Apple rolls out Apple Card Preview to select users

Apple Card is getting its first group of public test users today. A limited amount of customers that signed up to be notified about the release of Apple Card are getting the ability to apply for the card in their Wallet app today — as well as the option to order their physical Apple Card.

I’ve been using the card for a few days on my own device, making purchases and payments and playing around with features like Apple Cash rewards and transaction categorization.

A full rollout of Apple Card will come later in August. It requires iOS 12.4 and up to operate.

The application process was simple for me. Portions of the information you need are pre-filled from your existing AppleID account, making for less manual entry. I had an answer in under a minute and was ready to make my first purchase instantly. I used it both online and in person with contactless terminals.

It…works.

The card on the screen has a clever mechanism that gives you a sort of live heat map of your spending categories. The color of the card will shift and blend according to the kinds of things you buy. Spend a lot at restaurants and the card will take on an orange hue. Shop for entertainment related items and the card shifts into a mix of orange and pink. It’s a clever take on the chart based spending category features many other credit cards have built into their websites.

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As many have pointed out, if you’re the kind of person that maximizes your points on current cards towards super specific rewards, like travel miles, the rewards system of Apple Card will not feel all that impressive. This is by design. Apple’s aim on this initial offering was to provide the most representational and easy to understand reward metric, rather than to provide top of category points returns.

But it also means that this may not be the card for you if you’re a big travel points maximizer.

I am a points person, and I carry several cards with differing rewards returns and point values depending on what I’m trying to accomplish. Leveraging these cards has allowed me to secure upgrades to higher classes, first class flights for family members and more due to how much I travel. Getting to this point, though, required a crash course in points values, programs and a tight grip on what cards to use when. Shout out to TPG.

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You will not be able to leverage Apple’s card in this way as a frequent traveler. Instead, Apple decided on a (by comparison) transparent rewards methodology: cash back based on a percentage of your purchases in 3 categories.

Those categories are 3% on all purchases from Apple Stores, the App Store and Apple subscriptions, 2% daily cash on any Apple Pay purchase and 1% with the physical card either online or offline.

The cash rewards are delivered daily, and made available to you very quickly on your Apple Cash card balance. Usually in less than a day. You can then do an instant transfer to your bank for a maximum $10 fee or a 1-3 day transfer for free. This cashout is faster than just about any other cash back program out there and certainly way faster cash reward tallying than anyone else. And Apple makes no effort to funnel you into a pure statement credit version of cash back, like many other cards do. The cash becomes cash pretty instantly.

I could easily see the bar Apple sets here — daily rewards tallies and instant cashouts — becoming industry standard.

The card interface itself is multiples better to use than most card apps, with the new Amex apps probably coming the closest. But even those aren’t system level, requiring no additional usernames and passwords. Apple Card has a distinct advantage there, one that Apple I’m sure hopes to use to the fullest. This is highlighted by the fact that the Apple Card application option is present on the screen any time you add a new credit card or debit card to Apple Pay now. Top of mind.

The spending categories and clear transaction names (with logos in many cases) are a very welcome addition to a credit card interface. The vast majority of time with even the best credit card dashboards you are presented with super crappy list of junk that includes a transaction identifier and a mangled vendor ID that could or could not map directly to the name of the actual merchant you purchased from. It makes deciphering what a specific transaction was for way harder then it should be. Apple Card parses these by vendor name, website name and then whatever it can parse on its own before it defaults back to the raw identifier. Way easier.

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A note, during the setup process the card will ask you if you want it to be your payment default for everything Apple and will automatically attach to your Apple stuff like App Store and subscription payments. So keep an eye out for that and make a call. You will get 3% cash back on any apps you buy, of course, even if they’re third party.

The payments interface is also unique in that Apple is pushing very hard to help you not pay interest. It makes recommendations on how to pay chunks of your balance over time before you incur interest. It places 1-3 markers on the circle-shaped interface that show you how much you need to pay off minimum, minimum with no interest and in full. These markers are personalized a bit and can vary depending on balance, due date and payment history.

I really dug hard on how Apple Card data was being handled the last time I wrote about the service, so you should read that for more info. Goldman Sachs is the partner for the card but it absolutely cannot use the data it gathers on transactions via Apple Card for market maps, as chunks of anonymized data it can offer partners about spending habits or any of the typical marketing uses credit card processors get up to. Mastercard and Goldman Sachs can only use the data for operations uses. Credit reporting, remittance, etc.

And Apple itself neither collects nor views anything about where you shopped, what you bought or how much you paid.

And, as advertised, there are no fees with Apple Card.

One thing I do hope that Apple Card adds is an ability to see and filter out recurring payments and subscriptions. This fits with the fiscal responsibility theme it’s shooting for with the payments interface and it’s sorely lacking in most first party apps.

Some nice design touches beyond the transaction maps, the color grading that mirrors purchases and the far more readable interface is a pleasant metallic sheen that is activated on device tilt.

My physical card isn’t here yet so I can’t really evaluate that part of it. But it is relatively unique in that it is nearly featureless, with no printed number, expiration, signature or security codes on its surface.

The titanium Apple Card comes in a package with an NFC chip that allows you to simply tap your phone to the envelope to begin the process of activating your card. No phone numbers to call and, heavens forbid, no 1-800 stickers on the surface of the card.

I can say that this is probably the first experience most people will ever have with a virtual credit card number. The physical card has a ‘hard coded’ number that cannot be changed. You never need to know it because it’s only used in in-person transactions. If it ever gets compromised, you can request a new card and freeze the old one in the app.

For online purchases that do not support Apple Pay, you have a virtual card number in the Wallet app. You enter that number just as you would any other card number and it’s automatically added to your Safari auto-fill settings when you sign up for Apple Card.

The advantage to this, of course, is that if it’s ever compromised, you can hit a button to request an entirely new number right from within the app. Notably, this is not a ‘per transaction’ number — it’s a semi-permanent virtual number. You keep it around until you have an issue. But when you do have a problem, you’ve got a new number instantly, which is far superior to having to wait for a new physical card just to continue making online purchases.

Some banks like Bank of America and Citibank already offer virtual options for online purchases, and third party services like Privacy.com also exist. But this is the beginning of the mainstreaming of VCCs. And it’s a good thing.

Apple suspends Siri response grading in response to privacy concerns

In response to concerns raised by a Guardian story last week over how recordings of Siri queries are used for quality control, Apple is suspending the program world wide. Apple says it will review the process that it uses, called grading, to determine whether Siri is hearing queries correctly, or being invoked by mistake.

In addition, it will be issuing a software update in the future that will let Siri users choose whether they participate in the grading process or not. 

The Guardian story from Alex Hern quoted extensively from a contractor at a firm hired by Apple to perform part of a Siri quality control process it calls grading. This takes snippets of audio, which are not connected to names or IDs of individuals, and has contractors listen to them to judge whether Siri is accurately hearing them — and whether Siri may have been invoked by mistake.

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy,” Apple said in a statement to TechCrunch. “While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally. Additionally, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.”

The contractor claimed that the audio snippets could contain personal information, audio of people having sex and other details like finances that could be identifiable, regardless of the process Apple uses to anonymize the records. 

They also questioned how clear it was to users that their raw audio snippets may be sent to contractors to evaluate in order to help make Siri work better. When this story broke, I dipped into Apple’s terms of service myself and, though there are mentions of quality control for Siri and data being shared, I found that it did fall short of explicitly and plainly making it clear that live recordings, even short ones, are used in the process and may be transmitted and listened to. 

The figures Apple has cited put the amount of queries that may be selected for grading under 1 percent of daily requests.

The process of taking a snippet of audio a few seconds long and sending it to either internal personnel or contractors to evaluate is, essentially, industry standard. Audio recordings of requests made to Amazon and Google assistants are also reviewed by humans. 

An explicit way for users to agree to the audio being used this way is table stakes in this kind of business. I’m glad Apple says it will be adding one. 

It also aligns better with the way that Apple handles other data like app performance data that can be used by developers to identify and fix bugs in their software. Currently, when you set up your iPhone, you must give Apple permission to transmit that data. 

Apple has embarked on a long campaign of positioning itself as the most privacy conscious of the major mobile firms and therefore holds a heavier burden when it comes to standards. Doing as much as the other major companies do when it comes to things like using user data for quality control and service improvements cannot be enough if it wants to maintain the stance and the market edge that it brings along with it.

AI photo editor FaceApp goes viral again on iOS, raises questions about photo library access

FaceApp. So. The app has gone viral again after first doing so two years ago or so. The effect has gotten better but these apps, like many other one off viral apps, tend to come and go in waves driven by influencer networks or paid promotion. We first covered this particular AI photo editor  from a team of Russian developers about two years ago.

It has gone viral again now due to some features that allow you to edit a person’s face to make it appear older or younger. You may remember at one point it had an issue because it enabled what amounted to digital blackface by changing a person from one ethnicity to another.

In this current wave of virality, some new rumors are floating about FaceApp. The first is that it uploads your camera roll in the background. We found no evidence of this and neither did security researcher and Guardian App CEO Will Strafach or researcher Baptiste Robert.

The second is that it somehow allows you to pick photos without giving photo access to the app. You can see a video of this behavior here:

While the app does indeed let you pick a single photo without giving it access to your photo library, this is actually 100% allowed by an Apple API introduced in iOS 11. It allows a developer to let a user pick one single photo from a system dialog to let the app work on. You can view documentation here and here.

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Because the user has to tap on one photo, this provides something Apple holds dear: user intent. You have explicitly tapped it, so it’s ok to send that one photo. This behavior is actually a net good in my opinion. It allows you to give an app one photo instead of your entire library. It can’t see any of your photos until you tap one. This is far better than committing your entire library to a jokey meme app.

Unfortunately, there is still some cognitive dissonance here, because Apple allows an app to call this API even if a user has set the Photo Access setting to Never in settings. In my opinion, if you have it set to Never, you should have to change that before any photo can enter the app from your library, no matter what inconvenience that causes. Never is not a default, it is an explicit choice and that permanent user intent overrules the one-off user intent of the new photo picker.

I believe that Apple should find a way to rectify this in the future by making it more clear or disallowing if people have explicitly opted out of sharing photos in an app.

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One good idea might be the equivalent of the ‘only once’ location option added to the upcoming iOS 13 might be appropriate.

One thing that FaceApp does do, however, is it uploads your photo to the cloud for processing. It does not do on-device processing like Apple’s first party app does and like it enables for third parties through its ML libraries and routines. This is not made clear to the user.

I have asked FaceApp why they don’t alert the user that the photo is processed in the cloud. I’ve also asked them whether they retain the photos.

Given how many screenshots people take of sensitive information like banking and whatnot, photo access is a bigger security risk than ever these days. With a scraper and optical character recognition tech you could automatically turn up a huge amount of info way beyond ‘photos of people’.

So, overall, I think it is important that we think carefully about the safeguards put in place to protect photo archives and the motives and methods of the apps we give access to.

The Great Hack was one of the wildest movies I saw at Sundance

The trailer is out for Netflix doc The Great Hack, an early cut of which was screened at Sundance this year. I saw that cut during the fest and it was one of the wildest of a second wave of films trying to make sense of what the hell happened with Facebook and the election. A year ago, the tone was different. It was more shock and awe and impressionist art pieces. The Great Hack is part of a new breed that is making a serious attempt to put things into a narrative that normals can understand.

The film anchors itself mostly on two figures, Parsons School of Design Professor David Caroll and ex-Cambridge Analytica employee and ostensible whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, with a cast of other touchstone figures like Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr.

One of the major weaknesses of this kind of story is that it is likely best told in minutes of product meetings and repo commits, rather than attached to human narrative. But that’s not how most humans think and the past ten years have proven that even the people charged with protecting users from these systems have very little idea about how they actually work or how vulnerable they were and continue to be to manipulation. So The Great Hack takes an earnest stab at laying out the basics of how Facebook and other online platforms were manipulated and compromised in order to fuel Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation machine and, by extension, election campaigns and other public sentiment scenarios.

The version I saw did its best to connect these topics with tissue that (mostly, but not always) feels like it is linking the events with human counterparts involved. It does paint some of the journalists and figures in the piece with a bit of a golden brush, and never goes much further than ambivalence when featuring Kaiser, who was by her own admission, right alongside Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, (who plays the villain of the piece (IRL as well as in the doc)) through CA’s most controversial period.

But, if you’ve been following the whole saga and reading news obsessively, not much in here is going to feel like brand new information. It is likely, though that there will be plenty that is new to a broader Netflix audience. If they were able to fix some of the pacing issues and land some of the ‘revelations’ with more punch in the final version I think it may have legs.

The doc hits Netflix on July 24th. You should check it out for yourself.

 

Apple disables Walkie Talkie app due to vulnerability that could allow iPhone eavesdropping

Apple has disabled the Apple Watch Walkie Talkie app due to an unspecified vulnerability that could allow a person to listen to another customer’s iPhone without consent, the company told TechCrunch this evening.

Apple has apologized for the bug and for the inconvenience of being unable to use the feature while a fix is made.

The Walkie Talkie app on Apple Watch allows two users who have accepted an invite from each other to receive audio chats via a ‘push to talk’ interface reminiscent of the PTT buttons on older cell phones.

A statement from Apple reads:

We were just made aware of a vulnerability related to the Walkie-Talkie app on the Apple Watch and have disabled the function as we quickly fix the issue. We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and will restore the functionality as soon as possible. Although we are not aware of any use of the vulnerability against a customer and specific conditions and sequences of events are required to exploit it, we take the security and privacy of our customers extremely seriously. We concluded that disabling the app was the right course of action as this bug could allow someone to listen through another customer’s iPhone without consent.  We apologize again for this issue and the inconvenience.

Apple was alerted to the bug via its report a vulnerability portal directly and says that there is no current evidence that it was exploited in the wild.

The company is temporarily disabling the feature entirely until a fix can be made and rolled out to devices. The Walkie Talkie App will remain installed on devices, but will not function until it has been updated with the fix.

Earlier this year a bug was discovered in the group calling feature of FaceTime that allowed people to listen in before a call was accepted. It turned out that the teen who discovered the bug, Grant Thompson, had attempted to contact Apple about the issue but was unable to get a response. Apple fixed the bug and eventually rewarded Thompson a bug bounty.  This time around, Apple appears to be listening more closely to the reports that come in via its vulnerability tips line and has disabled the feature.

Earlier today, Apple quietly pushed a Mac update to remove a feature of the Zoom conference app that allowed it to work around Mac restrictions to provide a smoother call initiation experience — but that also allowed emails and websites to add a user to an active video call without their permission.

Superbacklash

Hot startup Superhuman has been getting some ‘backlash’ as happens now and then when someone notices the precise methodology that a startup is using to enable a really freakin’ cool feature set. We’re well into stage 2 now when, inevitably, the backlash itself gets backlash.

The nut of it is that people have been exposed to the idea that Superhuman tracks email you send and receive and allows you to keep better track of it. They do it on your behalf, but without the permission of the recipient.

You can read a review of the service by Lucas Matney, who spent six months with it, here on TC.

The best thing about all of this defense chatter coming in is that the backlash itself is really not all that serious. People are literally just pointing out what they do, which is track email. It’s not a crime (yet, probably) to do what they do. And it provides real, genuine value.

This isn’t, obviously a new idea. It’s done by every marketing platform worth a darn that uses email. Every single email that comes in from a BRAND has some sort of this stuff happening. As do all websites (including this one). People are just not used to it being applied to a consumer product as intimate as personal email, and that sort of in-your-face use of commerce-grade tracking is perking up ears.

A few years back a startup founder with a suite of productivity apps (not Superhuman) asked me about this cool new feature they were planning on shipping: email tracking for senders, built right in. Read receipts and action items and all kinds of cool sounding stuff to make your life easier. He was asking what I thought of it, and whether Apple would have an issue with it if they shipped it on the store.

I told him it sounded like a great idea, but that I would be very cautions of actually rolling it out because it was impossible to get verification from the other side before you began tracking them. There was no opt-in.

I advised him to look at the way Apple handles it, where email tracking happens outside of the body of the email in a sort of passive radar fashion. Instead of active ‘pings’ using tracking pixels or other image hosting tricks, you’re getting a lighter client-side data set to work from. It’s opt in on your side, and doesn’t extend to them.

I warned on it for the same reason that I opt out of services that route my work email through their own servers, I choose not to employ any tracking apps and set up my emails not to auto display images. It’s not because I don’t want actionable insights, its because I am unable to obtain the permission of the people I send it to to begin tracking them.

Yeah, for sure, they’re already tracked 10 ways to Sunday by every spam email from Groupon to The Gap, but this is coming from me, an individual. It’s different, in my opinion, which is why people are reacting the way they are.

Flash forward and now we’ve got a very well capitalized startup with this at the core of their business. It seems like the founders have thought a lot about this and have decided that this tracking is good and defensible. So it shouldn’t be a shock when it comes time to defend those choices.

If you’re a founder, I think that’s a core lesson: always be willing to die on whatever hill you’re building.

I don’t think that the chatter about the tracking feature of Superhuman is a case of people turning on a startup that has become successful. Superhuman is very new, but very buzzy. And, as I said above, the backlash mostly consists of people highlighting their marquee features in detail. I’d bet a lot of people became even more interested in what it’s doing reading the various and sundry tweets and posts about it, including a Big Profile post in the NYT that kicked off this latest round of discussion.

We’ve been covering Superhuman for a few years now, including detailed explanations of what they want to accomplish and what the origins of the product and team are. That’s pretty much our job — to make sure we see this stuff years before anyone else. Heck we even covered the last startup to use the name Superhuman for a productivity app. The tracking stuff has come up in our stories, but I think that people are just more willing to be skeptical of this stuff given the way that the last couple of years have gone. This is something that we have found happening with a lot of privacy issues recently.

In fact, the most astute criticism of the way Superhuman uses tracking came in a post by designer Mike Davidson, who has spent a lot of time working on large systems that have dangerous, as well as exciting, potential. And that post is anything but a ‘drive by’ on the model. It’s a thoughtful critique that actually offers some possible solutions.

I do think they are trying to solve a real problem. But there are clearly components of the way that they implemented their key feature that have potential for abuse.

It is, and I do find it a bit amusing that I have to say this in twenty nineteen, OK for people to want to discuss this and to examine the trade offs in a product that makes other people’s privacy choices for them. This isn’t backlash, this is discussion, and it’s good.

One of the reasons that we’ve gotten to a place where large platforms have been able to be mis-used to manipulate audiences at scale is that not enough people were listening to the conversations that were had about these possibilities early enough.

In context, it is very hard to argue that a genuine moment of thoughtfulness about any startup that has traction, raises significant capital and is aiming to have the most users possible see the world from its point of view is a bad thing.

Apple Sans Ive

Well, this has been interesting. After almost 30 years with Apple, Jony Ive is leaving, to found his own firm LoveFrom with his friend and frequent collaborator Marc Newson — also leaving Apple. The response to this news has been predictably histrionic from Apple watchers and press.

The narratives, to summarize, are essentially that:

  • Jony had checked out, become incompetent or just plain lazy
  • Apple is doomed because he is leaving

If those narratives look contradictory then you have eyes.

If you take the sum of the breathless (dare I say thirsty) stories tying together a bunch of anecdotes about Jony’s last couple of years, they are trying to paint a picture of a legendary design figure that has abandoned the team and company he helped build, leading to a stagnation of forward progress — while at the same time trying to argue that the company is doomed without him.

Ok.

Ironically (or perhaps inevitably) even the phrasing of the tweets that accompanied these stories were couched in inflammatory positioning. Tim Cook’s email (actually quite plainly stated) was touted as ‘scathing’, the Journal posited the question: ‘Why hasn’t Apple had a hit product in years? A look at the internal drama around the departure of its design chief helps explain.’ A conclusion that its story only hints at.

Most watchers of the company that I know who were asking and listening to Apple people over the past couple of years are aware that Jony has been on borrowed time with the company. Shocking, this was not — a surprise it was always guaranteed to be given how much control Jony keeps over how and when he does press.

Back in 2015, it was clear that Jony wanted to do less paper pushing and more pencil pushing. And the past decade of Apple has been nothing if not an explosion of management challenges. Enormous growth in product volumes, splintering product lines that made an attempt to leave less room under the pricing and feature umbrella and, yeah, a hell of a lot more people.

“Many of Apple’s critics are purely nostalgic,” Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies puts it. “Wanting Apple to go back to the days when some of the designs were more bold, iconic, possibly polarizing, but in that time Apple was selling tens of millions of products not hundreds of millions of products. This is a crucially important point that many in the public sphere miss. “

All of that growth means that the job of someone like Jony would naturally shift from scooting a pencil around a drafting board to something more like management — or, in Apple’s case, teaching.

I’m not the Journal’s (or any other publication’s, thank god) public editor. So I will not be fisking the stories that have come out about Jony and his work habits. I’ve never been that good at it and I don’t really have the stomach for it these days. I do have thoughts, though about the way that these anecdotes are tied together in a narrative.

Given that I have covered the company closely for years, I know a lot of the people who were involved in some of these situations. Jony did, in fact, move to holding design meetings at his house in SF. They absolutely held design meetings at The Battery to collate device opinion. He has a design studio in other homes like Hawaii and London. He has absolutely spent more time in the city than down at Apple headquarters over the past few years. The design teams, in and out of the industrial design people, absolutely saw less of him than before.

There are also bits and pieces in the various stories over the past few days that are not, as I understand them, accurate, or represented in an accurate context. But the more important point is that no one I know felt that Jony had checked out or abandoned the team.

As he stated himself, Jony was just plain tired. What prolific designer do you know that is excited about doing more management and less design?

Also, I fully reject the narrative that Apple has somehow floundered because Jony has been absentee. During the period, the company has shipped some enormously successful products — including the major category hit Apple Watch. As one note, I found the criticism that Jony wanted a gold watch so that made the Apple Watch a boondoggle to be enormously hilarious.

The gold watch had 2 distinct purposes:

  • Jony wanted to make it
  • It set expectation that this was a product worth wearing all day

I think it is 100% possible and fair to argue that the first point means Jony had too much power or that it was him exercising that power in a way that felt foreign to Apple’s egalitarian ideals about computing. But the fact is that, regardless of how many they sold, it made a splash and did, in fact, push Apple into the world of fashion and wearable conversation in a way that it hadn’t ever before.

That toe-hold gave them time to figure out what the Watch is actually for and it is a very real success for the company. During the same period, Apple shipped the iPhone X months ahead of schedule, and major updates to every line including the iMac.

I can certainly understand one or more members of the design team resenting the lack of intimate one-on-one time that Jony used to spend with the team when Apple shipped fewer products in more time. And not all of Jony’s influence over the past few years is pristine in hindsight. The MacBook keyboards still suck, I’ll give you that one.

Basically, all design is worth critiquing, and Jony isn’t above that. If something doesn’t work consistently or feel human centric, then it doesn’t matter if 1950’s Dieter Rams himself designed it, it’s crap.

But the argument that Jony derailed product at Apple looks like complete nonsense when you observe the facts. And every design team member I’ve spoken to over the last 4 years has said that Jony, while at times difficult, demanding and intense, has also been an enormous enabling force when it comes to spending the time, resources and energy it took them to get a product or feature to the level they wanted. Resources like on-the-ground materials consultation in China, collaborations with artists around the world, research into the effects of a design — the willingness to ‘do the most’ in search of a solution. None of that went away.

That said, if Jony doesn’t like managing, guess what Jony is not going to be enthusiastic about? As Shel Silverstein put it: “If you have to dry the dishes, and you drop one on the floor, maybe they won’t make you dry dishes any more.”

There is certainly calculus in everything an executive at any big company says publicly — but I think you can believe Jony when he says that he feels like he can be useful elsewhere.

“I certainly have an ambition and feel almost a moral obligation to be useful,” he says in this FT piece. “I feel I’ve been fortunate enough to work with remarkable people over the last 30-plus years and have worked on some very interesting projects and solved some very difficult problems. I feel keenly aware of a responsibility to do something significant with that learning.”

He wants out, and that’s what he’s doing. But he’s not leaving the company in terrible shape, from either an overall perspective and from an internal perspective.

Let’s move away from the anecdotal. What’s more interesting to me than any of this Jony shit talking is where Apple design goes from here.

Apple has put Evans Hankey and Alan Dye in charge of design, reporting to Jeff Williams. Wring your hands all you want about Apple becoming an operations company but, like, where have you been for the last 10 years?

Yes, Apple is a different company now, and it should be. While Jony has given us some amazing work (and some amazing what the hell moments) over the years, its going to be fascinating to watch a new leadership tackle the next era at Apple.

I think it’s also smart of Apple not to announce a single ‘Jony replacement’ at this juncture. Any immediate comparison would likely not do them any favors and this gives the team time to find a new center and a new direction over the next couple of years. I think someone will emerge as the design lead here eventually, but I’m not sure who.

Evans, as I understand it, was hand picked by Jony to lead the ID team as a manager, a job she’s already been doing. She’s a capable design manager with hundreds of patents to her name. More importantly, Apple has a historic and systemic policy that they don’t just put people in to do a job, they put them there to learn from them and to teach them. The Apple way of doing things is institutionalized and taught to new hires.

This institutional tissue, I believe, will survive Jony leaving.

One of the things that struck me the most about a lot of the recent stories is that it painted members of the design team as feckless automatons that could not proceed without Jony approving every move. That’s not true and honestly not even possible. There’s no way Apple could ship on the schedule they have done over the past few years if Jony being late to a meeting would handicap them.

There are a lot of very smart and very talented people at Apple and they are not all named Jony.

I’m also very interested to see how Alan Dye gets on with Apple. He’s got a calm, understated demeanor in person that can come across a bit flat, but he’s clearly very engaged with the task. He’s respected by Apple designers who feel that his work speaks for itself internally and that he has the chops. One of the arcs of Dye’s tenure has been to unify the look and feel of iOS across its platforms in terms of typography like San Francisco.

One of the biggest potholes that the software design team has ever hit, in my opinion, was iOS 7. It needed to be a break with the past for some legitimate reasons, like the expansion of iOS onto new platforms like the car, the watch and beyond. But Jony brought print, not interaction, designers from other parts of Apple in to flesh out the final design and that ended up presenting as a radical new but also radically less usable iOS.

iOS 7, to me, has always reminded me of an apocryphal saying I heard but can’t remember where. It’s about the notoriously difficult to drive Porsche 911: Porsche made a beautiful mistake, and it’s spent 50 years fixing it.

The 911 was a car that was designed to be imbalanced from the beginning by placing the engine in the rear, to emphasize power transfer to the ground via weight and traction. Also, no joke, so you could still fit groceries in it.

Unfortunately, it also enabled massive oversteer, with the car swinging wide on corners incredibly suddenly if pushed too hard. Porsche has refined that design with every iteration, improving every other aspect of the vehicle like traction, larger wheelbase, steering, braking and gearing. Just to get it to a place where the original vision remained intact, but, you know, less fire and dying.

Apple has done much the same since iOS 7, taking a concept that it felt was necessary and continuing to pull it back into a place that feels more usable.

One of the things that stood out to me at the time was that iOS 7 led with a ‘panes of glass’ metaphor. They weren’t all that explicit about it then but it seemed clear to me that they saw this as a way to support all kinds of interfaces from palm first to heads up. An evolution of the information appliance.

Dye and the design team (and Jony, tbf) have spent the last couple of years making big strides fixing the mechanical issues, but it was very exciting to me to see the panes of glass metaphor heavily emphasized at WWDC this year. They’re just panes with depth, texture and hopefully more accessible context this time around.

Even though Jony is a ‘unicorn’ designer, Apple has always thrived on small teams with decision makers, and they’re not all one person. The structure of Apple, which does not rely on product managers, still leaves an enormous amount of power in the hands of the people actually doing the work. I’m not as concerned as a lot of people are that, with Jony leaving, there will suddenly be a slavish hewing to the needs of ‘ops over all’. It’s not in the DNA.

That doesn’t mean however, that there aren’t still question marks. Jony was an enormous force in this company. It is completely natural to be curious, excited and, hell yeah even worried about what his departure will do to the design focused Apple people love to love.

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An Adidas Futurecraft shoe with a midsole printed by Carbon

As for me, I hope that there can be a balance struck between the established patterns of Apple design and new schools of thought. No company should remain rooted in the past completely. There are wildly interesting things happening in design and manufacturing at the moment. Trends like programmatic or “AI” design that allow designers to define an algorithm and a set of constraints, and then generate ‘impossible’ shapes out of edgy materials to obtain a result unable to be sketched or sculpted by traditional processes.

The shoe pictured above is a collaboration between an artist and an algorithm. Daniel Arsham, Adidas and a startup called Carbon made this with the help of a design program that understands the goals and materials its working with, but charts its own path to getting there. This is the new school of design.

The compression of the design and manufacturing stacks into one segment is going to be the defining characteristic of this age of product development in my opinion. Apple needs to jump on that wave and ride it.

There’s a Steve quote, prominently displayed on the wall of the Infinite Loop 4 building in its old Cupertino headquarters.

“I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”

I’d love to see Apple’s design teams do just that, embrace these new schools of thought and find ways to integrate them into the way that it has always worked. There hasn’t been a more fascinating time to follow this company in years. Whatever happens it won’t be boring.

Lead image: Bryce Durbin

NTWRK moves into live IRL events

NTWRK, is a fascinating experiment in live video shopping for the iPhone set. It’s been described as a blend of QVC and Twitter and Twitch and they just got a new slice of money from investors like Drake and Live Nation to expand into physical events.

There’s been a bunch of attempts at this kind of hybrid event shopping experience, but none of them have quite hit a home run yet. NTWRK was a pretty compelling experience even at launch last year. The core experience is a live show presented only in NTWRK’s app, where guests can talk about products which become available in the app as the show airs.

There was a built in opportunity to offer limited availability streetwear and sneakers, and an audience that founder Aaron Levant knew very well from his time running ComplexCon and Agenda, two big streetwear and marketing shows.

One of the first shows starred Ben Baller and Jeff Staple, and featured a drop of a new colorway of Staple’s iconic Pigeon Dunk from Nike . I tuned in and found the experience to be compelling in its own way. The live show provided context for the product and the interface let you purchase in a couple taps of a button (the shoes sold out immediately and the app inevitably crashed from the rush of hype beasts). The stream and app have gotten more stable since then.

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Since the launch, NTWRK has experimented with various product areas and promotions. The latest funding is enabling expansion back into physical events and some new angles on the NTWRK model.

After getting kicked out of high school in 10th grade, Levant went on to work in graphic design, sales and marketing for an LA streetwear brand. That led to trade show attending and eventually to Levant founding his own show, Agenda in 2003. Agenda got bigger over the next 10 years, becoming one of the biggest action sports, streetwear and lifestyle tradeshows in the world. He sold a majority of Agenda to ReeedPOP, which owns Comic Con and stayed on in a development role. Eventually, he developed other shows including ComplexCon, a smash hit culture and sneaker show in partnership with Complex.

Last year, Levant left to found NTWRK.

“That transition really happened through a conversation that I had with Jimmy Iovine in September of 2017,” Levant told me in an interview last year. “I got introduced to him by a friend. He expressed his interest in a new company for him and his son, and we had similar interests and ideas around that. That night that I met him, I went home, stayed up all night to 4:00 in the morning and wrote the entire business plan for NTWRK.”

Iovine ended up as an investor via the MSA Enterprises vehicle, along with Warner Bros. Digital Networks, LeBron James, Maverick Carter and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jimmy’s son Jamie is a co-founder and Head of Fandom at NTWRK.

One of Levant’s big takeaways from his time with ComplexCon and Agenda was that the physical audiences were valuable but a digital audience is built to foster through earned media and user-generated content around these lifestyle events.

“There’s 50,000 people in the room but I think there’s probably a million people online who want to engage with those products and that content,” said Levant. “Maybe I felt a little bit like I was using my skill set and I wasn’t extracting the full value out of it because I wasn’t in the e-com or digital media business in the past. I think that was a key unlock for me, how do I do that better with a phase two of my career?”

The past few months have seen a series of high profile launches and collaborations with sneaker and streetwear people. And now, the Live Nation and Drake tie up will lead to artist-driven collections sold on NTWRK’s app, unique ticket access, promo bundles developed by NTWKR and, yes, a new live event called NTWRK Presents that will launch in Q4.

In recent months, Drake sold some of his tour merch exclusively on NTWRK.

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They’ve also been running auctions for rare resell market items like Supreme guitars and sneakers.

The concept of shopping as entertainment is far from new. There’s a reason that the easy buzzphrase people attach to NTWRK is ‘QVC for millennials’. But there has yet to be a platform that has managed to pin together the right culture with the right delivery mechanism at the right time. NTWRK has a chance to do this I believe because Levant has the taste for it, but also because he’s backing into this from a place of understanding when it comes to culture.

Too many times we see the technology of the platform take center stage — a clever delivery mechanism or good design. But, fundamentally, most tech companies are absolutely crap at culture. They’re too homogenic — they do not allow for and encourage the influence of the spaces that they’re catering to.

Black Twitter made Twitter. Creators of color made Vine. Asian and Indian users dominate Whatsapp. But when there is an attempt to engage even niche cultures in commerce or monetization the lack of inclusivity and understanding causes them to just screw up over and over.

Having started with live events that existed primarily as a framework for culture to create its own moments, Levant and NTWRK are in a better position to figure this out. If you’ve ever been to an Agenda or ComplexCon you know what I mean. There’s this pungent melange of culture, music, money, rare goods and ephemeral moment creation happening. The challenge is to make that work in a digital context, of course, and then to sort of ‘re-export’ that back into event formats.

“I think that, as I’ve said countless times, physical events have a huge organic digital ripple, but we needed the digital platform to already be established and scalable before we implemented the physical events, to have an effect on the larger digital platform,” Levant says about moving NTWRK into an IRL context. “In my previous roles, I spent 15 years really focusing on the physical experiential events and towards the end of my career doing that I came to the realization I was doing it backwards.”

I don’t necessarily think that this model’s going to work for everybody. I think Levant and co have a unique skill of bringing people together and I think the celebrity thing is a strong overall angle – right down to the investors.

“Obviously Drake is an icon that has massive influence over all of pop culture and I think there are few people in that category of him that can capture consumer’s imagination,” says Levant. “I couldn’t think of someone better than him to be involved with our company.”

There are other angles too, though, that still have the same thing at the core. NTWRK is creating this engaged audience and they’re giving them value and then offering them a very on-the-face, honest transaction: “Look, here’s this thing. If you buy it, we benefit. Thanks, peace.”

That kind of interaction model is foreign to media because of this idea that advertising is the only gain and the only way to build that monetary relationship. I think people are going to start to get wise to that but they still are very resistant.

“We were out there, talking to every brand and every agency in the world and it’s really interesting to watch who gets it and who’s totally confused,” said Levant when we spoke about the launch. “It’s really fun to have these conversations because people are just like, ‘Wait, what are you doing?’

They have a really hard time grasping it and they don’t know who we should talk to. Should we be talking to the media buying team? Should we be talking to the wholesale team? Should we talk to the PR team? I’m like, ‘No, we’re talking to everybody.””

“Companies tend to divide their business up into these silos, these business units and these internal categories and they usually don’t collaborate and play well together and when you get these big, global organizations, their head’s spinning because they don’t know who we should talk to because no one’s done this one-to-one yet.”

Right now as I write this I’m watching Bobby Hundreds talk live about his memoir This is Not A T-Shirt — while selling a bundle that includes the book and, yes, a t-shirt. Hundreds (Bobby Kim), built a streetwear brand when it was definitely not a thing to build a streetwear brand.

The bundle runs $50. I’m thinking about buying it.

I flew the Millennium Falcon and it was good

 

After visiting Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge several months ago to report on how it was built, I came back on the eve of it opening to the public to try out its first marquee attraction: flying the Millennium Falcon.

Well, I flew it, and it was good. Real good. This ride is for everyone who dreamed of piloting the Falcon more than they dreamed about holding a lightsaber. This ride is for every person that rode Star Tours shuttle and gripped the slightly up-turned handles wishing hard that they could fly it. It’s a quintessential part of the Star Wars universe made flesh.

It’s clever, incredibly well art-directed and absolutely smoothly operational. The ride offers a thrilling group experience that will foster shouting and interaction in the cockpit just as we’ve seen in the movies. It will very likely also breed some post-flight posturing or trash talking depending on how each individual performs their tasks.

The scene setting and queue for the Falcon is pitch perfect. You walk by the ship itself and through a queue that is populated with all of the artifacts of an active smuggling operation inside a well worn, lived in hangar. As you go through the line you are presented with multiple views of the falcon itself, making utilization of the 100 foot ship.

A cast member will hand you a boarding card with your preferred role on it, identified by color.

Eventually you enter the insanely familiar chiclet corridor and board the ship. The reveal of the hold with its Dejarik board (not functional but you can sit there and take pics) and a ton of other super accurate details is your next treat. This is where your colored boarding card gets handed in and you board a cockpit through one of two tunnels.

After a quick briefing from Hondo Ohnaka it’s time to enter the cockpit and, friends, the impact is real. It’s the cockpit as you imagined it, only right in your face and extremely tactile. I talked about this before but the toggles feel right, the levers feel right.

Technologically speaking, the Falcon is a beast of an operation.

In my piece previewing Galaxy’s Edge a few months ago, I mentioned some technical details about the way the ride works. It’s a simulator with multiple cockpits, loaded with 6 people in 2 batches at a time. There are two pilots, two gunners and two engineers. You share responsibility for how the Falcon completes its mission. You’ll always get home but the ship may be more or less damaged and each person gets a rating that translates into your ‘share’ of galactic credits.

 

Here’s some details from my earlier piece:

  • The simulation is run on the Unreal engine and the mechanics are a much upgraded version of what powers Star Tours. Each cockpit has its own real‑time rendering system for a multi‑projection feedback hub across five screens that completely surround the cockpit seamlessly. Any decision you make as a member of the crew has to result in an action on screen, and it’s all real-time, so none of the major stuff is pre-rendered. While Disney itself was fairly cagey about what powers the ‘magic’ behind this system, Nvidia talked a bit about it last year.
  • Each of the cockpits is powered by a single BOXX machine with 8 NVIDIA Quadro P6000 GPUs in a Quadro SLI configuration. They sync up with 5 super high res rear projectors that make up a seamless cockpit for the rider. The displays synchronize with each other and with the actions of the people in the cockpit.
  • Gunners fire (synchronous fire from both gunners is needed to blow up an attacker) blasters, engineers put out fires or handle special operations like grappling and pilots try not to hit stuff (and engage the hyper drive). All of these actions are accomplished by strategically punching buttons or pulling levers during the flight. You are prompted to do each with audible instructions from Hondo as well as light up rings and buttons.
  • The whole simulation sits on top of a custom version of Unreal Engine that supports an obvious ton of GPUs. The work that Disney did on the engine went back to Epic Games and will help to inform how their engine ends up handling multiple GPUs in the future.

In action, the work has paid off. This is an insanely involved simulator ride handling a bunch of inputs at once

I have to say, though, it tickles me pink that Disney spent billions building what reminds me a heck of a lot of a Star Wars version of Spaceteam.

Yes, you can play it in isolation, taking care of your role and that’s it, but just a couple minutes into my flight I was yelling at our (terrible) pilots to go left or right or up or down and the engineers were hollering at my fellow gunner and I to shoot things. If you let yourself get into it, you’re going to have a good time. And there are absolutely cases for multiple runs at this thing, it’s not a one-and-done ride. Different roles, different modes (there is a semi-secret manual gunnery mode you trigger right at the beginning of the ride if you’re quick) and what Disney promises are ongoing stories that will be installed in the ride make it a long term investment.

The controls are responsive, but not ‘twitch-style’. If you’ve played an advanced space simulator then you know that the scale of everything affects your sense of speed — that’s present here too. The Falcon isn’t a ship that goes snicker snack from one heading to another, it arcs and swerves. This makes moving up and down floatier than flying a tiny fighter might be, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. I hit maybe 2-3 things on my pilot flight, where my earlier flight impacted maybe 15 or so times.

You’re given a score based on how you performed your role and how the whole flight performed. That translates into galactic credits that you can use in the Disney Play app for rewards. The Play App, as long as it has been logged into and opened, will get your score information from the ride automatically.

Cast members will then be able to see how you performed and tell you to “stay away from Hondo, he’s not going to be happy.” Or when you’re ordering a drink at the Cantina the barkeep might say “I see that you had a successful run on the Falcon for Hondo.”

We also got a bit of a video and audio “extra” after our second flight when we did better score wise than my first one. I’m not sure if that’s connected to score but I’m going to try to find out. Hondo was certainly more complimentary and there was a real story-based change between the two runs. We ‘did more’ in the second run and ‘came back with more stuff’ and those things felt connected and visual — it wasn’t just a random score-based level.

I’ll leave the contents of the flight itself to spoiler territory, but it involved the traditional flying in tight spots, asteroids, shooting down Tie Fighters and entering hyperspace. It was intense, felt like a good length and was very satisfying.

I’ll have more to come from Galaxy’s Edge in the next few days, stay tuned.

Apple announces new MacBook Pros with a keyboard fix, oh, and more powerful processors

Apple is updating its 15” MacBook Pro with new 8-core and 6-core processors and its 13” MacBook Pro with Touch Bar with 8th-gen quad-core processors. Apple says that these boosts mean the 15” MacBook Pro will run at double the speed of the previous quad-core models and hit 40% improvements over the 6-core MacBook Pro model.

Apple says this is its fastest Mac notebook ever.

Oh, and there is that keyboard update.

Speed bump

The $2,399 config of the 15″ MacBook Pro is getting a 2.6GHz 6-core i7 that boosts to 4.5ghz, a 400 MHz increase in turbo speed. The top end $2,799 config is now standard with an 8-core i9, two more cores and a 500 MHz increase over the current 6-core config.

The 13″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar gets boosted 2.4GHz quad-core processors, standard, which will turbo boost to speeds up to 4.7GHz. The configure-your-own option gets a 200MHz bump, making it a full 2x faster from the dual-core 13”.

The speed boosts of the MacBook Pro and the keyboard changes come after a year of boosts for the flagship notebook. It got an update last July, a graphics update in October and now the i9 update. Amidst a shift in Apple’s business driven by smartphone market saturation, the Mac has continued to grow out-sized to the industry and still acts as a beachhead for Apple in many enterprise businesses.

The new MacBook Pro models will be available for purchase today.

About the keyboard

Apple also told me that it is making three announcements about the MacBook Pro keyboard situation. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’re aware that the current generation of MacBook Pro (and MacBook Air) models have had issues with keys either not firing or firing twice, resulting in no letter or double letters typed. The industry term for this is “make or double make.”

Apple recently revised the MacBook keyboards quietly with the addition of a membrane that seemed intended to prevent dust and particulates from making it under the keys and preventing firing. The updates, though seemingly improvements, still resulted in some malfunctions. And, Apple never really even said they were making the change.

Today, however, they told me they’re taking three explicit steps to help with the keyboard situation:

  1. The MacBook Pro keyboard mechanism has had a materials change in the mechanism. Apple says that this new keyboard mechanism composition will substantially reduce the double-type/no-type issue. Apple will not specify what it has done, but doubtless tear-downs of the keyboard will reveal what has been updated.
  2. Though Apple believes this change will greatly reduce the issue, it is also including all butterfly keyboards across its notebook line in its Keyboard Service Program. This means that current MacBook Pros and even the models being released today will have keyboard repairs covered at no cost, in warranty and out of warranty.
  3. Apple tells me that repair times for keyboards have been longer than they would like. It is making substantial improvements to repair processes in Apple Stores to make repairs faster for customers with issues.

If you bring a MacBook in with an older third-generation (the one with the membrane) malfunctioning keyboard, it will be replaced with this new fourth revision of the MacBook keyboard. So if you have an Air or a Pro that has issues, it will get the new mechanism.

As a note, the changes in the keyboards are “under the hood,” meaning they are not intended to change the look or feel of the keyboard and should result in the same typing experience as current-gen keyboards.

The popularity of the MacBook Pro has only been highlighted by the keyboard issues, as no one notices a flaw in their tools more than people who live and die by them. If Apple is able to finally put the issues of this current generation of keyboards to rest it will have plugged a potential hole in MacBook sales and given itself breathing room to introduce a full new generation of the machines.

This speed bump comes in advance of Apple’s WWDC conference where it is anticipated to launch iOS 13 and other software products for consumers and developers. Apple has, at times, used the stage to announce hardware improvements as well. Its decision to announce this speed bump and keyboard fix now could be a result of its desire to “clear the decks” for announcements onstage at the conference, or a desire to address the keyboard fix “off air” — or both.

WWDC is about a week and a bit away, and we’ll be there on the ground to bring you the updates from the scene.