Company / division: Apple
Several trade groups representing parties involved in online advertising have sent an open letter to the Coalition for Better Ads (of which they are themselves among the largest members) pushing for faster implementation of self-regulatory moves intended to stave off the threat of browser-based ad blocking. The context here is moves by browser makers – notably Google and Apple – to get tougher on bad ads and cookie-based tracking respectively, both of which threaten the online ad industry. The industry would therefore like to put in place self regulatory measures which have been discussed for some time but not implemented as a way to try to stave off more of this stuff, though the Apple changes have already gone into force and Google’s are likely to do so as well. The online ad industry only has itself to blame for failing to self-regulate sooner and more effectively and thereby maintaining an environment in which such moves by tech companies are deemed necessary. Poor online advertising really serves no-one well in the long term but the industry’s short-termism in allowing it to continue unchecked is now leading to nasty long-term consequences which it is essentially powerless to reverse.
via Marketing Land
Qualcomm Seeks iPhone Sales and Manufacturing Ban in China (Oct 13, 2017)
Qualcomm has announced that it’s filed lawsuits in China seeking a ban on iPhone sales and manufacturing in the country, the latest salvo in the ongoing dispute between the two over patent royalty payments. Qualcomm previously requested the International Trade Commission to ban the import of Intel-based iPhones into the US, and importantly the Chinese government earlier fined Qualcomm on antitrust grounds, so it’s not necessarily disposed to siding with it in this case. However, Qualcomm has been among a set of companies looking to curry favor with the Chinese government, so it’s possible that the Chinese government might look more favorably on such a request. On balance, though, I think it’s unlikely that Qualcomm will prevail here given its history not only in China but elsewhere around these antitrust issues, though of course a successful ban would be a huge blow to Apple in China, so it’s understandable why Qualcomm would seek it as a way to gain leverage in the case.
SensorTower, an app analytics firm with a misleading name, reports that over 3 million apps which require support for the ARKit augmented reality toolset have been downloaded from Apple’s iOS App Store since the launch of iOS 11, and that over half of those downloads were of games. Importantly, this excludes apps which have ARKit-based features as optional extras and only focuses on those apps which require ARKit compatibility to run at all, which is obviously a narrower set of apps. Around a third of the apps available in this category are games, so they’re being downloaded disproportionately more than apps in other categories. Overall, I have to say that I’ve been surprised by how few really compelling or big ARKit-based apps there have been so far – even some of the apps demoed by Apple at WWDC and the iPhone launch seem to be missing in action so far, including an updated Pokemon Go game. That’s a little disappointing given how much noise Apple made about ARKit ahead of its launch and the high expectations many of us had for the platform. I still think more games and apps will come in time, but things are definitely taking off more slowly than I would have expected.
A developer named Felix Krause has surfaced an issue that’s been present in Apple’s iOS for a long time and which I’ve often wondered about myself, which is that the operating system periodically pops up what appear to the user to be random dialog boxes asking users to supply their Apple ID passwords. Because of the seemingly random times and places these dialogs show up, they train users to enter their passwords when using apps, which means that apps could at least theoretically recreate these dialogs with their own and thereby phish users’ Apple ID details, creating a security vulnerability. The post Krause wrote about this suggests several fixes, the most of obvious of which is that these dialogs should direct users to the Settings app rather than prompting for a password directly. In my opinion, it would also be nice if the dialogs explained why the user suddenly had to re-enter their password – the lack of explanation is another long-standing niggle I have with these dialogs. But this feels like a rare goof by Apple, which is normally so strong on privacy and security but has here created a situation which could easily be exploited by malicious parties. It’s easily fixed, though, and hopefully Apple will do so soon.
via Felix Krause
The Wall Street Journal reports, with confirmation from NBC but not Apple, that the latter has signed a deal to reboot Steven Spielberg’s 1980s TV series as part of its big original video content push. This would be the first deal that’s come to light since Apple brought in two Sony TV execs to run the initiative, which I think of as version 2.0 of its original content push, with the first characterized by a variety of smaller projects with ties to its ecosystems like Planet of the Apps, Carpool Karaoke, and a variety of one-off music documentaries. Amazing Stories wasn’t a huge hit back in the day, running for only two seasons with limited ratings, but the Spielberg name will likely do a lot for it, and with a big budget ($5m per episode) and some good stories it could well be an interesting hit. Apple will obviously need quite a few more of these to use up its billion-dollar budget and secure enough content to become a draw for whatever service Apple wraps around this content, but this seems like a promising start.
Apple has announced that its long-standing general counsel, Bruce Sewell, is retiring and will be replaced in the role by Katherine Adams, who joins Apple from a similar role at Honeywell. Normally, the departure of the general counsel at a tech firm wouldn’t be something I’d cover, but this is noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, Sewell enjoyed a rather higher profile than most general counsels do over the last couple of years because he was a key figure in Apple’s fight with the FBI, among other things, and of course Apple’s lawsuits against Samsung and more recently Qualcomm have also been fairly high profile. Few corporate lawyers get to implement company strategy quite as directly as Sewell did during his time at Apple, especially with regard to privacy. Adams will obviously take over the Qualcomm case and others Sewell was overseeing along with carrying the mantle of protecting privacy in the context of law enforcement. Secondly, the fact that a woman is replacing a man on Apple’s board means that it now has two out of eleven members who are women. As I noted a month ago, the next tier down of eight executives is evenly split, but until now Angela Ahrendts has been the lone woman on the board. It’s good to see that start to change, and I wonder whether other executives who move on from those senior ranks in the coming years will likewise be replaced by women.
This issue has been covered in various places over the past couple of weeks, but this is the first bit of real criticism I’ve seen of Apple’s approach here, and I thought it was worth diving into briefly. In iOS 11, the Control Center users reach by sliding up from the bottom of the screen on most iPhones has what appear to be on/off toggles for Bluetooth and WiFi, but in reality these toggles don’t actually turn those radios all the way off. Rather, they leave both radios in a more limited mode in which they still operate in certain ways and in fact will reactivate each morning at 5am. This is a change Apple hasn’t communicated proactively to users in any way, and represents a fairly big shift from how things have worked in the past.
The EFF piece linked below suggests this presents security risks given past Bluetooth vulnerabilities, though it doesn’t actually suggest any specific vulnerabilities Apple might be exposing users to in iOS, which like most mobile operating systems handles Bluetooth pairing requests pretty carefully. Apple’s reasoning for the change is sound – leaving these radios in this in-between state enables key Apple functions like Handoff of activity between devices, the Instant Hotspot feature, and others – but the implementation of the change feels un-Apple-like, in that it’s unintuitive and overrides user preferences in a couple of different ways. Apple could have made similar changes in a more transparent and user-friendly way, and avoided some of the criticism it’s now getting.
EU Takes Action Against Amazon and Ireland Over Taxes (Oct 4, 2017)
It was reported earlier in the week that the EU would soon take action against both Amazon and Ireland (with regard to Apple) over the underpayment of taxes in the trading block, and both actions are now official. In the Amazon case, the company is being asked to pay 250 million euros to get the company up to the level of taxes the EU says it should have paid in Luxembourg over the last few years, while in the case of Ireland, the country is being taken to EU court by the European Commission over the fact that it has not yet collected and placed in escrow the 13 billion euros Apple owes it. I’ve covered both cases in the past, so I won’t add much here, but of course this is all part of the ongoing tension between the EU and the US tech industry on a variety of fronts, something that prompted me to create the first new narrative here on the site in a while and retroactively tag a number of past posts against it – you can see it here.
Apple has issued watchOS 4.0.1 for Apple Watches, which fixes the WiFi/LTE bug that caused problems for some Apple Watch reviewers (and presumably some early regular users as well). That’s a pretty quick turnaround but a critical bug fix given how the issue impacted reviews from at least a couple of outlets. I’ve been using the Apple Watch with LTE for the past week and haven’t had the issues described, which I’d guess will be typical for many users, but the bad press Apple deservedly got over the issue was utterly avoidable and a big goof for a company which should have had one of its best launch periods in years. As I mentioned when the reviews first came out, it’ll likely take some new positive coverage of how the Watch works with the fix in place to change perceptions, but I’d hope that going forward the device works well and people can use it as intended.
via Mac Rumors
Apple Has Acquired a Small French Photo Analysis Company (Sep 29, 2017)
Apple has made another one of its characteristic quiet, small acquisitions of a technology company, this one a French business specializing in computer vision for photo analysis. Unlike some other photo analysis tools, however, this one isn’t so much about recognizing the content of photos as determining which photo in a group might be technically best, or which photos are duplicates. It’s easy to see those technologies being used in future version of Apple’s Photos app on the iPhone to select the best picture from a burst of photos, or to manage a photo library on a Mac. Apple has put enormous attention into its cameras almost from day one of the iPhone, but its photo management software hasn’t kept pace for much of that time, though recently it’s began to invest more seriously in it both on the iPhone itself and on the Mac. This small acquisition is a sign that it plans to continue to make incremental improvements, if nothing else.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai has called for Apple to “activate the FM chip” built into at least some iPhones as a way to help with disaster relief in places hit by recent natural disasters. Others have also made similar calls over the last couple of years, including industry groups with obvious interests in Apple doing so, such as the National Association of Broadcasters. But of course to suggests that this is as simple a matter as activating a chip in a device is to ignore the fact that without some kind of app to tune the radio, it would be useless. So in fact Apple would need to create an SDK for developers to use to create apps, it would need to release an iOS version that incorporated the new functionality and turned on the FM radio functionality, app developers would need to create apps using the SDK, and then Apple would need to approve those apps to be distributed through the App Store. So this is a far from simple process, and not one that could be implemented overnight. It’s also unclear whether FM radios are actually in all iPhones, given that Apple recently switched some of its modems to Intel. The idea that FM radios in existing devices should simply be switched on is obviously an appealing one, especially in a place like Puerto Rico where communication infrastructure is currently in poor shape following the hurricane, but the practicalities of trying to force such a solution in the short term seem unfeasible. The broader issue of whether Apple should enable such uses in general rather than in response to a particular current situation is rather different – Apple has never said why it won’t do so, and I’ve never heard a good reason why it shouldn’t, but that is very different from suggesting there’s some sort of immediate fix to the current problem.
Also worth reading: this piece from PC Mag’s Sascha Segan, which talks about one potential hurdle, which is that FM radio functions in phones typically require wired headphones, something Apple is moving away from in its newer iPhones.
Update: Apple has now issued a formal comment, which among other things says that its newer iPhones (the 7 and 8 models) don’t even have FM radios to turn on, making much of this moot.
This has been a long-running saga with several false starts in reporting a conclusion of the deal, but Toshiba has now finally announced an agreement on the sale of its memory business to a consortium led by Bain Capital for two trillion yen, or roughly $18 billion. Apple is among several companies providing funding for the deal, and it looks like it’ll end up paying about $1.5 billion for its stake. Ensuring that Toshiba’s memory business remained a going concern and that it secured its share of its output was paramount to Apple given the constraints and competitiveness in the global memory market, which has pushed up costs and prices over recent months while boosting Samsung’s memory business enormously. Given the frustrations Apple has experienced in having to rely on Samsung as a supplier for OLED screens in an equally constrained market, this long-term imperative will have taken on even greater significance lately. There are additional complexities in the deal because Western Digital, which owns several joint ventures with Toshiba, continues to oppose it, but it looks like it should now go ahead.
As new versions of Apple’s operating systems and new iPhone hardware roll out, Apple has updated its website’s privacy section to reflect some of the recent changes and especially to deal with questions users may have about the Face ID feature on the upcoming iPhone X. The site starts with big picture statements about Apple’s commitment to privacy, starting with the assertion that “At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right” and moves on to more detailed descriptions of Apple’s approach to privacy. In a nutshell, the policy described there is that Apple isn’t interested in your personal data, enables you to determine with whom to share it, and also provides tools for you to protect your information and devices. Apple also addresses its use of differential privacy, which has been in the news lately for a couple of different reasons, including a recent study which asserted that it’s weaker as a privacy protection than Apple says, but also because of changes to Safari data gathering in macOS High Sierra.
For Apple, the key is that it has no reason to infringe on its users’ privacy, because its business model is best served by protecting that privacy rather than gathering data on its users. That’s a meaningful differentiator for at least some Apple customers, and reinforcing these values will be important to them, but for many other customers Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other companies’ privacy policies are not a matter of significant moment. That could of course change in time as these companies have potential access to more and more personal data including health data, but for now the surveys I’ve seen suggest that trust levels are broadly similar between big companies and most people don’t avoid companies like Google because of their business models and approach to data gathering.
The US Food and Drug Administration has pushed forward with plans to test a fast-track process for approving technological approaches to healthcare problems, and has selected nine companies to be part of its pilot program, including Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, and Alphabet’s Verily life sciences unit. Apple has long said that the need to get FDA approval for health-related products would likely dissuade it from entering that market directly, though it’s managed to serve that market indirectly through partners taking advantage of its ResearchKit and other programs. Both Apple and Fitbit have been pursuing health-related applications for their devices, and Samsung launched a virtual doctor service as part of its Galaxy S8 launch earlier this year, so this is clearly a hot area for these consumer tech companies. The FDA deals mostly with products with diagnostic or treatment applications, which is why so much health and wellness tech tends to stop short of those categories and merely provide data and alerts. But the potential for doing more is already clear, and with faster FDA approval we could well see these companies go deeper into this field. It’s still early in this process, and there might still be other downsides including the potential for leaks while approval is being sought, which is likely to give Apple in particular pause, but this is a positive step for both the industry and for end users.
Amazon Begins Selling Apple TV Hardware Again (Sep 26, 2017)
Amazon has quietly begun selling Apple TV hardware again, as part of the thawing in relations between the two companies. Apple has already announced that an Amazon video app is coming to the Apple TV shortly, so this is the first half of that two-part move, suggesting that the other shoe should drop soon. As I said a few months back, though some have suggested there was some tit-for-tat in Apple and Amazon’s frosty relations, the reality is that the barriers to playing nicely were all on Amazon’s side – the company could have built an app for the Apple TV as soon as the platform launched an App Store, but chose not to. I assume that was because of the App Store cut, but that’s been a feature on iOS too, and hasn’t stopped Amazon from launching video apps for that platform. Regardless, it’s likely that Apple has made some concessions on the App Store cut, and that that’s finally got Amazon on board as one of the last holdouts from the Apple TV, which should further increase the appeal of that hardware platform for those willing to pay the Apple premium to get their Transparent or Man in the High Castle fix.
Apple has quietly switched the search back end for its Siri voice assistant and what used to be called Spotlight search to Google, after relying on Bing for several years. Bing will continue to provide the image search results in Siri, but is otherwise being replaced by Google. That’s a fascinating turn of events after several years of Apple removing Google from various elements of its built-in systems, from switching to its own maps to elimination the YouTube app to offering a variety of alternative default search providers in Safari, to this use of Bing behind the scenes. Although there’s obviously been some speculation that money was a factor here, and it may well have been, I suspect this ultimately comes down to wanting to provide the best possible experience in these various settings, and that means using Google. That’s ultimately the same reason that Apple hasn’t switched away from Google as the default search engine within Safari in Western markets – Google is the gold standard, and everything else still comes up short. I do wonder if this is part of a quiet renewal of the longstanding relationship between the two companies, which always prompts speculation about Apple replacing Google as the default. That certainly seems less likely now, as Apple in its brief public statement on this news has emphasized the need for consistency across experiences within iOS and macOS, suggesting that Google is here to stay as the default search option in Safari. That’s a big win for Google and a big loss for Microsoft, for which Apple’s partnership was a rare bright spot on mobile, while it continues to take decent share on the desktop by virtue of Windows’ dominance there.
Apple Wins First Small Battles in Court Against Qualcomm (Sep 22, 2017)
I haven’t seen much coverage of this today, but it appears that Apple won a first couple of small battles in its various lawsuits with Qualcomm. A California judge ruled that Apple’s supply chain partners don’t have to pay the royalties they’re currently withholding until such a time as the proper amounts to be paid have been determined, and Qualcomm was also denied its request to end the litigation being pursued separately by Apple in other countries. These are initial steps in what’s going to be a potentially long and complex set of court cases between the companies, but it’s possible that the companies will end up settling once it becomes clearer which way the legal wind is blowing, and they would then likely drop all outstanding litigation. By themselves, these first decisions aren’t indicative of which way things are going to go, but they do put increased financial pressure on Qualcomm, which has seen reported revenues drop as Apple’s partners withhold royalties, which will likely push it to move to settlement sooner rather than later, something that’s probably good news for Apple.
via Apple Insider
Imagination Technologies, whose GPUs Apple said it would soon stop using back in April, prompting a massive selloff in the stock and a decision to explore strategic options, has announced that it’s agreed to sell most of its business to a Chinese-backed private equity firm, Canyon Bridge, with Silicon Valley investment fund Tallwood Partners buying the MIPS business it had previously said it might sell separately. Apple, of course, announced a GPU designed in-house at last week’s iPhone event, which means its abandonment of Imagination Tech as a chip supplier is going even more quickly than we might have thought. Since April, the story of Imagination has been a cautionary tale about what a double-edged sword being an Apple supplier is – on the one hand, a huge boon to your business, and on the other hand a massive risk that it someday pulls the plug because it’s found an alternative supplier or simply decided it can do things itself. It’s good to see Imagination find a way out, but the acquisition price of 182 pence per share, a significant premium over its recent share price, is still way below its high of 291.50 right before the Apple news came out.
This Financial Times piece seems like as good a hook as any to round up the week’s Apple news and to talk about perceptions of weak demand for the iPhone 8. The FT points out that Apple’s stock has had its worst week in 17 months, falling over 5%, as a result of some mixed reviews of its new products and perceived weak demand for new iPhones. As I said earlier in the week, the Apple Watch LTE reviews were particularly problematic, but I think much of the rest of the worry this week is overblown. It has been clear that overall demand for the iPhone 8 during the preorder period and in today’s first day on sale has been a little weak, but it’s also been clear that Apple has still sold out its first week or two of preorder inventory and that there were still lines in major stores despite the years-long decline in retail sales on the first day given the success of online pre-sales. From a financial perspective, all that really matters is that Apple sells a few more iPhones in the first ten days or so than it did last year, and that it has a strong December quarter, which will combine ongoing sales of the iPhone 8 line and the iPhone X line from about a month into the quarter onwards. It certainly seems to be the case that iPhone X interest has dampened early iPhone 8 sales somewhat, but as long as Apple has the X in decent supply in November and December, that needn’t be a problem, and it’s certainly not the case that the iPhone 8 isn’t selling at all. As such, I think Apple will be fine even if overall demand for the 8 line isn’t as strong as for the 7 line last year, but the big wrinkle will be supply of iPhone X models. If those are very constrained throughout the December quarter, that will be a bit more problematic.
via Financial Times
For the third day straight, reviews of one of the new products Apple announced last week are out, this time the Apple TV 4K. This is a far less significant launch than either the iPhone 8 or Apple Watch Series 3 given the relatively small numbers in which the box sells, but it’s still worth noting the tenor of the reviews. Once again I’m linking to Techmeme, which decided to lead with Nilay Patel’s Verge review, which based on my reading seems the most critical of the reviews out there. In general, all the reviewers seemed to like Apple’s familiar but somewhat revamped interface and the snappiness enabled by the new A10X chip (the same one which powers the iPad Pro). Where 4K HDR content was available, it was said to look fantastic, and the iTunes pricing for available 4K movies was also noted as a big plus. The biggest downside is predictable: the lack of content, something that also makes 4K TVs a marginal proposition today while the industry suffers from the same chicken/egg problem that plagued HD in its early years, but worse because of the lack of broadcast 4K content. Disney’s absence from iTunes 4K, the incompatibility between the Apple TV and YouTube’s 4K standards, and so on are the notable gaps. But Nilay Patel’s review is the only one I saw that grumbled in depth about other issues – perhaps because he’s a more discerning judge of these things as a high-end AV guy: he noted that the Apple TV doesn’t support Dolby’s Atmos sound configuration to go with the Dolby HDR picture support it does offer, and also pointed out that watching HDR content on the Apple TV 4K is a sub-par experience for now. Overall, it’s a decent set of reviews but for anyone who either doesn’t have a 4K TV or watch content sources with a lot of 4K content, it’s basically irrelevant for now.
On this topic, you might be interested in the piece I wrote for Techpinions subscribers earlier this week on the current market for smart TV boxes like the Apple TV 4K.