Hey Siri, gimme some gimmicks!

Apple Pencil

I don’t know if I was just tired or Apple made me feel so during their keynote two days ago. Two+ hours felt like eternity this time. Apple did improve its lineup, presented new form factor device, but haven’t bought me quite yet. And this is important cause I’m an architect and they aimed for architects and designers (among the others) with that new iPad Pro.

So, why can’t I give them the love even if they tried hard? They are doing great financially, kicking some asses in China, holding ground in the US, gaining share in Europe, and they are getting cheaper and cheaper*, and still, they are not passive, but they rather push for more. Well, it’s because of their exegeration of their own achievements. The smaller the contribution, the bigger is their self-praise. They improved, but this was an “s” event from the beggining to the end, even if they presented what seems to be their long term strategy for living room, and even if they presented a new form factor. I’ll explain myself.

First, the iPad PRO. The new form factor came just as everyone expected. It came to fill the very small gap between Mac Book Air, and iPad Air. It’s not a huge new segment like iPad was, not even as big as iPad Mini was, but it is very welcome now that it exists. If it starts selling good it will certainly canibalize some iPad and Mac Book Air sales but that is not a problem for Apple as it will probably have a similar profit margin. Does it have a power to bring new people to Apple camp? IMO, very few. It is still the same multimedia platform that you have on a smaller iPad, just bigger and more tiresome to hold, and less mobile (think in terms of womens purse or just carrying it around in hands). On the other side, it can replace your Mac Book Air in most of the situations. So, one will have to choose its screens more wiselly. I remember the hype about the original iPad, and its great  sales numbers outpacing iPhone’s in the beginning, when it was widely believed that everyone will have one besides their smrtphones. Now it is obvious that iPad itself is a niche. There are many combinations that satisfy the personal computing equation: smartphone only, phablet only, phablet + PC, smartphone + tablet, tiny smartphone + tablet + desktop,… So, the new iPad is addition to this set of options that makes some additional combinations possible. But so is MS Surface, and many other incarnations of laptop PCs. Tablet is, and will always be a hybrid between smartphone and work station full of compromises and never quite there.

Then, Apple Pencil, hardware exclusivity of iPad Pro, unlocks some new possibilities, at least for some groups of people, or some group of professionals. However, the guys who draw comics (IMO, the most involved with this kind of technologies) will find little use of this new iPad. Maybe for some laisure sketching, idea scribbles, but for the actuall work they will use some Wacom’s professional tools with huge drawing area (I guess at least 22 inches). For others, it will be even less desirable item. You know, not everyone can draw, and certainly not everyone finds it comfortable or productive even among those who know how to draw.

The point of any technology is reducing the friction for user, and for drawing as a mean of communicating complex ideas this friction is complex, too. What Apple did with the pencil, and what I had no doubt that they will do correctly is reducing of one aspect of that friction – the input. They increased the sensitivity of the screen, eliminated the lag and that’s about it. Something else makes the big iPad more like a toy then a pro tool – its size. While for most of the people A4 paper size is the only familiar size for hand input, this is not the case of most of the professionals (maybe some portrait street artists actually find it usefull, though). Its size restrains you from making free, wide strokes from your shoulder. Also, doesn’t let you get a detailed drawing, but glanceable from one look. Yes, it makes you zoom and pan. That is why I, as an architect, consider any screen smaller then 22 inches as a punishment. Its even worse for collaboration. I’ve seen a tone of futuristic comercials depicting a pair of smiling collegues discussing some complex wireframe models on a small tablet (airplanes, buildings, and what not). That’s just hilarious. You can show your pictures from a cruise trip that way, show some finalized proposal to the client, but the building and airplane blueprints are discussed end edited on a much larger formats not without a reason. This kind of things goes against Apple’s most important contribution to the world of design and technology – a meaningfull innovation.

The tablet and the pencil are not useless, don’t get me wrong, but the “Pro” in the tablet’s name is quite exegerated. Its doesn’t come even close to what it means in Mac Book Pro or Mac Pro. I do see some professionals using it the future for some tasks, occasionally, and taking the price tag into consideration makes little sense of buying it. Probably the best application it can find will be in schools.

And this all comes from a Note user. Yes, the screen of my Note is even smaller for any meaningfull drawing so I rarely do it, although I can’t complain about the stylus sensitivity. I’m an architect, PHD student, so you can imagine, I would make a lot of sketches or notes or diagrams about my research, my ideas, my design, and communicate them with my collegues and professors, but I find that very easy to do with paper and pencil, scanner and printer (even smartphone camera is a decent way to do it quickly). What I use stylus for are very simple tasks like making a note after taking screenshot or making a note on the photo, then sending it through some of the many IM services or e-mail. Also, when I’m instructing my sister about the math over Skype it is easier to share directly from the device cause there is a lot of quick exchanges, and a small delay in demonstration can ruin the point and kill the momentum. Mathematical symbols and shemes are easier to draw than type and there we go: there is a problem, and a stylus is a meaningfull solution to the problem. Also, I take my stylus to draw Chinese characters that I don’t know and look them up in the dictionary when I am reading printed material. I find that easier than scanning the whole text by camera (both services work flawlessly with Google Translate FYI). But, all these occasions are rare and me-specific, so if I had to buy $1100 device just to be able to do that more comfortably than I can do now, then I would almost certainly give up on the idea. The stylus in the Note is Wacom’s and it comes with the thing for free. Its a zero hasle to carry around, and it works really nicely. It has dedicated apps from Samsung (and some lag that comes with it) and third party developers. Apple didn’t do much about it and it relies on developers to find its use. But this niche cathegory exists for a few years now, big players are already there (Autodesk, Adobe), is there any hot water to be invented now? We’ll have to wait and see.

It will be interesting to try the Pencil and see how Apple solved the problem of glass thickness. You know, for a good feedback about your line the tip of the pencil and the actuall line has to be close. With the glass between them you lose the feeling af actually drawing. So it’s not the matter of sensitivity so much, but very fundamental physical problem. In Samsung’s case the feedback is not bad, but when you come to tiny details you start losing the precision because of the glas thickness.Then, there is the thickness of the whole device and bezels which spoils the feeling as well. Apple showed the collaboration with MS on the pencil application (historical moment which more clearly then anything shows what MicroSoft’s core business is now). But, here Apple and MS are jointly fixing thing that is not broken. If you want to mark something in a document you can do that by tapping, changing collor of the cell, highlighting, inserting comments and what not. Anyone who ever made Power Point presentation knows that it is not as streightforward process as shown in Microsoft’s demonstration. The tinyest problem is that arrow shape. You still have to adjust the style of the arrow and its shape/size. And then do it all over few times until you are happy with the total layout of the slide.

Adobe’s demonstartion had much more sense, but just take into account that they had that design prepared in advance. You try it and you and up in hours of doing your own design. Think about your spine for a little. Yeah, that’s why most of the people do that in an ergonomic chair. Then think about your eyes for a second. Yeah, big desktop display has much more sense now, that’s right. They said some things they did there on the stage can be done only on iPad for now. But there is no reason why it couldn’t be done on any other platform or form factor. It’s like a famous trick to sell a pencil. If one doesn’t need the damn pencil give him to sign something and he will need it immediately. Same can be said for the really cool anathomy app. It shows the muscles (ha, you saw what I did there) of the hardware but that is not to stay iPad Pro exclusive in the future. The question is: can you live without it before it becomes widely available? It’s rethorical, don’t bother with thinking about that.

And one last thing about the iPad and Apple Pencil: the rechargable battery. This is potentially a serous deal breaker for some people and unbelievable piece of bad design by Apple. The way it is supposed to recharge is beyond my understanding and so not-Apple. I mean, you stick the pen in the port and leave it protruding like that hoping that you will not break it accidently!? Let me just make a quick photomontage of how that looks (picture bellow).

Apple iPad Pro + Apple Pencil

Apple Pencil charging! Seriously?! Jony?!

In their defence, it seems that it will be rechearging really quickly (15 sec of charging = 30 mins of battery life) and last 12 hours on a full charge.

To conclude this part, yes, the new iPad is a cool piece of tech which will make life a little better for a very few people. Its not meant to drive business growth, but to shut the mouths of customers and investors constantly crying for new products and forced innovation, and to be present from the beginning in the convergence game which will hopefully start in a few years.

Next, the iPhones. There is always a hype when Apple is about to introduce some new type of UI, rightfully. However, the hype about 3D Touch is exegerated, but not so much by Apple this time. It’s a good technology, it’s impresive how it is baked in such a small device (as it relies on mechanical deformations, not electronic signals only), but one shoul ask what does it really solve? Where was the problem? What can it do that long press could not on its own? Give you more options? Give you better haptic feedback? Oh, wait… Gimick, I tell you. Like most of the Samsungs S features – they are cool to have, but not all that helpful. And it makes further hardware fragmentation. The way you interact with your phone will be different from the way you interact with your iPad and in this case this is not justifiable by the different form factor. Touch is touch.

Performance boost (both CPU and GPU) is impresive, hats down. Not that this is so much important anymore as even cheap smartphones now can have deacent fluidity, but the performance boost of almost double is always welcome. Battery is little smaller, and given the long charging time for iPhones it is actually a good thing. Now, there is that new alloy, 7000 series aluminum, a rocket class material, presented as an improvement. And it is cool, but it only solves the last year’s infamous bendgate problem (actually, strengthens the phone quite a lot more than just fixing the bendgate issue). Anyway, it is nice that they didn’t just ignore the (relatively) small issue.

Camera was already among the best, if not the best, and now it got even sharper, there is 4K video, and it should remain on throne for another year. The Camera is probably the most widely important selling point on a smartphone, and Apple knows how to make its users happy. Fast, reliable, consistent. If there is anything to envy an iPhone users it’s the camera, honestly. Now even better, way to go Apple. But the GIF image thing… meh, another gimmick to use a few times and forget. Looks nice and easy when they do it, though, just like those super shredder devices presented on TV shop demonstrations. But it can’t hurt to have it.

So, the iPhones are OK. Better then ever (of course they are, Apple) they will sell like popcorns. But for me, probably the biggest announcement regarding iPhones is the additional pricing plan, that lets you upgrade every year (and T-Mobile is quick to follow>>>>LINK). This can help transform carriers around the world. Three birds are killed with this move: 1) carrier’s grip which makes user less comfortable to upgrade is loosened, 2) space for income growth in saturating smartphone market  in the comming years is secured, and 3) better user satisfaction and less fragmentation (yes, Apple suffers hardware fragmentation rather than software one). After all, iPhone is their main business, like advertizing is Google’s. Both companies are looking for some additional opportunity for rapid growth throwing their spaghetti to the wall waiting to see what sticks.

Long anticipated Apple TV is finally here. It is obvious what Apple wants with it. They want to be a middle man in contents market: movies, shows and games mostly, but they also suggested that you could be shopping your clothes from sofa. How they want to do it? Through the apps. This means that nothing really keeps you with Apple and that’s a good news. Any developer can make the same app for any other TV set or platform. So there is no deep HW/SW integration that makes Apple’s platform exclusive. But the contents is already there, and the app stores. You can connect your phone or PC, purchase the content and consume it on TV. So, again Apple didn’t really revolutionize the TV as Tim Cook suggested, they entered the game in their style – massive scale that brings competitive pricing and setting the trends.

In terms of new OS, there’s no real magic except for Apple’s buttery smooth performance. But it is good that Apple keeps this approach. It is recognized that every form factor has its own UI specifics which will slowly melt into one responsive OS when the time comes. But TV could be already controled over iPhone, iPad, even watch. I guess one can have an app for that.

And lastly (but in Apple’s presentation it was covered first), there are the Apple watch news. More designs, more straps, third party apps, and yeah… this is all ultimately boring. Some cool medical apps are there but the platform is still looking for its position under the sun and in our lifes, just as other smartwatch platforms do. I think Apple will establish its watch division as one of the watch manufacturers with distinctive design and identity (thinking about Movado right now), and create a nice and steady stream of income. This is the power of Apple brand which other smartwatch manufacturers don’t have, but I feel that Apple has not been using the whole potential of this flattering position. Smartphone functionallity will stay for some time in the background as something that your phone can do as well or even better. Also, even the traditional watch designers could follow the smarwatch wave by adding the sensors which can communicate with your phone. The watch surface is just to small, and the battery is just too bad in that form factor at this moment and it seems it will stay like that for quite some time.

Bottom line, this wasn’t a bad or small update at all, but it wasn’t “monstrous” as Tim Cook suggested. Fine tuning, facelifting, and lot of gimmicks. But they were working hard all year long, you can’t take them that away.


*1) One of the common myths about Apple is that it is for the rich, and that Android is a budget deal. This is so wrong when we talk about the flagship  Android phones. Due to the carrier subsidies you end up paying more for your Samsung Galaxy S or Note line, HTC One, LG G4, Sony Experia Z4,… while carriers do everything to destroy your UX by adding bloatware, optional deals and generally – a lot of hassle. I am talking mostly about Japan, but its not much different in my home country Serbia. So, as for iPhone owners, it goes like this. If your economic power come over certain treshold, congratulations, you are most probably iPhone user, or if you have more money you can add Android flagships into consideration. So, iPhone is for the masses, for average Joe and this is the key for looking at its design as well.

*2) I don’t know what to think about that, honestly. If there is some third party app that can make a 3D model of me and put me in those clothes, then I think I would never go again to the shopping mall.


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