Apple's X: a machine that also makes calls

19 Sep 2017

We don't even think about it—just haul out our mobile phone and mash our collective thumb on an icon to create real-world action. We don't leave the house without our app-stuffed magic box. We carry external batteries to make sure it never ever runs out of juice, and we fiddle with the thing more often than we'd care to think.

Yet it was only a decade ago that the late Steve Jobs presented the iPhone to the USA, as it was tied to a carrier there. Even so, an estimated half-a-million iPhones made it into mainland China.

Today's smartphones, like the earliest iPhone, are computers with built-in radio transmitters/receivers. They allow us to optimize our photography using the built in camera, use a cornucopia of apps for navigation, health-maintenance, and banking (to name a few), send text/audio/video messages across the globe, and even make telephone calls.

What's your flavor?

Ever since Android challenged the dominance of iOS (Apple's iPhone platform), manufacturers flocked to the open-source OS. Free-market competition is always a good thing, and spurred Apple to introduced larger-screen phones.

Now Apple has made a move they insist will upset the applecart yet again. The Cupertino-based firm has announced the iPhone X (pronounced “ten”), with a different form-factor.
It's all-screen (except for a long notch at the top, already dubbed “the widow's peak” by Netizens) and the familiar Home button at center-bottom is gone. Instead, the phone uses Facial ID: facial recognition technology to unlock the phone. The display is super-res, there's a wireless charging scheme, and the 3.5mm headphone jack is gone, baby, gone.

Actual units won't be shipped until November 3, so speculation is rife. All we know so far is the wallpaper shown during Tim Cook's keynote is an abstract blend of melty color blocks that looks more like a Mark Rothko painting than the crisp imagery Apple traditionally uses. And there's a dual-camera setup like the 7 and a souped-up A11 chip with a “Neural engine” and stuff.

Rate the fruit

As ever, the latest iThing from Apple is rated, dissected, praised, and pilloried on every website and internet forum. A main focus here (besides the inevitable re-imagining of the device by keyboard-warriors) is comparison between the new 8/8+ models—in sizes unchanged since the 6 in 2014—and the vaunted X. Both offer wireless charging and the A11, but only the top-line machine has an OLED screen.

The Android-versus-Apple argument will never end, but the X's bezel-less look invokes comparisons to Samsung's Galaxy S8. The general trend is a lack of enthusiasm for Apple's newly expanded product line. But of course, Cupertino tends to move massive quantities of their latest gizmos as soon as they hit shelves.

Manufacturer's suggested price...forget it

“OMG, the phone costs a thousand dollars!!!1!” was a battle cry before the X was unveiled. It's not the case—Apple has jacked prices in other territories for years. Costs in the UK are typically identical to the USA, but in pounds rather than USD: a chunk of extra margin for Cupertino. Netizens in ANZ and Scandinavia report similar price-boosts.
But Hong Kong's currency is a USD proxy, and Apple's retail prices in the HKSAR have traditionally been a straightforward conversion from the US price-list. No more: a bare-bones iPhone X sells for the good-luck price of HK$8,588—the same phone from a US Apple Store is US$999 (HK$7,745). So much for parity.

But this move may not be motivated by sheer avarice (and shareholder benefit). Whenever Apple issues a new phone, the grey-market traders who shuttle between Apple Stores, Mongkok's Sin Tat Plaza, and the China border galvanize. “Vincent Choi, a smartphone shop owner at Sin Tat Plaza, a popular mobile gadget hub in Mong Kok, has been trading iPhones for 10 years,” wrote Nikki Sun in the Malaysia Star. “But...he expected the price premium on the grey market to last three months at most, as fewer people were crazy about iPhones these days given their big price tags and the existence of many cheaper alternatives.” Choi said the sales of iPhone 7 in the first few months after its launch last year “had halved from the peak of the 'iPhone boom' in 2014,” wrote Sun.

Privacy concerns

Apple's X marks Cupertino's move to facial-recognition technology as an authentication factor for phone functions, and this is controversial. “I get the impression that Apple dearly wished FaceID wasn't necessary at all, but like Samsung, couldn't get the under-glass TouchID to work,” wrote Andrew Orlowski in The Register.
Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for privacy and security issues at The Constitution Project, says there's “major anxiety about consumer privacy” related to FaceID. “Retailers already crave facial recognition to monitor consumers, and without legally binding terms, Apple could use FaceID to track consumer patterns at its stores, or develop and sell data to others,” wrote Laperruque.” It's also possible that police would be able to more easily unlock phones without consent by simply holding an individual’s phone up to his or her face.”

The last bit sounds a bit paranoid, and let's not forget that Apple went to the wall with the FBI over unlocking an iPhone that belonged to a known criminal last year. But facial-recognition technology is still in its infancy. Who knows what privacy laws will exist ten or twenty years from now?
No one. The week of the X launch, US Senator Al Franken released a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook asking how the company will handle the technology's security and private implications. Thus far, Apple seems to recognize the value of data privacy to its customers (who support them by buying high-end hardware/software, as opposed to, say, Facebook consumers who use a “free” service with a EULA and TOS none of them have ever read).
But if there's one thing true in consumer tech, it's that absolutely nothing is “future-proof”.

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