Tech Fix: In an Era of ‘Smart’ Things, Sometimes Dumb Stuff Is Better

It can be tempting to hook up everything you love to the internet. But take a moment to appreciate some of the objects that can remain unplugged.

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Apple Moves Toward a Wireless Future, One Tweak at a Time

For more than a decade, Apple has experienced explosive revenue and earnings growth thanks to new hit products, including the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. That streak stopped with the release of the Apple Watch last year, though executives maintain that sales have exceeded expectations.

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The Nintendo game Super Mario will come to the App Store. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Apple’s stock price is just about where it was a year ago, and this year the company has posted two consecutive quarters of declining revenue. For the first time, iPhone revenue also dipped, as the global market for smartphones began to shrink and consumers began replacing their smartphones less frequently. Executives expect sales to fall again this quarter.

But there are probably plenty more dollars to be wrung from Apple’s existing products. This update to the iPhone has been a cause for excitement — and controversy — among Apple fans.

Removing the port for headphones from the iPhone means they now connect only wirelessly or through a charging port. The redesign also encourages users to upgrade to Apple’s new wireless earbuds, AirPods, which cost $160.

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The new version of the Apple Watch emphasizes fitness and health. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

While the updates to the iPhone were incremental, Apple executives hinted that the iPhone changes were part of a companywide effort to wirelessly connect everything inside a home. Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, explained how his company’s technology could be the central way to control all sorts of home wireless devices.

“This is Apple’s way of saying that someday the smartphone experience will be wireless,” said Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies. But will it be enough to reignite iPhone sales? “Not by itself,” he said. “But this along with the other tech upgrades like cameras and processors should drive high interest for those needing to upgrade, as well as draw interest by new customers too.”

Talk about a wireless future had people already looking toward big changes that could be in store for next year, the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, and beyond. Mr. Bajarin, for example, expects Apple to introduce wireless charging to the iPhone in the near future. Should wireless connections become a bigger part of Apple’s future, it is not a leap to imagine closer integration between the company’s various devices and its software meant for cars, called CarPlay.

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Philip W. Schiller of Apple introduced the new iPhones’ revised home button with force sensitivity, which will vibrate to give feedback. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

This isn’t the first time Apple has risked angering customers by moving away from a traditional design. Its desktop computers accommodated a 3½-inch disk, rather than the standard 5¼-inch floppy disk; and more recently it eliminated the CD drive and several ports from its laptops. Some customers considered those changes shocking, even downright hostile acts. They got over it.

“Apple has a history of doing what it wants and making people believe that it’s the best idea ever,” said Julie A. Ask, an analyst at Forrester Research. “The company has an affluent customer base that has in the past paid to upgrade because it cares about the quality of the experience.”

Other cosmetic changes were made to the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which look much like their predecessors and will have starting prices of $650 and $770. The phones will come in new colors, including a shiny, jet black and matte black, in addition to the existing options of silver, gold and rose gold.

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Apple also unveiled an updated version of the Apple Watch that includes GPS tracking, which would make it more appealing to runners. It has a faster operating system that lets apps work more quickly and could make performing some tasks easier on the watch than on an iPhone. The Apple Watch Series 2 starts at $370. And the original Apple Watch, rebranded Apple Watch Series 1, starts at $270.

The company emphasized that the Apple Watch was a useful tool for monitoring health, one of the few functions that users have embraced, and announced a partnership with Nike. It also made the new version water-resistant and added tracking for swimmers.

“The watch is still missing a killer app,” Ms. Ask said, noting that some of the functions that the Apple Watch performs especially well, such as payments, have not taken off.

The Apple Watch still accounts for such a tiny portion of the company’s revenue that Apple doesn’t break out the number when it reports quarterly earnings. But Mr. Cook revealed on Wednesday that Apple was now the No. 2 global watch brand, measured by revenue, behind Rolex, and that Apple’s was the top-selling smartwatch.

The overall market for wearable devices is growing. In the United States, 63.7 million adults, or about a quarter of the population, use a wearable device. That number is expected to increase by more than 17 percent next year to 74.8 million adults, according to the research firm eMarketer.

Apple has grown increasingly dependent on software and services for growth. On earnings calls with analysts, the company has emphasized the role that software and services play in keeping customers hooked on Apple’s products. Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Securities, estimates that services such as Apple Music account for nearly one-third of Apple’s quarterly profits.

Mr. Cook underscored that idea at the event with updates on Apple Music and the App Store. Mr. Cook said that Apple Music had 17 million subscribers and that the company would work to nail down more exclusive deals with artists. He also said that the hit game Super Mario would come to the App Store and that Pokémon Go would be available on the Apple Watch.

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Bits: What 5G Will Mean for You

According to global tech and telecom companies that are spending billions of dollars, combined, on the new wireless technology:

■ With 5G, downloading feature-length movies could take less than five seconds.

■ With 4G, downloading feature-length movies could take as long as eight minutes.

Such technology will not come cheap. Carriers and telecom equipment makers will have to install new hardware like cellphone towers in rural areas and tiny mobile hot spots in dense urban areas to reach the 10 gigabits per second target. They will also have to increasingly rely on sophisticated software to manage the expected exponential jump in mobile data traffic. So just as most people’s cellphone bills have risen as they watch more videos and access other entertainment on their mobile devices, expect operators to charge a hefty premium for these new ultrafast services.

Networks that connect millions of new devices

5G is not just about speed. Companies are also preparing for millions of new wireless devices — such as smartwatches and other wearable items, as well as sensors embedded in industrial products — to be connected to the next generation of cellphone networks.

These devices will not use a lot of data (a sensor built into a highway, for instance, will need to send only small amounts of digital information across the network every couple of hours). But when combined, these hundreds of millions — potentially billions — of new sensors will require almost universal connectivity, or the ability to go online no matter where they are, forcing operators to extend their networks to practically every corner of a country.

These devices will potentially be an important new revenue stream for carriers worldwide. Many operators, particularly in Europe, are finding it tough to charge customers more for their increased use of mobile data. But if carriers can persuade businesses in industries like health care as well as industrial conglomerates like General Electric to sign up for new mobile Internet services that connect tiny sensors to the Internet, then operators may have stumbled onto a new way of making money.

Driverless cars with extremely fast response times

If 5G can offer ultrafast mobile Internet speeds, then why should you care about how quickly one device can communicate with another? In short, you shouldn’t. And as current mobile networks offer so-called latency, or digital response times, of around 50 to 80 milliseconds (the time it takes for a web page to load on your smartphone), reducing that speed to a mere millisecond — the goal under most companies’ 5G plans — might not add much to users’ mobile experiences.

Yet that extremely fast response time will be essential for many of the new services that will most likely be offered on 5G networks. A prime example is driverless cars. These machines will have to communicate almost in real time with everything around them to avoid cyclists and other obstacles. That can happen only if carriers offer one-millisecond latency, something that may become a lifesaver if autonomous cars become a reality.

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State of the Art: Apple Watch Review: Bliss, but Only After a Steep Learning Curve

Still, even if it’s not yet for everyone, Apple is on to something with the device. The Watch is just useful enough to prove that the tech industry’s fixation on computers that people can wear may soon bear fruit. In that way, using the Apple Watch over the last week reminded me of using the first iPhone. Apple’s first smartphone was revolutionary not just because it did what few other phones could do, but also because it showed off the possibilities of a connected mobile computer. As the iPhone and its copycats became more powerful and ubiquitous, the mobile computer became the basis of a wide range of powerful new tech applications, from messaging to ride-sharing to payments.

Similarly, the most exciting thing about the Apple Watch isn’t the device itself, but the new tech vistas that may be opened by the first mainstream wearable computer. On-body devices have obvious uses in health care and payments. As the tech analyst Tim Bajarin has written, Apple also seems to be pushing a vision of the Watch as a general-purpose remote control for the real world, a nearly bionic way to open your hotel room, board a plane, call up an Uber or otherwise have the physical world respond to your desires nearly automatically.

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Credit Stuart Goldenberg

These situations suggest that the Watch may push us to new heights of collective narcissism. Yet in my week with the device, I became intrigued by the opposite possibility — that it could address some of the social angst wrought by smartphones. The Apple Watch’s most ingenious feature is its “taptic engine,” which alerts you to different digital notifications by silently tapping out one of several distinct patterns on your wrist. As you learn the taps over time, you will begin to register some of them almost subconsciously: incoming phone calls and alarms feel throbbing and insistent, a text feels like a gentle massage from a friendly bumblebee, and a coming calendar appointment is like the persistent pluck of a harp. After a few days, I began to get snippets of information from the digital world without having to look at the screen — or, if I had to look, I glanced for a few seconds rather than minutes.

If such on-body messaging systems become more pervasive, wearable devices can become more than a mere flashy accessory to the phone. The Apple Watch could usher in a transformation of social norms just as profound as those we saw with its brother, the smartphone — except, amazingly, in reverse.

For now, the dreams are hampered by the harsh realities of a new device. The Watch is not an iPhone on your wrist. It has a different set of input mechanisms — there’s the digital crown, a knob used for scrolling and zooming, and a touch screen that can be pressed down harder for extra options. There is no full on-screen keyboard, so outbound messages are confined to a set of default responses, emoji and, when you’re talking to other Watch users, messages that you can draw or tap.

The Watch also relies heavily on voice dictation and the voice assistant Siri, which is more useful on your wrist than on your phone, but still just as hit-or-miss. I grew used to calling on Siri to set kitchen timers or reminders while I was cooking, or to look up the weather while I was driving. And I also grew used to her getting these requests wrong almost as often as she got them right.

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An Apple Watch app allows hotel guests to open the door to their room by touching the watch face to the door. Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times

The Watch also has a completely different software design from a smartphone. Though it has a set of apps, interactions are driven more by incoming notifications as well as a summary view of some apps, known as glances. But because there isn’t much room on the watch’s screen for visual cues indicating where you are — in an app, a notification or a glance — in the early days, you’ll often find yourself lost, and something that works in one place won’t work in another.

Finding nirvana with the watch involves adjusting your notification settings on your phone so that your wrist does not constantly buzz with information that doesn’t make sense on the Watch — like Facebook status updates, messages from Snapchat, or every single email about brownies in the office kitchen. Apple’s notification settings have long been unduly laborious; battling them while your hand is buzzing off the hook is an extra level of discomfort.

Other problems: Third-party apps are mostly useless right now. The Uber app didn’t load for me, the Twitter app is confusing and the app for Starwood hotels mysteriously deleted itself and then hung up on loading when I reinstalled it. In the end, though, it did let me open a room at the W Hotel in Manhattan just by touching the watch face to the door.

I also used the Watch to pay for New York cabs and groceries at Whole Foods, and to present my boarding pass to security agents at the airport. When these encounters worked, they were magical, like having a secret key to unlock the world right on my arm. What’s most thrilling about the Apple Watch, unlike other smartwatches I’ve tried, is the way it invests a user with a general sense of empowerment. If Google brought all of the world’s digital information to our computers, and the iPhone brought it to us everywhere, the Watch builds the digital world directly into your skin. It takes some time getting used to, but once it clicks, this is a power you can’t live without.

The New York Times announced last week that it had created “one-sentence stories” for the Apple Watch, so let me end this review with a note that could fit on the watch’s screen: The first Apple Watch may not be for you — but someday soon, it will change your world.

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Apple Watch Success Will Hinge on Apps

For the Apple Watch to be remotely as successful, Apple will have to find a way to take that world of apps to the wrist. But a watch presents unique challenges with its tiny screen. And the way app developers make money from it will be different than with other Apple products.

Unlike the iPhone or iPad, the Apple Watch is not a stand-alone product. It relies on an iPhone to fully operate, partly because the brains of watch apps will live on the iPhone. So users will have to install watch apps on the iPhone as well.

The economics of that combination are tricky. Developers working on watch apps have to make an iPhone app first and expand it to include support for the watch. And it remains unclear whether they can double-dip. Apple has not said whether developers can charge for the iPhone app, then charge again for the watch extension.

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Key Moments From Apple’s Event

CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Still, companies are trying, even though some are worried the watch’s tiny screen can limit features or — even worse — ads.

Christian Gaiser, chief executive of Retale, said his company found a path to using a watch app to complement its smartphone app. Retale’s iPhone app displays weekly deals for retailers like Walmart and Target.

Retale users who see something they want to buy in the iPhone app can push the nearest location of the retailer to the watch app, which will map out turn-by-turn directions on the watch screen. Retale collects fees from retailers whenever customers engage with their ads, so the watch app is meant to increase usage of the smartphone app, Mr. Gaiser said.

At its event, Apple also demonstrated an app from Uber, the ride-sharing service, to summon a car. The watch app shows where the driver is on a map, and from there, the user can place a phone call to the driver.

Apple also showed an app developed by Starwood Hotels. Starwood’s iPhone app can be used to book a hotel room. The watch app sends a notification to the watch wearer when he or she is near the hotel. When the guest arrives at the hotel, the watch app shows the room number, and after that the watch can unlock the user’s room door just with a hand wave over the lock.

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Guests of Apple’s media event tested out the new Apple Watch. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“The end goal is to build loyalty with our most valuable guests,” said Chris Holdren, who led development of the Starwood watch app. “It continues to deepen the relationship we have with them.”

Unlike past Apple products, the Apple Watch has a complex pricing structure. Because a smartwatch is both device and fashion accessory, Apple designed the watch to be highly customizable to suit the tastes of various users, from fitness buffs to collectors of luxury watches.

Apple will offer three models, each with a casing made of a different material: Watch Sport, a version with an aluminum case; Watch, which has a stainless steel case; and Watch Edition, which has a case made of 18-karat gold.

Each model comes in two case sizes — 1.5 inches and 1.65 inches. And for each watch, customers will be able to choose from a variety of interchangeable bands in different colors and materials.

The cheapest model is the Apple Watch Sport, the one tailored to athletes, which starts at $350. The larger Apple Watch Sport costs $400.

The next step up is the Apple Watch, with a more fashionable stainless steel case. The smaller version of this watch costs $550 to $1,040, and the larger one costs $600 to $1,100. The price range for both depends on the band.

The golden Apple Watch Edition is a sure sign that Apple has entered the luxury market. Pricing for this high-end version starts at $10,000.

Preorders start April 10, and the watches will go on sale on April 24. They will first be available in a select number of countries, including the United States, Australia, China and Japan.

At the event, Apple also stressed some of the signature features of the device.

The company has highlighted the crown as its latest signature innovation for controlling a device, similar to the mouse for the personal computer, the click wheel on the iPod and the touch screen for the iPhone. On the Apple Watch, the crown can be twisted to zoom in or out of the screen or to scroll through a web page.

You can take and even make phone calls, as long as your iPhone is nearby.

“I have been wanting to do this since I was 5 years old,” said Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive.

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Journalists, bloggers, and Apple employees waiting for Apple CEO Timothy D. Cook to talk about the new Apple Watch. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The watch includes a heart rate sensor and a sensor for tracking movement to complement fitness applications. It has a chip that helps it make wireless payments.

The watch also includes Digital Touch, an application that enables a new method of communication between watch users. Watch wearers can scribble sketches on the watch screen and send them to one another, or even send their heartbeats.

Apple also added to the watch a so-called taptic engine, which taps users on the wrist with a tactile sensation when they receive alerts, messages or notifications. Apple said the watch’s battery would last 18 hours.

Apple also announced a new MacBook laptop with a 12-inch high-resolution “retina” display. It weighs two pounds and measures 13.1 millimeters at its thickest point. It also includes a new port called USB-C. It is a versatile port that can be used for charging, plugging in a video monitor, or hooking up a USB accessory like a keyboard.

The MacBook’s starting price is $1,300 and it begins shipping April 10.

Apple on Monday also released upgrades for some of its other notebooks, including the MacBook Air.

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