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).  ↩

Categories
movies

Trailers for trailers

I’ve loved movie trailers since my earliest days on the web. As a teenager, I would wait impatiently for postage-stamp-sized previews to download over dial-up. In college, Apple’s trailers site was a daily visit, despite its reliance on the clunky QuickTime player.

Now, decades later, I still adore trailers, but the medium and its surrounding tech have matured. Full HD trailers download almost instantly—even over my DSL connection. The average trailer’s quality has improved, too—it’s less a sloppy afterthought and more a carefully-planned salvo in a months-long marketing campaign.

One recent change to the medium sticks out. Many action-heavy trailers now begin with a stinger—a 4–5 second preview of the trailer’s most exciting scenes, stitched together with fast cuts and scored with a cacophony of rising sound effects. It’s literally a “trailer for the trailer”:

I don’t really understand this trend. “Nano-trailers” make sense on social media; quick cuts catch a user’s eye as she scrolls through Instagram. But why do studios tack nano-trailers onto the trailers themselves? Are viewers more likely to watch the entire preview if the pre-trailer piques their interest? Are we so attention-poor that we can’t wait for a two-minute trailer to slow-boil?

And what’s next? Where does this trend lead? Will we eventually see trailers for trailers for trailers? A half-second megaclip with 12 single-frame smash cuts, scored with a single BWWWWAAAAAP?

My head hurts. ■


  1. Film strip artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Categories
internet

Should I feel bad about blocking ads?

As Internet ad-blockers have grown more popular, online publishers have gotten aggressive—even passive-aggressive—about fighting back.

Frequently, after following a Twitter link, I’m greeted by a pre-content pop-up, explaining how the publication’s ad-funded business model works. “Please whitelist us,” the message begs, “so that we can continue delivering great content for you.” Sometimes, this plea can be dismissed; too often, it prevents viewing the content until I manually disable my ad-blocking extension.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to journalism’s plight. As the newspaper business has collapsed, online revenue hasn’t closed the gap. Ad blockers represent a real threat, since a blocked ad will never get clicked. Fewer clicks leads to lower ad rates—and fewer well-paid creatives.

But despite the publishers’ predicament, and despite their interstitial pleas, I don’t feel guilty enough to voluntarily view ads. I’ll keep running ad blockers as long as they work, for two reasons:

  • I never click on ads, anyways. As far as I know, I have literally never clicked on a web ad—at least not intentionally. If these sites and advertisers are using clicks as their metric, my ad-blocker shouldn’t affect them (right?).
  • If web marketers are measuring views (instead of clicks), my ad blocker could have an impact. But I don’t feel obligated to surrender my attention just because I clicked a link. Ads undermine my focus and squat in my imagination long after I navigate away from a page. As I’ve written before, I consider that headspace to be sacred. Whatever responsibility I have to “pay” for articles with my attention is outweighed by my obligation to be present for those around me.

Of course, somebody’s got to pay for good content. As the ad-blocking arms race continues, I may eventually be forced to either a) buy premium, paywall-bypassing memberships or b) accept the degraded attention caused by overexposure to advertising.

Given these two options, I know which I’d choose. Heck, I’d pay anything to never see this on the web:


  1. Eyeball artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Categories
apple

Predicting the 2018 iPhone line-up

At its product marketing event last week, Apple announced its new iPhone line-up, which breaks with precedent in two ways:

  • The iPhone X name (read “iPhone Ten”) takes a cue from the Windows world, in that Apple has skipped over the number “9.”
  • The iPhone price points have never been so diverse; the 2017 phones start at $349 (for the SE, Apple’s cheapest-ever new iPhone) and scale all the way up to $1149 (the 256GB X model, easily the priciest iPhone in history).

These changes make it tricky to predict what products (and prices) Apple might announce for next year’s iPhones. How will Apple handle the numbering gap next year? Would they ship a brand-new, downmarket “iPhone 9” a full year after the X? What about the pricing model? Will $999 be the new entry-level price for flagship iPhones, or was the X an aberration—the one-time result of expensive internal components (e.g. the face scanning tech or the OLED screen)?

Why bother guessing Apple’s plans?

On the one hand, it feels pointless to predict next year’s iPhone line-up. Apple’s plans are subject to change, and this year’s phones haven’t even launched. A lot could change; the iPhone X might suppress demand for the 8 models. Or the mass market may refuse to pay $999 for a new phone, no matter how shiny the tech. Or the X’s hardware changes may prove a bad bet—say, if Face ID doesn’t work as advertised, or if users prefer the Home button to the new software-based gestures. Any of these outcomes could change Apple’s plans.

Still, I want to take a stab at guessing 2018’s line-up, partly as a thought exercise and partly because I’m interested in the resale market. If I buy an iPhone X, just how much will my purchase depreciate by next fall?

My predictions

Here’s what I’m thinking:

2018 iPhone pricing
Product name Starting price Notes
iPhone 11 $999 Flagship model, successor to iPhone X
iPhone X $849 2017 hold-over
iPhone 8 Plus $699 2017 hold-over
iPhone 8 $599 2017 hold-over
iPhone 7 Plus $549 2016 hold-over
iPhone 7 $449 2016 hold-over

Some notes:

  • My basic premise is that Apple was telling the truth. The company’s execs crowed that the X is the “future of the iPhone.” That holds for both price and form factor. From here on out, new iPhones will look more like the X than like the 8.
  • The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus therefore are intended to serve as a “stop gap;” they help Apple avoid erecting a a price umbrella under which competitors could camp and sell $600–800 premium phones. But this is a short-term strategy; if I’m right, there will be no new downmarket phones next year—no “iPhone 9” or “iPhone 9 Plus.” Instead, as the years go by, the iPhone X will slide down the price ladder, just like the other current models. Eventually, the old “chin and forehead” phones (the iPhones 7 and 8) will fall off the ladder, and the X-style models will stand alone.
  • This approach makes naming the next flagship phone fairly straightforward. What is the sequel to “iPhone X” (“Ten”)? iPhone 11. Other have speculated that Apple might ditch the numbering scheme altogether, citing the examples of the iPad or the Mac. But Apple hasn’t established the same annual rhythm for those products. With the iPhone, legacy models stick around a long time, dropping $100 in price year after year. The phones’ unique identifiers help customers differentiate similar-looking versions from one another. Faced with a choice between the “iPhone X (2017)” and “iPhone X (2018),” customers might either a) be confused or b) opt for the cheaper model, saying to themselves, “Who cares, as long as I get the X.” Better to assign each new device a new name and thus reinforce its unique value over legacy options.
  • What about a potential “iPhone X Plus”: an edge-to-edge OLED screen in a larger chassis? Apple is probably testing such a device, but I’m not sure we’ll see it next year. The iPhone X may represent the “sweet spot” between the non-Plus and Plus sizes—a “one size fits all” phone that doesn’t need a big brother. The fate of an iPhone X Plus likely depends upon sales metrics: will “Plus lovers” migrate to the X this year? Or will they remain loyal to the bigger form factor of the 8 Plus?
  • I expect the SE will be retired. That’s a shame, because many users (including me) love the SE’s pocketable form factor. However, there’s a chance Apple will keep the SE (and its current specs) around as an ultra-low iPhone entry point. A $249 iPhone would be intriguing, but they’ve never ventured that low before. ■

Categories
apple tech

On Apple event spoilers

On Friday night, the “Gold Master” release of iOS 11 leaked online. As nerds have waded through the code, secrets about Apple’s soon-to-be-announced devices have come to light. This is the second time this summer that prerelease software has escaped into the wild and tipped Apple’s hand.

There are still some details about the new devices that we don’t know.[1] But enough cats have slipped out of Apple’s bag that the event has lost some luster. We’ve peeked into the presents before Christmas morning. Or, to put it another way, the leaks have “spoiled” the new iPhone announcement.

Using “spoiler” language may seem odd. That’s a term from the entertainment world, not the tech sphere. Does an iPhone announcement event really compare to, say, the upcoming Star Wars sequel or an episode of Game of Thrones?

Sure, maybe it’s silly (or even a bit sad). But these product announcements are high holidays for tech enthusiasts. I’ve had September 12th circled on my calendar for over a month. I’ve followed the online speculation since the first “tenth anniversary iPhone” rumors surfaced over a year ago. And I’ve been saving to buy a new phone since the day I bought my last one.

So… yeah, I do look forward to iPhone events as if they were blockbuster movies. That anticipation is a testament to Apple’s crack PR team and how carefully they design these announcements. A well-crafted product event is a roller coaster worth riding, and it’s more fun when I don’t know that hairpin left turn is coming. As both a gadget fan and as a communications professional, I’d rather be surprised.[2]


  1. For example, while most pundits agree that the base model “iPhone X” (which is apparently the official name) will start around $999, any price from $899 to $1199 remains in play. The top-end phone’s release date also remain unclear. We haven’t yet seen legit final versions of the phone hardware (although we have seen an image of the LTE Apple Watch). Finally, while we may know the names of many new features, we don’t know exactly how they work.  ↩

  2. I only have myself to blame. After all, I’ve managed to avoid major Episode VIII spoilers so far by steering clear of sites like Making Star Wars. In the same way, if I had simply ignored the Apple rumor mill, Tuesday’s event would still be a mystery to me. Unfortunately, I don’t have that sort of willpower. And the pre-event speculation is part of the fun. ↩

Categories
tech

Why does Apple brag about the Watch’s accurate timekeeping?

Apple’s marketing copy for the Watch:

High-quality watches have long been defined by their ability to keep unfailingly accurate time, and Apple Watch is no exception. In conjunction with your iPhone, it keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard.

Since the Watch was announced in 2014, Apple has touted its extraordinary accuracy. I’ve never understood why I should be impressed by this.

For over a century, quartz oscillators have made it possible to build incredibly precise timepieces. As early as 1929, the federal Bureau of Standards relied on quartz clocks that drifted from actual time by less than half a second per month. These days, even a $10 Casio wristwatch from your local gas station likely loses less than a minute per year—accurate enough for nearly every practical use.

Digital devices—including laptops and phones—also rely on quartz-based oscillators. But they have an additional advantage over “dumb” timepieces: an Internet connection. Using the Network Time Protocol (NTP), our devices synchronize themselves against precisely-tuned time servers on the Internet. NTP keeps our computer clocks within a few dozen milliseconds of “actual” time; that probably explains Apple’s “50 millisecond” figure in the marketing quoted above.

Now, Apple actually claims that the Watch is “far more accurate as a timekeeping device than the iPhone.” This makes little sense to me, since both devices presumably depend on the same NTP servers.

And even if the Watch were somehow slightly more accurate than my other digital devices… should I care? Do average consumers even need the exact time, down to fractions of a second? Are atomic physicists timing their experiments using the Watch? Do NASA engineers schedule booster ignition using Siri? Do international secret agents synchronize their capers by watching Mickey Mouse’s hand? I honestly can’t imagine a realistic scenario where even a few seconds’ aberration makes a difference in everyday life.

Categories
movies TV

Sell-out

If American pop culture has a High Holy Day, it must be Superbowl Sunday. Not only does the big game venerate our favorite sport’s glorious brutality, but it also showcases our highest art form: the television advertisement.

This year’s commercial cavalcade features this Kia spot:

Here, Laurence Fishburne reprises his most familiar role: Morpheus from The Matrix. The ad parodies the film’s most iconic imagery: the ‘red pill / blue pill’ choice, black-tied Agents, and Morpheus’ improbably reflective sunglasses. The ad concludes oddly; Fishburne bombastically belts out Nessun Dorma, completely subverting the original character’s too-serious aura.

Fishburne joins a long list of actors who have leveraged cult-classic roles into a cheap commercial payday. One example: William Shatner donned the Starfleet uniform to hawk DirecTV? Christopher Lloyd reprised Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown to shill for the same company. Pitching Honda SUVs in 2012, Matthew Broderick reenacted the most famous scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—-only this time, Ferris was middle-aged, all alone, and kind of sad.

And “kind of sad” pretty well sums up this trend—-this undead resurrection of beloved characters. The audience chuckles, but they also notice Kirk’s peculiar paunch, Doc’s now-gaunt frame, and Ferris’ pot belly. Actors line their pockets, but they can’t feel good about cheapening their legacy or about banking on fans’ goodwill.


  1. Both Shatner and Lloyd are perennial offenders here. There was the British power company commercial that combined Star Trek, a Shatner/woman body swap, and German hip-hop group Snap. And it doesn’t take much to get Christopher Lloyd to don the Einstein wig and hop into a Delorean. Check out the shameless intro video for Microsoft’s 2007 Tech-Ed meeting.