So what was the biggest news from Apple Tuesday morning? Forget the Apple Watch, the Apple Pay digital wallet, or even the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. What may be the most important announcement is that Tim Cook and U2 arranged to have the band’s newest album, Songs of Innocence, released free on iTunes. That makes it available for up to 500 million users through October 13.
Of course, they made it seem as if this was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but of course it had been in the works for a while. There’s even a TV spot to announce the free album.
But let’s get to the more-or-less expected developments at the media event, which was held at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, the site of the launch of the original Mac in 1984.
After a very brief introduction from Tim Cook, Apple VP Philip Schiller got down to the business of talking up the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus. But if you tried to watch the event live, you might have felt as frustrated as I did. Clearly Apple’s servers — perhaps the entire Internet — were slammed as millions of people across the world tried to watch the stream.
I actually tried using my Apple TV, but the stream kept freezing there too. Finally things settled down on my iMac for awhile. However, the people handling the audio feed screwed up, as you heard the English track with an Asian language feed in the background that made it difficult to follow. This flaw might not have been the case for everyone, but I confirmed the problem with multiple devices, and it was extremely distracting for a while until the audio was fixed. I still had to constantly refresh the stream when it stopped, and that’s on a broadband connection with an average download speed of over 40 megabits.
In the end, it might have been better to hold your breath and watch the recorded version, after all the Web traffic died down.
Now the new iPhones were fairly predictable what with all the rumors and prototype photos and videos. The 4.7-inch version is the iPhone 6, whereas the iPhone 6 Plus has a 5.5-inch display, and there goes the sole meaningful advantage of any Android smartphone.
Predictably, battery life is said to be better, particularly on the phablet version, which has room for a beefier battery. The A8 chip is much faster, and some preliminary benchmarks are already online. Camera components are better, though Apple continues to stick with eight megapixels. The opposition will continue to ride Apple on that, although an iPhone still takes better pictures under more conditions than much of the competition.
At long last, there’s NFC hardware, but with an Apple twist. While makers of Android smartphones have had NFC for a while, Apple included the hardware as part of a new ecosystem called Apple Pay. Initial deals have already been made with U.S.-based credit card providers, banks and retailers, and the list will only grow as time goes on. Apple Pay will debut in October.
With recent hacks to major retailers, such as Target and Home Depot, Apple made a huge deal of the fact that Apple Pay data is secure. Indeed, the actual credit card numbers, says Apple, won’t be stored on your device or on Apple’s servers. According to the press release, “Instead, a unique Device Account Number is assigned, encrypted and securely stored in the Secure Element on your iPhone or Apple Watch. Each transaction is authorized with a one-time unique number using your Device Account Number and instead of using the security code from the back of your card, Apple Pay creates a dynamic security code to securely validate each transaction.”
Now remember when the iCloud accounts of celebrities were hacked, it resulted from figuring out their usernames and passwords. None of that applies to Apple Pay, and if your device is stolen, Find My iPhone can be used to stop payments. You don’t even have to request a new credit card.
So what Apple has done is to address the limitations of NFC, and create a sophisticated Apple ecosystem to manage the payment and digital storage features. Compared to Google Wallet and Samsung, this is a huge change. Of course, it requires the new Apple mobile gear to work.
Pricing for the iPhone 6 is the same as the current iPhone 5s when it debuted last year. But each $100 step gets you more storage than before; $299 for 64GB, the sweet spot, and $399 for 128GB. The iPhone 6 Plus will retail for $100 more with the same storage options. And, despite the claim that the iPhone 5c was a huge failure and would be discontinued, it remains in the lineup as the free iPhone with a contract. In any case, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus will ship beginning September 19, and iOS 8 will be available for download two days earlier.
The return of “one more thing…” had also been predicted. While the Apple Watch spots lots of sensors and features to crow about, I was particularly impressed with the digital crown, which very much resembles the one you see on a regular watch. It’s used to scroll and select and thus reduce dependence on the touchscreen.
Just as important, Apple intends to make a fashion statement with the new device, dividing the lineup into three collections in two sizes, with multiple choices of removable watchbands. The Apple Watch will debut early in 2015 with a starting price of $349. It’ll no doubt be far more expensive if you opt for the 18-karat gold version.
The Apple Watch will mate with any model from the iPhone 5 or iPhone 6 series, but battery life hasn’t yet been rated. So this is, predictably, one area where the critics are already ragging on Apple.