Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Apple HomePod - First Impressions

When Apple introduced its HomePod, I was not impressed.  I thought Apple had a flop on its hand because I did not think anyone would part with $350 for a smart speaker with great sound when Amazon & Google smart speakers - with "good enough" sound can be had for less than a quarter of that price.  I certainly wouldn't.

But I caved.  While purchasing some Apple stuff to give as gifts for an upcoming China trip, I began thinking:

     "...the speakers on our TV are crap and we could really need a sound bar - and the HomePod could serve as that when watching stuff through our Apple TV streamer!"


     "... it sure is a pain to have to find my phone or iPod to invoke some home automation function!  The HomePod is supposed to have great microphones that can pick up your commands from anywhere!"

and, finally:

     " order for you to invoke home automation when away from the house, you need to designate a device a 'hub' and it needs to be always on.  The iPad that had been fulfilling that duty had already run out of juice a couple times, keeping me from turning on the lights before I got home!  HomePod can be a 'hub'!"

Well, you get the idea.  Before I knew it, there was a HomePod in the bag along with the other stuff we actually came to the Apple Store for.

So how do I like it?

Well, I do love it and don't regret my purchase: the sound that comes out of this little (very elegant) cylinder is simply amazing; it's also freaky how quietly you can give a Siri command even while music is blasting away and HomePod still 'hears' you; equally disquieting is that the speakers are so good/sensitive, it often hears/responds-to me while I'm in another room trying to ask my iPhone's Siri a question (and there's also some team work going on here - no matter what, when I do 'Hey Siri' and both my phone and HomePod hear it, only the HomePod answers.)  Integration with my limited home automation (a couple lights and a door lock) is fantastic and so is Siri's accuracy in understanding my commands.

There are some niggles: there are still a couple bugs with AirPlay (when using it as a soundbar, my Apple TV needs to send the sound to the HomePod via AirPlay - it works well at first.  But if I pause the movie I'm watching, once I begin playing again, the HomePod no longer outputs the sound :-(  Also, if I am to enjoy the HomePod as a sound bar, I really need a second one to get stereo sound.  While sound coming out of it is much better than the TV speakers, having everything emirate from the right of the TV isn't a great experience.  But another HomePod is another $350!  And, besides, for this to work requires AirPlay 2, which isn't ready yet.  The HomePod updates by itself, so it's just a matter of waiting.

While Siri is very accurate at understanding my requests, its ability to answer them is more limited than it ought to be.  This is well documented: Apple, which used to be the clear leader in voice assistants, has fallen behind Alexa and Google Assistant.  Don't get me wrong: Siri is getting better with every release of iOS - just not as quickly as the competition.  Apple seems to have realized this (rather belatedly if you ask me) and recently gone on a hiring spree for AI talent.  Hopefully something will come of it.  Siri could be much more useful than she currently is on HomePod.

So I love it.  But it's the first Apple device I've owned for which I paid more money than I thought its functionality warranted.  Unlike my iPhone, AirPods, Apple Watch, iPad, Apple TV, and laptop, the HomePod is a luxury rather than a necessity.  I would not (yet) miss it, if it disappeared tomorrow.   But I'm confident this will change as the software evolves - and Siri improves.

I don't think HomePod will be a flop.  There simply are too many well-heeled Apple fans out there for whom $350 is an 'impulse purchase' and it is a typical Apple device with its elegant design and quality hardware.  Why not?  But I also don't think it will be anywhere near as big a deal as the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch or even AirPods (which I think is the best, most magical Apple product in years - and flying kind of under the radar.)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

2018 China Vacation

We’re on our return voyage from the annual 2-week China trip. Unlike previous visits, this time we spend the entire time in Suzhou (where Yiqing’s family lives). I now have 20+ hours to kill, so I decided to write a quick summary of the trip followed by some hopefully interesting factoids.

Most of our stay was spent within walking distance of Lake Taihu, China’s 3rd largest lake (think Great Lakes in size). Our first night we decompressed at a fancy Holiday Inn (much more luxurious here in China than what we’re used to in the US) followed by a week in a “hotel” that was basically just apartments in a high rise being rented out. It was just a few minutes walk to Yiqing’s mom’s apartment.

Then Yiqing’s sister arranged for a couple nights at a nearby resort which was really lovely. Surrounded by bamboo forest, the place had dozens of geothermal outdoor pools, each with different herbs/aromas with different supposed medicinal purposes. Don’t know if those herbs do what the folks think they do, but the baths sure are relaxing :-). The resort also had a driving range - hitting about 500 balls over 2 days, I went from zero skills to pretty good (at least in my mind :-)

The remainder of our vacation was spent at a youth hostel within a few hundred feet of Lake Taihu. Most of the hostel is shared rooms, but we got a private one with its own bath. Very clean - very different from the youth hostels I experienced in Europe in the 70s and 80s. Highly recommended for folks on a budget.


As always, the food here is incredibly varied and delicious. Every time I visit China, I get to eat at least a dozen dishes I’ve never tasted before. This was my 10th trip, but with a 5000+ year old culture, I look forward to many more surprises. I realize am very privileged in this regard: without Yiqing and relatives, I would never have the opportunity (or guts) to try so many different foods.

Infrastructure throughout China is much more modern and vastly better maintained than in the US. Roads are always smooth, all traffic lights have large countdown timers so you can plan to stop or go. Busses are cheap, frequent, and on-time: a 30 minute ride to town on a cushioned bus was 33 cents. A subway ride (the subway was new with new lines being added all the time) across town was 80 cents and a 30 minute Didi (Uber equivalent) ride was $7.
Why is this? The US once prided itself on being the most advanced country on earth: now just about everybody is passing us. My sister from Germany recently visited and commented that infrastructure and some buildings reminded her of Eastern European villages just after the Soviet Union collapsed - dilapidated :-(.
I don’t know the answer but suspect that most Americans don’t realize how third-world their infrastructure (and K-12 education) has become - because our leaders are telling us otherwise and keep telling us that we must spend ever increasing percentages of our taxes on our military instead of on our citizens (how many more aircraft carriers do we need when we already have more than the whole rest of the world combined???). Those TRILLIONS would be much more productively spent on infrastructure that helps us compete globally!

Now back to my trip report :-) Traffic here is terrible - not only are there loads of cars and even more mopeds (90+% of which are electric now - on my first trip in 2005, it was probably the reverse!), but nobody obeys traffic laws. My sister-in-law once stopped in the left lane of a divided, 60mph highway to search for directions on her phone! My heart nearly stopped. When I asked her how she could do that, her matter-of-fact response was that there was nobody behind her when she stopped! :-( Being a German, I would suffer road rage in no time if I had to drive here.

Living expenses: surprisingly, single family homes are much more expensive than equivalent sized homes in the US. (but more solidly built from concrete). E.g. a house that might go for $800k in the US costs around $2 million in Suzhou (Shanghai would be way more expensive still). Condo apartments I’m guessing are similar to US prices. On the flip side, there are no property taxes (yet) in China.
Food used to be much cheaper here than in the US, but is now just a little less. Clothing can be much cheaper, but if you want name brands you’d recognize as a Westerner, you’ll pay about the same or slightly more.
Electronics are much cheaper unless, again, you want name brands. E.g. Apple products are ~20% more expensive here than in the US. Electric mopeds, scooters, bikes are less than half what they’d cost in the US. We’ll try and buy an electric bicycle and have it shipped here and use it for our commute to work. We didn’t dare try to buy one and hope to get it on the plane - big lithium batteries are frowned on by the airlines :-(
Internet: while speed is good everywhere, as a Westerner you’ll go crazy with all the blocked sites. No google for crying out loud! And the Western search engines that are allowed - I used bing/yahoo - are heavily censored - ie many links simply don’t connect or lead to an unauthorized warning. I use an RSS reader called Feedly. Tapping on any news headline coming from NYT or Bloomberg or Reuters are blocked; BBC seems to be blocked sometimes, while The Guardian, CNN, USA Today always worked for me - at least when I clicked on stories not involving “China”. As a news junky, needless to say I’m suffering withdrawal symptoms by now. There’s lots of free wifi around here - but most require you to provide a token sent to you via SMS before you can use it. In the past, we typically didn’t have cellular while in China and were, thus, out of luck. This time we borrowed a relative’s phone and it helped on several occasions. In any event, if you don’t read Chinese, none of this matters - you won’t know what buttons to press to get to the free wifi - but I have the wife to depend on :-)
Speaking of phones: they’re used for *everything* here! I didn’t see anyone even use a credit card, much less cash. Everything seems to be done via direct debit using the phone and QR codes. Through WeChat (China’s FB+Paypal+CraigsList+...), I think. People actually looked at us as if we were dinosaurs when we tried to use cash!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Apple's AR Strategy

Back in 2015 I wrote a post titled Apple's Next Big Thing.  In it, I mused about Apple's strategy with wearables and, while doing so, predicted the introduction of AirPods.  While they not yet have all the features I forecast - foremost among them the current lack of an 'always on' capability - I think the general ideas expressed in the article are still valid: that Apple is adding and integrating ever more wearables to its product line in order to seamlessly blend the virtual world with the real one.  In some not-too-distant future, the iPhone will rarely leave your pocket - yet manage all your computing needs.

Once one realizes this, Apple's "next big thing" becomes quite obvious: AR glasses.  Apple already laid the groundwork by its introduction of ARKit.  This software - which already has thousands of developers creating new experiences for hundreds of millions of iPhones running iOS 11 - is paving the way for the day the glasses arrive.  Thousands of AR apps will be ready to project their content onto the glasses rather than your iPhone's screen.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict AR glasses.  After all, Google already developed a pair a couple years ago, Snapchat tried its (limited) hand at it.   But as with all other portable electronic gadgets, it will be Apple to do it right.  So what is "right"?  To answer that, we again look back at Google Glass - what were its shortcomings?  Well, there was the now infamous recording feature that caused its wearers to eventually receive the label of 'glassholes'.  So Apple's version will avoid recording video - at least until AR glasses have become ubiquitous.  Google Glass also had notoriously short battery life.  Why?  Because Google tried to do too much "on-board".  Instead of being a companion device, Google tried to stuff a complete computer - i.e. CPU, memory, video controller, storage, networking, etc. - into the temples of the glass frame.  Since glasses have to remain light in order to be worn comfortably, the amount of battery capacity they could stuff into the glasses was too limited.  Therefore, I predict that Apple's AR glasses will have just enough electronics to let it receive instructions on what pixels to project onto the glasses and to send onboard sensor/camera data back to an iPhone.  It might even use its existing AirPlay tech for the display aspects.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Politics of Fear

We are a nation with enough guns in circulation to arm every man, woman, and child.  Yet we are fearful of a handful of terrorists on the other side of the earth.  We are so fearful, we let our leaders trample on our privacy in the name of keeping us safe.  14 deaths by terrorists cause us to contemplate closing our borders and hearts to refuges fleeing for their lives.  A handful of deaths by terrorists scare us so much, yet the deaths of thousands every year by guns and other "American" violence leave us unmoved.

It is a strange and sad thing to behold in a country founded by immigrants whose battle cry seemed to always be "give me liberty or give me death."  Has "give me liberty" been reduced to "let me own guns"?  The right to bear arms was meant to help us defend all those other liberties & freedoms we cherish.  Such as the right to privacy.  Freedom of speech.

And politicians - some running for government, many already in government - use this fear to their advantage.  Mr. Trump is a veritable virtuoso at it.  Don't let them.  Terrorism is no different than all the other aberant deeds we witness every day.  We deal with it - we don't hand over our liberties to politicans promising illusory safety.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Apple's Next "Big" Thing?

Apple has recently stepped into the wearables arena with the introduction of the Apple Watch.  While the success of the watch is still unclear, its capabilities give us a hint about Apple's thinking in this arena:

The Apple Watch is a "companion" product.  Although it can operate independently, it only reaches its full potential when within bluetooth/wifi range of its master, the iPhone.  With the watch, Apple is selling convenience and the watch is only the beginning.  What could be Apple's next foray into the wearables market?

Bluetooth in-ear headphone(s).  It makes perfect sense.

Siri, iPhone's voice assistant has come a long way since it was introduced on the iPhone 4s.  Over time, Apple has not only improved its voice recognition dramatically, it has also broadened the ways in which you interact with her.  You can hold down the Home button on your iPhone or the crown on the Apple Watch to talk to her; if you plug in your iPhone into a power source - or if you hold your Apple Watch up to your face -  you can get her attention by simply saying "Hey Siri", followed by your spoken question or command.  Heck, thanks to a new low-power chip in the iPhone 6s, you don't even need to plug in your iPhone to chat with her.  But the form of Siri's answers aren't always convenient.

When you ask Siri a question on an Apple Watch, she's a mute.  I guess Apple Watch's designers felt that her speaking the answers - as she does on the iPhone - would be too obtrusive in a setting where you chose to interact through the watch rather than the iPhone.  So Siri, on the Apple Watch, displays its answer on that tiny watch screen.  Which isn't always optimal - e.g. when you're driving.

Using a headset would be the perfect solution.  But why should Apple come out with a new pair, when there are loads of wired and bluetooth headsets on the market already?  Because none of them have the feature Apple just introduced with the iPhone 6s: the aforementioned "always on" listening for "Hey Siri"!

With an unobtrusive headset that always listened for "hey siri", life would be so convenient!  No raising of a watch to your face a la Dick Tracy; no more fishing your phone out of your pocket to look something up!  With the headset always in your ear, you simply ask what you want, preceded by a quiet "Hey Siri" and Siri whispers you the answer.

There are so many things that could be facilitated by such a device.  I can imagine, for example, a situation in which I need to interact with my Chinese in-laws.  I could simply put my iPhone or my arm with Apple Watch on the table and whisper to Siri "Hey Siri, begin translating."  When I subsequently say something, the Chinese translation pops out of the iPhone or Apple Watch, for my in-laws to hear.  When they respond, the watch or iPhone pick it up and Siri whispers the translation into my ears!  This is getting pretty darn close to Star Trek's universal translator, isn't it?  The technology is all here!

And there are some promising signs that Apple is, indeed, thinking in that direction.  A year ago, Apple bought Beats Audio.  Granted, this was likely about acquiring that company's music talent and streaming service, but Apple likely also picked up some serious audio expertise in the transaction.   Then there was yesterday's news that apparently a shell company (i.e. a company that doesn't really produce anything and whose ownership is hidden) copyrighted the name "Airpods" in several countries.  The law firms handling this company's business just happen to be the same ones Apple has previously used when using shell companies to hide its tracks.  Hm....

Hey Apple, if you hear this: will you give me a pair of Airpods, if my predictions prove to be right?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

E-Trade Bill Pay - A Study in Bad User Interface Design

I love E-Trade.  I’ve been a customer since the late 90’s.  Heck, I was a customer of E-Trade’s predecessor/progenitor: K. Aufhauser.  Why do I like it so much?  Because I’ve always found E-Trade’s web site to be head and shoulders above the rest.  Everything in its user interface (UI) was arranged in a clear-cut manner and there was a consistent “theme” and usage pattern to every page across the site.

Alas, recently the management at E-Trade must have decided that their site wasn’t good enough and they began “improving” it.  A few months ago, E-Trade programmers modified the online bill-pay feature - a feature that was already perfect, as far as I was concerned!  The original page had two “columns”: a wide one on the left, which simply listed all of ones registered payees  with a text field in which to enter the amount to be paid and a calendar widget through which to specify a date of payment, and a fairly narrow one on the right, which showed a historical record of scheduled and previously made payments.  Very simple.  Very elegant.  In my particular browser window, I could see/edit 20+ payees and see a record of 20+ payments.  Whatever I didn’t see, was just a single scroll away.  I wish I had a screen shot of the original user interface.  But since E-Trade’s first modification came without notice, I didn’t have a chance to get one for comparison.

This first modification was not as usable as the old one, as far as I was concerned as things had begun to “spread out” - apparently the UI designers felt that white space was more important than information.  But, alas, I don’t have a screen shot of that either - since that particular experiment didn’t last too long.  It was quickly replaced with the even uglier, even less usable user interface that presents itself today.  Since I’m just about fed up (especially since E-Trade is not threatening with an overhaul of the entire system - based on what I’ve seen in the Bill Pay area, I shutter to think what awaits me now), I decided to take screen shots this time and elaborate on what I feel are its most annoying shortcomings.

As an aside, I should mention that I have 25+ years of software development experience - much of which in UI design - so I may be a little more critical than the average user.  But my comments are solely based on my use of the system - which has suffered greatly from the changes that were made.

Let’s start off with a screen shot of the screen that precedes the “Bill Pay” page:

Note the look of the tabs for both E-Trade’s overall tab group and the “Account Details” tab group (I put a red “1.” next to both): the outline and internal shading of the tabs is identical and the fonts are the same (the lower tab uses a slightly smaller font size).  There is a consistency of theme there.  Also note the size of the font used in the table that shows transactions and the row height for each transaction.  The original Bill Pay’s “Payee” table where you entered payments used to have row heights that were similar.

Now, let’s go to the “Bill Pay” page:
Quite a jarring change, wouldn’t you agree?  The tabs for the “Bill Pay” tab group (red “1.???”) look like they were drawn by a 10-year old and their shading (none) is completely different from the E-Trade tab group shown just above (red “1.”)!  Even the fonts are different (and larger, wasting space). In other words, the page’s theme isn’t consistent.  And the tabs are just plain ugly.  But that’s a trivial shortcoming compared to the others.

The row height (see “2.” on image above) for each payee is humongous.  As mentioned before, I used to be able to see - WITHOUT SCROLLING - about 20 payees in the old Bill Pay.  Now I see seven!  Why is that important?  Because most of us try to pay our bills once a month.  It is, therefore, nice to be able to simply click on the “Amount” field for each payee (and maybe specify a later date) and then hit “Submit”.  In the old Bill Pay, I could do all this without ever scrolling.  Now, I can’t avoid scrolling to pay everyone, scrolling to re-check the amounts I entered, and then scrolling some more to get to the “Submit” button.

So why is each payee row so tall?  Well, the only answers I could come up with are (a) a love for white space and (b) to accomodate the drop-down menu that lets one specify the money source (account) for each payment.  I won’t discuss (a), but (b) merits further inspection:

Let’s first review how we got to this “Bill Pay” page in the first place.  E-Trade, on its main page (“Account Overview”) lets one pick an account to work with.  That leads to the “Account Details” page shown in the first image above.  From there one clicks the “Bill Pay” tab to get to the second image.  So by virtue of how one got to “Bill Pay”, one has already decided which account to pay with!  So, why is there a need to have an “Account” combo box for each payee when most folks just want to pay their bills from the account they’re in?!

Why did E-Trade lower usability for the most common use case in order to satisfy a really infrequent one???  Poor thinking.
A much better design (which E-Trade actually uses in the “Account Details” image 1): simply put a single Account drop down at the top of the “Bill Payee” page, instead of one for every payee row!  For the common use case, users get to see/pay more of their payees without scrolling and for those who need to pay some folks with one account and others with another, they would simply hit “Submit” more often (once for every account from which payments need to be made).

Other than the oversized rows, the new design simply wastes a lot of screen real estate that should be used to show information (see labels “3.” in image above).  The most glaring example of this is in the tab group on the right.  The most useful one in that group is the “Activity” tab (don’t ask me why E-Trade designers didn’t make that the first tab, given that it’s the one most people need to look at most frequently!  Or why they do some inane auto rotation that, if you leave the tab group alone, auto-rotates focus through all the tabs - very annoying and zero value!)  Anyway the “Activity” tab shows historical payment activity as well scheduled payments.  It’s basically a table with three columns: “Send on”, “Paid to” and “Amount/Status”.  If the developer of this screen had done his job, this table would stretch with the available browser space, instead of fixing it at some arbitrary width (see all the white space in the image, for christ sake!) that requires the column content to spill over a single line - again reducing the number of rows that can be shown without scrolling, and making the whole thing just less readable.  But the waste of space doesn’t stop there.  Why, in gods name, is this tab group not the same height as the payee panel to its left - i.e. why doesn’t it make use of the web page, like the payee panel???   Now, in addition to only seeing SIX activities (due to row height), I need to scroll the “Activity” tab independently of the web page (see labels “4.” in image)!
(the fact that in Mac OS X you don’t see scroll bars until you hover over them doesn’t help the situation).

Just poor, poor design.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

iWatch - What is Possible?

Analysts and Apple fans have recently become enamored with the idea of an iWatch.  Bruce Tognazzini, a respected ex-Apple employee has an excellent blog post in which he describes all sorts of smart uses/features for such a watch.  As anticipation for such a device is building, so are the expectations for its features.  Some have come to see it as essentially an iPhone with a small screen.  I think those folks will be disappointed.  Think about it: we're talking about a device that needs to be thinner than an iPhone and, at most, 4 square inches in size.  There is no room for much of a battery!  Add to that the fact that, historically, people don't expect to have to recharge their watches every day, and you begin to see how impossible a "mini-iPhone" iWatch is.

So the features of an iWatch must revolve around power: how to minimize consumption and/or how to provide more of it without taking the watch off.

What can be done to keep power consumption to a minimum?  The two largest power hogs in a mobile device are its screen and the various radios driving communications (wifi, cellular, bluetooth).  Screen power consumption can be minimized by using a technology used in e-Readers (and in the recent "Pebble" smart watch): e-Ink.  With e-Ink, power is only needed when the screen needs to change.  But the technology, by its nature, has two drawbacks: slow refresh rates (making video impossible) and lack of color.  If Apple deems color and video playback indispensable, its option is OLED.  Reducing power on the various radios is easy: simply limit communication to one low-power channel.  I believe that is Bluetooth 4.0.  Of course, if the iWatch doesn't have wifi built in, it will not be a "connected" standalone device.  Apple's choice.

So, if the iWatch uses an e-Ink display and Bluetooth 4.0 for communication with an iPhone, what could such a device do?  Well, it could tell time! :-)  Also, like the Pebble, it could act as a remote display for all the phone's notifications.  For notifications requiring action, the watch's microphone could be used to tell Siri (located on the phone) what to do.  Similarly, the iWatch could display (or speak) results of any spoken Siri query.  The built-in speakers and microphone could also be used to make or answer phone calls (like today's Bluetooth headsets).  The bottom of the iWatch and/or the watchband could contain sensors that keep track of basic biometric info (e.g. pulse rate) - perhaps something similar to what Nike's Fuelband does - and send it to the phone occasionally (where an app can let you analyze the data over time).  Finally, an e-ink based iWatch could display OCR codes from Passbook.  When at a "favorite" store, the iWatch would automatically display the store's pass.  No need to fish for the phone or wallet!  Some analysts/users propose that the iWatch should have an NFC chip for payments.  I think this might be a future addition to the watch - there aren't enough (any?) NFC-based cash registers out there to warrant the additional complexity (and power drain) in the watch.  How long between charges?  Well, we have a couple examples that give us a clue: the Pebble smart watch lasts 7 days.  The Nike Fuelband is said to last 4 days.  So Apple, with its engineering prowess and deep R&D pockets, should be able to produce a watch that lasts at least as long as the Pebble.

If Apple wants to endow its watch with a color display and the ability to carry on FaceTime video conversations or watch Youtube videos, e-Ink is out of the question - an OLED display becomes necessary (it uses less power than LCD and can be put on a flexible substrate to allow for a curved display).  If the watch has a built-in accelerometer, intelligent power management software could turn off the display whenever its wearers' arm is hanging by his/her side and gets activated only by the touch of a finger or by an incoming notification.  Perhaps, this way, the iWatch could still last 5-7 days between charges.

But no matter how hard Apple tries, an iWatch will have to be charged on at least a weekly basis.  What can Apple do to make this as painless as possible?  Some manufacturers have begun offering wireless charging pads (and Apple owns a patent on doing this over the distance of up to 1 meter) that might be useful here.  If one didn't have to plug in yet another device and, instead, simply placed the watch, along with ones iPhone, on such a pad for charging at night, people might not mind!  Heck, if they can pull off that feat, maybe an iWatch only really needs to last as long as the partner iPhone!