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This week: Apple reverses controversial changes to the iOS 15 Safari browser on the iPhone while also delaying the update’s marquee feature, you’ll get my thoughts on Google’s Pixel 5a, and Apple delays its corporate office return until January.
Apple isn’t particularly known for listening to consumers when making design decisions, and that is, well, by design.
Steve Jobs used to say that consumers don’t know what they want and trust Apple to make decisions for them. That ethos is what led to the closed iPhone ecosystem with its App Store review process, stringent requirements for accessory makers and lack of software customization.
That way of thinking has helped make Apple one of the most successful companies ever, topping $2 trillion in market value and selling billions of iPhones, iPads, Macs, AirPods and Apple Watches. Those products wouldn’t be the hits they are today without Apple’s approach. But it has also created problems for the technology giant.
It took Apple about four years and several lawsuits before it admitted and fixed serious problems with its “butterfly” keyboards introduced in 2015. All along, it said that the approach was superior to its predecessor because it allowed for thinner laptops. But the product was actually prone to breaking, noisier and uncomfortable. The company ultimately ditched the technology while maintaining that the issue was overblown.
When the iPhone 4 shipped in 2010, it had a problem with its antenna that led to a drop in signal bars. Apple also said that issue was overblown and blamed physics before ultimately giving users free cases and updating the antenna the following year.
Apple launched the Touch Bar in the 2016 MacBook Pro as a touch-screen strip for quick functions. It kept the Touch Bar as a key part of the MacBook Pro for five years, even though many professionals preferred a non-digital function row. (The company plans to remove it with the next version.)
When iOS 7 was previewed in June 2013 with a controversial new user interface, some consumers and design critics panned it. Apple made tweaks, such as to font sizes and the amount of transparency in interface elements, but it never abandoned it. The core of the iOS 7 design still remains today, eight years later.
Clearly, Apple is stubborn about its design decisions and has been married to the Jobs worldview on consumer preferences. But that is changing, and the company's latest major iPhone software update shows that.
For iOS 15’s release this year, Apple planned to make some of the biggest changes ever to the design of the Safari web browser on the iPhone. The fundamental shift: moving the address bar from the top of the screen to the bottom, erasing nearly 15 years of muscle memory.
This past week, after mounting complains from users, including by me in Power On, Apple reversed course, making the new design an option in the Settings app. With that change, Apple will offer users two distinct interfaces for a core app, a rarity in the iOS world.
I far prefer the address bar on the top and have already reverted to that interface on my iPhone. Offering users this choice after listening to feedback is a rare and positive step for Apple.
A previous version of the company might have completely ignored the outside commentary. It would have stuck to the new design, said most users loved it, but then quietly switched it back in iOS 16 or iOS 17. Instead, Apple recognized that the new design would be an issue for most people and changed course before releasing iOS 15 to the public.
In related iOS 15 news, Apple is continuing its tradition of delaying features from its next-generation operating system’s initial release. This year’s victim: SharePlay, a feature for watching video, listening to music and sharing your screen over FaceTime.
While Apple has delayed new iOS features in the past, the news this year is that Apple is delaying the new iOS feature. SharePlay is the hallmark addition in iOS 15, an otherwise modest release. It received plenty of airtime at WWDC 2021 and sits at the top of both Apple’s press release and website for iOS 15. I hope it doesn’t take more than a few weeks for it to hit devices this fall.
More concerning is that this is a trend. Both iOS 13 and iOS 14 saw some features postponed until follow-up releases, and iOS 15 might see more delays than just SharePlay.
Take Universal Control. It will allow a user to control both a Mac and an iPad with a single device’s trackpad and keyboard. But it’s still nowhere to be found two months into the beta release cycle. That means it’s probably delayed. Also on track to miss the cut from iOS 15.0: a feature for handing over your data to a family member when you die and a new way to see what data third-party apps collect.
When it unveils new operating systems each June, Apple should make it clear that it is introducing a rolling set of new features — rather than one major update that includes everything at the same time. That could save the company quite a few “delay”-related headlines.
Google refreshes its entry-level Pixel ahead of the Pixel 6. Google’s Pixel group made its first major announcement a few weeks ago, giving me and others a preview of the Pixel 6. That phone has a new design, an in-screen fingerprint sensor and an in-house chip (which is actually rumored to mostly be a rebranded Samsung part). That phone is a leap from the Pixel 5 and could be what Google needs to keep its name in the smartphone conversation.
The company’s new Pixel 5a, however, is just more of the same for its low-end line. Instead of cutting the price of the Pixel 5 upon the launch of the Pixel 6, Google is making tweaks to last year’s 4a 5G. New this year: an ever-so-slightly bigger display, a beefier battery, and water and dust resistance. Gone are two things: support for the faster mmWave flavor of 5G and availability anywhere other than the U.S. and Japan.
My take: For $450 — $50 less than the 4a 5G — it’s hard to find a much better mid-tier Android phone. For those comparing the lineup with the Apple world, an iPhone SE with the same 128 gigabytes of storage is the same price but with a screen about an inch and a half smaller and no 5G. Today, the Pixel is probably superior for the price, but when Apple unleashes a low-end 5G phone next year, Google will have some competition.
Apple delays office return again, this time until January. Another week brings more Covid-19 news. It started off with Apple telling staff and customers that its in-store classes would resume on Aug. 30. About 24 hours later, Apple nixed that plan. And the company is now asking retail and corporate employees to get tested twice per week, up from once, in the face of new variants. It also expects to hike that to three times per week at some offices. With Apple already needing to close a store because more than 20 staff members were exposed or tested positive, this sounds necessary. The week then ended with the big news: another office delay — this time until January.
Former Apple retail head expands Apple’s sales footprint. Apple’s former and original retail head, Ron Johnson, never ended up veering too far away from Cupertino. After a stint as chief executive officer at JCPenney, Johnson founded Enjoy, a company that lets consumers buy devices from a salesperson that comes to their home. His company relies on Apple as a partner, an arrangement that has also become a new way for Apple to expand its own sales footprint. According to an SEC filing from Marquee Raine, with which Enjoy merged in a SPAC deal to become public, Enjoy and Apple expanded their partnership to five new cities over the past two months: Atlanta, Washington, Chicago, Miami and New York.
Apple touts its credit card as the mid-tier market leader. The company shared a study from J.D. Power Thursday that said Goldman Sachs, which operates the Apple Card, was the leader in the midsize issuer market in terms of benefits, communication, terms and rewards. The report’s summary doesn’t discuss the Apple Card itself, focusing mostly on Goldman Sachs, which beat out other small players like SunTrust, TD Bank, HSBC and KeyBank. Clearly, the Apple Card deserves recognition for this award, but I still think there’s a lot more Apple and Goldman Sachs can do to improve the product.
Facebook beats Apple to taking Zoom into VR. The social network this past week previewed a new Oculus Quest feature called Horizon Workrooms, taking group meetings to the virtual world with avatars. My question, though, is whether most people will want to buy a VR headset for this instead of loading up Zoom or Group FaceTime on their existing devices. Facebook seems to think yes, and so does Apple. As I’ve reported, one of the key features coming to Apple’s mixed reality headset as early as next year will be virtual meetings.
It’s earnings season for Peloton. The New York-based fitness company plans to report earnings on Aug. 26, so look out for that.
Device launches are near. Apple, Amazon and Google like to hold their launch events in September and October. So watch out for new iPhones, AirPods, Pixel phones and Echo devices in the coming weeks.
Q: Do you think a new version of the AirPods Pro will also be announced this fall?
Q: What’s going on with the Mac mini, is there a new model coming?
Q: Is in-screen Touch ID coming to the next iPhone?
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