Still ticking: The improbable survival of the luxury watch business | The Guardian >

This article in The Guardian about Swiss timepieces had no right to be as interesting as it was:

A dial that once etched out our lives in hours and minutes, its accuracy dependent on our capacity to set it in motion and wind it, may now keep us connected with the rest of the earth, via GPS and overnight wireless charging. Yet the remarkable thing is not the emergence of texts and emails on the wrists – that was always going to come at some point – but how robust the traditional and mechanical wristwatch has proven itself alongside the new technologies. Alongside the absurd complications of the fattest new timepiece comes something we are evidently keen to hang on to – a belief that beauty and refinement are ends in themselves, and that the workbench of the skilled engineer is still revered more than the production line. A beautiful ticking timepiece gives us something back – transporting us, perhaps, to an imagined time when time was still our friend.

 

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Oct 2016 Quick Update

It’s been a hectic past 2 weeks.

We had a guest from overseas staying with us, followed by a quick family holiday to Taiwan.

Taiwan was a real good escape for me from Singapore. I never knew what to expect and I must say that it’s given me just enough that I’m hungry to experience it more. My mandarin is absolutely rubbish but somehow being there was both familiar and alien. More thoughts on this once the dust has settled.

Also in the back of my my mind is this pressure to develop my online presence.

For starters, since I find it so hard to churn out posts here, I’m back to posting images on Instagram. For the 2 or 3 readers who frequent this blog, you can find me at @saentinel where I try to post something interesting and insightful a couple of times a week.

For this blog, I’ve got so many plans and ideas. I really want to increase my creative output, writing more, sketching more, posting more photos. I have a whole world of ideas inside me but there’s just no time to capitalise on them immediately. Everything has to take a back seat until it’s ready, which sometimes feels like ‘never’.

For those who’ve been following me thanks for sticking around. When I started this blog it was just meant to be about curating a public persona that lived online. But in recent years I’ve wanted to do more than just share my thoughts. I’ve wanted my thoughts to mean something. The internet is awash with so many people just sharing what they’re thinking in the moment that it’s gotten a bit overwhelming. Smartphones have enabled split second sharing that’s become so thoughtless it’s almost meaningless. What I’d really love is to do the opposite of that and post finely crafted and carefully considered items online. Things that I can stand behind and be proud of.

More to come!

5 GB is the new 16 – 512 Pixels>

Stephen Hackett, writing at his site 512 Pixels, has the best description I’ve read about what iCloud storage is to Apple’s product line:

Unlike One Drive or even Dropbox, iCloud storage is key to extending and improving the experience of using a Mac or iPhone. Dropbox may be a semi-magical folder that syncs data to other devices, but iCloud is the glue between Apple’s various platforms.

But unfortunately he’s poured quite a bit of cold water on my thoughts that Apple should give more iCloud storage to each device:

A popular suggestion is to grant users additional space based on the devices they purchase. Buy a 128 GB iPhone 7, get another 128 GB worth of storage on iCloud. While I like the idea, I’m not sure it’s feasible. What happens if you are like me and buy a new iPhone every year? Does my free storage just increase forever, or does it get adjusted based on my active devices? […]

There’s more to it than that, I’m sure. I’m no data center expert, but bumping everyone to even 10 GB would be a huge increase in disk space needed at Apple’s data centers. I don’t know what that sort of change would cost, but I can imagine it’d be huge based on Apple’s sheer number of customers. Whatever slice of profit off of iPhone hardware goes to paying for iCloud storage would certainly take a hit.

It’s a good point and he ends off his piece on the same note that Apple should still consider upping the free tier of storage as more and more people shift to using iCloud for storing their valuable data.

OK Google, why is iCloud storage so expensive? | The Verge>

The Verge is arguing that Apple is charging too much for iCloud storage compared to it’s competitors:

I don’t mind paying for storage as long as it’s reasonably priced, but Apple’s 1TB pricing is not reasonable, especially when the iPhone’s camera is a major selling point and iCloud Photos is the culprit maxing out everyone’s storage plans.

Apple charges $9.99 per month for 1TB of iCloud storage, or roughly $120 per year. Compare that to Amazon, where for $4.99 per month you get unlimited storage. Hell, Amazon Prime subscribers ($99 per year) get free unlimited photo storage as just one of many membership perks. Microsoft’s 1TB OneDrive plan costs only $6.99 per month and you get full access to the Office 365 suite of apps.

Ever since macOS Sierra has been released, many reviewers point to the fact that Apple is pointing people towards their cloud services, but not providing enough of it for free. Something I also believe they should be doing. 

Having to pay for more storage limits the adoption of their new features, creating an opening for other companies to steal their customers:

Google, meanwhile, is doing exactly what Apple should be doing. People who buy Google’s new Pixel phones are given free unlimited Google Photos storage to host all their original photographs and 4k video. For Google it’s a fair trade, it gets to scrub your photos for anonymous data that will ultimately help it sell better ads, and Pixel owners never have to worry about seeing a “storage is full” message when uploading their imagery. Apple’s not making money from ads like Google, but it definitely wants the world to think iPhone when deciding what camera to buy next.

Dropbox comes close to Apple’s exorbitant pricing model but Dropbox is in the business of selling cloud storage. Even then, 1TB Dropbox Pro subscriptions cost $99.99 per year. Just think about that for a second; Apple charges more than Dropbox even though iCloud storage is a fundamental requirement for the features Apple promotes to help drive hardware sales. And in case it wasn’t obvious to you by now, Apple still makes its money by selling hardware.

I agree with that last sentence, Apple is way more profitable than any of these cloud service companies which basically make their money from their users data. Apple should hit them all where it hurts by giving their customers no reason to change handsets.

It probably doesn’t matter much to most users but to some it’s worth considering jumping ship to Android. And if Google keeps on improving the user experience of their products while at the same time jumping leaps and bounds ahead of Apple in AI, then who knows how it’ll play out for Apple in the long run.

Mossberg: How Google’s bold moves shake up the tech industry – The Verge>

I like Mossberg’s take on how Google’s new focus on hardware will shake up the entire industry, not just Apple. Though there is are some points which should cause the team in Cupertino to sit up:

The world’s biggest tech company finally has a fitting rival. For decades, it has battled mainly software platform makers (Microsoft and Google) which had to depend on unrelated hardware partners to showcase their technology. And with hardware makers (Dell, Samsung) which had limited ability to integrate and make the most of others’ software. In the last 15 years or so, it’s done brilliantly in that matchup. Now, it will face a smart, rich rival that aims to do it all.

Apple squandered its early lead in integrated AI, with Siri, which still is clumsy so often that many just ignore it. It has similarly lost its early lead in music, waiting too long to embrace streaming and depending on hardware integration to make Apple Music an easier path for iPhone loyalists than Spotify. Another early advantage, its AirPlay system, which beams video and music to TVs and speakers, seems to have been forgotten in recent years, while Google’s Cast system is integrated in speakers and TVs from a variety of other manufacturers and a centerpiece of the new Google Home connected speaker.

I’m personally pretty excited about the Google Pixel and all future iterations. Google’s putting all their bets on hardware for their future and (putting aside privacy concerns) I think they’ve taken a solid first step.

Most people think I have an irrational love for Apple products, but that really isn’t the case. I just love using products that work. For me Apple’s products have embodied that philosophy. But Apple’s strengths have so far been in hardware design, or things in the physical realm. Their software and online services have been good but are increasingly lagging behind the competition.

Put it this way: for every leap and bound that we see from Apple’s hardware offerings, we get smaller less bold steps from their software iterations. Are they progressing? Yes. But are they getting better faster? Not really. To me, Google is now catching up to Apple on design faster than Apple is catching up with Google on services. And that’s a little frustrating.

It’s telling though, that when Apple removes a hardware feature (3.5mm audio jack), it’s marketed as ‘courage’ and everyone wants to talk about it. When Google changes their design you don’t quite hear as much chatter. I guess we being humans, there’s a certain connection with our ‘hold them in your hand’ physical products which doesn’t quite translate as well to software. But still, there’s an argument to be made about the importance of the user experience and I can say that Google’s apps have been improving tremendously over the years.

Android has also long suffered for being so fragmented as it’s spread across so many manufacturers. When I had an Android phone (an LG) I hated the experience of using the native apps, which were developed by the manufacturer to replace the ones by Google. Despite Samsung creating beautiful hardware their shell over Android is, to me, a terrible user experience. None of it appears to have been studied holistically.

Altogether Apple products still form a more compelling overall product (hardware and software) than Google’s. And for the moment this lead in unified design means that I’m willing to put up with the limitations of using Apple’s online services as well. However if the Pixel creates the same unified experience for Android, but within a solidly designed hardware wrapper, this could give Google a strategic advantage over Apple in the long run.

And ultimately, may the best product win.

Google jumps into the phone hardware market with Pixel>

I’ve got to say, regarding Google’s recently announced Pixel phone, I’m actually quite impressed.

It’s cleverly marketed to take advantage of physical features that the iPhone 7 lacks (e.g. the 3.5mm audio jack) as well as services. I really love how they’ve highlighted the integration with Google photos and think this is really smart, especially the tagline,

Unlimited storage for all your photos and videos. Say goodbye to those “storage is full” notifications.
Knowing this is a common bugbear with iPhone users who ultimately run out of space for their photos is a Sun Tzu, ‘know your enemy’ kind of tactic. Doesn’t hurt that Google Photos provides unlimited storage for users.
Google is finally making their own hardware which is super exciting and, I believe, finally gives the Android the hardware platform that it needs to be not just a ‘good enough’ alternative to the iPhone but (I hope) an excellent alternative.

Where the cobalt and graphite in our batteries comes from

The Washington Post recently published 2 articles highlighting the disastrous effects that mining for cobalt and graphite have caused to both the workers and the areas surrounding the mines. Dubbed the battery series, the focus is on minerals that make up lithium ion batteries that exist in most (if not all) mobile electronic devices.

Accompanied by graphics, videos and images, both articles are eye-openers.

1. The Cobalt Pipeline

The world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say.[…]

[…] Lithium-ion batteries were supposed to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past. Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as “green.” They are essential to plans for one day moving beyond smog-belching gasoline engines. Already these batteries have defined the world’s tech devices.

Smartphones would not fit in pockets without them. Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical. In many ways, the current Silicon Valley gold rush — from mobile devices to driverless cars — is built on the power of lithium-ion batteries.

But this comes at an exceptional cost.

2. IN YOUR PHONE, IN THEIR AIR
A trace of graphite is in consumer tech. In these Chinese villages, it’s everywhere.

A t night, the pollution around the village has an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality.

“The air sparkles,” said Zhang Tuling, a farmer in a village in far northeastern China. “When any bit of light hits the particles, they shine.”

By daylight, the particles are visible as a lustrous gray dust that settles on everything. It stunts the crops it blankets, begrimes laundry hung outside to dry and leaves grit on food. The village’s well water has become undrinkable, too.

Horrific stuff. What are we doing to our fellow men?

This is the ugly side of globalisation. Without a direct link between the consumers, factories and suppliers, no one has a clue where things really come from. Exporting your manufacturing and mining overseas might result in a cheaper product but it means that labourers are not protected and are often vulnerable to exploitation. It’s time for companies to play a larger role in pressurising their suppliers to provide better conditions for the workers who are sacrificing their health and safety.

The other alternative is for consumers to turn to locally sourced and manufactured products. In fact I think there will be a resurgence in ‘locally made’ goods in the coming years as artisanal products get more valued. Hopefully then stories like the ones linked to above will become a thing of the past.

When Companies Lie

There are so many companies springing up all the time in the US, each in turn claiming to want to change the world. Some do eventually succeed against all odds but most of them are doomed to fail.

I mean, I do get it, it’s not only tough to start a company, but to then grow it until it becomes established in the minds of consumers and achieves self sustaining growth? Now that’s really really hard. Running a business is complicated and companies can fail for a variety of reasons; maybe their business model wasn’t viable or the product just wasn’t as revolutionary as they’d hoped. It hurts to shutter a company but if the people involved did their best work, they can at least learn from the experience and walk away holding their heads high.

But to resort to deceit in order to sustain your companies massive growth — now that’s downright wrong. But that appears to be exactly what the Theranos and Hampton Creek founders have done. Continue reading “When Companies Lie”

Rodrigo Duterte and the Future of the Philippines

I’m endlessly fascinated by the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Is he the leader that the country needs or could he be a harbinger of further trouble for this large and complex nation?

This week I got to read two articles which provide some of his back story.

1. Criticized Abroad, Philippines’ Leader Remains Hugely Popular In Home City

Back in the 1980s, Davao City was a largely lawless city on the largely lawless island of Mindanao, known to the wider world mostly for its Muslim and communist insurgencies.

But on this day, I’m sitting at a Krispy Kreme in the SM Mall, meeting with Vicente Lao, the chairman of the Mindanao Business Council. If Duterte had not been mayor of Davao, he says, this mall probably wouldn’t be here. And without Duterte, he continues, Davao wouldn’t be one of the safer cities in the country.

“He made it that way,” Lao says.

2. The Bloody Biography of Rodrigo Duterte

To understand what seems to validate Duterte’s seemingly maniacal thirst for blood in the pursuit of order, you’ve got to grapple with the world that shaped him when he entered public life in the 1980s, at the height of the anti-communist campaign. In Davao in the early 1980s, guerrillas tested urban warfare strategies on the city’s streets. They deployed “sparrows,” or assassins who gunned down policemen and criminals in broad daylight. Both in Davao and across Mindanao, the communists purged their ranks of suspected military informers, torturing and killing hundreds of innocent cadres.

Unless you saw the madness with your own eyes, it was hard to believe. On one trip to Davao, I found a city terrorized by bands of vigilantes, roaming the streets with guns or long knives, hunting for communists. The radio blared anti-communist tirades, the most incendiary of them from Jun Pala, a broadcaster who compared himself to Goebbels. Pala walked around Davao armed with a Magnum revolver and a hand grenade. On air, he threatened to behead rebel sympathizers and egged on the vigilantes as they gunned down or knifed suspected communists. One day, news photographers chanced upon a vigilante band that had beheaded a suspected guerrilla­. The killers posed for pictures, and said they drank the blood from the sundered head.

and,

In Davao, which has benefitted from both U.S. development aid and a brisk trade in agricultural produce with China, Duterte did not have to concern himself with foreign policy. In the presidential palace, however, things are more complicated. Casual presidential pronouncements take on the weight of official policy, whether Duterte means them to or not. It’s hard to tell whether the new president is reinventing the Philippines’s foreign policy, or merely thumping his chest.

Reading into all this background makes me wonder if parallels can be drawn to Singapore.

Looking back in history we see that Singapore’s government also took a famously hardline approach against criminals and stamping out corruption; Albeit without so much profanity and ‘death squads’.

Today the governments efforts have been vindicated as Singaporeans now enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity. But that’s also because behind all the tough suppression of criminality there was also an equally important plan, for developing the country, being enacted behind the scenes.

It’s hard to draw any further comparisons between Singapore (a nation of 5.5 million with no natural resources) and the Philippines (a self sufficient nation of 100 million) so it’s anyone’s guess how the future will play out.

Right now all I can say is that it is rightfully hard to clean up such a large nation spread over so many cities, towns and hundreds of islands. The authors of the second article linked above, notes how much the Philippines economy is dependent on remittances coming from Filipinos who are working overseas, hence why Duterte shouldn’t be so quick to insult his allies overseas.

But if the president proves successful at reforming the nation and economic development starts picking up, this could actually be the beginning of a beautiful future for the country. Then, it might actually be the rest of the world who’ll be turning to the Philippines for employment instead of the other way round.

More Thoughts on Apple and Cloud Storage

This paragraph below, from the Verge’s review of macOS Sierra, gels with my own thoughts about Apple and cloud storage:

One has to wonder why Apple, among the wealthiest companies in the world, would even bother charging $0.99 per month for a basic amount of storage if it really wants these features to create a better experience for everyone. (I seem to recall a designer once saying that file syncing is “a feature and not a product.”) If Google is able to give a free 100GB of storage for two years to everyone who purchases a $300 Chromebook, certainly Apple can offer more than 5GB to everyone with a $1,300 Mac. I don’t think that it needs to give away 100GB or even half of that, but what it offers now simply isn’t enough.

Certainly echos the points that I made a few days back, writing about how Apple should just give free storage to people who buy their devices. How much to give would of course be decided by Apple, but anywhere more than 5GB would be good.

Maybe Apple is thinking of giving away storage for free but just hasn’t worked out how much yet. This thought I find intriguing, since Apple often likes to line up all their ducks first before making some dramatic change.

When MobileMe ( (remember that, har har) first came out in 2008 it was a subscription only service, one who’s potential I recognised back then but would never have paid for simply because gmail was so much better and also, free. But in 2011 I predicted that Apple would do more to promote the service, believing that they’d make it free, which they eventually did. The new service was rebranded as ‘iCloud’ and today has over 780 million users. Making it free helped remove barriers for adoption which has undoubtedly helped position iCloud as the online brain for all of a users important data.

The author also notes:

It’s fair to say that Apple has always been behind when it comes to cloud services. Either it’s messed them up (MobileMe), or it’s underwhelmed (early stages of iCloud), or it’s just iterated at a glacial pace compared to its competitors (Google Photos, for instance,launched a new feature on Monday; its last significant update was less than two weeks ago).

But Sierra starts to change that, particularly when it comes to iCloud syncing and Optimized Storage. The two features feel like meaningful extensions of the Mac, which is what makes it so disappointing that not everyone will get to use them due to Apple’s decision to charge for even a modest amount of cloud storage.

A small iCloud plan is available for $0.99 per month, offering 50GB of space. For me, that’ll probably be enough to store my extra documents; in fact, I’ve signed up, and I intend to keep paying. But it’s not enough to store my photos, so for that, I’m sticking with Google.

Now if Apple really wants to be the online service for all of it’s users they’d better up their game. And we know that there’s only one real way to do that.

I’m now expanding my previous argument and saying that Apple should study how to give a meaningful amount of free online storage to everyone who buys a device, be it iPhone, iPad or Mac. Considering how little Apple already makes from iCloud subscriptions it makes little sense why the 50GB storage isn’t already free for everyone. And unlike it’s competitors Apple makes loads of profit off of it’s hardware sales, money which can prop up their cloud services without having to serve ads to users. Companies like Microsoft and Google simply can’t compete against that!

The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that Apple will eventually give free storage to all of their subscribers. As another key differentiater of their products this would drive an incredible amount of hardware sales. It’s just a matter of when.