Letter from America: ’˜A funny thing happened’¦’ Notes on Apple’s September 2018 event

Those of a certain age, old enough to remember radio comedies or the early days of television programming, will recall that many of the performers were old Vaudeville stars, or comics often from “B” movies. A common way for those performers to begin would be with a joke that started with “A funny thing happened on the way to the studio…”

Your humble correspondent has been on the road a bit over the past few weeks, including a week at CEDIA 2018. My plan for this week was to attend Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) here at the Los Angeles Convention Centre, but to paraphrase the old cliché, “A funny thing happened on the way to this Letter…” That “thing” was Apple’s announcement on September 12 of this year’s new iPhones and Apple Watch. How significant that “thing” was is a matter for each of you to decide, but having then attended MWCA, the “funny” thing was how the Apple announcements look in the face of what was shown at MWCA.

To be fair, there were some significant announcements from Apple. For me the most interesting and important things were not the new iPhone XS, XS Max and XR, but rather the new Apple Watch Series 4. The phones feature better cameras, more powerful processors, longer battery life and bigger and better screens. All fine, but will that be enough to convince consumers to trade in their current iPhones? That remains to be seen. (Disclaimer: I carry Android phones, including the interesting BlackBerry Key2 with its physical keypad working in concert with Android Oreo).

“For me the most interesting and important things were not the new iPhone XS, XS Max and XR, but rather the new Apple Watch Series 4.”

Why did I find the new Apple Watch so interesting?

Unlike the phones, which, for the most part improved on existing features and functionality, the Watches did some new and important new and very innovative things. A continuing theme was the repetition that positioned the Watch Series 4 as the “intelligent guardian for your health.” A fundamental redesign with a new OS, bigger screens, a new crown with haptic feedback takes what Apple executives said is not only the best-selling smart watch, but number one selling watch of any type, to the next level.

Key to that is what the health and fitness-related features do. A major first is the ability to not just measure your heart rate, but to actually take an electro-cardiogram as an FDA approved device. AI can take the measurements to issue a warning to the user, and if needed transmit the data to a doctor or emergency room. THAT is big.

A second important advancement is to detect falls, a major problem for many, particularly the elderly. Apple’s research defined how a “slip” or a “trip” differs from a fall. Should a fall be detected, a warning pops ups up to the wearer that allows them to dismiss the fall or call for help. Is a fall detected and no “yes or no” response be made, the watch can contact emergency services after 60 seconds have elapsed. That, too, is really a big deal.

Other side notes from Apple: HomePod now has AirPlay 2 for multi-room applications, it can work in stereo pairs, it can make calls to you contacts, and it can use Siri to search songs by lyric as well as by artist, title and genre. AppleTV 4K adds Atmos support, and the phones have new and improved AR capabilities.

As always, some things were NOT mentioned: new iPads, new AirPods, new Macs were not on the menu; perhaps later on into the year. Not bad, but there was one other thing that didn’t click until the next day when I went down to MWCA. That’s the “thing” that happened on the way there: 5G.

Let’s talk 5G

We’ve all heard about 5G, the next big thing for high-speed wireless communication. It is true that Motorola is offering a “back” that adds 5G to some of the mobile handsets. Given all the publicity one might wonder there was no mention of 5G from Apple. The funny thing is that, for now it still isn’t quite ready for prime-time as a replacement for your 4G LTE phones. Yet, it was a big focus at MWCA, concurrent with the start-up of 5G service in a number of US cities, including here in Los Angeles.

What’s the deal here?

If not for phones, then, you’ll ask, isn’t 5G supposed to be embedded in a variety of home IoT devices such as those you currently install with WiFi connectivity in the home then then through the router out to the cloud and back? Perhaps, but another “funny” thing”: while we may see 5G phones and device-embedded 5G IoT or AV products, that is still a bit off in the future.

So, is it perhaps not “funny,” but is 5G instead a “joke” on us?

Verizon Samsung 5G products on showNot at all. At least for the near time, 5G will prove its worth as an alternative to fibre, DOCIS and other methodologies for VERY high-speed data. Many call it “fibre to the home,” but it is more than that. Just as 4K is not just “more pixels,” but also “better pixels” and “faster pixels,” 5G is increased bandwidth capacity, very low latency, and the ability to serve more devices as well as speed.

In the initial phases of deployment, you’ll see 5G as a “fixed wireless” service. How will you install it? That’s a longer topic for a later date but forget the “in-device” notion. Due to the milometer wave transmission frequencies you need to site and place a (relatively) compact outdoor antenna that faces the towers, and then run conventional category cable into the home to standard access points, routers and switches.

For those installations outside of high-speed cable or fibre, this is still significant even though there is still no direct-to-endpoint connection. Rural and ex-urban communities will likely jump on this as much or perhaps even more than those in cities. We’ll have much more on all of this, how it works, what you need to install and provision it and much more as we move further into the global deployments.

At the end of the day, the topics, themselves, are not funny in the “haha” sense, but the timing certainly is. When you expect one thing you often don’t find it, don’t find it the way you expected, or perhaps even find something unexpected. I can think of no better way to describe the way the Apple introductions and 5G as it appeared at MWCA this year. How “funny” it will turn out to be in the long run? Only time will tell.


Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group or follow him on Twitter @captnvid.