Apple CEO triggered by reports of design decline

When Apple’s famous head of design decided to call it a day last week, there was widespread speculation around what may have caused such a move.

The most Juicy gossip came from the Wall Street Journal, which wrote a piece contending that Jony Ive started the process of clearing off long ago and that it was motivated, at least in part, by CEO Tim Cook’s relative disinterest in the design process. This in turn demoralised Ive who, according to the account, became an increasingly distant figure at Apple Towers.

Tim Cook has always been known as an operations specialist with a particular talent for managing an efficient supply chain. Since he took over from the more creative, mercurial Apple founder Steve Jobs in 2011, these talents have ensured the company has gone from strength to strength in terms of revenue and profitability, but there has always been speculation that this has come at the expense of innovation.

That last truly disruptive move from Apple came with the launch of the iPad in 2010, but it looks like Ive was hoping the Apple Watch launch in 2015 would be a similar inflection point. While Apple has flogged quite a few of them and doubtless trousered a pile of cash in the process, there’s very little that differentiates the Apple Watch from its competitors and the category itself has failed to set the technology world on fire.

So it’s easy to see why a narrative that contends innovation at Apple is being suffocated with him in charge might trouble Cook somewhat, which seems to be confirmed by his response to the WSJ piece. Uncharacteristically he publicly took issue with the story via a statement sent to NBC News, in which he asserted it was at odds with his own perception.

“The story is absurd,” wrote Cook. “A lot of the reporting, and certainly the conclusions, just don’t match with reality. At a base level, it shows a lack of understanding about how the design team works and how Apple works. It distorts relationships, decisions and events to the point that we just don’t recognize the company it claims to describe.”

Grizzled Journalists soon recognised this as the kind of non-specific denial companies often send out when they want to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a story without calling out any specific inaccuracies. Cook is essentially saying he disagrees with the conclusions but then he would, wouldn’t he?

Ive’s departure doesn’t seem to have done Apple’s share price any harm, but it does increase the pressure on the company to prove it can still be a consumer technology trailblazer without him. While Apple hasn’t shown much evidence of this for a while, that lack of differentiation was largely put down to the maturity of the smartphone form factor and the openness of the component supply chain. If Apple still hasn’t invented anything revolutionary in a few years’ time, people now might pin the blame on Cook.

Apple’s design chief decides to call it a day

Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, has announced that he is leaving the company at the end of the year and will set up LoveFrom, his own creative business, with Apple as its first client.

Sir Jonathan “Jony” Ive has been instrumental in giving the world a string of iconic Apple products over the last two decades. Among them the most influential ones should be the iPod, which turned the recorded music industry upside down, the iPhone, which redefined what mobile handsets are and do, and the iPad, which practically created the tablet market. In addition, he was also behind the Mac computers and the Apple Watch, the success of which has been more muted.

Ive stressed that his departure from the company does not mean he will stop working with Apple. “While I will not be an [Apple] employee, I will still be very involved — I hope for many, many years to come,” Ive told the Financial Times in an interview. “This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change.” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, believed the company would continue the success of the Ive era, and was looking forward to the collaboration with Ive’s new venture. “We get to continue with the same team that we’ve had for a long time and have the pleasure of continuing to work with Jony,” Cook told the FT. “I can’t imagine a better result.” Apple will not announce a successor to fill Ive’s CDO position immediately. Instead, the managers of the design teams will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s COO.

Ive’s decision to leave should not appear to have come out of the blue to those that have followed the industry, and the company, closely. He was the late Steve Jobs’ closest ally and, among other things, had been an active presence at product debuts, through video links. After Jobs passed away this patterned continued, up to the point when the Apple Watch was launched. Ive would appear at the events on pre-recorded videos, unveiling the products, in particular talking about the details. That has not happened since. In a 2015 feature by the New Yorker magazine, Ive said he had been “deeply tired”. In May that year he was appointed CDO, a position that would rid him of the day-to-day responsibilities to run the design team.

More recently it appears Ive has expand his interest beyond sleek consumer products. For example, his team were heavily involved in designing Apple’s new headquarters. This is also a vision he gives his new business. “There are products that we have been working on for a number of years,” Ive told the FT. “I’m beyond excited that I get to continue working on those, and there are some new projects as well that I’ll get to develop and contribute to.” He also denied that the weakened appeal of the iPhone, which has not been helped by the trade war with China, is a contributing factor to his decision. To tell from his reduced involvement in products over the last few years, the decision seems to have been long in the making.

Before he was knighted for “services to design and enterprise” by the Queen in 2012, Ive had already been hailed by Stephen Fry as one of the two Englishmen alive to have the most profound impact on people’s lives. The other, according to Fry, is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Enhanced privacy protection is now at the core of Apple

At its 2019 developer conference Apple introduced new measures to strengthen user privacy protection, as a point of differentiation from other big tech companies.

Apple is hosting its 2019 edition of Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in California. On the first day the company announced a number of new products including the iOS13, new version of MacOS (called “Catalina”), the first version of iPadOS, and WatchOS6. At the same time, iTunes, which has been around for nearly two decades and has been at the vanguard of Apple’s adventure into the music industry, is finally retired. At the event, Apple also unveiled the radically revamped Mac Pro. Instead of looking like a waste basket (as the 2nd generation did), the new top end desktop computer looks more like a cheese grater.

One key feature that stood out when the new software was introduced was Apple’s focus on privacy, in particular the new “Sign in with Apple”.  It will be mandatory for apps which support 3rd-party log in to also include this new option, in addition to, or as Apple would like it, instead of, Facebook and Google. Although Tim Cook, in a post-event interview with CBS claimed “we’re not really taking a shot at anybody”, Craig Federighi, Apple’s software chief, was pulling no punch when introducing the feature. After showing the current two options to sign in apps or websites, he declared Apple wanted to offer a better option, which will be “fast, easy sign-in without all the tracking.”

In practice this means Apple will act as a privacy interlocutor. A user can log in to an app or a website with his or her Apple ID. Apple will then verify the email addresses, make dual-factor authentication, then send developers a unique random ID, which Apple asks developers to trust. Users can also choose to use TouchID or FaceID for authentication. In addition to the Apple products (iPhone, iPad, Watch, etc.), and it can also work on browsers built on other platforms (Windows, Chrome, etc.).

In addition to Sign in with Apple, the company also updated its Maps, so that apps that track users’ location would need to ask for permission every time it is activated. On MacOS, all apps need to request permission to access the user’s files on the computer, while Watch users can approve security requests by tapping the button on the side.

Although both Facebook and Google have been talking up about their focus on privacy, these companies have an intrinsic conflict of interest: their business model is built on monetising user data. Apple, on the other hand, makes money by selling products and services. Therefore, it is in Apple’s own interest to guard user privacy as close as possible, to enhance current and future consumers’ trust. By making privacy protection its differentiator, or as TechCrunch called it, delivering “privacy-as-a-service”, Apple is elevating the match to a level Google, Facebook, and other internet companies will be challenged to match.

Microsoft and Sony join up on AI and cloud gaming

Microsoft and Sony have signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly develop cloud systems for game and content streaming, and to integrate Microsoft’s AI with Sony’s image sensors.

This is another step on Sony’s journey to transform from a console and title seller to a game streaming service platform. Microsoft’s leadership in both cloud computing, its Azure cloud platform, and the global footsteps of its datacentres makes it an ideal partner to Sony.

The collaboration will also cover semiconductors and AI. Sony has been a leader in image sensors (among its clients is the iPhone including the latest XS Max model), and the integration of Microsoft Azure AI will help improve both the imaging processing in the cloud and on device, what the companies called “a hybrid manner”. Microsoft’s AI will also be incorporated in Sony’s other consumer products to “provide highly intuitive and user-friendly AI experiences”, the companies said.

“Sony has always been a leader in both entertainment and technology, and the collaboration we announced today builds on this history of innovation,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, in a statement. “Our partnership brings the power of Azure and Azure AI to Sony to deliver new gaming and entertainment experiences for customers.”

Kenichiro Yoshida, president and CEO of Sony agreed. “I hope that in the areas of semiconductors and AI, leveraging each company’s cutting-edge technology in a mutually complementary way will lead to the creation of new value for society,” he said.

Looking to the future of the PlayStation platform, Yoshida said, “Our mission is to seamlessly evolve this platform as one that continues to deliver the best and most immersive entertainment experiences, together with a cloud environment that ensures the best possible experience, anytime, anywhere.”

Gaming is following the trend of video and music from one-off ownership selling to access streaming. But gamers are more sensitive to the visual quality and, above everything else, lagging. So to provide good experience to convert gamers to long-term streaming subscribers, the platform needs to guarantee superb connection. This is where Microsoft’s datacentre footsteps and the upcoming 5G networks will fit well with the “game” plan.

Another key success factor, similar to video streaming market, is the content. Gamers’ taste can be fast changing and frivolous. That is why the companies also stressed the importance to “collaborate closely with a multitude of content creators that capture the imagination of people around the world, and through our cutting-edge technology, we provide the tools to bring their dreams and vision to reality.”

No information on the size of investment or the number of staff involved in the collaboration is disclosed, but the companies promised to “share additional information when available”.

Apple is facing complaints from developers for removing competing apps

Apps that help users control screen time have been removed or been demanded to curtail their features after Apple rolled out similar features.

Many app makers have claimed that their parental control and screen time alert apps have either been removed by Apple or have been asked to change the features, shortly after Apple rolled out similar features on iOS, reported The New York Times. 11 out of the 17 most downloaded apps of this category have been taken down, according to the research by the app analytics firm Sensor Tower and the NYT.

Apple included screen time control tools when iOS 12 was unveiled at the WWDC event in June last year, integrated in the Settings menu when the new OS was officially launched. They enabled parents to control how much time their kids can spend on iPhones and iPads, as well as alert users the time they spend on their iOS devices. But they are not as feature rich as some specialised 3rd party apps, the developers told the NYT. They were also not terribly robust. Only a few days after the new iOS was released to the public, many kids already found ways to bypass the control, according to the parents who shared their experiences on Reddit.

Apple’s official response claimed that these apps were removed to help “protect our children from technologies that could be used to violate their privacy and security.” Its spokesperson also denied that the apps were removed for competition reasons, saying, “we treat all apps the same, including those that compete with our own services.”

However, both the timing and the reasons given by Apple would raise some eyebrows. While its defence of limiting the device management features for enterprise use is plausible, as was detailed in the response to MacRumor by Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP for Worldwide Marketing, some other key features that have been in place for years and have been repeatedly approved by Apple are being asked to be removed, some developers told the newspaper. For example, these apps support device level blocking of certain content while Apple’s tool only blocks content inside the Safari browser.

At least three of the app developers, Kidslox, Qustodio, and Kaspersky Lab have filed complaints at the EU’s competition commission.

It is less likely that Apple purges the competing apps for the revenue. On one hand, Apple does not directly get revenue from their screen time apps, it is included in the phone price. On the other hand, by taking down these apps Apple is losing its share of the payment the apps receive (30%). A more plausible reason to trigger the Apple action is these apps can be used cross-platform, which means parents on iPhone can control their kids’ screen time on Android. It is not entirely out of the question that Apple may be using some feeble excuses to lock in as many users as possible.

This is another example that Apple is taking its role as platform and curator of apps too far, and inadvertently lending support to the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, when she said, without naming Apple, that “either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.” These complaints also sound similar to Spotify’s accusation that Apple is being both the referee and a player.

Apple said to be losing faith in Intel’s 5G modem capabilities

A new report suggests Apple no longer has faith in Intel’s ability to deliver a 5G modem it can stick in its 2020 iPhones.

The scoop comes courtesy of Fast Company, which cites an anonymous source that claims to have some insight into the development of the Intel XMM 8160 5G modem. This shadowy figure told Fast Company Intel has been missing incremental deadlines for the development of this critical component, which has led to understandable consternation on the part of Apple.

Equally unsurprising is the revelation that Apple is a pretty high-maintenance company to work with. While some people might take a more chilled approach to component punctuality, Apple is pretty uptight about this sort of thing and isn’t shy about giving errant suppliers a hard time. Intel presumably bent over backwards for this massive deal win, but it always looked like a bit of a reach.

Speculation around Intel’s ability to deliver began as soon as the deal was announced. Late last year Intel got so sick of this scepticism that it publicly announced it was going to have the part ready half a year sooner than previously promised. At the time that seemed like a cosmetic PR move and when asked for comment on this story Intel only had the following to say: “As we said in November 2018, Intel plans to support customer device launches in 2020 with its XMM 8160 5G multimode modem.”

That’s hardly the most strident rebuttal of these latest allegations is it? Especially the use of the term ‘plans to’ instead of ‘will’, that seems to deliberately allow for a level of wriggle room that shouldn’t be needed if everything’s going according to plan. You can see why Apple might be concerned and the report implies Intel might be starting to think it doesn’t need the hassle too.

It goes on to talk about Apple’s ultimate goal of making its own modems, pointing out, as many have previously, that this is far from straightforward. The piece cites a UBS analyst who has joined the chorus of scepticism about Apple’s ability to deliver a 5G iPhone in 2020. Of course this could all be rubbish and Intel may well deliver on its promises, but if it doesn’t Apple doesn’t seem to have a 5G plan B.

Samsung warns profit could half on weak chip and display demand

The world leader in smartphones and chips has released a profit warning for its Q1 results, due to be announced next month. Analysts estimate its operating profit could halve from a year ago.

The company announced that it would miss market expectations, due to hard hits for sales in its key display and semiconductor business units. “The company expects the scope of price declines in main memory chip products to be larger than expected,” said Samsung.

Semiconductor and display have been the major revenue and profit generators for Samsung Electronics over the last few years. In 2018, these two business lines, combined to form Samsung “Device Solutions” (DS) business unit, delivering 49% of total revenues and 79% of its operating profit. However, it has already come under pressure. In Q4 last year, the operating profit of DS dropped by 29% from a year ago.

This communication should not come entirely as a surprise. In the company’s AGM on 20 March, Samsung already outlined its 2019 outlook for both the overall business and for individual business units. On the macro business environment, Samsung predicted “In 2019, we expect business conditions to remain difficult as global trade conflicts persist and changes in monetary policies of developed nations may lead to financial uncertainties in emerging economies.”

On the semiconductor front, especially for NAND business, Samsung warned “uncertainty persists over supply-demand dynamics caused by capacity expansions in the industry and a potential slowdown in demand following inventory stocking by customers.” On the display business Samsung expected “conditions to worsen in 2019 as competition rises amid a relatively stagnant market.”

Samsung did not give more specific indicators on the level of miss, but investment analysts predicted the company to report a $6.4 billion operating profit for Q1, down from $13.8 billion in Q1 last year, with revenues expected to come down to $47.4 billion from $53.5 billion, according to Refinitiv SmartEstimate.

“Inventories piling up on its memory chip side and the weak performance of its display panels business due to bad sales of Apple’s iPhones are hurting profitability for Samsung,” said Lee Won-sik, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities, quoted by Reuters.

The soft smartphone market including that experienced by Apple, Samsung’s main rival as well as customer, has been attributed the main reason behind the difficulty. But Samsung believed it could turn things around, especially the demand for memory products, in the second half of the year, as it told the shareholders last week.

Samsung Electronics share price went down by 0.55% at the time of writing.

Apple issues weak response to Spotify’s claims of discrimination

Apple has presented its side of the dispute with Spotify, claiming it is treating the latter the same as other apps and it is reasonable to charge 30% of premium payment to apps.

Shortly after Spotify filed a claim at the EU against Apple for being discriminated by the latter’s App Store rules and practices, Apple released a statement to deny these claims and throw the accusations back at Spotify.

Apple argued for the 30% charge of premium paid to apps on App Store platform with a few justifications. “Apple connects Spotify to our users. We provide the platform by which users download and update their app. We share critical software development tools to support Spotify’s app building. And we built a secure payment system — no small undertaking — which allows users to have faith in in-app transactions,” the statement said. Apple also hastened to add that Spotify has left out policy that the revenue share will drop to 15% from the second year on.

On Spotify’s argument that Apple has restricted payment methods to Apple’s own payment system only, Apple retorted that it demands all “digital goods and services that are purchased inside the app using our secure in-app purchase system”.

There are a few layers in the reading of the attrition when each side is only talking its own side’s truth, but there are also bigger questions related to the whole digital economy. There are minor inconsistencies in Apple’s statement, for example it claimed that Spotify has made “substantial revenue that they draw from the App Store’s customers”, only to contradict a few lines below by playing down the App Store’s significance by saying “only a tiny fraction of their subscriptions fall (sic.) under Apple’s revenue-sharing model.” And there is no need for Apple to use the dubious accusation that Spotify is suing music creators. They (Spotify, Google, Pandora, Amazon) are not. They are appealing to overturn a court decision to increase royalty payment by 44%.

There is as much left unsaid as said. For example, Apple failed to address Spotify’s concern that Apple is both operating a platform and distributing its own competing products, in this case Apple Music. This was a point brought up in a conversation The Verge had with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who did not include in her first list of companies to “break up”. “It’s got to be one or the other,” Warren told The Verge referring to Apple. “Either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.” This resonates with Spotify’s accusation that Apple is being both the referee and a player.

It also does not give out the reason why Spotify, or any apps, should not have the option to handle payments within the app with equally safe payment system (e.g. credit cards).

Then there is the broader question whether app stores should be allowed to collect a commission fee for apps distributed on its platform. Technically Apple, and other applications stores like Google’s Play Store, could argue that they are a distribution channel and a retail outlet. Like other channels and retailers, they must charge a fee to sell the products. This side of the business would not be so significant for Apple earlier, as it was mainly using the app ecosystem to sell, and lock consumers in, iPhones. It is getting more meaning for the company now that the iPhone sales are slowing down while “Services” has become a meaningful part of the business. That is also a key reason why both Apple and Google are actively encouraging apps to move to subscription model to generate recurring income for the platforms.

But there has never been any justification why the fee should be as high as 30%, and Apple and Google have been well synchronised with their charge level (as well as dropping the fee from second year onward to 15%). This has become a significant additional cost for the app developers. Some with deeper pockets could absorb the cost and keep the retail price similar to other platforms (e.g. The Economist magazine). Those businesses operating on low margin or on a loss have to move the additional cost to users who opt to pay for the premium inside the app (e.g. Spotify). Other businesses simply choose to disable the option to upgrade to premium inside their iOS app to avoid the fee (e.g. the Financial Times newspaper).

Apple used Spotify’s partnerships with carriers as a supporting argument for the charge, saying “a significant portion of Spotify’s customers come through partnerships with mobile carriers. (This) requires Spotify to pay a similar distribution fee to retailers and carriers.” This may or may not true as each carrier deal with OTT services is different. Even if this is accurate, mobile carriers most likely are following the Apple’s and Google’s benchmark rather than the other way round.

Apple will struggle with 5G for years – analyst

Not only will Apple lag its competitors by at least a year in launching a 5G phone, it might still suck anyway according to a semiconductor analyst.

Bloomberg apparently got hold of a research note from Matthew Ramsay, who heads up the TMT semiconductor business at Cowen. He seems to reckon Apple has boxed itself into a corner by ditching Qualcomm as a 5G modem supplier and is now seriously short of good options in that area. He also expressed surprised that Apple has allowed this situation to develop.

Ramsay detailed four main options for Apple for 5G, but he doesn’t think any of them are great. The first is what is generally assumed: that Apple will launch 18 months behind the competition with an Intel 5G modem that is expected to be inferior and not even support mmWave. The recent MWC show saw the first 5G phones launched but Apple tends to announce new iPhones in September, hence the big lag.

Rubbish option number two is to see if anyone else can help Apple out on the modem side of things. But Huawei is off the table due to all the aggro it’s getting from the US and Samsung would be likely to ruthlessly exploit its overwhelmingly strong bargaining position, since it’s another of the long list of companies Apple is on frosty terms with. Other than that there’s Taiwanese MediaTek, but Ramsay seems to think it’s even further behind than Intel.

A third, highly implausible, option would be for Apple and Qualcomm to kiss and make up. Not only does there seem to have been too many things said that can’t be unsaid in their bitter legal dispute, but that would be an utter humiliation for Apple and surely Qualcomm wouldn’t be able to resist imposing punitive terms. Having said that, sometimes pragmatism and enlightened self-interest prevail, but we would be amazed if they did in this case.

The last option would be for Apple to buy Intel’s modem business from it in order to accelerate the development process. This would be expensive but Apple can certainly afford it. There is, however, no guarantee Apple would improve on Intel’s efforts since modems are hardly a core competence. It’s even less likely that Apple would be able to make a material improvement in the next year or two.

A fifth option not posited by Ramsay would be for an even longer delay in bringing a 5G phone to market. Apple is brilliant at marketing and could easily throw resources at belittling 5G in the short term to downplay the significance of its absence from that market. That argument would certainly find some sympathy from us in the short term, but it would surely start to wear thin before long.

Apple and Goldman Sachs may soon issue a credit card together

The Wall Street Journal reports that the iPhone maker from Silicon Valley and the Wall Street stalwart are mulling over the idea of jointly issuing a credit card to Apple users.

Quoting people familiar with the situation, the paper claimed that Apple and Goldman Sachs may start a trial of the card on their own staff in the coming weeks before it is launched later in the spring. A similar partnership was earlier reported in May 2018 by the same paper.

If this does happen, it will not be the first time Apple takes part in card issuing. The company has already partnered Barclays to issue Barclaycard with Apple Rewards, by which users can earn points from purchases made at Apple or elsewhere, which can then be converted to Apple Stores or iTunes Store coupons.

Nor is Apple the only internet company to issue bank cards. Amazon, for example, has partnered with multiple banks (including RBS and NatWest in the UK) to issue different kinds of credit, debit, cash-back and other types of cards with different benefits.

Where the Goldman Sacks card will be different, according to the WSJ article, is its tighter integration with features offered by the Apple Wallet app on the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

By now, users of Apple Wallet can store in the app “credit, debit, and prepaid cards, store cards, boarding passes, movie tickets, coupons, rewards cards, student ID cards” etc. Then users can use “passes on your iPhone to check in for flights, get and redeem rewards, get in to movies, or redeem coupons. Passes can include useful information like the balance on your coffee card, your coupon’s expiration date, your seat number for a concert”, and so on.

The speculated card is said to work with these Wallet functions as well as with upcoming features. For example, Wallet may keep spending limits, track rewards, encourage users to pay down their credit card debt, and manage balances. These will not be fundamentally new ideas. Apple Watch is already attempting to improve the user’s physical wellness, and the recent update on iOS has added notification of user’s screen time.

This may bring addition benefit to Apple, at a time when its Products business is slowing down while Services is growing to be more important. As a concrete example, Apple could get higher commission fee from transactions on its own cards then on those made through Apple Pay linked to cards issued by other institutions.

For Goldman Sachs, on the other hand, the main driver would be the iOS users. Traditionally an investment and wholesale bank, Goldman Sachs only recently opened an online retail banking business in the shape of Marcus by Goldman Sachs. A joint credit card would be a good channel to access the iPhone users, which are believed to be higher spenders among smartphone users. Eventually, WSJ claimed, the card may expand to offer personal loans, wealth management services, and other financial products, which would be closer to Goldman Sachs’ heart.