thermostats every month. That equates to around 5% of the 10 million a year US market, which has historically been dominated by Emerson, Honeywell, Johnson and Lux. But how much of the other 95% can they win?
A basic programmable thermostat in the US costs under $20, not the $250 price tag of the Nest. As such, Nest appeals to those who like buying technology and form rather than function – it’s no surprise that it sells as an accessory in Apple Stores in the US. It has all of the glamour and pizzazz of Apple products, but with a worrying limitation – it is just hardware – there’s no service model. In other words, it’s a bit like an iPhone without an App Store.
There is no doubt that it’s a lot easier to use than most conventional thermostats, which seem to be exclusively designed by engineers who failed their user experience courses and want to get their own back on society. However, there are plenty of alternatives which are cheaper, just as easy to use and which work outside the US. And there have been for the last few decades. But these alternatives have historically failed to sell. That’s changed, but this new generation of connected wireless thermostats has an Achilles’ heel – they need someone to support the web service for their life, which may be ten to twenty years, and I can’t see where that’s been factored in. So is Nest going to feather the pockets of its VC backers, or make an omelette out of their investments?