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tech Uncategorized

Will cutting the “Ribbon” finally fix Office for Mac?

Yesterday, at its annual conference for IT pros, Microsoft revealed a new version of Outlook for Mac. The Verge published a glimpse of the app’s revamped interface, and it looks promising—simultaneously cleaner and more useful.

We’ll see more of that refined UI tomorrow. Meanwhile, let’s examine why Microsoft might be eager to dump an interface element that has dominated its software design for over a decade.


Ribbons on the Mac

I’ve generally been a fan of Microsoft’s “Ribbon” UI, which premiered in Office 2007 for Windows. It exposed features previously buried in submenus, and it simplified the productivity suite’s legendarily complex toolbars:

The Ribbon UI was successful enough that it eventually migrated to Office for Mac. Unfortunately (and ironically), on OS X, the Ribbon created the same problem it was designed to solve: interface cruft.

More specifically, the Ribbon conflicts with a permanent fixture of macOS: the menu bar. Every Office for Mac app has two similar yet contradictory menus—the operating system’s persistent menu and Office’s Ribbon. Making matters worse, some of the heading titles in these two menus are identical, while the options within those sections are not. This unfortunate mess leaves the user with no idea where to find a given feature—the Ribbon? The menu bar? Both? Neither?

Let’s visualize this problem. In each screenshot below, I’ve highlighted the duplicative menu items. First, PowerPoint for Mac, which boasts two redundant headers:

‘View’ and ‘Slide Show’ appear in both the Ribbon and the macOS menu bar.

Next, Excel, which has three:

Word:

OneNote:

Finally, there’s good (?) old Outlook:

For each menu pair, the submenus are not one-for-one identical. They have different items, different orders, and vastly different interfaces. And there’s no obvious explanation for why only some menu titles pull double duty. Why are there two “Insert” menus but only one “Format” menu?

In addition to confusing the user, these duplicative menus cramp the interface, consuming an unnecessary amount of vertical space.


A new hope?

So… does the new Outlook, with its “Ribbonless” interface, fix these problems?

Image courtesy of The Verge.

Honestly, I’m not sure it’s the perfect solution. This interface still spends a lot of vertical pixels.

On the other hand, because I’m so excited to see the redundant menus vanquished, I’m willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. I can’t wait to try the new app.

So… what about the other Office apps? Microsoft tells the Verge that “there are no plans to announce updates to the ribbon elsewhere on Office for Mac” (emphasis mine). That’s an interesting way to phrase this statement. Microsoft isn’t denying that possibility of the feature being in their pipeline; they just claim that they haven’t planned its reveal. Tricksy.

My guess: if the new Outlook app is well-received, we’ll eventually see the Ribbon (and its redundant menus) removed from Office for Mac, for good. ■

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apple

AirPods Pro observations (that I haven’t seen elsewhere)

I resisted the temptation to buy the AirPods Pro… for an hour or two.

Oh, I still resent the fact that my three-year-old, first-gen AirPods last barely an hour before the batteries die. And I hate adding yet another device to my list of frequently upgraded technology. Most of all, I feel guilty about dropping $250 on the very definition of a luxury item.

Despite all that, I hated the thought of reverting to wired earbuds, with their doorknob snags, cord rewraps, and constant tangles.

So, yes, I’ve re-upped my AirPods subscription and upgraded to the AirPods Pro. In lieu of an actual review, here are a few thoughts that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere:

  • The AirPods Pro are harder to remove from their case. You can still dislodge them with a carefully placed finger, but the rubber tips make nudging them just a bit more awkward.
  • Speaking of those tips, they really draw attention to earwax. With the old AirPods, your excretions filled up the speaker grilles, whose dark color hid some of the grossness. Unfortunately, the AirPods Pro’s lily-white silicone makes earwax easy to spot.
  • The noise cancellation is decent but not miraculous. I’ve never owned “real” over-ear, noise-cancelling headphones, so I don’t have a good comparison point. But don’t expect AirPods Pro to silence the obnoxious speakerphone near your bus seat or the pop soundtrack at Starbucks. AirPods Pro can take the edge off those noises, but it can’t eliminate them altogether.
  • The new gestures aren’t a slam-dunk. Like many others, I didn’t love the old AirPods’ “slam your ear” gestures. However, I was able to execute those gestures in a wide variety of situations—with an open palm, with wet hands, or even wearing full mittens. The new AirPods aren’t so forgiving; gripping the stem with two fingers requires some finesse. I expect this to become even more annoying on winter days, when I’m likely to have gloves on.
  • I’m glad one of the new AirPods gestures allows you to toggle noise cancellation on or off, but I wish it were easier to do this on the Apple Watch. The instructions: swipe up to access Control Center, hit the “Choose audio output” button, choose your AirPods Pro, and then select your noise cancellation option. As with many things on the Watch, that feels like two steps too many.
  • EDIT: With the old AirPods, you could flip each earbud upside-down and place it in the opposite ear. This was useful for placing AirPods under noise-blocking earmuffs—as I did when mowing the lawn. There’s good news and bad news on this front with the AirPods Pro. On the one hand, the “flip the AirPod” trick doesn’t work; the units don’t sense that they’re in my ears, likely because of a shifted proximity sensor. However, as I was happy to discover while leaf-blowing this afternoon, the AirPods Pro fit under my earmuffs in their normal, right-side-up orientation, thanks to their shorter stems.

All in all, I like my AirPods Pro. The improved sound quality and noise cancellation features are welcome additions. But we’re still well short of “peak AirPods.” No doubt Apple will continue to iterate on the product. I just hope the next major revision comes before my AirPods Pro lose their battery capacity (as they inevitably will).

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Culture tech

Should we feel bad for loving Apple keynotes?

Today is the “high holiday” in Apple’s liturgical calendar: iPhone keynote day. In a few hours, Tim Cook and his cardinal executives will unveil the new devices designed to drive Apple’s business during the upcoming year. Apple devotees around the world will attend (virtually), eager to heap adoration on the innovations heralded from Cupertino.

That may sound a bit cynical, but the whole Apple scene is a little silly. We’ve spent the past year speculating about today’s event on podcasts, on Twitter, and in blogged think pieces. We’ve chased down a thousand supply-chain rabbit trails. Today, we’ll salivate over devices that are only incremental improvements over the ones already in our pockets and strapped to our wrists. And in the weeks to come, we’ll exhaust ourselves in post-event analysis—then prepare to hand over piles of cash to buy into the hype.

Honestly, we invest too much time and money in these keynotes, considering the serious news unfolding in the “real” world. While we focus on Apple, a hurricane is bearing down on the East Coast. Free speech is under threat throughout the country. Refugees struggle just to survive.

Should we geeks feel guilty about our self-absorption and shallowness? The answer is “Yes, probably.”

But technology enthusiasts aren’t unique in enjoying frivolous distraction from more important things. Others, for example, follow the celebrity fashion scene. They visit TMZ every hour, follow faux-celebrities on Instagram, and plan their TV-watching around which starlets guest-star on which talk shows. This world has its own “high holidays,” too—for example, the red carpet preshow at the Academy Awards. As at the Apple keynote, industry leaders parade for the cameras, sporting fashions that viewers will eagerly buy in the upcoming year.

Or consider the world’s preeminent distraction: sports, into which so many Americans enthusiastically invest free time. Every team, for example, is orbited by a cadre of sports radio hosts, newspaper writers, podcasters, Twitter personalities, team-focused TV shows, and (most of all) fan bases that consume all this media. Hardcore fans gladly plunk down thousands for game tickets, cable TV packages, team jerseys, and memorabilia. And the “high holidays” come fast and frequent: home games tailor-built for tailgating, draft days, playoff runs, bowl games. It’d be hard to argue that sports deserves this level of attention (and consumption) any more than technology.


Of course, other people’s obsessions don’t justify our own. The existence of fashionistas and sports nuts doesn’t mean that it’s okay that geeks spend so much time and money on tech.

But it helps to know we’re not alone in our penchant for expensive hobbies.  ■

Categories
apple

AirPods after 18 months

I’ve owned AirPods since soon after their release in late 2016. After a year and a half of daily use, I jotted down some thoughts:

Pleasures

Happy little habits

In an earlier post, I celebrated the “ritual” of AirPods—the tactile, repeatable “nano-gestures” that makes using them so much fun:

Retrieve the case and turn it over in my palm like a glossy worry stone. Thumb the lid and feel the magnet give way. Nudge the AirPod to jar it free from its alcove. Pinch and lift, feeling that slight friction as the stem slides free. Spin the AirPod between my fingertips and align it to my ear. Settle it into its place by feel alone. Hear that happy little hum when the Bluetooth connects. Get that satisfying SNAP as the case is thumbed closed. Then repeat the whole process in reverse when I’m done listening.

Months later, that ritual remains a simple pleasure.

Utility

The AirPods aren’t just fun, they’re functional. For quick YouTube hits, they’re far better than their wired counterparts, which require constant detangling and rewrapping. Because they’re so easy to pop in and out, I find myself turning to them more frequently. Even if I’m just washing a single pan, I’ll catch up on a news podcast. On a road trip with sleeping passengers? AirPods make it easy to stave off boredom—without snaking a wire across the cabin.

Durability

The AirPods are surprisingly sturdy. I have snapped the AirPods case shut literally thousands (maybe tens of thousands?) of times. The mechanism still feels completely solid—with no sign of looseness or wear.

And I’ve dropped the things more times than I care to admit—often from waist height or higher. They’re none the worse for wear, physically—although the reliability issues discussed below could be related to these many falls.

Overall, though, I’m impressed with the AirPods’ build quality over the long term.

Pains

There’s a lot of delight in AirPods, but they also cause their share of headaches. Here are a few additions to an earlier list of quibbles, after eighteen months’ use:

Dis-connected?

More and more frequently, it seems, I’ll put in both AirPods and hit play, only to discover that one (or both) of them aren’t receiving audio. I’m left with three fixes, each more desperate (and cumbersome) than the last:

  • Wait it out. Sometimes, the offending unit will recover its connection after a few seconds. Too often, though, that recovery never happens.
  • Manually AirPlay to the AirPods. This requires that I pull out my AirPods and fiddle with the clunky Control Center interface for audio targeting.
  • Return both AirPods to the case and try again. Even this doesn’t always fix the issue. Occasionally, I’m forced to do this dance again and again.

In other words, the AirPods connection process isn’t rock-solid. I want it to be automatic and I want it to happen faster. As things work now, I don’t trust them to work every time.

Even aside from reliability improvements, Apple could improve the AirPods connection experience. Each AirPod should emit the “connected” chime independently, as they’re inserted into your ear. Too often, I’ll hear the sound in one ear before I get the other one out of the case. That leaves me unsure as to whether both units have connected—or whether one missed the wireless memo.

Corrosion and water resistance

The AirPods are the best running headphones I’ve ever owned. I didn’t realize how annoying that dangling wire was until the AirPods severed it for me.

But runners get wet; it’s nearly unavoidable. I sweat like mad in warm weather, and that moisture inevitably drips from ears onto my headphones. Plus, running outdoors means venturing into rain, fog, and snow, which all find their way onto my earbuds, as well.

To be fair, Apple doesn’t market these devices as water-resistant. But I had hoped that AirPods would cover all the use cases of their wired predecessors. Plus, various YouTube videos have proved that it’s possible for the AirPods to survive being submerged in a washing machine. I hoped they’d prove similarly resilient to raindrops.

Fate may have caught up to me recently. I began to notice that my right AirPod frequently ran low on power. I would head out running, only to hear the sad little “low charge” chirp after just a mile or two. After experimenting with the case, I realized that the right-side earbud wasn’t making a reliable connection to its charging element. Looking closer, I spotted greenish-blue corrosion on the metal tip of the AirPods stem.

Thoroughly cleaning both the case and the AirPods themselves has made charging more reliable (but not foolproof). Again, that’s more my fault than Apple’s, but it’s still irritating.

Earwax-orange clashes with AirPods-white

Last week, my family trekked to a family-friendly amusement park, several hours away. At day’s end, my daughter begged for one more ride: the log flume, which ends with a watery splash. Hoping to avoid further water damage to my AirPods, I handed the case to my wife and jumped in line with my eager kiddo.

After splashdown, we found my wife relaxing a nearby bench. Handing the AirPods back to me, she teased, “Your headphones are gross.” Snapping open the AirPods case, I realized that she was absolutely right.

In my earlier list of AirPods quibbles, I explained just how filthy AirPods can get. Earwax collects in the speaker grills, migrates its way to the AirPods stems and eventually starts to stain the charging case, too.

Now, in Apple’s defense, I apparently produce a lot of earwax. Not to get too scatological here, but I’ve occasionally had to ask my doctor to clean out build-up from my ear canals. That’s not Apple’s fault.

But you could hardly pick a worse color than Apple White™ if you’re hoping to hide otic excretions. Here’s to hoping they offer black or (even better) (PRODUCT)RED alternatives next time around.

Conclusions and AirPods v2

Despite all my complaints, after eighteen months of daily use, AirPods’ positives outweigh their negatives. I’m eagerly looking forward to the product’s next iteration. Rumored features would address at least two of my earlier quibbles:

  • Wireless charging (coming to a future AirPods case, as announced at last September’s iPhone event) would eliminate the fiddly plug-in process.
  • Built-in noise cancellation (recently predicted by Mark Gurman) would make the AirPods a more viable option in high-noise environments. As things stand, it’s nearly impossible to hear the AirPods over the roar of a lawnmower or a jet engine.
  • Water resistance (another Gurman-sourced rumor) would be welcome. The current product is too difficult to keep bone-dry. ■

Categories
apple

Is it too late to switch to the Mac?

After a quarter-century using Windows, I’m finally getting a Macintosh.

Wait, does “Mac” even stand for “Macintosh” anymore? Or is “Mac” more like “KFC”—an abbreviation that eventually supplanted the original name? You’ll have to forgive my ignorance; my last Apple computer was the venerable Apple IIGS of the late 80s and early 90s. Since my early teen-aged years, I’ve computed exclusively on Windows PCs—everything from beige, bargain-bin boxes to high-end portable workstations. I’ve never owned a Mac.

Oh, over the years, I’ve occasionally lusted after the Mac’s build quality, thriving indie software community, and visually consistent interface. And yes, as an iPhone owner, I’ve often wished for a computer that played nicer with my smartphone. But despite the Mac’s attractiveness, switching always seemed financially or professionally impractical.

As my career has shifted into more creative fields, however, the Mac has become a more reasonable option. Among machines geared for creative power users, Macs still cost more—but not dramatically more, relative to comparable PCs. My new 15″ MacBook Pro should arrive within the next week or two.


In some ways, it’s an odd time to shift platforms. I’m swimming against the current; bloggers, podcasters, and creative professionals have grown increasingly frustrated with Apple’s stewardship of the Mac. Some have openly speculated whether the Mac will eventually be deprecated in favor of an iOS-flavored replacement.

So, before making the leap, I considered the risks in terms of both software and hardware:

Switching to Mac software: am I moving to a ghost town?

Depending on who you ask, the Mac ecosystem has either reached maturity—or it’s gone completely stagnant. Whatever your perspective, it’s hard to deny that Apple invests more engineering resources in iOS than macOS these days. Yes, the Mac still gets new OS features (e.g. Mojave’s welcome Dark Mode), but these updates are relatively minor compared to those introduced for Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone.

Third-party software development on the Mac has slowed, too. The Mac App Store may not be a ghost town, per se, but it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, either.

As a new switcher, the Mac’s decline as a developer platform bums me out. But it’s not all bad news. Most big software houses (including Adobe and Microsoft itself) support Mac and Windows with equal gusto. And the Mac remains a better platform than Windows for indie-developed productivity apps and creative utilities. UIKit’s upcoming release on the Mac (slated for 2019) will likely widen this gap, as devs port over projects that were previously iOS-only.

One particular indie app is almost enough, all by itself, to make me switch to Mac. I’m talking about Omnifocus, the to-do tracker that maps most neatly onto the Getting Things Done productivity method. The app really is that critical to my workflow these days. I’m pumped that I’ll soon be able to use it without hacks or workarounds.

Switching to Mac hardware: did I miss the “golden era”?

The Mac’s software ecosystem may be languishing, but it’s Mac hardware that has Apple bloggers most alarmed. Longtime developers are openly criticizing Apple’s irregular Mac releases. Last year, lamenting the state of the Mac Pro, Sebastiaan de With wrote,

[Apple] let the Mac languish, with a lack of updates to the hardware making it increasingly difficult to use the Mac for demanding work. …. And year after year, without any word from Apple, the professional desktop Macs got older without updates. Four years passed. Four years. An eternity and a half in computers. Creatives started to leave. Most of my friends that are in 3D, film and other creative industries have switched to PCs. And more continue to leave.

The Mac laptops haven’t escaped criticism, either. Power users frequently deride the current Macbook Pros for their shallow, unreliable keyboards and irregular update cadence.

I share their worries. I’ve only typed on the new “butterfly ”keyboard style once or twice (in Apple retail stores), but I’m not a fan of its “clicky” (rather than “clacky”) feel. Plus, I find the Touch Bar (Apple’s little-loved touchscreen function row) distracting and somewhat pointless. Finally, I resent the fact that my “new” machine will have year-old internals. But I don’t have much of a choice—I need a machine now, not “whenever Apple gets around to refreshing its laptop lineup.”

Conclusion

Despite all the concerns and caveats, I’m excited. My very first computing experiences as a kid happened on Apple-designed machines. Adopting the Mac now, thirty-odd years later, feels like coming home.

I’m just hoping the house doesn’t come down around me. ■

Categories
apple Culture

Why Apple’s retail stores make me nervous

I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a city with an ignominious reputation as a place where the rich abuse the poor. There are two infamous examples: first, a devastating, deadly flood in the 1800s, literally caused by the negligence of wealthy country clubbers. Second, the calamitous collapse of Johnstown’s manufacturing economy, caused by the steel industry’s decline. Tens of thousands of local workers lost their jobs.

As I was growing up in the 80s, Johnstown’s steel mills were shuttering en masse. Robbed of its primary industrial driver, the town imploded in slow motion. Retail decay was everywhere: once-bright storefronts patched with plywood. A deserted downtown. The closest grocery market transforming into a half-empty thrift store. Everywhere you shopped, things felt old and broken. Dingy, cavernous, fluorescent-lit spaces became the norm.

Uncomfortable luxury

Maybe that’s why Apple’s luxurious, meticulously-maintained retail spaces make me nervous. Its outlets resemble high-end, big-city fashion boutiques, more than they do the Rust Belt K-Marts of my youth. For lower-middle class consumers (like me), the Apple Store is the ritziest retail experience they’ve ever encountered—let alone shopped at.

Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate a carefully-designed space like Apple’s new Chicago store. It’s gorgeous, thanks to its riverfront location, its two-story window wall, and its premium materials (e.g. a carbon-fiber roof and the familiar bleached-wood product tables).

But every time I visit an Apple retail shop, I feel guilty. I can’t help but think, “I’m paying for this experience. Apple’s charging me extra so that they can afford their premium real estate, massive video walls, and all-glass staircases.” That luxury feels like a waste and makes me second-guess my unswerving brand loyalty. “Maybe,” I think, “These products aren’t meant for people like me.”

That’s one reason I prefer buying my Apple devices online. It’s not just about convenience; it’s about willful ignorance. By skipping the manicured Apple retail store, I can overlook the ways that the Apple lifestyle grates against my childhood experience. ■

Categories
apple

Apple Watch as shower speaker?

Back in September, I upgraded from the Apple Watch Series 1 to the Series 3. Honestly, the user experience didn’t change all that much, but I’ve enjoyed one improvement in particular: the Series 3’s better waterproofing. It’s nice to be able to hop in the shower before work and still keep an eye on the time.[1]

A few weeks ago, I thought of another reason that a water-resistant wrist computer might be useful. I had finished a workout and needed to wash up, but I didn’t want to put down the podcast I was listening to. I had an epiphany: why not redirect that audio to the Watch’s speaker while I showered?[2]

To my dismay, I quickly discovered that this is impossible in the current version of watchOS.

Based on some lazy Googling, third-party apps have technically been able to implement this since watchOS 2, way back in 2015. But very few developers seem to have added the feature—perhaps because of WatchKit’s awful audio APIs.

Regardless, what I really want wouldn’t require developer support at all: Apple should surface the Watch as a system-wide audio target. It would show up just like standalone Bluetooth speakers or headphones do—just hotswap your playback device to the Watch using AirPlay. While we’re at it, let me force touch on the Watch’s Now Playing screen to redirect the currently-playing audio to the Watch itself.

Here we might comment on the sad state of my attention span. Why do I feel the need to distract myself during one of the few gadget-free moments of my day? Fair point.

But I want my stories in the shower, dang it! ■


  1. Yes, a $25 analog watch could serve this purpose. Why you gotta hate?  ↩
  2. You might be thinking that that tiny, tinny, waterlogged speaker would sound terrible. Maybe, but I’m not listening to high-fidelity music here; I want my spoken-word content: podcasts, the NPR news briefing, or the Penguins radio broadcast. Any of these would be perfectly listenable through the Watch.  ↩

Categories
apple Culture

Conspicuous consumption and the iPhone X

Tech pundits occasionally suggest that some gadget purchases are driven by conspicuous consumption. In this view, a device like the iPhone X serves as a status symbol—a way to assert that you have (and can afford) the best.

This mindset is completely alien to me. Does anyone actually want to broadcast their buying decisions in this way? Both my wife and I hail from lower-middle-class families, for whom frugality is a (perhaps the) prime virtue. We pinch our pennies, drive our cars until the wheels fall off, and fix things ourselves—even when we’d be better off hiring an pro.

This thrifty mindset extends to gadget purchases. Our tribe takes pride in not carrying the latest and greatest devices. From that perspective, the so-called “stagnant” design of the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8 was actually quite appealing. Toss that device in a case, and no one else could tell if you were rocking a three-year-old handset (nice!) or a brand-new device (for shame).

Not so with the iPhone X. Between its bezelless screen, dual camera, and unmistakable notch, Apple’s flagship is easily identifiable. Even someone who’s only casually familiar with Apple’s handset lineup can pick the X out of a crowd of devices.

This “recognizability” was a reason I considered avoiding the iPhone X. A device this expensive serves as a negative status symbol among our friends and family. Most people know by now that the X is the “thousand-dollar phone.” Owning it sends adverse signals about your character; others may think you’re either flaunting your discretionary cash, or that you’re spending your hard-earned money foolishly.

So, given the choice, I’d prefer inconspicuous consumption over status shopping. Give me gadgets that feel luxurious but don’t look luxurious. I’d rather buy my iPhone in a cavernous, filthy, fluorescent-lit, bargain warehouse than the glass-walled, immaculate boutique of an Apple store. ■

Categories
apple TV

Thoughts on Apple’s fired engineer

Apple has fired a radio frequency engineer who allowed his daughter (vlogger Brooke Peterson) to record a prerelease iPhone X, then post the result to YouTube. The offending video has since been pulled (at Apple’s request), but it’s not difficult to find it online.

A few random thoughts:

  • First, let me say up front that I’m sorry that this happened. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for Peterson and her family to deal with the aftermath of this episode, particularly since it all happened in such a public-facing way.
  • Turning to the offending video itself (and on a lighter note), those inside Apple are struggling with the flagship phone’s name, too. Just before the 3:00 mark, the engineer calls it the “iPhone Ex” (i.e., not the “iPhone Ten”).
  • The Caffè Macs pizza looks delicious.
  • Halfway through the video, the engineer reveals that his team is scheduled to move into Apple Park (the company’s spaceship-like new headquarters) in December. I wonder whether he was authorized to announce this, given the level of public interest in the campus. If not, that revelation may have factored into his dismissal, as well.
  • The Petersons unknowingly mirrored Apple’s actual prerelease marketing strategy for the iPhone X: invite little-known YouTuber to Apple’s home turf, give them an exclusive hands-on with the iPhone X, and invite them to publish their thoughts ahead of major press outlets. One blogger even argues that Peterson’s video is more interesting than the officially-sanctioned takes.
  • You would think that the engineer’s internal alarm would have gone off the instant his daughter whipped out her dSLR on campus. Apple’s commitment to secrecy is infamous at this point, and in the past few years, the company has clamped down even harder on employee leaks. It would be difficult for Apple leadership to overlook the (very public) violation without undermining their authority inside the company. So why didn’t the engineer stop her—either mid-recording or before she uploaded?
  • Brooke Peterson has since posted her reflections on the incident. She claims that she was shocked that her “little, innocent video” garnered so much attention, when there were so many other hands-ons already posted online. It’s true that Peterson’s video didn’t reveal much about the iPhone X that we didn’t already know. But at the time it hit YouTube, precious few recordings of the X “in the wild” had leaked—and none of them came from inside Apple. It’s not surprising that this content went viral.

In Peterson’s defense, I doubt that she aimed to sacrifice her dad’s job to boost her YouTube subscriber count. But, whether intentionally or not, that’s what happened. Before her iPhone X hands-on, Peterson had just 87 subscribers; now, barely a week later, she has over 12,000.

That’s a solid base on which to build an internet personality brand, if Peterson goes that direction. At the very least, she plans to continue posting Youtube videos; as she states in her follow-up, “I’ll see you guys at my next vlog.” ■

Categories
Culture

iPhone X and the Apple “access economy”

Yesterday, Apple introduced a new wrinkle to its annual iPhone release strategy. A select handful of YouTube vloggers were invited to an undisclosed New York location, where they received exclusive hands-on time with the iPhone X. The embargo for posting their impressions dropped yesterday morning—a full day before the wider press was permitted to post their prerelease reviews.

On the one hand, it’s tempting to celebrate this approach as an elevation of the “little guys” over the tech press juggernauts. It’s fun to see YouTube personalities, with their minimal budgets and one-person productions, outscoop media institutions with million-dollar studios and conglomerate-backed financial resources. And for the YouTubers themselves, getting this exclusive was undoubtedly a huge (and valuable) thrill.

“Why these outlets?”

But the “pre-embargo embargo” left many Apple watchers scratching their heads. What is Apple’s underlying strategy here? Do these vloggers have more influence over key demographics than the mainstream press? Do their voices better align with Apple’s target customer base of young creatives?

A more cynical take crossed my mind. Apple may have selected these YouTube channels in part because of their relative obscurity. For a little-known vlogger, an exclusive iPhone X hands-on represents a huge opportunity—a chance to grow their audience exponentially. In other words, there’s a serious power differential here, with the advantage lying entirely on Apple’s side. In the week before an iPhone’s release, Apple is the kingmaker.

Even if Apple didn’t specify editorial conditions in exchange for access, wouldn’t the YouTubers feel pressured to hew to the provided talking points? Wouldn’t airing iPhone X grievances feel like biting the hand that feeds you? Might you be hesitant to level pointed criticism at the X, for fear of not getting similar access next time?

Insidious incentives

These concerns don’t just apply to Youtubers. The “Apple access economy” incentivizes problematic journalism throughout the entire tech press. Let’s break it down:

On the one side, we have Apple, shrouded in secrecy, strategically distributing (or withholding) invitations to its product marketing events and its prerelease review units. These baubles go to an exclusive, hand-selected subset of journalists (or, in this case, enthusiastic YouTube influencers).[1]

For these reviewers—whether writers, podcasters, or vloggers—such access is insanely valuable. Apple content drives more traffic than any other tech topic, and exclusive Apple content generates exponentially more clicks for creators’ channels and sites.

It seems natural that a reviewer blessed with access would want to receive the same privilege the next time Apple announces a similar device. Here’s the key question, then: do some Apple reviewers soften their reviews in an attempt to retain their level of access? Do those “inside the circle” tamp down their criticism in order to stay in the circle? Does the mere existence of this perverse incentive threaten to undermine journalistic integrity in the tech sphere?

It’s hard to discuss this topic without sounding accusatory. To be fair, many tech press members espouse and hold to strict journalistic principles. And the vloggers who posted their “first looks” yesterday don’t deserve to have their integrity questioned; their impressions were largely positive–even exuberant–but that may result more from stylistic decisions than from any sort of nefarious bias.

Still, the “Apple access economy” deserves more scrutiny. The insidious incentive exists, even if reviewers manage to keep it from dampening their criticism. ■


  1. Apple’s not unique in this practice—except in that access to Apple is disproportionately valuable (compared to Samsung, Amazon, Google, or Microsoft).  ↩