Apple knows better than you: iPhone battery edition

Last week, Apple confirmed what some users had long suspected: iPhone performance is deliberately throttled. The reasoning is sound: as iPhone battery performance decreases, the CPU performance scales back to extend battery life. It’s a sensible action to take, assuming you prefer battery life to performance. The assumption is the issue, though. Apple didn’t let the user make the decision. Apple decided that battery life is more important than performance and didn’t bother communicating this to the user.

Apple’s problem is not the decision, but the implementation. I suspect that the majority of iPhone users (or any smartphone for that matter) prize battery life over CPU speed. Most of them probably aren’t pushing their CPU on the regular. Preferring battery life is a sane default. Giving the user a choice is better. Making it clear that it’s happening is the bare minimum.

This is one of those credibility-risking moves that Apple likes to make. And in fairness, they generally come out ahead. Apple has long recognized the value in simplicity. Fewer options means less complexity. This makes users happier, even if they think they want a knob for everything.

But this particular case may be a little bit different. Users noticed an apparent slowdown. Cynics said it was to encourage people to buy the latest model. It wasn’t until an iPhone owner benchmarked his phone and had proof that Apple admitted the slow down. Even though their reasoning makes sense, it’s hard to shake the narrative that they’re pushing their customers into making new purchases. If it were really about battery life, why did they need to be forced into admitting it?

I’m inclined to give Apple the benefit of the doubt. After all, the company has a history of smug superiority. And much of the time, they do know better than their customers. That doesn’t mean they can’t screw it up sometimes. And this time, I think they did. We’ll see what comes from the lawsuits.

Will Apple get tangled up in wireless headphones?

Last week, Apple announced the latest version of their flagship product. The iPhone 7 will begin shipping to customers on Friday and it will be the first to not have a headphone jack. The 3.5mm jack, which has been around since at least 1964, is the standard appearing on computers, music players, phones, some airline seats, and more. The standardized technology means you can use one set of headphones in any of those places without hassle (except for detangling the cords, of course).

But no more, says Apple. They used “courage” to describe this decision, a phrasing that has been soundly mocked. Courage probably isn’t the right word, but it’s certainly bold. This is a big risk that Apple hopes lays the foundation for additional changes that will lead to an inarguably better product. Of course, it might serve to further put the brakes on plateauing sales and a growing sense of meh.

Apple supporters are quick to point out that the doomsayers were wrong about Apple’s decision to remove floppy drives, CD drives, and ethernet ports. This feels like a different scenario, though. In previous cases, there was always something better to use instead (though I still wish the MacBook Pro I use at work had a wired ethernet port). Particularly by the time the optical drive was killed, USB drives and network services met the needs of the average consumer much better.

What’s the better option for the iPhone 7? Purchasing headphones that can only be used with Apple products, that require charging every few hours, that can’t be used while the phone is charging without an additional adapter? Will the technology used by these wireless headphones avoid the lag and disconnection issues that can frustrate Bluetooth device usage? Will noisy spectrum become an issue in crowded spaces like buses and subways? Will people be able to avoid losing them?

Apple’s previous removals proved to be successful enough that other manufacturers followed suit. But that success was possible in part because better standard solutions were available. This time, there’s no standard; it’s Apple or nothing. I don’t see that there’s a compelling enough story for the average consumer to support this as a long-term change. I’m no soothsayer, and I could end up complete wrong. But I bet Samsung really wishes they could have a do-over on the Galaxy Note 7’s battery: it could have been a great chance for them to take some of Apple’s market share.

Why the Sunshine app won’t change weather prediction

With $2 million in funding behind it, the Sunshine app hit the iOS App Store on Wednesday. Sunshine promises to disrupt weather forecasting by using crowd-sourced data and providing custom point forecasts. Sadly, that promise will fall flat.

First, I’m pretty wary of weather companies that don’t have a meteorologist on staff. If Sunshine has one, they’re doing a good job of hiding that fact. It’s not that amateurs can’t be good forecasters, but the atmosphere is more complicated than it is often given credit for. The Sunshine team seems to know just enough to say things that sound reasonable but aren’t really. For example, this quote from CEO Katerina Stroponiati.

The more users we have, with phones offering up sensor data and users submitting weather reports, the more accurate we will get. Like an almanac.

Except that almanacs aren’t accurate. Then there’s this quote from their first Medium post.

The reason weather forecasts are inaccurate and imprecise is because traditional weather companies use satellites that can only see the big picture while weather stations are few and far between.

That’s fairly accurate (though it oversimplifies), but they point to a particularly noteworthy busted blizzard forecast as an example of the inaccuracy of traditional forecasts. Snowfall can be impacted greatly by small differences, but blizzards are fairly large-scale systems, and I’m skeptical that Sunshine would have done any better, especially considering that it has no “experience” outside of the Bay Area.

It sounds like Sunshine’s approach is basically a statistical model. That is a valid and often valuable forecast tool, but it has its limits. Sunshine claims a 36% improvement over “weather incumbents” in its trial period (where’s the published study?), but that involved only 200 testers in the San Francisco area. While definite microclimates exist in that region, it’s not exactly known for wild changes in weather. I doubt such an improvement could be sustained across a wider area.

Sunshine relies on crowdsourced reports and the pressure sensor in new iPhones to collect data. Unlike many other parameters, reasonably accurate pressure measurements are not sensitive to placement. A large, dense network of pressure sensors would be of considerable benefit to forecasters, provided the data is made available. However, wind, temperature, and humidity measurements — both at the surface and aloft — are important as well. This is particularly true for severe weather events.\

Crowdsourcing weather observations is nothing new. Projects like CoCoRaHS and mPing have been collecting weather data from the general public for years. The Weather Underground app has crowdsourced observations, and Weather Underground — along with other sites like Weatherbug — has developed a network of privately-owned weather observation stations across the country. The challenge, as it will be with Sunshine’s reports, lies in quality assurance and making the data available to the numerical weahther prediction models.

I hope Sunshine does well. I hope it makes a valuable contribution to the science of weather forecasting. I hope it gets people asking their Congressional delegation why we can’t fund denser surface and upper-air observations. I just don’t expect it will have much of an impact on its own.