Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Thoughts on Today’s Apple Event

Apple Watch: Series 2

From the outset, Apple has positioned the Watch as a multifaceted product — complex, but not complicated. At the Watch’s introduction, Tim Cook used the rule of threes to define its purpose: a health and fitness device, a timepiece, and a means of facilitating communication.

One of the byproducts of this is a device that helps out with a bunch of tasks, but is nearly impossible to explain or demo. Any time anyone asked me for a demo of its features, I meekly fumbled with a few things that I think are cool — raise to wake, Activity, and so on — but it has never been as easy to demonstrate in a pinch as, say, an iPhone or an iPad.

After the “Spring Forward” event held last, well, spring, I found the Apple Watch interesting, but not necessarily compelling in the way it was presented:

And that brings me to the big unanswered question of today: what problems, specifically, does the Watch solve? Apple has traditionally introduced products to the market that addressed specific shortcomings in existing product categories. They have refined and defined markets time and time again. The iPod solved the question of what CDs to bring with you for your Discman, and the iPhone defined the future of the phone in myriad ways, creating the perfect convergence device. They created the perfect travelling or kick-back-on-the-couch companion with the iPad.

But the Watch doesn’t have an easy story like these. There are a bunch of ways Apple suggests you use it: you can now have your calendar chime on your Mac, your iPhone, your iPad, and your Watch at approximately the same time; you can track your workouts; you can use miniaturized versions of your iPhone apps on it; you can pay for stuff with it; and you can communicate with other Apple Watch wearers in subtle ways.

While I felt Apple did not clearly define the story of the Watch at the outset, customers and owners have helped do so over the past year and a quarter that it has been on sale.

Today’s presentation focused heavily on the health and fitness aspects of the Series 2 Watches, almost to the exclusion of the other two focus areas Cook mentioned two years ago. From built-in GPS to waterproofing for swimmers, and from a ceramic back on all models for higher-quality lens covers for the heart rate monitor, to a partnership with Nike, this year’s Apple Watches are all about fitness.

You’ll even note that Apple has dropped the “Sport” branding on the models, choosing instead to differentiate the aluminum and stainless models purely by their case materials. The exceptions are the Hermès models, still called “Apple Watch Hermès”, and the new ceramic Apple Watch Edition. If you wanted to read, perhaps a little too much, into that, the implication is that the models in the standard Series 2 lineup are all appropriate for physical activity.

There’s no question in my mind that this is the right area for Apple to be focusing on with the Watch. Even in my own day-to-day use pattern, the thing I care most about is that I close my activity rings; I suspect many of my readers feel the same. Notifications, apps, answering calls on my wrist, checking the weather — these are all things that are very nice to have. But being mindful of my physical activity while working a sedentary office job is the reason I put my Apple Watch on every day instead of my analogue Boccia.

Fitness was, of course, not the only area Jeff Williams focused on today. He noted the enhancements coming to all Apple Watches with watchOS 3, and I can testify to the performance improvements: it’s night and day. I don’t know where they found all that power while keeping the battery life the same, but it’s there, and it’s remarkable. In the Series 2 models and — amazingly — in the slightly-revised Series 1 models, there is now a dual-core processor which should help performance even more.

The new Edition model, meanwhile, looks really special. It’s made of ceramic is polished to a shine. Unlike last year’s ferociously expensive gold models, this one starts under $1,300 USD. It’s not a bargain, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a hell of a lot more of these than I did of the gold models.1 In pictures, it looks terrific. I can’t wait to see it in person.

In a bit of a peculiar move, the price of the Watch has actually risen over last year by $20. However, they’ve softened the price bump by carrying forward the now-christened Series 1 model and giving it a faster processor, for $269. The $369 starting price of the Series 2 is entirely reasonable. For comparison, there are plenty of GPS sport watches going for well over $369, and they’re so ugly and cumbersome that you’ll only want to wear them while exercising. The Apple Watch remains a fashion accessory as much as it is a piece of technology.

iPhone 7

The main event, as it were. Whether you got your fill of rumours years in advance or just as the keynote was starting, you were probably aware of the gist of the iPhone 7’s headlining features: industrial design that’s similar to the 6 and 6S, water resistance, dual cameras in the Plus model, and a new polished black option.

So, where to begin? I wasn’t at the keynote — my invitation must have gotten lost in the series of tubes — so I have very few first impressions beyond what I could see in the presentation and in Apple’s marketing materials. From what I can tell, the Jet Black finish is unquestionably beautiful, but is apparently more susceptible to scratching:

The high-gloss finish of the jet black iPhone 7 is achieved through a precision nine-step anodization and polishing process. Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.

I’ve seen some remarks around the web that paint this as a repeat of the iPod Nano scratching crisis of 2005, but I’m not so sure it will be. The iPod’s face was made of plastic; the iPhone is made of aluminum and glass. I’ve no doubt that some scratches will form on Jet Black iPhones, but there’s a certain wear-and-tear patina that develops. Some people are okay with that, and they’re probably people who don’t use cases. But I would wager that the overwhelming majority of iPhone owners put a case on their phone.

At any rate, I anticipate very low Jet Black stock over the next couple of months, even though it’s limited to the 128 and 256 GB configurations. If you’re aching for that colour, I hope you’re very quick with your pre-order tomorrow night.

While I’m tangentially on the topic of capacities, I should note how happy I am about the near-demise of the 16 GB configuration. The iPod Touch and the iPhone SE are the only iOS devices currently offered with a 16 GB option; even the iPads got a bump today, something which wasn’t mentioned during the keynote. I can think of few changes that so clearly merit the word: finally.

Apple’s processor team, meanwhile, has clearly been very busy. Onstage, Phil Schiller showed a slide with a Bezos chart of the iPhone’s processor speed since launched, and it looks like a hockey stick. My iPhone 6S feels ridiculously fast, but the gulf between it and the performance of the A10 in the iPhone 7 is simply gigantic.

The camera enhancements look equally impressive. Any improvement to the quality of photos in low-light situations is always welcomed, and the new cameras apparently deliver that in spades. The dual camera situation on the Plus model looks particularly intriguing, especially with the rich depth mapping capabilities coming later this year. The Plus model is simply too big for my liking, so I’ll have to wait until these improvements come to the smaller iPhone, but they do make the case for a Plus much more compelling.

And then there’s the display, and the stereo speaker setup, and the new flash, and the vastly improved front-facing camera, the bigger battery, and the solid state home button — there’s a lot in this model, even if it looks similar to its predecessor.

But, of course, there’s only one thing that anyone is talking about today. So, let’s do this.

Headphones

We all knew it was coming. Ever since the rumour broke in November of last year that the iPhones 6S would be the last with the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, we knew that this would be the dominating controversy of the iPhone 7. And, like clockwork, when Schiller announced that the rumour was, indeed, true, the web erupted once again.

I can see why. The headphone jack has, as was acknowledged during the keynote, been with us for over a hundred years. That’s more than enough time for it to become entrenched — its inclusion in consumer electronics has, for a long time, been an expectation.

So why hasn’t it changed? Well, it has a lot going for it: it’s small, its cylindrical shape makes it nearly perfect from a usability perspective, and it requires no licensing or royalty fees to be paid. It has long been the right solution to connect speakers of any size to just about any device.

But the headphone jack has its flaws, too. Headphone cabling tends to be thin, which means the connectors must be robust. Headphone cables get tangled, which is a source of frustration for pretty much everyone. The port itself is extremely limited, requiring the use of a hacky method to provide remote controls.

But is that enough to replace it in a flagship product? I’m not sure, but Apple2 is trying to find out.

Apple has three solutions that they think span the gamut of iPhone 7 users: Lightning EarPods, wireless AirPods, and a Lightning-to-3.5mm adaptor.

Lightning EarPods are exactly what they sound like: the EarPods used by hundreds of millions of people every day with a Lightning connector on the end instead of a 3.5mm plug. They’re offered at the same $29 in the U.S. and, like the old EarPods, are included with every iPhone 7. I know a lot of people who use EarPods. For them, nothing changes on their iOS devices, but there appears to be no solution for those who want to connect the same headphones to their Mac. And I know a few people who do that every single day.

For iPhone owners who don’t use the included EarPods, Apple is also including a Lightning-to-3.5mm adaptor. If you prefer a particular kind of headphones that are only available with a 3.5mm connector, or if you regularly switch your headphones between your iPhone and a computer, you’ll probably get a lot of use out of this adaptor.

But Apple tends to be very deliberate when they make these kinds of choices. In fact, during the keynote, Schiller laid out the justification for removing the headphone jack:3

We have a vision for how audio should work on mobile devices. […] It makes no sense to tether ourselves with cables to our mobile devices, but until someone takes on these challenges, that’s what we do.

After a bit more preamble, Schiller cut to a video introducing the new AirPods, with Jony Ive’s soothing voiceover:

We believe in a wireless future.

This wireless future is, clearly, not quite there yet. Including with every new iPhone two means of connecting “tethering” ourselves to them, while making the wireless option a $160 extra, makes it feel like it’s still very early days. That’s how Ive positions it later in the video, too:

We’re just at the beginning of a truly wireless future we’ve been working towards for many years, where technology enables the seamless and automatic connection between you and your devices.

That’s a compelling argument. AirPods are, clearly, very advanced. There’s a ridiculously great pairing process that uses the flip top of the charging case to signal a connection, and they will apparently transition between different devices in a seamless fashion. Apple is also promising a reliable listening experience, completely unlike existing Bluetooth headphones. And I think it’s absolutely right that Apple goes wireless with their headphones in such a manner.

But there are things from this announcement that aren’t yet sitting right with me, and it comes down to the proprietary nature of the proposed solutions. To use a Lightning connector with a MFi certification, manufacturers must pay a royalty rate of $2 per product, according to two contracts I reviewed. If the product includes only one Lightning connector, this royalty is baked into the cost of purchasing that connector. The MFi program also regulates what kind of digital-to-analogue converter must be used, some packaging specifications, and other product attributes. This may absolutely be a good thing, and I believe it might very well be. But that also means that Apple’s review board now controls which wired headphones may take advantage of the Lightning port, and there are certain additional fixed costs for manufacturers to consider. This is absolutely their prerogative, of course: it’s their proprietary connector. But it’s one more layer of control that will necessarily limit the market of available wired headphones for the iPhone 7.4

The wireless option is a bit of a mixed bag, too. Bluetooth headphones are, generally-speaking, unreliable, frustrating, battery-sucking half-steps towards a wireless experience. If you want Apple’s far better experience, you’ll need headphones that use their new W1 chip. It’s based on Bluetooth, but “[covered] in a lot of secret sauce”. Three new sets of Beats headphones include it, as do the new AirPods, but it’s currently unclear whether it’s going to be made available to third-party manufacturers as well. That’s important to me because I dislike all three Beats options, and if the AirPods are of a similar size and shape to the existing EarPods — and I believe that is the case — they simply don’t fit into my ears.

Please don’t misread this as a condemnation of Apple’s decision today. I don’t think it was a mistake to prefer a wireless option, nor do I necessarily think it was a mistake for the headphone jack to be removed. I would love to try a pair of AirPods — it sounds like a truly brilliant product. But there are compounding factors, many of which have only been confirmed today, that make the transition harder for me.

But there’s one thing that seems pretty clear to me: making this transition this year paves the way for a much smoother rollout of next year’s massive iPhone redesign. There will be plenty of options of Lightning headphones and, perhaps, some more wireless models that include the W1, depending on its MFi status. And the total refresh of the iPhone next year won’t be overshadowed by the controversy over its lack of a headphone jack.


  1. Precisely two, in case you’re wondering. ↩︎

  2. Motorola, too↩︎

  3. Schiller also framed it as “courageous” to drop the headphone jack. I get what he meant by that, but I think “bold” or “audacious” would have been better words to use. “Courage” is the word we typically use for people battling cancer, or activists standing up to injustice. ↩︎

  4. The included Lightning-to-3.5mm assuages these concerns, but do you expect Apple continuing to include — or even offer — that connector in a few years? I don’t. ↩︎