Treating You As a Product

Fast Company: Apple Explains How It’s Making Siri Smart Without Endangering User Privacy

Joswiak argues that Siri can be every bit as helpful as other assistants without accumulating a lot of personal user data in the cloud, as companies like Facebook and Google are accustomed to doing. “We’re able to deliver a very personalized experience . . . without treating you as a product that keeps your information and sells it to the highest bidder. That’s just not the way we operate.”

How Siri learns—and how much personal data it needs to be effective—is of utmost importance to Apple: Future updates to Siri will give it an increasingly central role in our interactions with all kinds of Apple products.

Craig Federighi, the company’s senior vice president of software, wrote in an email to Fast Company that “Siri is no longer just a voice assistant . . . Siri on-device intelligence is streamlining everyday interactions with our devices.” Apple teams have “worked to make it a core part of all of our platforms”—iOS, MacOS, tvOS, watchOS, and HomePod.

I don’t know that I’d claim Siri is as good as, say, Google Assistant, but she’s almost as good. And I’m willing to trade that minor gap in helpfulness for more control over my privacy any day.

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For Subscribers

Just a quick note that, along with trying to be more active with this site again, I’m going back and restoring a bunch of posts I’ve archived for various reasons.

If you subscribe to this site, that means you’ll be seeing email notifications about things published in the past. Thanks for your patience, and I apologize for unintentionally spamming your inbox.

Thoughts on Apple TV

The last couple of years have seen a strange transition in my home. We’re watching more TV than ever thanks largely to Netflix. I also own a ton of iTunes content — mostly BBC and Pixar stuff — but I don’t watch those as much simply because we don’t currently own an Apple TV. And connecting my iPhone to the TV is never the best experience. I’ve thought about getting one before, but I keep holding back primarly because Apple TV feels so stuck in the past.

I’m apparently not alone. The Verge recently reported that Apple TV has dropped to 15% of all streaming devices sold while Roku has been gaining marketshare. Some possible reasons include:

  • Price
  • Lack of 4K HDR content
  • Lack of Amazon Video

It sounds more and more like we will be hearing about how Apple will address these shortcomings in their September 12 media event. I will be genuinely surpised if Apple touches the price, but I do expect support for first and third-party 4K HDR video as well as the possible launch of Amazon Video on Apple TV. (We already know that Amazon Video should be coming this “summer.”)

These might be enough to sway me at last, but we’re also in the market for a new television. Our current display is a 40″ Samsung we got in 2007.  That gets me wishing for another possibility.

My Pipe Dream

I think Apple’s best way into the living room is not through a box, but through a TV. If your TV has a smart platform built in, chances are that’s already how you get to Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and the like. However, I’m not advocating Apple build their own TV. I’m advocating that they, like Roku, find a partner or two.

Immediately, I would cross Samsung from the list for obvious reasons, not the least of which being they already build their own TV platform. I would knock TCL and Hisense off for having too much of a low-end reputation that would not fit Apple’s image. LG seems a great fit at first glance, but they already have a solid home-baked smart platform built on the resurrected WebOS.

That really leaves two major players I see as possible contenders: Vizio and Sony.

The Case for Vizio

Vizio is the harder of the two to sell because they largely compete on the budget end of things. However, they do sell a more premium line of TVs called their P-series. They have a design philosophy of minimalist sophistication. Their internally-developed smart platform has been problematic, and they also have the advantage of being headquarted in the same general part of the world as Apple.

In this scenario, I see Apple and VIzio developing a variation of the P-Series displays. Let’s call it the A-series, where, instead of SmartCast, the TV would be built around tvOS and built around an A8 or better chip. Apple handles the form factor and software while Vizio handles the display technology and actual manufacturing.

This could be a mutually beneficial relationship. Apple gets to be in a position where they have a good amount of control, but they don’t have to worry about building out a new manufacturing process. Vizio finally gets a solid smart platform and some much-needed name recognition attached to their products.

The Case for Sony

Potential partnerships between Apple and Sony have been floated for years, going all the way back to reports that there were prototype versions of macOS (née Mac OS) running on Sony hardware at one point. It makes sense. Sony has solid indistrial design. They have a reputation for high-end products, and they have good reliability. All of these fit Apple’s established brand well.

Right now, Sony uses Android TV as their built-in platform, software in which they have no investment or stake. It’s also a system criticized for being complicated and slow. Almost every review I’ve read of Sony TVs will criticize Android TV. It could be easily replaced. Here I see Sony potentially licensing tvOS for varients of their higher-end existing lines, say x900 and up, and moving those varients to Apple’s A-series architecture.

This partnership may not give Apple as much control, but it does give them a partner with a large, already loyal, base. Where they would have to build a customer base through Vizio, that legwork will aready be done with Sony.

The Reality

Do I really think any of this will happen? No, I don’t. Apple is not one for partnerships like this. The last one I can even think of is the abysmal Motorola Rockr, an experience that I’m sure left Apple executives with a bad tase. I do believe licensing tvOS — a platform that already embraces the unique needs and limitations of televisions — would be far more successful than shoehorning some iTunes functionality into a flip phone.

The likliest case is that Apple will just update the box called Apple TV. If they ever move into the market for actual sets, they’ll almost certainly go it alone. If they do, I’m sure they’ll be fine. After all, they have a habit of successfully moving into established spaces. They just need to feel they have a game changer. In the case of the iPod, it was iTunes and ease-of-use. The iPhone put a multi-touch computer in your pocket. Apple Watch made wellness tracking mainstream. If Apple is going to “walk in” to the TV market, they will have something to set themselves apart from the pack. 

Comparing Apples to Lemons

Windows 10 is a visually striking operating system. It’s bold; it’s colorful; and it has a strong support for modern and legacy applications. It highlights one of the weaker parts of the Mac ecosystem. There is simply not the backwards compatibility in the world of Apple that there is in Microsoft’s environment. I can’t just grab a copy of Diablo for the Mac off my shelf and start playing, but I can with a modern PC. However, that legacy also comes with baggage, and that baggage can lead to performance issues in less powerful PCs. My current Asus is an example of just that.

When I first wrote about the Asus, I noted that I was surprised it was running similar specs to my wife’s 2011 MacBook Air.

Here are the basic specs of each:

  • MacBook Air 2011: 1.8 GHz Intel Core i7 “Sandy Bridge” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 memory, 256 GB SSD.
  • Asus X551M 2015: 1.86 Intel Celeron “Bay Trail” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 memory, 500 GB HDD.

The only advantage our Mac has in terms of raw specs is its SSD (well, also a better display, backlit keyboard, better wireless connectivity, and better battery life; but I digress). In the other areas that matter, the Asus wins on paper. It has a slightly faster and more modern processor, and it has faster memory. However, in day-to-day use, the Asus feels so much slower. So I decided to put it to the test.

The Test

I performed some very basic tasks on both machines and timed them. We’re not talking batching Photoshop filters here or anything. This is all simple stuff you are likely to do every day.

Start Up

For this test, both machines started fully powered down. I stopped the timer when I could click on something and it responded. On Windows, it was the Start Menu; on the Mac it was the Finder icon in the Dock.

  • Asus – 1:15
  • MacBook Air – 0:43

Launch Firefox

Here, I simply clicked on the Firefox icon — from the Start Menu for the PC and from Launchpad for the Mac. I stopped the timer when the homepage was done loading.

  • Asus – 0:29
  • MacBook Air – 0:03

Copy and Paste

I copied my iCloud documents directory to the desktop of each. Both were synced and only copying local data. The size of the folder was 1.85 GB.

  • Asus – 7:34
  • MacBook Air – 1:08

Empty Trash

I made sure the Trash Can (Mac) and Recycle Bin (Windows) were already empty. I moved the same directory as above into each and then prompted the OS to empty trash/recycling.

  • Asus – 0:25
  • MacBook Air – 0:05

Shut Down

I started timing as soon as I hit the shut down command and stopped timing when the computer stopped making any noise.

  • Asus – 0:31
  • MacBook Air – 0:12

Geekbench Browser

These are just the raw numbers from the Geekbench web app. Larger numbers are better.

  • Asus
    • Single Core: 949
    • Multi-Core: 3101
  • MacBook Air
    • Single Core: 2505
    • Multi-Core: 4564

Conclusion

If the hardware specs are nearly identical, then the differentiating factor has to be the software (as well as the SSD in the Mac). This is Apple’s advantage to me, and it’s why any comparison between machines that does not take the operating system into account is incomplete. Simply put, on similar hardware, macOS performs better than Windows. A more modest Mac may feel quicker than a more impressively-specced PC. Yes, you can get more PC for the same price as a Mac, but you know what? You’re going to need it.

It’s also why a Mac tends to have a longer life than a comparable PC. I’ve owned three Mac laptops since the year 2000. My PowerBook G3 lasted seven years before biting the dust. I replaced that with a MacBook Pro that lasted a modest four years. (It was taken out of commission by a toddler.) This MacBook Air I’m typing on has lasted six years, and it’s still going strong. As for the 2015 Asus? I don’t really want to turn it on again. I’ve given it a fair chance, both through Ubuntu and Windows, and the end result is that I’m ready to return to the Mac fold.

The Only Thing I Will Write About the Healthcare Bill (I Hope)

In May of 2002, I was wrapping up my first year of teaching. My wife and I were approaching our first anniversary. We were renting our first apartment. It was a year full of firsts. Little did we know the trial awaiting us. Little did we know the highs and lows waiting in that summer of 2002 nor the crippling blow this year would have on our financial futures. In May of 2002, I was diagnosed with cancer.

After the initial surgery and recovery, my treatments went well. I didn’t need chemotherapy. I was just scheduled a series of radiation treatments. It’s odd how time softens certain facts, for I don’t remember the precise number. However, I remember the side effects. When I pull into a certain parking garage near IU Health in downtown Indianapolis, I still start to feel sick. My side effects were bad.

In the midst of the radiation treatments and my near constant state of illness, the unthinkable happened. Our insurance through my job decided I didn’t need as many treatments as the doctors prescribed. They didn’t inform us of this until after the treatments were complete and the bills were coming in. What ensued was a multi-week uphill battle between ourselves and our insurance company, and the company won. We were stuck with around $30,000.00 in untouched medical bills.

We then did something foolish. I’ll admit that. We were ignorant of the fact that we could arrange a no-interest payment plan through the hospital, and we panicked. We were overdue and being referred to a collection agency. Our checking and saving accounts combined maybe added up to $1,000. So we charged it. We put the entire amount on a credit card. It was the wrong thing to do, but we were young and didn’t know what else to do. A sizable piece of that debt is still with us to this day. Fifteen years later, it’s the single biggest obstacle between us and being able to plan for a secure financial future.

The Affordable Care Act was meant to protect people like me from having something like this ever happen again. It was not perfect; no one contests that. But instead of trying to improve on a foundation built around consumer protection, our current administration and majority party wish to roll back these protections. They can say catch phrases about paying for someone else’s healthcare all they want, but that was never what the ACA was about. It was about making sure all had access to reasonable healthcare and that corporations could not put their own interests ahead of the lives and well-being of the American citizens who rely on their coverage.

Here are some points from the proposed American Health Care Act (AHCA):

  • The Medicaid expansion is being phased out. This will be devastating to low-income individuals and families above the poverty line. (My income when I was a first year teacher was only a couple thousand dollars above the poverty line for families.)
  • The new bill makes it easier for states to remove individuals and families from state Medicaid programs or raise premiums for children.
  • Tax credits would now be figured by age rather than income. A young man making $60,000 a year will get a bigger credit than a senior living on a fixed income of $35,000 a year. AHCA financially favors the young and wealthy over older and lower-income individuals. Those who are at the highest risk are put into a more precarious position.
  • AHCA allows price discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, such as cancer like I had. Other pre-existing conditions include things like having been sexually assaulted and having had a c-section. This alone will put millions at risk of being unable to afford insurance, and to be honest: It takes a special type of cruelty to charge a woman more for insurance for having been violated.
  • It allows states to opt out of requiring insurance companies to cover ACA’s core 10:
    • Ambulatory patient services
    • Emergency services
    • Hospitalization
    • Pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care
    • Mental health and substance use disorder services
    • Prescription drugs
    • Rehabilitative services and devices
    • Lab services
    • Preventive care, wellness services, and chronic disease management
    • Pediatric services
  • It will allow multi-state corporations to abide by the most-lenient rules of the states they operate in and allows employee plans to remove catastrophic coverage provisions.

In short, AHCA could result in millions of Americans losing access to healthcare. Before ACA, my wife and I managed to keep our heads above water despite a catastrophic health situation. Not all people will be so fortunate. This is a potentially devastating piece of legislation, and the true tragedy is that many of those who voted for our current administration will likely be the hardest hit.

I don’t want anyone to face the choices my family did. What’s going on right now is not about fiscal conservatism. It is about moral bankruptcy.

Asus Impressions

Not long after I set about to revive this blog, I found myself largely without a computer. This is a rather tenuous position to be in when you want to write for your site. Sure, my iPhone is a capable computing device, but I would never want to type anything longer than a tweet on it. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to pick up an Asus X Series notebook from a family member. I haven’t owned a Windows machine since the 90s, but I was willing to give it a chance, especially after a couple of product updates from Apple that have felt a bit underwhelming.

So how does this two-year-old Asus stand up to the MacBook Air I’d had for six years? The short version is: not well. If you want the long version, keep reading.

The Screen

image showing a reflective screen

The screen is the first thing you likely notice about a new computer, and it’s where your eyes will spend the most time. It’s important to get the screen right, and I’m sorry to say this laptop doesn’t. On a positive note, I will say that colors are quite bright. As Windows 10 is a colorful operating system, this leads to a positive initial impression. That impression unfortunately degrades after a couple of minutes.

It’s an odd thing that the screen is both larger and smaller than that on my old MacBook Air. It is physically larger at 15.6 inches compared to the 13.3-inch screen on my Air. However, where the Air has a resolution of 1440 x 900, the Asus sits at 1366 x 768. The overall effect is that the screen appears more spacious while offering a smaller actual canvas. Also, since it’s bigger, the lower resolution is more noticeable because the pixels are bigger.

image illustrating the resolution differences between the Asus X Series and the MacBook Air
The lighter area represents the MacBook’s resolution. The darker area is the Asus.

The Asus also has perhaps one of the most reflective screens I’ve used. I can clearly see myself in the monitor at anything but the very brightest setting, and any applications, images, videos, or websites that feature predominately dark colors add to the problem. This makes focusing on the screen content a bit of a strain as my eyes keep trying to focus instead on the clear reflections.

The Keyboard & Trackpad

a closeup of the Asus keyboard and trackpad

The keyboard is perhaps my favorite thing about the device, if only because it has a number pad. I cannot understand why Apple has deprecated the number pad to the point where they don’t sell a singe product that has one by default. (When purchasing an iMac or Mac Pro, you can swap the default wireless keyboard for a wired one with a number pad at no additional charge.) I love having a number pad back.

Beyond that, the lack of backlight on the keyboard is a hassle. Almost every Apple laptop has shipped with a lit keyboard since around 2009, so it feels like a trip back to the past.I don’t type in the dark that often, but I definitly miss that backlight when I do. Still, the actual typing action feels almost comparable to my MacBook Air. It just sounds a bit hollow, and the travel is farther than I would ideally like it to be. Saying the keboard is my favorite part of the computer is unfortunately faint praise.

Where the keyboard is decent, the trackpad is at the other end of the spectrum. Its palm and accidental touch rejection is so bad as to make it practically useless. Clicking and dragging anything is a particular hassle as it seems to have a hard time distinguishing between using one finger to hold and another to drag as opposed to tapping with both to simulate a right-click. Furthermore, for some inexplicable reason, clicking and dragging will sometimes cause the operating system to begin rapid-switching between applications. It’s just a mess, and I now understand why I see so many PC people carrying a mouse with their laptop.

(As an aside, I’ve been using a Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse in place of the trackpad, and it’s very nice.)

Performance

In a word, the performance is lousy. Here are the basic specs lined up against my six-year-old MacBook Air:

  • MacBook Air 2011: 1.8 GHz Intel Core i7 “Sandy Bridge” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 memory, 256 GB SSD.
  • Asus X551M 2015: 1.86 Intel Celeron “Bay Trail” 64-bit processor, 4 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 memory, 500 GB HDD.

At the worst, this laptop’s performance should be equivalent to a MacBook three times its age, but it’s not. I don’t have any measurable benchmarks for you, but I do have this: the computer has a hard time keeping up with my typing. Scrolling through common websites like Facebook and YouTube is a chore. And I’m yet to successfully do any meaningful design work on it. I log in to my wife’s MacBook for that.

Then there’s the battery. It lasts long enough when the computer is asleep, but two hours of writing in the WordPress web app will nearly deplete the battery. I haven’t kept a laptop plugged in this much since my PowerBook G3’s battery gave up (after seven years of heavy use). The battery life easily doubles if I stay offline, but that’s far from a realistic expectation.

Connectivity

 

asus-04

I mentioned earlier that I’m using a Bluetooth Microsoft mouse to avoid the trackpad. However, I wasn’t using it at first because I had to go buy a Bluetooth adapter. As far as I can tell, Bluetooth has been standard on Macs since roughly 2003. This Asus from 2015 doesn’t have it. So there’s that.

WiFi is spotty. Often it shows half the signal strength of my iPhone or my wife’s MacBook. The laptop seldom reconnects to known networks when returning from someplace with no signal. I find myself restarting the computer near daily just to get it to recognize that a known network exists.

The selection of ports is decent. It has 2 USB ports, an HDMI port, and a VGA port. There’s also an Ethernet port and an optical drive. The latter is especially noticeable since I haven’t had an optical drive in years, and I keep resting my hand on the Eject button when I carry the laptop. Of the available ports, I do prefer HDMI over the MacBook’s Thunderbolt. Other than USB, I feel ambivalent toward the other ports. In fact, they seem almost anachronistic.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I miss my Mac. Sure, Apple has arguably made some missteps of late. Even the newest MacBook Pros have some concessions. However, Apple has an advantage no Windows OEM has — a tight integration between hardware and software. Where Microsoft’s software has to be compatible with a great variety of hardware from numerous manufacturers, Apple has a tight control over the components used in their products. This leads to greater optimization and the ability to squeeze more performance out of their selected hardware.

The other consideration is that there is really no such thing as a bargain basement Mac. This is obviously a laptop designed for price rather than quality or performance. That describes the majority of Windows-compatible devices out there. Apple doesn’t compete in that space. Sure, there’s the Mac mini and the MacBook Air, but those are still on the expensive side compared to the low-end Windows PC market. If it’s the difference between a computer I can rely on for years, however, and a machine that feels dated and clunky out of the box, I’d rather spend more and get a Mac.

Postscript: Windows 10

I haven’t addressed Windows 10 very much in this post, and that’s for a very simple reason. I’m not using it anymore. I installed Ubuntu after a couple of days, and I have to admit that performance has improved dramatically. The trackpad is still bad, and the battery life is still abysmal. It can, however, keep up with my typing now, so that’s something. I’ll be following up with impressions of Ubunu in the future.

Not long after my last post, my wife started a new business (which I’ll share more about later), and she basically took over my MacBook as her business computer. Consequently, I’ve been without consistent access to a computer with a physical keyboard since then. My iPhone has been my main device, which is fine and dandy for a multitude of tasks. Writing is not one of them.

Fortunately, I’ve recently acquired a laptop to hold me over for a while. I hope to be able to get back to some writing here now that my keyboard drought has ended.

A New Beginning

image of a Macbook

I started blogging close to 15 years ago now. At first, I was using an application called RapidWeaver to publish to my .Mac account. After a while, that became unsustainable. A few years in, it looked like Apple was going to stop hosting personal sites (which they did). Also, RapidWeaver had to upload my whole site every time I wrote a new post. I doubt it still functions that way, but, at the time, it was making adding new content a cumbersome and slow process. It was time for a change.

In 2009, I moved my writing to WordPress, and there it’s lived ever since. Over the years, I’ve written about a lot of different things — some more thoughtfully than others. I’ve even written a few things that I don’t really want to represent me anymore. Additionally, I’ve learned a lot about good web practices and accessibility since those early days. With the amount of remediation I wanted to do, I was feeling paralyzed. I simply stopped writing because the thought of fixing my site was too overwhelming. It was time for another change.

So I’m starting fresh. I’ve archived every post. While working on new content, I’ll also be going through the old. I’ll be restoring some of my past posts while leaving others behind. Hopefully, this new beginning will motivate me to get writing again, and I hope my writing manages to connect with you in some helpful, entertaining, or meaningful way.

featured image by Seth Schwiet

 

2006 School DVD Postmortem

May is the long dark tea time of the soul around here, resulting in the site pretty much going dormant for a month. Well, that is all over, and it’s time to write about the DVD created for this year’s fifth grade completion ceremony.

The Process

Just like last year, no souls were tortured with Microsoft products throughout the duration of this project. Well, that’s not quite true. I tried to burn a photo CD at work, but the computer kept crashing mid-burn. I still think the paltry 256 MB of memory on those things is the root of all evil.

  • All photographs of teachers and children were dumped into iPhoto where they were organized and enhanced. This year’s school album contained over 600 images at one point.
  • The slideshow was assembled in Keynote and exported as a QuickTime file.
  • All music was handled by Sibelius 3.
  • The children were recorded using Audio Hijack and organized in iTunes.
  • Everything got put together in iMovie.
  • iDVD finished everything up.

The Good

iPhoto never missed a beat, and the new editing features (coupled with Keynote 3’s image enhancement options) allowed me to entirely remove Photoshop Elements from my workflow. Furthermore, with all of my media being stored in iPhoto and iTunes, nothing was more than a click or two away thanks to the Media Browser. Have I ever mentioned that I love Keynote?

Sibelius 3 worked very smoothly this time around. Christine’s emotional melodies once again provided great inspiration, and I was able to create more original content to compliment her material.

iMovie HD was great to work in, and it was this year’s project-saver. (More on that later.) Finally, iDVD was as simple and intuitive as ever. The Drop Zones Editor was a great addition to the interface of that product.

The Scary

iDVD (surprise) did cause one scary moment when it repeatedly crashed while encoding audio. Fortunately, I went back to iMovie and saved the whole package as a self-contained QuickTime file. With that done, iDVD had no problem burning the final DVD.

Life Lessons

Again, I allowed things to get rushed because I wanted to include some school functions that were just a couple of days before the completion ceremony. Consequently, I couldn’t finish up the music until I knew for sure how long the slides were going to last, and I allowed myself no time to account for major glitches like the one I experienced. Because of this, I had no copies of the DVD at the completion ceremony, and I had to take orders instead.

Furthermore, music composition became a frenzied process at the end, and the music did not quite match the visuals. There is one particularly apparent moment of awkward silence where I ran out of music. Fortunately, I was able to correct this for the DVDs that parents will be receiving.

The moral of the story? I need to set a date I want everything compiled by so I can enter into the duplication process with less time pressure. The final step is always where things go wrong. As a result, this is where I need to allow myself the most time. Anything that falls after that date will just not be included in the DVD.

The Conclusion of the Matter

Overall, the DVD went well. There was one major snag, but it was easily resolved. Time is my biggest enemy every year, and I just need to realize that I do have control over that variable. I was my own worst obstacle when it came to time, so that’s something I can learn to work around.

Product Links

  • Apple iLife – includes iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD, GarageBand, and iWeb.
  • Apple iWork – includes Keynote 3 and Pages 2.
  • Sibelius – great composition software. It’s now up to version 4.
  • Audio Hijack Pro – nice little recording app.