Apple needs to court gamers with the iPhone

The company is clearly proud of the power of the iPhone 5; so why ignore the apps which can show that off best?

It's been a few weeks since Apple revealed iOS 7 at WWDC. The aesthetic judgements appear to be largely a matter of taste, and previews suggest that the new features are pretty useful, so it's time to look a bit deeper. Two takes, from Marco Arment and Allen Pike, suggest one crucial motivation behind the redesign: decommodifying the operating system.

Pike writes:

iOS 7 was clearly designed to show off what’s possible in 2013. As a side effect, they’ve embraced conventions that will be hard to emulate with commodity hardware or web tech.

The hairlines and flourescent colours are trendy and easy to copy. On the other hand, bringing to life these blurs, animations, and dynamics with HTML and JavaScript isn’t yet possible. You need the latest hardware and the most efficient software to make something feel like this. Further, you need thoughtful APIs so developers can take it to its full potential. In short, the browser vendors have their work cut out for them.

Even with tuned native software, the iPhone 4′s A4 chip can’t handle the most interesting aspects of iOS 7. The 3D, the blur, the compositing – all of them are disabled or degraded on the A4. iOS 7 is designed and developed for the A5, and will truly shine on the A7.

Arment adds:

iOS 7’s appearance and dynamics require a powerful GPU and advanced, finely tuned, fully hardware-accelerated graphics and animation APIs. This will hurt web imitators most, but it’s also going to be problematic for Android: while high-end Android phones have mostly caught up in GPU performance, and recent Android versions have improved UI acceleration, most Android devices sold are neither high-end nor up-to-date. The gap is much wider in tablets, and even “high-end” tablets usually have insufficient GPU power to drive their high-DPI screens.

In other words, the fact that iOS 7 requires all the power of an iPhone 5 to get its shiny designs across is likely to be a feature, not a bug, of the operating system. If the interface takes off (which is, admittedly, an open question at this point) then it will be tricky indeed for other companies to copy it. The very DNA of its design calls for a hardware quality which commodity Android phones won't be able to handle for some years to come. That won't stop competitors trying; but it will make it much harder to pass off low powered smartphones as though they're just as good as the top-end.

Apple, with its yearly upgrade cycle and relentless pursuit of that top-end of the market, appears to have realised that it's now in the enviable position of having a userbase installed with the highest powered hardware on the market. And now it's acting on that lead.

But there's another way the company could use the power of the iPhone 5 in a way which connects more directly with users: double-down on its lead in the mobile gaming space.

The company barely speaks about it, and shows little obvious sign of being interested at all, but the iPhone is one of the biggest gaming devices in the world. 77.2m Xbox 360s have been sold over the console's life; Apple sold 48m iPhones just over Christmas last year. And while it's hard to define just how many of those are used as gaming devices – there's clearly a spectrum ranging from someone paying £13 to play XCOM at one end to someone with the free version of Words With Friends at the other – it's fair to say that the company is a big player.

But, aside from the woefully neglected Game Centre, Apple's attempt to put together a game-centric social network, it's basically ignored that lead. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" surely applies here: the company is earning millions from its cut of the App Store sales, and is likely to be selling a few more phones from the free advertising alone.

At the same time, though, if it wants to make the most of its hardware advantage, it could do so much more. Developers complain that the layout of the App Store (and particularly the dominance of the "most sold" charts) encourages free and free-to-play apps at the expense of ones with a more traditional revenue model; Game Centre is still not up to snuff for all but the most basic multiplayer games; and the fact that deleting apps from a phone deletes saves as well means that users are wary to download large games.

There's a real chance that Apple could tackle Nintendo or Sony in the portable gaming space without even breaking a sweat; and doing so would have handy knock-on effects for its own business. But it has to try a little, or all it has to offer is wasted potential.

A screenshot from iOS game Super Hexagon.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times