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Apple Goes Long
Apple CEO Tim Cook took a major shot at putting his company back in a clear lead in the mobile device market with the announcement of two new models of the iPhone, dubbed iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and the long-awaited Apple Watch. The two phones will feature stronger "ion-strengthened" glass screens that curve around the edges, as well as new thinner designs. Those screens will be 4.7 and 5.5 inches to rival Samsung's Galaxy 5's 5.1-inch display and its Note 4's 5.7-inch display.
But the big news is the Apple Watch, which just might be the first wearable (other than Bluetooth headsets) that actually generates meaningful sales.
First, The Phones
This batch of iPhones features a combination of incremental enhancements and a couple of serious leaps. The bigger screens (the iPhone 4S had a 3.5 inch display and the 5S went to 4-inches) are the most visible difference, and the iPhone 6 has a resolution of 1334 x 760, and 6 Plus is a full 1920 x 1080.
There are a lot of changes under the hood as well.
First there's a new A8 processor that is 25% faster than the current A7 as well as being more battery efficient, and there's an M8 motion processor to go with it. And the maximum memory is boosted from 64 G to 128 Gbytes. With a two-year carrier contract, the 16 GB iPhone 6 will go for $199, the 64 GB model is $299, and the 128 GB version is $399; the 6 Plus will be $100 more at each memory size.
The network capabilities get a boost as well. The LTE capability is boosted from a maximum of 100 Mbps to 150 Mbps, and for those who travel internationally, it operates in 20 LTE bands. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is also supported on both models.
For Wi-Fi, the new models will support the new 802.11ac radio link. There are lots of options in ac (e.g. channel width and MIMO options) so we'll have to see how it's implemented, but for the moment Apple is saying it will operate at 3-times the current 802.11n interface. Both models will support voice over Wi-Fi with the ability to seamlessly transition the call to VoLTE when the user moves out of Wi-Fi range. It remains to be seen if the voice over Wi-Fi implementation addresses the problem of AP-to-AP handoffs.
Apple has also overcome its disdain for NFC (near-field communication) and introduced its own payment system called Apple Pay (in the US) with American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Initial customers will include McDonald's, Disney's theme parks, and Whole Foods. Given the Apple iCloud's recent problems with nude-celebrity photos, there was a lot of talk about the security features.
Like the iPhone 5S, the new models feature an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, but it has now been augmented with digital image stabilization. A lot of what Apple has done with the new models is to play "catch up" with the rest of the smartphone industry, but they did add one element that to my knowledge is still unique--a barometric pressure sensor. It wasn't clear if this would be accurate enough to predict changes in the weather but for fitness apps, it can tell if you're going upstairs.
Apple Watch: Feel This
A large part of the announcement dealt with the Apple Watch, which will be delivered in early-2015. The sleek watch comes in stainless steel, anodized aluminum, and 18 carat gold and in two sizes (38mm and 42mm). All are sealed to make them water resistant, though they didn't specify to what depth. However in talking about the fitness app (which borrows heavily from existing activity monitors) the examples were running and biking, not swimming. Since the unit is sealed, it uses an inductive charging system with a magnetic charging plate that sticks to the back. There will be two different-size models, which they didn't associate with male-female (my wife's watch is as big as mine), and they will offer six different quick-change straps.
While a lot of the capabilities depend on linking with your iPhone (iPhone 5 or later), the watch comes with its own processor and memory. For navigating, it has a color touch screen, but Apple has come up with some interesting features more appropriate for a small display. Key in that is the "digital crown" that looks like a traditional winding stem but allows you to scroll through lists, select options, or zoom in or out by spinning it; pressing the button returns you to the home screen. The screen is also sensitive and can differentiate between a "tap" and a "press."
There are bunch of other neat navigation features. First, to save battery, the watch can sense when you're raising your arm to look at it and switch on the display. You can move through screens by flicking them to the side, and the "Glances" feature allows you to swipe up from the bottom of the screen and then sweep left or right to see time, local weather, next appointment or other bits of useful data. Like most Apple products, it looks like they put a lot of effort into the design
There are a wide variety of customizable displays. As an astronomy buff, my favorite was the Astronomy display that showed a view of the earth from space with your location highlights; that requires the GPS capability from your iPhone. The moon display shows the current phase of the moon, which you can move forwards or backwards in time with the digital crown. There's also a solar system display that shows the position of the planets.
The watch does touch as well as sight. First, the Watch can take your pulse. There's also a haptic engine that effectively "taps" your wrist. You can get a tap for different kinds of notifications (e.g. calls, texts, Facebook posts, etc.) so it can be very unobtrusive in a meeting or a movie. One capability that was either intriguing or just creepy: Apple Watch users can communicate with another user through a series of taps. In one of the weirdest features, you can send your heartbeat to someone and they'll feel it on their wrist. Of course if you lose coverage, the beating will stop and they might think you died!
Most importantly, Apple had a decent lineup of applications to show for launch day. American Airlines will be able to put your gate, departure time and your boarding pass on your wrist. Starwood has an app that will allow you to check into a W Hotel and unlock your door by waving your watch in front of it. Honeywell will let you adjust your thermostats, and BWM will let you find your car--and provide directions to get to it. They also have a fitness app that borrows a lot from the best activity monitors.
Since the passing of Steve Jobs, Apple watchers have been wringing their hands, worrying that the company had lost its edge. I can't say that Apple has leapt out in front of the pack, but they have at least pulled even and demonstrated convincingly that they still know how to merge hardware and software to deliver beautifully designed products. Those products continue to be sold at premium prices, so Apple has no intention of tapping into mass markets. Most importantly, they have mastered the art of integrating all of their different products to deliver a superlative overall "Apple experience." We will see more of this when they deliver the Yosemite operating system for the Mac later this year.
Naysayers will downplay the importance of what Apple has done, but there's still something to be said for "delighting users"--and that's just what Apple has done.