Finally, blue skies in the Bay Area. Now that’s a real plain view! Too bad the fire season is only getting started.
The Plain View
I don’t know whether it was a Covid innovation or just a lack of big news, but the Apple event this week featured something rarely seen in its celebratory product launches: brevity. The entire event clocked in at just over an hour. The marquee announcements dealt with a new version of the Apple Watch, continuing its course as a fitness tool (after its ill-fated debut as a high-priced bauble for the luxury set), and an upgrade to the low and mid-range iPads. But the most interesting thing announced by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook was not a hardware iteration, but a twist in Apple’s services strategy: an Apple bundle.
It’s called Apple One, evoking various pop tunes and an alarming reference to the eponymous piece of jewelry in The Lord of the Rings. The idea seems simple and commonplace: an enticement to subscribe to multiple fee-based Apple services at a price that’s lower than it would cost if you bought all of them individually. The best example of this practice is the cable bundle, which includes zillions of channels, many of which you will never watch.. At least until it’s so bloated and expensive that you cut the cord. One downside of bundles that we’ve seen in the television market is that when operators control the cable and also produce content, they are likely to favor their own channels over those of the competition. That’s why audio streaming competitor Spotify immediately complained about Apple One, which includes Apple Music in every tier of its bundle.
The new bundle gets a head start by including iCloud storage. A dirty secret of Apple devices is that while in theory you don’t need more than the free 5 gigabytes of storage Apple offers, your life is hell if you don’t buy more—pop-ups keep appearing saying that you can’t do this or that without more iCloud storage. So more storage is good to have, especially the 2 terabytes included in the high-end bundle, the $30 tier called Premium. (The lower rungs have less storage and fewer services. Only Premium, for instance, has Apple News.) Until recently, Apple was charging $20 for those two terabytes alone; in June, it cut the price in half.
Digression: To me, Premium is the only rung worth talking about since the others, by dint of including fewer services, aren’t really worthy of the term One. By definition, they are less than One. They are more like 0.4 and 0.6.
End of digression. What really makes this bundle potentially compelling is that Apple services have the ability to deliver what its competitors cannot hope to match: deep integration with iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch, as well as Apple’s other services. The best example is Fitness Plus, a new service included in Premium. This product features exclusive recorded fitness classes—just like Peloton!—that people can access through iPads or computers. But the workouts also sync up with Apple Music and Apple Watch, allowing stuff like downloadable playlists and timely access to the biometrics in the Watch. For instance, when an instructor tells you to check your heart rate, that metric will be supersized on the screen. (If the executives of Peloton had their Apple Watches turned on during the event, they probably would have seen their heart rates rise to alarming levels.)
The integration is in a nascent stage now—one imagines that eventually robot instructors might alter your workout in real time, depending on how close you are to a coronary. Still, it’s a unique feature not available to competitors, and it rolls out at Apple’s massive scale. And don’t forget, it’s also available as part of a bundle full of other stuff, so people might be lured into trying it out if they like the other services in the package. After the event, the Peloton CEO said Apple’s product was “a legitimization of fitness content” which is the kind of bravado one shows when refusing the blindfold before the firing squad takes aim. If Apple introduces its own standing-bike or treadmill—it could happen, Tim Cook is a gym rat!—the one-two punch of hardware and services would probably send Peloton the way of Schwinn.
Right now, Apple One is relatively benign, but it’s easy to imagine how future bundles could link with new products to corner all sorts of markets. Let’s say Apple made … a car. (Yeah, I know, the company’s long-rumored autonomous vehicle project has been put on hold. But in June Apple bought a self-driving-car startup, albeit one that was on the brink of shutting down.) Think of the services that Apple could bundle with a car. Music, to be sure—when the car picks up speed, it’s time for road tunes! Apple Messenger might merge with the car’s electronics to send alerts when service is required. There might be a supercharged version of Apple Maps. And perhaps integration with the Apple Watch: the car might pull over if biometrics indicated the driver was dozing off. The point is that Apple would have the advantage of that integration—and its competitors might not. If you stream Spotify in your Apple Car, you will not automatically hear “Born to be Wild” when you floor that beast.
Apple One, along with services blended with hardware, is a step toward drawing Apple users deeper into its fold. But the timing might not be ideal. Apple is now under scrutiny for what critics, and some legislators, charge is anti-competitive behavior in cases where its own products compete with third party apps distributed on its platform. For one thing, Apple’s rivals in the App store have to pay Apple thirty percent of their revenues, a burden not imposed on Apple products. Those investigating Apple for antitrust concerns will undoubtedly take a close look at Apple One, too.
If Apple One is the tipping point for the DOJ to go forward with a suit, this week’s brief event might turn out to be Apple’s bundle of oy!
Calling its bundle Apple One reminds me of the U2 song, “One.” Which in turn reminds me of the day in November 2004 when the Irish megaband’s iconic members Bono and the Edge performed at an Apple event that also wasn’t brimming with news. After Jobs introduced me to the musicians, I spoke to them for Newsweek:
… The second innovation is the $349 U2 iPod, which is colored the same shade of midnight as Bono’s leather jacket (the click wheel is fire-engine red) and festooned with the band members’ laser-etched signatures on the back. The real significance [of U2’s performance], though, is the relationship Apple has forged with one of the elite bastions of rock, possibly a harbinger of new business models in the digital age.
For the last few weeks we’ve all been inundated with Day-Glo iPod commercials featuring U2, which previously had not lent itself to ad campaigns. But as The Edge explains, “It’s easy to be in the iTunes ad because iTunes is promoting us.” In addition, Apple will be exclusively selling a $149 “digital boxed set” consisting of all of U2’s official recordings, plus 25 previously unreleased cuts. This can be purchased with a single mouse click (you might want to buy a case of Guinness to pass the time while the songs download, since Jobs estimated it will take “a few hours” to get the 400 songs)… The bottom line for U2 is that success of the iPod and other initiatives has firmly discredited record executives who prophesized that the digital transformation would doom the music industry. “Don’t believe those people,” Bono says. “We want to stop running from the future, but walk up to it and give it a great big kiss. Give people what they want when they want it.”
Note: This event was years before Apple’s misstep of loading, unrequested, a new U2 album into everyone’s music library, an example of giving people what they didn’t want when they didn’t want it.
Ask Me One Thing
Michael asks, “How do you think we can utilize some of the world’s best minds that we have in the private technology sector in the US to fix the problems in the governmental health data system as witnessed by the pandemic?”
Thanks for asking, Michael, but I’m not sure what you mean by the “problems in the governmental health data system.” If you are talking about Covid statistics, some of the reporting seems to be affected by political considerations. But there have been a number of private initiatives, notably one by the co-founders of Instagram, who after leaving Facebook had the time to create rt.live, a site that tracks how the virus spreads. (I’ll have more on that soon.)
As for the larger issue of how great tech minds can help solve problems in the public sector, I have been a big fan of the United States Digital Service, which I first wrote about when it emerged in 2014. This allows people in the tech world to take on temporary assignments working for the federal government—typically six months to a year—to help make government services work better for its citizens. This is the odd Obama initiative that our current president has neglected to squash, perhaps because his son-in-law Jared Kushner appreciated it early. USDS people have been embedded in various agencies for years now, including Health and Human Services, and have made a difference. As you might expect, they’ve been very active in the recent pandemic.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
Hurricane Sally brings giant alligators, poisonous snakes, and floating fire ants into residential areas.
Last but Not Least
Our gadget mavens go over the complete list of what Apple announced.
This week marked the start of the annual WIRED25 conference, which is being held virtually over three Wednesdays. Next week (September 23rd) is the second session, where I’ll interview Maria Ressa, the heroic CEO of the Philippine news site Rappler. It’s free, please drop in!
Here’s the story of the Facebook employee who was embedded in the Trump campaign in 2016. He’s now working to elect Biden.
Take a close look at how democracy is dying in Hong Kong. And then vote in November.
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