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By Jason Snell for Macworld
The Apple rumor mill has been churning lately with reports that Apple is readying a new consumer laptop that’s thinner than the MacBook Air, available in various colors, and possibly has the next generation of Apple silicon. Of course, it could very well be an update to the MacBook Air, but it seems to me like Apple is taking another crack at replacing its iconic notebook.
Apple has tried to replace the MacBook Air before—a disastrous attempt that ended up with both of its potential replacements being cancelled and the Air revived. If Apple is indeed trying again, will this time be different? Will Apple’s customers, who appear to adore the MacBook Air, follow the company’s lead? It all depends on how Apple approaches the transition—and whether it’s willing to make a clean break.
This week Myke and Jason debate the form of future Mac laptops, discuss Apple and Epic’s first week in court (complete with angry emails!), and then imagine what’s next for iOS and iPadOS.
By Jason Snell
May 7, 2021 11:49 AM PT
Kobo Libra H2O: Liberated from Amazon?
This past year I’ve been spending more time reading books on a Kobo ereader, rather than on my Kindle. The Kobo, a 2016-vintage Aura One, offered a few features that the Kindle didn’t, and I liked the idea of putting a mostly-unloved device to work at something it was good at.
At some point I noticed a big gouge in the screen, probably a legacy of a school trip my daughter took a few years ago. I kept staring at it. And that was when—as you do—I popped over to Kobo’s website to see what their current crop of ereaders looked like. It was just idle checking, I swear, and that’s why it took a couple of weeks for me to buy a Kobo Libra H2O.
After reading a few books on the Kobo, I’m prepared to declare that I actually prefer the Kobo to the Kindle. And while the Libra H2O is made of less premium materials than my old favorite, the Kindle Oasis, it also costs $100 less.
Kindle vs Kobo
I’ve been using Kindles since the beginning, and the pace of Kindle software innovation is quite slow, though it’s actually shown a bit of improvement over the last few years. Still, how is it possible that the Kindle didn’t let you use the cover of the book you’re currently reading as the screen saver image until April 2021?!
The software on the Kobo is, as you might expect, quite similar to that on the Kindle. But in a few areas, it’s clearly superior. Many libraries will let you borrow ebooks using Overdrive, a service that’s a part of the same company that owns Kobo. Unsurprisingly, Kobo connects well with Overdrive, allowing me to browse and check out books directly on the device. If I’ve checked out a book elsewhere—say, via the excellent Libby app, the book will download automatically the next time the device syncs to the network. You can see your Overdrive queue and return books, all from the device itself.
While Kindles will work with Overdrive, it’s a circuitous process. You need to check out a book on the web or in Libby, then click to send the book to Amazon.com, then click on Amazon.com to send the book to your Kindle. There’s no Overdrive interface on the Kindle itself. If you check out ebooks from the library, or might consider doing so, the Kobo’s simply better. Using Libby got me using library ebooks once in a while, but using a Kobo has made it a regular habit.
The other superior feature of the Kobo is typography. I can’t tell how much of the Kindle’s poor text handling is its operating system and how much is its selection of typefaces, but type just looks better on the Kobo. Kindle fonts seem jagged compared to Kobo fonts. Amazon has improved a lot of its maddening typography features over the years—forced justification being perhaps its greatest sin—but Kobo’s still ahead.
Both services let you buy books from their online stores. Really, Amazon’s greatest advantage over Kobo is that I’ve got years of book purchases locked up in Amazon’s proprietary, DRM-encoded format. However, I’m planning on keeping a Kindle around—and Calibre and its associated DeDRM plugin make it relatively easy for me to download old Kindle purchases and load them on a Kobo.
Down to the hardware
Like the high-end Kindle Oasis, the Kobo Libra H2O is a waterproof ereader with a sidelit seven-inch diagonal E Ink screen and a grippable edge with two physical page-turn buttons. The big difference between them is that the Kobo has a plastic back, while the Kindle’s is aluminum. There’s no doubt that the Kindle is nicer to hold—but it’s also $100 more. (You might notice the Kobo logo screened onto the front of the plastic; I wish it wasn’t there, but the truth is that I never notice it when I’m reading.)
I haven’t tried the $120 Kobo Clara, but I’d imagine it’s more or less comparable to the Kindle Paperwhite. And the truth is, for most people a low-end reader like the Paperwhite or Clara is a better deal. But I don’t really read paper books anymore, and so for me, getting a nicer ereader is worth it.
I’ve bought a couple of Kindle Oasis models over the years—the physical page-turn buttons are a must for me—and I’m really impressed that with the Libra H2O Kobo has made a credible competitor for $170. $270 is too much for most people to spend for a very fancy kindle, but $170 is a reasonable splurge for improved ergonomics.
Should you dump Kindle for Kobo? If you’ve got a huge investment in the Kindle ecosystem, it’s going to be a tough decision. (How often do you reread books? Will you keep your old Kindle around? Are you comfortable using Calibre and DeDRM to migrate your purchases?) Amazon has made a great effort to connect Kindle with Audible, and if you switch between ebooks and audiobooks, Amazon offers a superior experience.
But if you frequently check out ebooks from your local library, or think you might want to, Kobo has an advantage. The typography’s better. Support for the Pocket reading service is built in. And if you’ve always wanted a Kindle Oasis but couldn’t stomach the price tag, the Kobo Libra H2O is an awfully nice alternative.
And after all that, I’ll be honest: While I am still a big user of Amazon, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the company, its policies, and its impact on the world. Ebooks are a teeny part of the Amazon juggernaut, but it’s an area where it has very little competition—and having tried this particular competition, I find it superior. All things being equal, I think I’d like to throw my support behind the competitor. And things are not equal—the Kobo really does feel better.
So for now, I’m reading all my books on a Kobo. I can’t guarantee that the next Kindle won’t dazzle me into returning to the fold—remember, a slight screen gouge on a perfectly good Kobo sent me down this path—but I’m enjoying being out of the Amazon ecosystem for the time being.
By Jason Snell
May 6, 2021 9:31 AM PT
Why isn’t Apple Podcasts showing you the latest podcasts?
I’m getting a lot of tweets and emails saying the same thing: the latest episode of (some podcast I’m involved with) hasn’t shown up in Apple Podcasts.
Unfortunately, right now my only answer is to say, “It’s displaying properly in every other podcast app around, so if you’ve ever thought of using Overcast or Castro or Pocket Casts or any other alternative podcast app, now might be a good time to try.”
This is an issue on Apple’s side. Apple is aware of it and presumably is working on a fix.
I do have a theory about what’s happening, though. This is just informed speculation, but:
- The new version of Podcasts shifts from the model where each individual copy of the app talks to the RSS feed directly, to the model held by most podcast apps—a central server that monitors all the RSS feeds, pings them on a regular basis, and then updates the metadata in the individual app when needed. So the app phones home once to Apple rather than to every different server of every subscribed feed.
Separately, Apple’s had a “crawler” for years that goes out and grabs the RSS content of podcasts in its database to use in updating web pages and previews of podcasts. It’s not what the app displayed when you were subscribed to a feed, but it was what it used as a preview when you weren’t subscribed. The problem with this crawler is that it was very, very slow, at least for my podcasts. People used to complain to me all the time that the latest episode of my podcast that I was promoting wasn’t appearing in Apple Podcasts or in Apple’s web preview of the podcast; my standard reply was “Try subscribing to the podcast.” It always worked.
I assume that the new version of Apple Podcasts, which is reliant on an Apple crawler to update podcast RSS feeds, has forced Apple to drastically improve the speed and reliability of that crawler.
Possibly related, Apple is currently migrating a bunch of old podcasts that use its old Site Manager dashboard to the new and shinier Podcasts Publisher dashboard. That’s due by the end of the month.
So here’s my theory: Since Apple is migrating all podcasts to its more modern publishing system, perhaps the new, improved crawler only crawls the podcasts that are in this system? In that scenario, the podcasts that have not yet migrated would still use the old, slow crawler. The result: long delays for listeners.
Regardless of the cause, I hope this issue is resolved soon. And either way, I’m looking forward to my podcasts being migrated to a more modern set of tools within Apple’s system.
By Jason Snell for Macworld
Apple does what it wants to do, and nothing else. At least, that’s the company’s preference…but sometimes courts and laws and governments get in the way. And at the moment, as some Apple executives sit in court while others ponder the European Commission’s finding that it engaged in anticompetitive behavior, it seems like Apple is reaching a point where it’s going to have to do some things that it doesn’t really want to do.
The big question is, will Apple be able to bargain with the powers that be, offering smaller changes that will take pressure and scrutiny off of the rest of the company’s practices? Or will it be forced to change in ways it absolutely doesn’t want by judges and regulators who have decided that its behavior is in violation of the law?
This is complicated stuff. There’s no way to tell how it’ll turn out. But it’s worth considering some of the possibilities, which I’ll rank from most likely to happen (and generally, least catastrophic to Apple) to least likely (and most catastrophic).
Apple had a record-breaking quarter that showed strong growth in all areas of its business, but clouds loom on the horizon. A global semiconductor shortage threatens Mac and iPad sales, the EU ruled that the App Store is anticompetitive, and Apple’s court case with Epic Games is about to kick off. Did Tim Cook suggest that Apple is ready to change its policies to avoid even harsher sanctions? And upon further consideration, does Apple Podcasts Subscriptions create another barrier to competition in the App Store?
By Jason Snell
April 29, 2021 2:17 PM PT
‘Not cast in concrete’: Apple moving with the (regulatory) times
I got most of my thoughts about Apple’s financial results and comments on its quarterly call with analysts in my Macworld column this week, but having slept on it, there’s one Tim Cook comment that I think is worth highlighting.
Cowen and Company analyst Krish Sankar asked Cook “a big picture philosophical question” about a risk to Apple’s business that isn’t as easily analyzed as traditional business risks: regulation.
One of the concerns many investors have is about the overhang of regulatory risks. And I understand it’s very hard to handicap that, but I’m kind of curious, do you think giving more public disclosure on a services business like App Store would help alleviate some of those concerns?
Sankar’s approach to the question is a bit odd—would Apple being more transparent about the App Store really reduce the chances of it being regulated? But it generated this answer from Cook:
I think with the regulatory questions and scrutiny, we have to make sure that we’re telling our story and why we do what we do. And we’re very focused on doing that. If we feel that more disclosure would help, we would obviously move in that direction. The App Store and other parts of Apple are not cast in concrete. And so we can move and are flexible with the times. For example, on the App Store, just a couple of quarters ago we lowered the commission rate for small developers to 15%. So that was an example of moving with the times and we’ve gotten a great, great reception to that. And so we continue to learn and I think it’s very important that we’re very clear about why we do what we do. The idea behind curating the App Store in order to get the privacy and security that our customers want, I think is very important. And we have to convey that in a very straightforward manner.
Why did it take until fall 2020 for Apple to cut the App Store percentage to 15% for most developers? Most likely because until fall 2020, Apple didn’t feel quite as much pressure from regulators, politicians, and major app developers, all of whom are suggesting that Apple’s App Store policies are anti-competitive and rent-seeking.
I’m happy for all my indie developer friends, all of whom are going to get a lot more money from the App Store now that they get 85% of revenue. But that move wasn’t made by Apple out of charity or compassion—it was made out of self interest. Once it made the cut, Apple has been able to cite it repeatedly as an example of how it’s changing to be more fair to developers.
In Cook’s statement Wednesday, he referenced the move again, and then said that Apple’s App Store policies “are not cast in concrete” and “can move… with the times, while the company “continue[s] to learn.”
In some ways, I think that might be one of the most truthful statements Apple has made about this issue. You could read Cook as saying, essentially, that Apple knows its policies can change, and if “the times” (read: sentiment toward Apple by people with the power to force it to change its business model) warrant it, it will change as needed.
I’m glad Sankar asked this question because I think sometimes this issue gets lost or downplayed when people consider the health and future of Apple’s business. At this point, one of the biggest risks to Apple’s business is that a regulator, judge, or political body will force the company to tear its business model (or itself) apart. For years, Apple’s attitude to criticism of its policies, especially regarding the App Store, was essentially “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
This statement by Cook reads to me as if he’s signaling that Apple will make more changes to its policies if it needs to do so to “move with the times.” He’s not talking about fashion there, he’s talking about the regulatory environment.
It remains to be seen if the company can get away with making enough limited changes to its policies to avoid the being forced to make wholesale changes by an outside body. That’s something Apple will continue to learn.
By Jason Snell for Macworld
The last few years, Apple has been on such a ride that it can be hard to put it into proper context. Almost every quarter sets a business record. And yet this quarter, covering the first three months of calendar 2021, is something special.
I’ve been reading Apple financial statements and generating charts about those statements for the better part of a decade now. And this is the first time that I’ve looked at the numbers posted on Apple’s website and thought that some sort of clerical error had been made. Perhaps a harried Apple accountant had gotten a little twitchy with their numeric keypad and put in a few extra digits here and there.
But no, it’s true. Apple generated nearly $90 billion in revenue during the second quarter of 2021. Not only is that a whole lot of money, but it’s just a couple billion shy of the amount of revenue it generated during the holiday quarter of calendar year 2019. That quarter set an all-time record for Apple, bested only by the holiday quarter of calendar 2020.
By Jason Snell
April 28, 2021 3:56 PM PT
This is Tim: Transcript of Apple’s Q2 2021 analyst call
Immediately after announcing record second-quarter results, Apple CEO Tim Cook and CFO Luca Maestri hopped on a conference call to make statements and then answer (or dodge) the questions of financial analysts. Here’s a complete transcript.