Apple’s Overseas Manufacturing

Apple’s logistics and manufacturing is extremely complicated, secretive and critical. The NY Times has a great story on it and how it is a great example of jobs leaving the US:

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

There’s lots more, go read it.

Define Mute

One of the tricky things about building products is defining the details. When you say “mute switch” as you’d see on a phone like the iPhone, what exactly do you mean my “mute”? App sounds? Calls? What about an alarm? Muting an alarm sounds reasonable, but perhaps the reason for using the switch is so you can sleep until your phone wakes you up in the AM (I suspect that’s actually a very common use case).

John Gruber has a pretty good insight on the iPhones mute switch design, which doesn’t cover alarms as one New York Philharmonic audience member learned the other night. I agree that it’s an edge case, however think an alert the first time you switch it (and then never again) would be a reasonably good UX. Doing so every time as he explains wouldn’t be workable since you often do use the switch without taking your phone out of your pocket. I know I do it all the time.

In “the old days”, you’d just make that a 3 way selector: mute all sounds, mute all but alarm, all sounds on. 5% of users would figure out how it works.

5 Years Of iPhone

iPhone Announcement

Yesterday was 5 years ago Steve Jobs took to the stage to launch the iPhone. It’s amazing to think it’s been 5 years since the iPhone was announced. Watching this again, it’s amazing. In many ways it’s still almost futuristic, yet there’s so much vintage about it from the empty feeling home screen in the UI, to the name “Cingular” to the rather healthy looking Steve Jobs telling the world “…to unlock the phone I just take my finger and slide it across [applause]“.

This presentation is undoubtedly up there with the January 24, 1984 Macintosh Launch. Steve at his best, 5 years ago.

Part 2 can be found here.

Smartphone Guest Mode

A very good idea by Greg Kumparak on TechCrunch:

Here’s the dream: one lock-screen, two PINs. One for me, one for anyone else who might use my phone but doesn’t necessarily need to see everything.

Not only is it a good idea for there to be a guest mode, the implementation is quite nice and simple. Maps, Phone, Clock, Calculator, Safari. Perhaps the ability to granularity add/remove from that default set. Everything is stateless and rest when guest mode ends.

This could potentially even lower the divorce rate in the US.

iOS 5 And iMessage vs. The World

I’ve generally refrained from comment on iOS 5 because there are only two features I really cared about and I wanted to see them in a final release form that I could play with. The first was notifications, which I loved since the first screenshots I saw. The second was iMessage simply because it intrigued me.

iMessage despite some claims isn’t the end of SMS, but it the beginning. To summarize how it works, it essentially abstracts the Messenger/SMS client so that to the user its protocol antagonistic. If it can use Apple’s network it does so, if not it uses SMS. The user does nothing but send messages like they always have. Apple does the magic. No app to download, no username to select and distribute, no new phone number. Just use it. Typical Apple brilliance.

Of course this poses a threat to carriers who make immense profits selling SMS packages which cost them almost nothing. I still wouldn’t be surprised it they find some vaguely worded patent and a patent war erupts to try and stop Apple. It’s a very real possibility.

However this alternative network only works between Apple iOS users… for now. Apple has three potential tricks up it’s sleeve to completely upset the market.

The App Route

This is the most obvious route. Release apps for BlackBerry and Android. As people adopt smart phones this becomes more awesome. Desktop clients will also satisfy since millions spend their day in front of a computer at work. Integrate into iChat and make an XMPP service for those using Adium or a third-party client on Windows. Release a Windows client. Get Meebo to make that a simple thing to add to your account. They could get it everywhere pretty quickly.

Third Party Integration

Apple could eventually open up an API to allow for third-party app integration. Allow me to explain how this would work:

Your Apple account right now contains two key identifiers: You’re phone number (duh) and email address. What Apple could do is let third parties like Facebook, Google Voice, etc. become alternative carriers with a higher priority than SMS. So if Facebook Messenger was an option, it would use that. Otherwise it would use Google Voice, Kik, or perhaps even BBM to send the message. Last ditch effort would be regular SMS.

The Telco Route

This is an interesting option, but not really unique. Google actually does some of this already via Google Voice. Skype offers similar functionality to a degree. What Apple would do is rather than use the carrier SMS, give the option of sending via iMessage which sends the text to anywhere in the US on your behalf. Again, Google and several other companies are already doing this. The caller ID can be spoofed legally, and replies would come back via a regular SMS, effectively making you a recipient only. In the client this is seamless. This would further disrupt carriers model by cutting texting in half asymmetrically.

Any of these methods has a major advantage for Apple by making iOS the center of people’s communication universe. They could route to other iOS devices, Apple TV, your computer etc. It’s what Google Voice is striving to be, but for text.

Of course Apple could, and likely will eventually make this service more than text only. Voice and video are obvious companions and likely to be added as iChat, FaceTime integrate. Apple could even add a pro service like SMS and voice to other countries for a fraction of what wireless providers charge putting them in competition with Skype or Google Voice.

The backside of this however is that wireless providers are likely to raise mobile data rates and add new charges to make up for SMS.

iPhone 4S Thoughts

iPhone 4S

Apple today announced the iPhone 4S. It’s pretty much what I expected to see, however many seem to view it as a disappointment due to anticipation of a mythical “iPhone 5″. I’m sure an iPhone 5 is in development, but I don’t really understand why people expected to see it today. Maybe 1% of Apple rumors, likely much less are actually true. Generally they are an attempt by a blog to generate buzz and publicity. Pay little attention to them. Launching the new phone later isn’t indicative of a “major upgrade”, especially given what we knew:

  • iOS 5 is taking a while – iOS 5 wasn’t developed in complete secrecy. 100k developers have been seeded developer builds (number comes from the Apple presentation). It hasn’t been GM ready. It’s been a work in progress. It didn’t seem to be waiting for hardware.
  • Apple was launching in parallel with iCloud – Apple established it was going to roll out an OS upgrade and iCloud together. Obviously any new hardware was not coming before that. iCloud was just getting tested. Again, it didn’t seem to be waiting for hardware.
  • Supply Chain – Slightly weaker, but thanks to the quake in Japan, there’s been a some more difficulty in obtaining materials and parts for many electronics. Moving the iPhone launch out makes sense when you’re shipping in such volume and already have a popular tablet shipping.

Some Analysis

In my opinion the iPhone 4S met my expectations.

Regarding the iPhone 4S being a “world phone”, this was obvious. The “Verizon iPhone” was a hack. The iPhone 4 for Verizon used a Qualcomm MDM6600 as discovered by iFixit. That chip supports CDMA/EVDO and GSM/UMTS. It however didn’t ship with a SIM slot effectively preventing on the hardware level support for GSM/UMTS. Apparently the antenna was tweaked too making is sub-optimal for GSM/UMTS. Unifying the hardware means Apple can ship just one device and simplify it’s supply/distribution chain. Remember, the majority of Apple sales will still be to GSM/UMTS networks. Only the US is a major CDMA/EVDO market as it’s hard for an iPhone to compete in Japan the other major market.

Not supporting LTE is also obvious. LTE deployment is just starting. LTE chipsets today still use more power. I don’t think anyone is using LTE 100% yet, only data meaning in usage these chips will be doing both LTE and a legacy technology for voice. Given such a small percentage of users would ever even see LTE in the 2 years they have their phone, opting for improved battery life (another new feature) was the ideal choice. I suspect next revision there’s a 75% chance we’ll see LTE. It will happen when power consumption gets down to where Apple wants it. It’s just a matter of time.

The choice of an A5 dual core processor was a giveaway from the iPad. What we still don’t know is if it’s the same speed or underclocked for the iPhone. That will be discovered soon enough.

Camera upgrade is also obvious as another year has went by and cameras have improved. Going to 8MP and 1080P was a given. The iPhone 4′s camera is likely already 1080P capable at least at the sensor level (assumed to be a OmniVision OV5642). However the iPhone 4 likely wasn’t fast enough to handle that data rate hence it was limited to 720P. That’s also why you don’t see RAW support. The sensor itself converts to JPEG.

I’m inclined to think Siri could run on the iPhone 4, though slightly slower if Apple really wanted. That’s pure conjecture however.

Fragmented Ecosystem

It’s worth noting that Apple is now shipping the iPhone 4S as their flagship phone, the iPhone 4, and the iPhone 3GS as their entry level phone. This is an unprecedented (for Apple) 3 revisions in production. This makes me believe the iPhone 3GS will at least get security patches for the next 2, most likely 3 years. I do suspect it will be cut off from future major OS releases before that time, or get a reduced feature set. For Apple this is unique. I don’t think any phone vendor is doing something like this right now. On the Android front phones upgrades are notoriously finicky thanks to different vendors.

It’s also worth nothing that despite the iPhone 4S being a much faster device, it’s unlikely many apps will take advantage of it anywhere in the near future. Most users for quite a while will be on the iPhone 4 and 3GS. Designing for iPhone 4S and iPad 2 performance means you’re cutting off most of your users. With a 2 year upgrade cycle and these phones still being sold… well you get the idea. That’s not to say you won’t get anything from the added speed. Just don’t expect everything to be designed to take advantage of it very quickly. The target platform is still the 3GS if you want the full iOS audience.

iPhone 5

I expect we’ll see an iPhone 5, sometime next year. Quite possibly summer. I wouldn’t even rule out doing so a little earlier if market conditions warrant Apple pulling out the big guns sooner. Updated form factor, LTE, NFC chip, more performance tweaks all likely candidates. I could see Apple going for a software “home” button to make the screen larger without having to make the device so much larger.

Worth an Upgrade?

If you haven an iPhone 4, I think waiting for iPhone 5 is just fine. I don’t think this device is amazingly better than the iPhone 4. That’s why they didn’t bump the version to 5. For older iPhone’s, this upgrade is just another step further away. The iPhone 4 is still a very solid phone. See above for my analysis on a more fragmented ecosystem.

TL;DR

iPhone 4S is nice, pretty much what people should have expected and will likely hold things over until next year when the iPhone 5 ships. Don’t expect apps to take advantage of this speed because most iOS users are running slower hardware and will for some time. If you have an iPhone 4, likely not much to persuade you to upgrade early.

On Apple’s Location Tracking

The controversy over Apple’s “Location Tracking” is quite interesting. It’s worth making clear that the nodes stored in the database are approximations of cell phone towers and WiFi hotspots you’re likely to encounter rather than your location(s) at any given point in time. It’s a way to “prime the well” when doing a GPS lookup to improve performance.

Apple notably failed in a few key ways which should serve as a lesson to others:

  1. Always disclose what you’re doing. – Never just assume what you’re doing with someone’s information is cool. Apple could have mitigated a lot of this had they disclosed what the phone was actually doing from day 1. Never transmit anonymous or personal information without letting the user know first.
  2. Never store more than you need – I can’t believe how many companies mess this up. Storing user information is a liability. A good business limits it’s liabilities to only what’s necessary to conduct business. Storing so much data, and not expunging was a very bad move and amplified the situation. On top of not letting users know what was going on, there was no way to purge information. This just made things much worse. Apple went as far as backing up what should be an expendable cache.
  3. Always be paranoid with information – Apple states “The local cache is protected with iOS security features, but it is not encrypted. Beginning with the next major release of iOS, the operating system will encrypt any local cache of the hotspot and cell tower location information.” in the response to Edward J. Markey. This should have been encrypted since day 1. Various tools existed for a few years that could read this data in the surveillance community. Apple undoubtedly knew people were using this data sometimes for illicit purposes. No company has gotten in trouble for being to secure with customer information with anyone other than the NSA or FBI.

It’s worth noting that their software update in response to this controversy is actually pretty good and pretty thorough. I’m surprised they couldn’t quickly shim some encryption around it. The iOS is loaded with enough DRM and crypto.

On another note, I fully expect some court cases to be reopened now that “cell phone records” are not quite as accurate as they were falsely billed to be. Also companies who marketed software are capable of showing a users location history may be liable as this wasn’t accurately vetted. If they did good testing they would have seen the extent of it’s “tracking”. It seems inevitable.

Lastly, I wonder how much battery life, and how much bandwidth this was utilizing. Some customers are on metered WiFi (especially some hotspots). To geo-tag one must turn on GPS, meaning battery life was being drained behind the scenes.

Apple’s full response can be found on Congressman Ed Markey’s website (copied here for perpetuity).

Atomic Tom’s “Take Me Out” Subway Video

Atomic Tom - Take Me Out

Here’s an interesting video that went viral over the past few days. Brooklyn based band Atomic Tom’s instruments allegedly were stolen. Their resolve led them to use their iPhones and film a music video on the subway using their phones as instruments. Or so the story goes. I’m not sure if it’s a viral sensation or viral marketing.

I’m a bit skeptical about this one. They claim it was one take, multiple cameras were present, iPhones were the sole instruments used. I don’t have the time to analyze it close enough, but the sound is a little questionable. The thing that really gets me is the quality of the vocal track. While you can hear some ambient subway noise in the background it’s hard to imagine the phone picking everyone up so clearly when they are all singing given the position of the microphone and pick up so little subway noise otherwise. The iPhone does try to reduce ambient noise as much as possible, but this just seems to be beyond what it would do. Of course they could have done a little post-production work there. They don’t really say what post-production entailed.

Playing an iPhone instrument for the length of a song especially given their performance also seems a bit difficult. All four not messing up would be impressive, especially on a moving train.

Regardless, this little viral marketing seems to be working. Over the weekend it’s views were still in the thousands. It’s clearly on the way to the 2 million mark as of this blog post.

At least one of the apps used is iShred: Guitar + Effects, which is pretty cool.

Cable Fail

I’ve been looking for a 4 conductor male TRS connector (Apple iPhone headset jack) for a small project. Simple enough. I found a cheap extension on Amazon a week ago that seemed to fit the bill. For posterity here’s what the description says:

Technical Details

  • Made and designed to work seamlessly with the Apple iPhone.
  • Will act as an extension cable, carrying both the stereo audio and microphone signals from your device.
  • Allows the adapter to be used with stereo headphones that also have integrated microphone functionality
  • Made with Nickel plated materials, 3.5mm 4-pole plug, 3.5mm 4-pole jack and a 10 cm (L)
  • A perfect accessory for your NEW Apple iPhone.

Emphasis mine.

It arrived in an envelope containing a tiny ziplock back with no labeling (it’s barebones). When I hooked it up it seemed that audio quality wasn’t very good. I never bothered to check out the microphone. At that price it obviously didn’t make fiscal sense to return it as the postage costs about as much as it’s worth. So I decided to finish dissecting it.

From what I can tell it’s actually 3 wires. Each is a different color (red, copper, green) with some white strands in the core. The female jack has two prongs with one wire attached to each and the enclosure itself which seems like it’s the ground. My suspicion is that the audio is either combined or only one channel is used making it actually mono. The jacket I dissected was molded on so it was virtually impossible to remove the plastic without severing the thin wires in the process.

Here’s what the wire and the female jack (sideways on the bottom) look like:
Full Sized iPhone Wire Dissected

Here’s the jack from the back side. I suck at photography and only have a P&S camera, so it’s a bit blurry:
iPhone Cable Female Terminal

I’m now debating trying another vendor or a more expensive 2.5 mm to 3.5 mm adapter.

My original plan was to find a new 4 conductor TRS male plug, but that proved impossible via the usual sources. 3 conductor is easy.

If anyone has suggestions feel free to reach out.