The high price of Apple

Although I’m not the kind of tech journo that blindly cheerleads for Apple no matter what, I do very much like a lot of what the company does. To that end, its events are usually times when I enthuse about new products. I may snark and gripe about specifics, but my mood is mostly positive.

Yesterday was an exception. I can’t remember the last Apple event where I came away actually quite annoyed, but there it was. In part, this was down to a lack of density in the keynote itself. Apple took nearly an hour and a half to announce a new accessibility website (which got only a couple of minutes), a new Apple TV app (only available in the USA), and a new notebook.

But mostly it’s about the money. The inference was Apple’s new MacBook Pro broadly replaces the MacBook Air, and yet the former is considerably more expensive. The new MacBook Pro – impressive though it is – also happens to be spendy for even professional users. And then if you’re British, Apple had another sting in the tail waiting for you.

People complained (and still complain) about the new MacBook Pro prices being a straight US Dollar to Sterling conversion. That’s not actually true. US prices are listed without tax. The UK’s have 20 per cent VAT added on. With Sterling bobbling around the low $1.20s, Apple’s UK pricing on new MacBooks is actually a little less than what you might expect – to the tune of about forty quid when I did the calculations last night. (Of course, given Brexit, a pound might by the time you read this be worth about eleven cents.)

What irked more was discovering Apple had quietly upped the pricing of its entire range of Macs in the UK, despite them not being updated. So not only do we get no new iMacs, MacPros and Mac minis but models cost about 20 per cent more than they did prior to the Apple Event.

Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I don’t recall Apple doing this before in the UK. And I certainly don’t recall Apple doing the opposite during those times when Sterling rapidly rose in value (Please comment if so, and I will update this article.) On new units, rebalancing seems fair enough. These things happen (as Brits buying iPhones discovered with each tier being £80 high than 2015’s offerings). But it seems a bit rich to whack up the price of an iMac by three hundred quid, when the tech inside it is a year old.

What concerns me about all this is that my reaction isn’t nearly unique. I’m seeing a worrying number of industry professionals and home users starting to look elsewhere. Creatives were wowed by Microsoft’s new desktop/touchscreen system, and look at the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar less favourably. Moreover, everyone’s looking at the pricing, eyes darting across to broadly equivalent PCs, and thinking it feels an awful lot like the 1990s again.

Of course, this isn’t entirely down to Apple. Brexit has knackered Sterling’s value, and it’s now one of the worst-performing currencies in the world. Even so, Apple hiking prices of existing kit in the UK isn’t going to win it any new friends – and could lose it a number of old ones.

November 9, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Opinions

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No, I will not be quiet – I can support more than one thing at once, thanks

On Twitter today, a person I admire had a go at someone for supporting Let Toys Be Toys. The reason, seemingly: there are more important things to support.

This is a response I’ve had to my own writing at times, on various subjects, or my public support for certain campaigns. I occasionally write about accessibility in software, such as motion sickness triggers. This writing is sometimes dismissed by people who say I should be writing about actual horrors in the world, like war and famine. (And, no, I’m not kidding.) But I am not a journalist that covers war. I write about what I know. And these smaller things are nonetheless important to many. I don’t know how much influence my articles and feedback had on Apple when iOS 7 was making people sick, but we do now have an OS that is far less likely to make people ill. Did that fix inequality across the entire planet? Of course not, but I still see it as a net win.

Similarly, I fully support the Let Toys Be Toys campaign. I’ve done so since I first heard about its aim to stop limiting children’s interests, due to marketing’s tendency to promote certain toys as specifically ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’. My support does not mean I don’t want to see greater women’s rights and equality elsewhere. It means I see societal links. When toys are telling young girls to be quiet, pretty, love only pink, and so on, and boys to be noisy, violent, loud, that’s a fucking problem. When advertising almost never has boys and girls playing together, and even board games are gendered, that’s a fucking problem. (I’ve seen pink plastic Jenga ‘for girls’, with ‘gossip suggestions’ on the tiles, and a pink mall Monopoly, because god forbid girls buy property.)

We have room for more than one thing in our heads. And dismissing the likes of Let Toys Be Toys is indicative that someone does not see that overly gendered marketing is indicative of a larger problem that’s endemic in society. Yet we see companies directing girls away from certain kinds of activities, but they somehow act all surprised when there are shortfalls in the number of women active in certain areas of society.

That’s not to say there’s a direct link, but it would be naive to think there’s no link at all. Besides, it’s abhorrent to suggest girls should just sit quietly in a corner and like only pink (and equally to assign certain behaviours to boys). Let kids be kids. Let toys be toys. And let those who want to support something that you don’t see as the most important thing in the world do so without ridiculing them.

October 27, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Politics

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More DRM madness as Sainsbury’s exits ebook market

Earlier this year, I wrote about Nook going splat, and libraries being transferred to Sainsbury’s. I said it highlighted how digital books are more akin to rental, and that DRM is pretty awful for anyone who actually wants to own copies of virtual media.

Brilliantly, Sainsbury’s is now quitting the market, and Rakuten Kobo is apparently going to enable customers “the opportunity to transfer their eBook libraries to Kobo’s eReading service”. The press release I received just now adds people will “be able to cherish the books they currently have for years to come”. I won’t hold my breath on that.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, this does mean customers being bounced around will have to use Kobo apps or hardware until such point that Rakuten Kobo also gives up and some other company grabs the library, like a frenzied mash-up of a librarian, venture capitalist and vulture.

September 20, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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Thoughts on Brexit

I was going to write a series of articles on the UK referendum, but as both sides belch ludicrous statements and the UK reveals itself to be significantly more xenophobic than I’d ever feared, I can’t stomach writing more than one.

If nothing else, this referendum has split the nation on what it means to be ‘British’. At one extreme are people who seem to think you’re a traitor for accepting the notion of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. At the other, people warn of a breakdown of the entire continent as the result of the UK leaving the EU.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows I am firmly in the Remain camp, despite my distaste at the way Cameron has conducted his campaign. Here’s a grab-bag of thoughts and proto-articles I was inning, which helped me inform my decision.


Anti-German sentiment is becoming commonplace. This seems deep-rooted in the British psyche. Some people in our country apparently will never come to terms with peacetime. This manifests in outright xenophobia, but also a distrust about the Germans ‘taking over’ the EU. In reality, the Germans would probably like nothing more than for the UK to take a much more active role. Instead, we elect MEPs who specifically try to disrupt and harm rather than make things better.


Racism and xenophobia have become cornerstones of this debate, sometimes hidden under the guise of ‘immigration’ and ‘strains on public services’. Mostly, there’s a depressingly English mentality of ‘things would be better without all those FOREIGNS, messing everything up’. It’s repugnant and demonstrably false; moreover, if people want someone to blame for the country’s ills, perhaps they should look first to the government, what it chooses to fund, and who it chooses to tax.


Survival is a word I’ve heard frequently. “Don’t you think the UK can survive outside of the EU?” Of course it can, but that’s a bare minimum. I want my country to thrive. I’ve seen no arguments suggesting cutting ourselves off from the EU will achieve this.


Freedom of movement is something few British people consider, or they think it’s their God-given right, but that it shouldn’t be reciprocated. The UK complains about perceived problems, yet forgets the benefits, from skills gaps being filled through to the basic conveniences of Brits being able to move, study and live in any EEA country, without first having to secure employment. And many do — more Brits live overseas than the citizens of most other countries in or associated with the union.


Right to reside is something that appears to have been glossed over in this campaign. Despite lawyers screaming for months that the Vienna Convention is essentially meaningless when it comes to an individual’s residency rights, there is an assumption that Brits overseas and EEA nationals already in the UK will be able to stay indefinitely. (Boris Johnson has himself said this will be the case, but it’s hard to trust a man whose convictions are so flimsy, given that he was speaking and writing about the benefits of the EU not long before deciding to switch sides.) But what rights will these people have? And how will this be policed? Say someone from Italy rocks up at Gatwick. How will customs and immigration differentiate between someone with the right to reside and someone entering the country? At the very least, we can look forward to enjoying the introduction of a colossally expensive system (in terms of time and money) to administer this.


Facts are now irrelevant in the debate about the EU, and this is a criticism levelled at both sides. Leave drives round in a bus with outright fiction splashed across it, seems to have no understanding of the finite nature of money, and bangs on about Turkey joining the EU; Remain seems to think Brexit would mean the end of pensions and the beginnings of war. Remain comes off slightly better, if only because it has a tendency to source some of its arguments. But it’s deeply worrying that this could be the future for British politics — moving even deeper into Trump-style ‘repeat it enough and people will believe it’ garbage. As long as your surface argument is optimistic, it seems many people won’t dig deeper. Too often, Brexit feels like climate-change denial or anti-vaccination. That’s not a good place to be. (And if you think this hyperbole, The Sun’s front page earlier this week referred to Turkey being an issue that’s really hit home with voters, despite Turkey’s chances of joining the EU any time soon being nil.)


Experts are now irrelevant too, at least when it comes to the Leave. Gove has gleefully noted he’s on the opposite side of experts. Experts, apparently, are all under the command of puppet master David Cameron. So as UK scientists say Brexit will wreck the UK’s standing in the field, Leave says UK scientists don’t understand how science works in the UK. As the head of the NHS and countless staff fret about what Brexit means for the service, Leave says the people within the NHS have no idea about the NHS. And so on. It’s Michael Gove vs The Aliens on the big stage; and given that we already have a government big on opinion and often not interested in evidence, this is a bad and deeply worrying development.


The destruction of the Tories is a leftie argument I’ve seen for Brexit. The idea is the party is torn apart by infighting, resulting in a snap election and PM Corbyn by Christmas. This strikes me as insane. Conservatives will rapidly fall into line, because that’s what they do. And given that UK voters freaked out in 2015 about the prospect of Miliband’s Labour doing a deal with the SNP, I can’t see matters having changed significantly a year later. Corbyn or or more left-leaning Labour might have some kind of chance of an election victory in 2020, but Brexit won’t provide a shortcut.


EU grants and funding for UK cities are themes finally starting to make an appearance on social media. I’m seeing people from Liverpool and Manchester point out that it was EU money that revived their cities. The counter argument is this was money the UK paid into the EU coffers anyway, and so the UK could have funded these things itself. The counter to that is: would it? UK politics remains London-centric, and regeneration of communities elsewhere is not a priority.


Could and will are regularly being conflated. Both sides are using this kind of weasel language, most notably Leave’s suggestions of what it could do with ‘savings’ that come from leaving the EU. It could provide extra funding for the NHS. It could drop VAT on fuel. But the savings aren’t huge in the scheme of things (EU expenditure is, according to most figures, about one per cent), and Leave knows what will be done is little or nothing — hence the language being very careful. If Brexit wins, this will be the excuse later on. (Also, any notion people like Gove, Johnson, IDS and Farage give a hoot about the NHS or social justice is laughable. These people have all been gung-ho about eradicating such things. They are not on the side of people who wish the UK to retain them.)


The establishment is, we’re told, Remain. And this is to some extent true. Captains of industry, economists, and the vast majority of politicians are pro-Remain. But if you don’t think the likes of Boris Johnson are establishment, too, you’re delusional. He’s not a ‘typical bloke down the pub’. He’s a man who referred to a £250,000 income he received from his second salary as a columnist as “chicken feed”. When pressed, he said he was being “frivolous” and often gave to charity. The initial response, however, was telling. (And then you have people like Dyson, championed as being ‘for the UK people’ by plumping for Leave, despite moving manufacturing overseas. Similar figures arguing for Remain, though, are somehow ‘self serving’.)


On the subject of allies, it’s curious how aggressive Leave has been. Quitting the EU will anger the organisation. It remains to be seen to what level, but the response is always ‘we don’t need them’. So then the US President notes the USA wants the UK to remain in the EU, as do the leaders of many other allies. Always the response is we don’t need those countries, or that we won’t be bullied. Sooner or later, we’ll run out of countries to gripe about. (And, indeed, I’ve noted a recent Brexit argument being that the UK ‘doesn’t need anyone’. I’m not sure a North European North Korea ruled by Kim Jong-Johnson is the way forward, but there you go.)


Arrogance, hubris and division are what we’ve ended up with, and that stink will remain whatever the decision. It’s depressing that a country that has long been a hub and a melting pot thinks it’s above the world. Sure, the UK often punches above its weight as a medium-sized country, but it does so through building bridges, not erecting walls. To think we can continue by slamming the door in everyone’s face is astonishing. And that sense of division will continue for years, between those who want a progressive UK integrated into the EU and those who want the UK to go it alone.

I feel the latter group remembers a Britain that never was (a point made by AA Gill). They forget that before EU entry, the UK was struggling, and it was in part the EU that enabled the UK to become the modern power it is today. They forget that once British people flocked to other countries, to the point a TV series was made about the phenomenon.

But it’s clear this view isn’t nearly ubiquitous and, if recent polling is to be believed, may not even be the majority. Like I’ve said, I have no reason to believe the UK won’t survive Brexit, but I do suspect a lot of people will be in for a nasty surprise if that’s the option chosen.

It’s hard to know what shape said surprise will take — be it major repercussions like the UK having to plump for a Norway-style deal, or relatively small niggles, such as the Daily Mail suddenly realising Brits no longer have the right to retire to Spain (which will presumably be blamed on the EU and not the UK’s decision to leave) — but I’ll be amazed if there isn’t a shock or series of shocks in some form.

It’s notable that Leave doesn’t really have any coherent vision of the future, merely hand-waving away concerns and saying everything will be all right because GOD SAVE THE QUEEN and CRICKET and RULE BRITANNIA! Yet even The Telegraph has noted investors are now pulling funds out of the UK at an alarming rate not seen since the banking crisis. The ‘value’ of the UK is rapidly falling on the possibility of Brexit. When Brexit actually happens, who knows how bad things will get?

Of course, by June 24 it’ll be too late to do anything about it. You can’t vote out Brexit in five years’ time.

June 16, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Politics

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App Store review guidelines

In light of Apple’s recent about-face on Liyla and the Shadows of War, it’s interesting to look at Apple’s App Store review guidelines. One of the statements is:

If your App is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.

The wording here is pure Jobs, but the thing that gets me is this statement is flat-out wrong. Most developers don’t have the contacts or a subject that results in a load of press. Generally, though, those who have ‘run to the press’ have found bizarre decisions Apple made about an app rapidly overturned. Perhaps the ‘and trash us’ bit is key. But certainly running to the press can help.

It’s also interesting looking at Apple’s other so-called ‘broader themes’:

We have lots of kids downloading lots of Apps. Parental controls work great to protect kids, but you have to do your part too. So know that we’re keeping an eye out for the kids.

This, I think, governs an awful lot of what Apple deems acceptable regarding app and game content, but the App Store has age gating. On that basis, I still find the following baffling:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App.

Clearly, Apple isn’t really budging much on this, but it makes no sense to consider interactive content somehow ‘lesser’ than books or music when it comes to self expression. I recall during my fine arts degree that it was innovative for people to be creating interactive art, but that was during the 1990s. Now, apps and games are just another medium for working within. Treating them with kid gloves helps no-one.

We have over a million Apps in the App Store. If your App doesn’t do something useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment, or if your app is plain creepy, it may not be accepted.

I actually like this one’s ‘plain creepy’ remark, although as ever with Apple, it’s almost like the vague language that politicians use, meaning you can apply all sorts of content to that rule if you want to kick out an app. As for ‘useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment’, plenty of apps in the store arguably fail that test.

If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.

This is the other rule that really gets me. Amateur hour is everywhere on the App Store. There are thousands of truly terrible apps and games that are devoid of quality. I suppose it’s still helpful for Apple to argue people should aim higher, but it strikes me this rule has never been seriously adhered to.

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

“We won’t tell you what the rules are and can change them whenever we see fit.” It’s this kind of thing that is slowly putting off developers from creating innovative content for iOS. And times are changing.

I recall chatting to a lot of game devs at an event five or six years ago, and without exception they were thrilled about the platform. As they saw it, Apple was a major step up from existing players, who too often made onerous demands on developers. There was a kind of hands-off freedom in developing for iOS. But goodwill continues to be chipped away as developers almost randomly find apps and games blocked for no obvious reason. (And then, worse, you see other apps of the same kind approved, and the original sometimes making its way to the store many months later, far too late to make an impact or any money.)

But hey, at least Apple points out your app could trigger a bout of craziness:

This is a living document, and new Apps presenting new questions may result in new rules at any time. Perhaps your App will trigger this.

‘Boom’.

 

May 23, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Apps, Opinions, Technology

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