Apple faces uphill battle with its rumored Echo competitor

Recently, I’ve been reading rumors that Apple is working on a new device, one that utilizes both Siri and AirPlay, intended to be Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo. If the rumors are correct, we should see this device before the end of the year, maybe as soon as next month at WWDC.

I purchased an original Echo when it was still in the “available only by invitation” stage and have since added two Echo Dots. They remain my favorite technology purchases of the past few years. The Echo is not perfect, far from it. I wish it could answer more questions more intelligently. But, when it’s pumping gas on all cylinders, it is magical.

So what would it take to get me to abandon the Echo in favor of Apple’s rumored competitor? The answer is “a lot.” Frankly, I’m not sure Apple is up to the task.

Apple does have a couple of “built-in” advantages.

The biggest one is that an Apple device would almost certainly integrate better with all my other Apple equipment (Macs, iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs). That won’t matter to those who are not entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, but it’s a big one for me.

Second, I expect that Apple’s device will protect my privacy better than the Echo does (indeed, the Echo has been criticized as being more of an Amazon marketing tool than a personal assistant). But I made my peace with this awhile back and have, so far, not regretted it.

It’s also true that Apple has a history of achieving great success with products that were not first out-of-the-gate. Apple often spins this as an advantage: “We may not be first. But that’s because we have patience. We wait until we can get it right. We don’t want to sell something that’s a beta version of what we intend to finish years from now — just to be first. And users reward us for this.”

This strategy has certainly worked well in several instances. The perfect example is the original iPod. The iPod was not the first mp3 player to come to market. But it was the first to do so in a way that made using an mp3 player enjoyable for just about anyone, not just geeks. The combination of a hard drive, a click wheel, an LCD screen and syncing with iTunes — was the equivalent of an earthquake on the landscape.

A similar statement could be said about the iPhone, which again was not the first smartphone to arrive. It offered critical advantages that rendered competing products immediately obsolete. This catapulted it to success.

In my opinion, that’s what Apple will need to do once again if it hopes to overcome the Echo’s inertia advantage of a several year head start. This is the crux of the problem: What exactly can Apple do, at this point, that would make their new product even close to the equivalent of the arrival of the iPod?

Frankly, I can’t imagine anything Apple can do here. Perhaps that is a symptom of my limited imagination. After all, I didn’t picture the iPod in my head back before Apple released it. But I suspect the problem today is not with my imagination. Rather it is with the realities of how good the Amazon Echo currently is. At best, Apple has a steep uphill climb ahead of it.

Beyond adding critical new features, Apple also has to overcome some deficiencies in its current Siri implementation. In particular, “Hey Siri” has never worked as reliably as “Alexa.” Half the time, even if I say “Hey Siri” while standing over my iPad, nothing happens. In contrast, the Echo responds almost 100% of the time, even if I am in another room.

Maybe Apple has more time to “get it right” than I imagine. Maybe Apple can gain a foothold this year and slowly work to overtake the Echo. Again, I doubt it. In this regard, I look at the Apple TV. When it came out, it was in even better positioned than an Echo competitor would now be. One could claim the Apple TV was the first product of its type. But Apple never fully capitalized on this advantage. While it continued to debate what to do with its “hobby” project, along came Roku, Chromecast, Fire and others. Apple TV is now an also-ran in the “streaming video device” market, far from the dominant figure. If Apple had never released the Apple TV years ago and came out with it today, it would likely fail — perhaps saved from oblivion only because of its unique integration with iTunes. This seems closer to what Apple’s Echo competitor is facing than the iPod comparison.

I look forward to seeing what Apple has hidden behind its curtain. I still get pumped about the prospect of great new products from Apple. I previously expressed hope that Apple would eventually release an Echo competitor. It looks as if this may finally happen. Still, I am pessimistic about the likely result. I will be happy to be wrong. But I’m not counting on it.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, Technology | 1 Comment

The Mac Pro rises from the dead

In anticipation of doing a MacVoices podcast tonight (with host Chuck Joiner), I had worked up a draft of an article I planned to post here — covering a topic I intended to discuss on the podcast. The article started off by asserting:

If Apple cares about its customers, and not only its profits, it should end production of the Mac Pro. Today. If the model is dead, bury it already. Why continue to sell a machine that Apple knows is doomed? If a replacement is in the works, Apple should still get this stinker off the shelves immediately — so there is no chance that someone makes the bad choice of buying one.

A few paragraphs later, I added:

Even if a new Mac Pro emerges, it’s hard to imagine how this would spur sales. Would a minor update suddenly renew interest in the desktop machine? I doubt it. Even with a major overhaul, users would likely be wary of Apple’s future commitment to the machine. Would you want to buy an updated Mac Pro that could very well see no further attention from Apple until 2021? Or perhaps never again? To counter this resistance, Apple would need to convince users of their ongoing commitment — something more than just releasing the new model. This could involve revealing a specific roadmap for the future of the Pro, confirming that regular updates would be coming. Unfortunately, given Apple’s penchant for secrecy about its future plans, I doubt they would be willing to be that specific.

As it turns out, I’m very glad I held off posting the article. That’s because Apple this morning revealed that a completely new revamped Mac Pro — together with new “pro displays” — are coming (next year). Had I posted my article yesterday, Apple’s announcement would have made the bulk of what I wrote instantly irrelevant. Whew!

It wasn’t entirely irrelevant. To my surprise, Apple agreed with my advice that now was the time to reveal its Mac Pro plans — secrecy be damned!

On the other hand, Apple disagreed with my advice that it terminate sales of the current Mac Pro. Instead, it’s offering a minor update, with changes to the internal specs (or perhaps more accurately a price drop to current specs) but no USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports. I still don’t see how this will lead to any new sales of the current model. But I suppose it doesn’t cost much for Apple to take this path.

Overall, Apple’s announcement is great news! For people (like me) who were increasingly convinced that Apple was planning to abandon the Pro, and perhaps desktop Macs altogether, this is a perfect instance of “better late than never.”

Here’s a brief overview of how today’s announcements change the Apple landscape:

For starters, it’s worth reading Gruber’s article describing what transpired at the meeting with Apple where all of this was revealed yesterday. It describes Apple’s explanation for why the Mac Pro situation wound up deteriorating so badly. Essentially, Apple miscalculated when they designed the current Mac Pro. They bet on a dual-GPU design and a preference for external expansion. Both were bad bets. Apple had trouble recovering from this — and that led to the delay of any improvement to the current model. Apple is finally rectifying this error.

Regardless, this will still go down as a major embarrassment for Apple. As its name implies, the Mac Pro is the machine designed for the “professional” user. These are the users who place the most demands on a computer, the ones who most need a machine that is on the cutting edge of current technology and are the most willing to pay extra to have such a machine. If any item in Apple’s line-up screams out for frequent updates, it would be the Mac Pro. Instead, it will likely be five (5!) years or more between the Mac Pro’s original announcement in June of 2013 to its replacement. It should never have come to this. But, again, better for Apple to fix this late than never do it at all.

Will today’s announcements be enough to stem the tide of pro users leaving the Apple platform? Will such users be willing to wait another year or more for the promised replacement? Can we trust Apple’s promise that this new model will continue to get attention and frequent updates in the years that follow?

I don’t know. I doubt that anyone does. It’s now a time for “wait and see.”

While the Mac Pro is the most egregious example of Apple’s lack of attention to desktop Macs, the problem extends to the rest of the desktop Mac line: the iMac and the Mac mini.

The Mac mini hasn’t been updated since late 2014 — and that update almost qualified as a downgrade (dropping quad-core options and making the machine’s internals far less accessible). Does Apple intend to update the mini anytime soon? They wouldn’t say at yesterday’s meeting, other than for Phil Schiller to cryptically comment: “The Mac Mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today.”

The news is much better for the iMac, which hasn’t seen an update since late 2015. Apple announced plans to release new models before the end of this year, “including configurations specifically targeted at large segments of the pro market.”

I concluded my not-posted article by stating: Continuing to let aging products limp along in an almost zombie-like state is not smart marketing.

I believe that’s still true. Belatedly, Apple appears to have recognized this — and acted accordingly. We can now all take a deep breath and exhale with a sigh of relief. Our worst fears were not realized. Apple’s desktop Macs are not doomed after all. Time, once again, to look forward with anticipation.

Posted in Apple Inc, Mac, Technology | 2 Comments

How I (almost) succeeded in getting an Echo to work well with my soundbar — and all my other components

My wife asserts that, should I die first, she will get rid of almost all the audio-video and computer equipment we now own. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy using the equipment. She does. It’s just that she believes it will be hopeless for her to maintain the plethora of technology without my assistance.

I’m sympathetic. We currently have three TVs. Each is connected to a TiVo device, an Apple TV, a Blu-ray (or DVD) player and some sort of speaker/amplifier. Each TV setup also has its own Harmony Remote. Meanwhile, our office houses three Macs, two printers, a document scanner and a label printer. My wife and I each have our own iPhone; we share an iPad Pro. There are three Amazon Echo devices scattered about our home. Our initial foray into the world of smart home devices includes a Ring doorbell and a Nest webcam. And all of this is tied together via a complex network that employs both Wi-Fi and Ethernet.

One consequence of all of this complexity is that, anytime we add or replace a component, it may trigger a cascade of unintended and undesired consequences that can take days — or even weeks — to fully resolve.

That’s exactly what happened a few months ago — when I embarked on an “adventure” triggered by my admiration for the Amazon Echo. With the Echo linked to my Spotify account, I could speak to Alexa from almost anywhere on our main floor, request a music selection (such as “Alexa, play the Hamilton original Broadway cast album” or “Alexa, play music by Little Big Town”) and within seconds the requested music would begin. Incredible! Literally without lifting a finger, I had access to almost every recorded song in existence.

There was only one problem: the inferior quality of the sound. Don’t get me wrong. The original Amazon Echo produces surprisingly good audio for its size — better than almost any comparable small or portable speaker. But sitting just a few feet away from the Echo, connected to my TV, were a Yamaha soundbar and subwoofer capable of far better sound. I was already occasionally using the soundbar for music — via the Apple TV. But that arrangement couldn’t duplicate the “magic” of the Echo’s always-ready voice recognition.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I mused, “if I could use the Amazon Echo for music selections and have the audio play from the soundbar? I could have my cake and it eat it too, as it were.” It sounded simple enough to do. [Spoiler alert: It’s significantly less simple than it sounds.]

A tale of two Echos and two soundbars

The first thing I realized is that the original Echo cannot connect out to a speaker — neither via a Bluetooth nor a wired connection. To do this, you need the Echo Dot. In fact, the Dot almost requires an external speaker for music (as its small internal speaker is far too weak). So I bought an Echo Dot.

I could have connected the Dot to my soundbar via a wired connection. But I quickly dismissed this as impractical. The dealbreaker was that a wired connection totally disables the Dot’s internal speaker. This meant that I couldn’t hear any audio from the Dot — unless the Yamaha was turned on and the proper input selected (which it most often would not be). In other words, when the sound bar was off, I couldn’t use Alexa for any non-music tasks, such as asking for a weather report or setting a timer.

Connecting the Dot to the soundbar via Bluetooth seemed to offer a better chance of success — except for one thing: my 11-year-old Yamaha YSP-800 soundbar did not support Bluetooth. To use Bluetooth, I would need to get a new soundbar! I had been thinking about getting a new one anyway, for other reasons. This pushed me over the edge. After weeks of internal debate, I settled on a Yamaha YAS-706. It comes with Yamaha’s MusicCast — which provides Bluetooth, AirPlay, Wi-Fi and Internet audio options — all with access via an iOS app. The soundbar also supports every physical connection I might want (multiple HDMI ports, optical audio and coaxial audio). Quite impressive!

It took a day or two to get the new soundbar comfortably connected to all my other devices. It mostly went smoothly except for a glitch with the Harmony Remote: the remote would not reliably turn off the soundbar when doing so as part of a auto-sequence of turning off multiple devices. Consulting with Logitech, we eventually determined that the cause was the HDMI-CEC feature on the Yamaha. Disabling the option got things working pretty much as I wanted. I was now ready to make the Bluetooth connection from the Echo Dot to the new soundbar.

Initial tests of the setup were promising. The Dot was capable of turning the Yamaha on and connecting to it via a voice command — even if the speaker was presently off. And, unlike with the wired connection, there was no Input selection switching to worry about. It all just worked. And, if the Bluetooth connection was lost, the Dot would default back to its internal speaker. This was all great.

Unfortunately, a few problems persisted. First and foremost, although the setup usually worked as just described, it would fail on occasion. The causes were typically obscure — usually involving a failure to make the correct Dot-to-Yamaha Bluetooth connection. There were also occasional temporary sound dropouts. And, a couple of times, the Echo started playing music through its own speaker while I was watching TV, for no apparent reason! Without near 100% reliability, I was reluctant to commit to the Echo setup.

Second, the sound quality of the Bluetooth connection (although obviously a big improvement over any Echo speakers) was noticeably inferior to what the new soundbar was otherwise capable of producing (which I assumed was due to the sound compression used when sending music over Bluetooth). Third, the volume control on the Echo does not affect the volume setting on the Yamaha; they are separate and independent. This can require making manual adjustments to both devices to achieve a desired volume level. Ultimately, for all of these reasons, I began to consider other possible ways to use the soundbar for music.

The AirPlay and Wi-Fi alternatives

For selecting and playing music in a way similar to using Alexa, an obvious second choice is the iPhone. I could connect to the Yamaha from my iPhone via Bluetooth (which I ignored, deciding that this method belonged to the Echo), via AirPlay or via app-specific options (notably Spotify Connect — which employs a high-audio quality Wi-Fi connection). I soon settled on Spotify Connect as my preferred choice. With this, after a one time setup, I could launch the Spotify app on my iPhone and almost instantly select and play music through the soundbar. The sound quality was also superior to the Bluetooth connection.

The biggest disadvantage to Spotify Connect (and it’s a huge one) is that I can’t use voice commands to make requests. Not only can’t I request a song selection via voice, but I can’t request to pause or skip songs — as I can easily do with Alexa. An app called Melody claims to solve these issues, but it really doesn’t. As an alternative, I experimented with using Siri to control Apple Music/iTunes over AirPlay — but couldn’t get this to work to my satisfaction. The foremost problem here is that Siri sucks at this task. Too often, I had to tap an option on the iPhone screen to complete a voice request, defeating the hands-free ideal. And Siri was far worse than Alexa at correctly interpreting my requests.

However, both of these iPhone options are more convenient than my “old” method of going from my Mac to the Apple TV, as they connect directly to the soundbar, avoiding the need to turn on the television and the Apple TV. [I also like that I can set iTunes on my Mac to simultaneously play music on my Mac and directly on the Yamaha — mimicking a multi-room audio system.]

Bottom line

As of now, when listening to music, I most often use the iPhone-Spotify-Yamaha connection. It results in high quality sound with very good convenience. Or, if I want to listen to playlists in my iTunes Library, I’ll make an AirPlay connection directly from my iPhone to the Yamaha. Still, they are both a bit disappointing. My initial goal was to combine the Alexa voice interface with the Yamaha soundbar. No iPhone option is a 100% substitute for Alexa.

That’s why I continue to experiment with using the Dot-Yamaha Bluetooth connection. Most recently, by making the Yamaha the only device to which the Echo Dot is paired, I have improved the setup’s reliability. So I have begun to use it more often. As a bonus, I recently discovered that, after starting to play music from Spotify over the Echo, I can launch the Spotify app on my iPhone and modify what will play from the Echo.

[As a side note, Yamaha has announced that, sometime this fall, “MusicCast products will receive a free firmware update enabling control using Amazon’s Alexa voice service.” While I’m not exactly certain what this means, I am guessing it will permit things such as modifying the Yamaha’s volume, inputs and sound modes. But if that’s all it does, it will not significantly alter the capabilities covered here.]

All of this remains a work in progress. A final decision on a “permanent” setup may be weeks or months away. The simple truth is that the original Amazon Echo remains unmatched for its ability to instantly and reliably play music via a voice command — with decent (although not exceptional) sound quality. Nothing else I’ve tried entirely duplicates that magic. But I’m getting close.

Posted in A/V equipment, Apple Inc, Entertainment, iOS, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 1 Comment

Trump’s Fake News Conference

It’s ironic that, at his first news conference as President-elect, Donald J. Trump lashed out at various news media, especially CNN and BuzzFeed, accusing them of being “fake news.” BuzzFeed earned the additional distinction of being castigated as a “failing pile of garbage.” The irony is that Trump’s unjustified and unwarranted attacks against the media and the intelligence community revealed him to be biggest purveyor of fake news of anyone in the room.

Fake news is when you promote a story as fact that you know, or should know, is false. And you do so for political or financial gain. That is exactly what Trump did, years ago, when he contended that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery and that Obama was not really born in the United States. There was no evidence to support this claim. It was solidly debunked at the time — and even Trump now admits it is not true.

While Trump’s original claim can qualify as “fake news,” the label would not apply to news sources that report his claim — as long as they note the lack of evidence behind the assertion. If this were not the case, then every news media in the country would qualify as fake news — as they all reported on Trump’s assertion. It was Trump and similarly unscrupulous blogs, by continuing to promote the phony story as true — in the face of all evidence to the contrary — who were the guilty parties here.

Returning to the present, the same logic applies to CNN, BuzzFeed and other sources that disclosed the existence of a document which purports to contain damaging information Russia has on Trump — while correctly noting the information contained in the document is unverified. This is not fake news! Because I believe this distinction is so critical, I want to go through the logic in step-by-step detail:

• The document, as described in the previous paragraph, exists. Therefore, claiming it exists is not a falsehood. Ergo, the claim is not fake news.

• The intelligence community (IC) briefed Trump about the existence of such a document. Although there was some initial uncertainty about whether the briefing took place, it has now been clearly confirmed. Thus, any media claiming that such a briefing occurred is not disseminating fake news. Even when there was uncertainty, there was no sense that the reporting was part of a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.

• The controversial document contains supposed information Russia has concerning Donald Trump. No one — no matter what side of the political fence they are on — disputes this. The only question in dispute is the truth of the allegations in the document. So…reporting that the document contains these allegations is not fake news.

• The allegations are, by all accounts, unverified. Part or all of the information in the document may be false. To suggest that the document’s findings represent established fact would be perpetrating “fake news.” But that’s not what CNN or BuzzFeed did. They clearly acknowledged the dubious nature of the information. Once again: Reporting the details of a possible hoax is not the same as perpetrating a hoax.

• BuzzFeed, unlike almost all other media, not only reported the existence of the document but posted its actual content — revealing details of the damaging claims. As it turns out, many other news organizations were already familiar with this material, having been given the document months before. However, they had refrained from going public with the story precisely because the information could not be verified. Was it a poor journalistic decision for BuzzFeed to publish potentially damaging unverified claims — possibly undeservedly harming Trump’s reputation? Probably so — although the standard for the “public’s right to know” is certainly different for the President than for an “ordinary citizen.”

Regardless, the posted information was, in fact, the actual content of the document. BuzzFeed did not invent the document. As long as they clearly indicated that the information was unverified, it is not fake news.

But, while we’re here, let’s consider the other side of this coin. At this point, the actual truth of many of the allegations remains unknown. Some may be false but others may be accurate. While Trump asserts they are all false (which is the origin of his “fake news” mischaracterization), others (including reputable people in the intelligence community) have reason to believe a significant portion of the material may turn out to be true. If so, this would obliterate any claims of fake news here.

• Was there a political motivation behind going public with this story? Possibly. But so what? That is an entirely separate issue. For example, as we all now know, Wikileaks, during the presidential campaign, released a series of documents obtained from the hacking of the DNC. By all accounts, the hacking and release of the information was politically motivated, designed to hurt Hillary Clinton’s election chances. That didn’t make it “fake news.” To the contrary, the leaked information appeared to be entirely accurate.

• It’s additionally worth noting that Trump accused the intelligence community of leaking this Russia/Trump story. Although we still don’t know the details of how the story was leaked, we do know that the original document was not an intelligence document, was not a classified document and was in the possession of many news sources prior to the intelligence briefing last week. Thus, it is entirely plausible that the intelligence community had nothing to do with the leak of the document. To accuse these organizations of doing so, with such assurance and with no evidence, is not only unjustified, it is edging dangerously close to promoting fake news.

Summing it all up, the real culprit at Trump’s “fake news conference” was neither CNN nor BuzzFeed — nor the FBI or the the CIA. It was Trump himself.

“What’s the big deal here?,” you may ask. Why does correctly assigning the “fake news” label matter so much? It matters a great deal. When Trump points a finger at a CNN reporter and unfairly castigates the news organization, it blurs the distinction not only between what is and isn’t fake news but between what is and isn’t true in general. It encourages false equivalences between legitimate news sites and the true promoters of fake news. It makes it that much harder for average citizens to disentangle fact from fiction and that much easier to get away with lies. And that is exactly what a demagogue would hope to accomplish.

When a person in power in government shamefully discredits a legitimate news source — falsely painting it with a brush of fake news —  it amounts to a form of censorship. To the extent that the false claim is accepted by the public, it shuts down the voice of the news source — and offers an implied threat to all other media that might similarly challenge the government. In the end, the only beneficiary of such action is the demagogue himself. It is in all of our interests to not let this happen!

Posted in Media, Politics | 2 Comments