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Apple’s MacBook Air turns 10

Ten years ago today, Steve Jobs triumphantly held up a manilla interoffice mail envelope to a round of applause at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. It was a silly gimmick, but it got the point across. A year after introducing the Macworld crowd to the iPhone, the company was about to add another cornerstone product to its repertoire. Ten years and seven generations later, the MacBook Air’s design hasn’t changed all that much — a rarity for an aesthetically obsessed company like Apple. Sure, there have been little tweaks over the years, like the second generation Magsafe connector and a change to the ports, but otherwise, the wedge-shaped, “world’s thinnest notebook” has remained remarkably consistent. That first Air hit the market in February 2008, weighing a mere three pounds (Apple would later shave off a few ounces, but the weight would also stay more or less the same), coming in at two pounds less than a MacBook with the same screen size. A year after effectively killing the smartphone keyboard, the Air maintained a full-size QWERTY. Jobs promised “no compromises,” but some were certainly made in the name of keeping the system thin and light. Jobs talked down the importance of the optical drive, another in a long like of Apple-spurred obsolescence — in this case, the company was right on target there. Apple’s design team also hid some ports in a flip-down hatch, ultimately doing away with that bit in 2010. Even so, the laptop was a beautiful bit of engineering. Like the iPhone and iPod before it, this was peak Apple. In recent years, the laptop has largely stagnated — particularly once the company released the redesigned 13-inch MacBook. Air fans have mostly given up hope that the company will offer a major refresh to the line, as Apple has shifted its laptop strategy. Even though the product is no longer a main focus for the company, the Air’s had remarkable staying power. The laptop seems destined to fade away, rather than burn out — but even so, in the cut throat world of consumer electronics, a decade’s a pretty good run.

Siri’s podcast-promoting ‘Give me the News’ feature is now out of beta

A few weeks back, Apple added “Give me the news” to Siri’s repertoire of tricks in the latest beta version of iOS. The feature comes as the company is readying its smart assistant for the imminent arrival of the HomePod, the company’s first smart assistant-driven device. The feature is now out of beta here in the States and the U.K. Asking Siri for the news will default to NPR in the U.S. and the BBC in the U.K. If you’re so inclined, you can also switch to Fox News, CNN, and The Washington Post or Sky News and LBC, respectively — because where you get your information is a particularly hot button top in the age of the Fake News Awards. The functionality depends on how you invoke it. Talking to Siri directly though the phone will bring up print articles. Triggering it through a non-visual interface like AirPods, on the other hand, will bring of a podcast news briefing — similar to the sort of flash briefings currently available on Google Home and Amazon Echo. Those news briefings are really cornerstones of their respective smart speaker experience. Having tested them both at some length, the ability to get a quick news update first thing in the morning is arguable one of the strongest selling points for introducing them into your daily routine. Like Google Assistant, Apple’s clearly aiming to make Siri the most well-rounded assistant for a given task. Given the fact that the first version of the HomePod is lacking a touchscreen interface, this kind of feature certainly makes sense. But while the feature is beating HomePod to market (the exact ETA of the smart speaker is still TBD), it’s potentially useful in other scenarios, like the car, where a quick audio news briefing hits the spot. HomePod will arrive to a crowded market when it finally does drop, following a CES that was utterly dominated by assistant-powered devices.

Apple wants to gather all your medical records in the Health app

Apple announced a new health effort as part of iOS 11.3. The new Health Records section in the Health app lets you gather and view all your medical records. The company is partnering with hospitals and clinics. Apple released the first beta version of iOS 11.3 today. While the new version of iOS is going to remain in beta testing for a couple of months, it should be available as a free download to all iPhone users pretty soon. Health Records is going to be a new menu in the Health Data section of the Health app. You’ll be able to add any file to this menu as long as it’s a CDA file (Clinical Document Architecture). Some hospitals already email you those files or make them available on their website. But Apple wants to automate this process. Johns Hopkins Medicine, Cedars-Sinai, Penn Medicine and others are already testing the feature with their patients. Health Records is based on on FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), a standard when it comes to data formats and APIs. So it means that those hospitals and clinics will be able to push this data to your phone directly. You’ll receive a notification alerting you that you just received a new medical record. Data is encrypted on your phone and protected by your passcode. And it looks very thorough based on the screenshot. You’ll be able to list your allergies, medications, immunizations and lab results in the Health app. This could be particularly useful for patients who get a lot of lab results to track cholesterol or something else. Newest results appear at the top of the Healthcare Records timeline. It’s going to be hard to convince every single hospital and clinic around the U.S. and around the world to adopt the new Health Records feature. But here’s a list of all the institutions participating in the beta test: Johns Hopkins Medicine – Baltimore, Maryland Cedars-Sinai – Los Angeles, California Penn Medicine – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Geisinger Health System – Danville, Pennsylvania UC San Diego Health – San Diego, California UNC Health Care – Chapel Hill, North Carolina Rush University Medical Center – Chicago, Illinois Dignity Health – Arizona, California and Nevada Ochsner Health System – Jefferson Parish, Louisiana MedStar Health – Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia OhioHealth – Columbus, Ohio Cerner Healthe Clinic – Kansas City, Missouri iPhone_X_Apple_All_Health_Records_Screen_01232018 iPhone_X_Apple_Health_Records_screen_01232018 View Slideshow Previous Next Exit Featured Image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Apple to take on messaging rivals with launch of Business Chat

Apple is preparing to roll out a new feature in iMessage that will allow consumers to chat directly with businesses through Apple’s messaging platform. The feature, called Business Chat, was announced last year at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, and will debut this spring with launch partners including Discover, Hilton, Lowe’s and Wells Fargo. The feature will allow consumers to talk to a business’s service rep in iMessage, make payments via Apple Pay, and schedule appointments, depending on the business’s needs. The move represents a major push by Apple to shift B2C communications, payments, and customer service to its own messaging platform, and away from tech companies that today dominate business messaging, like Facebook Messenger, Google, Twitter, and, as of this month, WhatsApp, which has just launched its own WhatsApp Business app. While it may seem like an odd fit to chat with businesses in iMessage where people today keep up with friends and family via personal conversations, it’s not surprising to see that Apple is entering this space. Hey Lowes, u up? — kif (@kifleswing) January 24, 2018 After all, iMessage isn’t often considered the first place you check for business communications, beyond the occasional appointment reminder text or an alert from your bank. But that could easily change. The demand for business messaging is growing, not only in the U.S., but also in emerging markets that skipped the PC cycle altogether and are joining the web for the first time via smartphones. For them, messaging a business feels as natural as shooting off an email to customer service seems to those of us who grew up with computers. Plus, a majority of consumers said they would rather message a business than call customer service, according to a Facebook-commissioned study by Nielsen released last fall, which found that 56 percent want to text, not phone. A further 67 percent said they expect more to message more businesses over the next two years. That said, Apple will not be without sizable challenges as it enters this market, given the size and scale of the platforms it’s going up against with its new Business Chat feature. Facebook Messenger, for example, already has some 1.3 billion users on its app, which is connected with Facebook’s wider social network where businesses can manage their own presence, through branded Pages, posts, media, promotions and advertising. Facebook said last year that 80 percent of its then 65 million active businesses were using Messenger to reach customers. It’s also been expanding B2C communications on Instagram, as well – an app that has also begun testing a standalone mobile messenger. WhatsApp, meanwhile, may have only just entered the space with WhatsApp Business, but its service also has 1.3 billion users and traction in emerging markets, like India. You also have Google, often the starting place for many people looking to find business contact information via the web, and which offers a similar chat solution through Google My Business. And then there’s Twitter, a service that has become the de facto place for making general customer service complaints, in the hopes that your angry tweet will be seen by the company and handled. Twitter has doubled down in this area, too, by offering a suite of tools to companies running customer service operations on its network. Where does that leave Apple’s Business Chat? While it has the benefit of an iMessage install base in the hundreds of millions, it may feel like just one more place to check. And with only a handful of launch partners, consumers may not remember who is available over iMessage and who’s not, so just go elsewhere. However, Apple does have the advantage of not requiring an app download as iMessage ships with iOS devices. It also has its own built-in payments platform with Apple Pay, which could make transactions easier. But as Apple joins the fray, its rivals are preparing to do battle. In addition to WhatsApp’s preemptive launch of its business app, Facebook also just added Kenneth I. Chenault, CEO of American Express, to its board of directors. Said CEO Mark Zuckerberg of the addition, the exec has “unique expertise” in areas Facebook is lacking, including “customer service” and “direct commerce.” Sounds like shots fired, Apple. Apple says Business Chat will launch with the public release of iOS 11.3 this spring.

Apple could be redesigning the iBooks app

As AppleInsider first spotted, the first beta of iOS 11.3 includes a subtle change. iBooks is now called Books. And Mark Gurman thinks it could be the sign that there will be bigger changes with Apple’s ebook reading app. According to Bloomberg, Apple is working on a new design for the iBooks app on the iPhone and iPad. It will feature a simpler interface with a new section called ‘Reading Now’. Instead of having to scroll through your library to find the book you’re currently reading, this section will highlight your current book. Audio books could also get a dedicated tab. And this is probably the biggest and most telling change. Apple has been selling audio books in the iTunes Store for years. But it doesn’t really make sense that you have to open the Music app to listen to audio books. That’s why Apple could move audio books to the iBooks Store. Talking about the store, Bloomberg also says that Apple is working on a redesign to make it look like the new App Store design. Books could be the app name on your home screen. But maybe Apple is going to call it Apple Books so that it follows the same naming convention as Apple Music and Apple TV. Bloomberg thinks this is all about getting back into a fight with Amazon regarding ebooks. But I think Apple’s reasoning is much simpler here. First, iBooks needs a redesign. Second, Apple is slowly unbundling iTunes so that iTunes can fade into the abyss. So the company could be removing audio books from the iTunes Store. Third, it sounds like a good opportunity to rename the service to Apple Books. Featured Image: Darren Johnson / EyeEm/Getty Images

Apple debuts a dashboard for artists that tracks both streams and purchases

Apple today launched a new dashboard that will allow artists on Apple Music to track fans’ listening and buying habits and view a variety of analytics about their music, according to Billboard, which had the launch exclusive from Apple. The dashboard, called Apple Music for Artists, is currently available only for select beta users ahead of a broader launch planned for later this spring. The move is clearly a competitive measure against Spotify, which has been steadily ramping up its products for artists over the past year. Last April, it launched its own artist dashboard out of beta, allowing artists to dive into streaming insights and analytics, manage their profile and more. In October, Spotify debuted a dedicated app for artists with access to similar data, including real-time data on new releases. That same month, it also announced the launch of its emerging artist program called RISE. Pandora has a dashboard for artists, too, and offers tools that allow them to connect with fans using short audio messages, or to alert them about new releases, live events, ticket offers and more. Apple, clearly, needed to catch up. Apple’s advantage with its new dashboard is that it track both streams and purchases at a granular level. The dashboard shows the current number of plays, spins, song purchases and album purchases in its interface, going as far back as the 2015 launch of Apple Music itself. An insights panel reveals other milestones, like all-time number of plays and purchases for specific songs, or cumulatively, reports Billboard. There’s also a global map that artists can click on and drill down to the city level to see how their music is performing in that location and user demographics. (The map supports clicking into the 115 countries where Apple Music and iTunes are available). This could help artists better plan their touring schedule and other live events. Apple will begin testing the dashboard with beta users who will provide feedback ahead of a public launch. Apple Music for Artists will open publicly later this spring for Apple’s several million artists. Of course, it’s unlikely that artists will use only Apple Music’s dashboard at this point. Given that Spotify is driving music trends and getting added to its playlists can make an artist’s career, it’s still going to be one of the first places artists check to track their music’s performance.

Apple says iCloud China data migration notice sent to some users in error

Apple says that an email sent to users with Apple IDs with locations not set to China that their iCloud data was being moved to a Chinese company’s servers was done so accidentally. The Cupertino tech giant had announced Wednesday that next month it will begin the process of moving Chinese users’ iCloud data to servers hosted in China by state-owned Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD) as it complies with recent legislation in the company that mandates that cloud services are operated by Chinese companies. Apple sent details to affected users, but TechCrunch discovered reports that a number of users with U.S. Apple IDs had received notification that their data was also being moved. In a separate email sent this evening, Apple has informed users that these emails were sent in error, reiterating that only users with their Apple ID country set to China will have their iCloud data migrated to GCBD servers. The email, obtained by TechCrunch, reads in part: “We are very sorry that you received this email. This email was intended only for customers whose Apple ID country is China. A very small number of our customers whose Apple ID country is not China also received this email by mistake.” Apple verified the contents of the email but didn’t offer further comment. The specific phrasing of the email is important, as it notes that users who have their location not set to China in their iCloud account are not currently subject to the data migration process that Apple has announced. A subtle but important detail for users in China and elsewhere. Article updated to reflect Apple ID location info in email

You can now pick up an iMac Pro in-store, for $4,999 and up

Apple’s super-powered iMac Pro hit the company’s online store just ahead of Christmas. Now those who’d prefer to pick one up in-person can do so by paying a visit to one of its various retail establishments. Availability was first spotted by MacRumors earlier today, and you can check it for yourself by entering your zip code over on the company’s site. At $4,999 and up, this isn’t check out line impulse buy territory, but the professional version of the company’s well-regarded all-in-one packs a wallop. Matthew spent some time around the machine around its official launch, calling it “a love letter to developers,” adding that the company, “decided to see exactly how ridiculous it could get with iMac performance inside what is essentially the exact same shell as the current machines — with a nice coat of color treatment and a few additional cosmetic differences.” With the Mac Pro still in a state of limbo, the company has focused on the AIO desktop form factor to deliver some crazy high-end tech specs for users looking to perform truly CPU taxing tasks like editing 4K video and creating VR content. The iMac Pro represents a sort of recommitment to the developers and creative types that have long formed a core user base — which Microsoft has been actively courting with its own Surface line. The computers appear to be pretty well seeded out there in Apple Stores, though I suspect not every location is going to have every single configuration, so you’re going to want to call ahead. Of course, if you’re not willing to make the $4,999+ commitment, there’s apparently already a ridiculously inflated second-hand market for those limited edition space gray accessories.

Apple’s Design Delirium

I watch with increasing trepidation at the direction Apple is taking its products. The most recent concern came yesterday from Bloomberg that Apple intends to offer its software developers new libraries that will allow apps to serve both touchscreen interfaces like the iPhone as well as traditional mouse and keyboard setups on desktop computers using a single unified set of APIs. Ordinarily, such a change would be deeply welcomed. “Write once, run everywhere” is the design philosophy behind Java and Node and a host of other programming environments, and for good reason. Unifying a codebase can usually reduce bugs, enhance stability and increase developer productivity, all of which ultimately benefit the end user. Except, that is, when it comes to user interfaces. Despite attempts across the industry to fuse the concept of a desktop and a tablet, from the new Microsoft Surface tablets to Apple’s catch up with the iPad Pro, there remains an enormous productivity gap between desktop and mobile products that still hasn’t been bridged. The mouse, first invented in 1964, still holds its own against multitouch displays and styluses when it comes to actual productivity. So I look at an announcement like a potential new fusion UI library, and I hesitate. Apple’s strategy could be as simple as combining basic app elements like strings and images to make them accessible on both platforms (Apple still has two UI libraries depending on if the developer is writing for OS X or if they are writing for iOS). Or Apple could be much more ambitious, and the company could see an opportunity to really go for a true fusion operating system that would turn the MacBook Pro into a single continuous product line from the iPad, much in the vein of Microsoft’s Surface product strategy. That would be a product disaster. The use cases are so different for each of these devices, and yet, Apple’s combined library would encourage developers to reuse their UI code from one device to another, rather than thinking through what is most optimal for each. Developers could, of course, continue to do that hard work themselves, but how long until compressed development budgets and tight deadlines push product managers to just conclude that an iPad app on desktop is “good enough” and ship it out the door? Look, I’m not an Apple lover or a hater — I’m ultimately just a user. I have the full suite of Apple hardware sitting on my desk right now — an iPhone X, an iPad Pro, AirPods and a MacBook Pro. But ultimately, I bought each and every one of these devices to actually do things — to read articles, to write them, to edit podcasts and movies, to build websites and API infrastructures. Each needs to function for their optimal purpose. If the developer behind my package-tracking app decides to make a native OS X version that looks and feels similar, I am not going to mind. That’s not what I am concerned about. I am concerned about all the deeper productivity tools that I use on a regular basis that may suddenly decide that the least common denominator feature set between desktop and mobile is suddenly what they are going to aim for. Unsurprisingly, there has definitely been an intensifying meme from the commentariat that Apple’s software is significantly worse than it has been before. Paul Jones’ article on Apple’s declining software quality hit a nerve last year, and his conclusion seems to be increasingly shared with others industry. As Jones said at the time, even alluding to this fusion app concept: OpenGL implementation has fallen behind the competition, the filesystem desperately needs updating, the SDK has needed modernizing for years, networking and cryptography have seen major gaffes. And that’s with regards to the under-the-hood details, the applications are easier targets: it’s tragic that Aperture and iPhoto were axed in favor of the horrifically bad Photos app (that looks like some Frankenstein “iOS X” app), the entire industry have left Final Cut Pro X, I dare not plug my iPhone in to my laptop for fear of what it might do, the Mac App Store is the antitheses of native application development (again being some Frankenstein of a web/native app), and iCloud nee MobileMe nee iTools has been an unreliable and slow mess since day one. And recent news of major security vulnerabilities like the ability to completely bypass a computer’s root password on OS X as well as the company’s intentional degradation of iPhone performance have not helped the perception of the company’s competence much in the interim since Jones wrote his article. All that grousing is fine, but the touchbar didn’t end my relationship with Apple. At the end of the day, the company’s strongest suit — the single quality that keeps its users, including me, coming back so consistently — is the company’s design sense. It just has a singular focus on building products exactly the way users need them in order to be the most productive, and frankly, to have the most fun. News that the company is encouraging people to design for all devices at once is really an encouragement to get lazy around design, and will ultimately undermine one of Apple’s key bulwarks against competition from Microsoft and Google. Apple has had to grapple with a wider number of products than at almost any point in the company’s history since they allowed cloning. I get that the company wants to reduce friction for developers, and that should always be applauded. But Apple is delirious if it thinks that all of these devices can substitute as one. It needs to keep its focus on where its products are differentiated — and that is in differentiated design, particularly in software. Featured Image: BERND THISSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Apple greenlights new Reese Witherspoon-backed comedy series starring Kristen Wiig

Apple has landed its first half-hour comedy series, according to a new report from The Hollywood Reporter out this afternoon. The series, which will be exec produced by and star SNL vet Kristen Wiig, hails from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. This is the third project from Hello Sunshine that Apple has now picked up to aid in its streaming TV ambitions. Others include a Jennifer Aniston and Witherspoon drama, focused on a fictional version of the morning TV show world, and a thriller starring Octavia Spencer called “Are You Sleeping,” which will delve into America’s love affair with true crime podcasts. Apple also recently greenlit a documentary series about extraordinary homes, a revival of “Amazing Stories” exec produced by Steven Spielberg and a new space drama from “Battlestar Galactica’s” creator, Ronald D. Moore, called “See.” According to THR’s report, Apple beat out multiple outlets for the 10-episode comedy which is “inspired by” Curtis Sittenfeld’s upcoming short-story collection “You Think It, I’ll Say It.” Wiig and Witherspoon will exec produce the new show, along with Hello Sunshine’s Lauren Neustadter and show runner/series creator Colleen McGuinness. Sittenfield will consult. Wiig represents yet another high-profile win for Apple in terms of talent. The actress was Emmy nominated three times for her work on SNL, and was Oscar nominated for co-writing “Bridesmaids,” a film she also starred in. More recently, she’s appeared in films including “Ghostbusters,” “Downsizing,” and Netflix’s “Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later.” THR notes this new series will be Apple’s fifth scripted show, and more may be on the way. Apple is currently bidding against HBO for J.J. Abrams’ first script since “Fringe.” Featured Image: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images