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Issue #3: Coming to terms with Apple lock-in

Plus: Ultra-cheap security cameras, iMessage in the cloud, and a handy tablet stand


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One thing I've always tried to do as a tech user is avoid getting stuck with any particular company. I use a Windows desktop PC in my office, but an iPad on the road. I'm equally comfortable with an iPhone or Android phone, and currently use Google's Pixel XL 2. We have an Apple TV in the living room, but an Nvidia Shield TV in the basement. I'm still hanging on to my beloved Pebble watch, and depending on which room you're in, you'll find either an Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker.

In some ways, this approach makes life harder. It involves a steeper learning curve, and requires abstaining from many single-platform services like Apple Music or iCloud storage in favor of cross-platform ones like Spotify or Dropbox. But dabbling in different platforms also creates a kind of escape hatch: When a major tech company stops innovating or starts treating you poorly, taking your business elsewhere doesn't feel so daunting.

Every year, however, Apple seems to make lock-in harder to avoid, with new incentives to use only its products, and new punishments for straying. And its strongest are now social, with communication apps like iMessage and Facetime ensuring your continued loyalty. Switching from Apple Music to Spotify is somewhat trivial; getting all your friends to adopt Google Duo or Signal is almost impossible.

Last week at its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple continued further down the path of using social incentives to create lock-in, with a slew of new software features coming this fall mostly as part of iOS 12:

  • Facetime will support group chat for up to 32 people.
  • Animoji, the iPhone X feature that maps your facial expressions to 3D-animated characters, is getting four new creatures and the ability to create a cartoon likeness of yourself.
  • Those Animoji will also work inside Facetime.
  • ARKit, Apple's augmented really framework, will let multiple people interact with shared objects. (Imagine, for instance, using a couple iPhones to poke and prod at a virtual LEGO playground.)
  • The Apple Watch is getting a "Walkie Talkie" feature for quickly communicating with favorite contacts. (I swear the app's yellow color scheme is a nod to Nextel.)
  • Apple Watch users will also be able to challenge one another to weeklong fitness competitions.

These kinds of features make me excited and uneasy in equal measure. While bringing people together through technology is a noble goal, the cost in this case is greater social pressure to buy Apple's products, even if they're not the best fit in other ways or cost more than you're willing to spend.

Going all-in on Apple isn't necessarily a bad idea. Unlike some other tech giants, Apple has taken strong stances on maintaining privacy and on minimizing data collection, and iOS 12 will take those commitments a step further by locking down the types of data that websites can collect through the Safari browser. Apple is also striking back at the idea that it cripples older phones, claiming that iOS 12 will drastically improve performance, even on older devices like the iPhone 5s and iPad Air.

Still, a company's priorities can change, and so can the things you look for as a consumer. Even as you embrace Apple's neat new social features, you can still look for other ways to diversify your tech usage, whether it's in cloud storage, media consumption, smart home devices, or accessories. It's never too late to start building an escape hatch.

Tip of the moment


I'm a big fan of accessories that work with lots of different products, and this $20 wooden tablet stand from Samdi has been serving me well for the past couple months. It offers two angles of incline in both portrait and landscape mode, and comes with four rubberized stick-on pads to keep it from sliding around your desk. I've been using it to read interview notes from my iPad Pro while writing up stories on my computer, and I occasionally use it to write on the tablet itself in portrait mode with a Bluetooth keyboard.

Need to know

iMessage in the cloud: Late last month, Apple released iOS 11.4, which allows you to back up iMessages with iCloud. Prior to this update, the only way to store your message history online was with a full iCloud backup. This method consumed lots of iCloud storage space, required a full restore to get your message history on a new device, and still didn't allow you to delete messages across all your devices. With iMessage in the cloud, your message history will stay in sync without the burden of a full iCloud backup.

Still, backing up your iMessages can consume a lot of storage space on its own, especially if you're sharing lots of photos and videos. That likely explains why Apple has left this feature disabled by default in iOS 11.4. To turn it on, head to Settings, tap on your name at the top of the list, then select iCloud. Under the "Apps using iCloud" menu, flip the switch for Messages.

Wyze's ultra-cheap security cameras: Last week, a little-known startup called Wyze released a $30 security camera with a 360-degree swivel mount. It can detect motion, send alerts to your phone, and follow objects around the room. It also supports night vision and two-way audio, and can listen for smoke or carbon monoxide alarms.

While I haven't used this new camera, called the Wyze Cam Pan, I recently bought Wyze's $20 model--sans panning--to monitor our garage door, which had taken up the frightening habit of sometimes opening on its own. (It's a long story.) So far, I've been impressed with the camera's reliability and the number of features it offers. It doesn't provide the silky-smooth framerates or face recognition of pricier cameras, but I don't need those features just to monitor a specific issue.

You might be wondering if there's as catch in the form of data collection or advertising, but Wyze's product is ad-free and its privacy policy looks sound. As the New York Times' Farhad Manjoo reported in December, Wyze keeps its prices low largely by cutting out middlemen, selling at low margins and high volumes, and distributing almost entirely on Amazon, where its founders previously worked.

Blackberry's new keyboard phone: Although BlackBerry stopped producing its own phones a couple years ago, the company still works with outside vendors such as TCL to manufacture new Android phones bearing the BlackBerry brand name. And part of me admires how they haven't given up the physical keyboard. BlackBerry's Key2, announced last week, is a revamp of last year's KeyOne, with a faster processor, dual-lens camera, and the same arrangement of physical keys on the front face.

I'm all for interesting niche products, but when I reviewed the BlackBerry KeyOne last year, I found that its physical keys were slower to type on than a touch screen. For most people, these phones are just a reminder of how auto-correct and gesture typing have made physical keyboards unnecessary, even before you factor in the extra screen space that touchscreens provide.

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Around the web

Spend wisely


Keeping with these week's Apple theme, Best Buy is currently selling the non-cellular Apple Watch Series 3 for $50 off. That brings the price to $279 for the 38mm model and $309 for the 42mm model. I wasn't crazy about the Apple Watch when it first launched a few years ago, but it's improved a lot since then as Apple has stripped away unnecessary features and focused more on fitness and notifications. Assuming you have an iPhone to pair with, it's the best smartwatch you can get right now.

Thanks for reading!

After a bit of experimentation, I think I've finally settled on titles for each section, along with the use of issue numbers in the subject and heading. (I like to think of Advisorator as a magazine of sorts, even if it's a one-man effort.) I also recently discovered an error in my code that made images disappear in certain email apps, so please accept my apologies if you've had trouble seeing them in previous issues.

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Catch you in a couple weeks,


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