The Apple CES Media Overlay and the leaked 12″ Macbook Air rumors

If it’s time for CES, there’s one thing seemingly guaranteed every year now, it’s that some kind of Apple News will come out, and as one media person I follow noted, “Suck the air out of CES”. Sometimes Apple’s released a product or issued a press release, but even when it doesn’t, people know it’s a good time for a rumor to come out and get played with. Some of this is simply that the media knows the public will pay attention to Apple news, even weird and obscure rumors — and I think some of media types that don’t go to CES use this as a way to meet their page view quotas against their colleagues who are in Las Vegas.

For whatever reason it happens, it seems that a whole bunch of companies spend a lot of money on CES to promote their products, and then at some point, some kind of Apple noise gets made and drowns out a lot of the fanfare being made in the Vegas Convention Center. I’ll bet that pisses off a lot of PR people in Vegas…

On the other hand, stop and ask yourself how many things were announced at CES last year that you now own. Or care about and want to own. Or even remember being announced. That’s the problem with CES: 95% of what goes on there are companies and products hoping desperately to be noticed, and in fact very little of what happens there has any real substance, so even weak Apple news can easily replace it — because even a weak signal will usually drown out what’s in reality background static and noise.

There are always a few things that come out of CES and become useful technologies or products, but it’s rarely clear until later which ones they are.

This year’s Apple media overlay showed up in two big pieces.

Apple is going to hell. (not really, but hyped up headlines drive readership, right?)

First, Marco posted his worries about where Apple’s software quality is headed. That triggered a strong response with a lot of agreement. Marco later had second thoughts about posting it because of the intensity of the discussion it triggered, but I think that was because I think he’s onto something. If Apple sees nothing out of that discussion, it should pay attention to the number of people who chimed in with their own, similar views, especially from the group I’ll consider the Elite Indie developers, because I see them as the canary in this particular coal mine.

I got involved in that discussion on twitter because I agree with most of what Marco said, but I’ve been struggling with putting out my concerns in some detail. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because Craig Hockenberry did it for me. His piece nicely sums up my worldview in a way I was struggling to. This isn’t an “Apple is doomed” scenario, but to me, the trendlines are negative — there is no cliff, but the beginning of the same kind of worry for a trip into the future that ends up looking like SGI (remember them? No? Ask your dad). A couple of people put up the claim that Apple was nowhere near as bad as Microsoft, and I agree, but to me, that’s irrelevant. What we’re comparing is not Apple compared to any other company, but to the Apple that should be, and the existing Apple and the possible Apple are starting to diverge.

(for an idea of why some of us think the real and potential Apple’s are diverging, you can read Glenn Fleishman and Adam Engst and Tidbits. Both nicely talk about the kind of things we’re seeing crop up that Apple didn’t tolerate and never should tolerate in its own software). My evidence for the prosecution is the quality of iCloud, the absolute disaster that is today’s iTunes (a tool that’s three or four years overdue for a complete overhaul) and the woeful quality of many of the Apps and how those have been changed significantly in non-compatible ways without any real recourse for existing users and no real warning to let them prepare for the update. That’s just not understanding or caring for the end user, and to me unacceptable.

My bottom line on this: Apple has been pushing really hard to get a lot of big things out: the new designs of IOS and Yosemite; the Watch, Apple Pay and better interoperation between IOS and OS X — and that’s some amazingly great technology, but it’s pushed the Apple programming teams really hard. Too hard, and quality has suffered and the rough edges are showing. Now that this massive cycle of innovation has happened, What I’d like to see Apple do is slow down and focus more on performance and quality.

One big change I hope Apple does is push the iPhone to a two-year release cycle. The need for annual, full-line refreshes is over. My suggestion: release a smaller form factor iPhone this year (iPhone 6s) with a screen the size of the older phones, and keep the larger phones in the product line and then iterate the phones every other year — 2015 is the smaller iPhone 6, then 2016 would be the iPhone 7’s. That would allow them to slow down the release cycle of IOS and allow them time for polish, performance and bug fixing, and match up phone releases with the carrier two-year refresh cycle.

Now would be a good time to take a breather for a year or two and focus less on non-stop innovation and more on refinement and improvement — while working in the background for the next big changes in a couple of years.

Apple is coming out with a new Macbook Air (because rumors are always true, right?)

The other new item running through the press right now is a well-timed rumor based on a  leak that shows a new, 12″ monitor version of the Macbook Air. Now, we always know that rumors are always true, right? So we’re all arguing about something that couldn’t be made up. Right?

The big noise about this is that the rumor says that this new Macbook only has two ports, one for headphones and one USB3 (or something like that) to do everything else. And some folks are hypering about how bad an idea that is. Assuming the rumor is true, of course.

What few people seem to do with information like this is take a step back and consider why Apple might be doing this and how it can make sure this new design will work for us. It’s a lot more fun and a lot easier to declare Apple is stupid — when the fact is Apple usually has these things thought through a lot better than the rumor commenters do.

So here’s my thought on this new form factor, assuming it’s true and what Apple might be up to here.

My general thought: I really like this. The primary purpose of the MacBook air is portability, low weight, small form factor. By removing all of the existing ports, you can make the device less power hungry, lighter and smaller. All good things for a device designed to be carried around and used on airplanes.

But only one port? How is that a good idea?

Two ideas: the MagSafe connector is gone. People are talking about power through this single connector, but I don’t think so. The watch is using a new inductive charger (which was something we did with the Touchstone at Palm). I think it’s not unreasonable to assume if Apple is doing a major hardware redesign with this new model that it decides it’s time to retire MacSafe in favor of this updated technology, and the reason there’s no power connector is because you don’t need one. Instead, there will be a place on the case where you can place a magnetic inductive charger, and that will charge the mac without having to plug a cable into the device via a connector. So we no longer need a power plug.

And this new single-port?

Think about we usually use a  MacBook air. Here’s my view of the most common use cases:

On a plane: while traveling, you aren’t going to be plugging in a lot of peripherals. you’re going to be working in a restricted space, and the only thing you’re likely to do is plug in your headset so you can listen to music or watch a movie — which this unit allows. If you can attach an inductive charger to this as needed to keep it powered, you’re covered for this use case.

Away from your workspace: in a coffee shop, in a conference room, hanging out on the couch. Your connectivity needs in this case are limited; maybe load pictures off a card, maybe plug in a portable disk, but you’re not going to wire up lots of things. Inductive charging and one port is going to work fine for most people in this case, but there are ways you an cover those that need more connectivity — I’ll explain in a second.

At your desktop: And after playing road warrior for the day (or days), you come home, go back to your desk, and wire it up to all your stuff. You’ll need more ports and more varieties of ports here, but there’s no reason those ports all need to be built into the computer itself. If you have one port, you can expand it easily, using a hub.

And that’s the way Apple makes that one port connection work. Inductive charging and hubs.

If you’re a road warrior, maybe all you carry is the inductive charger, and you plug the charger in and slap it on to charge when you need to.

If you’re sitting at the coffee shop and need to load pictures off an SD card and save them to your portable hard drive, then you use the neat new charger/hub combo. this is a unit that includes both the inductive charger and a small hub system. slap the charger onto the induction spot and the magnet holds it the the unit, so the hub won’t flop around like Apple’s current dongles. Maybe that hub has an HDMI, 2-3 USB3 and a thunderbolt. More than you might need, in a space maybe the size of a deck of cards that attaches to your computer for you to use — but only when you need it. No need for that stuff to be permanently wired into the classic of the computer any more. Apple wasn’t afraid to remove the DVD drive when it was time to move on, and people yelled about that when it happened, but see how that turned out? This is the next generation of that.

And when you get home? Plug in your desktop hub, just like many of us plug in a thunderbolt hub today, and get the functionality of the network, HDMI, thunderbolt and USB ports — all from one onboard port.

By the way, are we really sure that’s a USB hub? Maybe Apple’s going to announce a new, thin format thunderbolt port standard instead that would allow for a smaller, thinner connector to allow for a smaller, thinner computer?

I’m not saying this is what Apple’s doing. Instead, what I’m saying is more of the people trying to be pundits should stop looking at what’s there, and start thinking a bit more about how Apple would make a system like this work — because there’s a lot of commentary that seems to circle around Apple being stupid, when assuming Apple’s stupid is almost always a bad bet.

And it doesn’t take long to think about ways to make a new form factor like this work, especially when all of the technology pieces already exist and are staring at us in the face…

P.S.  I really like the idea of a magnetic mini-hub for people who need more connectivity some of the time but want light and portable most of the time — and I like it even more when you bring in the idea of inductive charging, which seems to be about to hit the tech world big time. So this could well be, if this device actually sees the light of day, the start of some interesting hardware innovations….

P. P. S. The one worry I see about inductive charging is energy transfer efficiency. Charging a Palm Pre via a Touchstone was only about half as efficient as plugging in that charging wire. I’m hoping Apple’s figured out how to improve that, or we may see the return of the energy sucking wall warts in a new form….