Apple Services Event March 2019 Notes

Sesame

Apple opened yesterday’s event at the Steve Jobs theater in Cupertino with a 1960’s-style movie credits animation that paid homage to previously successful products their people have created. The iPod, the iPhone, the Mac, all great things but an odd thing to reference for an all-services event. 

Tim Cook came on stage to introduce the notion of services as a third pillar of Apple’s work, alongside the software and hardware. He referenced many of the services Apple provides today, like their podcast directory, and photo storage with sync.

Apple News+

Cook talked about Apple’s News app and said that it is the #1 news app due to Apple having over 5 billion articles read by readers each month. It isn’t immediately clear if there are other benchmarks available to compare, and no chart was displayed on-stage for this claim.

After a video about how important written and photographic journalism is, Cook introduced VP of Applications Roger Rosner to talk about their subscription service for news and magazines. Rosner said their subscription would cover over 300 magazines. Last year, Apple acquired a digital magazine subscription service called Texture, at the time Apple boasted that Texture had over 200 magazines.

Rosner introduced Wyatt Mitchell, Apple’s Director of Design for Applications, who has worked at numerous magazines in the past, to demo News+. Mitchell introduced a redesigned News app and an issue of National Geographic inside it, with a video cover surrounded by the traditional yellow border.

Mitchell also showed the new News+ tab in the redesigned News app, and talked about how the app would automatically download recent issues so you have them available offline, demonstrated some of the other navigation features, and went back up the stack by handing off back to Rosner. If you don’t sign up, your News app is now less useful and has a tab you don’t want.

Rosner said News+ include subscriptions to various online news sites and papers like the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Rosner highlighted that Apple doesn’t know what you read, by making recommendations on-device instead of on their servers, and doesn’t allow tracking from advertisers in the News app. Essentially a shot at what the websites for these magazines and newspapers have had to give up to to advertisers in order to keep paying their executives and investors.

Rosner said there has never been a service like this before, which is extremely suspect given that Apple acquired the magazine portion of this service, which already existed. Rosner then continued to talk about how these magazine and newspaper subscriptions would normally cost a ridiculous amount of money each year if you were to subscribe to each individually, in order to provide context for the final price of $10 per month. Family sharing members get access without an additional fee, Apple’s Apple Music streaming music service is $15/month for families or $10 for individuals, as an example.

News+ is available in yesterday’s macOS (10.14.4) and iOS (12.2) updates.

Apple’s News app has been notoriously unavailable in Canada, and will now finally be available there in French and English alongside Canadien newspaper, The Star. News+ hits Australia and the UK this Fall.

Apple Pay & Apple’s Credit Card

Cook took things back to talk about growing Apple Pay statistics, and mention that Portland (Oregon) would be getting transit passes through the Wallet app alongside New York City and Chicago. This has been available in some other places like Japan for some time.

Cook talked about their perceived problems (ease of application, privacy, etc) with credit cards and introduced VP of Apple Pay Jennifer Bailey to talk about their Apple Card credit card through Goldman Sachs and Mastercard.

Bailey demonstrated how the Wallet app would show charts to help people understand their spending, and how people could text Apple to handle issues with the card like changing an address. I’m not sure why we need to text to handle something that could be done via a user interface experience, but it’s more likely that Apple just wanted something easy to demonstrate that wasn’t fraught with the usual anxiety around a stolen card or other issues.

Bailey promised that Apple had used machine learning to change the transaction logs and statement to make them easier to understand, and would associate the useless info we usually get on a statement into the name of an actual business. As an example, they used an animation to transform an address from a line on a normal statement into a named 7-11 location.

Bailey moved on to talking about rewards programs, and how hard typical credit cards make it to understand the value of their points. Bailey said that Apple’s rewards (called Daily Cash) are given to you directly as cash sent to your Apple Pay Cash account each day, which is a different tool that is already in the Wallet app. The Apple Pay Cash competes with similar digital debit cards from Square and other companies. The Apple Card credit rewards would be given back to you as 2% of the purchase amount whenever you use Apple Pay. Retail and digital purchases at Apple stores or through Apple’s services would get 3% cash back.

Most credit rewards programs are given after a new statement, so a daily payout could be better, but I imagine the credit card companies feel the pennies they give back to their customers are more impressive when it’s 20 bucks at the end of the billing cycle instead of 16 cents the next morning.

Usurious interest rates and statements “designed to keep you paying the minimum each month” was the next topic from Bailey. She demonstrated the UX for paying off Apple’s credit card that she claimed would help people understand how much interest they would accrue if they only paid a minimum amount.

Bailey promised that the Apple credit card would have “no fees” for late payment, annual fees, international fees, or fees for going over your limit, and it would have “lower interest rates” without penalty rates.

Security and privacy were the final subjects, Bailey said that Apple wouldn’t know what you bought, where you bought it, or how much you paid for it, and promised that the graphs and other information were all rendered on the device. Goldman Sachs and Mastercard presumably would have to know these things, of course, but Bailey promised that they (the bank and credit card middleman) would not share this data with third parties.

A very short video showed how Apple created the physical card for non-Apple Pay transactions. It’s made out of titanium and has no visible number, CVV, expiration, or signature, only your name and branding from the companies involved. Hiding the numbers on the front and back is probably not that useful. They’re all in the magnetic stripe and unless the stripe can change dynamically, there won’t be much of a benefit to people using the card. As frustrating as it can be to have a credit card stolen, it’ll probably be more frustrating to open the Wallet app to get the digits each time you need them for any online transaction that doesn’t take Apple Pay.

The physical card only gives 1% cash back, and presumably the magstripe isn’t updated like the one in the digital wallet so you’ll always have the same number and limited security on the physical card.

The Apple Card credit card will be available this summer.

Apple Arcade

Cook returned to introduce Ann Thai, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Apple’s App Store to talk about games, the positive culture around them, and Apple’s commitment to them before introducing their Apple Arcade game subscription service.

Thai introduced a video that has designers and developers talking about their games. Beyond A Steel Sky, Where Cards Fall, Sakaguchi with Fantasian, Lifelike, Bekah Saltsman with Overland. Thai returned to talk about the Arcade subscription that she says includes over a hundred games that are mobile exclusive (presumably that means phones and tablets, and not precluding versions for the Nintendo Switch). “We’ll be adding new games all the time.” makes me wonder if games be removed all the time, too.

Thai says that the subscription will be found in a new app store tab and on the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Mac computers and the games will have cloud saves so you be more seamlessly able to swap devices. Pour one out for Game Center. 

As a poke at Google’s recently announced game streaming service, Thai mentioned that these games would be playable offline. No features or content would be excluded behind in-app purchases (IAP) and there would be no advertisements in the games.

Thai said that Apple wouldn’t share your info with the companies making the games, and that this subscription would also have no additional charge for family sharing before introducing a montage video featuring more games that would be on the service.

Apple Arcade launches this fall, no price was given yet.

Apple TV Channels Subscriptions

Cook took the stage again to talk about Apple’s plans for TV. Peter Stern was introduced to talk about the redesigned Apple TV app on their devices and the integration of various third-party live and on-demand streaming TV bundles under the new marketing umbrella of Apple TV Channels.

The “Apple Channels” subscriptions look like you just have access to the smaller name subscription services that you typically would go to a third party app for. Not Amazon Prime Video or Netflix, but HBO, Starz, Showtime, CBS All Access, and so on. They’ll probably be the same price, just embedded inside the Apple TV app so you don’t have to leave that app.

Cindy Lin was introduced by Stern to do the app demo. Lin accidentally scrolled down instead of over because the Apple TV remote is a beautiful piece of shit that Apple hasn’t done anything to fix in years.

It looks like this app has the same problem as Netflix, trailers that autoplay when you scroll onto the page for a show. I hate that part of Netflix, the last thing I want to have happen when my kid is in the room or when I’m idly browsing through shows or movies is to have anything autoplay a trailer for an inappropriate, and loud, show.

Stern returned to tell us that the new Apple TV app is out this May, the app is also coming out this Fall for macOS. It’ll also be on Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio televisions as well as Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV devices that hook up to your television.

It isn’t clear yet if those television makers are skimming what you watch when you use the Apple TV app on their TVs as they do for everything else you watch. It can probably be assumed that they do, and they can already do that if you hook an Apple TV box up to an HDMI port. Any contract they have with Apple might prevent it for both scenarios or none.

Apple TV+

Cook introduced us to Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht to talk about Apple’s plans for original video programming under the banner of Apple TV+. I am not sure how much I buy their compassion for stories that they’re telling us so much about. They introduced a video from various directors and actors talking about their work. Steven Spielberg started it out, and then showed up on stage to talk about how he got started and introduce a show based on Amazing Stories, the elder statesman of long-running science fiction magazines at over 90 years.

After talking about the idea for a TV show for a bit, and not showing any footage, Spielberg disappeared when some stage lights went down and he was replaced by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon to announce their TV show called “The Morning Show.” It’s a comedy about a morning show.

Steve Carell joined them onstage to have more relatable celebrity banter about how funny they are.

The stage blackout ate another cast and replaced those three celebrities with two others, Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and Alfre Woodard (Mariah Stokes/Dillard in Luke Cage on Netflix) introduced their show, See, about a planet where nobody can see and everybody is blind.

Kumail Nanjiani appeared after the next blackout to tell us about his show, Little America, about different stories of immigrants in the US before the blackout consumed him.

Big Bird of Sesame Street came by the darkest place he’s ever been, an Apple stage with another Jim Henson style muppet to announce a show called Helpsters that teaches coding.

J.J. Abrams appeared after the blackout with Sara Bareilles to talk about their show called Little Voice. Bareilles then sat at a piano and performed the title song for the show. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her perform but she is obviously extremely talented.

Finally, this too-long bit wrapped up with a promise of the “highest quality storytelling” and a montage video that actually had footage from some of these shows.

Apple TV+ is promised for this Fall. No price announced, and no ad tier bullshit, at least.

Tim Cook returned to introduce Oprah Winfrey as the “one more thing,” who talked about her shows for the platform.

Overall

I have no interest in any of the shows Apple is putting forward, because we don’t really know anything about them. They could be good, but no critics have seen them yet. We’re not supposed to make fun of Planet of the Apps anymore, but it was complete garbage even if it was created by other people who aren’t working on Apple’s TV programs anymore. I have a little bit more hope that these programs could be good, but only a little.

News+ is probably fine, but it isn’t clear how much of those top papers you’re getting, and how much of that will just be magazines that aren’t that informative or useful. It could be useful if there were local newspapers involved, but only a handful of big papers are integrating with News+. It isn’t clear yet if the subscription could be good for smaller papers or a weight to drag them down.

The Arcade subscription could be a good deal for players and developers to get us out of the rut mobile gaming is in where too many good games are ruined by the free-to-play business model or buried with ads. Can you even get a match-3 game on iOS without an energy mechanic or some other garbage hidden behind consumable IAP? Apple made the mess, is profiting from it, and does too little to stop it. The subscription might not be the worst thing, I hope the games that come out of it are eventually available for purchase separately, especially on platforms that have a better possibility for archival.

I don’t like how rent-seeking Apple has been and continues to be. The credit card is perhaps the worst example of that. The card could be better than most others, it’s difficult to be worse, but watching Apple’s executives onstage with literal dollar signs behind them is not a good look and they were correctly roasted online for it.

If you let them, Apple will provide you with every kind of media you consume to the exclusion of all others. Apple’s executives want us to pay them $1500 for an iPhone on an installment plan, use the Apple credit card to pay them rent for our photo and video storage (which is still limited to 5GB a month on the free tier), listen to music, watch TV, enjoy movies and play games through their subscription services. The only allowable criticism and journalism is read through Apple News and Apple’s internal editorial teams vacuum up talented journalists who go without any kind of byline when their writing appears in Apple’s App Stores and elsewhere.

 

Apple is already doing everything they can to run affiliate linking editorial out of town on a rail, and almost took Touch Arcade with them.

I miss the days where Apple was focused on products and services in their wheelhouse instead of this rush to expand into every possible business to continue their never-ending quest for increased growth. These new services probably aren’t taking personnel from those products, but they’re clearly taking executive focus. Today’s Apple can’t even ship a laptop keyboard that works.

Author: Jack Slater

A Philadelphian living in Hawaii. You can follow or contact me on Twitter where I'm @TimeDoctor, via the contact page, or via e-mail to zjs@zacharyjackslater.com. Find out more about Nuclear Monster here.

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