My HomePod, Google Home and Amazon Echo all live within about 15 feet of each other in my apartment. This is as much a testament to my obsession with smart home crap as it is to my inability to buy into a single tech giant’s hardware ecosystem. I’ve gone all-in with each assistant at various times but now my entire connected life is run through a series of commands that are held together by specific intonations, exact phrasing and speaking volumes of which I alone fully grasp. I solely hold the recipes to my MacGyvered connected life. (This has made life difficult for my roommate who sometimes has to ask me to turn the lights on, but truthfully he should have known what annoying techiness laid ahead when he saw me unpacking my VR rig as we moved in.) This amalgam of chatty smart assistants has made me pretty in tune with each of these product’s faults, but it’s also helped me gain a deep appreciation for the individual strengths of the platforms themselves. This week, Bloomberg reported that times are tough for the HomePod. Apple is cutting production, some of its retail stores aren’t breaking double digit sales of the device on a daily basis and it only has a small sliver of the smart speaker market. This report brought a lot of critics out of the woodwork who heralded the ignorance of Apple’s product strategy and harped on the smart speaker’s general dumbness and lackluster feature set. Now, I’m not in the habit of defending near-trillion dollar companies, but I think much of this criticism is misplaced. The HomePod is probably the best-functioning smart speaker of the bunch, and I’d also contend that the company’s overall strategy is far from being “years behind” its competitors. Apple’s AI strategy needs some TLC to strengthen Siri, but with the AirPods and HomePod, Apple is building a unified front on audio hardware that will weather the gimmicks of a market that seems artificially mature to begin with. A misunderstood market First off, I’ve always found the “smart speaker market” to be a pie that’s sliced in a bizarre way. For as intimately tied to smartphones as voice assistants are, saying that Amazon remains the clear winner in a category that excludes the billions of mobile devices with deep voice assistant capabilities seems accurate but deeply wrong at the same time. It’s also why I don’t think Apple needs to be as worried about getting a $50 product like the Home Mini or Echo Dot out there, because while Amazon desperately needs a low-friction connection to consumers, Apple doesn’t gain as much by putting a tinny speaker into a can that will do even less than what “Hey Siri” on your iPhone could do. $349 is pretty far (too far) in the other direction, but the high-end hardware is the sell for Apple and the concept that consumers are going to default to another smart assistant than what their phone uses is only a problem that will exist in the early days of Siri and Google Assistant. Amazon’s technologies can get better and better but if Google Assistant is the only one with intimate knowledge of your Google Account activities and Siri is the only one that you can send iMessages with, there’s not much of a conversation to have. Listen up The dumbest answer from a smart speaker is always the one you’re waiting on that never comes. Just as the Airpods have succeeded in their approach thanks to the less sexy connectivity advances, the HomePod wins on the intelligence of its listening capabilities via a microphone array that can hear me at a whisper’s volume even while loud music is playing. It’s an overlooked feature in hardware comparisons, and it’s honestly one of the most important in practice. A four-sentence HomePod review (with appendices) I’ve yelled so many “Hey Google’s” while the TV is playing that never registered. Meanwhile, I’ve learned that I don’t really have to raise my voice to talk with the HomePod. That, along with its much blogged-about location-aware features of the HomePod, make it a device that feels like more of an ethereal presence in my apartment and less tied down to a physical location where I point my head and yell. While Amazon’s tech here has long been impressive as well, I’ve found the HomePod to be a bit more effective when tunes are blaring while pretty much laying waste to Google’s smart speakers (including the Max) which have always seemed to be hard of hearing in noisy environments from my experience. Unskilled intelligence Now, Siri is absolutely less good than Google Assistant when it comes to being a phone assistant, but a lot of these shortcomings don’t translate as jarringly to the HomePod. Apple has made the wrong calls with third party integrations for Siri on iOS but the current state of Alexa Skills and Google Assistant Actions suggests that Apple isn’t missing a ton on the smart speaker third-party platform front yet. Something like ordering a pizza with Domino’s on an Echo or Google Home requires a bizarre amount of effort that is only easy if you do most of the work on your phone ahead of time. I wouldn’t say that Apple missing this feature has torn a hole in its core intelligence, likewise most of these “skills” generally don’t give me the context I need to make a decision. I don’t get why there’s so much love thrown at these smart speaker development platforms. The fact is, they’re largely outlets for brand marketing budget dollars, rather than bastions of consumer utility. Sure, some of these apps are fun and may ultimately make the Echo a more family-friendly device than the HomePod, but the bloatware eventually becomes an afterthought as the gimmick wears off. Amazon needs this right now, not consumers. Limitations Making calls, distinguishing between multiple users and accessing calendars are all pretty baseline features that one hopes that the HomePod receives updates for soon. Nevertheless, the HomePod is not an unfinished product as some have said, and is certainly not “years behind” its competitors. It certainly feels more finished than some of the hardware products in Amazon’s divergent smart speaker cornucopia. They’ve made some annoying decisions regarding music streaming support; Apple Music is an absolute necessity to enjoy this product. I’ve been a Spotify listener in the past, but I’ve never been a power user of playlists which left me pretty vulnerable to switching if it made life easier with the HomePod and my AirPods, which it did. Apple Music is just one more exclusive element of the ecosystem, and by extension, Siri. Despite Spotify’s sky-high market cap, I don’t really see a good reason not to be bullish on Apple Music. The service is rapidly growing and — if trends hold — will overtake Spotify in paid subscriber count sometime this summer. It seems unrealistic that Apple will bring Apple Music support to the Echo or Google Home, but it’d be nice if some skeleton support came to Spotify on HomePod in the meantime, though I kind of doubt this as well. End-game It’s all about the ecosystem; the “smart speaker market” doesn’t matter and never will as we define it now. What Google gains with a cheap entry point of a Google Home Mini is a way to drive people to features they didn’t know their phones had. Apple is using the HomePod to set a baseline while they look to build up these features that Siri doesn’t have yet. Amazon’s Alexa may have a chance in the context of the connected home, but it’s hard to imagine a world where you don’t want your mobile device and home assistant hub being intimately tied at an OS level. The AirPods and HomePod are very good examples of OS-integrated hardware, and while Siri needs a facelift and perhaps some brain surgery, Apple’s thinking with the HomePod is about where it needs to be. It’s a platform that should really be a bit experimental for the time-being. These things were pushed into people’s homes so quickly by an Amazonian quest for market domination, but so much of the utility of smart speakers is still tied up in their frustrations. Like the AirPods, the HomePod has isolated the right challenges to tackle first. “Winning the smart speaker market” isn’t going to happen for this product, but I get a sense that Apple’s thinking with the HomePod is tied up in a healthy self-awareness that its competitors lack.
In an internal memo to employees, Apple threatened severe consequences for leaking confidential company information – reminding staff that those who leak can lose their jobs, have difficult finding future employment, and even get arrested. Last year, Apple claimed to have busted 29 leakers, 12 of whom were arrested. The memo itself was leaked, and its content was published by Bloomberg this afternoon. Apple has always cultivated a culture of confidentially about its work, as a means of maintaining a competitive advantage over the competition. Given how large Apple has grown over the years – the memo says there are “135,000 people” working there – it’s become more difficult to keep things under wraps. By the time a new iPhone launches, for example, people already know what to expect. That can give rivals a head start on catching up with Apple, ahead of an actual public unveiling of the device. Leaks can also impact sales of current devices, as consumers hold off on buying as they know something better is soon to arrive. Apple more recently has had problems with leaked iOS source code, as well as leaked details about the iPhone 8 and X, Apple Watch Series 3, Apple TV 4K, HomePod, and more. And that was just in 2017. The new memo is not the first time Apple has tried to plug its leaks. Last year, the company held a meeting with employees where it discussed how it plans to prevent leaks, talked about how leakers were caught, and answered employees’ questions. That meeting was secretly recorded and leaked to the press too. In reality, some leaks can be harder to track or stop. A company-wide meeting or email, for instance, could be leaked by anyone. The new memo begins by informing Apple employees that the person who leaked details about Apple’s software roadmap earlier this year was caught and fired last month: Last month, Apple caught and fired the employee responsible for leaking details from an internal, confidential meeting about Apple’s software roadmap. Hundreds of software engineers were in attendance, and thousands more within the organization received details of its proceedings. One person betrayed their trust. The employee who leaked the meeting to a reporter later told Apple investigators that he did it because he thought he wouldn’t be discovered. But people who leak — whether they’re Apple employees, contractors or suppliers — do get caught and they’re getting caught faster than ever. The memo then goes on to stress how damaging leaks are to the company itself, those who worked on a project, and other employees. It reminds employees that when they’re approached by press, analysts and bloggers they’re “getting played.” The establishment of a very us-versus-them culture when dealing with outsiders is notable because it means Apple employees may fear becoming whistleblowers. Employees will likely also fear leaking to correct inaccurate information being passed around publicly. Today, there are reports that Apple’s own comms teams won’t respond to, when asked by press – unless the report reaches a critical mass, or worse – is unflattering to Apple. But unlike at other companies where a PM or staffer may reach out to privately correctly a detail or give background outside of official channels, Apple staff would be fired for crossing that line. The memo also points to more examples of how Apple’s internal security has caught people who believed they could get away with it – including the person who leaked the link to the gold master of iOS 11, and those who leaked within the supply chain. It concludes by sharing the news that 12 of the leakers in 2017 were arrested. “Leakers do not simply lose their jobs at Apple. In some cases, they face jail time and massive fines for network intrusion and theft of trade secrets both classified as federal crimes,” the memo read. “These people not only lose their jobs, they can face extreme difficulty finding employment elsewhere.” There’s a certain kind of person who will find language like this a challenge. But the majority will likely take heed. The memo was published as an internal company blog post. The full memo can be read on Bloomberg’s site.
Tomorrow at noon PT, Apple will begin issuing an alert box when you open a 32-bit app in MacOS 10.13.4. It’s a one-time (per app) alert, designed to help MacOS make the full transition to 64-bit. At some unspecified time in the future, the operating system will end its support for 32-bit technology… meaning those apps that haven’t been updated just won’t work. That time, mind you, is not tomorrow, but the company’s hoping that this messaging will help light a fire under users and developers to upgrade before that day comes. Says the company on its help page, “To ensure that the apps you purchase are as advanced as the Mac you run them on, all future Mac software will eventually be required to be 64-bit.” It’s similar to the transition the company made on the mobile side with iOS 11. Of course, making the shift is a bit messier on the desktop. For one thing, the company’s desktop operating system has been around a lot longer than iOS. For another, while Apple does have a MacOS App Store, plenty of desktop apps are still downloaded from other channels. As the company notes, the transition’s been a long time coming. The company started making it 10 or so years ago with the Power Mac G5 desktop, so it hasn’t exactly been an overnight ask for developers. Of course, if you’ve got older, non-supported software in your arsenal, the eventual end-of-lifing could put a severe damper on your workflow. For those users, there will no doubt be some shades of the transition from OS 9 to OS X in all of this. You can skip the alert and just see for yourself by clicking the System Report button. For those apps that haven’t updated yet (I’m looking at you, Audacity), Apple recommends bugging the developers directly.
Apple Music is continuing its upward climb in subscriber count, quickening its pace as it seeks to overtake Spotify in the battle for users’ ears. The music streaming service now has 40 million subscribers, a report today from Variety claims. We have reached out to Apple for confirmation. The service still has a ways to go before it surpasses Spotify, which currently has 70 million paid Premium subscribers. A report in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year suggests that Apple Music’s quicker growth rate (five percent versus Spotify’s two percent growth) could mean it surpassing the Swedish streaming service as soon as this summer, however. Apple Music hit 30 million subscribers in September of 2017. In addition to an updated note regarding subscriber notes, the report also says that the streaming service will have a new boss with the promotion of Oliver Schusser to the role of VP of Apple Music & International Content. Schusser has been at Apple for 14 years, previously leading efforts outside the U.S. on content efforts surrounding the App Store. Apple’s continued prominence in the music streaming market comes after a rocky introduction thanks to a rough user interface. For Apple to continue to court Spotify Premium subscribers, they’re going to have to continue to focus on more intuitive app design and a more intelligent user recommendation engine, areas where Spotify is still holding strong ahead of it. With Spotify going public last month with a hefty market cap of $28 billion, it’s clear that the company has a lot riding on its ability to stay ahead of Apple in intelligence and continue driving more sophisticated playlists to users. An area where Apple’s $9.99 per month service is undoubtedly succeeding is in the intimate tie between its audio hardware and Apple Music. Users of the HomePod and AirPods gain essential functionality for music playback only if they are subscribers to Apple Music.
Boris Teksler Contributor Boris Teksler is the former licensing chief at Apple and current chief executive of the patent licensing company Conversant IP. Joe Silino Contributor Joseph Siino is the former intellectual property chief at Yahoo and the current president of Via Licensing . Ira Blumberg Contributor Ira Blumberg is the vice president of IP at Lenovo . More posts by this contributor Why patent trolls won’t give up No one would have predicted that the three of us would ever find ourselves on the same side of the corporate patent wars, let alone speak with one voice about how to end them. We have come together because we see that patent owners and product makers have become trapped in an endless cycle of demands, counter-demands, and unproductive litigation. Unless we find a way out of this conflict, we will almost certainly see a repeat of yesterday’s costly and wasteful smartphone wars in tomorrow’s wireless connected car sector. Product makers accuse patent owners of threatening lawsuits and using the expense of the legal process in order to demand extortionate royalties for their patent rights. For their part, patent owners say product makers refuse to pay fair compensation for the patented wireless, audio, and video features that give their products value as communication and entertainment devices. The truth is, both sides have a point. That’s because patent owners and product makers are caught in a classic “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which the lack of transparency and fair ground rules in patent licensing lead companies on each side of a patent dispute to try to game the other. This only ensures that both sides suffer a negative outcome in outrageously-expensive litigation. Unlike in the real property business, in intellectual property (IP) licensing there is little or no independent appraisal of the assets (i.e., patents) or transparency as to how prices are determined. And because most patent license agreements are confidential, there is little or no information or “comps” on what others have paid for similar patent rights. Nor are there any widely-accepted ground rules for what constitutes fair negotiating practices between buyers and sellers. This is especially true in regards to standards-essential wireless patents, which are supposed to be licensed on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. But what’s fair or reasonable about the fact that an impossibly-large number of LTE (4G) cellular patents — more than 60,000, in fact — have been declared “standards essential” without any independent evaluation of those patents whatsoever? That’s right, those 60,000-plus patents have all been self-declared “standards-essential” by companies each seeking their own commercial advantage. What you’ve got is a wireless gold rush — with plenty of fool’s gold posing as real gold. So the three of us, working with industry leaders on both sides of the patent owner vs. product maker divide, have developed a three-pronged plan for ending the wireless patent wars and creating a more productive and less litigious patent licensing sector. First, whittle down this ridiculous mountain of self-interested wireless patent claims to the fewer than 2,000 patent families that most experts believe are truly essential to smartphone handset makers. We can do this by excluding duplicative patents, expired patents, patents not in force in major economic markets, and patents for base station, infrastructure, and other innovations not relevant to handset makers. Independent, neutral evaluators will then confirm each patent’s relevance to the LTE standard for handsets. Second, base royalty prices not on the subjectively-argued value of each individual patent examined in a vacuum, but on the objective value of the entire stack of LTE patents in a phone. A recent court judgment valued that LTE stack at roughly $20 for a smartphone with an average selling price of $324, but with greater price transparency from both sides, the market itself will likely set a rational price for the LTE stack. Royalties can then be paid to patent owners roughly proportionate to each patent owner’s percentage share of the total LTE patent stack. And third, ensure greater transparency by promoting collective licensing solutions such as patent pools that openly publish their pricing frameworks and offer consistent terms to all licensees. Given the “prisoner’s dilemma” dynamics in patent licensing today, it is unrealistic to expect any one patent owner to unilaterally forego potential business advantage by revealing its pricing strategies. But collective licensing approaches such as patent pools reduce the risks of transparency for everyone. As the IP journal Intellectual Asset Management recently noted, “There’s a growing sense that a collective approach to licensing could help solve some of the problems of the industry which, in sectors like mobile, has been scarred by long-running and costly disputes between patent owners and potential licensees.” Our “peace plan” would eliminate many of the incentives and opportunities for gamesmanship in wireless patent licensing. And most importantly, it would help patent owners and product makers avoid a repeat of yesterday’s costly smartphone wars in tomorrow’s connected car, autonomous vehicle, and Internet of Things (IoT) industries. It’s time for a new realignment in the industry — one in which the conflict is no longer between product maker and patent owner, but between those who license patents on a fair and transparent basis, and those who do not.
Okay, Apple, now you’ve got my attention. Not content with landing an Amazing Stories reboot from Steven Spielberg, multiple series from Reese Witherspoon, a space opera from Ron Moore and much more for its upcoming original TV initiative (which might launch next March), Apple is also developing a series based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. Deadline reports that the project from Skydance Television is “in development for straight-to-series consideration,” with David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman attached as showrunners. Goyer is best-known for comic book adaptations like Blade, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, while Friedman was the creator of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The Foundation stories depict the fall of a massive galactic empire, and the efforts of a small group of scientists to preserve knowledge and restore civilization. They were first published in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s, then collected into three books in the ’50s. (At the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention, the series beat out Lord of the Rings to win the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series.) Asimov returned to the series near the end of his career, and while the later books are not as well-loved by fans, they also won him awards and landed him on The New York Times bestseller list for the first time. If you want to read thousands more words about why the books mean a lot to me, be my guest. But when it comes to a TV adaptation, two points seem salient: One, the books takes place over hundreds of years, with a constantly rotating cast of characters, and two, they consist almost entirely of conversation, with just a few brief scenes of action. That may be why previous attempts to adapt Foundation — including an effort at HBO by Goyer’s Dark Knight co-writer Jonathan Nolan — have failed. If this one pans out, I suspect we’ll see some pretty big changes.
Fleetsmith, a startup that wants to make it easier for companies to manage their Apple devices, announced a $7.7 million Series A round today led by Upfront Ventures. Seed investors Index Ventures and Harrison Meta also participated in the round. The company has raised a total of $11 million. They also announced that Luke Kanies, founder and former CEO of Puppet has joined their Board of Directors. Fleetsmith wants to help SMBs provision and manage Apple devices whether that’s computers, phones, iPads or Apple TVs. Trying to provision these devices manually is a time-consuming process, one that larger organizations no longer have to deal with because of other commercial options or in-house solutions, but Fleetsmith puts that same kind of efficient device management within reach of smaller organizations by offering it as a cloud service. The two co-founders, Zack Blum and Jesse Endahl, who came from Dropbox and Phantom were both in positions where they needed to buy and deploy Apple devices and couldn’t find a good way for a small company to do that on the market. “How do you manage a fleet of Macs and secure them through the internet? We looked around when we were in a build/buy position and saw a lot to be done. We are democratizing what companies like Google and Facebook have with their own [home-grown] internal Mac management tools,” CEO Blum told Techcrunch. Fleetsmith device admin console. Photo: Fleetsmith The company takes advantage of the Device Enrollment Program, a business device management service offered by Apple to simplify provisioning of Apple products. As long as the IT administrator is enrolled in DEP, you can use Fleetsmith, Blum explained. An employee can then order a laptop (or any device), and when they connect to to WiFi, it connects to Fleetsmith, which configures the device automatically. “The really cool thing about how DEP integrates into our feature set is that as soon as the employee connects to WiFi, it take care of deployment. The account is created, software gets installed, the drive gets encrypted. It makes installing and enrolling new people really simple,” he said. Once you’re setup with everything you need installed, the admin can force critical updates, but the system will give you several warnings before installing the update. “Fleetsmith is automation applied perfectly, handing all of the menial work to the computer so the people do less firefighting and more strategic work. This is especially important in the mid-market because the teams are leaner and every computer counts,” new board member Kanies said in a statement. The service costs is just $99 per year per device to access the cloud service. They offer a freemium version to manage up to 10 devices at no cost. The company launched in 2016 and currently has 20 employees. Customers include HackerOne, Robinhood and Nuna.
Last week, Apple called out the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to rollback the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The company cited both the obvious environmental impact of such a move, along with potential economic fallout. It turns out Apple’s got quite a bit invested in the latter. The company announced today that its global facilities are now 100-percent run by renewable energy. The move is in line with the company’s 2015 plan to push toward 100-percent renewable energy, a list that includes all of Apple’s data centers as of 2014. As of today, the company’s officially adding retail stores, offices and co-located facilities to that list, covering 43 countries, including the US, China, UK and India. The addition of nine manufacturing partners, meanwhile, brings the total number up to 23 suppliers promising to produce their products entirely with clean energy. How the companies involved actually hit these numbers is, unsurprisingly, somewhat more complex. “Where feasible, we produce our own renewable energy by building our own renewable energy facilities, including solar arrays, wind farms, biogas fuel cells, and micro-hydro generation systems,” the company writes in its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report. “Where it’s not feasible to build our own generation, we sign long-term renewable energy purchase contracts, supporting new, local projects that meet our robust renewable energy sourcing principles.” The push toward renewable energy has included some creative solutions, including 300 solar rooftops in Japan and 800 in Singapore. The company says it’s currently running 25 renewable energy projects globally, with 15 more in the process of being built. That will bump green energy capability from 626 megawatts to 1.4 gigawatts, by its count — and the finally tally doesn’t appear to include carbon offsets, unlike some of the competition. It’s easy to see how a rollback of the Clean Power Plan could ultimately have an averse effect on the company’s bottomline. “We’re committed to leaving the world better than we found it. After years of hard work we’re proud to have reached this significant milestone,” Tim Cook said in a release tied to the news. “We’re going to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the materials in our products, the way we recycle them, our facilities and our work with suppliers to establish new creative and forward-looking sources of renewable energy because we know the future depends on it.”
Apple is doing it again. The company just unveiled a new version of the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. It has a bright red enclosure and a black front. A portion of Apple’s proceeds will fund HIV/AIDS grants from the Global Fund. Other than that, it’s an iPhone 8. You’ll get the exact same features and components as the ones in other iPhone 8 models. The iPhone 8 is also available in gold, silver and (“space”) gray. Alas, there’s still no rose gold option. When Apple unveiled the red version of the iPhone 7, many people didn’t understand why Apple put white bezels at the front of the device. Red and black seem like a good match. That’s why some people even bought screen protectors with black borders to fix this. This year, Apple is switching to black. It’s interesting to see that Apple waits around 6 months before launching red versions of its iPhones. It could be a way to foster sales in the middle of a product cycle. The red iPhone 8 is going to start at $699 with 64GB just like regular iPhone 8 models. There will be 256GB versions too. Pre-orders start tomorrow and you’ll be able to buy it in Apple stores on Friday. For iPhone X users, Apple is launching a dark red leather folio. Apple is also sharing some numbers about its partnership with (PRODUCT)RED. Since 2006, Apple has donated $160 million to the Global Fund through limited edition iPods, iPhones and accessories.
The Clean Power Plan is shaping up to be the latest Obama-era legislation on the Trump administration chopping block. In fact, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt has been quite open in his intentions to kill the plan focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Apple is among the first — but likely not the last — of companies to voice opposition to the matter. This week, the company filed a statement with the EPA noting concerns over the potential fallout from rolling back the policy. The note cites both environmental and, likely more importantly in the eyes of the administration, financial consequences. As the company notes, it’s already made major investments in clean energy, pushing toward 100-percent renewable energy in the US and making similar promises for its work abroad. It’s easy to see how a reversal of a key climate focused initiative would have adverse effects on Apple’s bottom line, in addition to all of the clear negative impact on the, you know, environment. “As a large consumer of electricity who has successfully pursued a clean energy strategy, we believe the Clean Power Plan codifies and enhances positive long-term trends in the electricity market,” Apple Global Energy Lead Robert Redlinger writes in the statement. “The Clean Power Plan provides a national framework enabling states to ensure that renewable generation resources and more traditional forms of electricity generation are used in an integrated manner to support a reliable and resilient electricity grid.” Pruitt, meanwhile, has suggested that the Clean Power Plan was an overreach on the part of his predecessors, while Trump has prioritized coal, oil and gas in his own rhetoric. Apple’s statement will be reviewed by the EPA during its approval process.