Ad-blocking and the future of the Web

This morning’s Observer column:

There is, alas, no such thing as a free lunch. What’s even more depressing is that there is no such thing as a free internet service. Most people nowadays probably understand that in relation to, say, social networking services, if the service is “free” then the users (or, more precisely, their personal data) are the product. But this also applies to stuff that you haven’t signed up for – websites that you browse, for example. The site may be free to view, but there’s often a hidden cost.

One part of that cost comes from surreptitious tracking of your browsing habits by outfits that sell that information to advertisers. (If this is news to you just install the Ghostery browser extension to see who’s monitoring your browsing.) The other cost comes from ads that are placed on a webpage either directly by the site owner or as the outcome of a real-time auction that goes on in the depths of the internet.

And as the web has evolved, and more of our lives conducted online, internet advertising has steadily increased. It’s now at the stage where it’s really annoying…

Read on

iPhone economics


Apple will pay about $234 for the parts used in every iPhone 6S, according to estimates from Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

The biggest part of that cost is $127 for semiconductor pieces, including $36 for the various cellular radios, $25 for the new 64-bit A9 processor, $22 for various sensors (fingerprint, NFC, and so on), and $20 for 64GB of flash memory. Other core components like the screen, camera, and battery will add up to $73, and the other stuff (like the case) will add another $33. The older models are cheaper for Apple to make, as the cost of their components has come down over time.

An unlocked 64GB iPhone 6S has a starting retail price of $749, but that doesn’t mean Apple is making gross profits of $515 in profit on each phone — there are also manufacturing and distribution costs.


The hardware that breaks the commoditisation rule

Insightful column about the iPhone phenomenon by Farhad Manjoo: The nub of it is this:

In many fundamental ways, the iPhone breaks the rules of business, especially the rules of the tech business. Those rules have more or less always held that hardware devices keep getting cheaper and less profitable over time. That happens because hardware is easy to commoditize; what seems magical today is widely copied and becomes commonplace tomorrow. It happened in personal computers; it happened in servers; it happened in cameras, music players, and — despite Apple’s best efforts — it may be happening in tablets.

In fact, commoditization has wreaked havoc in the smartphone business — just not for Apple. In the last half-decade, sales of devices running Google’s Android operating system have far surpassed sales of Apple’s devices, and now account for the vast majority of smartphones in use.

For years, observers predicted that Android’s rising market share would in turn lead to lower profits for Apple (profits, not market share, being the point of business). If that had happened, it would have roughly approximated the way the Windows PC industry eclipsed Apple’s Mac business. “Hey, Apple, wake up — it’s happening again,” Henry Blodget, of Business Insider, warned in 2010. And again in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

None of those predictions came true. While the iPhone’s sales growth slowed in 2013 and 2014, it rebounded to near-record levels later last year, and its profits have remained lofty.

Instead of killing Apple, commoditization caused something stranger — it hobbled Apple’s main competitor in the smartphone business: Samsung, which until last year was gaining a creeping share of the profits in the smartphone business. At its peak in mid-2013, Samsung was making close to half of every dollar in the smartphone business, according to the research firm Canaccord. (Apple was making the other half.)

But the rise of low-end, pretty great Android phones made by Chinese upstarts like Xiaomi — and the surging popularity of Apple’s large-screen iPhones — put Samsung in a bind. In July, Samsung reported its seventh straight quarter of declining profits.

Yep. The reason why the Apple phone defies the commoditisation rule is that it’s not a standalone device, but part of a highly-functional (and useful) ecosystem. That’s why iPhone users who hanker after, say, Samsung’s or Sony’s latest phone think twice before making the switch: do they really want to leave the comfort and ease of the Apple ecosystem. And Apple has just made joining that ecosystem easier — by releasing an Android App that allegedly makes it simple for Android users to take their data etc. across to their brand new iPhones! Given the amount of money Apple makes from the iPhone, it does now look set to become the world’s first trillion-dollar company.



I bought an Apple watch a few weeks ago. “It’ll take a while to get used to it”, a friend said to me, and he was right. My expectations were low, based on previous experiences with so-called smartwatches, which were generally flaky. But because I have a policy of not writing about stuff that I don’t actually own, I bought the cheapest, and, as I thought, the least ostentatious, version of the Apple device.


Well, it grows on one. The battery life is better than I expected (and it charges quickly). The interface works. Most importantly, the linking with the iPhone is really seamless. What infuriated me about, say, the Pebble watch, was the flakiness of the ‘notifications’ system. It turns out that the main reason I want a smartwatch is so that it stops me having to take my phone out of my pocket all the time. The Pebble failed miserably in that regard, whereas the iWatch is excellent for that. When a message comes in, all it takes is a glance to identify the sender — and therefore to know whether it needs attention or not.

Apart from Quentin’s commentary, the most insightful comments on the watch that I’ve come across are by Ben Evans. For example:

Reading the Watch’s launch reviews, I sometimes got the sense that the tech press was writing about it as though the luxury goods industry didn’t exist and that the luxury press was writing as though technology didn’t exist: no-one spends money on things because they’re just nice and no-one buys things that don’t last forever. The gold version brought this out best – a tech product that’s $10,000 but has the same spec as the $350 one – heresy! And a gold watch that probably doesn’t last a lifetime – again, heresy! But all rules can be broken with the right product – that’s how progress happens. Meanwhile, the irony is that it’s not actually the gold that’s the luxury but the software – that tap on the wrist telling you to turn left. In a sense, the gold case is an accessory to the software in the same way that the strap is an accessory to the watch.

Spot on. Smartwatches are unlikely ever to be ‘must-have’ devices. They are luxuries.

Microsoft: obituaries are premature

This morning’s Observer column:

One of my favourite cartoons shows a team of scientists in a Nasa control room clustered around a big screen. Their spacecraft has just landed on a very distant planet and has begun transmitting data back to base. A guy in overalls is saying to his assembled colleagues: “Now all we have to do is figure out how to install Windows 95.”

Ah yes, Windows 95… I remember it well. It signified the moment when Microsoft finally managed to implement the user interface invented by Xerox in the early 70s. It was launched with the biggest hype-storm that the computer industry – or indeed any other industry – had ever seen. Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones an unconscionable amount of money (we never found out how much) to use Start Me Up as the musical backdrop for the launch. The first internet boom, triggered by the web and the Netscape browser, was just beginning to roll and Windows 95 was the first Microsoft operating system to have a TCP/IP stack (needed to connect to the internet) baked in.

Back then, the PC was the sun in the computing universe around which everything else revolved. And Microsoft controlled well over 90% of the PC software market. So Windows 95 really was a big deal.

Last week, 20 years on, Microsoft launched Windows 10 with the kind of faded hoopla that accompanies 60s discos…

Read on

And then, of course, there is the fact that Microsoft is one of the very few large corporations that is still doing serious, high-quality, long-term research.

An iCar? Really? Is Apple smoking its own exhaust?

This morning’s Observer column about the strange fascination that the automobile industry has for otherwise sane geeks:

I remember once being in a British shopping arcade on the day that the local Apple Store opened for the first time. Long queues had formed from the moment the arcade gates had been unlocked that morning. Then came the magic moment: the glass doors opened, a hush fell on the assembled crowd, a group of T-shirted staff walked out, formed a human avenue leading into the store and then clapped rhythmically as the mob surged in. It was a truly extraordinary moment in which the conventional marketing mantra about the customer being king was turned on its head. In the case of Apple, it seemed, the customers felt privileged to be allowed to enter the store.

At the time, I concluded that much of this Apple worship could be put down to the astonishingly charismatic personality of Jobs. He was, after all, the only chief executive in the history of the world to be accorded the kind of adulation normally granted to rock stars and messiahs. Apple was obviously a one-man band and he was the Man. It seemed reasonable to conclude when he died, therefore, that the cult of Apple would diminish or at any rate that its share price would have peaked. An Apple car? Computer firm hires automotive engineers Read more

How wrong can you be? Jobs has been succeeded by Tim Cook, a nice man for whom the phrase “charisma deficit” might have been invented. But the cult of Apple is still going strong…

Read on.

Missing the Beats

This morning’s Observer column:

This time last year Apple paid $3bn to acquire a company called Beats that made overpriced headphones and ran an unsuccessful music-streaming business. This acquisition made Beats co-founder Dr Dre the first hip-hop billionaire at the same time as it baffled many observers of the industry. For example, Benedict Evans, a seasoned analyst, tweeted: “If you think Apple’s lost it, Beats deal is confirmation. If you don’t, it’s… perplexing. Few really convincing rationales.” This columnist was likewise puzzled. Apple normally designs and makes its own kit, and if it wanted to do headphones it would certainly do better than the Beats products. So the conclusion had to be that if Apple didn’t want Beats for the headphones, it had to be the music-streaming service that it craved.

And so it has proved. We have just discovered – in a roundabout way – just how much Apple wants to get into the streaming business…

Read on

Apple: the Toyota of precision manufacturing?

This morning’s Observer column. Excerpt:

Most of the discussion about the watch comes down, in the end, to reveries about Apple’s now legendary ability to design objects that are both beautiful and functional. But in taking this line we are, in fact, overlooking a more important point. Because what is really interesting about Apple is not just that it can design great products, but that it can actually manufacture the things in huge volumes, and deliver them to market on time.

Just to put that point about volumes in context, consider the iPhone 6. It weighs 129g, and its bigger brother, the 6 Plus, weighs in at 172.1g. In the last quarter of 2014, Apple sold 74.5m iPhones, which works out at an average of 846, 590 a day. If we assume that 15% of those sales were of the heavier Plus, then that means Apple shifted 114,676kg of iPhones a day, on average. Just for comparison, the operating dry weight of a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner is 117, 707kg…

Read on

The process, not the product, matters

Almost all the (mostly feverish) discussion about Apple focusses on its astonishing mastery of product design. But this week’s Monday Note by Jean-Louis Gasseé has made me reflect on what is actually the most remarkable aspect of the company, namely the fact that it has mastered what must be the most complex, large-scale, precision manufacturing process in industrial history.

In his Note, Jean-Louis leans heavily not only on Greg Koenig’s fascinating analysis of the process by which the iWatch is being made, but also on Koenig’s observation that

“Apple is the world’s foremost manufacturer of goods. At one time, this statement had to be caged and qualified with modifiers such as “consumer goods” or “electronic goods,” but last quarter, Apple shipped a Boeing 787’s weight worth of iPhones every 24 hours. When we add the rest of the product line to the mix, it becomes clear that Apple’s supply chain is one of the largest scale production organizations in the world.”

When you think of it in those terms, it’s clear that in our obsession with the beauty of Apple designs we may have been missing the really big picture, which is that the company has been building a production system that could eventually yield astonishing benefits and change the way every tech manufacturer operates.

We’ve been here before, by the way. When the Japanese first began making cars, they were ridiculed by Western manufacturers — for good reasons. They were clunky, ugly and they rusted early. But the Japanese were good at learning from mistakes. They also sussed that if they were to make really good cars, they had to reinvent the process by which cars were made. From this came the Toyota ‘Lean Machine’ production process, which is now how all cars, everywhere, are made.

So the process is often more important than the product. This was also the point made by Steven weber years ago, in his splendid book about open source software. It’s a distinctive way of making incredibly complex products. In fact, it may ultimately be the only way of making really secure software.

Gasseé’s conclusion from his meditations is that it would now be foolish to discount rumours that Apple is planning to manufacture cars. I agree.