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The Fantastic Apple Car

hardware By February 15, 2015 Tags: , , 82 Comments


by Jean-Louis Gassée

Forget the iWatch, Apple Pay, and the iPhone 7…the next big thing from Cupertino will be the Apple Car.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the Apple Car rumors. I saw them as the another wave of clickbait along the lines of the wiped-out Apple Television Set canards.

I even thought of writing a little parody piece:

WinCar, Microsoft Disrupts The Auto Industry.

After penetrating offices and homes, Microsoft will now hitch a ride in the third most important location (and time slice) in peoples’ lives: The Car.

As part of Satya Nadella’s Mobile First – Cloud First vision, the Azure-enabled WinCar is the ultimate personal mobility and connectivity device. Quoting Nadella’s July 10th message to the troops:
“We will think of every user as a potential ‘dual user’ – people who will use technology for their work or school and also deeply use it in their personal digital life.
Microsoft will push into all corners of the globe to empower every individual as a dual user – starting with the soon to be 3 billion people with Internet-connected devices. And we will do so with a platform mindset. Developers and partners will thrive by creatively extending Microsoft experiences for every individual and business on the planet.”

Microsoft’s connections to the auto industry are old and obvious: Steve Ballmer’s father was a manager at Ford; Microsoft wrote successive generations of Sync, Ford’s dashboard infotainment system; Dr. Helmut Panke, an illustrious auto industry figure and former Chairman of BMW’s Board of Management, sits on Microsoft’s Board of Directors. Bill Gates drives a Ford Focus. Ballmer? He’s a Ford Fusion man...

As I saw the growing stream of Apple Car tweets and blog posts, two minutes of research took me to what seems to be the source of the reverberating fracas, a single Wall Street Journal story titled Apple Gears Up to Challenge Tesla in Electric Cars; iPhone Maker Has 100s Working on Design of a Minivan Like Vehicle. The article tells us that the project, code named “Titan”, is being shepherded by Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer who “helped lead the Apple teams that created the iPod and iPhone” — two products that have many, many fathers.

Most of the echoes of the rumor emanate from that one story. The Financial Times’ Apple hiring automotive experts to work in secret research lab isn’t much more than a rewrite. The always “reliable” Business Insider tells us that Tesla and Apple are poaching each other’s engineers and throws in a quote from an unnamed Apple employee: “We’re working on something that will give Tesla a run for its money”. A Mac Observer post tells us that they have it on good authority from someone who “travels in more rarefied circles” that “a lot of people at the top in Silicon Valley consider it a given that Apple is working on a car”.

The posts and reposts are quick to find “evidence” that back up the rumors. Apple’s Sr. VP Eddy Cue, who sits on Ferrari’s Board (a fact that’s omitted from Cue’s official bio), has long been a conduit between choice automobiles and highly paid company engineers and executives. Apple recently hired Johann Jungwirth, former president and chief executive of Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America. Recent sitings of Apple’s mysterious unmarked vans fitted with a dozen cameras proves they’re building an autonomous vehicle.

The picture wouldn’t be complete without a juicy link to complaints about American cars by “design god” Jony Ive and no less divine watch designer Marc Newson, who says that American car design is on the “shit we hate” list.

(Let’s give ourselves a moment of contemplation, here. These two august industrial artists come from Britain, whose auto industry is now either German or Indian. Bentley, Sir Jony’s choice, is owned by Volkswagen; Rolls Royce is a subsidiary of über Bavarian BMW; Jag-ü-ar and Land Rover are in the competent hands of the Tata conglomerate.)

Just as in the little Microsoft parody above, the signs are unmistakable, Apple is definitely making a car.

Let’s count the ways….

The company has the money. With $178B in the bank, it could easily afford to build a car factory. The cost of doing so, a couple billion, is certainly less than the price of a microprocessor fabrication unit where costs approach $10B. And the company is no stranger to large industrial bets. As Horace Dediu notes, Apple spent close to $4B in Machinery and Equipment in the quarter preceding the launch of the latest iPhone; for the latest quarter, spending of more than $3.2B is 60% higher than a year before. As Horace tells us, large increases in Machinery and Equipment spending presage big product launches – which is a little besides today’s topic:

Short of building everything from the ground up, perhaps Apple is going to buy their way in. Why not acquire Tesla and enjoy a running start? Tesla’s market cap of $26B makes it an affordable acquisition. The current Model S is, in several ways, the first Silicon Valley car, built nearby in Fremont, with a modern touch-based UI, autopilot features, and regular over-the-air software updates.

An Apple car would almost certainly be out of many drivers’ budgets, but let’s recall that Apple has a history of disrupting from the top. They took over the MP3 player market and the smartphone industry by providing a more expensive product and carefully building an ecosystem of software, content, services, and retail operations that deliver user experiences that, in turn, generate higher margins. And as car technology matures, Moore’s Law will help drive down prices.

But now let’s look at the reality.

Yes, Apple has plenty of money, but the century-old auto industry doesn’t seem like a good way to make more of it. Ford, the healthiest US car company, made $835M in net income last quarter, less than 4% of their $34B in sales. Compare that number to Apple’s record-breaking $18B profit. Tesla, Apple’s supposed rival in the fantasy blogs, pulled in a little less than $1B last quarter, and it lost about 10% of that. There isn’t an inkling of an explanation for why and how a superior product designed and built by Apple would bring superior returns.

Furthermore, there is no Moore’s Law for cars. In a Tesla Model S, the computers are a small part of the bill of materials. Batteries, which contribute the most to the price, don’t double in power or halve in cost every 18 months.

A simple chart by Benedict Evans sheds light on the opportunities before us:


The sort of money that apple has come to expect just isn’t in cars.

An autonomous car is good PR and to some it may seem like an inevitability, but as Lee Gomes, a former tech writer for the Wall Street Journal, explains in this Slate piece: The autonomous Google car may never actually happen. This isn’t because Google engineers are incompetent, but because actual, in-the-wild autonomous driving is fraught with countless intractable exceptions. What happens in heavy rain or snow, or when the software behind the camera has trouble recognizing objects that are blown onto the road?What happens when your car approaches a a last minute detour around new construction site?

Apple’s life today is relatively simple. It sells small devices that are easily transported back to the point of sale for service if needed. No brake lines to flush, no heavy and expensive batteries and cooling systems, no overseeing the installation and maintenance of home and public chargers. And consider the trouble Tesla faces with entrenched auto dealers who oppose Tesla selling cars directly in some states. Apple doesn’t need these headaches.

There is a simpler and regrettably less grand explanation for the rumors.

Johann Jungwirth, the Mercedes Benz R&D exec that Apple hired last September, worked on infotainment systems, which makes him a natural for Apple’s work on CarPlay. The mystery vans are most likely part of the company’s Maps product.

Apple has made a commitment to better in-car systems, not in and for themselves in isolation, but as a reinforcement of the iOS ecosystem. If the large number of engineers that they’ve “poached” from Tesla seems a bit much, consider again the enormous size of iPhone (and iPad) revenue for this past quarter: $60B – compared to GM’s $40B for the same period. To Apple, anything that helps the iOS ecosystem is well worth what looks like oversized investments to outsiders.

Cars have always excited humans, they are a way to extend the reach of our bodies. As Roland Barthes once said about the Citroën DS 19 [emphasis mine]:

“I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”

An Apple car feels good: design, quality, service, trust. A winner. I’ll buy two. It’ll work because it’d be really great if it did… but a small matter of implementation – actually the larger Moore’s Law intrudes.

The fantastic Apple Car is a fantasy.


How Many Laws Did Apple Break?

business models, hardware By February 8, 2015 Tags: 76 Comments


by Jean-Louis Gassée

Apple’s most recent quarterly numbers broke all sorts of records and, as we shall see, a number of laws.

Apple just released its numbers for the quarter ending last December, the first quarter of its 2015 Fiscal Year. The figures are astonishing:

iPhones:  Apple sold 74.5M, + 57% over last year’s same quarter. iPhone revenue was $51.2B, + 57%. That’s enough iPhones for 1% of the world population, 9.4 iPhones for every second of the past quarter. I hope to see some day a documentary movie on the supply chain heroics leading (parts manufacturing, assembly, transportation logistics) required to achieve such numbers. But I’m not holding my breath.

Overall company revenue grew 30% to $74.6B, with the iPhone representing a never-before 69% of total sales. This why some now call Apple the iPhone Company.

Profit (a.k.a. Net Income): $18B. This appears to be the highest quarterly profit ever achieved by a company:

Apple Largest Quarterly Profit Ever Edited

Record quarterly profits is becoming commonplace for Apple. The company has broken into the top ten list five times since Q1 FY 2012.

(The Wikipedia article on record profits and losses has Fannie Mae’s $84B in 2013 in the #1 spot, but Fannie’s categorization as a Government-Sponsored Enterprise puts it in a different race – not to mention the $77.8B and  $64.2B losses in Q4 2009 and Q4 2008 respectively.)

Cash: After generating $33B from operations, the company now holds $178B in cash and cash equivalents. To get a sense of the magnitude of this amount, $178B represents $550 for every US citizen, or $25 per human on Earth. The World Bank has more data here on income levels and other such numbers, and the Financial Times has a helpful blog entry, If Apple were a country…, that compares Apple’s “economy” to those of various nations.

If you’re hungry for more Apple numbers, I suggest you feast your eyes on Apple’s 10-Q (its quarterly SEC filing), especially the meaty MD&A (Management Discussion & Analysis) section starting on page 24. Management also discusses the quarterly numbers in its customary conference call; the transcript is here.

But not everyone thinks highly of Apple’s doings.

We have academics spewing sonorous nonsense under the color of authority, such as Juan Pablo Vazquez Sampere’s We Shouldn’t Be Dazzled by Apple’s Earnings Report, published in the Harvard Business Review. Sampere, a Business School professor, finds Apple’s display of quarterly numbers unseemly:

Announcing boatloads of money, as if that were point, makes us think Apple no longer has the vision to keep on revolutionizing.

John Gruber offers a reasoned retort to the professor, but it probably won’t sway the likes of Joe Wilcox, a Sampere defender who writes: Atop the pinnacle of success, Apple stands at the precipice of failure.

Or consider Peter Cohan, an habitual Tim Cook critic, who recently told us there are “6 Reasons Apple Is Still More Doomed Than You Think”.

Apple… always one foot in the grave. But in whose grave?

This last quarter hasn’t been kind to the Apple doomsayers. A bundle of their lazy, ill-informed or poorly reasoned — and often angry — predictions are offered here for your compassionate amusement. Or we can turn to the ever reliable Henry The iPhone Is Dead In The Water Blodget for morsels such as this one, from November 2013: Come On, Apple Fans, It’s Time To Admit That The Company Is Blowing It. One of Henry’s points was Apple prices were too high. It’s getting worse: Last quarter, the average price per iPhone rose to $687.

We now turn to law-breaking.

Law 1: Larger size makes growth increasingly difficult.
This is the Law of Large Numbers, not the proper one about probabilities, but a coarser one that predicts the eventual flattening of extraordinary growth. If your business weighs $10M, growing by 50% means bringing in another $5M. If your company weighs $150B, 50% growth the following year would require adding $75B – there might not be enough customers or supplies to support such increase. Actual numbers seem to confirm the Law: Google’s FY 2014 revenue was $66B, +19% year-on-year; Microsoft’s was $87B, +11.5%; Apple’s $183B in revenue for 2014 was a mere +7%.

And yet, last quarter, Apple revenue grew 30%, breaking the Law and any precedent. iPhone revenue, which grew 57%, exceeded $51B in one quarter — close to what Google achieved in its entire Fiscal 2014 year.

Right now, Apple is “guiding” to a next quarter growth rate that exceeds 20%. For the entire 2015 Fiscal Year, this would mean “finding” an additional $37B to $40B in sales, more than half a Google, and a little less than half a Microsoft.

Law 2: Everything becomes a commodity.
Inexorably, products are standardized and, as a result, margins suffer as competitors frantically cut prices in a race to the bottom.

Exhibit 1: The PC clone market. As mentioned, the iPhone ASP (Average Selling Price) moved up, from $637 in Q1 FY 2014 to $687 last quarter. Moving the ASP up by $50 in such a competitive market is, to say the least, counterintuitive. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, a rising ASP means customers are freely deciding to give more money to Apple.

We’re told that this is just a form of Stockholm Syndrome, the powerless customer held prisoner inside Apple’s Walled Garden. Not so, says Tim Cook in a Wall Street Journal interview:

“…fewer than 15% of older iPhone owners upgraded to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus…the majority of switchers to iPhone came from smartphones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

This correlates with Apple’s 70% revenue growth in Greater China, a part of the world where, in theory, cheap clones rule.

Law 3: Market share always wins.
Why this one still has disciples is puzzling, but here we go. With the bigger market share come economies of scale and network effects. Eventually, the dominant platform becomes a gravity well that sucks application developers and other symbionts away from the minority players who are condemned to irrelevance and starvation. Thus, just as the Mac lost to Windows, iOS will lose to Android.

Well… As Horace Dediu tweets it, Apple’s loss to Windows hasn’t hurt too much:

Dediu Losing PC War

Apple has gained PC market share in all but one quarter over the past eight years — that’s 31 out of 32 quarters.

But even that impressive run isn’t as important as the sustaining number that really does matter: profit share. Despite its small unit share (around 7% worldwide, higher in the US), Apple takes home about half of all PC industry profits, thanks to its significant ASP ($1,250 vs $417 industry-wide in 2014, trending down to $379 this year). Apple’s minority unit share in the mobile sector (13% to 15%) captured 90% of mobile profits this past quarter.

Small market share hasn’t killed the Mac, and it’s not hurting the iPhone — which enjoyed a much happier start than the Mac.

Law 4: Modularity Always Wins.
This is one of Clayton Christensen’s worries about Apple’s future. In the end, modularity always defeats integration:

“The transition from proprietary architecture to open modular architecture just happens over and over again. It happened in the personal computer. Although it didn’t kill Apple’s computer business, it relegated Apple to the status of a minor player. The iPod is a proprietary integrated product, although that is becoming quite modular. You can download your music from Amazon as easily as you can from iTunes. You also see modularity organized around the Android operating system activity that is growing much faster than the iPhone. So I worry that modularity will do its work on Apple.”

This was written in May 2012. Three years later, the iPod is all but gone. The music player that once generated more revenue than the Mac and paved the way for the iPhone by giving rise to the iTunes infrastructure has become an ingredient inside its successor. With 400M units sold, Apple no longer even reports iPod sales. One could say integration won.

Christensen rightly points out that in the PC clone market, modularity allowed competitors to undercut one another by improving layer after layer, smarter graphic cards, better/faster/cheaper processing, storage, and peripheral modules. This led to the well-documented PC industry race to the bottom. But Christensen fails to note that the Mac stubbornly refused (and still refuses) to follow the Modularity Law. And, as Apple’s recent numbers show, the iPhone seems just as immune to modularity threats.

I have no trouble with the Law of Large Numbers, it only underlines Apple’s truly stupendous growth and, in the end, it always wins. No business can grow by 20%, or even 10% for ever.

But, for the other three, Market Share, Commoditization, and Modularity, how can we ignore the sea of contradicting facts? Even if we set Apple aside, there are so many “exceptions” to these rules that one wonders if these so-called Laws aren’t simply convenient wishful thinking, a kind of intellectual Muzak that fills an idea vacuum but has no substance.

As Apple continues to “break the law”, perhaps we’ll see a new body of scholarship that provides alternatives to the discredited refrains. As Rob Majteles tweeted: “Apple: where many, all?, management theories go to die?


An Ancient Love Story: Apple & Payment Systems

hardware By September 7, 2014 Tags: , , 34 Comments


This week’s product launch should break the mold of Apple’s recent Fall announcements: More products than usual and a challenge to the status quo – in payment system this time.

A larger iPhone; a line of wearables (unveiled if not yet ready-to-ship); significant iOS improvements (a true “iOS 2.0”); HomeKit and HealthKit devices, applications, and partnerships; payment systems… If only half of the rumors about Apple’s September 9th media event are true, we’re going to have a wider and deeper flood of new products than we’ve seen in Apple’s previous Fall launches.

And let’s not forget the big white cocoon that covers the two-story structure that Apple built for the occasion:

Apple White Cocoon Edited

(image source:  AppleInsider)

Apple is likely to add some drama to the event by lifting the veil at the last moment.

For today, we’ll focus on the recent flurry of leaks and rumors surrounding payment systems. We’ve heard about agreements with American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America; with retailers such as Nordstrom and Macy’s, CVS and Walgreens; and hoteliers such as Starwood… The predications may not prove accurate down to the last detail, but the outbreak is too strong not to be taken seriously. Apple is about to get into the payment system business in a serious way.

There have been rumors before. Search for “apple payment system” and you’ll get about 80 million hits on Google (11 million on Bing). Flipping through the pages, we see that the excitement started as far back as five years ago when Apple’s “Grab & Go” patent filings disclosed the company’s interest in near field communication, a wireless data transfer method that can be used for quick purchases and payments. This led to the birth of a new i-Word around 2010: the iWallet.

From its very beginning, the iPhone has looked like a logical payment device. Our phones are always with us; they’re more secure than the magnetic stripe on a credit card because they can use “payment tokens” — codes that authenticate you without identifying your credit card account; payment apps can be easily downloaded and updated.

The possibilities looked endless and, of course, led to overheated predictions: Think of all the trillions of dollars sloshing around in debit/credit cards. If Apple captured only a small fraction of the flow, they’d be filthy rich!

Others disagreed. In January 2011, PCWorld’s Tom Spring explained why Apple’s Mobile Payment System Will Fail. Among his objections, was the implicit assumption that phones are somehow easier than cards (“What’s gained…by waving an iPhone instead of swiping a bank card is not clear to me”), and that retailers won’t accept phones as payment instruments until the “Another Box at the Register” obstacle is surmounted:

“Near field communication is a technology that requires a physical box/reader on the retailer’s end. Until we know more about what incentives there are for retailers to invest in this technology I think it’s going to be hard sell for Apple to convince millions of merchants to put another box at the point of sale…”

Indeed, attempting to modify ingrained customer behavior isn’t a well-trodden path to riches, nor is asking retailers to install a new box next to their cash register. This is why many payment system innovations, Google Wallet is a recent example, have failed to amass enough gravitational pull to gain currency (pardon the pun). There just hasn’t been enough acceptance by consumers and retailers for “fast lane” payment devices to become as matter-of-fact as the incumbents.

Still… Apple has repeatedly shown great patience and willingness to challenge settled wisdom.

The company’s embrace of payment systems started in 2003 when its newly-opened iTunes Store offered two innovations: Single tracks were sold for 99 cents apiece (at the time), and we could settle the purchase with a credit card. Critics scoffed: The price is too low! The credit card companies’ fixed+percentage transaction fees will be a profit-killer!

How can Apple possibly make money with such a proposition?

This was myopia. The iTunes Store wasn’t intended to be a money maker. Its only purpose was to sell more iPods at higher margins, that’s where the money was – and still is. In retrospect, Jobs was pouring the foundations of the Apple ecosystem business model:   Hardware is the star; everything else supports the big shots’ volumes and margins.

Returning to today’s (or this coming Tuesday’s) topic, Apple doesn’t want to displace the key players — the banks and credit card companies — any more now than they did a decade ago. Credit card companies, for example, play a hard-to-replace role in policing transactions. It’s not always pretty or convenient when one has to call a US number from Europe because the system “tripped” over an unusual transaction, but it works.

One can’t imagine Apple even thinking of storing and lending money, of trying to “capture a fraction of the flow”. If the company does introduce a near field payment system, it won’t be as an attempt to make money in itself, it will simply be another extension of the Apple ecosystem, another way to make iDevices more attractive.

Beyond this neat playbook theory lurks the matter of modifying consumer behavior and retail infrastructure; Tom Spring’s objections are just as cogent today as they were in 2009. And perhaps Apple’s answer — its rebuttal to the conventional reluctance — is hiding in the still-cocooned show-and-tell building.

PS: On today’s topic, see Horace Dediu’s views on the value of payment systems as bit pipes.

PPS: Unrelated but hard to resist: People from the fashion industry now working at Apple. And their friends, fashion editors, unusual invitees to a Cupertino product launch.


Macintel: The End Is Nigh

hardware By August 3, 2014 Tags: , , , 178 Comments

When Apple announced its 64-bit A7 processor, I dismissed the speculation that this could lead to a switch away from Intel chips for the Macintosh line for a homegrown “desktop-class” chip. I might have been wrong.

“I don’t know exactly when, but sooner or later, Macs will run on Apple-designed ARM chips.” Thus spake Matt Richman in a 2011 blog post titled “Apple and ARM, Sitting in a Tree”. Richman explained why, after a complicated but ultimately successful switch from PowerPC chips to Intel processors in 2005, Apple will make a similar switch, this time to ARM-based descendants of the A4 chip designed by Apple and manufactured by Samsung.

Cost is the first reason invoked for the move to an An processor:

“Intel charges $378 for the i7 chip in the new high-end 15 inch MacBook Pro. They don’t say how much they charge for the i7 chip in the low-end 15 inch MacBook Pro, but it’s probably around $300. …When Apple puts ARM-based SoC’s in Macs, their costs will go down dramatically. ”

We all know why Intel has been able to command such high prices. Given two microprocessors with the same manufacturing cost, power dissipation, and computing power, but where one runs Windows and the other doesn’t, which chip will achieve the higher market price in the PC market? Thus, Intel runs the table, it tells clone makers which new x86 chips they’ll receive, when they’ll receive them, and, most important, how much they’ll cost. Intel’s margins depend on it.

ARM-based processors, on the other hand, are inherently simpler and therefore cost less to make. Prices are driven even lower because of the fierce competition in the world of mobile devices, where the Wintel monopoly doesn’t apply.


Cost is the foremost consideration, but power dissipation runs a close second. The aging x86 architecture is beset by layers of architectural silt accreted from a succession of additions to the instruction set. Emerging media formats demand new extensions, while obsolete constructs must be maintained for the sake of Microsoft’s backward compatibility religion. (I’ll hasten to say this has been admirably successful for more than three decades. The x86 nickname used to designate Wintel chips originates from the 8086 processor introduced in 1978 – itself a backward-compatible extension of the 8088…)
Because of this excess baggage, an x86 chip needs more transistors than its ARM-based equivalent, and thus it consumes more power and must dissipate more heat.

Last but not least, Richman quotes Steve Jobs:

“I’ve always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do.”

Apple’s leader has often been criticized for being too independent and controlling, for ignoring hard-earned industry wisdom. Recall how Apple’s decision to design its own processors was met with howls of protest, accusations of arrogance, and the usual predictions of doom.

Since then, the interest for another Grand Processor Switch has been alive and well. Googling “Mac running on ARM” gets you close to 10M results. (When you Bing the same query, you get 220M hits — 22x Google’s results. SEO experts are welcome to comment.)

Back to the future…

In September 2013, almost a year ago already, Apple introduced the 64-bit A7 processor that powers new iPhones and iPads. The usual suspects pooh-poohed Apple’s new homegrown CPU, and I indulged in a little fun skewering the microprocessor truthers: 64 bits. It’s Nothing. You Don’t Need It. And We’ll Have It In 6 Months. Towards the end of the article, unfortunately, I dismissed the speculation that Apple An processors would someday power the Mac. I cited iMacs and Mac Pros — the high end of the product line —as examples of what descendants of the A7 couldn’t power.

A friend set me straight.

In the first place, Apple’s drive to own “all layers of the stack” continues unabated years after Steve’s passing. As a recent example, Apple created its own Swift programming language that complements its Xcode IDE and Clang/LLVM compiler infrastructure. (For kremlinology’s sake I’ll point out that there is an official Apple Swift blog, a first in Apple 2.0 history if you exclude the Hot News section of the of site. Imagine what would happen if there was an App Store blog… But I digress.)

Secondly, the Mac line is suspended, literally, by the late delivery of Intel’s Broadwell x86 processors. (The delay stems from an ambitious move to a bleeding edge fabrication technology that shrinks the basic building block of a chip to 14 nanometers, down from 22 nanometers in today’s Haswell chips.) Of course, Apple and its An semiconductor vendor could encounter similar problems – but the company would have more visibility, more control of its own destiny.

Furthermore, it looks like I misspoke when I said an An chip couldn’t power a high-end Mac. True, the A7 is optimized for mobile devices: Battery-optimization, small memory footprint, smaller screen graphics than an iMac or a MacBook Pro with a Retina display. But having shown its muscle in designing a processor for the tight constraints of mobile devices, why would we think that the team that created the most advanced smartphone/tablet processor couldn’t now design a 3GHz A10 machine optimized for “desktop-class” (a term used by Apple’s Phil Schiller when introducing the A7) applications?

If we follow this line of reasoning, the advantages of ARM-based processors vs. x86 devices become even more compelling: lower cost, better power dissipation, natural integration with the rest of the machine. For years, Intel has argued that its superior semiconductor design and manufacturing technology would eventually overcome the complexity downsides of the x86 architecture. But that “eventually” is getting a bit stale. Other than a few showcase design wins that have never amounted to much in the real world, x86 devices continue to lose to ARM-derived SoC (System On a Chip) designs.

The Mac business is “only” $20B a year, while iPhones and iPad generate more than 5 times that. Still, $20B isn’t chump change (HP’s Personal Systems Group generates about $30B in revenue), and unit sales are up 18% in last June’s numbers vs. a year ago. Actually, Mac revenue ($5.5B) approaches the iPad’s flagging sales ($5.9B). Today, a 11” MacBook Air costs $899 while a 128Gb iPad Air goes for $799. What would happen to the cost, battery life, and size of an A10-powered MacBook Air? And so on for the rest of the Mac line.

By moving to ARM, Apple could continue to increase its PC market share and scoop much of the profits – it currently rakes in about half of the money made by PC makers. And it could do this while catering to its customers in the Affordable Luxury segment who like owning both an iPad and a Mac.

While this is entirely speculative, I wonder what Intel’s leadership thinks when contemplating a future where their most profitable PC maker goes native.


Postscript: The masthead on Matt Richman’s blog tells us that he’s now an intern at Intel. After reading several of his posts questioning the company’s future, I can’t help but salute Intel management’s open mind and interest in tightly reasoned external viewpoints.

And if it surprises you that Richman is a “mere” intern, be aware that he was all of 16-years-old when he wrote the Apple and ARM post. Since then, his blog has treated us to an admirable series of articles on Intel, Samsung, Blackberry, Apple, Washington nonsense – and a nice Thank You to his parents.



The Beats Music Rorschach Blot

hardware, Uncategorized By June 1, 2014 Tags: , , 24 Comments


Apple has a long track record of small, cautious, unheralded acquisitions. Has the company gone off course with hugely risky purchase of Beats Music and Electronics, loudly announced at an industry conference? 

As Benedict Evans’ felicitous tweet put it, Apple’s $3B acquisition of Beats, the headphone maker and music streaming company, is a veritable Rorschach blot:

Benedict Evans Rorschach

The usual and expected interpretations of Anything Apple – with the implied or explicit views of the company’s future – were in full display at last week’s Code Conference after the Beats acquisition was officially announced during the second day of the event. Two of the conference’s high-profile invitees, Apple’s SVP Craig Federighi and Beats’ co-founder, Dr. Dre (née André Young), quickly exited the program so all attention could be focused on the two key players: Eddy Cue, Apple’s Sr. VP of Internet Software and Services; and Jimmy Iovine, Beats’ other co-founder and freshly minted Apple employee. They were interviewed on stage by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, the conference creators (59-minute video here).

Walt and Kara had booked Cue and Iovine weeks before Tim Bradshaw scooped the Apple/Beats story on May 8th in the Financial Times (the original FT article sits behind a paywall; TechCrunch version here). Was the booking a sign of prescience? smart luck? a parting gift from Katie Cotton as she retires as head of Apple PR? (And was Swisher’s warmly worded valentine to Cotton for her 18 years of service a quid pro quo acknowledgment?)

After the official announcement and the evening fireside chat, the Rorschach analysis began. Amidst the epigrams, which were mostly facile and predictable, one stood out with its understated questioning of culture compatibility:

‘Iovine: Ahrendts or Browett?‘ 

The “Browett”, here, is John Browett, the British executive who ran Dixons and Tesco, two notoriously middle-brow retail chains. Apple hired him in April 2012 to succeed Ron Johnson as the head of Apple Retail… and showed him the door seven months later, removed for a clear case of cultural incompatibility. When Browett tried to apply his estimable cost-cutting knowledge and experience to the Italian marble Apple Store, things didn’t work out — and the critics were quick to blame those who hired him.

Nothing of the sort can be said of Dame Angela Ahrendts. Now head of Apple’s physical and on-line stores, Ahrendts was lured from Burberry, a culturally compatible and Apple-friendly affordable luxury enterprise.

Will Iovine be a Browett or an Ahrendts?

In a previous Monday Note, I expressed concern for the cultural integration challenges involved in making the Beats acquisition work. What I learned from the on-stage interview is that Jimmy Iovine and Eddy Cue have known and worked with each other for more than ten years. Iovine says he’ll be coming to Cupertino ‘about once a month’, so my initial skepticism may have been overstated; Apple isn’t acquiring a company of strangers.

But are they acquiring a company that creates quality products?  While many see Beats Music’s content curation as an important differentiator in the streaming business, one that would give a new life to its flagging music sales, others are not so sure. They find Beats Music’s musical choices uninspiring. I’m afraid I have to agree. I downloaded the Beats Music app, defined a profile, and listened for several hours while walking around Palo Alto or sitting at my computer. Perhaps it’s me, my age, or my degenerate tastes but none of the playlists that Beats crafted for me delivered neither the frisson of discovery nor the pleasure of listening to an old favorite long forgotten. And my iPhone became quite hot after using the app for only an hour or so.

Regarding the headphones: They’re popular and sell quite well in spite of what The Guardian calls “lacklustre sound”. I tried Beats Electronic’s stylish Studio headphones for a while, but have since returned to the nondescript noise-canceling Bose QC 20i, a preference that was shared (exactly or approximately) by many at the conference.

There was no doubt, at the conference, that Apple understands there are problems with Beats, but there’s also a feeling that the company sees these problems as opportunities. An overheard hallway discussion about the miserable state of the iTunes application (too strongly worded to repeat here verbatim) neatly summed up the opportunity: ‘Keeping Beats as a separate group affords Cook and Cue an opening for independently developing an alternative to iTunes instead of trying to fix the unfixable.’ It’s worth noting that the Beats Music app is available on mobile devices, only, and it appears there’s no plan to create a desktop version. This underlines the diminished role of desktops, and points out the possibility of a real mobile successor to the aging iTunes application.

Continuing with the blot-reading exercise, many members of the audience found it necessary to defend the $3B price tag. Some point out that since Apple’s valuation is about 3X its revenue, Beats’ purported $1.5B hardware revenue easily “justifies” the $3B number. (Having consorted with investment bankers at various moments of my business life, as an entrepreneur, a company director, and a venture investor, I know they can be trusted to explain a wide range of valuations. Apparently, Apple is paying $500M for the streaming business and $2.5B for the hardware part.)

My own reading is that the acquisition price won’t matter: If it acquisition succeeds, the price will be easily forgotten; if it fails, Apple will have bigger worries.

Ultimately, the Apple-Beats products and services we don’t haven’t yet seen will do the talking.



Peak PC. Intel Fork.

hardware By May 25, 2014 Tags: , 27 Comments


Propelled by Moore’s Law and the Internet, PCs have enjoyed four decades of strong growth, defying many doomsday prophecies along the way. But, with microprocessor performance flattening out, the go-go years have come to an end. Intel, the emperor of PC processors, and a nobody in mobile devices needs to react.]

I’m suspicious of Peak <Anything> predictions. Some of us became aware of the notion of a resource zenith during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, with its shocking images of cars lined up at gas stations (in America!):

Gas Lines Oil Embargo

This was Peak Oil, and it spelled doom to the auto industry.

We know what happened next: Cars improved in design and performance, manufacturers became more numerous. Looking at this bit of history through my geek glasses, I see three explanations for the rebound: computers, computers, and computers. Computer Assisted Design (CAD) made it easier to design new car models as variations on a platform; Volkswagen’s MQB is a good example. Massive computer systems were used to automate the assembly line and manage the supply chain. It didn’t take long for computers to work their way into the cars themselves, from the ECU under the hood to the processors that monitor the health of the vehicle and control the entertainment and navigation systems.

Since then, we’ve had repeated predictions of Peak Oil, only to be surprised by the news that the US will soon become a net oil exporter and, as Richard Muller points out in his must-read Physics for Future Presidents, we have more than a century of coal reserves. (Unfortunately, the book, by a bona fide, middle-of-the-road physicist, can’t promise us that physics will eventually push politics aside when considering the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere…)

I’ve heard similar End of The Go-Go Days predictions about personal computers since 1968 when my love affair with these machines started at HP France (I was lucky enough to be hired to launch their first desktop machine).

I heard the cry again in 1985 when I landed in Cupertino in time for the marked slowdown in Apple ][ sales. The never-before round of layoffs at Apple prompted young MBAs, freshly imported from Playtex and Pepsi, to intone the It’s All Commodities Now dirge. I interpreted the cry (undiplomatically — I hadn’t yet learned to speak Californian) as a self-serving It’s All Marketing Now ploy. In the meantime, engineers ignored the hand-wringing, went back to work, and, once again, proved that the technology “mines” were far from exhausted.

In 1988, a Sun Microsystems executive charitably warned me: “PCs are driving towards the Grand Canyon at 100 mph!”.  A subscriber to Sun’s The Network Is The Computer gospel, the gent opined that heavy-duty computing tasks would be performed by muscular computers somewhere (anywhere) on the network. Desktop devices (he confusingly called them “servers” because they were to “serve” a windowing protocol, X11) would become commodities no more sophisticated or costly than a telephone. He had no answer for multimedia applications that require local processing of music, video, and graphics, nor could he account for current and imminent mobile devices. His view wasn’t entirely new. In 1965, Herb Grosch gave us his Law, which told us that bigger computers provide better economics; smaller machines are uneconomical.

And yet, personal computers flourished.

I have vivid memories of the joy of very early adopters, yours truly included. Personal computers are liberating in many ways.

First, they don’t belong to the institution, there’s no need for the intercession of a technopriest, I can lift my PC with my arms, my brains, and my credit card.

Second, and more deeply, the PC is a response to a frustration, to a sense of something amiss. One of mankind’s most important creations is the symbol, a sign without a pre-existing meaning: X as opposed to a drawing of a deer on a cave wall. Strung together, these symbols show formidable power. The expressive and manipulative power of symbol strings runs through the Song of Songs, Rumi’s incandescent poetry, Wall Street greed, and quantum physics.

But our central nervous system hasn’t kept up with our invention. We don’t memorize strings well, we struggle with long division, let alone extracting cubic roots in our heads.

The PC comes to the rescue, with its indefatigable ability to remember and combine symbol strings. Hence the partnership with an object that extends the reach of our minds and bodies.

Around 1994, the Internet came out of the university closet, gave the PC access to millions of servers around the world (thus fulfilling a necessary part of the Sun exec’s prophecy), and extended our grasp.

It’s been great and profitable fun.

But today, we once again hear Peak PC stories. Sales have gone flat, never to return:

PC shipments 2014-18 - PNG

This time, I’m inclined to agree.


Most evenings, my home-builder spouse and I take a walk around Palo Alto. Right now, this smallish university town is going through a building boom. Offices and three-layer retail + office + residence are going up all around University Avenue. Remodels and raze-and-build projects can be found in the more residential parts of town. No block is left unmolested.

I can’t help but marvel. None of this activity, none of Silicon Valley would exist without Moore’s Law, the promise made in 1965 that semiconductor performance would double every 18 months. And, for the better part of 40 years, it did – and rained money on the tech ecosystem, companies and people. PCs, servers, embedded electronics, giant network routers, cars…they’ve all been propelled because Moore’s Law has been upheld…until recently.

The 1977 Apple ][ had a 1MHz 8-bit processor. Today’s PCs and Mac’s reach 3.7GHz, but number that hasn’t changed in more than three years. This isn’t to say that Intel processors aren’t still improving, but the days when each new chip brought substantial increases in clock speed seem to be over.

One should never say never, but Moore’s Law is now bumping into the Laws of Physics. The energy needed to vibrate matter (electrons in our case) increases with frequency. The higher the clock frequency, the higher the power dissipation and the greater the heat that’s generated…and a PC can withstand only so much heat. Consider the cooling contraptions used by PC gamers when they push the performance envelope of their “rigs”:


To work around the physical limits, Intel and others resort to stratagems such as “multiple cores”, more processors on the same chip. But if too many computations need the result of the previous step before moving forward, it doesn’t matter how many cores you have. Markitects have an answer to that as well: “speculative branch execution”, the use of several processors to execute possible next steps. When the needed outcome appears, the “bad” branches are pruned and the process goes forward on the already-computed good branch. It makes for interesting technical papers, but it’s no substitute for a 8GHz clock speed.

If we need confirmation of the flattening out of microprocessor progress, we can turn to Intel and the delays in implementing its Broadwell chips. The move to a 14 nanometers  “geometry” — the term here denotes the size of a basic circuit building block — is proving more difficult than expected. And the design isn’t meant to yield faster processors, just less power-hungry ones (plus other goodies such as better multi-media processing).

One possible reaction to this state of affairs is to look at tablets as a new engine of growth. This is what Microsoft seems to be doing by promoting its Intel-inside Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement. But even if Microsoft tablets turn out to be every bit as good as Microsoft says they are, they aren’t immune to the flattening out of Intel processor performance. (I don’t have an opinion yet on the product — I tried to buy one but was told to wait till June 20th.)

Does this broaden the opening for ARM-based devices? Among their advantages is a cleaner architecture, one devoid of the layers of backwards compatibility silt x86 devices need. ARM derivaties need less circuitry for the same computing task and, as a result, dissipate less power. This is one of the key reasons for their dominance in the battery-powered world of mobile devices. (The other is the customization and integration flexibility provided by the ARM ecosystem.) But today’s ARM derivatives run at lower speeds (a little above 1GHz for some) than Intel chips. Running at higher speeds will challenge them to do so without hurting battery life and having to add the fan that Microsoft tablets need.

With no room to grow, PC players exit the game. Sony just did. Dell took itself private and is going through the surgery and financial bleeding a company can’t withstand in public. Hewlett-Packard, once the leading PC maker, now trails Lenovo. With no sign of turning its PC business around, HP will soon find itself in an untenable position.

Intel doesn’t have the luxury of leaving their game — they only have one. But I can’t imagine that Brian Krzanich, Intel’s new CEO, will look at Peak PC and be content with the prospect of increasingly difficult x86 iterations. There have been many discussions of Intel finally taking the plunge and becoming a “foundry” for someone else’s ARM-based SoC (System On a Chip) designs instead of owning x86 design and manufacturing decisions. Peak PC will force Intel CEO’s hand.


Misunderstanding Apple

hardware By May 18, 2014 Tags: , 36 Comments


We’ve come to expect analysts and pundits to misunderstand Apple. More puzzling is when Apple misunderstands itself.

My three-week Road Trip of a Lifetime, driving all the way from Key West, FL to Palo Alto, was interrupted by a bout of pneumonia, low blood oxygen, paroxysmal cough and, most alarming, a loss of appetite. Thankfully, all indicators are looking good and I’m back walking Palo Alto’s leafy streets.

The succession of wheel time and downtime gave me an opportunity to contemplate two recent controversies: Fred Wilson’s prediction of Apple’s imminent fall, and rumors of Apple’s purchase of Beat Electronics. These are both manifestations of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, Misunderstanding Apple.

First, Fred Wilson. At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference, the successful and articulate venture investor predicted that by 2020 Apple will no longer hold the #1 position in the tech world. They won’t even be in the top three. According to Wilson, Apple “doesn’t think about things they way they need to think about things”. Specifically, the company is “too rooted in hardware…[which] is increasingly becoming a commodity” and “Their stuff in the cloud is largely not good. I don’t think they think about data and the cloud.

I’d be surprised by Wilson’s facile, insight-free truisms, except this isn’t the first time he’s shown a blind spot when considering Apple. Wilson is famous for dumping his Apple shares at $91 in January 2009; AAPL is now at $590 or so. (He also sold Google, which closed at $528 on Friday, for a split-adjusted $160. Perhaps there’s a difference between being a venture investor, an insider who watches and influences a young company, and an outsider subjected to forces and emotions outside of one’s control.)

Calling Apple “too rooted in hardware” misunderstands the company. From its inception, Apple has been in one and only one business: personal computers (which, today, includes smartphones and tablets). Indeed, Apple’s quarterly numbers show that the sale of personal computers makes up 87% of its revenue. Everything else that Apple does, from iTunes to the Apple Store, exists to make its smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops more useful, more pleasant. And this “everything else” includes the lovingly machined hardware of the MacBook Air and iPhone 5. If the supporting cast does its job well, the main acts will sell in larger numbers and at higher prices.

Customers don’t buy Apple “hardware” in the same way a weekend carpenter buy nails at the friendly neighborhood hardware store. What Fred Wilson seems to miss is that hardware is more than an inert “thing” for Apple: It’s a conduit to an entire ecosystem, and it can yield an enormous strategic advantage. One such example is the 64-bit A7 processor that took everyone by surprise: 64 bits. It’s Nothing. You Don’t Need It. And We’ll Have It In 6 Months.

When the subject of commodization comes up, I invite people to look at the cars they see in the street. Are the likes of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes being commoditized? Do their owners only care that the wheels are black and round? Serendipitously, someone called “SubstrateUnderflow” answers the question in a comment on Wilson’s blog:

“…when I look around at all the cars out there, from the high end models to the most utilitarian models, almost no one buys the base stripped versions. Key devices that are central to people’s lives, comfort and utility have enough emotional SubstrateUndertow to sustain premium pricing.”

The 30-year old Mac business and its healthy margins (about 25% versus HP’s sub-5% for its PCs) shows that Apple has successfully avoided the commoditized race to the bottom that has plagued Wintel devices and is likely to accelerate for smartphones.

Wilson’s criticism of Apple’s “stuff in the cloud”, on the other hand, carries some sting. As a user of Apple’s products and services, I’m often disappointed with Apple’s Cloud offerings. I find iMessage’s quirks irritating, I see a lack of proper synchronization between iBooks on Macs and iDevices, and I’m still waiting for the Cloud version of iWorks to mature. But let’s turn to Horace Dediu for a crisp summary of Apple’s place in the Cloud:

“Not getting the cloud” means that in the last 12 months Apple obtained:
• 800 million iTunes users and
• an estimated 450 million iCloud users spending
•  $3 billion/yr for end-user services plus
•  $4.7 billion/yr for licensing and other income which includes
•  more than $1 billion/yr paid by Google for traffic through Apple devices and
•  $13 billion/yr in app transactions of which
•  $9 billion/yr was paid to developers and
•  $3.9 billion/yr was retained as operating budget and profit for the App Store.

In addition,
•  more than $1 billion/yr in Apple TV (aka Apple’s Kindle) and video sales and
• $2.7 billion/yr in music download sales and
• $1 billion/yr in eBooks sold

In summary, iTunes, Software and Services has been growing between 30% and 40% for four years and is on its way to $30 billion/yr in transactions and sales for 2014.

Horace is right; Fred Wilson clearly hasn’t done the numbers.


I was still on the road when I read about the rumored $3.2B acquisition of Beats Electronics, the company that began in the headphone business and then spawned a streaming music service.

I’m puzzled. If the rumors prove true, Apple may be guilty of misunderstanding itself.

The hardware side, headphones, is immaterial: The products may look good, but their audio quality is regularly panned. And the revenue, about $500M, doesn’t move the needle.

The current wisdom is that Apple is mostly interested in Beats Music, the subscription streaming service. But that business isn’t big, either; it has only attracted about 110K subscribers.

Maybe Apple is interested in Beats Music’s technology and its vision for the future of streaming and music curation. I took the time to watch Walt Mossberg’s interview of Jimmy Iovine in which the Beats co-founder gives hints about his plans. Iovine’s AI-with-a-human-touch solution for delivering “what comes next” is technically vague — and vaguely dystopian (“we’ll scrape your hard drivewe’ll know where you are tomorrow”). I’m not convinced.

We also have rumors that Iovine and Dr. Dre, Beats’ other co-founder, might become some kind of senior advisers to Apple management. Given what I’ve read about Dre’s troubles with the Law, including a battery charge that landed him in jail, and an assault on a female that was settled out of court, I’m troubled. How will this play inside and outside Apple?

I don’t see how such an acquisition would enhance Apple’s business model or reputation.

That said, I hope I’m as wrong as I was when I thought the iPod was doomed to fail against commoditized, yes, that word, MP3 players. I hadn’t seen iTunes behind the hardware, Cloud storage, the distribution and micro-payments infrastructure that would one day make the iPhone and App Phone.

I also see people whose intellect and motives I respect strongly support the rumored acquisition. Preeminent among them is Ben Thompson who, in his Stratechery blog, explores Why Apple Is Buying Beats. There, after positing personal computers might have reached their peak, Ben asks whether Apple is in fact reinventing itself as a kind of fashion house [emphasis mine]:

“Or are we witnessing a reinvention, into the sort of company that seeks to transcend computing, demoting technology to an essential ingredient of an aspirational brand that identifies its users as the truly with it? Is Apple becoming a fashion house? Think about it: you have Jony Ive as all-up head of design, the equivalent of a Tom Ford or Donatella Versace. There is the hire of Angela Ahrendts – why would she leave the CEO position of Burberry for a Senior VP role? You have an iPhone framed as an experience, not a product. And now you acquire an accessory maker differentiated almost completely by its brand, not its inherent technical quality.”

And ponders at the Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t of such cultural change:

“Still, I can imagine the very thought of Apple positioning itself as a fashionable luxury brand is somewhat nauseating for many of my readers. It’s an understandable reaction, and one I somewhat share. I worry that Apple is losing what makes Apple, Apple, especially that desire to make the power of computing accessible for normal people. But I also know that stasis means stagnation, and over the long-run, death.”

To be continued…


The iPad Is a Tease

hardware, mobile internet By April 20, 2014 Tags: 140 Comments


As Apple is about to release its latest quarterly numbers, new questions arise about the iPad’s “anemic” growth. The answer is simple – but the remedies are not.

The iPad isn’t growing anymore. What happened? 

In anticipation of Apple’s latest quarterly numbers – they’ll be announced on April 23rd – the usual prerelease estimates swirl around the Web. You can find Yahoo’s summary of analysts’ estimates here; Paul Leitao’s Posts At Eventide provides a detailed and tightly reasoned history and forecast for the March 2014 quarter.

The consensus is that for the company as a whole, there won’t be any surprises: Apple will meet the guidance stated in its January 27th earnings call. Revenue will be down, as befits the quarter following the Christmas shopping frenzy, but profit per share (EPS) will be up a bit.

Boring. With one glaring exception:

Braeburn Group iPad Edited
(Source: The Braeburn Group)

In the same quarter for 2013, the iPad’s year-on-year growth was about 55%. Some of this phenomenal growth was due to a rebound from earlier iPad mini supply constraints, but that doesn’t explain the precipitous drop from 2013 to this year.

Are the iPad’s go-go years over?

As Philip Elmer-DeWitt reports on his Apple 2.0 site, this gloomy prediction appears to be the majority opinion among analysts. Elmer-DeWitt acknowledges that there are outliers — Horace Dediu comes in at the high end with an estimate of 21.8M units (and positive growth) — but “the consensus estimate of 19.3 million, would represent a 0.7% decline”.

It’s one thing for a product to increase in unit volume sales but still grow less than the overall market — that’s simply a loss of market share. And we know how fallacious share numbers can be in the absence of an honest disclosure of sales volumes. No, assuming the estimates are right, what we have here isn’t market share dilution, it isn’t a post-Christmas lull, it’s a year-to-year decline in absolute unit numbers.


I’ll offer an opinion: The iPad is a tease. Its meteoric debut raised expectations that it can’t currently meet.

To explain, let’s go back four years.

Steve Jobs’ last creation took us by surprise, price included, and was initially panned by many in the kommentariat, from Eric Schmidt to Dan Lyons (who subsequently recanted). But normal humans joyously took to the iPad. In 1984, one of Apple’s tag line for the Mac was “Macintosh – the computer for the rest of us.” Decades later, the iPad was quickly perceived as a sort of second coming. As MacWorld put it in June 2011: Now Apple’s really “for the rest of us”.

Indeed, the iPad wasn’t targeted at a particular type — or generation — of user. David Hockney has produced exquisite iPad “paintings”. Daniel Borel, Logitech’s co-founder, told me that his two-year old grandson immediately “got” the iPad (even if it was just to play games, but…he’s two). Coming out of our breakfast meeting, I crossed paths with a couple of seniors — octogenarians, probably — who proudly told me that they were going to an iPad training session at the Palo Alto Apple Store.

The iPad rose and rose. It won legions of admirers because of its simplicity: No windows (no pun), no file system, no cursor keys (memories of the first Mac). Liberated from these old-style personal computer ways, the iPad cannibalized PC sales and came to be perceived as the exemplar Post-PC device.

But that truly blissful simplicity exacts a high price. I recall my first-day disappointment when I went home and tried to write a Monday Note on my new iPad. It’s difficult — impossible, really — to create a real-life composite document, one that combines graphics, spreadsheet data, rich text from several sources and hyperlinks. For such tasks, the Rest of Us have to go back to our PCs and Macs.

I realize there are iPad users who happily perform “productivity tasks” on their iPads. Most of them use a stand and keyboard sold in a number of guises. The number of different offerings is a testament to a real need. (We’ll note that Apple doesn’t seem eager to address this issue directly. They don’t offer an “iPad-sized” keyboard — the Bluetooth keyboard I use is fine for my iMac, but feels gargantuan when I pair it with my iPad. And Apple’s iPad Dock hasn’t been updated to work with the “Lightning” connector on the newer iPads.)

The iPad’s limitations extend beyond classic office productivity tasks. I just tried to build an itinerary for a long postponed road trip, driving all the way from Key West Florida to Palo Alto. On a Mac, you can easily “print to PDF” to produce a map for each leg of the trip. Then you use the wonderful Preview app (I salute its author and dedicated maintainer) to emend unneeded pages, drag and drop, combine and rearrange the PDF files into a single document. Don’t try this on an iPad: How would you “print-to-PDF” a map page, let alone combine such pages?

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

In his introduction of the iPad in January, 2010, Jobs himself seemed a bit tentative when positioning his latest creation. Sitting in the Le Corbusier chair, Jobs stated that his new tablet would have to “find its place between the iPhone and the Mac”.

This “in-between place” is still elusive.

Microsoft tried to find that “in-between place”, and we know how well that worked. For the Redmond company, the iPad’s limitations were an opportunity: Simply emulate the charm and intuitiveness of the market-leading tablet and cater to the needs of the “professional” user. With its touch interface and keyboard, the Surface device sounded like the solution that had eluded Microsoft’s earlier PC Tablets. In the field, customers didn’t like the dueling interfaces, nor the introduction of layers of complexity where simplicity had been promised. Surface tablets didn’t move the revenue needle and cost Microsoft a $900M write-down.

The iPad represents about 20% of Apple’s revenue; allowing iPad numbers to plummet isn’t acceptable. So far, Apple’s bet has been to keep the iPad simple, rigidly so perhaps, rather than creating a neither-nor product: No longer charmingly simple, but not powerful enough for real productivity tasks. But if the iPad wants to cannibalize more of the PC market, it will have to remove a few walls.

Specifically, the iPad is a computer, it has a file system, directories, and the like — why hide these “details” from users? Why prevent us from hunting around for the bits and bobs we need to assemble a brochure or a trip itinerary?

None of this is news to Apple execs, but they also know that success doesn’t depend on What, on a simple feature list. The next step in iPad growth will depend on How new features are integrated into the user experience. It’s a tricky game of the Best of Both Worlds…and it tripped up Microsoft.

When will we know? I have no idea. Perhaps at the WWDC this coming June.


TV Done Right: Still A Dream

hardware By March 30, 2014 Tags: , 18 Comments


As the strong reactions to even the slightest Apple TV rumor demonstrate, there’s a vigorous appetite for a simple, modern Internet TV experience. The technology is ready but carriers aren’t.

Last week started with Big Apple TV News in an authoritative-sounding Wall Street Journal article:

“Apple Inc. is in talks with Comcast Corp. about teaming up for a streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box and get special treatment on Comcast’s cables to ensure it bypasses congestion on the Web, people familiar with the matter say.”

Search for “Comcast” in a news aggregator such as Feedly (there are many other good choices), and you’ll see a wide range of reactions to the Apple-Comcast rumor. Given the heat the article generated, it’s odd that there has been zero follow-up from the main players — nothing from Apple and Comcast, no additional information in the WSJ or any other journal. When a deal of such importance is in the works, “people familiar with the matter” have a strong incentive to keep talking, to add color, to spin their side of the story. Of course, no one expects Apple to do much leaking, but the radio silence from Comcast spinmeisters is another matter entirely.

Philip Elmer-DeWitt offers the most likely explanation: The Wall Street Journal got played by someone intent on throwing a wrench into Comcast’s plan to acquireTime Warner’s cable operations. (This wouldn’t be the first time: Cellphone carriers have repeatedly used the WSJ to air their perennial Poor Me complaints about excessive smartphone subsidies.)

Echoes of the WSJ non-story ricocheted around the blogosphere. Some, such as this BBC article, make painful points about the abuse that US consumers undergo at the hands of broadband carriers:

Broadband Cost

As a sharp-witted Be engineer liked to remark: “It costs more… But it does less.”

Carriers take too much money for a user-hostile experience simply because they can. In most locations, cable companies have little or no competition, so there’s no reason for them to do anything more than milk the most profit from a cheap infrastructure. As Apple Insider’s Neil Hughes reminds us, the user experience isn’t a priority for cable providers. Indeed, as I write this from Paris, I have to juggle set-top box restarts and malfunctioning secondary content subscriptions only reluctantly allowed by the main provider.

It doesn’t have to be that way. No miracle is required to make our Cable TV experience easy and gratifying.

Consider today’s cable arrangement, simplified for our discussion. A coax cable is strung from the street into your basement or crawl space. You plug the coax into a signal splitter, connect one output to your cable modem for Internet access, while the others feed the TVs in your household.

Next, you run an Ethernet cable from your modem to your WiFi access point and maybe you also run a wire from the access point to your “most trusted” computer. Upstairs, we see a set-top box, an Internet TV streaming device (Roku, Apple TV, Boxee, or other), and, if your TV is of a certain age, a digital adaptor.

That’s four or five devices that you have to connect and, when things go wrong, disconnect, power down, and restart in the “proper” order.

It’s only too easy to imagine how a next-generation Apple TV could collapse this maze of impenetrable interfaces into one box: Coax in, Wifi and HDMI out and, miracle, one and only one remote! This is something that Apple seems to have the taste and resources to do well.

There are no technical obstacles, no new technology is required, no new software platform, just a careful integration job. I realize I’m veering dangerously close to the “mere matter of implementation” deception, but regardless of the amount of work it would take to integrate the various technologies, the benefit to the user would make the engineering effort worth it.

And there are many benefits:  We can throw away our DVRs as content becomes an app that we can stream whenever we want — the 60 Minutes iPad app is an elegant, flexible exemplar of the type. Rather than paying for a “package” of channels that are selected by the cable provider, we’ll be able to buy a la carte shows, series, and channels through iTunes or similar content vendor. We’ll be able to watch the free-with-ads version of a show, or we can pay for the ad-free edition.

Some day, the status quo will break, perhaps as the result of a patient encirclement and infrastructure buildup — a better, vertically integrated Content Delivery Network, both very much compatible with Apple’s playbook. As the reactions to the (possibly planted) Apple-Comcast rumor amply demonstrate, users are becoming increasingly aware of the disconnect between the experience that the cable companies offer and TV Done Right.