Unflattering news you may have missed due to yesterday’s Apple event noise

Apple events are the gifts that keep on giving. It’s handy for us tech bloggers because it gives us a chance to dust off our Easy-Bake Ovens and cook up a batch of hot takes on developments that will impact many sectors of tech for at least the next nine months.
It’s also handy for any non-Apple company that wants to make an unflattering or unpopular news announcement in under the media and the public’s radars.
I mean, just look at the resources that go into covering Apple’s events. It seems like most publications run liveblogs, which vary from serious transcriptions of whatever’s happening onstage to off-key banter that’s barely related to Apple. Then there are the photos, the longer posts, the columns, the features… phew. The rest of the world seems to stop when Apple takes the stage.
For instance, we observed three instances where unflattering news announcements by non-Apple companies coincided with yesterday’s media event. (For the record, we don’t know if it was intentional, but the timing was definitely convenient, regardless.)
First was the news that 21st Century Fox has acquired a majority stake in National Geographic, the iconic magazine run by a nonprofit organization for more than a century. Fox will own 73 percent of the National Geographic Group and reportedly plans to turn the flagship magazine into a for-profit venture.
People are understandably worried about how this new ownership might change National Geographic. Some are concerned about Rupert Murdoch’s personal views coloring the magazine’s coverage; others are worried that Fox’s habit of misleading viewers could transfer to the centenarian publication.
Then there was the announcement that Intel plans to stop supporting the Science Talent Search, an annual competition in which high school seniors compete for prizes, it has sponsored since 1998. (The event itself dates back to 1942 — not as old as National Geographic, but still fairly well established.)
The society behind the Science Talent Search is looking for a new sponsor now . It seeks $6 million annually and a five-year commitment. Intel plans to keep its sponsorship going until 2017; after that the company’s checkbook will close.
And finally there was the death of a much younger entity: Amazon’s Fire Phone — a giant black eye for Amazon’s otherwise successful push into gadget-making. The pet project that never managed to catch on despite rock bottom pricing, access to all of Amazon’s content stores, and a heavy marketing push is done.
Amazon revealed yesterday that it has sold through its entire stock of Fire Phones — despite all odds — and that it doesn’t plan to make any more of them. That doesn’t come as much of a surprise given the phone’s lack of popularity, but the company’s decision to announce that the same day the new iPhones came out seems to indicate just a little bit of shame about the product’s failure.
For all of the panache shown on Apple’s stage and the company’s ability to drum up desire for new products with just a quick presentation, sometimes it’s more fun to see what other companies are trying to bury (intentionally or otherwise) during those keynotes.

Apple eyes the office with new iPad Pro, its tablet workhorse

We may have known it was coming, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.

Just after a quick update on Apple Watch during Apple’s live event, CEO Tim Cook announced what he called “the biggest iPad news in iPad since iPad.”

iPad Pro's screen measures 12.9 inches diagonally

iPad Pro’s screen measures 12.9 inches diagonally

iPad Pro. Apple’s Phil Schiller gave us a rundown of the new addition to the iPad line.

Predictably, it’s bigger. A lot bigger.

At 12.9 inches, the width of the iPad Pro’s display is the same as the height of the iPad Air 2’s. In fact, that kind of screen real estate brings iPad Pro’s display awfully close to that of a 13-inch Macbook Pro (obviously).

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Side-by-side of iPad Air 2 and the new iPad Pro

So, what’s Apple doing with all of that room?

Well, for starters, the company is putting a new chip behind it. iPad Pro will be powered by Apple’s new 64-bit A9X processor, which is seriously quick –up to 1.8 times faster than its predecessor, the A8X. What does that mean, exactly?

Well, to put it simply, it means that this processor puts iPad firmly in the realm of desktop-class performance, with graphics that perform in console-class. Which is great, but also a necessity considering where Apple is trying to position this model.

It’s a 2-in-1 or “detachable” tablet, rather than the “slate” style (like every other iPad model). These 2-in-1 tablets are designed to be extremely productive devices meant to complete tasks normally outsourced to desktop and laptop computers.

In order to make iPad Pro a device that can bridge the divide between the power of a desktop computer and the portability of a tablet, Apple had to go beyond a big screen and a quick processor, though.

A big part of using a desktop/laptop computer is typing, which has never been ideal on iPad (or any other “slate” tablet). Now, iPad Pro has a full-size software keyboard, which should make typing on-screen faster, easier, and a bit more natural.

Still, typing on a touchscreen is far from ideal. So, Apple also announced the first in a handful of new accessories: the Smart Keyboard, a detachable keyboard with keys that feature the same technology unveiled in the new Macbook.

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Apple’s Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro

That brings us to the other peripheral Apple announced in conjunction with iPad Pro: Apple Pencil.

An illustration of the inside of the Apple Pencil.

An illustration of the inside of the Apple Pencil.

Yeah, it looks like a stylus. But it isn’t. (No, really!)

Though it functions much like a stylus (aka a dumb pen-shaped solid object with a soft tip at one end) on the surface, Apple Pencil’s tip is full of sensors that allow greater control for applications like drawing, writing, and annotating.

A key component of iPad’s productivity boost is iOS 9 (available September 16th), which will allow you to make use of that massive screen with multitasking features like easy app-switching, the “split view” that lets you view and work in two applications at once, and the picture-in-a-picture feature that allows you to watch videos whilst you work in another app.

Though iPad Pro is big and an unprecedented kind of powerful, it remains relatively lean. The new model is just 6.9mm thick, compared to iPad Air’s 6.1mm. Though it’s considerably heavier at 1.57 lbs., iPad Pro is still extremely portable.

At a time when we’re all increasingly fed up with toting around heavy laptops and chargers, iPad Pro may prove a force to be reckoned with. While its 10-hour battery life may not hold a candle to iPhone, it’s far better than the battery lives of most laptops, and it’s much easier to haul.

Of course, that’s not to say long-time Apple fans won’t have something to say about the Pro — namely how the split screen view and not-stylus stylus (aka the Apple Pencil) are things Apple founder Steve Jobs wasn’t a fan of when it came to tablet innovation. But the Pro also isn’t intended primarily for consumers, either. It is, perhaps, the company’s most direct attempt to court enterprise customers to date.

iPad Pro will be available in November. The 32GB model starts at $800 with the 64GB model coming in at $949, and the 128GB model at $1079.

Apple Pay on the wrist: How Apple’s watch gets around the ID problem

Apple only gave a fleeting demo of how contactless payments would work on its new Apple Watch at its Spring Forward event on Monday, but it was an impressive one. You select a card from Passbook in the watch interface and then tap the wearable device against it or wave it over the payment terminal and, presto, your credit card is charged. The watch emits a tone and a vibration to show the transaction has gone through.

Furthermore, according to reports from the event, Apple Pay doesn’t always need to be manually activated in the watch. If you move your hand close to a near-field communications (NFC) based terminal, the app will immediately become active and use your primary credit card for payment — most likely the terminal’s NFC radio “wakes up” the NFC chip along with the Pay app in the Watch.

There also doesn’t seem to be any passcode or other ID authentication necessary. Most retailers will ask for signature –– after the EMV transition this year, many will start asking for PIN codes –– if the purchase is over $20 or $25, but Apple seems to removing every other barrier possible to a simple tap-and-go payments in its new wearable device.

But how does Apple do this with compromising security? Rather ingeniously actually. The Apple Watch appears to use its other sensors to make an indirect ID. Last week at Oracle Arena, Apple head of internet software services Eddy Cue explained that the watch senses when you put it on and then asks for authentication, which you can give either by supplying a fingerprint on the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus. If you’re using an iPhone 5 or 5s, which don’t support Apple Pay directly, you can enter a PIN code in the phone’s app or on the watch itself.

After that, as long as the Apple Watch is clamped to your wrist, your authentication is valid in Apple Pay. But as soon as the watch detects that you’ve removed it, Apple Pay locks up, requiring you to re-authenticate to re-activate it.

Apple Watch Pay

This means you won’t be handing your wristwatch to your waiter to pay your check, but most people probably don’t want to see their new $350-plus fashion accessory disappear behind the bar anyway. Short of a desperate criminal cutting off your hand at the forearm, it’s a pretty full-proof system: Apple Pay is active when the watch is on your wrist, and it’s nullified when the watch comes off.

What’s particularly interesting to think about is how this kind of variable authentication might be used to validate different types of transactions in the future. Anyone who has ever shopped with a piece of plastic knows that different levels of security come into play depending on what and where you’re buying. For instance, self-service gas stations typically ask for your zip code at the pump. Signature requirements kick in at a grocery store if you rack up a high enough bill. And if you’re making a big dollar-amount purchase, a clerk will often ask to see a picture ID.

Apple could fit different levels of Apple Pay authentication to those various retail security policies and then offer them up as options to merchants or payment processors. For instance, any purchase under $25 may not require any additional verification beyond a wave of a wrist. A more expensive purchase that would normally require a signature could be handled with a PIN code entered on the watch, instead of a John Hancock with a pen. A very expensive transaction could require Touch ID verification on the phone and a PIN number to boot.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m about to pay a $900 bill with my watch, I don’t mind jumping through a few extra hoops. On the other hand, I do get really annoyed when I’m forced to go through four or five different screens on a drug store’s payment terminal when all I’m doing is buying a stick of deodorant. If Apple could match a purchase’s level of hassle to its price, then it could do something much more impressive in payments than merely making them contactless.

Apple has tripled the number of stores accepting Pay in 5 months

Apple Pay is accepted by 700,000 retailer locations in the U.S., and the iPhone-embedded payment service now loads cards from 2,500 card issuing banks, CEO Tim Cook revealed at the kick off of Apple’s Spring Forward Event on Monday.

That’s pretty astonishing growth considering Apple was accepted at 220,000 retailers at its launch in October, meaning retail chains and independent businesses have been either upgrading their checkout gear to accept the near-field communications (NFC) taps used by Apple’s iPhone contactless payment technology or they’ve turned on NFC capabilities in their existing terminals.

A growing list of retailers accept Apple Pay, Apple revealed at its Spring Forward event.

A growing list of retailers accept Apple Pay, Apple revealed at its Spring Forward event.

At the event, Cook flashed a slide on screen that showed many of the retail chains newly on board with Apple Pay. There were carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile, airlines and hotels JetBlue and Marriott and many, many new stores.

The number of partner banks quintupled from the 500 deals Apple had in place at launch, which is significant because it means consumers don’t have to apply for specific debit or credit cards to use Apple Pay. Consumers can load any card — or at least the vast majority of cards — they already have in their billfolds into the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Not having the backing of the banks has been a hindrance to other mobile wallets like Google Wallet and Isis/Softcard at launch, but Apple recently claimed that more than 90 percent of all credit and debit transactions could technically be supported on Apple Pay.

Apple is clearly having success embedding its service into retail stores, but it gave an update on its effort to embed itself into vehicles. CarPlay now has the backing of all of the world’s major automakers. Though we have yet to see a CarPlay-enabled vehicle, this likely means that CarPlay will eventually become an option in most newer cars with fancy infotainment systems.

Apple event preview: Apple Watch, Apple Watch, maybe a MacBook

On Monday, Apple is holding a special event starting at 10 a.m. PT. Gigaom will be there to liveblog, and you can stream the video online from a Mac or iOS device.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t provide an agenda for its special events, so we had to come up with one.

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Apple Watch price and availability

If Apple wants us to buy these smartwatches it’s been playing up the past five months, it’s going to have to tell us how much they cost and when Apple fans can start lining up. Apple Watch will go on sale in April, so this event will be Apple’s best chance to convince the public its worth the price.

We know the least expensive Apple Watch will start at $349. But there are three separate Apple Watch lines: “Watch,” “Watch Sport,” and “Watch Edition.” Watch Edition is made out of 18-karat gold. And each watch has optional bands sold separately. So there’s a lot of range for different prices.

Speculation has centered on the Watch Sport being $349, with the stainless steel Watch coming in somewhere between $500 and $1000. The Watch Edition is the hardest to pinpoint, with guesses starting around $1,000 and going up to $10,000 or more.

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

You might even be able to pre-order an Apple Watch. We’ll learn on Monday.

Apple Watch apps

Apple has been holding secretive sessions with third-party developers in what sounds like a internet-free bunker in Apple’s headquarters, according to reports from Bloomberg and 9to5Mac. Developers reportedly can’t bring in anything but a hard drive and can’t take anything out of the room, but in return, they have been able to fine-tune their apps on real Apple Watch prototype hardware.

The Bloomberg report named BMW, Facebook, Starwood Hotels and United Airlines as companies participating in the secret lab sessions, but 9to5Mac put the number at “hundreds of iOS developers.”  CEO Tim Cook has said Apple Watch will be able to start a car, and Starwood wants to use Apple Watch as a hotel room key, so to show off those features, Apple will probably pull a few of its partners up on stage.

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Pay with the Apple Watch.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Pay with the Apple Watch. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

9to5Mac pointed to Electronic Arts, Uber, Dropbox, and Match.com as participants in secretive Apple Watch trials. Apple will also mention ApplePay and explain how it works on the watch and how many partners it’s signed up. Apple could also pull one of its HomeKit partners to explain how Apple Watch works in a smart home.

Apple’s also has at least two of its own apps, Fitness and Workout, that it will need to explain to the world, in addition to improvements in the Health app.

Jony Ive in a white box

One major question about Apple Watch is what’s underneath the hood. Apple has said the S1, a “system in package,” is powering the smartwatch. I don’t expect Apple to go too much into specs on Monday — maybe it will reveal the Apple Watch has 8GB of onboard storage — but we’ll certainly get a little more clarity than we had before.

Apple Watch Internals

More likely is that Apple will be making the case that even in the absence of a “killer app” or compelling reason to purchase an Apple Watch, there are enough uses and it’s a good enough timepiece that you want it anyway. That discussion will likely focus on features and functions, like its low-power mode and “heart rate glance,” a way to check heart rate on the watch quickly.

Most likely, Apple design guru Jony Ive will deliver that part of that story, through a video, since he doesn’t like public speaking. And as is Ive’s wont, that video will probably take place in a white box.

Here’s Ive’s video from a white box from last September, when he introduced the Apple Watch:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwpGU3aUYao

iOS update

The new iPhone 6 is displayed during an Apple special event.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The new iPhone 6 is displayed during an Apple special event. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s been almost confirmed that Apple Watch will require a companion iOS app for changing settings and controlling the watch. Since no such app is currently installed on iPhones, the next iOS update, 8.2, will likely have support for pairing with an Apple Watch, or the companion app could be accessible from the iTunes App Store.

Since Apple will have to push an update to Apple Watch users, it might give some stage time to other tweaks in iOS 8.2. However, the major iOS update will likely be revealed this June, at Apple’s developer’s conference.

One more thing?

If there’s a surprise Apple product announcement at Monday’s event, it’s unlikely to be the long-rumored bigger iPad or a new Apple TV.

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Based on recent rumors, there’s a chance that Apple’s radically redesigned 12-inch MacBook might be a topic of discussion on Monday. The device is tipped to use the new USB Type-C port, and could be even thinner than the current MacBook Air. It’s not a sure thing, but if you’re in the market for a new laptop, perhaps you should wait until after Monday’s announcements.

At the very least, a new MacBook would be a better surprise than a free U2 album.

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