As Apple keeps its secrets close, Andy Ihnatko reveals his

SHARE As Apple keeps its secrets close, Andy Ihnatko reveals his

As a fan of “The Amazing Race,” I can’t help but compare all of the speculation about the cryptic tagline on Apple’s invitations to the way that Racers sometimes overthink clues.

“Find Ben Franklin at the Liberty Bell to receive your next clue” obviously means “Leave the Philadelphia train station where this leg of the race started, go to the Liberty Bell near Independence Hall, walk up to the most Ben Franklin-looking dude within eyeshot, and ask for the next clue. But once every 20 episodes, a sleep-deprived and stress-frazzled team will get a cab to the airport, because they remember a Liberty Square in Disney World and there was also a gift shop that sold crystal bells shaped like the genie from “Aladdin.”

This is how “Jayden and Quinn, High School Sweethearts” goes from a descriptive onscreen caption to an ironic and sublime one.

Apple’s clue for the theme of Thursday’s event was “It’s been way too long.” Folks were speculating about the choice of phrase, the shape of the curve underneath it, the range of the colors, the other times when a similar edition of the Apple logo has been seen.

“Maybe Apple has figured out that they can save four cents on the costs of every iPhone by making the USB cord 7 inches shorter,” I mused on a podcast. This statement was a much more long-winded and confusing way of saying “Hell if I know,” which is kind of my signature move.

In truth, the phrase turned out to mean only what it seemed to mean: that it’s been a while since the desktop Macs got anything but a nodding refresh. Apple announced an exciting new iMac, and made an acknowledgment that the Mac Mini still exists. They filled the rest of the time with recaps of past announcements and by turning their Santa Claus sack inside out and giving it a shake to see what else was left to announce after last month’s blockbuster Apple Watch, Apple Pay, and iPhone 6/Plus news.

It was a mixed bag, to be sure, but not without excitement.

It also wasn’t without dull stretches, during which I was able to get some work done here in the office while keeping an eye on the livestream. But it turns out there was still plenty of meat left on the carcass of Apple’s 2014 product launch schedule.

The highlights:

One big family

Microsoft said it, Google said it, and Apple repeated and underscored it Thursday: When you’re running our latest software and hardware, your entire computing experience will be seamless across all of your devices.

(“ … so long as you buy all of your devices from us.”)

Microsoft explains it in the form of “one operating system that runs on everything.” Google, unsurprisingly, talks of fluid software, data and services that live on remote computers and project themselves into whatever you have handy. Apple, through an image of a line of mobile to desktop machines that they kept referring to throughout the presentation, promoted the idea of operations that can begin on the desktop with a Mac OS app, be picked up seamlessly on an iPad, and observed and controlled yet again by an interface on an Apple Watch.

This is a world of “Continuity,” a broad portfolio of features that span all of Apple’s products and services. Thursday’s event was full of stuffing — a contrast to the “all killer, no filler” show Apple put on in September — but all the same, it seemed significant that Apple would take the time on Thursday to carefully underscore Continuity. They’d already shown it off in bits and pieces. This time, the demos felt like a polished, confident thing ready for its star turn.

It does, indeed, represent the fulfillment of a longstanding dream: the ability to just grab the most appropriate device for any situation and not have to carefully pack for the trip. It’s been a pain point for me all summer. I could have traveled with just my iPad. Often, though, creating an iPad version of an important, complicated project and moving it all onto the device seemed like such a hassle that I found myself just tossing my 13-inch MacBook into a bag and getting another hour’s sleep before my early a.m. flight.

For Apple (or Google, or Microsoft) the dream is to (a) make the user experience as smooth and pain-free as possible and (b) encourage the user to keep buying everything from the same company. Call it strategy, or call it the simple impossibility of integrating experiences across multiple platforms. Either way, no phone (tablet, laptop) maker will ever support outside hardware as well as they support their own.

(I’m feeling some of that pain right now. Should I switch from an Android phone to an iPhone? The iPhone 6 is a hell of a device and I’d love to turn my MacBook and my iMac into an effective extension of my phone. But I’d also like to keep using this nifty Android Wear watch.)

China China China

Once again we’re reminded that China represents a huge opportunity for Apple. It’s a country with about a fifth of the world’s population and Apple has only unlocked its front door fairly recently.

So of course we learned about how nice it was that the Apple Watch was featured on the cover of Chinese Vogue, and the record-setting number of Chinese pre-orders for the new iPhone, and the unprecedented access to all three major Chinese carriers, tied in to a huge launch of 4G availability in (I wish I were writing this on the iPhone so the keyboard could just keep bunging in “China” as needed). And Tim Cook stops and pauses in front of an icon representing Chinese settings, to make sure there’s time for a photo of that moment. …

All I’m saying is that we buy plenty of iPhones here in Boston. Would it kill Tim to give us a shoutout? We’re feeling a little bit neglected, that’s all. It’s almost as though he thinks China is more important than the Route 128 beltway metroplex.

Apple Watch really is a thing

Last month’s announcement of the Apple Watch …

(or as most journalists write it, the “iWa[backspace backspace backspace]Apple Watch”)

… was heavy on spectacle but surprisingly thin on details, relative to the scale of the announcement. There’s still much we don’t really know about this product. And it isn’t like an Apple TV, an outer-rim planet in Apple’s product solar system. With each week, it becomes clearer that Apple sees the Apple Watch as their next iPhone or iPad.

Tim Cook said “Every day I look forward to that day,” referring to the day of its retail launch, which we also don’t know.

But the wheels move forward. Next month, Apple will release WatchKit, the set of resources that will allow developers to begin writing software for Apple Watch.

I’m just resigned to my fate: I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve had another month to think about Apple Watch (and to talk to sources about it) and I still don’t know how excited I ought to be about this thing. My enthusiasm seems largely based on Apple’s track record for execution, which is formidable and well-proven.

Apple Pay

Apple’s system for secure electronic retail payments goes live in thousands of US stores on Monday.

There were rumors that Walgreens customers would be able to start paying for their 99-cent cans of iced tea using their iPhone 6 or 6 Plus as early as this weekend, but a Monday launch makes much more sense. These retailers and restaurants sure don’t want to clog up their checkout aisles with dozens of people who’ve never paid for anything with money before, which is roughly the situation at hand when Apple Pay goes live.

“Do I tap it now?”

“Hang on.”

“I’ve tapped the phone on the thing and nothing’s happening.”

“I still need to scan the barcode for your Altoids, sir.”

“Now?”

“OK, now.”

“Damn. My phone’s locked. Hang on … ”

Apple Pay is an exciting move for Apple. And the company couldn’t have timed it better if they’d arranged those massive nationwide breaches of customer credit-card data themselves.

… …..

(No.)

(But if they did, then my hat’s off.)

Yes, this a great time to roll out a system where nobody knows the numbers that connect your device to your credit account except for your bank and Lord Bongo, the God of Fancy Numerical Origami. It’s been years since I’ve eaten at a restaurant and used a credit card. I’ve seen how Apple Pay works and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it for any transaction up to and including buying stolen stereo speakers from the back of a van in an alley.

Apple’s done a marvelous job of bringing banks and retailers on board. All of the majors were signed up when Apple Pay was announced last month, and today Apple announced the addition of 500 additional financial institutions. Chase and Bank of America were easy gets; now, Apple must work to get every regional bank and credit union on board.

It’s a killer feature. Partly because the security is dependent on inviolable hardware inside the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (and next year, the iW … I mean, Apple Watch). It doesn’t rely on fallible and vulnerable software. It doesn’t seem possible for Android phones to accomplish the same thing with the same level of furious security. It’s simple, it’s safe, and it’s clean.

And it’s a dream service for Apple. The company’s ambitions have always gone beyond just making ginormous profits every quarter. Apple has always desired to have a role to play beyond what they sell. With Apple Pay, the product is money. That’s a good racket to get into; I personally don’t know anybody who doesn’t use the stuff.

You make a computer that’s easy to use and you wind up making people’s lives easier for a few hours a day. You make money easier to use, and you make everything easier. Money can’t buy happiness, but when you buy yourself a ridiculous pair of boots in an impotent gesture to cauterize the pain of a broken heart, you won’t have to worry about identity theft.

Apple Pay represents yet another annoying temptation for me. I like my Android phone. But I would love to not have to carry cash with me everywhere. Damn and blast … this is a powerful argument for switching back to iOS.

New OSes

Apple Pay requires an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus. It requires a new version of iOS too. Version 8.1 will ship on Monday to light up that feature.

Apple announced that due to customer feedback, 8.1 will also bring back the Camera Roll, which had gone away with iOS 8.0.

I continue to think about how much Apple has changed in recent years. I can clearly recall a day when, in the face of widespread user complaints about a change to the OS, Apple would have stuck to its guns and embarrassed itself in the process. If they ever addressed the issue, they’d have done it quietly … after the public’s disappointment had long died down, and without any comment.

But this is New Apple! It’s a freaky world in which they acknowledge that maybe they made a mistake, and then they waste no time in reversing their decision.

Apple officially released the next edition of the Mac OS: Yosemite. It’s been in the hands of a million public beta users for months and in the opinion of me and my iMac, it’s ready to roll. All of those nifty Continuity features (phone calls ring through to your Mac, tasks and documents can be handed off from one device to another, AirDrop can share files across these two platforms) go live with the Yosemite update and they’re all worth having.

Nonetheless, I encourage you to wait until November before upgrading. It’s a major release, which always creates major disruptions for many users. You probably won’t know if you’re one of the unlucky few until you finish the installation and discover that a necessary app no longer runs, or that a resource that you use now works quite so differently from the way it did in Mavericks that your whole workflow is screwed up.

I recommend that you let others be the first penguins off the ice floe. In a couple of weeks, you’ll know not to jump off the spots that are smeared with two or three weeks’ worth of penguin guts and walrus drool.

Comedy Tonight

I think Bruce Vilanch punched up the script for this presentation. The first half was peppered with extended jokes, including a demonstration of Continuity that centered around Apple’s obsession with security and secrecy.

The bit had everything except for a high-profile celebrity cameo but oh, wait, it had one of those, too. Stephen Colbert — the acerbic conservative “Colbert Report” host, not the sweet-hearted future host of “The Late Show” on CBS — made a phone-in appearance as Apple’s new chief of secrecy.

We learned that Tim Cook’s secret codename is “Chairman Honeycrisp.” It was a funny bit that went on long enough for me to listen for a while, then check to see if “ChairmanHoneycrisp.com” was taken, and then to buy that domain on Hover.com.

iPads

We all knew that this was coming: October is the usual time to freshen up the iPad Air and iPad Mini.

During the presentation, Apple rhetorically asked, “What do iPad customers want?”

Cut to a shot of me, as a contestant on a game show, shouting “Um … longer battery life! Better camera! Better support for hardware keyboards! Mounting points for better integration with accessories and in industrial environments! Easy multitasking! Support for pressure-sensitive styluses! Multiuser features so that an iPad can be shared with several family members!”

And that’s when Apple announced that they’d made the iPad Air thinner.

By a tiny fraction.

I guess that’s nice too.

Yeah, I mean, who really cares? The big sell of the iPad Air last year was, and remains, its phenomenal light weight. Like the Kindle Fire HD, it feels no heavier than a greeting card (after you’ve taken your aunt’s $20 bill out of it). It’s less than a pound but you’d guess it was far, far less.

But Apple seems really excited about this “slimmer” thing and who am I to be a buzzkill? I will be positive and say that for those of you who couldn’t fit both an iPad Air and a printed schedule for your morning bus in your bag at the same time … well, good news, you won’t have to buy a thicker bag.

Fine, I’ll turn the snark dial down a couple of notches.

The iPad Air 2 comes with an impressive 40 percent speed boost, a new gold option, and two other features that make it a most desirable upgrade. TouchID finally comes to the iPad line and it works just as well as it does on the iPhone. And Apple has, at long last, given the iPad a powerful camera: 8 megapixels and a reasonably fast aperture. It’s not as good as the camera in the iPhone 6 (why not, Apple?) but it’s a nice leap from the basic 5 megapixel shooter in the previous Air.

I used to think taking photos with a tablet was silly and that nobody would want to use an iPad that way — but wow, was I wrong. Every summer and spring in Boston, I see plenty of tourists taking photos with tablets. I still think it’s silly, but it’s a silly thing that people like to do. So I’m glad that these folks can take better pictures.

“Better camera” was on my list of game show contestant-style shoutouts. “Reduced glare” wasn’t. Glare is an issue but I’ve felt kind of resigned to the limitations of a big sheet of glass. Thankfully, Apple didn’t give up: They say they’ve put a new anti-reflective treatment on the glass that folks at the event demo area tell me was visibly effective.

Pricing on the iPad Air line is unchanged.

The iPad Mini got a much less dramatic improvement. Just TouchID and a gold option. The biggest Mini news might be the wider range of price options. The previous Retina iPad Mini remains on the price list, dropped down to $299 for its minimum configuration. Even the non-retina iPad Mini is still available, for a reassuringly affordable $250.

Is this a response to price pressure from Amazon and Samsung and other makers of inexpensive Android tablets? I would guess that it’s more of a move to remain a player in education; Apple has no trouble moving iPad Minis, and the ecosystem of iPad apps — still the finest in the tablet world — is a huge value add.

But who knows? I’m all for making the minimum buy-in for an exciting product as painless as it can possibly be. And even years later, the iPad is still genuinely exciting.

Incidentally, the new iPads have a fab new feature that wasn’t even touched upon during the press event: The LTE editions now sport “Apple SIM” cards that are provisioned for multiple carriers. With one of these new SIMs, it’s possible to maintain data plans on multiple carriers and switch between them at will. So if AT&T is giving you the shaft, you can easily switch to T-Mobile. Or, you can temporarily buy minutes and gigabytes on a different network just for one trip.

Retina iMac

And here’s the second product that we all figured Apple would release this week: a 27-inch iMac with a Retina-grade screen.

Apple defines “Retina” as having a dot pitch so fine that the human eye can’t perceive pixels from the conventional viewing distance. We were expecting a 4K (ultra HD) display. Instead, Apple decided to go the Nigel Tufnel route and make it … well, this is … one louder, innit? It’s 5K, 14.7 million pixels, 70 percent more than 4K, with a maximum resolution of 5120×2880 dots.

That’s significantly not a small number of pixels.

Reports from friends at the event report a sort of “gorillas approaching the monolith at the start of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’” sort of viewing experience: People are barely prepared to see this level of detail on a screen of this size.

I can’t wait to see it in person. In the meantime, I’m left wondering what the sell on this feature could be. Retina is a big deal on phones and tablets (these screens are always viewed up close) and it’s very nice to have on a laptop (whose screens are always less than an arm’s-length away).

Desktops are a different matter. Particularly when the screen is 27 inches. You’re going to keep that sucker a good distance away from you, if only to avoid radiation burns. I’ve had 4K displays in the office and while they’re certainly attractive, I find that I have no trouble switching between them and a conventional LCD.

Video and photo editors are obviously going to snap these up. A 5K display allows a Final Cut user to maintain a full HD preview alongside their timeline and all of their editing tools. Photoshop? Sure: It’s a bit mind-blowing to have what is in effect a magazine-quality print in front of you and perform live edits on it.

Hardware-wise, this 5K display is a special beast. During the event, Apple spoke of all of the custom hardware they had to build to drive the screen. The price is salivatingly good: $2,500 for the base model. There’s only one other 5K display on the market: Dell’s UltraSharp 5K, which will ship later this year for $2,500. The Retina iMac gives you a 5K display with a free Mac attached to it. Apple made this joke but it’s a good one and pertinent so sure, I’ll use it here.

But it’s not quite true. The Dell is a for-real display that will work with any computer that can generate 5K output. I immediately wondered if this new iMac worked with Target Display Mode — the ability to use an iMac as a dumb external monitor. No can do: Apple’s 5K display is packed with nonstandard tricks that its engineers could only get away with because they were hardwiring the display right into the computer.

It also remains to be seen how well this display performs. It’s awesome to throw on a photo of a hiker dwarfed by a mountain and be able to make out the design that his field barista made in the foam of his latte. But folks keen on a 5K display want to edit photos and video and 5 megapixels is one hell of a lot of dots to have to shove around at a high frame rate.

Remember the iPad 3? This was the first iPad with a retina display. It was soon replaced by the iPad 4, which was faster and smoother in every way. I hope that the first-generation Retina iMac won’t suffer the same fate.

Mac Mini

The tag phrase “It’s been way too long” instantly made me think of two specific Apple products. It sometimes feels like there’s a jail cell in Cupertino for Apple products that repeatedly commit the crime of “not being an iPad or an iPhone.” The Apple TV and the Mac Mini have been in and out of jail for most of their lives and I’ve started worry if Apple has some kind of draconian “three strikes” law on the books.

Apple announced an update to the Mac Mini on Thursday. Thank heavens. I love the Mac Mini. It’s the Artoo unit of the Mac line: tiny, lovable, and you can find them everywhere doing just about anything without attracting much attention or making any complaints. They’re classroom computers; home media servers; there’s one in almost every big server room I’ve seen, hosting the tools that the humans use to administrate racks and racks of commercial servers.

The rounded square aluminum hotplate design is screaming for a design update. Wouldn’t it be neat if Apple decided to redress it in the same kind of design language as the tubular Mac Pro?

Well, all Apple did this time was upgrade it with modern CPUs. It no longer runs on vacuum tubes and core memory. OK, I exaggerate. But it’s good to see some signs of life in this line, much loved by people who love Macs.

Another welcome development: a price drop at the bottom end. The cheapest Mac is now just $499. Hooray! But looking at the specs, oh, wow, what a huge performance drop between the middle Mac Mini and the entry-level one. Under the hood, the top two Mac Minis look like brother and sister. The $499 Mac Mini almost looks like a home ec project.

And the next step up is $699, so it’s not a gentle transition. That said, the $499 Mac Mini is still a sturdy, productive machine and I’m happy that Apple did whatever they had to do to put the Mac within reach of a wider audience. Nerds can complain about clock speeds and number of cores, but many consumers just want a decent computer that they can afford.

What went unsaid

Several boxes on the Apple October Media Event Bingo Card went unchecked.

Some people were hoping to see a MacBook Air with a Retina display. I’m sure Apple’s working on it but a high-density display can’t come at the expense of that killer “all day and then some” MacBook Air battery life.

And then there was that other cellmate in Apple Jail: the Apple TV. The current model works … fine, I guess. But the Roku 3 utterly blows it out of the water for performance, features and convenience. Amazon is now in the streaming-box game, and Google is done toweling off after their latest set-top debacle and ready to dive in again. It’s long-past time for Apple to renew the Apple TV’s credibility. The Apple TV is so far behind the rest of the pack that I hesitate to even recommend it to Mac users.

No, Apple isn’t going to stop making Apple TV. There’s way too much potential there for Apple to abandon this product. It fits into the rest of their lineup so neatly. It won’t be a small update — it’ll be a revolutionary and redefining one.

One day, a new Apple TV will run third-party apps; it’ll have more muscular features as a console game system; it’ll entice cable-cutters with direct access to pay TV and network TV services. And as the one Apple device that’s inside the house and connected to power 24/7, it’s a natural as the hub for Apple HomeKit experiences. It’ll control your heating and cooling, keep an eye on smoke alarms and moisture detectors, turn lights on and off, and tell the toaster to stop arguing with the treadmill and just cook the damn Pop-Tarts. I have to believe that the current Apple TV only looks so sad and lonely because Apple is putting so much into the next edition.

I didn’t think Apple would show off a bigger iPad (12 inches? 13?) this year. Many folks are eager for such a thing and I won’t be surprised to see it in 2015.

I think we even saw some nods to a “unapologetically productive” iPad in Thursday’s event. Apple brought a couple of third-party iPad developers to show off powerful creative productivity apps that are nearly ready for release. One of them is “Pixelmator,” the iPad edition of a Photoshop-type app for the Mac that has a sterling reputation. The brief demo made it look like just the thing for mobile artists and photographers.

All in all, the app demos looked less like the iPad’s traditional soft-focus “what will your verse be?” message and more like a direct response to Microsoft Surface and other hybrid tablets. “No, the iPad doesn’t run desktop apps … but who would want to be a desktop, when one can be an iPad?”

Yet again, I was left asking myself “What in the name of Hotblack Desiato’s breakout album is Apple planning to do with Beats?”

Another event has come and gone without any direct acknowledgement of their most famous acquisition. Instead, we got another joking reference to Beats during a demo of something else. As with the Apple Watch, I’m resigned to simply not knowing. I’ve simply run out of energy for further speculation.

Should I even waste time mentioning the lack of any mention of the iPod? Not a peep this year, not a peep last year. Suffice to say that the ground is large in the iPod Touch’s cockpit windows and it’s getting larger, faster.

The end of Apple’s October event is akin to the end of a school year. Things start to wind down and people have a chance to breathe because Apple has never had anything significant to announce between the end of October and January at the earliest.

My thoughts are left to hibernate. Apple is going to be a different company this time next year.

Apple Watch will be in full play. It’s not just a whole new platform, it’s a whole new audience: It seems likely that the line will include a luxury gold bauble that has no special features but costs as much as a good second-hand car. All of these watches will have a big library of apps supporting them.

I believe that the long-rumored negotiations with media companies with finally bear fruit and that Apple will release a shiny new Apple TV that behaves a little like a cable box and which makes Apple look a little more like a cable provider.

And I’d like to think there’ll be a 12-inch iPad. Microsoft has doubled down on their “everything runs Windows” strategy. I wish them luck with it, even though they’ve barely managed to move the needle on iPad-like devices. No, a largish iPad, one that inherits a few key features from my MacBook, is very much what I want to be carrying across town or across the country in 2015. A device like a 12-inch iPad seems like the future. The only trouble with future things is that they keep scampering off another year or two ahead.

This time next year, we will learn that Tim Cook and Jimmy Iovine bet on a college basketball game, Duke lost, and so Tim had to buy Beats. Honestly, at this point it’s as good a theory as any.

Apple made great fun of their own love of secrecy on Thursday. Their intense need to keep things under wraps sometimes baffles me and and it often seems to run contrary to their own interests.

One positive thing about it, though: Like those rocks that seem to move across the dry lake bed of their own accord, we never see Apple’s gradual movements and when we suddenly see the difference year to year … it seems almost like they’ve pulled off a miracle.

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