Apple launched a series of new iPads, Macs and tags on Tuesday at an event broadcast from California, as it continued its switch to processors of its own design.
During a recorded video, the firm’s chief executive, Tim Cook, unveiled the products that Apple hopes will continue the momentum with its computers and tablets driven by home working and schooling in 2020.
New 24in iMac
The most significant of Apple’s new products is a redesigned version of the company’s iMac all-in-one computer with the M1 chip. The new machine is significantly thinner at just 11.5mm thick, and looks like a giant tablet from the side.
Apple said that with the M1 chip, previously used in the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini computers, the new iMac was up to twice as fast as the previous generation machine.
The iMac has a 24in 4.5k retina screen squeezed into a body only slightly larger than the previous machine with its 21.5in screen. The more powerful six-speaker system is capable of spatial audio when playing movies with Dolby Atmos soundtracks, while the 1080p FaceTime HD camera and beamforming mics are designed for better video calls.
The computer has a new power adaptor with magnetic cable and at least two Thunderbolt ports, with higher-end models having an additional two USB-C ports and an ethernet port in the power adaptor. Apple also added its Touch ID fingerprint scanner to a new Bluetooth keyboard, allowing biometric login and user switching similar to its laptops.
The new iMac – available in seven different colours, reminiscent of the original model from 1998 – will be available from £1,249 in the UK and $1,299 in the US, shipping in the second half of May. Apple did not update the larger 27in iMac, which still uses Intel chips.
Use of the new M1 chips in the iMac will be an important test for Apple’s custom processors; their introduction to the MacBook Air and low-end MacBook Pro laptop lines proved successful, but in machines not restricted by batteries the onus will be on raw performance to handle the more demanding tasks commonly asked of desktop computers.
Issues with software compatibility, particularly with the big, expensive and often dated packages used by businesses, will be tolerated less for volume purchasing by corporations – potentially making the Apple Silicon models a harder sell than “safer” Intel-based versions or competitors.
Paolo Pescatore, an analyst from PP Foresight, said the “star of the show” was the redesigned iMac “thanks to the power of Apple Silicon”, adding: “We are now seeing the fruits of Apple Silicon, by leveraging this system on a chip architecture across its portfolio. The M1 is transforming its products, form factors and capabilities far beyond what users can do today.”
New iPad Pro with M1
Apple also announced an improved iPad Pro equipped with the same M1 chip as the firm’s computers and 5G connectivity. The use of a computer processor, rather than a version of its smartphone chips, was reported to offer a 50% faster performance and enable the addition of a full Thunderbolt/USB 4 port, rather than the slower USB-C port, allowing desktop-class connections to a range of docks, drives and external displays.
Apple also fitted a mini-LED display to the larger 12.9in iPad Pro, making it one of the first devices to use a significantly improved technology hitherto only available in high-end TVs. The Liquid Retina XDR is one of the brightest LCD screens available, matching Apple’s £4,599 professional computer display; the firm said it could show types of HDR video used by professional videographers.
The iPad Pro also comes with a new 12-megapixel TrueDepth camera that has an ultrawide lens and an automatic panning and zooming feature called Center Stage for improved video calls, similar to some smart displays and dedicated video-call screens.
The 11in iPad Pro starts at £749 in the UK, while the 12.9in version sells for £999.
The power upgrade for the iPad Pro follows a full redesign in 2018 and addition of new lidar and camera sensors in the 2020 iPad Pro, alongside new keyboard accessories and mouse support that further turned it into a laptop replacement.
Spurred by the demand for remote working tools during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was unprecedented demand for tablet sales in 2020, up 13.6% year-on-year, following several years of decline.
But Leo Gebbie, a senior analyst with CCS Insight, said: “The new iPad is a tough sell. Despite numerous updates, including the M1 chip, the previous generations of iPads are strong enough to make this is an iterative update when compared to the new iMac.”
AirTags, Apple TV 4K and Podcast subscriptions
Apple also announced its AirTag tracker device, which uses “Find My” software, operating in a similar manner to the Tile Bluetooth trackers and Samsung’s SmartTag.
The small disc-like AirTag can be personalised. When used with iPhones with the U1 chip, such as the iPhone 12, the system can also guide people directly to the AirTag using the ultra-wideband technology used for several years for Apple’s AirDrop filesharing system. AirTags cost £29 in the UK and will be shipped on 30 April.
The company’s smart TV streaming box, the Apple TV 4K, was also updated with a faster A12 Bionic chip as used in the iPhone XR from 2018 and enabling high-frame rate HDR. Apple also showed off a colour-calibration feature that uses an iPhone to automatically tune the colour on TVs, and a redesigned Siri remote, which ditches the touch-panel controller. The Apple TV 4K will cost from £169 in the UK.
Apple also announced that it was opening up paid-for subscriptions within its podcast app. The redesigned app and service will launch in 170 countries with new channels and recommendations. Subscriptions will provide ad-free listening, extra content and the ability to support favourite content creators.
Finally, Apple announced it was expanding its payments drive in the US with Apple Card Family, which allows two people to own an Apple credit card sharing the credit lines and building credit history together. Parents can also share the Apple credit card with children over 13 with access to parental controls.
The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.
The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.
Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.
Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.
Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”
Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.
Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.
You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.
The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.
Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.
Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.
“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.
“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”
The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.
Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.
“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”
Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®
Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.
Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.
Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.
The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.
According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.
The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.
Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.
Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.
“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”
Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.
“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.