I would like to thank Google for saving me thousands of dollars in needless spending. Near the end of today's gangbuster hardware event, I was ready to order two new Chromebooks and smartphones, one each for me and my wife. But "error 500" pages on the company's store website and long-lead new product availability dates prompted me to cancel the one order successfully made and to delete the others in process from my shopping cart.
For a company whose product managers droned on this morning about all the reasons why artificial intelligence is so right, Big G got the store selling experience all wrong. I have waited through most of 2017 for a new Google-branded Chrome OS laptop. While hardly a fresh hardware design concept, Pixelbook is nevertheless tempting enough to bring me back to the AI and voice-assistant contextual future from the Apple rotting on the overly-obsessed touch-UI tree. I was willing and ready but instead walked away angry.
I should have known better. Once burned is supposed to be twice as wary. Right? Disgruntled by pricing and other policies, in autumn 2015, I took my family from Verizon Wireless to T-Mobile, which cut our monthly bill by more than one-third. But in May of this year we made the trek back in part because data speed is so much faster from my apartment than it is with Magenta. Better Red than dead, eh? Wrong. Oh, dumbass me. Un-carrier's aggressive pricing, and Verizon's first-ever quarterly loss of post-paid subscribers, compelled the nation's largest carrier to respond—by, starting in February, to offer comparable unlimited plan that for my family of five lines would cost just $20 more a month while delivering superior, speedy service. But what Red gave, it now takes away. I regret the decision.
Today's unlimited cellular service plan changes suck some of the most important value from all that extra bandwidth. What good is having something you can't use? Henceforth, Verizon will offer two consumer options—one (Go Unlimited) that throttles streaming video to 480p on smartphones and costlier option Beyond Unlimited that reduces quality to 720p. Go is essentially priced the same as the older unlimited plan, and it takes away even more: Tethering (e.g. Mobile Hotspot) is capped at 600kbps. There's no 4G LTE for you, baby!
Steve was right, and I don't refer to Apple cofounder Jobs, but to an iPhone buyer I met 10 years ago today. He was among the eclectic group of people waiting outside Apple Store Montgomery Mall to spend $499 or $599 on the fruit logo company's first smartphone. The amount was outrageous at the time for a locked, unsubsidized handset. "I think this is a day that you’re going to see a change in how computers, how handheld computers are done", he told me. "I think we’ll look back in 10 or 15 years, and like on that day the gadget came out...it changed the game". Could anyone realistically disagree a decade later?
But you had to be a believer in June 2007, with iPhone launching on a single carrier (newly rebranded AT&T) in a single geography (USA) from a company with no cellular device experience going against hugely established competitors—with Nokia, the smartphone's inventor, standing atop the heap. By every sensible measure imaginable, Jobs and his team took nothing but risks, making Steve the customer's prediction all the more remarkable.
Today the European Union gave Apple a great gift to celebrate iPhone's 10th anniversary (on June 29th): The ridiculous, record $2.7 billion fine, and associated sanctions, against Google that once again demonstrates the EU's small-minded oversight that wrongly regulates evolving technologies in a big world. The adverse antitrust ruling finds that the online titan favored its own online shopping services (and paying customers) over rivals.
In February 2010, with the EU Competition Commission's preliminary investigation starting, I rightly called "Google a dangerous monopoly". Seven years later, the competitive landscape has dramatically changed, and rapidly evolves. The Commission's action is too much, too late, and in the short-term can only benefit rivals like Apple that will dominate online activities and commerce as what we knew as traditional web search becomes something else.
My first reaction to Amazon buying Whole Foods is "Huh?" Few brands could be any more different. The online retailer is all about giving customers the most for the least amount spent, while the grocer is the pricey purview of the alt-organic lifestyle elite. No moment is better metaphor for Whole Foods' clientele than the exchange I heard between a thirtysomething couple standing at the deli holding chicken luncheon meat. "Is it free range?" the women asked her husband. It had to be, or she wouldn't buy. They argued. I silently chuckled: luncheon meat—not a bird! It's all pressed meat, Honey. You do know that?
But from another perspective, and one transcending retail store presence, are other considerations, like brand affinity and buyer demographics. For the first, Amazon may be all about value, but in an increasingly middle-class and well-to-do demographic kind of way, particularly among city dwellers. Despite sharing similar cut-throat margin, expansive business philosophies with Walmart, Amazon doesn't carry the same stigma among the socially conscious "better-thans". For the second, who do you think plunks down 99 bucks a year for Prime membership or can't wait for two-day free delivery or is too busy to go to the store to buy groceries? Without hard numbers to back the supposition, I'd bet there is lots of existing and potential regular shopper overlap among these customers and those who walk Whole Foods' aisles.
To celebrate the launch of Apple's new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, I ordered Pixel C, which arrived three days ago. Worst case, the tablet can be returned for refund during the buyer's remorse period; there ain't any regrets so far—just the opposite. To my pleasant surprise, the tab is much more enjoyable than I remember, because Nougat is so pretty, efficient, and buttery smooth than was Marshmallow on the device. The screen scorches any available iPad, Pro or otherwise, and the performance is shockingly nimble. My Pixel C shipped with Android 7.1.1 and quickly updated to 7.1.2. I will soon install Android O; Google released Developer Preview 3 yesterday.
There's a certain insanity to the purchase, which I am sure flaming commenters will just love. I reviewed Google's Android slate 15 months ago; that makes the thang ancient as measured in computing years. But Big G still sells the tab, and there must be a reason, right? I got another because a college student took possession of my first Pixel C in early 2016. With keyboard cover, the tablet makes a helluva handy carry-along on campus.
If you asked why the Moto Z Force Droid Edition appeals to me, I couldn't identify one thing, which arguably is odd considering this is a review. Benefits and features feel finely balanced, which is a hallmark of good product design. Oh, and that satisfaction is for the pure smartphone experience, which is premium by nearly every measure that matters; I didn't test Moto Mods that expand capabilities.
Lenovo/Motorola and Verizon released the smartphone in July 2016, so this exploration is belated—and then some. Apologies, the delay was necessary. In mid-December 2016, Verizon sent a holiday review package unexpectedly. At the time, my father-in-law's health rapidly declined—and he passed away about 30 days later. In the months following, as we settled his estate and finalized other matters, I occasionally recharged the battery and picked up the Droid but had no real time to test it. Still, something about how well the Moto Z Force feels and fits in the hand compelled me to handle it. Often. To caress the ridged bezel. To read blog posts and news stories on the beautiful display.
I suffer from phantom smartwatch syndrome -- an ailment that hopefully will disappear over time. Nearly four weeks ago, I put aside Apple Watch 2 stainless steel and replaced it with the simple but appealing ManchesterWatchWorks Iconik 3. Problem: Almost any shifting movement of the timepiece causes me to reflexively flip my wrist and look down; there is false perception of haptic sensation. Apple has trained me well, and I'm tired of being its dog doing tricks. Woof. Woof. Growl.
I feel free! Gone are the nagging alerts -- and I had them barreled down to a minimum of approved services: Some for breaking news; emails from a half-dozen people; and text messages. Among this still seeming torrent, the Activity app annoyed with congratulatory badges and prompts that one of the four main exercise goals (Calories, Exercise Time, Stands, and Steps) -- Apple's athletic lifestyle version of the four food groups -- would soon be achieved. The badges are about as infantile as gold stars that teachers give kindergarteners and with similar purpose: To make the recipient feel good, whether or not deserved. The achievement badge for Earth Day flipped my goat. Seriously? I ordered the Iconik 3 that evening.
During the camera film era, Fujifilm battled kingpin Kodak with brighter, more vibrant colors that either photographers loved or hated—perhaps both. That was last century. In the 21st, Kodak is a shadow cast against aged Kodachrome, while its rival has successfully transitioned from print to digital—and with amazing bravado. Fuji's transformation started six years ago with the cleverly-engineered, retro-designed X100, which I reviewed in May 2011.
The compact digital camera's success led Fuji to develop a series of additional bodies and lenses; all are designed with professional shooters in mind. The X series family features compact, mirrorless designs that incorporate digital SLR-size sensors and manual controls—meaning dials and buttons to directly manipulate settings rather than rely on software menus. The X100 line—from the original to the S, T, and now F—remains the most distinctive for how well features and benefits balance set against truly innovative design concepts.
The measure of Apple fiscal first quarter 2017 isn't record revenues ($78.35 billion) but comparison to major competitors: More than three times Google ($26.06 billion) or Microsoft ($24.1 billion). Amazon announces tomorrow, Groundhog Day. Will the retailer's CEO, Jeff Bezos, see his shadow? The 3x multiplier nearly applies to net income: $17.89 billion, versus $6.64 billion and $5.2 billion, respectively, for the two rivals. Looked at differently, compared to Apple's same quarter in fiscal 2010, seven years later, profits exceed total revenues ($15.68 billion). That's an astounding comparison.
The results defy pundits' prognostications, including my own, about gravity pulling the company back to Earth. iPhone, as major source of revenue, can only stay up for so long, before slowing smartphone sales wreck havoc. That said, credit where it's due: CEO Tim Cook is, as I've asserted before, a logistics and manufacturing genius. He is a strategist, but not an innovation leader like predecessor Steve Jobs. Cook masterfully manages his inheritance, but he, nor Apple observers, should get lost in the quarter's glow: iPhone remains boon and bane.
Headphone manufacturers must make deliberate audio signature decisions when crafting cans. Some shops, like GradoLabs, adopt a house sound. Relative newcomer Master & Dynamic's design ethic seeks to equally please eyes and ears. As such, its flagship wired headphones (MH40) and wireless (MW60) share similar industrial design. Aluminum, lambskin, leather, and stainless steel combine in rugged style that evokes aviators of a bygone era. The newer MW50 Bluetooth headphones strongly resemble the other two, but they're tuned for younger listeners on the move.
M&D's earlier cans are over-ear—meaning they cover the lobes, while the MW50 rest on them. The headphones are smaller and lighter than either the MH40 or MW60, but with most of the overall benefits of the latter, including excellent wireless reception. On-ear headphones can be uncomfortable to wear and leak in too much ambient noise. The MW50 push past both typical limitations, which, honestly, surprises me. I personally don’t find the design to be as attractive as the over-the-ear cans. It’s about the ear cups, which function matters more, however. The lambskin-covered ear pads are immensely comfortable, and the MW50 arguably are better all-around-wear than their siblings. I would take them outdoors on a walk, for example.
Today we arrive at the first of two 10-year anniversaries regarding iPhone: Steve Jobs unveiling the handset six months before its release -- unusual for Apple's then-CEO to pre-announce something, but necessary, with the federal regulatory rigmarole that cellular devices go through. Jobs and his management team brought the smartphone to market at great risk: Established and entrenched manufacturers, mainly Nokia, had huge distribution channels and massive amounts of research and development invested in their cellulars. iPhone debuted in one market (United States) and on a single carrier (AT&T, which concurrently rebranded). By most measures of business strategies: Insanity. But risk was a defining characteristic of Jobs' leadership style running the company.
You will read many "state of iPhone" analyses and commentaries this week spotlighting slowing sales, as buying growth plateaus in major markets (China, Europe, and the United States) and observing that Android continues to gobble global market share. The problem with iPhone is something else, and it's a metaphor for what's desperately wrong at Apple as 2017 starts: Loss of innovative mindshare; obsession with an outdated design motif; unwillingness to take meaningful risks. The company's fortunes rose with iPhone, and they will fall with it.
During Consumer Electronics Show 2017 yesterday, in licensing partnership with MQA, music streamer Tidal announced the new audio-fidelity tier "Masters", which is available for free to existing HiFi subscribers. Early album selection is extremely limited as is access option: macOS or Windows application. Both will expand in time.
But wow! I tested skeptically, wiring up my studio cans—Audio-Technica ATH-R70x—to 15.4-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar to hear the difference. Hehe, if any. I deliberately started with Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" from album "Rumors", which released 40 years ago on February 4th. Tidal claims that Masters recordings deliver "an audio experience exactly as the artist intended". The band spent nearly a year painstakingly recording and engineering the disc, making any, or all, the songs great test cases.
The year 2016 is when the United States sold its soul to Donald Trump and I signed over mine to Apple. How's that for introduction to the five favs series, joining colleagues Alan Buckingham, Brian Fagioli, and Wayne Williams? Yup. I'm an Apple whore as 2017 opens onto its second day. The fruit-logo company won back my business as I gave up the Google lifestyle. Three main reasons: 1) I believed CEO Tim Cook's privacy promises, all while my concerns about Big G information collection increased. 2) I found the visual acuity of Apple fonts and user interfaces to be far superior to Google's, which helped compensate for diminishing reading vision (later recovered through eye surgery). 3) Google's platforms proved inadequate for easily recording, producing, and publishing the Frak That! podcast (a fun side project).
My contribution to the series is a bit disingenuous, though. I wouldn't call these "My favorite tech items of 2016". They are what I bought, or was released, last year that I use most often, regardless of their benefits and flaws. Each will get belated review sometime during the next few months. Consider this story each's preview. Okay, let's get to them.
Yahoo, one of the earliest and brightest dot-coms, is a Hellhole at the close of 2016. It stinks of decay and neglect. The 1 billion active user accounts ravaged by hackers is a metaphor for the trendy neighborhood turned into gang-ridden slum. Verizon was, or maybe still is, buying Yahoo. Walk away, I say, unless Yahoo is willing to pay for the privilege of becoming part of the expanding VZN communications and media empire.
I typically make many changes at the start of the new year, and as 2017 begins, I take my advice offered to Verizon: Abandon Yahoo. First to go is its photo-sharing site, for many of the reasons stated seven months ago. My Flickr Pro account expires in September, and I will cancel a few weeks earlier to prevent auto-renewal. In the meantime, I consider my Flickr officially closed, and I will no longer use it. All photos will remain until the service makes them unavailable—and pursuant to the terms,