Yesterday was a big day. For technology journalists, every year, Apple’s product event is like a geek version of Thanksgiving, the Superbowl and New Year’s Eve, all rolled up into one massive secular holiday. On behalf of my industry colleagues, I thank you for clicking and paying our bills.
But not everyone is in a celebratory mood. My ZDNet colleague David Gewirtz feels the new wave of Apple iPhones is too expensive and believes that the insanely cash-rich company (with over a 200 billion dollar war chest) is in decline. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, our resident FOSS and Linux greybeard, is an Android disciple and is not easily impressed with Cupertino’s mind tricks.
I appreciate their perspectives, but one needs to look at the big picture to fully understand all of the event’s implications. Superficially, and for those who are obsessed with the annual refresh of shiny devices, the September Apple event may have appeared to have been an iPhone 11 device roll-out. But in my estimation, that was not the most important takeaway.
To use a journalism analogy my two long-time friends and writing mentors can easily understand, Apple — and every pundit who observed them — buried the lead with the iPhone 11 stuff. The real story here is how Apple intends to transform — over the next several years — into a consumer services and digital lifestyle giant; Tim Cook and Company laid it all right out in front of us, in the first 40 minutes or so of the event.
Before I unbury the lead, let us clear the unavoidable, vast debris field first. Yes, the iPhone 11 and 11 Pros are expensive. They cost over $700 after applicable taxes just to get your foot in the door with the entry-level iPhone 11 64GB, and realistically, most people will want at least a 128GB model, so we are talking $750-plus. An 11 Pro will run you over $1,150 with 256GB, and the 11 Pro Max with the same storage config will run you about $100 more.
Guess what? Not everyone needs a Ferrari. Most people need Honda Accords and Hyundai Elantras — dependable, peppy, reliable cars that get the job done and don’t break the bank. Do you know what a damn good phone is for a heck of a lot less money? Your reliable, sports model of a mid-priced commuter smartphone? The iPhone 8.
Earlier this year, I touted the idea of “Diet iPhone” — in which that Apple should release an “iPhone Classic” along the lines of the iPhone 8, at reduced pricing.
Well, do you know what they did yesterday, amidst all the iPhone 11 fanfare? They dropped the prices of both the iPhone 8 and the iPhone XR, which now $449 and $599 for the 64GB versions, respectively.
That’s without any trade-in value applied from an older iPhone. Did you keep it in a case, and it’s not all dinged up with cracked glass? Then your old iPhone has a cash value. An iPhone 6 from 2014 like David Gewirtz’ is worth up to $60. A 6S is worth up to $100, and a iPhone 7 is worth up to $150. The Plus models are worth more. This trade-in program saves you the hassle of trying to sell the thing on the street or shipping it to Amazon (or its contractor, Gazelle) who will give you a few dollars less towards purchasing credits.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The iPhone 8 is a darned good phone for the money. It is the classic iPhone design, with the TouchID, with an excellent single-lens camera.
The iPhone 8 is Apple’s equivalent to the venerable Porsche 911 sports car or Fender’s Stratocaster guitars — yes, like these other famous brands, Apple has more expensive, higher-performance models with more technological distractions to go with them, but these are the industry benchmarks in their category and what defined their brand identity.
These phones — the iPhone 8 and XR — are perfect for your teenager or college student, for mom or dad, and for anyone who doesn’t need or want every bell and whistle of the newer models. I plan on getting one for my mother-in-law, whose Verizon Android device is on its last legs. The A11 Bionic SoC that the iPhone 8 uses is still considerably more potent than most Android phones on the market, especially those competing at the $400 price point using 2017/2018’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (such as in the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Google Pixel 3), or the even less powerful Snapdragon 670 used in 2019’s Pixel 3A.
Speeds and feeds aside, most importantly, with these devices, you get Apple’s yearly OS updates, which are going to be good for at least three years at this stage in the phone’s lifecycle. Moreover, if you have any issues with your iPhone device, especially if you opt for AppleCare — now available indefinitely for a monthly fee — you can walk right into an Apple Store and have a human being deal with it. That’s worth actual money.
Apple won’t convince die-hard Android fanatics to cross over to iOS-land with the iPhone 8. However, for retaining its customer base and acquiring folks who want to try something new or come back into the Apple fold after years of failed Android update promises by their OEMs? The iPhone 8 fits that bill nicely. Are you listening, David Gewirtz? The iPhone 8 has your name written all over it.
So that gets the price discussion out of the way. If you can’t afford to buy a Ferrari, then don’t buy one. You have other options, and a very good one, at that, if you still want an Apple device.
The other thing that my colleagues might have missed yesterday was that the starting price of Apple Watch Series 3 was reduced to $199/$299 for the GPS-only and GPS/cellular versions, respectively. In the fitness/health tracker space, that’s massive. That watch can also now take the update to watchOS 6, which is the latest version and has all sorts of great health monitoring features, including ambient noise level warnings and vital sign alerts. I don’t need to remind you of the value my Apple Watch has been to me, and I had a Series 2 when it changed my opinion of the product, permanently.
At that price point, combined with the iPhone 8, you’ve got a great phone and smartwatch pairing for anyone who seeks an inexpensive way to stay in and take advantage of the Apple ecosystem.
While the prices on these two devices are already desirable, Apple could certainly sweeten the deal by offering an iPhone 8 and Apple Watch Series 3 combo under $600. That’s something no Android OEM can match, nor do they have a smartwatch product that comes even close in terms of features and smartphone app support. Are you listening, Cupertino? Crush Android like the insect that it is.
Google’s WearOS and Samsung’s Tizen are, at best, also-rans. Nor do they have unique, home-grown value-added services that solely run on their smartphones and other devices they sell.
Apple’s event on Tuesday may have had iPhones in it, but the real story was about the services and content ecosystem that is now being built:
Apple Arcade, launching with 100 exclusive new games (with new ones added monthly) also for $4.99 a month.
Apple News+, which is $9.99 a month. Arguably, this is the service that I feel needs the most price tweaking and UX work in the app itself, but still has tremendous potential for those interested in consuming premium news content.
iPhones and iPads may get all the attention at events like this, but Apple’s future is in the services that run on them. It represents the only chunk of their business that offers unlimited potential for future growth. Yes, they are in their early versions now, and the company realizes this — which is why they are offering them for such compellingly low prices. It would not surprise me to see Apple bundle these services for all-inclusive costs at discounted rates — particularly when it comes with new device purchases. This is not at all different from what we see from telecommunications providers like AT&T, who offer lower-cost internet access or streaming perks when you purchase their subscription TV or wireless services. For customer retention purposes, I see Apple eventually doing the same thing.
The better that Apple’s services get, the more compelling — and more valuable — that continued membership in their ecosystem gets. That value can be derived even from Apple’s lowest-priced and previous-generation products, which are still better values than what their competitors offer as current generation products at the same price point.
And yes, there is also a vast aftermarket sales channel that consumers can use to stay in Apple land as well if they don’t want to buy their equipment new. Now that Apple just dropped the prices on new iPhone 8 devices, we can expect the value of the used devices of the same generation to fall quite a bit.
That is a massive problem that neither Google nor Samsung can quickly solve — because they are also being challenged by members of their shared ecosystem, such as Chinese firms like Huawei, ZTE, OnePlus and Lenovo, who can build equally good Android devices for considerably less money.
Google and Samsung, unlike Apple, don’t have services that are exclusive to their platforms — ones that make people want to use Android (or Tizen) to get that service. All of the services Google has also runs on the iPhone because Google monetizes primarily by their advertising. Gmail, Maps, and Youtube are not Android exclusives — they all run on iOS. If they didn’t, Google would be alienating a large portion of their customer base.
With Apple, the “Walled Garden” is the value proposition.
The other problem these two have? Those two Android heavies don’t have $210 billion in cash sitting around that they can use to mature these services quickly and to bankroll content. Apple could finance Avengers Endgame, in the top three of the most expensive movies ever made, at the cost of $356 million, about 590 times over. Did that blow your mind? It did for me.
Despite Gewirtz’s assertions, this is not an indicator of slow decline. Apple is a company in the process of transformation — one which Google and Samsung have no chance of disrupting, whatsoever unless the two figure out how to provide actual ecosystem value of their own — and quickly.
Were the services, reduced-price iPhone 8 and Apple Watch Series 3 the real news at the Fall 2019 Apple launch event? Talk Back and Let Me Know.
Facebook will pay $650 million to settle class action suit centered on Illinois privacy law – TechCrunch
Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million Friday for running afoul of an Illinois law designed to protect the state’s residents from invasive privacy practices.
That law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), is a powerful state measure that’s tripped up tech companies in recent years. The suit against Facebook was first filed in 2015, alleging that Facebook’s practice of tagging people in photos using facial recognition without their consent violated state law.
Indeed, 1.6 million Illinois residents will receive at least $345 under the final settlement ruling in California federal court. The final number is $100 million higher than the $550 million Facebook proposed in 2020, which a judge deemed inadequate. Facebook disabled the automatic facial recognition tagging features in 2019, making it opt-in instead and addressing some of the privacy criticisms echoed by the Illinois class action suit.
A cluster of lawsuits accused Microsoft, Google and Amazon of breaking the same law last year after Illinois residents’ faces were used to train their facial recognition systems without explicit consent.
The Illinois privacy law has tangled up some of tech’s giants, but BIPA has even more potential to impact smaller companies with questionable privacy practices. The controversial facial recognition software company Clearview AI now faces its own BIPA-based class action lawsuit in the state after the company failed to dodge the suit by pushing it out of state courts.
A $650 million settlement would be enough to crush any normal company, though Facebook can brush it off much like it did with the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion penalty in 2019. But the Illinois law isn’t without teeth. For Clearview, it was enough to make the company pull out of business in the state altogether.
The law can’t punish a behemoth like Facebook in the same way, but it is one piece in a regulatory puzzle that poses an increasing threat to the way tech’s data brokers have done business for years. With regulators at the federal, state and legislative level proposing aggressive measures to rein in tech, the landmark Illinois law provides a compelling framework that other states could copy and paste. And if big tech thinks navigating federal oversight will be a nightmare, a patchwork of aggressive state laws governing how tech companies do business on a state-by-state basis is an alternate regulatory future that could prove even less palatable.
Twitter rolls out vaccine misinformation warning labels and a strike-based system for violations – TechCrunch
Twitter announced Monday that it would begin injecting new labels into users’ timelines to push back against misinformation that could disrupt the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. The labels, which will also appear as pop-up messages in the retweet window, are the company’s latest product experiment designed to shape behavior on the platform for the better.
The company will attach notices to tweeted misinformation warning users that the content “may be misleading” and linking out to vetted public health information. These initial vaccine misinformation sweeps, which begin today, will be conducted by human moderators at Twitter and not automated moderation systems.
Twitter says the goal is to use these initial determinations to train its AI systems so that down the road a blend of human and automated efforts will scan the site for vaccine misinformation. The latest misinformation measure will target tweets in English before expanding.
Twitter also introduced a new strike system for violations of its pandemic-related rules. The new system is modeled after a set of consequences it implemented for voter suppression and voting-related misinformation. Within that framework, a user with two or three “strikes” faces a 12-hour account lockout. With four violations, they lose account access for one week, with permanent suspension looming after five strikes.
Twitter introduced its first pandemic-specific policies a year ago, banning tweets promoting false treatment or prevention claims along with any content that could put people at higher risk of spreading COVID-19. In December, Twitter added new rules focused on popular vaccine conspiracy theories and announced that warning labels were on the way.
Facebook launches BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps – TechCrunch
Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is today launching its next experimental app, called BARS. The app makes it possible for rappers to create and share their raps using professionally created beats, and is the NPE Team’s second launch in the music space following its recent public debut of music video app Collab.
While Collab focuses on making music with others online, BARS is instead aimed at would-be rappers looking to create and share their own videos. In the app, users will select from any of the hundreds of professionally created beats, then write their own lyrics and record a video. BARS can also automatically suggest rhymes as you’re writing out lyrics, and offers different audio and visual filters to accompany videos as well as an autotune feature.
There’s also a “Challenge mode” available, where you can freestyle with auto-suggested word cues, which has more of a game-like element to it. The experience is designed to be accommodating to people who just want to have fun with rap, similar to something like Smule’s AutoRap, perhaps, which also offers beats for users’ own recordings.
The videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length and can then be saved to your Camera Roll or shared out on other social media platforms.
Like NPE’s Collab, the pandemic played a role in BARS’ creation. The pandemic shut down access to live music and places where rappers could experiment, explains NPE Team member DJ Iyler, who also ghostwrites hip-hop songs under the alias “D-Lucks.”
“I know access to high-priced recording studios and production equipment can be limited for aspiring rappers. On top of that, the global pandemic shut down live performances where we often create and share our work,” he says.
BARS was built with a team of aspiring rappers, and today launched into a closed beta.
Despite the focus on music, and rap in particular, the new app in a way can be seen as yet another attempt by Facebook to develop a TikTok competitor — at least in this content category.
TikTok has already become a launchpad for up-and-coming musicians, including rappers; it has helped rappers test their verses, is favored by many beatmakers and is even influencing what sort of music is being made. Diss tracks have also become a hugely popular format on TikTok, mainly as a way for influencers to stir up drama and chase views. In other words, there’s already a large social community around rap on TikTok, and Facebook wants to shift some of that attention back its way.
The app also resembles TikTok in terms of its user interface. It’s a two-tabbed vertical video interface — in its case, it has “Featured” and “New” feeds instead of TikTok’s “Following” and “For You.” And BARS places the engagement buttons on the lower-right corner of the screen with the creator name on the lower-left, just like TikTok.
However, in place of hearts for favoriting videos, your taps on a video give it “Fire” — a fire emoji keeps track. You can tap “Fire” as many times as you want, too. But because there’s (annoyingly) no tap-to-pause feature, you may accidentally “fire” a video when you were looking for a way to stop its playback. To advance in BARS, you swipe vertically, but the interface is lacking an obvious “Follow” button to track your favorite creators. It’s hidden under the top-right three-dot menu.
The app is seeded with content from NPE Team members, which includes other aspiring rappers, former music producers and publishers.
Currently, the BARS beta is live on the iOS App Store in the U.S., and is opening its waitlist. Facebook says it will open access to BARS invites in batches, starting in the U.S. Updates and news about invites, meanwhile, will be announced on Instagram.
Facebook’s recent launches from its experimental apps division include Collab and collage maker E.gg, among others. Not all apps stick around. If they fail to gain traction, Facebook shuts them down — as it did last year with the Pinterest-like video app Hobbi.
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