Friday, September 22, 2017

Features vs. Innovation

I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about innovation and features. For the most part, Apple is focused on innovation. They add new functionality to products (like the dual cameras on the iPhone 7 and 8 plus, and the iPhone X). This is not to say that this functionality didn't exist before. But typically, Apple takes a different tact than others, and thinks about the value a feature can bring to a product from a systemic view.

The dual cameras was a feature which existed before on other handsets. It was used for various things, such as black and white photography and zoom effects. But it is important to note here that these are just features. They are not baked into the DNA of the product at a system level. That is often up to the Android developers to add this functionality.

As a further example, I have written about Apple's depth sensing technology. It is innovative, not because it didn't exist before, but it is so integral to the OS that developers can leverage it in new and exciting ways. Apple makes it easy for them to do this. Who knows what interesting Apps we will see in a years time that will use this functionality. This is not true of other handsets that have not thought system-wide about a new feature. Dual Cameras on an Android phone is an island. It is for taking pictures.

I think a lot of people confuse innovation with features. Features are new things that are added to a device, which may or may not extend functionality in integral ways that move the product significantly beyond where it was before. Innovation does just that - it is a point of inflection where it is clear that what came before is now hopelessly outdated. The touchscreen on the original iPhone is such an example. I think the depth sensing and AR are examples on Apple's newest phones and OS 11 are as well, simply because Apple has an integration between software and hardware that Android phone manufactures don't have. It is not that they can offer features that are innovative (sometimes they do), but it is harder to do so.

I have written in the past about Samsung and Apple, two very different companies that both make highly regarded handsets. Samsung often adds features (such as the curved display of the Edge), and sometimes innovates. So does Apple. But I think this comes from a different place for both companies. Samsung makes washing machines, refrigerators, Televisions and Cell Phones. They are often thinking about product differentiation in a crowded market. Apple sometimes thinks the same way, but more often than not, they don't. They come from a more solid design discipline, where you are always thinking about extending functionality in ways that don't just make the product different, but extend the capability in fundamental ways. Adding cellular to the Apple watch was an obvious thing to do, but what it really does is significantly extend functionality in ways that will continually delight it's users, such as Apple music integration. While it is indeed a new feature, it is also a moment of inflection that now makes what came before, including previous smart watches from Samsung, Apple and others, now outdated. It is the true rise of the wearable computer.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

iPhone X No Brainer

This will be quick. I see no reason for the iPhone 8 to exist other than to plug a hole in the iPhone line. Certainly, the price of the iPhone X gives pause. It is expensive, but the price differential between it and the iPhone 8 Plus (which is what you have to compare it to, not the iPhone 8) is not that much.

The only reasons I can come up with are:

  • The iPhone X is harder to make.
  • Apple is constrained on how many OLED displays it can get for the iPhone X
  • Some people are still going to want a home button
  • Apple needs to have a slightly cheaper phone

The first two are a result of constraints on market delivery. Apple can sell more than they make, so the iPhone X will be next to impossible to get. That is a safe bet, even given the high price. People will gladly pay it. If you hate Apple with the burning hate of a million suns, you will chalk it up to Apple fanboys who will buy whatever new thing that Apple makes.

I think it is that the iPhone X makes the rest of the line look old. Clearly it is the future of the iPhone, for better or worse (worse, if you love the home button, and touch ID).

So, I see the iPhone 8 as a lead balloon. They will sell plenty of them, hell I might buy one. I give up, I want the dual cameras after Apple's demo's at WWDC, which I highlighted in a earlier post. This will be the first time I have upgraded phones in one year. It is a dumb financial decision, but not necessarily a bad artistic decision. I shoot a lot of photos with my phone. A lot. It makes sense for me to have the best camera I will always have with me.

So, this is probably the last year of the home button. Buy it while it's hot. Next year the iPhone 8 will take the place of the iPhone 7 at the bottom of the line, and the iPhone X will be the midline phone. We will see.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Depth Sensing with Apple's Dual Cameras

Apple's developer conference videos are always worth digging through, even if you are not a programmer. Some give an insight into Apple's technology, and a few clues as to where Apple is headed. Apple's dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus does a neat parlor trick, mainly a simulated bokeh effect. Watch this video:

I have read that Samsung had this blurred background effect "two years ago", which I am not sure is true. It is a "selective focus" mode where you select where the area of focus is to be on the photo. It is not really bokeh, but it's something.

The difference with Apple's implementation is that they are using the dual cameras to measure depth. This allows them to apply effects based on this information. This is an entirely different way of working than Samsung's approach. For one thing, since the depth information is recorded with the image, this bokeh effect can be applied after the image has been taken. In the demos in the video, the programmers show other effects that can be applied after the fact. And the most important thing of all is that all of this is available in a newly minted API that any programmer can use for their imaging or photography application. Plus they have now implemented dual camera capture. Plus, there is ARkit (more on this later).

There is a companion video where Apple's programmers show how to work with images that have depth data. It's interesting as well, but not necessarily as eye-opening for me as the video I have linked to.

I hope that Apple manages to squeeze dual cameras into their "non-plus" version of their next phone. I'm there.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Google Pixel On Sale

The Google Pixel is now up to $200 off and is bundled with a Daydream headset. Why now?

  • Completely subjective evidence. I have actually never seen someone with one. I think most Android users have not either.
  • It is a nice phone, but most users don't care. Their friends have a Samsung phone, so that's what they ask for. People don't mind spending for a nice phone, since they can pay for them on an installment plan. On top of that, Samsung phones are often discounted.
  • Project Daydream has failed to get any traction at all, since it only works with a handful of phones. Unlike Google cardboard.
  • Apple is getting ready to release a new phone, whatever they will call it. There is possibly a high end model (according to all the rumors). Selling the Pixel at a discount is a pre-emptive strike. There is most likely a new Pixel in the works. Dual cameras, augmented reality.
  • Speaking of which, Apple's AR push will steal the limelight from the nascent low-end VR efforts. I know that AR and VR are only distantly related, but people will kind of lump them together. Dumb headset that you have to wear, versus just pointing your phone - win for Apple.
I think Google's handset efforts are doing OK, but not gangbusters. They have sold Pixels, but not a lot of them. It is hard now to break out in the Android marketplace, since there are many good, capable phones now. Google has yet to find that killer feature. The phone's camera is good, but the iPhone 7 Plus's dual camera crushes it. Running stock Android is not a killer feature. Only geeks care about that. Most people just want a good handset with a nice screen which works well.