My First Apple HomeKit Experiments

I've been intending, on and off for the last year or so, to start experimenting with some smart home accessories—things like lights, heating controllers, and power sockets that can be controlled from the iPhone, or can respond to changes in the environment or your location. For one reason or another though I've held off, mostly because the systems just didn't seem ready for prime time and because of the expense in setting up things that then would probably make everyone else in the house hate my guts. 

With the impending launch of iOS 10 though, and the included Home app to act as a friendly front-end to the existing HomeKit architecture, I thought I'd dip a toe in the water, and lighting seemed like a good place to start.

Philips seem to have been fairly committed to their Hue lighting system—it's been updated to support HomeKit, and a wider range of bulbs has brought down the cost of entry—so I spent a week on eBay looking for deals. I eventually found a brand new set of white-ambience bulbs, a second-generation controller, and a dimmer switch for about a third of what it might have cost me in the shops, and snapped it up.

I was expecting to find it to be hard to set up and unreliable, but I've been really pleasantly surprised. From what I read Philips still leads the market in terms of ease-of-use, and I've had few major problems: One dimmer switch dropped off the network and was only fixed by removing the battery, and a bulb stubbornly refused to be recognised until I entered its serial number into the app. Other than that, it's been pretty good.

I'm still not sure that I'd recommend them for most people: My beta iOS 10 Home app doesn't appear to play with the regular tvOS for example, and there are still pain points in getting the Hue app itself to respond to fluctuating network conditions. I still can't see an easy way of setting the lights to do what I want them to do in my absence.  

Nevertheless it's fair to say I'm hooked on the concept. I've now got five individual Hue lamps in my house , controlled by two seperate dimmers (one for downstairs, and one for my bedroom). I love being able to change the colour temperature of most of them (I've not yet splashed out on actual colour-change bulbs at twice the price), and turning them off from my iPhone lock screen is hugely satisfying. Even Siri works when I can remember what I called the lights. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens as the Home app develops, and more devices support HomeKit.

Headphone Jack Apocalypse

With the Apple event invites out for September 7, we're a mere 9 days away from the collective mainstream tech press losing its marbles over the now-all-but-confirmed iPhone update and the widely anticipated loss of the 3.5mm headphone jack. We can safely prepare for a minor meltdown among the usual suspects, who jump on every other move that Apple makes to proclaim that the company has gone too far, and that all sensible people will finally jump ship.

Of course the world won't really end—all of those existing 3.5mm ports and headphones won't suddenly disappear, disabled by a software update or secretly buried in the Nevada desert for future documentarians to dig up. Those who buy the next iPhone and who don't already have wireless headphones will either (a) use the headphones that come in the box (whether they're wired into the Lightning port or bluetooth—and I expect it'll be the former) or (b) use an adaptor (cheap, if not in-the-box) until they get new wireless headphones. 

There'll be some minor irritation of course, but it'll be hard in a year's time to find anyone who's actually dumped the iPhone because of the loss of a legacy port. Most Android phone manufacturers will trumpet their phones still having it, until they all dump it too, spurred on by the continuing growth path of wireless over wired headphones.

Expect too, to hear lots about the extra quality that the new iPhone bring to audio across Lightning/wireless. 

Full disclosure: I own, and love, a fairly decent set of wired earbuds. If the next version of these doesn't support Bluetooth I'll be looking for something good that does anyway. I'm already slightly annoyed that I can't walk around the house without my iPhone plugged into them. 


Brain Scan of a Dead Salmon

But when you divide the brain into bitty bits and make millions of calculations according to a bunch of inferences, there are abundant opportunities for error, particularly when you are relying on software to do much of the work. This was made glaringly apparent back in 2009, when a graduate student conducted an fM.R.I. scan of a dead salmon and found neural activity in its brain when it was shown photographs of humans in social situations. Again, it was a salmon. And it was dead.

Fascinating, and a cautionary tale for anyone who deals in the interpretation of data.

Why Disney Infinity was Cancelled

This certainly seems to have surprised everyone, but Rob Keyes has the background to the announcement over at Screen Rant:

When Disney Infinity first debuted in Q3 2013 the supply didn’t meet demand and production could barely keep up to maintain appropriate inventory levels at retail, so by the time Disney Infinity 2.0 came around – based entirely on Marvel – they over-produced big time. The problem was that the forecasts were way off, and using Hulk as an example, 2 million figures were produced with only 1 million being sold. That led to a drop in revenue reported in Disney’s financials.

Managing the complexities of supply and demand in the challenging toys-to-life category seems to have been a big factor, but it's made even more complex by what might have been Infinity's killer feature: The way it brought together different licenses, story worlds and characters in one game.

Despite Disney Infinity utilizing Disney-owned properties, there were a significant number of mind-boggling obstacles with licensing that caused all sorts of restrictions. In that respect, the business sort of killed its own business. Brands couldn’t exactly overlap with ease, so Marvel, Lucasfilm and other Disney IPs each presented their own squabbles. This is why story modes in the Playsets wouldn’t allow for characters from other brands to show up, or even with playsets themselves.

The Apple TV version of Infinity was effectively shelved a few months ago. For what it's worth, I'd given the playable "Battle of Yavin" demo a spin and enjoyed it, though when the full version launched I found it unplayable, with a control system that just left me frustrated and stuck. I'm a rubbish gamer, but my daughter had no better luck.


It's a pity too since the figurines are absolutely beautiful—with some of the most elegant renderings of Star Wars characters in particular that I've ever seen.

The Apple Watch Bands I've Been Waiting For.

The leaked photo of the forthcoming Apple Watch bands from US luxury fashion brand Coach is low-res and blurry, but it clearly shows leather bands with shiny black metal hardware—perfect for the Space Black Apple Watch. It remains a mystery to me why Apple hasn't produced anything similar itself since, by all accounts, the Space Black finish has proved popular. Anyway, with a little luck I'll be able to get my hands on one of these before too long.

Tauba Auerbach's Incredible Pop-ups

Paper engineering is endlessly fascinating to me, and this is no exception. 

Working somewhere between conceptual art and graphic design, California-born artist Tauba Auerbach creates compositions that exist somewhere in the state between two and three dimensions. For a colossal book project, published in collaboration with New York-based independent bookstore Printed Matter and comprised of six die-cut paper sculptures that act as the book's pages, director Sam Fleischner caught the aural experience of leafing through the weighty tome in the above film.

I could watch this film all day. Take a look at more details over at the Printed Matter bookstore.

1.0 Sucks

Nice find by Clive Thompson from All the Time in the World: A Book of Hours (which looks like a fascinating read. Clive has the Amazon,com link— UK link here). 

As demand for the technology grew, many resisted electricities brilliant new glow. It was just too bright. It lent a “corpse-like quality” to those subjected to its glare, one Londoner argued, and it could make a crowd look “almost dangerous and garish.” Robert Louis Stevenson penned “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in 1878, hoping to dissuade London’s authorities from installing obnoxious electric streetlamps like those in Paris. “A new sort of urban star now shines at nightly,” he wrote, “horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare!”

"I don’t know all the right ways to be a graphic designer"

Excellent Design Week interview with Jonathan Barnbrook. Full of real insight and vision.  

JB: “It sounds cliché but have the strength in your beliefs. Even if you’re not quite sure you’re right, have an opinion, because the world is full of designers who don’t have an opinion or who are too scared to express their opinion, or just want to do any work they can. I think the way to be successful and generate work is to have your own world point of view. You’re an artist after all. A creative person after all and if you can make that clear there’s a real reason for people to come to you.”

For my money Jonathan is the most important graphic designer working today, and yet another example of Bowie's impeccable taste in collaborators.

JB: “I’d like to do more music stuff but I’d also like to work outside of design. I’d loved to have been an architect or work on a large scale project.

I’d love to be involved at the start of a building project. I’ll probably never get the chance but I’d love to design a building.”

If I ever get to commission a building I'm giving him a call.  

A Dream for Europe

Powerful words.  

I dream of a Europe that takes care of the child, that rescues, like a brother, the poor and those who arrive looking for welcome, because they have nothing and ask for shelter. I dream of a Europe that listens and values the elderly and sick, so that they are not reduced to unproductive waste. I dream of a Europe, where being a migrant isn’t a crime, but the call for a higher commitment towards the dignity of the human being.

Boeing 737 to be Buried Underground

Artist Roger Hiorns has ambitious plans for Birmingham in 2017, submerging a complete passenger aircraft seven metres under the surface of the city street. 

"My motive in burying the plane," says Hiorns "is to introduce a new territory to the world and to encourage the mind to be present in a new place, surreal and at odds with general accepted realities, this new object very literally tears through the established order and the established surfaces of our present reality.”

I make no apologies for loving this kind of thing. 

Retro Hipster Polaroid Loveliness

I normally sneer at this kind of thing, but this is lovely. 

THE ORIGINAL INSTANT CAMERA. REINVENTED. The only new camera for the original Polaroid® format Advanced ring flash and autofocus for great portraits iOS App for creative tools and full manual control

The Materiality of Design

Jonathan Ive on the importance of a designer's physical connection with their materials: 

Our goal has always been to try to create objects that are as beautiful as they are functional, as elegant as they are useful. Our physical designs are informed by our passion for materials and processes based on an experience we have gained by actually making things ourselves. Surprisingly fewer and fewer designers, regardless of their particular discipline, are interested in the detail of how something is made. With a father who is a fabulous craftsman I was raised with the fundamental belief that it’s only when you personally work a material with your hands that you come to understand its true nature, its characteristics, its attributes and critically of course it’s potential. I’ve always believed that it’s terribly important to understand the physical world and real objects, not purely digital representations.

So much to treasure in Ive's speech. 

The Materiality of Design

Jonathan Ive on the importance of a designer's physical connection with their materials: 

Our goal has always been to try to create objects that are as beautiful as they are functional, as elegant as they are useful. Our physical designs are informed by our passion for materials and processes based on an experience we have gained by actually making things ourselves. Surprisingly fewer and fewer designers, regardless of their particular discipline, are interested in the detail of how something is made. With a father who is a fabulous craftsman I was raised with the fundamental belief that it’s only when you personally work a material with your hands that you come to understand its true nature, its characteristics, its attributes and critically of course it’s potential. I’ve always believed that it’s terribly important to understand the physical world and real objects, not purely digital representations.

So much to treasure in Ive's speech. 

New York’s Elevators Define The City

Brilliant article by  Oliver Roeder at FiveThirtyEight on New York's love affair with the elevator (or the more prosaic lift, over here in the UK).

In 1857, still years before the Civil War, the world’s first commercial passenger elevator was installed in New York, in the Haughwout Building, then a five-story department store, at the corner of Broadway and Broome Street in SoHo. The original Haughwout elevator is long gone, but the elevator ignited what The New York Times called a “tall-building revolution,” quite literally shaping the city as we know it. And now the things are everywhere. And they’re remarkably safe: There are only about 30 elevator and escalator deaths in this country each year. About 1,900 people die taking the stairs.

I'm fascinated by how cities are defined by the ways in which we move around them, both for good and ill. My recent Pecha Kucha talk couldn't avoid pivoting around Hong Kong's Great Escalator as a fulcrum for the city, and some things we're planning for later in the year will immerse us further in that city's mass-transportation systems, and in the data-highways that never quite replaced them.

Boon Adds a Virtual Card to your Apple Wallet

Those of us who are stuck with a UK bank that doesn't seem to be interested in supporting Apple Pay (hello fellow Co-operative Bank customers!) might be interested in trying out Boon, which just launched on the App Store.

Wirecard today announced the UK launch of its new mobile payment solution, boon. Download the boon app and sign up to experience the easy, secure and private way to pay with Apple Pay. boon is based on an automatic app-to-wallet integration via a prepaid account with a digital MasterCard, issued by Wirecard Card Solutions. This allows users to top-up their account via Faster Payments, debit or credit card. boon works at any NFC-enabled terminal everywhere the MasterCard contactless logo appears. The boon app has an intuitive user interface and fresh design that represents the modern, individual lifestyle.

I'm testing out the service myself—signing up was a breeze, and the fees seem reasonable, if you just want to have an Apple Pay option for the odd time you need it. Perhaps the rise of digital-only payments will put a bit more pressure on the UK bank hold-outs. Here's hoping.


How Liam Could Solve Apple's India iPhone Problem

Earlier in April Tim Culpan over at Bloomberg wrote a great piece about the challenge that Apple and other western companies face in India. Back then he was hearing that Apple's bid to have refurbished iPhones selling cheaply in India was, again, going to be rejected. Now it's official, and so his speculation on How Apple can fix this is especially interesting.

While Brazilians dreamed of massive Shenzhen-scale factories employing hundreds of thousands of workers, Foxconn found a workaround. Instead of gathering the dozens of different components and compiling them in-country, Foxconn simply shipped almost-completed devices, akin to Lego kits, and had a far smaller workforce slot them together. Proudly bearing the label "Made in Brazil," these iPhones were still mostly Chinese.

Until recently, Apple took a ``shred everything" approach to recycling iPhones. Devices were torn apart with components crushed or melted down to their raw materials. Now the company has Liam, a robot that Apple claims can disassemble 1.2 million iPhones annually and separate them into parts.

Liam is a fascinating development. This would certainly deliver on Lisa Jackson's goal of having those parts end up back in iPhones

The iPhone was a Five-Year Overnight Success

The Verge writes up Tim Cook's CNBC comments:  

Apple CEO Tim Cook thinks it's only a matter of time before consumers come around to wanting the Apple Watch. Speaking with CNBC's Jim Cramer on Mad Money this evening, Cook compared public perception of his company's smartwatch to the original iPod and iPhone. The first iteration of each device drew heavy skepticism at first before being "viewed as an overnight success," as Cook put it.

Even after people around me started saying that the first (and second) iPhone was impressive, most of them added that they didn't personally need one. Amongst the people with whom I've discussed the Apple Watch over the last year, that's the prevailing view too. They were right about the iPhone in 2007-8, and they're right about the Apple Watch now.

"In a few years, we will look back and people will say, 'How could I have ever thought about not wearing this watch?'" he said. "Because it's doing so much for you. And then it will all of a sudden be an overnight success." Cook still very much believes in Apple's core vision of delivering products consumers didn't know they wanted. "We are going to give you things that you can’t live without," he added. "That you just don’t know you need today."

Amongst the people I know who own an Apple Watch this is already a common view. I've not worn a regular watch since, and while I know there are plenty of stories of early adopters who've tried it and ditched it, I literally don't know a single regular person who's done similarly.

Of course, while people had their doubts about the first iPhone, it was still largely seen as revolutionary to put a computer in your pocket. (People are still on the fence about the significance of the tablet, which is, at heart, a very large smartphone with less stellar sales performance.) So it's unclear whether Apple's overnight theory will hold true for the smartwatch.

I'd say the iPad is a smaller, simpler portable computer, rather than a big phone. Any doubts about the iPad's future should come from a concern that, for most people, a big phone will be all they need.

Similarly, the Apple Watch isn't just a smaller iPhone. My real questions: Can enough people be persuaded to spend $300 on a Watch in the short term, and what's Apple's eventual target price for it?

Blackstar Reveals More Secrets

Bowie's final album today pulled off another trick, almost four months after its release: 

It’s not a good idea to expose your records to sunlight but one Reddit user has discovered that by leaving the ★ Blackstar gatefold (not the actual vinyl) out in the sun, a hidden starfield is revealed.

Blackstar was an amazing final gift from David Bowie, as if we didn't already have enough to thank him for. We should also thank designer Jonathan Barnbrook for the incredible job he did of giving Bowie's last few albums their physical and graphical forms. 

Fitbit vs. the Apple Watch

Following on from my own reflections on a year of wearing the Apple Watch, I was interested to read Brian X. Chen's Fitbit piece in the NYT. I've wondered myself why—despite being fascinated by the whole activity-tracking thing—I'd not succumbed to the charms of Fitbit long before Apple Watch shipped.

I think this is relevant:

Yet the fact that Fitbit’s products focus on one thing — tracking your fitness — is not helping the company’s image in this era of Swiss Army knife devices, where products like the iPhone and Apple Watch can do multiple things. History has been unkind to single-purpose gadgets, many of which have flopped, like Cisco’s Flip camcorder, or have struggled, like the action camera from GoPro.

I've long been an admirer of single-purpose gadgets which, when done properly, can wipe the floor with poorly conceived all-in-ones. The iPod for example made perfect sense, a near-seamless blend of hardware and software optimised entirely around playing digital music. By comparison the original Mac—for all its pretences to the status of an appliance—was a Teasmade, or a toaster-oven-fridge.

Fitbit purposely took the opposite approach from Apple Watch, he added. The strategy was to begin with simple devices, to make wearables more approachable, and carefully layer on more features over time. In contrast, the Apple Watch started out doing a bit of everything: showing notifications, tracking fitness statistics and making phone calls.

“We look at it from a consumer point of view,” Mr. Park said. Apple Watch “is a computing platform, but that’s really the wrong way to approach this category from the very beginning.”

Part of Fitbit's problem though is that the very notion of an appliance has morphed into that of an app. Tomorrow's computing platforms aren't like the stratified PC with its layers of software and hardware, they're even more opaque than the original Mac, and nearly as seamless as the iPod. When we're using a well-designed app the whole device feels like a tool designed for that single purpose. It might be an illusion, but it's a mostly convincing one.

In this light the iPhone isn't a computing platform at all but a context (on-the-move and one-handed). Apple Watch is a different context, but its functionality is similarly fluid. At its best Apple Watch is only what you need it to be when you need it: A fitness monitor when I'm exercising, a communicator when I get a message, a remote control for iTunes when I'm commuting, a timepiece when I need to know the time, and a fashion accessory when I'm not doing anything else. The context in which it does these things is remarkably consistent: I'm involved in some other activity and my iPhone needs to stay in my pocket.

Of course the other problem for Fitbit is this:

In addition, many people may end up leaving their Fitbit devices in a drawer. Of those who bought a Fitbit device in 2015, 28 percent stopped using it by the end of the year, according to the company.

Just as the best camera is the one you have with you, the best fitness tracker is the one you're wearing. Apple provided plenty of reasons to keep the Apple Watch on your wrist, and it's not done yet. That's what drives the regular updates to the watch bands, and it's what will drive the ongoing updates to watchOS too.