Apple's roadmap has a lot of blind spots
So what did Apple show us at its «special event»? A Netflix competitor was rumoured, as was an Apple credit card. Maybe it would be new hardware or a wireless charger?
Nothing came from the whispers about hardware, and there were no new devices being launched. Apple introduced all of its hardware updates last week without any great fanfare:
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Rumours of new services, on the other hand, proved to be correct: the «special event» focused on just that. At a glance:
- Apple News+ is a digital newsagent with a flat monthly fee
- Apple Pay is being souped up with its own credit card
- Apple Arcade has a select collection of games for a flat fee
- Apple TV+ is a response to Netflix, Amazon Prime and co.
But let's take it one step at a time.
Apple News+: the digital newsagent
First up, Tim Cook took us through Apple News. He praised the free service as a source of reliable information from hand-picked sources and stories selected by Apple editors. Apple News is already reputed to be the most popular news app at the moment.
Then he moved on to present the new service, Apple News+. It's a digital kiosk selling a wide range of magazines: Time Magazine, Vogue, People, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Rolling Stone, Wired.
Apple has managed to secure 300 magazines from all kinds of sectors for its paid service. However, it's notable that it's prioritising visually strong lifestyle magazines. Up-to-the-minute news portals are only a minor part of the service. Only the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal are included.
It promises quality journalism, expertly edited. Or, as Apple puts it, «The best mobile magazine experience ever. Awesome!»
The deal is incredibly simple. The first month is free. After that, it costs $9.99 a month and can be used by the whole family on their devices and accounts. Personal recommendations are set to complete the offer. Your privacy is still protected too: no advertising, no tracking. Recommendations are generated locally on your device – Apple doesn't know what its customers are reading.
Alongside the USA, the service is also being launched in Canada, although with just 30 magazines. In the autumn, Australia and Europe will follow, starting with the UK. The exact offering and pricing in Switzerland are yet to be confirmed.
«Apple News will be great for consumers and publishers,» said Tim Cook. «Next, let's talk about Apple Pay,» he continued.
Apple Card: the virtual credit card
Cook reported that over 10 billion transactions have already been made this year using Apple Pay. Apple has achieved an acceptance rate of 70% in its domestic US market and an enormous 99% in Australia. To date, Apple Pay is available in 33 countries, including Switzerland. By the end of 2019, that figure is set to rise to 40.
Apple Pay's new feature is Apple Card, a virtual credit card. Apple has joined forces with Goldman Sachs und Mastercard to create a virtual credit card which can be set up in minutes and is said to have no additional fees. Apple users can authenticate purchases easily via Touch ID or Face ID.
Apple has even sweetened the deal with cashback programme «Daily Cash». Users can get 2% of their purchases back each day and 3% on everything they buy from Apple.
A sleek, titanium physical card is available as a status symbol.
An associated app makes e-banking with Apple Card a piece of cake. Current outgoings and purchases are grouped in categories. How much have I spent on food? What about entertainment? The app also suggests useful ways to improve your personal finances.
It's «the most significant change in the credit card experience in 50 years,» according to Tim Cook. «iOS is the biggest gaming platform in the world,» he said, leading into the next announcement.
Apple Arcade: something for the gamers
Games are the most popular section of the App Store. There are 300,000 games to choose from and downloads have passed the billion mark. This includes free and paid games.
This is the focus for Apple's new Arcade service. It's a game subscription service for the Apple universe, i.e. for iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV. New games are set to be added on a rolling basis.
In a special clip about indie games, Apple emphasised its support of independent studios. The result is a curated collection of over 100 exclusive games. All of the games can be played offline and are set to be free of in-app purchases. Like for News+, Apple is offering a Family Sharing plan.
Arcade will be available in over 150 countries from autumn onwards. Pricing and details are available from Apple. «Let’s talk about TV», continued Cook.
Apple TV+: now with films
«What if all of your films, series and sports shows were all in one place?» asked Cook. Everything on demand, ad-free, high-res and available offline. And with Family Sharing, like News+ and Arcade.
There are currently around 65,000 films and 25,000 TV shows available on iTunes. Now, Apple TV – previously the name for the physical box – is being developed into a service. In addition to its previous on-demand offering, Apple is now also working with cable providers and Netflix competitors. Game of Thrones will be available thanks to cable network HBO, with Amazon Prime and Hulu also joining in. The associated app will make suggestions via «expert editors» and machine learning. The contents can be rented with Apple TV channels.
Apple is set to make its own exclusive content to boot. A longer, almost painfully dramatic clip explained the concept: good stories, lovingly told. Steven Spielberg graced the stage in Cupertino to announce a follow-up to his «Amazing Stories series)», while «The Morning Show)», a series by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston focusing on male and female relationships, should help America wake up in the morning. In «Little America», immigrants tell the stories of fellow immigrants. Oprah Winfrey announced an exclusive show, and Bill Murray, Spike Lee and many others are set to provide exclusive content for Apple TV+.
The overhauled Apple TV and Apple TV+ services will be available from May on iOS and from autumn on Mac in UHD. The offering is initially set to be rolled out in ten countries, with pricing and details yet to be confirmed.
It's a notable development – and something new for Apple – that the company is opening up a bit. The souped-up TV app connects directly to Samsung, LG, Sony and Vizio smart TVs.
Verdict: truly promising or just a lot of promises?
«Thank you for coming and watching,» adds Tim Cook. He left me somewhat puzzled. I tried to make sense of it all.
In 2018, Apple turned over a ludicrous 265.6 billion dollars and made an absurd 59.53 billion dollars in profit. Astute pricing enabled it to increase its turnover and profits even further. However, the outlook is less rosy, with recent sales of the flagship iPhone slightly down. It's not a problem exclusive to Apple: the smartphone market in general is stagnating.
What now? When everyone's mining for gold, you can either do the same or sell shovels, i.e. provide useful services. In the fourth quarter of 2018, Apple's services generated over 10 billion dollars in turnover.
Today, Tim Cook made it clear how Apple are looking to adapt: he's resolutely focusing on a raft of new services. The offerings are perfectly linked to the Apple universe and their ease of use is impressive. The «vendor lock-in» is cleverly designed, and Family Sharing and Daily Cash are attractive.
But are they enough? Apple is up against stiff competition, from films on Netflix, Amazon and Disney to established gaming stores. In addition, the services can't actually be accessed immediately. Fundamentally, Apple Pay is no better than other digital payment methods, and News+, TV+ and Arcade seem to be pretty vague – even for the USA. «Stunning», «amazing» and «best ever» or not, Apple must make it crystal clear what the deal actually is, especially for Europeans and Swiss residents.