THE TECH NIGHT OWL NEWSLETTER
February 7, 2019
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THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE
Despite being an essential tool for radio hosts, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with headphones and the tiny in-ear equivalents for iPhones and other gear.
Back in the days when I first started out as a broadcaster, I’d put them on, but mostly to hear myself when I started to play a record, so I could deliver the requisite voiceover timed precisely to the start of the first lyric. I’d then take them off and listen to the monitor speakers while preparing for my next interlude. I suppose I didn’t take to them because they were too sweaty on my ears.
When I returned to radio in 2003 as host of what became The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I purchased a relatively cheap mic mixer, a couple of mics and headphones from Radio Shack. Yes that place! But where I could, I dispensed with the headphones. Again, sweaty ears and all. Besides, so long as it didn’t alter the quality of the show, what difference did it make?
In recent years, I’ve used Grado SR225 headphones from time to time while recording my radio shows or custom voiceovers, but more often than not, I just leave the speakers on real low, and mute the mic while the guests are speaking.
The audio quality on the SR225 is clean and natural, with solid bass. But as with other headphones I’ve used, my ears get sweaty after listening for a while. So I usually set them aside.
But I continued to seek something that might be more comfortable.
So I recently read about Apple’s Beat Studio 3 Wireless Skyline Collection, which comes in four colors. I wrote to the Beats PR person and requested one in Midnight Black, which adds gold and leather-like brown to the attractive design. It lists for $349, but is often discounted.
I was pleased to get a favorable response, and the Studio 3 arrived just a few days later.
The Studio 3 includes noise cancellation and Apple’s W1 system-on-a-chip for instant Bluetooth pairing on Apple gear. And, yes, it does work on Androids and PCs too.
For some, Beats has been a hard sell, because it was originally designed to deliver solid, punchy but overwhelming bass. While some music lovers treasured this approach for hard rock, rap and other genres, those who appreciate a more realistic sonic signature were turned off.
Well, Apple has clearly tamed the Beats since the company was acquired in 2014. The new Studio 3 still delivers bass with a solid impact, but it no longer seems exaggerated by much if at all. Indeed, they sound as good as any headphones I’ve used with a relatively neutral sonic signature. More to the point, they are more comfortable on my aging ears, meaning that I don’t feel near as sweaty. As a result, I use them for longer periods and more frequently.
Obviously your preferences will differ from mine. You may still find the Studio 3’s bass to be a bit too much. But I am happy to recommend this model as my headphones of choice, and I’ll really regret the time when it has to be returned to Beats.
Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented a very special encore episode featuring commentator Josh Centers, Managing Editor for TidBITS, and author of “Take Control of Apple TV” and other titles. During this episode, Josh talked about a possible new Apple “Bendgate” scandal, involving a bent chassis issue with the 2018 iPad Pro. Although Apple claims the affected units are within spec, is this something Apple will have to fix? What about past problems with possibly defective Apple gear? Josh also talked about the latest concerns over Facebook privacy and how it handles customer data. The discussion also covered his recent book, “Take Control of Notes,” and Apple’s upcoming slate of original TV programs. Can Apple deliver compelling entertainment that will quickly grab an audience?
You also heard from tech editor Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer. During this segment, Bryan also covered Apple’s move to remove unit sales from its quarterly financials and the possible impact, and Apple Music on Alexa. There was also be a discussion on the lack of 5K displays, other than Apple’s iMac and iMac Pro, and an LG display. What about reports of online blackmail, where someone claims to have discovered your password, and threatens to out you as visiting unsavory sites unless you pay the ransom, by Bitcoin. Gene and Bryan talked about Apple’s higher prices on its latest gear, and what about the promised Mac Pro, due out in 2019? Bryan revealed his theory about why Apple is taking so long to produce the successor to the failed “trashcan” model introduced in 2013 and never updated. Will the next Mac Pro herald a major change in the Mac platform?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Randall present a return appearance from author/researcher Kevin D. Randle. This week, he talks about the controversy surrounding the History channel’s drama, “Project Blue Book” and how it depicts the work of Dr. J. Allen Hynek. Does it stay too far from the truth to satisfy people seriously interested in UFOs? Kevin will also talk about his ongoing “Chasing Footnotes” work to unearth possible solutions to older cases. There is also a brief discussion about his study of hypnotic regression and possible past-life memories. In addition to has many books, he is a military veteran who served in the United States Army during both the Vietnam War and the Second Gulf War.
DID APPLE REALLY ADMIT iPHONE PRICES ARE TOO HIGH?
As I write this column, Apple is probably still smarting over the news that lower sales in China and delayed iPhone upgrades that combined to produce an $5 million shortfall for the December quarter. But I’m not going to focus this column on old news. You’ve read all about it, but it’s also true that the sky isn’t falling. There was some good news too, such as higher sales for Macs, iPads, wearables (such as the Apple Watch) and especially services.
With services, Apple can extract more cash from every customer which, in turn, keeps them closely tied to the platform. But it’s fitting to look at the history of the company for a larger perspective.
So our image of Apple, Inc. has long been that of a maverick company that defies the conventional wisdom and goes its own way. Here’s to the “crazy ones” indeed!
In the old days, it was all about the Macintosh personal computer. While computers in the early days used an arcane text-based interface, paying lip service to color displays, Apple provided a graphical user interface designed to make it warm and fuzzy even to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to the traditional PC.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs always envisioned the Mac as a computing appliance, and the original model actually offered no way for you to do any upgrades to memory and other components. In passing, today’s Apple has mostly reverted to this approach, and what you buy is as upgradeable as your toaster oven. Period!
But Apple really attained prominence with the original iPhone that, in a few years, became the company’s best-selling product. Indeed, its success gave the more critical pundits ammunition to claim that, if iPhone sales ever declined — and nothing is forever — the company would be in deep trouble.
Each year, the iPhone received upgrades. Even when the new model seemed little different from its predecessor, at least externally, there were plenty of changes inside. Consider the iPhone 5s, which for all practical purposes wasn’t distinguishable from the iPhone 5. But in addition to faster performance and a better camera, it provided the first iteration of Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor.
If you examine the spec sheets year-over-year, lots of innovative engineering is present. Unlike all other smartphone makers, save for Samsung, Apple designs its own CPUs and, since 2017, its own graphics hardware. The proof is in the pudding, as the latest “X” series iPhones tout performance that is in the range of the more powerful notebook computers. The latest iPad Pro promised graphics performance at the Xbox level.
At the same time, the annual double-digit growth of the iPhone is long ago and far away. Except for the poorest third-world countries, most anyone who wants or needs a smartphone has one. So most units sold are replacements, and Apple builds reliable gear and supports it with OS upgrades for several years, which slows the upgrade cycle.
Shorn of the new features, an iPhone 6, running iOS 12, can deliver credible performance that should satisfy most people except for those who require instant response, a better camera, and superior displays. Some features, such as 3D Touch, essentially went nowhere and isn’t even present on the iPhone XR.
Knowing that sales have declined, Apple has devised other ways to boost revenue, beginning with the $999 iPhone X in 2017. In its 2018 lineup, the iPhone XS Max begins at $1,099, and the price goes up real fast if you choose larger storage options.
Even though Apple was criticized for ignoring the Mac in recent years, the very newest models are still more expensive even as PC makers continue to rush towards the bottom in pricing their hardware. The presence of the controversial Touch Bar meant an increase of several hundred dollars for recent MacBook Pros.
After four years of inattention, Apple introduced a new, more powerful Mac mini, but the base price increased from $499 to $799. If you click Customize on Apple’s ordering page, you can boost the price to $4,199, and that’s before you acquire a keyboard, input device and display.
The professional grade iMac Pro starts at $4,999 and maxes out at $13,348 before you get to a VESA mounting kit. Heaven knows what the promised Mac Pro replacement, due for release some time this year, will cost when optioned to the hilt.
This is not to say these prices are too high. When you compare the prices of Apple gear to direct PC competition, with similar internals and specs, it is usually quite competitive. Apple just doesn’t play in the low end of the market.
The new iPad Pros are also more expensive too and so is the Apple Watch Series 4.
What this means is that the average sale price has gone up. So despite the complaints, it’s clear that millions of customers are happy to pay a higher price for a premium product. At the same time, Apple is offering services, such as Apple Music and iCloud, for which you pay monthly fees. The fastest growing segment of Apple’s business is, in fact, services.
Apple realizes that it can earn a lot more money from every satisfied customer.
But has it reached the point where these products have become so sophisticated that most users will never, ever use the new features? As I watched Apple’s Keynote slide shows touting the features of its newest gear at the iPad/Mac event last October, it started to become a blur. Dozens of amazing features, state-of-the-art performance, but how much did it mean to all but a tiny percentage of professionals?
This isn’t to say that smartphones, smartwatches, tablets and personal computers are good enough and there’s no need to improve them. As I said, the price of admission is no doubt worth it. By charging more money, and boosting services, Apple earns more revenue. Unit sales don’t matter so much, which is why it joined other companies in no longer revealing them in the quarterly financial reports.
But wait just a minute! During the quarterly conference call with financial analysts for the December quarter, Tim Cook admitted Apple had a pricing problem with the iPhone. Not in the United States, where sales were up around 5%, but exchange rates sharply boosted the price overseas.
In a surprise, but perfectly sensible move, Cook announced that Apple was taking the hit and reducing prices in some countries most impacted by a strong dollar. According to published reports about sales from two online retailers, iPhone sales in China increased by as much as 83% after the price cuts that were instituted on January 11th.
A positive trend or a fluke?
If the trend continues, it may just be that Apple has found a way to combat lower sales, at least in the short term. It doesn’t mean the glory days for the iPhone have returned, only that the company is being realistic, and may be more cautious about future pricing decisions.
I would hope that the higher prices for other Apple products will also be reconsidered, and not just in countries where exchange rates aren’t favorable. If done judiciously, sales volumes may indeed increase and perhaps make up for some of the loss in profits.
Obviously Apple has no control over foreign exchange rates, but the recent practice of raising prices on new gear probably wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, production costs may have increased in proportion, but customer resistance may be increasing too. The critics who suggested that the iPhone X series and other products are just too expensive may have been right after all.
Don’t forget that the most popular iPhone is the XR, not the more expensive models. Last year the original iPhone X took those honors despite the high price, however. That you get 95% of the features of the more expensive models for $250 less on the XR has clearly had an impact.
It’s also true that millions of Apple customers may have postponed upgrades because their existing gear works so well. When they tally up the price of new hardware, that has to count too, particularly in countries where there are no carrier subsidies and lease/purchase plans aren’t readily available.
So is Apple on the road to improving iPhone sales in the coming year? Lower overseas prices have to help, of course, but it’s still going to be hard to sell still-expensive gear in a saturated market.
It only makes me more curious about what Apple is going to introduce next.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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