Our take on things: Apple's spring event

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David Tech Lead

25 Mar 2016  ·  9 min read

Traditionally, the end of March brings two things: the official start of Spring, and its accompanying Apple event. Our teams discuss Apple’s latest.

Apple Keynote events are a tradition of their own in the November Five offices. The Apple Tech team and other enthusiasts gather around our big screen to follow the event live and share their thoughts over pizza and some beers (for our non-Belgian readers: our livestream starts at 6PM). It’s definitely the best way to take in the product developments!

So what did Apple announce, and what did we think about it?

Going green

Everybody wondered whether Tim Cook would mention Apple’s ongoing security battle with the FBI, and most of us were somewhat surprised that, in fact, he did, as a small preface to the usual announcements. The CEO emphasised Apple’s continued resolve to protect its users’ privacy and thanked other tech companies for standing with Apple on this issue.

Regular viewers know that Apple keynotes are usually kicked off with a video montage combining impressive sales figures with footage from (new) Apple stores around the world. This time, Apple mixed it up a little and focused on its environmental efforts. It’s probably no coincidence they chose to show this now while their legal battle with the FBI is (or as of a few days ago, was) ongoing; it portrays Apple as a tech giant with a heart of gold, working towards world improvement.

Clever PR aside, even the biggest Apple critics can’t deny that the company’s efforts to be environmentally friendly are commendable. It was not the most exciting presentation (you know that when a grazing yak generates more enthusiasm than a robot called Liam), but the facts are impressive enough. For a company as huge as Apple to power all of its operations in several large countries with 100% renewable energy is pretty impressive.

More screens than ever before

After that, the time had come for the actual product announcements. There weren’t any big surprises to be found here – most of the rumours turned out to be true.

The new iPhone lineup

First off: a new, 4-inch iPhone. Some people might scoff at the company for this design choice, but many customers had been begging and pleading with Apple to make another 4” iPhone – myself included. I’ve been using an iPhone 6 for a year and a half now, and while it’s a great device, I still don’t feel comfortable with its size… not to mention its extruding camera, which still bugs me every day. I could be quoted more than once saying Apple should just make an iPhone 5S design, containing all the latest hardware to make my perfect phone.

And hallelujah, because that’s exactly what the iPhone SE turns out to be, sporting the same gorgeous design as the iPhone 5S and with the same specs as the iPhone 6S, minus 3D Touch. Not the most innovative announcement, but maybe the next killer iPhone the company needs. While most Android device manufacturers have either completely dropped any screen size smaller than 5”, or release mini versions of their flagship device with much weaker specs, Apple now has iPhones in small, medium, and large formats with their latest and most powerful hardware. This is also the first time ever that the entry-level iPhone is just as powerful as the most expensive one. The only disappointment (once again) is that Apple still sticks with a 16 GB entry model. That aside – if you hadn’t guessed by now – I can’t wait until March 29, when the SE will be ready for pre-order here in Belgium.

Size does matter

“Smaller” turned out to be the key word of the show: the second product announced was a new 9.7” iPad Pro. At the same size as the iPad Air 2, this device contains the same internal specs as the original iPad Pro, including its four stereo speakers, support for the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. But where the iPhone SE is a sidegrade to the iPhone 6S, the 9.7” iPad Pro contains two features that its bigger brother lacks.

First of all, the smaller iPad Pro has better cameras; they now almost match the specs of the iPhone 6S and SE (but please, don’t use an iPad to take photos at that your next concert). But probably the biggest surprise of the event (along with the grazing yak from the environment presentation) was the True Tone display. While iOS 9.3 will change the color temperature of the screen based on the sunset and sunrise times of your current location on all devices, the new smaller iPad Pro goes one step further. With its True Tone display and four ambient light sensors, it can adjust the color temperature in real-time based on your environment. This results in a “paper-white” viewing experience: your screen simulates the way light reflects off a sheet of paper, making it easier on the eyes. As someone with less than perfect vision, this sounds exciting but I’m sure this feature has to be seen to be appreciated.

Watch out

Finally, a new line of nylon bands for the Apple Watch was announced. Ever since the Watch was released, Apple has taken every opportunity to stress that people love their Watch as a fashion accessory and regularly change the bands. The nylon bands look fine, but to be honest, none of the Watch-owners I know have more than one band, and neither do I.

While we first felt a little underwhelmed by the event, we realise very well that people tend to have unrealistic expectations when it comes to Apple keynotes – and we’re no exception. Even in today’s fast-paced world, expecting a groundbreaking announcement every few months is perhaps not very realistic… Monday’s event may not have shown us any real surprises or innovations, but it’s undeniable that Apple now has the best and most consistent iPhone and iPad lineup it’s ever had.

None of the announcements from Monday’s event have a significant impact on our design or development processes. The screen sizes of the new devices are identical to previous models and no new APIs were announced.

These presentations do give us some interesting insights into the larger technological trends Apple believes in.

One is geared towards user comfort. An application called f.lux has long been a staple for large amounts of users on Windows, OS X and Android For those of you not familiar with f.lux: it adapts the hue of your screen to become more red and less blue later at night, to improve your sleep quality when you put down your device (our bodies interpret blue light as daylight, which can disturb your natural sleep patterns). The fact that a comparable feature is now baked into iOS under the name Nightshift stresses the fact that there can be big differences in the way users perceive a software or app design, simply because of their screens. From a design perspective, Nightshift might be a good trigger for us to investigate the effect of these changing colours on app design.

The iPad as a productivity tool

Another is the positioning of the iPad Pro, now in two sizes, as a tool for power users and a potential laptop replacement. Tablets and touchscreens have hovered in the grey zone between entertainment and productivity ever since they were launched; the iPad Pro might convince more users of the power of the tablet as a work tool. From our point of view, more iPad Pro devices in circulation means that we’ll have to challenge a number of immediate assumptions about designing and building apps for tablets. Keyboard covers might become more prevalent, which opens possibilities for things like shortcuts in applications, to name just one example. As we work on a number of B2B applications, the evolution of the iPad into increasingly strong personal computers is something we’re following closely.

Taking care of you

Finally, there was one more announcement Apple made on Monday that we’ve glossed over so far because we feel it deserves to be handled a little more in-depth: the launch of CareKit.

Because November Five has gained some experience with healthcare technologies through some of the projects we worked on, and are currently working on a top-secret health-related project (more on that in a later post), the announcement of CareKit (brief as it was) immediately triggered our imaginations.

First things first: what is CareKit? It’s an expansion or complement to Researchkit, the open source framework Apple launched to let users “donate” all sorts of medical data to be used in research. ResearchKit was adopted by a number of large research facilities because it opens up the possibilities of big data for medical purposes. The success of ResearchKit now led Apple to develop another open source medical framework, CareKit.

The strange and wonderful world of healthcare

iPhone showing CareKit

CareKit is focused directly towards end users, improving their care and relationships with their physicians. One example provided in the presentation focused on patients with Parkinson’s disease. CareKit supported an app that asked them to perform finger exercises on their device, which lets their physician monitor the progress and improvements. Another example used the Apple Watch to send out a warning as soon as its wearer felt a seizure coming.

We feel that project is significant for a number of reasons. First off, we know from research and experience that the healthcare industry is very conservative. From a technological perspective, this means that the medical field lags behind other industries – where the “consumer-oriented” solutions (i.e., those solutions geared towards medical professionals and their patients) are concerned there is a need for radical innovation. After all, like any group of consumers, patients are becoming more connected and informed. They’re more attentive when making decisions and they have grown used to a certain level of convenience and transparency.

A moloch like health care doesn’t just change drastically overnight though. Revolutionising the industry will take a careful, incremental approach, but there’s very little doubt that digitally-enabled care will become crucial sooner than later.

This pending shift leaves an enormous opportunity for tech companies. Most healthcare companies don’t have experience in creating consumer-oriented solutions, meaning they look to those companies that do for assistance. And it looks like Apple realises this: patients of all ages are increasingly willing to receive care through their mobile devices, so the launch of two platforms that aggregate and interpret medical data is well-timed.

We’re convinced the healthcare industry will be disrupted by small consumer-oriented companies and startups, because they have the flexibility and experience to create products patients and medical professionals will love to use.

CareKit, specifically, empowers the customer/patient, helping him take a more proactive role in his health by giving him the right data – on a platform he’s already very familiar with. And since we’re working on a health-related project where patient-physician communication is very important, we’re curious to see if we can implement CareKit to facilitate this communication.

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