The Skagen Falster is a high fashion Android wearable

Skagen is a well-know maker of thin and uniquely Danish watches. Founded in 1989, the company is now part of the Fossil group and, as such, has begin dabbling in both the analog with the Hagen and now Android Wear with the Falster. The Falster is unique in that it stuffs all of the power of a standard Android Wear device into a watch that mimics the chromed aesthetic of Skagen’s austere design while offering just enough features to make you a fashionable smartwatch wearer.

The Falster, which costs $275 and is available now, has a fully round digital OLED face which means you can read the time at all times. When the watch wakes up you can see an ultra bright white on black time-telling color scheme and then tap the crown to jump into the various features including Android Fit and the always clever Translate feature that lets you record a sentence and then show it the person in front of you.

You can buy it with a leather or metal band and the mesh steel model costs $20 extra.

Sadly, in order stuff the electronics into such a small case, Skagen did away with GPS, LTE connectivity, and even a heart-rate monitor. In other words if you were expecting a workout companion then the Falster isn’t the Android you’re looking for. However, if you’re looking for a bare-bones fashion smartwatch, Skagen ticks all the boxes.

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What you get from the Flasterou do get, however, is a low-cost, high-style Android Wear watch with most of the trimmings. I’ve worn this watch off and on few a few weeks now and, although I do definitely miss the heart rate monitor for workouts, the fact that this thing looks and acts like a normal watch 99% of the time makes it quite interesting. If obvious brand recognition nee ostentation are your goal, the Apple Watch or any of the Samsung Gear line are more your style. This watch, made by a company famous for its Danish understatement, offers the opposite of that.

Skagen offers a few very basic watch faces with the Skagen branding at various points on the dial. I particularly like the list face which includes world time or temperature in various spots around the world, offering you an at-a-glance view of timezones. Like most Android Wear systems you can change the display by pressing and holding on the face.

It lasts about a day on one charge although busy days may run down the battery sooner as notifications flood the screen. The notification system – essentially a little icon that appears over the watch face – sometimes fails and instead shows a baffling grey square. This is the single annoyance I noticed, UI-wise, when it came to the Falster. It works with both Android smartphones and iOS.

What this watch boils down to is an improved fitness tracker and notification system. If you’re wearing, say, a Fitbit, something like the Skagen Falster offers a superior experience in a very chic package. Because the watch is fairly compact (at 42mm I won’t say it’s small but it would work on a thinner wrist) it takes away a lot of the bulk of other smartwatches and, more important, doesn’t look like a smartwatch. Those of use who don’t want to look like we’re wearing robotic egg sacs on our wrists will enjoy that aspect of Skagen’s effort, even without all the trimmings we expect from a modern smartwatch.

Skagen, like so many other watch manufacturers, decided if it couldn’t been the digital revolution it would join it. The result is the Falster and, to a lesser degree, their analog collections. Whether or not traditional watchmakers will survive the 21st century is still up in the air but, as evidenced by this handsome and well-made watch, they’re at least giving it the old Danish try.

Apple details its crackdown on leakers…in a leaked memo

In an internal memo to employees, Apple threatened severe consequences for leaking confidential company information – reminding staff that those who leak can lose their jobs, have difficult finding future employment, and even get arrested. Last year, Apple claimed to have busted 29 leakers, 12 of whom were arrested.

The memo itself was leaked, and its content was published by Bloomberg this afternoon.

Apple has always cultivated a culture of confidentially about its work, as a means of maintaining a competitive advantage over the competition.

Given how large Apple has grown over the years – the memo says there are “135,000 people” working there – it’s become more difficult to keep things under wraps. By the time a new iPhone launches, for example, people already know what to expect. That can give rivals a head start on catching up with Apple, ahead of an actual public unveiling of the device. Leaks can also impact sales of current devices, as consumers hold off on buying as they know something better is soon to arrive.

Apple more recently has had problems with leaked iOS source code, as well as leaked details about the iPhone 8 and X, Apple Watch Series 3, Apple TV 4K, HomePod, and more. And that was just in 2017.

The new memo is not the first time Apple has tried to plug its leaks. Last year, the company held a meeting with employees where it discussed how it plans to prevent leaks, talked about how leakers were caught, and answered employees’ questions.

That meeting was secretly recorded and leaked to the press too.

In reality, some leaks can be harder to track or stop. A company-wide meeting or email, for instance, could be leaked by anyone.

The new memo begins by informing Apple employees that the person who leaked details about Apple’s software roadmap earlier this year was caught and fired last month:

Last month, Apple caught and fired the employee responsible for leaking details from an internal, confidential meeting about Apple’s software roadmap. Hundreds of software engineers were in attendance, and thousands more within the organization received details of its proceedings. One person betrayed their trust.

The employee who leaked the meeting to a reporter later told Apple investigators that he did it because he thought he wouldn’t be discovered. But people who leak — whether they’re Apple employees, contractors or suppliers — do get caught and they’re getting caught faster than ever.

The memo then goes on to stress how damaging leaks are to the company itself, those who worked on a project, and other employees.

It reminds employees that when they’re approached by press, analysts and bloggers they’re “getting played.”

The establishment of a very us-versus-them culture when dealing with outsiders is notable because it means Apple employees may fear becoming whistleblowers. Employees will likely also fear leaking to correct inaccurate information being passed around publicly. Today, there are reports that Apple’s own comms teams won’t respond to, when asked by press – unless the report reaches a critical mass, or worse – is unflattering to Apple.

But unlike at other companies where a PM or staffer may reach out to privately correctly a detail or give background outside of official channels, Apple staff would be fired for crossing that line.

The memo also points to more examples of how Apple’s internal security has caught people who believed they could get away with it – including the person who leaked the link to the gold master of iOS 11, and those who leaked within the supply chain.

It concludes by sharing the news that 12 of the leakers in 2017 were arrested.

“Leakers do not simply lose their jobs at Apple. In some cases, they face jail time and massive fines for network intrusion and theft of trade secrets both classified as federal crimes,” the memo read. “These people not only lose their jobs, they can face extreme difficulty finding employment elsewhere.”

There’s a certain kind of person who will find language like this a challenge. But the majority will likely take heed.

The memo was published as an internal company blog post.

The full memo can be read on Bloomberg’s site.

Apple starting to alert users that it will end 32-bit app support on the Mac

Tomorrow at noon PT, Apple will begin issuing an alert box when you open a 32-bit app in MacOS 10.13.4. It’s a one-time (per app) alert, designed to help MacOS make the full transition to 64-bit. At some unspecified time in the future, the operating system will end its support for 32-bit technology… meaning those apps that haven’t been updated just won’t work. 

That time, mind you, is not tomorrow, but the company’s hoping that this messaging will help light a fire under users and developers to upgrade before that day comes. Says the company on its help page, “To ensure that the apps you purchase are as advanced as the Mac you run them on, all future Mac software will eventually be required to be 64-bit.”

It’s similar to the transition the company made on the mobile side with iOS 11. Of course, making the shift is a bit messier on the desktop. For one thing, the company’s desktop operating system has been around a lot longer than iOS. For another, while Apple does have a MacOS App Store, plenty of desktop apps are still downloaded from other channels.

As the company notes, the transition’s been a long time coming. The company started making it 10 or so years ago with the Power Mac G5 desktop, so it hasn’t exactly been an overnight ask for developers. Of course, if you’ve got older, non-supported software in your arsenal, the eventual end-of-lifing could put a severe damper on your workflow. For those users, there will no doubt be some shades of the transition from OS 9 to OS X in all of this.

You can skip the alert and just see for yourself by clicking the System Report button. For those apps that haven’t updated yet (I’m looking at you, Audacity), Apple recommends bugging the developers directly.

A peace plan to end the wireless wars

No one would have predicted that the three of us would ever find ourselves on the same side of the corporate patent wars, let alone speak with one voice about how to end them.

That’s because one of us is the patent chief at a global smartphone maker (and an influential critic of patent licensing abuses); another is the former licensing chief at Apple and current chief executive of a non-practicing entity (NPE) patent licensing company that has been a target of criticism from product manufacturers; while the third is president of a patent pool operator, who has criticized companies on both sides of the patent wars for their gamesmanship, lack of transparency, and litigiousness.

We have come together because we see that patent owners and product makers have become trapped in an endless cycle of demands, counter-demands, and unproductive litigation. Unless we find a way out of this conflict, we will almost certainly see a repeat of yesterday’s costly and wasteful smartphone wars in tomorrow’s wireless connected car sector.

Product makers accuse patent owners of threatening lawsuits and using the expense of the legal process in order to demand extortionate royalties for their patent rights. For their part, patent owners say product makers refuse to pay fair compensation for the patented wireless, audio, and video features that give their products value as communication and entertainment devices.

The truth is, both sides have a point. That’s because patent owners and product makers are caught in a classic “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which the lack of transparency and fair ground rules in patent licensing lead companies on each side of a patent dispute to try to game the other. This only ensures that both sides suffer a negative outcome in outrageously-expensive litigation.

Unlike in the real property business, in intellectual property (IP) licensing there is little or no independent appraisal of the assets (i.e., patents) or transparency as to how prices are determined. And because most patent license agreements are confidential, there is little or no information or “comps” on what others have paid for similar patent rights. Nor are there any widely-accepted ground rules for what constitutes fair negotiating practices between buyers and sellers.

This is especially true in regards to standards-essential wireless patents, which are supposed to be licensed on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. But what’s fair or reasonable about the fact that an impossibly-large number of LTE (4G) cellular patents — more than 60,000, in fact — have been declared “standards essential” without any independent evaluation of those patents whatsoever?

That’s right, those 60,000-plus patents have all been self-declared “standards-essential” by companies each seeking their own commercial advantage. What you’ve got is a wireless gold rush — with plenty of fool’s gold posing as real gold.

So the three of us, working with industry leaders on both sides of the patent owner vs. product maker divide, have developed a three-pronged plan for ending the wireless patent wars and creating a more productive and less litigious patent licensing sector.

First, whittle down this ridiculous mountain of self-interested wireless patent claims to the fewer than 2,000 patent families that most experts believe are truly essential to smartphone handset makers. We can do this by excluding duplicative patents, expired patents, patents not in force in major economic markets, and patents for base station, infrastructure, and other innovations not relevant to handset makers. Independent, neutral evaluators will then confirm each patent’s relevance to the LTE standard for handsets.

Second, base royalty prices not on the subjectively-argued value of each individual patent examined in a vacuum, but on the objective value of the entire stack of LTE patents in a phone. A recent court judgment valued that LTE stack at roughly $20 for a smartphone with an average selling price of $324, but with greater price transparency from both sides, the market itself will likely set a rational price for the LTE stack. Royalties can then be paid to patent owners roughly proportionate to each patent owner’s percentage share of the total LTE patent stack.

And third, ensure greater transparency by promoting collective licensing solutions such as patent pools that openly publish their pricing frameworks and offer consistent terms to all licensees. Given the “prisoner’s dilemma” dynamics in patent licensing today, it is unrealistic to expect any one patent owner to unilaterally forego potential business advantage by revealing its pricing strategies. But collective licensing approaches such as patent pools reduce the risks of transparency for everyone.

As the IP journal Intellectual Asset Management recently noted, “There’s a growing sense that a collective approach to licensing could help solve some of the problems of the industry which, in sectors like mobile, has been scarred by long-running and costly disputes between patent owners and potential licensees.”

Our “peace plan” would eliminate many of the incentives and opportunities for gamesmanship in wireless patent licensing. And most importantly, it would help patent owners and product makers avoid a repeat of yesterday’s costly smartphone wars in tomorrow’s connected car, autonomous vehicle, and Internet of Things (IoT) industries.

It’s time for a new realignment in the industry — one in which the conflict is no longer between product maker and patent owner, but between those who license patents on a fair and transparent basis, and those who do not.

Apple says its global facilities are now powered by 100-percent clean energy

Last week, Apple called out the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to rollback the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The company cited both the obvious environmental impact of such a move, along with potential economic fallout.

It turns out Apple’s got quite a bit invested in the latter.  The company announced today that its global facilities are now 100-percent run by renewable energy.

The move is in line with the company’s 2015 plan to push toward 100-percent renewable energy, a list that includes all of Apple’s data centers as of 2014. As of today, the company’s officially adding retail stores, offices and co-located facilities to that list, covering 43 countries, including the US, China, UK and India.

The addition of nine manufacturing partners, meanwhile, brings the total number up to 23 suppliers promising to produce their products entirely with clean energy. How the companies involved actually hit these numbers is, unsurprisingly, somewhat more complex.

“Where feasible, we produce our own renewable energy by building our own renewable energy facilities, including solar arrays, wind farms, biogas fuel cells, and micro-hydro generation systems,” the company writes in its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report. “Where it’s not feasible to build our own generation, we sign long-term renewable energy purchase contracts, supporting new, local projects that meet our robust renewable energy sourcing principles.”

The push toward renewable energy has included some creative solutions, including 300 solar rooftops in Japan and 800 in Singapore. The company says it’s currently running 25 renewable energy projects globally, with 15 more in the process of being built. That will bump green energy capability from 626 megawatts to 1.4 gigawatts, by its count — and the finally tally doesn’t appear to include carbon offsets, unlike some of the competition. 

It’s easy to see how a rollback of the Clean Power Plan could ultimately have an averse effect on the company’s bottomline.

“We’re committed to leaving the world better than we found it. After years of hard work we’re proud to have reached this significant milestone,” Tim Cook said in a release tied to the news. “We’re going to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the materials in our products, the way we recycle them, our facilities and our work with suppliers to establish new creative and forward-looking sources of renewable energy because we know the future depends on it.”

Apple voices opposition to Clean Power Plan repeal

The Clean Power Plan is shaping up to be the latest Obama-era legislation on the Trump administration chopping block. In fact, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt has been quite open in his intentions to kill the plan focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Apple is among the first — but likely not the last — of companies to voice opposition to the matter. This week, the company filed a statement with the EPA noting concerns over the potential fallout from rolling back the policy. The note cites both environmental and, likely more importantly in the eyes of the administration, financial consequences.

As the company notes, it’s already made major investments in clean energy, pushing toward 100-percent renewable energy in the US and making similar promises for its work abroad. It’s easy to see how a reversal of a key climate focused initiative would have adverse effects on Apple’s bottom line, in addition to all of the clear negative impact on the, you know, environment.

“As a large consumer of electricity who has successfully pursued a clean energy strategy, we believe the Clean Power Plan codifies and enhances positive long-term trends in the electricity market,” Apple Global Energy Lead Robert Redlinger writes in the statement. “The Clean Power Plan provides a national framework enabling states to ensure that renewable generation resources and more traditional forms of electricity generation are used in an integrated manner to support a reliable and resilient electricity grid.”

Pruitt, meanwhile, has suggested that the Clean Power Plan was an overreach on the part of his predecessors, while Trump has prioritized coal, oil and gas in his own rhetoric. Apple’s statement will be reviewed by the EPA during its approval process.

Our digital future will be shaped by increasingly mobile technologies coming from China

Since the dawn of the internet, the titans of this industry have fought to win the “starting point” – the place that users start their online experiences.  In other words, the place where they begin “browsing”. The advent of the dial up era had America Online mailing a CD to every home in America, which passed the baton to Yahoo’s categorical listings, which was swallowed by Google’s indexing of the world’s information – winning the “starting point” was everything.

As the mobile revolution continues to explode across the world – the battle for the starting point has intensified.  For a period of time, people believed it would be the hardware, then it became clear that the software mattered most.  Then conversation shifted to a debate between operating systems (Android or iOS) and moved on to social properties and messaging apps where people were spending most of their time. Today – my belief is we’re hovering somewhere in between apps and operating systems.  That being said, the interface layer will always be evolving.

The starting point, just like a rocket’s launchpad, is only important because of what comes after.  The battle to win that coveted position, although often disguised as many other things, is really a battle to become the starting point of commerce.  

Google’s philosophy includes a commitment to get users “off their page” as quickly as possible…to get that user to form a habit and come back to their starting point.  The real (yet somewhat veiled) goal, in my opinion, is to get users to search and find the things they want to buy.

Of course, Google “does no evil” while aggregating the world’s information, but they pay their bills by sending purchases to Priceline, Expedia, Amazon, and the rest of the digital economy.  

Facebook, on the other hand, has become a starting point through it’s monopolization of users’ time, attention, and data.  Through this effort – it’s developed an advertising business that shatters records quarter after quarter.

Google and Facebook, this famed duopoly, represent 89% of new advertising spending in 2017.  Their dominance is unrivaled…for now.

Change is urgently being demanded by market forces – shifts in consumer habits, intolerable rising costs to advertisers, and through a nearly universal dissatisfaction with the advertising models that have dominated (plagued) the US digital economy.  All of which is being accelerated by mobile. Terrible experiences for users still persist in our online experiences, deliver low efficacy for advertisers, and fraud is rampant.  The march away from the glut of advertising excess may be most symbolically seen in the explosion of ad blockers.  Further evidence of the “need for a correction of this broken industry” is Oracle’s willingness to pay $850M for a company that polices ads (probably the best entrepreneurs I know ran this company, so no surprise).

As an entrepreneur, my job is to predict the future.  When reflecting on what I’ve learned thus far in my journey – it’s become clear that two truths can guide us in making smarter decisions about our digital future:

Every day, retailers, advertisers, brands, and marketers get smarter.  This means that every day – they will push the platforms, their partners, and the places they rely on for users to be more “performance driven”.  More transactional.

Paying for views, bots (Russian or otherwise), or anything other than “dollars” will become less and less popular over time. It’s no secret that Amazon, the world’s most powerful company (imho), relies so heavily on its Associates Program (it’s home built partnership and affiliate platform).  This channel is the highest performing form of paid acquisition that retailers have, and in fact, it’s rumored that the success of Amazon’s affiliate program led to the development of AWS due to large spikes in partner traffic.

Chinese flag overlooking The Bund, Shanghai, China (Photo: Rolf Bruderer/Getty Images)

When thinking about our digital future, look down and look east.  Look down and admire your phone – this will serve as your portal to the digital world for the next decade and our dependence will only continue to grow.  The explosive adoption of this form factor is continuing to outpace any technological trend in history.

Now, look east and recognize that what happens in China will happen here, in the West, eventually.  The Chinese market skipped the PC driven digital revolution – and adopted the digital era via the smartphone. Some really smart investors have built strategies around this thesis and have quietly been reaping rewards due to their clairvoyance.  

China has historically been categorized as a market full of knock-offs and copycats – but times have changed.  Some of the world’s largest and most innovative companies have come out of China over the past decade.  The entrepreneurial work ethic in China (as praised recently by arguably the world’s greatest investor Michael Moritz), the speed of innovation, and the ability to quickly scale and reach meaningful populations have caused Chinese companies to leapfrog the market cap of many of their US counterparts.  

The most interesting component of the Chinese digital economy’s growth is that it is fundamentally more “pure” than the US market’s.  I say this because the Chinese market is inherently “transactional”. As Andreessen Horowitz writes – WeChat, China’s  most valuable company, has become the “starting point” and hub for all user actions.  Their revenue diversity – is much more “Amazon” than “Google” or “Facebook” – it’s much more pure.  They make money off the transactions driven from their platform – and advertising is far less important in their strategy.

The obsession with replicating WeChat took the tech industry by storm two years ago — and for some misplaced reason — everyone thought we needed to build messaging bots to compete.  

What shouldn’t be lost is our obsession with the purity and power of the business models being created in China.  The fabric that binds the Chinese digital economy together and has fostered its seemingly boundless growth is the magic combination of commerce and mobile.  Singles Day, the Chinese version of Black Friday, drove $25B in sales on Alibaba – 90% of which were on mobile.

The lesson we’ve learned thus far in both the US and in China are that “consumers spending money” creates the most durable consumer businesses.  Google, putting aside all its moonshots and heroic mission statements, is a “starting point” powered by a shopping engine.  If you disagree, look at where their revenue comes from…

Google’s announcement last week of Shopping Actions and their movement to a “pay per transaction model” signals a turning point that could forever change the landscape of the digital economy.  

Google’s multi-front battle against Apple, Facebook, and Amazon is weighted.  Amazon is the most threatening. It’s the most durable business of the 4 – and it’s model is unbounded on two fronts that almost everyone I know would bet their future on – 1) people buying more online, where Amazon makes a disproportionate amount of every dollar spent and 2) companies needing more cloud computing power (more servers), where Amazon makes a disproportionate amount of every dollar spent.  

To add insult to injury, Amazon is threatening Google by becoming a starting point itself – 55% of product searches now originate at Amazon up from 30% just a year ago.

Google, recognizing consumer behavior was changing in mobile (less searching) and the inferiority of their model when compared to the durability and growth prospects of Amazon, needed to respond.  Google needed a model that supported boundless growth and one that created a “win-win” for its advertising partners – one that resembled Amazon’s relationship with its merchants – not one that continued to increase costs to retailers while capitalizing on their monopolization of search traffic.

Google knows that with its position as the starting point – with Google.com, Google Apps, and Android – it has to become a part of the transaction to prevail in the long term.  With users in mobile demanding less ads, and more utility (demanding experiences that look and feel a lot more like what has prevailed in China) – Google has every reason in the world to look down and to look east – to become a part of the transaction – to take its piece.  

A collision course for Google and the retailers it relies upon for revenue was on the horizon.  Search activity per user was declining in mobile and user acquisition costs were growing quarter over quarter.  Businesses are repeatedly failing to compete with Amazon and unless Google could create an economically viable growth model for retailers – no one would stand a chance against the commerce juggernaut – not the retailers nor Google itself. 

As I’ve believed for a long time, becoming a part of the transaction is the most favorable business model for all parties – sources of traffic make money when retailers sell things – and most importantly – this only happens when users find the things they want.  

Shopping Actions is Google’s first ambitious step to satisfy all three parties – businesses and business models all over the world will feel this impact.  

Good work, Sundar.

Apple steals Google’s AI chief

Apple has just poached one of Google’s top AI executives in a move likely to have far-reaching consequences.

Apple has hired John Giannandrea, previously Google’s head of AI and Search, The New York Times reports. Giannandrea will lead Apple’s “machine learning and A.I. strategy,” the Cupertino company said in a statement to the Times; he will be one of only 16 executives that report directly to CEO Tim Cook.

Just yesterday, The Information (paywalled) had reported that Giannandrea would be stepping down from his role at Google and would be replaced by 19-year Google veteran Jeff Dean. Giannandrea first joined Google in 2010 after it acquired MetaWeb, where he served as CTO. The startup sought to make search results more contextually aware through its hefty database of tagged data.

The hire is particularly important as Apple has seemed to fall far behind its rivals in the race to build smarter software powered by artificial intelligence. Siri, the digital assistant into which Apple has pumped much of its consumer-facing AI technologies, is far behind Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant in capabilities.

TechCrunch chatted with Giannandrea at our most recent Disrupt SF conference, where he spoke at length about how humans could help make computers smarter, but that we could also lend them our biases if we aren’t careful.

 

Apple, in a very Apple move, is reportedly working on its own Mac chips

Apple is planning to use its own chips for its Mac devices, which could replace the Intel chips currently running on its desktop and laptop hardware, according to a report from Bloomberg.

Apple already designs a lot of custom silicon, including its chipsets like the W-series for its Bluetooth headphones, the S-series in its watches, its A-series iPhone chips, as well as customized GPU for the new iPhones. In that sense, Apple has in a lot of ways built its own internal fabless chip firm, which makes sense as it looks for its devices to tackle more and more specific use cases and remove some of its reliance on third parties for their equipment. Apple is already in the middle of in a very public spat with Qualcomm over royalties, and while the Mac is sort of a tertiary product in its lineup, it still contributes a significant portion of revenue to the company.

Creating an entire suite of custom silicon could do a lot of things for Apple, the least of which bringing in the Mac into a system where the devices can talk to each other more efficiently. Apple already has a lot of tools to shift user activities between all its devices, but making that more seamless means it’s easier to lock users into the Apple ecosystem. If you’ve ever compared connecting headphones with a W1 chip to the iPhone and just typical Bluetooth headphones, you’ve probably seen the difference, and that could be even more robust with its own chipset. Bloomberg reports that Apple may implement the chips as soon as 2020.

Intel may be the clear loser here, and the market is reflecting that. Intel’s stock is down nearly 8% after the report came out, as it would be a clear shift away from the company’s typical architecture where it has long held its ground as Apple moves on from traditional silicon to its own custom designs. Apple, too, is not the only company looking to design its own silicon, with Amazon looking into building its own AI chips for Alexa in another move to create a lock-in for the Amazon ecosystem. And while the biggest players are looking at their own architecture, there’s an entire suite of startups getting a lot of funding building custom silicon geared toward AI.

Apple declined to comment.

What Apple’s education announcements mean for accessibility

From an accessibility news standpoint, this week’s Apple event in Chicago was antithetical to the October 2016 event. At the latter event, Apple began the presentation with a bang — showing the actual video being edited using Switch Control in Final Cut. Tim Cook came out afterwards to talk some about Apple’s commitment to serving the disabled community before unveiling the then-new accessibility page on the company’s website.

By contrast, the education-themed event in Chicago this week went by with barely a mention of accessibility. The only specific call-out came during Greg Joswiak’s time on stage talking about iPad, when he said “accessibility features make iPad a learning tool for everyone.”

That doesn’t mean, however, accessibility has no relevance to what was announced.

I was in the audience at Lane Tech College Prep on Tuesday covering the event. As a former special educator –and special education student — I watched with keen interest as Apple told their story around education. While Apple is targeting the mainstream, I came away with strong impressions on how Apple can make serious inroads in furthering special education as well.

It’s Called ‘Special’ for a Reason

Apple is obviously—rightfully—building their educational strategy towards mainstream students in mainstream classes. It’s a classic top-down approach: Teachers assign students work via handouts, for such activities as writing essays or completing science projects. This is the entire reason for Apple’s Classroom and Schoolwork apps. However well-designed, they lack an element.

Where they lack is there is nothing afforded, at least in specific terms, to teachers and students in special education settings. Apple’s strategy here is defined, again, by the classic teacher-student relationship, without any regard for other models. I’m not levying a criticism on the company; this is the reality.

At many levels, special education classrooms do not function in a way that’s conducive to Apple’s vision for learning at this time. In the moderate-to-severe early childhood (Pre-K) classrooms I worked in for close to a decade, the structure was such that most, if not all, activities were augmented by a heavy dose of adult support. Furthermore, most of our students were pulled out of class at certain times for additional services such as speech services and physical/occupational therapy sessions.

In short, there were no lectures or essay prompts anywhere.

This is where accessibility comes in. There is enormous potential for Apple to dig deeper and expand the toolset they offer to educators and students. To accommodate for special education is, in my view, akin to accommodating disabled users by offering accessibility features on each of Apple’s software platforms.

Special education is special for a reason. It involves ways of teaching and learning that are unique, and the people who work and learn in these environments deserve the same consideration.

Accessibility is Apple’s Secret Weapon

Leading up to the event, there was much talk in the Apple community of writers and podcasters that Google is eating Apple’s lunch in the schools market because Chromebooks are dirt cheap for districts and most everyone relies on Google Docs.

I’m not interested in the particulars of this argument. What I am interested in, however, is simply pointing out that despite the perception Apple products are too expensive and less capable, they are better in one meaningful sense: accessibility.

Consider Chromebook versus iPad. In many levels of special education, an iPad is far superior to a Chromebook. The tablet’s multi-touch user interface is far more intuitive, and more importantly, iOS is built with accessibility in mind. From VoiceOver to Dynamic Type to Switch Control and more, an iPad (or an iPod Touch, for that matter) can provide a far more accessible and enriching learning experience for many students with disabilities than a Chromebook. And lest we forget the App Store effect; there are many outstanding apps geared for special ed.

This is a crucial point that many technology pundits who lament Apple’s position in the education market always seem to miss.

Making Special Educators More Special

One area where Apple can greatly improve the lives of teachers is by broadening the Schoolwork app such that it makes IEP prep easier and, playing to Apple’s core strength, more modern. Historically, even today, IEPs are planned and written using stacks of paperwork. Goals, assessments, and consent forms are handwritten (sometimes typed) and stapled together. And being a binding legal document, teachers must ensure there are the proper signatures on every page, or else be dinged for being out of compliance with protocols. In sum: the IEP is the bane of every special educator’s existence because they take so much time.

To this end, Apple could do special education teachers a grand service by adding a module of sorts to its Schoolwork app that would allow them to more easily create and track a student’s IEP. There could be charts for tracking goal progress, as well as ways to collate and distribute documents amongst the IEP team (SLPs, OT/PT, etc) and of course parents. Teachers could even send an email to parents with any consent forms attached and encourage them to sign with Apple Pencil on their iPad, if they have one.

At the very least, it would make IEP prep infinitely more efficient, and perhaps alleviate some of the stress at the actual meetings. Digitizing the process would be game-changing, I think.

Bottom Line

The ideas I’ve outlined here are well within Apple’s wheelhouse. They would likely need to collaborate with special educators and districts on things like IEP forms and policies, but it is certainly within them to do so. They can do this if they want.

To reiterate an earlier point, special education deserves just as much thoughtful consideration and innovation as the education industry at large. Given Apple’s unwavering support of accessibility, this is an area in which they can surely improve.