Forecasting Apple's Big Event

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Let’s talk about iPhones and iWatches

Apple’s prepared to host what appears to be it’s biggest ever event since 2007’s iPhone launch later today. The hype for this event has been sensational, even compared to the usual Apple keynote — we’ve got ABC News talking about a historic announcement1 for the company, the key Apple bloggers are unusually excited, the New York Times is talking about a U2 appearance, and Apple’s home page is showing a live countdown. Even more unusually, Apple’s building a rather large venue for itself in Cupertino for the occasion, designed to seat far more people than a normal Apple keynote. It’s probably to make room for the fashion industry journalists that Apple has invited to this event. Yeah, it’s a strange one.

Therefore, we’ve got an event that’s going to be huge. So what’s the big deal? What’s Apple planning? Well, as far as I can see, there are a few things that Apple might be showing off today.

Hardware

iPhone

Let’s start with the easy one. Apple is going to unveil the iPhone 62 at two different screen sizes: a 4.7” one for the people with normal hands, and a somewhat ridiculous, fable sized 5.5” one for people who have monster hands. Hardware wise, there’s not much revolutionary expected from this device, but rumors speak to the inclusion (finally) of an NFC chip for a payments platform that Apple is expected to unveil (more on this later). It’s probably going to be somewhat thinner and lighter, have a better camera, etc. There were rumors earlier about a potential sapphire display, which was demonstrated to have extraordinary resilience to scratches, but talk has died down on that front.

The interesting aspect about these iPhones primarily is the size. We’re finally getting large iPhones, and it will be interesting to see how the interface for applications will adapt to the larger screen, and what kind of usability questions it raises. If the existence of a 5.5” iPhone means Apple has to build in a “one-handed” operation mode, I think there is failure in design inherent in that product. On the other hand, thanks to iOS 8’s new adaptive layout techniques and the existence of size classes, it appears that the larger iPhone will actually display apps in their tablet layout when in landscape, so it appears Apple might see this device as more of a “pocketable tablet” — and I can see people desiring that.

I’m not actually sure, given this choice, which one I’d buy. I’d probably lean for the cheaper model, given that I’m not sure if I can take the jump from 4” to 5.5” right away. One step at a time for me. Plus, I’m planning to buy an iPad, so one more “tablet”-esque device isn’t what I want from my phone. I just hope I won’t start to miss my 5S.

iWatch

At this point, it’s pretty much confirmed that Apple is releasing some kind of wrist wearable tomorrow. It’s unclear whether it’s actually going to be a watch, but the signs are pointing in that direction, so let’s stick with iWatch3 for now. For the first time in a while, we have almost no idea, hardware wise, what this product will look like. That tells us something: it’s unlikely, even if the device is announced tomorrow, that it will be available for sale in the near future. Apple hardware leaks generally tend to happen along the supply chain, and the iWatch does not seem to have hit that point yet.

There are some guesses we can still make, however. From the talent Apple has hired over the past year (Angela Ahrendts, Paul Deneve) we can say that it will probably be comparable to a fashion item, an assumption strengthened by the fact that Apple has invited the fashion journalism industry to this event. Apple’s also raided from the Nike Fuelband team, so it’s a high likelihood that the wearable will have sensors inside measuring health and activity related statistics, perhaps to push down to the iOS 8 Health app. Finally, from a design point of view, Jony Ive and Apple are clearly very confident about this product. Remember, the guys at Apple have been looking at the Moto 360 images for months now. I think the Moto 360 looks pretty damn nice4, and Apple is confident regardless. This will be one nice looking device.

What will we use it for? This is also a tough question to answer. I’ve actually worn a smart watch for some time now — I picked up a Pebble not too long ago. Honestly, the watch hasn’t changed my life. It’s nice to get notifications on my watch, but I can’t act on them. There are a few apps on my watch worth a damn, but they rely on an extremely fragile Bluetooth connection to my phone. Effectively, there isn’t much functionality. I think the iWatch can do better.

The sources say that Apple is allowing third party development on the iWatch, and that’s fine. They needed that at minimum to compete with Android Wear. However, there are three killer features that Apple can really tout in the iWatch that few competitors can match: multi-factor authentication, mobile payments, and proximity based actions. Apple can use this wearable to enable a multi-factor authentication platform (or let developers do it for them). Coupled with the now open to developers TouchID system, Apple devices now actually let you perform three factor authentication, if you so desire. And if the wearable comes with Bluetooth Low Energy and NFC built in, the watch can interact with NFC payment kiosks and iBeacon Bluetooth chips around the world. The main benefit of a smart watch is that it’s finally a connected, aware device that you always have with you and it’s easily accessible. That’s the line of functionality I expect Apple to emphasize at the keynote.

There’s only one real potential Achilles heel for the iWatch, and that’s battery life. Charging your watch is kind of a pain with all smart watches, but at least the Pebble can last a day. If Apple’s solution can’t go a whole day of use, it will never surpass being a novelty. I think Apple knows this, but on this front, the rumors have been pretty pessimistic. That being said, Apple has been known to plant disappointing benchmarks in the press before the event, just to be able to demolish them for the sake of presentation at the actual event. So, we’ll have to wait and see.

iPad, Apple TV and the Mac

There are a couple of iPad rumors floating around. The first is that iPads will finally get TouchID this year, which is less of a rumor and more of a inevitable conclusion. The second is the existence of a larger, 12” iPad device. I think this is true. I think we will see it. Just not on Tuesday. For the past two years, Apple has pushed the iPad to an October event, and I think we’ll see the same thing this year. Let’s revisit this space in a month.

The Apple TV has been on discount for the past month or so, and whenever that happens I always get excited. I don’t see any new hardware being announced in this space in 2014, however. The reason for the pessimism is two-fold. We haven’t heard of the necessary groundwork for something like the dream Apple TV to come into existence — things like a hint of a developer platform, or content deals with TV networks for instant streaming access. Without these, any new Apple TV will function effectively the same as the current one does, and in that case, what’s the need for new hardware? Plus, there’s a lot that Apple clearly has been working on this year, and I don’t think the Apple TV made it into the mix. The Apple TV dream will have to keep waiting.

Finally, all is mostly quiet on the Mac front. There is some talk of a 12” MacBook that seemed imminent a few months ago. If the product exists (and I think it does, something has to replace the Air eventually), I don’t think Apple will touch it today. Perhaps next month, along with iPads and Yosemite? There’s another potential complication with MacBooks, and that’s Intel’s delay with Broadwell chips, so that might hold back a new MacBook even further. It’s okay. I don’t think Apple needs to be in a rush here.

Software

iOS 8

We’ve already seen iOS 8. But at WWDC, we didn’t really get to see how the new developer APIs really will allow for unique app experiences that just weren’t possible with earlier versions of iOS. Since this is a public focused event, as opposed to developer focused WWDC, expect cool demos, especially with browser extensions, Notification Center widgets, keyboards, HomeKit and HealthKit. The only new functionality that I expect Apple to reveal at the event is a new kind of widget: the iWatch widget. Expect developers to be able to create iWatch widgets in much the same manner as Notification Center widgets.

Aside from nice demos, we’ll also see how the native iOS 8 apps adapt to new screen sizes, new resolutions, possibly even new scaling factors. There might be a few surprises in store for us there.

Yosemite

While iOS 8 pretty much has to ship with new iPhones, I think Apple isn’t quite ready to ship Yosemite just yet. Save it for what’s shaping up to be another packed event in October.

Services

Payments

From the information of deals coming in left and right, the imminent existence of an Apple payments service seems a foregone conclusion. It seems Apple is not aiming to replace credit card companies in this quest, though — it has actually partnered with most of them. Apple seems intent on making your phone (or perhaps, your watch) the mechanism of payment. Now, as a potential platform, this is somewhat exciting, to the extent that you can leave your wallet at home and carry everything on your devices. But I’d love for a payments platform to do more. I’d love for it to gain intelligence based on my purchasing habits and work for me to find me better deals, ways to save money, and items I might be interested in. I’m not sure that’s what Apple plans to build.

My understanding of what this will be is simply your credit cards in Passbook, and the ability to scan them at NFC kiosks at point of sale. That’s pretty tame. If Apple instead went ahead and allowed you to pay for things from your iTunes account, that might be more interesting. Apple can build off of that.

iCloud, Siri and Maps

Apple may make a brief mention of these two areas of the company tomorrow. It might respond more publicly to the iCloud breach by going over new security practices. And I’m sure we’ll get incremental improvements in Siri and Maps as well. I’m hoping that Transit will show up for Maps — it was clearly being worked on earlier this year, but didn’t make the iOS 8 betas. Perhaps Apple needed more time, and they’re ready to go now? Probably wishful thinking. But I’d love to be surprised here.

Music

Whenever Apple has had musical performances at its events, the performance usually has accompanied some new product or service that Apple rolls out in the music space. They love music, see? So here’s a concert. Now, the rumor is that U2 is scheduled to perform for Apple. So, if that’s true (and there’s a lot of smoke so I’m assuming the fire exists), I think there’s going to be some music news from Apple as well.

I literally have no idea what it might be though.

Apple still hasn’t done much with Beats, maybe we’ll see some limited integration of Beats into iTunes? Unlikely — I don’t know if Apple really wants to connect the two brands just yet, and plus my suspicion is that the Beats talent is important for Apple right now to sell iWatches, not subscription music services. Perhaps a new iPod? Again unlikely — though some think that the iWatch might be presented as an iPod5. I don’t think so. What I can say with almost 100& certainty is that Apple certainly isn’t bundling U2 albums with their phones.

Basically, a segue from an event about phones and watches, software and payments, to a music concert seems inelegant. I think we should expect something in between the two.

One More Thing

We’ve got ourselves a pretty meaty event for tomorrow just based on what we know. But there haven’t been many Apple events that restrict themselves to simply what we know. Big or small, there will be surprises in store, and that’s part of the fun that comes with Apple keynotes. I think we’re in for something big today, though. The stuff we all expect (new iPhones, an iWatch) is important and interesting stuff for sure, but I’m not sure if anyone can really qualify that as historical.

I think what we know so far doesn’t justify the hype that Apple has been building. And that indicates one of two possibilities. Either Apple is finally starting to make hype for the sake of hype, like Samsung (which would be disappointing), or there’s really something huge that nobody except maybe Jim Dalrymple knows about. I’m leaning towards the latter. If I have to make one bet on this event? I don’t think we’ll be talking about the same things afterwards.


  1. You’ve really got to see this video though. It’s so much hype. 

  2. At least, that’s the current working name… 

  3. I actually think this is a terrible name, and I hope Apple is more creative than that. 

  4. Disclosure, I work at Google. 

  5. Perhaps an intentional callback to the square iPod nano that started the smart watch resurgence?