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Ben Thompson on the iPhone as a franchise ↦

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Here’s some typically brilliant analysis from Ben Thompson of Stratechery. In his piece, Ben puts Apple’s interesting new iPhone product line in the context of its continuous ratcheting up of iPhone pricing—with a nod to the last time Apple tried to make a multi-colored iPhone with a funny letter stuck on the end.

Ben’s conclusion is fantastic:

That is the iPhone: it is a franchise, the closest thing to a hardware annuity stream tech has ever seen. Some people buy an iPhone every year; some are on a two-year cycle; others wait for screens to crack, batteries to die, or apps to slow. Nearly all, though, buy another iPhone, making the purpose of yesterday’s keynote less an exercise in selling a device and more a matter of informing self-selected segments which device they will ultimately buy, and for what price.

One of the most important things to remember when analyzing any new iPhone is to remember the extended buying cycles. The average iPhone XS and XR buyer won’t be updating from the iPhone X; they’re upgrading from an iPhone 6 or 6S or 7.

[Read on Six Colors.]

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jqlive
33 days ago
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Yep, I'm coming from a 6, and from the amount of money I'm spending, I'll go another 4 years before I update again.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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Apple Identifies and Fixes Thermal Bug in the New MacBook Pro Models

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Statement from Apple:

Following extensive performance testing under numerous workloads, we’ve identified that there is a missing digital key in the firmware that impacts the thermal management system and could drive clock speeds down under heavy thermal loads on the new MacBook Pro. A bug fix is included in today’s macOS High Sierra 10.13.6 Supplemental Update and is recommended. We apologize to any customer who has experienced less than optimal performance on their new systems. Customers can expect the new 15-inch MacBook Pro to be up to 70% faster, and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar to be up to 2X faster, as shown in the performance results on our website.

I figured it was a bug when some tests were showing that performance improved on the Core i9 15-inch MacBook Pro after disabling two of the six cores. Apple told me that this thermal bug affects all new MacBook Pros — not just the Core i9 model — and older models are not affected. Anyone with a new MacBook Pro should now see the fix via Software Update.

I’d love to hear a further explanation of exactly what this “missing digital key” is. I think it’s just the sequence of bytes that configure the thermal settings for the CPU.

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jqlive
88 days ago
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I'll believe it was a software bug after everyone runs their tests again... Apple PR likes to gloss over stuff and stick to their single message.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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2 public comments
MotherHydra
88 days ago
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Apple: Hey Squirrel! Meanwhile the VRM is hosed don't look at that!
Space City, USA
satadru
88 days ago
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Turns out that the problem is likely the voltage regulator module getting too hot, which leads to deeper thermal throttling than one would get from the processor getting too hot. And the VRM chip doesn't have a heat sink on it, so that's going to be a limitation too.

More in this deep dive post here: https://www.reddit.com/r/macbookpro/comments/91256u/optimal_cpu_tuning_settings_for_i9_mbp_to_stop/
New York, NY

★ Google Demos Duplex

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Google has finally done what they should’ve done initially: let a group of journalists (two groups actually, one on each coast) actually listen to and participate in live Duplex calls.

Heather Kelly, writing for CNN:

For one minute and ten seconds on Tuesday, I worked in a trendy hummus shop and took a reservation from a guy who punctuated his sentences with “awesome” and “um.”

“Hi, I’m calling to make a reservation,” the caller said, sounding a lot like a stereotypical California surfer. Then he came clean: “I’m Google’s automated booking service, so I’ll record the call. Um, can I book a table for Saturday?”

The guy was Google Duplex, the AI-assisted assistant that made a stir in May when CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled it at its Google I/O developer conference. That demo, shown in a slick video, was so impressive that some people said it had to be fake.

Not so, says Google, which invited clusters of reporters to Oren’s Hummus Shop near its campus in Mountain View, for a hands-on demonstration. Each of us got to field an automated call and test the system’s limits.

But, regarding the curious recordings played on stage at I/O in early May:

Scott Huffman, the VP of engineering for Google Assistant, conceded that the demo at I/O in May “maybe made it look a little too polished.” That’s because Pichai tends to focus on Google’s grand visions for the future, Huffman said.

Ron Amadeo, writing for Ars Technica:

Unfortunately, Google would not let us record the live interactions this week, but it did provide a video we’ve embedded below. The robo call in the video is, honestly, perfectly representative of what we experienced. But to allay some of the skepticism out there, let’s first outline the specifics of how this demo was set up along with what worked and what didn’t. […]

During the demonstration period, things went much more according to plan. Over the course of the event, we heard several calls, start to finish, handled over a live phone system. To start, a Google rep went around the room and took reservation requirements from the group, things like “What time should the reservation be for?” or “How many people?” Our requirements were punched into a computer, and the phone soon rang. Journalists — err, restaurant employees — could dictate the direction of the call however they so choose. Some put in an effort to confuse Duplex and throw it some curveballs, but this AI worked flawlessly within the very limited scope of a restaurant reservation.

Here’s the video Google has provided. It is indeed an impressive approximation of a human speaking. One thing that stands out, in fact, is the difference between the artificial voice of the Google Assistant on the woman’s phone — no um’s, no ah’s, robotically precise — and the decidedly un-robotic voice of Duplex on the phone call.

Regarding the actual rollout to actual users, some unspecific number of “trusted testers” will get access to Duplex very soon, but only for asking about restaurant hours, not making reservations — and the haircut appointment feature has no delivery date other than “later” and wasn’t demonstrated to the media.

Dieter Bohn, writing at The Verge:

If you’re hoping that means you’ll be able to try it yourself, sorry: Google is starting with “a set of trusted tester users,” according to Nick Fox, VP of product and design for the Google Assistant. It will also be limited to businesses that Google has partnered with rather than any old restaurant.

The rollout will be phased, in other words. First up will be calls about holiday hours, then restaurant reservations will come later this summer, and then finally hair cut appointments will be last. Those are the only three domains that Google has trained Duplex on.

Bohn on the speech quality:

The more natural, human-sounding voice wasn’t there in the very first prototypes that Google built (amusingly, they worked by setting a literal handset on the speaker on a laptop). According to VP of engineering for the Google Assistant Scott Huffman, “It didn’t work. …. we got a lot of hangups, we got a lot of incompletion of the task. People didn’t deal well with how unnatural it sounded.”

Part of making it sound natural enough to not trigger an aural sense of the uncanny valley was adding those ums and ahs, which Huffman identified as “speech disfluencies.” He emphasized that they weren’t there to trick anybody, but because those vocal tics “play a key part in progressing a conversation between humans.” He says it came from a well-known branch of linguistics called “pragmatics,” which encompasses all the non-word communications that happen in human speech: the ums, the ahs, the hand gestures, etc.

I’m on the fence regarding the issue of whether it is ethical for Duplex to speak in a way that sounds so human-like that the person on the other end of the call might never realize they’re speaking to a bot. What raises a flag are the injected imperfections. If they’re good for Duplex to use while making a call, why doesn’t Google Assistant speak similarly when you, the user, know you’re talking to a bot?

The fact that they started getting fewer hangups when they added these natural-sounding imperfections makes sense. But it’s disingenuous to say they’re not using these um’s and ah’s to trick the person into thinking it’s a human. That’s exactly what they’re doing. The problem is, tricking sounds devious. I’m not sure it is in this case. It’s just making the person on the call more comfortable. We use “tricks” in all of our technology. Motion pictures, to name one example, don’t actually move — they’re just a series of still images played quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing motion.

With or without Duplex’s involvement, the restaurant is going to get a phone call for the reservation. (Duplex doesn’t make phone calls for restaurants that support online booking through OpenTable — at least not if the device user has an OpenTable account.) Based on these examples, Duplex doesn’t seem to waste the restaurant’s time — the phone calls take about the same time as they would if you, the human, made the call yourself. So neither the restaurant nor the employee who answers the phone lose anything when a call is made by Duplex, whether they realize they’re talking to an AI or not. No one is getting cheated, as in the case with, say, bots that play online poker.

To me, the truly difficult ethical questions are years down the road, when these AI’s get close to passing an open-ended Turing test.

Lauren Goode, writing at Wired:

I then asked whether there were any allergies in the group. “OK, so, 7:30,” the bot said. “No, I can fit you in at 7:45,” I said. The bot was confused. “7:30,” it said again. I also asked whether they would need a high chair for any small children. Another voice eventually interjected, and completed the reservation.

I hung up the phone feeling somewhat triumphant; my stint in college as a host at a brew house had paid off, and I had asked a series of questions that a bot, even a good one, couldn’t answer. It was a win for humans. “In that case, the operator that completed the call — that wasn’t a human, right?” I asked Nygaard. No, she said. That was a human who took over the call. I was stunned; in the end, I was still a human who couldn’t differentiate between a voice powered by silicon and one born of flesh and blood.

It’s a shame that Google wouldn’t release the recordings of the calls the journalists answered. Goode’s anecdote above, to me, is the most fascinating of the bunch, and I’d love to hear it. She was able to trip up the logic of Duplex by asking about allergies and high chairs, but was unable to discern when an actual human took over the call. Google’s breakthrough isn’t how smart Duplex is, but how human-like it sounds.

I still think the whole thing feels like a demo of a technology (the human-like speech), not a product. Google claimed this week that Duplex currently succeeds 4 out of 5 times at placing a reservation without a human operator’s intervention. That’s a good batting average for a demo, but untenable for a shipping product at Google’s scale. With a 20 percent failure rate, Google would need an army of human operators standing by all day long, to support a feature they don’t make any money from. I’m skeptical that this will ever be a product expanded to wide use, and if it is, it might be years away. Google said as much to Ars Technica:

“We’re actually quite a long way from launch, that’s the key thing to understand,” Fox explained at the meeting. “This is super-early technology, somewhere between technology demo and product. We’re talking about this way earlier than we typically talk about products.”

Right now it feels like a feature in search of a product, but they pitched it as an imminent product at I/O because it made for a stunning demo. (It remains the only thing announced at I/O that anyone is talking about.) If what Google really wanted was just for Google Assistant to be able to make restaurant reservations, they’d be better off building an OpenTable competitor and giving it away to all these small businesses that don’t yet offer online reservations. I’m not holding my breath for Duplex ever to allow anyone to make a reservation at any establishment.

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jqlive
114 days ago
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Always so salty with Google. But if this was Apple's new version of Siri, he would be praising them as if they walked on water.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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EA reverses course on Star Wars Battlefront II loot box controversy

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In an unprecedented last-minute reversal, EA has drastically altered Star Wars Battlefront II's controversial loot box system by temporarily removing the ability to purchase “crystals.” The game was previously designed so that players could spend real money on crystals to buy randomized bundles of in-game items, the acquisition of which was tied to earning credits — another virtual currency that could be used to unlock characters.

Fans revolted, however, after widely circulated posts on Reddit and elsewhere that suggested the game was balanced in a way that it could take dozens of hours to unlock iconic characters like Luke Skywalker without paying. There were also concerns that the gameplay-influencing items inside loot crates would encourage a “pay-to-win” metagame around the multiplayer modes.

“As we approach the worldwide launch, it's clear that many of you feel there are still challenges in the design,” DICE general manager Oskar Gabrielson says in a statement. “We've heard the concerns about potentially giving players unfair advantages. And we've heard that this is overshadowing an otherwise great game. This was never our intention. Sorry we didn't get this right.”

EA had already responded earlier in the week by reducing the number of credits required to unlock characters, but evidently that wasn't enough. With the ability to purchase crystals removed for now, all progression in Battlefront II will be earned through playing the game. EA does note, however, that it plans to bring back crystals at a later date after making balancing and tuning changes to Battlefront II's systems.

Battlefront II is set to be released in a few hours.

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jqlive
338 days ago
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PSA: I strongly recommend waiting to see how this plays out over the next few days. It's EA after all.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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Ina Fried Reviews Google’s Pixel Buds

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Ina Fried, writing for Axios:

Apple’s AirPods are more elegant as well as smaller and more comfortable. However, Pixel Buds have some other appeals, most notably the ability to aid in real-time language translation.

The real-time translation feature is cool, but how often would you need it? I’ve been using AirPods for about a year and I don’t think I would have used this feature even once. And it seems like it’s more of a feature of the Google Translate app, not the Pixel Buds themselves.

Given that they both cost $159, Apple comes out way ahead here.

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jqlive
341 days ago
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So says the guy that lives in Philadelphia, and doesn't travel abroad very often. I personally would find this feature useful every single day.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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In Urban China, Cash Is Rapidly Becoming Obsolete

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Paul Mozur, writing for The New York Times:

Almost everyone in major Chinese cities is using a smartphone to pay for just about everything. At restaurants, a waiter will ask if you want to use WeChat or Alipay — the two smartphone payment options — before bringing up cash as a third, remote possibility.

Just as startling is how quickly the transition has happened. Only three years ago there would be no question at all, because everyone was still using cash.

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jqlive
451 days ago
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This is very true... Apple is currently trying to make Apple Pay the third choice.
Beijing/Hong Kong
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