Essays on Technology and Culture

The Problem with Apple’s Price Tag Cheerleaders

Mobile computing analyst Brian S. Hall, of Apple Boo Boo makes a good point about the pricing talk around Apple Watch: [1]

As Tim Cook’s Apple has gone even more upscale, emphasizing high-fashion and literally gold adornments, eagerly adopting the Vertu business model and taking it global, I have noted a rising tendency by the cheerleader blogs to sneer and mock those who don’t choose Apple.

Thing is, Apple may not necessarily be the right choice for everyone.


If there’s one thing that’s rubbed me the wrong way about the endless speculation over the high-end of Apple Watch pricing, it’s the subtext that the absurd sticker price for gold Apple Watches is some sort of boon to Apple in its competition with the other smartwatch players, if not the industry as a whole. Shame on Motorola for not offering some multi-thousand dollar Android Wear smartwatch in gold, right? Even John Gruber’s written eye-rolling over a covered micro-USB port on the back of Sony’s latest smartwatch comes from that same smug place. There’s something very useful about being able to charge your device with a standard cable you can get for a couple bucks at the gas station, even if it’s less elegant than a magnetic charging cable.

The griping over Apple having the audacity to sell a multi-thousand dollar watch is just as obnoxious. Remember, Apple’s entry level price for the Watch, $349, is only $100 more than the Moto 360. Of course, even a $99 Pebble is out of reach for many people, too. But, Apple’s not in danger of becoming Vertu any time soon. If the iPhone 7 comes in a $40,000 18-karet Rose Gold option to match the Apple Watch 3, with a $10,000 alligator leather case option, then I’ll worry. Apple Watch is one product, it’s untested, and it’s unknown. It’s a big, expensive experiment to see if Apple can use fashion to put a (potentially) useful gizmo on people’s wrists, and we don’t know how it will turn out.

I don’t agree with Brian’s assessment in a separate piece that Apple Watch is “a showpiece. And you buy it to show it off.” Having used a Pebble for the better part of a month, I find there’s something to this wearables/smartwatch thing, even if it’s difficult to articulate. (And even if the Pebble’s functionality on iOS is crippled.) The functionality a smartwatch provides isn’t essential, but it is useful. How do you communicate the utility of a new kind of device to a new audience who neither knows, nor cares, about it?

I know it’s hard to explain why I haven’t yet shoved my Pebble in a drawer until the new OS comes out. I’m trying, though, and hope to have something to say about it in a future essay. It’s hard to understand the utility of a wearable device until you’ve tried one. This is the hurdle that smartwatch makers need to overcome. The fashion-focused marketing of Apple Watch might end up clever in retrospect: putting something of great, but hard to explain utility on people’s wrists through the sheer power of fashionability. It’s a crazy move, and who knows if it will work? It’s possible, though, that once someone straps Apple Watch on their wrist, no matter what model, they’ll find their reasons to keep it on there change from fashion to utility.

Or, they’ll take it back to the store in a week and get their money back. We don’t know yet.

Whatever happens with Apple Watch and it’s crazy price tags, Brian’s fundamental point remains:

Pull back any judgments you have on those who don’t have the same as you.

Whether someone has a $10,000 Apple Watch Edition, a $349 Apple Watch Sport, a $199 Android Wear gizmo, or a $99 Pebble, or a free-with-contract prepaid flip phone and no smartwatch, they probably have a valid reason for their choice. Us Apple people need to stop being such jerks about how good the company we give money to is, and how terrible everyone else is. It’s helping nobody.

  1. Hat tip to Jordan Cooper for the link.  ↩

Pebble Time and the Role of the Smartwatch

Today, Pebble announced Pebble Time, a $199, color e-ink smartwatch, and an associated Kickstarter, that earned over $5 million within the first six hours. Pebble Time looks like a nice piece of kit, but what really intrigues me about the new Pebble is the UI. Instead on focusing on notifications, Pebble is focusing on a timeline, with the ability to scroll ahead to what’s coming up, or scroll back to see what you may have missed. As The Verge describes it:

Move down the timeline, and you might see an upcoming calendar appointment or flight information. Move back, and the timeline can show how many steps you took yesterday or the score of last nightís playoff game. The “present” or default setting of the timeline displays things like stock information, current weather, and, of course, the current time.

It’s a clever rethinking of what a smartwatch can be. Supposedly the timeline UI will be coming to the older Pebbles, but there’s no timeframe. Suffice it to say, whatever my decision is about keeping or dropping Pebble after a month, I’ll be keeping the device around so I can try the new interface when it’s available. There’s value of in providing context-sensitive and time-sensitive information, and a smartwatch is a platform well suited for that. Having your wrist buzz instead of your phone beeping with every notification you get, not so much.

The three main smartwatch platforms are differentiating themselves on the roles a smartwatch could, potentially, play in out lives. Android Wear is focused around notifications, especially ones from Google Now. I’ve had bad luck with Google Now, but Andy Ihnatko, whose judgement I trust, swears by it and his Moto 360. Apple Watch is positioning itself as a communications and lifestyle device. Over on Twitter, Zac Cichy, and @OhmDee seem convinced that Apple Watch will usher in a new era of voice messaging to replace SMS and other forms of text chat. [1] It’s too early to tell, and we might get a bigger, clearer picture whenever Apple holds their Watch event.

Pebble’s timeline interface a very compelling alternative to both of these concepts. I’ve long maintained that context awareness is the future of computing. Rethinking the notification-based, interruption-based paradigm of smartwatch—and smartphone—interaction as a temporal stream is a sound one. My hope is that they’ll be able to execute on it, and have the third-party developer support needed to get the right data in there at the right time…

..And that they can make it work with iOS, which may be the biggest hurdle.

  1. Frankly, the idea of ubiquitous voice messaging seems like my idea of hell. How quickly we forget the days of obnoxious jerks using push-to-talk all the time.  ↩

Adware, Crapware, and the Value of Trust

In case you missed it, Lenovo has been in the news for pre-installing adware known as Superfish that has a huge, exposed security flaw that “exposes Lenovo users to man-in-the-middle attacks.” Truth it, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened to a major PC manufacturer. PC hardware has been commoditized, and margins in the PC business are razor thin. In order to make up lost profits, many PC manufacturers load up their machines with junk in exchange for a few extra bucks profit on each unit sold. Apple was making ads about this exact thing back in 2009, and now Microsoft offers “Signature Edition” PCs through their stores with the promise of a clean Windows install. The only other way to get a clean Windows installation is to do it yourself, which is why I’m surprised it only took until now for a major PC manufacturer to get bitten in the ass by their own profit scrounging.

Lenovo’s mistake (to put it politely) is one of the biggest violations of customer trust in an industry not known for being trustworthy. Yet, Lenovo is also a victim—the commoditization of PC hardware has made it easier, and cheaper, for people to get a decent computer that lasts longer, while making it harder for hardware companies to make a decent profit. With PC shipments dropping, quarter over quarter, it’s that much harder to keep things afloat. Computers are already something that the average person has little trust in, with endless software updates, pre-installed trialware, outsourced tech support, and pushy sales people… so what’s a little adware in an already untrustworthy relationship, right?

That’s the Catch–22 underlying this whole situation. A PC hardware company that values trust must either charge a premium or earn slimmer margins. Either way, they’re competing with cheaper, commodity hardware sold by companies with less scruples, or at least less scrupulous shareholders. Yet, inexpensive commodity PC hardware makes it easier for socio-economically disadvantaged people to get on the Internet, and become part of the digital economy. A world where one needs a middle-class income to afford a basic personal computer is a dangerous one that can lead to further social and economic inequity. This isn’t to say owning a computer is enough—It’s not, but it’s a big part.

My hope for the outcome of the Superfish fiasco is that hardware companies will think harder about the junk they load up their products with. We’ll never be free of PCs being sold with unwanted and unnecessary software. The subsidization of commoditized hardware is a frustratingly necessary evil to get computers in the hands of more people who need them. Because of that alone, I don’t think anything is going to change after Superfish. The value of customer trust in the PC hardware business just isn’t worth more than what crapware companies are willing to pay to have their products pre-installed. The end result? A two-tiered computing experience: a secure, crapware free one for the people who can pay for a “signature experience” (or a Mac), and a spammy, insecure one for the poor. At least it’s an improvement over the company that offered free, ad-supported computers in 1999. [1]

  1. A company that lasted about nine months before being bought out. How soon before some VC-backed startup tries the same thing today?  ↩

Eighteen Karets of “Why Should I Care?”

Apple is weeks away (according to rumor) from releasing a new consumer technology product that has the potential to revolutionize our relationship to technology. Sure, there’s been smartwatches before, but none have had Apple’s level of detail, polish, and integration on the hardware and software levels. If anyone can get a smartwatch right, and unlock the potential of a computer on the wrist, it’s probably Apple. We can’t say until it’s for sale and wrapped around our wrists. There’s plenty we don’t know about Apple Watch, and how we’ll be using it, and all those unknowns are fueling speculation around the Internet.

Well, maybe in some places. What I keep seeing in my circles is speculation about how much Apple’s going to charge for the gold, Edition models, theories about how many Edition models are being manufactured, and curiosity about how they’ll be sold.

Seriously, people. We’re about to get our hands on a piece of gear that could, if done right, change the way we interact with every piece of digital technology in our lives. Apple Watch can become the most personal piece of technology we have seen, changing the way we relate to everything digital… and we’re arguing about the price of the gold in the case, and whether the most expensive model will cost $3,000, $5,000, or $20,000. Spare me. It’s clear that Apple is targeting across the price spectrum for their smartwatch, and it’s a smart strategy. There are people who drop multiple thousands on mechanical watches without blinking, and making Apple Watch appeal to them is a reasonable way try and secure some clout among the fashion conscious. How much will it cost? “A lot” will suffice.

The more important price we know is $349, the price for the entry-level Apple Watch. I agree with the current theory that the $349 price will be for the Sports variant, and it’s only $100 more than the base model Moto 360, generally considered the best Android Wear watch out there. As prices go, it’s one that puts the Apple Watch within reach of many people with an interest in technology. It’s affordable, but not cheap, which is fast becoming Apple’s entry-level price point. I’m reminded of the discussion, pre-iPad about pricing, with some suggesting it would start at $999. Instead, Apple priced it at $499, shocking everybody, and instantly making the iPad seem more affordable. If we have to talk about the price of this product, this is where we should be having the discussion.

Instead, focusing on the high-end of the price scale for Apple Watch feels like navel-gazing of the highest order.

There’s real conversations we can have about the role of wearables, like John Pavlus’s recent piece in MIT Technology Review:

The unique promise of wearable technology lies in its intimate proximity to our bodies, which makes Apple’s inward-facing “taptic engine” particularly interesting. This lets the device deliver pulses of vibration, or haptic feedback, to the wearer’s wrist, and it is unavailable to third-party developers for now. If Apple removes that barrier, the watch’s true power as a new kind of personal communicator will be unleashed…

This is powerful, compelling, and exciting stuff! It’s why, wearables skeptic that I am, have undertaken an experiment of wearing a smartwatch for a month. I want to know the potential of what this new form of computing can do, and the potential of what we can do with it. The gold Apple Watch Edition isn’t going to differ functionally from its less expensive, steel and aluminum brethren. On the outside it’s shinier, and fancier, but inside, the hardware is the same, and so are the bits that make up the software. So why all the attention being lavished on the mysterious price point for the gold model?

As I think about this problem, I come back to a thought I had recently: “That which is not quantifiable is not valued.” People, especially technology people, love numbers. I remember comparing the specs on computers with my friends back in the day, grumbling with envy at the guy with the 500Mhz Pentium III while I still got by with my 266Mhz Pentium II. In 2015, the specs no longer matter that much, outside of heavy lifting truck stuff, like video editing and 3D rendering (for games and design alike). When the innards of our laptops and tablets don’t differ that much between brands, we have to find something else to quantify, gloat about, and argue over.

So, we choose to fight and die on the hill of our chosen brand’s market value. Apple had the biggest quarter ever, and is now worth more than almost all other companies in the world. Apple sold more iPhones last quarter, at a higher average selling price than ever before. If Apple sells a bunch of multi-thousand dollar gold watches, that’s a huge pile of profit, and yet another thing to cheer for, and another arrow in our quiver that we can launch at the Android fans with their flat-tire screened Moto 360s.

John Gruber has described two types of baseball fans: numbers people, and story people. Numbers people care obsessively about the statistics, while story people focus on the player, their interactions, and the arc of a team’s season. For baseball, Gruber styles himself a story person. In technology, there’s the same thing. Some of us care about the numbers: clock speed, RAM, cache, transfer speeds. Some of care about how we can use the darn thing: about apps, interfaces, and our relationship with our gizmos. It’s clear that I’ve moved into that latter camp, and the numbers people aren’t telling a story I care about.

“How does this person’s decision affect me?”

When we care about what someone else is drinking, we are attaching some small part of our inner peace to that person and their actions. Because we can’t control that person or what they drink, we risk feeling discontent when they don’t act in the way we’ve expected them to.

We allow ourselves to be affected by other people like this all the time. It’s a perfectly natural, human thing. Of course we should care about what our loved ones think. But when it comes to minutia—like what someone’s drinking—I can’t see any worthwhile reason to care.

Ask yourself, “How does this person’s decision affect me?”

“What Do You Care?” — Quarter-Life Enlightenment

Linking to an old, but evergreen, post by a friend.

The speed someone listens to a podcast at doesn’t affect you. The smartphone platform of the person across from you at the coffee shop doesn’t affect you. Someone ordering soup at a restaurant doesn’t affect you.

When you’re about to write a polemic about something, ask yourself that important question: “How does this person’s decision affect me?”

Chances are it doesn’t.