Does Apple really slow your phone down? Perhaps

Lots of  headlines like this in the press this week:

Is Apple intentionally slowing down your old iPhone? The data suggests not

The article reads:

Futuremark collected more than 100,000 benchmarking tests, from the iPhone 5S to the iPhone 7, and averaged the performance of both the processor (CPU) and the graphics chip (GPU) once a month between April 2016 and September 2017 with different versions of Apple’s software from iOS 9 to iOS 11.

According to Futuremark: “iPhone 5S GPU performance has remained consistent from iOS 9 to iOS 11, with only minor variations that fall well within normal levels.”

They’re missing the point. New operating systems don’t get slower because the manufacturer writes codes to throttle down CPUs. The reason new versions of iOS are slower on older hardware is because they do more. To be fair, the article does explain this. iOS 9 on an iPad 2 is almost unusable, it’s certainly a long way from the speed of iOS 4 the iPad two debuted with. Clearly something changes overtime, and CPUs do not wear out over the course of 4 years!

But is it intentional or not? Of course it is. I’m sure there is a business decision made by Apple on how much time to spend optimising software for older devices. It’s a tradeoff. iOS versions are made in less than a year. At some point you have to balance the needs of the ecosystem (having as many users as possible running the latest software), the cost of development, and the needs of users – which includes having a device that runs at an acceptable speed, as well as having the latest security updates and new features.  I’m don’t think it’s a bad tradeoff, but to say a smart company like Apple does this unintentionally doesn’t sit right with me.

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You don’t need a new Apple Watch, but the ecosystem does

I’m not sold on the need for a cellular Apple Watch. While it’s a cool gadget and would be a nice luxury, I really wouldn’t recommend anyone buy it unless they are in the habit of upgrading their watch yearly. (Yes if the idea of upgrading your watch every year sounds ridiculous, that’s because is it.)

Why don’t you need it? Well, you do, just not yet.  The battery seems to be just able to cope with the demands of a 4G connection, and it’s still very limited from a software standpoint. For example, if you dictate a long reply to a message, and the dictation inevitably gets a word wrong, you can’t edit that one word by hand,  you have to say the whole phrase again, or just leave the mistake in and hope the recipient understands you. Guaranteed to loose any kudos on the train you thought that red dot might have given you. Apple will get there of course, but by the time they do, a new model with better battery life and a faster processor will be with us. So while like any technology geek I think it’s a cool gadget and a genius piece of technology, I do feel it makes sense to wait until there’s a better version, unless money is no object of course, or you have an exceptional circumstance that means having a phone on you at all times is a burden you’d rather not carry.

So why have Apple released it now, when it’s probably not ‘as ready’ as they’d like? My guess is that it helps the watch’s neglected app ecosystem. Now all of a sudden, rich people with their cellular Apple Watches are going to want to send WhatsApp messages from their watch. Time to build an app, WhatsApp. The same could be said for lots of the big players who’ve not yet bothered building watch apps. watchOS apps have been able to work somewhat independently from the phone for a couple of years now, by this I mean they can connect to the Internet (via WiFi or the phone), get their data and present it to the user interface without the phone. Original watchOS apps needed the phone for absolutely everything, including updating UI. Twitter and BBC News, to name just a few, still haven’t updated their apps to benefit from this new way of coding apps (which vastly improves performance), but now faced with a user base that doesn’t have their phone with them but expects the app to work, they might feel inclined to.

Is North Korea a distraction?

Gripping article in this week’s New Scientist on the gradual escalation of nuclear arms between the word’s superpowers, and this:

In June 2016, the British submarine Vengeance test-fired a Trident missile, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Something went badly wrong, and the missile may have veered towards the US.

The missile was not carrying its nuclear warheads and was destroyed. The UK government has remained silent on what might have caused the incident, but “the failed Trident test is consistent with cyber interference,” says Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council, a think tank in London.

New Scientist

Some thoughts on the new Apple Watch Series 3

Apple Watch (original)
My favourite gadget

Finally, it’s here – a smartwatch that has it’s own cellular connection and so doesn’t require you have your phone with for it key functionality to work –  while also not looking like an ASBO tag.

I’m impressed that Apple were able to cram this new functionality into a watch that’s almost the same size as the previous generation. The ability to go out for a run, to a gig or to the pub for the evening and leave your phone at home is a game changer.  Being able to listen to music, get directions, take calls and respond to calls without anything on your person is something I imagine to be a very freeing experience. It’s still early days, and I expect the new watch to have significantly worse battery life when the cellular connection is used. Just as the current generation suffers when you use the GPS and heart rate monitoring functionaries, the new models will see less battery life if you use them away from your iPhone a lot of the time. In two or three years time however, when battery and processor efficiency has improved even more, these watches will be capable of  replacing our phones for many of their core uses. Will people want to replace their phones though? No camera, no web browser, no games. I doubt it. Having the option though, can be only a good thing. If you can leave your phone at home more and more often, you might even consider a bigger phone, or just having a tablet-sized device instead of a phone. Or perhaps we’ll just pull down out Apple Glasses when we need a bigger screen.

So will I be upgrading to the Series 3? In short, no. I bought an Apple Watch last year, and I’m going to make it last.⌚️

The future is not easy

Have you noticed lot of people lecturing about how the near future is going to be full of self-driving cars and robot doctors? The past shows us however, that predicting the future is not easy, and rarely do long-term predictions about technology come true. As this video and article demonstrate fantastically.

Humanoid robots exist alongside err… payphones? I’m still waiting for an electric belt that adapts to bodily and climatic conditions though…

From Insurgent to Blade Runner: why is the future on film always so grim?

Microsoft’s Burning Platform: The fire has spread

Remember Nokia’s burning platform? Now it’s Microsoft’s.

Back in 2011, Nokia’s then CEO Stephen Elop sent his now infamous “Burning Platform” memo, highlighting the company’s need to evolve or be eaten by its new competitors, Google and Apple. After a strategic alliance with Microsoft, the firm was then acquired by its new partner in 2013 amidst a wave of optimism that the two companies, once dominant in their own industries, could work together to make great devices and services. 
I hate to be negative about a a company I admire, and grew up using it’s products, but it seems to me that three years on, Nokia’s burning platform has spread to Windows. The onetime workhorse of every business around the world is looking decidedly shaky. It saddens me that a once great product and brand is now a shadow of it’s former self. I first used Windows 3.11 as a child, and have used every version since. While those older versions were never perfect, they were in line with the readability expected from a young industry. These days, in the age of instant on, affordable Chromebooks and “it just works’ MacBooks, it’s difficult to see a purpose for Windows, except to run legacy software. ChromeOS is well suited to the low-end, commodity markets, and Macs seem to be doing well at the high-end where reliability and power are required. 

So what’s the problem? For me it can be summed up in two points: reliability and usability. 

Windows 10 is unreliable. It takes too much work to get it to work. These days I don’t want to have to spend time making my computer work. That should be automatic. If I set a long file transfer going, I shouldn’t come back to see a message warning me that the computer is going to reboot in 10 minutes unless I cancel it. I hunt around in settings to try and find a way to configure the machine to never reboot without me telling it to, and there isn’t one. I could see why Microsoft did this, to look after users and make sure they’ve got the latest security updates, no doubt – but where’s the intelligence? Can’t it see I’m doing something? Is there an auto-save API like there is on the Mac? No: Microsoft’s API story is another mess, but it basically boils down to this: proper applications use the ancient Win32 API, and mobile apps need to use the new ‘Modern’ Universal App API. Another instance of this lack of reliability is something that’s been an issue for years, yet still happened to me on a fresh install of Windows 10. The task bar for some reason stopped unifying all of the windows into one button for Outlook, which gets confusing. So I closed Outlook, thinking that restarting the application would solve things. I go to start it again, and of course there’s an error. It turns out that in 2016, closing an application and starting it again 5 seconds later is not something Microsoft expect you to do. I remember this happening with Outlook 2003. In the end I had to reboot my machine in order to get to my email. This are just two admittedly pedantic examples – but I could share so many more – Windows 10 feels like it gets in the way more than it helps. 
Usability is another disaster on Windows 10. For a start, there is no consistency between applications anymore. The long-held ideal that an operating system should provide a consistent user interface to make applications easy to use and learn has been well and truly thrown out of the window. Office uses it’s own file picker – how is this even allowed by internal UI guidelines? Dialogs are still modal – meaning if you choose “Share > By Email” in Excel, all other Excel documents are blocked until you send that email. There are two versions of Skype. Ask someone to Skype you, and they might assume you mean Skype. But no! – You meant “Skype – for business”. There are two control panels, the new one has a back button that doesn’t go back to the last screen, depending on what the last screen was. Context menus have a seemingly random style depending on at which point in the 30 year history of Windows they were implemented. Even more shockingly is Microsoft seem to have decided that the “Hamburger menu” should now be a mainstay for modern apps, despite it being almost universally derided by UX practitioners. Of course non-modern (antique?) apps still use menus, or sometimes a ribbon, or sometimes a menu that’s hidden behind a button depending on how antique they are. It’s very rare for an application to use the native window style – in fact I couldn’t tell you what the native style looked like in Windows 10. Mail, Skype, Word, Explorer – they all look different. I can’t help think these issues all accumulate and are part of the reason that cool new apps for Windows are far and few these days.
Microsoft is still a company I admire, their Azure and Machine Learning services are second to none; and surprisingly their iOS apps are of a very high quality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone at Microsoft is aware of the state Windows is in, and I hope that they can overcome internal politics or whatever challenges there are to put it right. I have friends who work at the company and they are some of the smartest people I know. I just hope they hurry up and fix Windows before the world moves on, for good.

Improving digital media rights

In an age when streaming services are all the rage –Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify et al, I still feel as though there are certain works of art that I want to own and not just rent. With music, this is a pain free process as most digital music is available to purchase is free of DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM stops digital files being copied, with an aim to stop piracy. In reality though, if you look hard enough (you don’t have to look that hard) you can still find most popular digital media available for free on pirate sites. DRM doesn’t work. Thankfully the music industry saw the light and you can now buy DRM-free music from iTunes, Amazon and many other providers. The film, TV and book industry haven’t been so forward thinking however. There are no services that let you purchase a film legitimately without DRM. Why is this a bad thing? DRM stops unauthorised copying, which is fine by me because I don’t want to make any unauthorised copies. The problem is, DRM also promotes vendor lock-in. This means if I buy a TV show from my iPad, and then years later decide to switch to Android, those videos are stuck within the Apple ecosystem. If I buy a book on Kindle, but decide I would rather use some other make of e-reader, I’m not able to take my Kindle collection with me.  
Some services like Amazon Music and Google Play do offer cross-platform apps, so if I bought a TV series on an Android phone, I could watch it on an iPhone – but only using the Google app. If one day Google decides to stop supporting iPhone, I’m out of luck.

So what to do? Our governments seem keen to pass laws which promote and support DRM – I can understand this. An economy where goods are easy to steal and stealing is virtually undetectable – an economy based on good will if you like, is probably not an experiment they want to attempt. But what if they also passed laws that promoted consumer rights; rights not to be locked into a single platform? In this world, any digital goods purchased from one platform would be available to download again from rival platforms at no cost. If the other platform is somehow better (e.g. higher definition) then of course users would be expected to pay for the upgrade (though, I would expect the original version to still be available), but if it’s like for like, then consumers would have the right to transfer their purchases to as many platforms as they wish. This could be backed up by a common verified email address or block-chain style database, with safeguards in place to prevent abuse. It could be done, and it would make digital media much more competitive, improving the experience and price for consumers overall.  

Will it happen? Let’s say I’m not optimistic.

iPhone SE

I did it. I bought a an iPhone SE. Not just any old iPhone SE, a Rose Gold one.

Why this madness?

iPhone SE, Rose Gold
iPhone SE, Rose Gold

The last phone I bought was an iPhone 5 back in December 2012. I was pleased with the phone and only gave it up last November when I decided to start using my company issued iPhone 6 as my main phone. The reason for switching was mainly because its ageing A6 processor was beginning to start showing its age, and the lack of M-series motion co-processor meant any motion tracking applications needed to keep the entire phone awake when in use, so battery life wasn’t that great for me. The iPhone 6 also has a much better camera. I’d refrained form upgrading my personal phone for so long because the iPhone 6 and the 6S did nothing for me – they don’t look particularly good, and they’re way too expensive for anything but the 16GB model, which I would not recommend to anyone but my worst enemy.

Modern processor niceties aside, I wasn’t too happy with the size of the iPhone 6. It was awkward to use with one hand, and impossible to put in a pocket while running – I needed to strap it to my arm instead. So when Apple announced the iPhone SE a few weeks ago, I knew this was the phone for me. The classic, beautiful iPhone 5 design and more importantly a usable size, but with the far superior camera and processing smarts of the iPhone 6S. I feel like this is a product Apple made just for me.

Upon going back to the smaller size everything felt so much nicer. The phone just sits in the hand much more naturally, and I can reach any part of the screen without using two hands or performing a balancing act in order not to drop it. There is also something particularly cool about using such powerful applications as Pixelmator, iMovie and Numbers on a 4 inch screen – there is a certain elegance in making an app that can do so much with such little screen real estate.

I went for the 64GB mode, which makes this the first iPhone I’ve ever owned with more than16GB of storage space. What a difference it makes. 16GB was fine back in 2009 when I had a 3GS, but in 2012 it made no sense, and it’s worrying that Apple still sells them. I can for the first time actually install apps without needing to delete something else first. Before I had to consciously keep applications installed to a minimum, in order that I could have 2 albums downloaded (for running) and space ready to take photos (usually 500MB or so). Now I don’t have to worry, and I can even install games. If anything, the storage upgrade is more significant than the superior processor and camera.

Finally I went for Rose Gold – why? I just felt like a change. I’ve always had the black iPhone, and Rose Gold was this year’s “new colour”. People can joke that it’s a girly colour, but honestly, I’m confident enough with my own masculinity to use a pink phone and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.

Overall I think it’s a brilliant upgrade over the iPhone 6. More usable, nicer camera and much faster. It is missing the barometer (sad face) and the front-facing camera isn’t as good, but that’s a small compromise, there’a also no camera bump.

How I fixed an unusable BT Infinity Connection

I’d been having problems with BT Infinity for a few months. Every so often web pages would just hang, or streaming video would freeze. Oddly it would often coincide with a new certain devices connecting to the network. Frustratingly, my connecting to Wi-Fi with my work laptop (Dell Latitude, Windows 10) would cause the Internet to stop working for a good half an hour.

I phoned BT and found their helpline very unhelpful. When asked to unplug the router overnight, I asked why this was needed and was told ‘it’s technical’. Throughout the process I felt as though I was just being read a script and not being listened to.

Anyway, I had managed to get my work laptop connected and had hooked into my company’s VPN when all the devices in the house stopped working again. My phone, the Apple TV, Kindles – all except for my work laptop. How odd. When I disconnected from the VPN, it too started to not work.

This made me think to try using Google’ DNS instead of BT’s. To my surprise, the Internet started behaving like a 70Mb/sec Internet connection should for the first time in months. My next step was to log into the painfully slow BT HomeHub router to try and change its DNS settings at the network level, rather than for each and every device. It turns out BT have restricted that, because normal people can’t be trusted to change their DNS servers, it seems.

After doing some digging, I discovered that the Apple Airport Express base station I’d been using to extend the range of the wireless network could be used as a NAT bridge and in place of the BT Homehub. I found this helpful post on the BT Forums which I will recap here incase BT decide to shut down or move their forums.

In short, you plug in the Ethernet cable from the white BT Openreach box into the WAN port on the Airport. Your username can be anything @btbroadband.com (I’m sure BT don’t rely on this for actual authentication, that’s tied to your line) and your password is simply a space.

You can then use Google’s DNS servers in place of BTs. One extra thing I had to do was set IPv6 to be ‘local link only’ under ‘Internet Options’.

ss1

ss2

This setup allowed me to retire my BT HomeHub for good, and the Internet connection has been flawless ever since. My Kindle can even connect, which is saying something.

Oddly, the default IP range for the Airport’s DHCP server is Class A, which means your devices won’t have the usual ‘192.168.1.X’ scheme, but this can be changed if needed. You can change this under the Network > Network options tab, though there really is no need other than it being a more common practice.

 

On the demise of the iPad

Unrelated: iPad's do not land very gracefully.
Unrelated: iPads do not land very gracefully.

 

So it seems iPad sales have fallen for yet another quarter. As someone whose iPad is their favourite computer; on the one hand this surprises me – why wouldn’t everyone and anyone want one of these fabulously useful and fun gadgets? But on the other hand I can absolutely see why many people wouldn’t have a space for this relatively expensive, yet limited device in their lives.
The problem is that a tablet does some things really well: browsing the web, watching videos, taking notes, editing photos. It also does some things very poorly: you can’t import music purchased from someone other than Apple into your music library (iTunes Match) for example and the apps are in general baby versions of their desktop counterparts. Need to rotate, annotate and save a PDF? Create a PivotChart? Have two Word documents open at the same time? You’re out of luck.

 

Most people don’t create

The iPad’s big differentiator is that unlike an iPhone, it can actually be used to create content (By content I don’t mean social network updates!). Witness the suite of applications Apple provide for free or next to nothing; GarageBand, iMovie, Pages, Keynote and excellent apps like Pixelmator, which is the only image editing application I’ve ever been able to comprehend (I even managed to ‘photoshop’ someone who was in from one photo and place them into another, while making it look convincing). The problem is, most people don’t create content very often. Outside of work and school (where people obviously do), most people’s computing needs boil down to what is the quickest and most comfortable way to consume content. The iPhone’s success in business was dominated by it’s consumer success (the so called ‘consumerisation of IT’) but the iPad hasn’t followed this because for most people, the phone is simply ‘good enough’ to check Facebook, lookup that recipe or watch Netflix.

The phone is the best compromise, for now

Most people have learnt this over the last four years of iPad usage. The iPad isn’t better than a phone at the ‘phone’ things people do (Facebook, messaging, email) and it’s not better than a laptop at the ‘create’ things people do (with all the edge cases these entail). If you’re going to put down £400 or more on a new computer, why would you buy an iPad when you know it’s not going to replace your aging laptop and you’ll still need to replace that thing when it dies too. So most people buy new laptop instead, and that would seem like a smart decision to me.

Phone sales remain strong and this is because the phone is currently the best compromise for mobile computing. A small screen with lots of sensors and are useful while you’re out and about – camera, GPS, compasses etc. The iPad is a more enjoyable and productive device to use than a phone because of it’s larger screen size, but that also means it can’t replace a phone because nobody wants to carry a large bag on them at all times. It’s not an ‘always with you’ device. The phone is therefore the best compromise between having a nice big screen, and having something that is always on your person. Will this always be the case however? Once smartwatches are able to connect directly to cellular networks and don’t need to be tethered to a phone, will they be able to take on the role of ‘always with you’, for messaging, directions, checking headlines etc? If this happens then what do we need the phone for? It’s no longer necessary to have this compromise of a smaller screen. In this case, would people decide that a watch and an tablet (or laptop, if the iPad or its competitors haven’t improved its software yet) will take on the roll of web browsing, Netflix and Facebook, fulfilling the rest of their computing needs? I could quite see myself using just a watch and a tablet, if both devices progress in the right directions over the next few years.