Slim iPad and new hardware show Apple can still innovate

Is it time to reappraise the idea that Apple is incapable of innovation in the post Jobs era?

This is a guest post on Future Proof by Barry Avery of Kingston University, republished from The Conversation

Is it time to reappraise the idea that Apple is incapable of innovation in the post Jobs era? The company has failed to introduce a game changing consumer device since the iPad but its latest range contains some significant breakthroughs.

In a world where bloggers can offer to pay Apple factory line workers hundreds of dollars to leak a photograph of a shell or an internal component, the days of the surprise keynote reveal seem over, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that the new operating systems, 64 bit chip designs and software updates that have just been announced are significant innovations in hardware and software.

In the latest keynote Apple completes its Christmas lineup. We get a slimmer, thinner iPad, a refreshed iPad mini, upgraded laptops and a new version of its desktop operating system OS X Mavericks. In a major departure for Apple, this will be available for free and immediate download.

iPad goes slimline

Conspiracy theorists are already suggesting that the timing of this keynote was specifically set to derail Microsoft and Nokia, who are also launching tablets. It is indeed the case that the tablet market has heated up significantly over the past year, so the pressure was on to produce something the would stand out.

Last year the iPad put on a little weight to accommodate the battery and technology needed to offer a retina display. This year’s renamed iPad Air has lost weight, narrowed, improved its capacity and speed and now comes with free iWorks and iLife software.

Weighing 1lb, Apple claims it to be the lightest full size tablet available. Just as iPhone 5 users are likely not to upgrade to the newer version immediately, the features on the iPad Air may not be enough to get users with last year’s iPad to switch up, but anyone with a pre-retina device will see significant performance increases. The iPad mini gets a retina display and the same A7 chip as the iPad Air, without losing its precious ten hours battery life.

Most users will be unaware of the technical complexities required in porting an operating system to a new 64bit chip design, but accomplishing this whilst simultaneously designing a new interface in iOS is a remarkable achievement. From a user perspective, the switch to a 64bit processor inside both devices will offer immediate speed advantages and an increase in the sophistication of the apps available.

Attempting all this in a year has meant that parts of the iOS transformation weren’t finished for the iPhone launch - iLife and iWorks have been updated on both the Mac and mobile platforms, abandoning leather stitching and wood panels, unifying the interface and ironing out some of the incompatibilities between versions.

Hardware back in fashion

Completing the announcements are hardware upgrades to the Mac computer line. Many have speculated that Apple would embrace the post-PC era by terminating its computer line, but such analysis fails to take account of Steve Jobs' vision of a “virtuous circle”, where features developed on one platform migrate to another. They also fail to explain how developers would create mobile device applications if not with Mac platform development tools.

iOS and Mac OS X share a significant amount of under-the-bonnet code, so increases in functionality flow both ways. Techniques used to improve battery life in Apple laptops make their way into tablets and phones. This ability to advance hardware and software features in parallel offers Apple a significant advantage, which is why you now see companies like Microsoft manufacturing its own tablets, or purchasing Nokia to make its own phones.

The canister-shaped Mac Pro, to be released on the market in December, signals the return of Apple’s attention to its professional range after several years of neglect. Having failed to offer an upgrade for a long time, the company is gambling that most professional users would prefer easily switchable external storage connected through a super fast thunderbolt connector, rather than having a big case with internal components.

Apple famously decries market research, as it suggests that results can only ever be framed in terms of what people have experienced rather than what they could like. The jury is out on this one, but don’t be surprised to discover similar barrel style computers appearing from hardware manufacturers next year.

Barry Avery does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Apple CEO Tim Cook holds the new iPad Air. Photo: Getty Images
Barry Avery is a Principal Lecturer in Informatics and Operations at Kingston University.
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Which companies are making driverless cars, and what are their competing visions for the future?

An increasing number of tech giants are populating the driverless car market. Where do each of them stand on ambition, innovation, and safety?

The driverless car has metamorphosed from a superfluous autonomous machine to the vehicle of choice for tech giants hoping to boast their technical prowess and visionary thinking.

The name of the Silicon Valley game has always been innovation, and the chance to merge quadruped hardware with self-regulating software has offered companies a new way to reinvent themselves and their visions. A new means by which to edge each other out in a race to the top of a Fritz Lang-style global metropolis, whose technocratic ruler would be the company capable of aligning their driverless transportation dreams with those of the public.

Racing quite literally out of the blocks in this race to showcase its driverless vehicles has been Uber. Having already expanded its operations as a taxi service from the streets of San Francisco to more than 300 countries worldwide, Uber went and pushed out its sample line of driverless cars in Pittsburgh last week.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has previously stated that the need for the company to delve into driverless cars is “basically existential”, which explains why Uber seems to be so keen to come out with a working model first. It’s a vision that seeks to cut the cost of ride-hailing by slashing the cost of human drivers, and hopes to offer a safer alternative for passengers who must place an unwarranted trust in a driver they’ve never met to shuttle them safely to their destinations.

Uber’s driverless cars are designed with Volvo, and currently require technicians at hand for potential intervention, but aims to phase these out. It has had the distinct advantage of analysing data from all the road miles made by Uber drivers so far. If Uber has its way, car ownership could be a thing of the past. Speaking to Reuters, an Uber spokesperson confirmed this, saying: “Our goal is to replace private car ownership.”

There are a number of issues at hand with Uber’s approach. The fleet of cars displayed in Pittsburgh was in fact not a fleet – there was a grand total of four for viewing, making it impossible to visualise how a fully-fledged system would work.

A more pressing issue is Uber’s timeframe: in comparison to other companies in the market, Uber is aiming for mass-market spread within a few years – far too soon according to experts who think that safety measures will be compromised, and adherence to future regulations avoided, as a result. Uber currently lacks an ethics committee, creating a grey area in determining what happens if one of these cars is involved in an accident.

Perhaps demonstrating even greater ambition, given its sheer dominance over the market, is Google. Taking on the challenge of autonomy and safety on busy city streets, Google seems to be well-equipped given its unrivalled mapping data.

First revealed in 2010, Google’s self-driving car project is expected to come into service sometime in the 2020s. Accidents and traffic could be a thing of the past, they say. Chris Urmson, who headed the project until recently, believes that these cars will work based on a positive feedback system, one which allows them to improve the more they are put into practice. As one car learns, every car will learn. Shared data means the rate of improvement for Google’s driverless cars will be exponential.

Showing no sign of a slow-up in its ambitions, Apple, a company which has found a way into the psyche of its acolytes, is thought to be getting involved in the cars of the future too. Links have been made between Apple and McLaren, with a £1.2bn acquisition rumoured. It would come as no surprise if Apple did this; its greatest successes came in convincing consumers that they needed their products, and a possible iCar could do the same.

A tamer approach to driverless cars is coming from the companies who identify themselves as automotive ones as opposed to tech ones. Tesla has led the pack with its driver-assist technology. Its Model S is “designed to get better over time”, using a “unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic”.

Following the first death of a person in an autopilot mode Tesla Model S car in May this year, the media and consumers were quick to issue warnings over the safety of the Tesla autopilot mode. Though Tesla CEO Elon Musk was quick to offer his condolences to the family of Joshua Brown, the driver who crashed in the vehicle in Florida, he was firm in his insistence that Tesla was not to blame. Musk explained that this was the first documented death of a person in a Tesla on autopilot mode after an accumulative total of 130 million miles driven by its customers, whereas “among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles”.

When put into perspective, it’s clear to see how a paranoid hysteria surrounds the rolling out of driverless vehicles. Safety has always been one of the key proponents for their use; by removing the risk of human error, we are able to create a safer road environment, as highlighted by Musk.

Earlier this year, Ford launched Ford Smart Mobility – its start-up-styled initiative designed to encourage ride sharing. By creating a small subset team to work on the technology, Ford is safeguarding itself from unforeseeable failures with driverless cars by maintaining its production of normal ones. Its cars have had elements of automation introduced incrementally, such as implanted sensors that enable these cars to park themselves. Ford hopes to have some sort of ride-sharing service in action by 2021.

BMW, Volvo and Audi are taking the cautious road too. BMW is making use of GPS to chart safe routes for its cars. In comparison to Google’s mapping, BMW’s system seems much more primitive, suggesting that the pace of development is dictated by accessibility to technology beyond vehicles. Volvo focuses on safety too and hopes that Volvo cars will be involved in no accidents by 2020 due to automation.

As we enter a market in which the top tech companies will be meeting at crossroads in their driverless cars, competing visions and levels of ambition will create a new relationship of trust between consumers and driverless car producers. There is no doubt that driverless cars will be here to stay, our roads one day teeming with passengers who get to relax on the roads. Taking your hands off the wheel will eventually become the norm, but don’t expect to be free-wheeling worldwide for a while yet.