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Jonathan: I’m Jonathan Mosen. This is Mosen At Large, the show that’s got the blind community talking. What do you hope Apple will reveal at WWDC? It’s been a struggle, but Google finally gives us an answer on Braille HID support and author of the popular technology book, After Steve, Tripp Mickle, joins me for an interview.
It is that time of year again, as we prepare for Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference known as WWDC. It kicks off US time on the 6th of June at [10:00] AM Pacific time, that’s [1:00] PM Eastern. When the keynote concludes, which will tell us about what is coming up in Apple’s new operating system releases, we will be recording a special episode of Mosen At Large. It will be episode 182, in which we will have a panel taking a look at all that was announced, providing a bit of opinion and analysis from a blindness perspective. As is our custom at this time of year, we’re asking you, what are you hoping for in terms of WWDC? What would you like Apple to do?
We know what’s coming accessibility-wise, but there will probably be some other tweaks that they didn’t mention, and plenty of general things. One thing we do appear to be able to expect pretty regularly with iOS releases, is changes with notifications. Apple tweaks these a lot, and that usually means that notifications get pretty rocky for voiceover users in the early part of the beta cycle, and if we’re lucky, it gets fixed in time for the gold release of the operating system before it goes out to the sensible people who don’t beta test [chuckles] and make sure that their device is as functional as it possibly can be.
I suppose the reason why notifications get so much attention from Apple, is that they are both a powerful area and a potential cause of concern. I must confess to struggling with this a lot. I’m a news junkie. I don’t like missing out. I like the fact that this technology has given us so much access to breaking news. I have a lot of breaking news apps on my phone. They are pushing me things, and I do feel quite strongly that what’s happened over time is that the developers of these news apps have started abusing the privilege of having push notifications.
When I started using an iPhone, you would really only get push notifications from news apps. If there was true breaking news, something really significant that was happening in the moment that you might like to know about. That’s the kind of thing I want, but increasingly from news apps, you just get click bait, essentially. It’s not breaking news anymore and a lot of the apps don’t provide that degree of granularity, where you can only elect to receive breaking news or news about the topics that interest you, some do, but most don’t.
There’s increasing evidence that this is actually quite harmful. Humans aren’t designed to jump from task to task, and we are certainly not designed to multitask. There is an abundance of research out there that demonstrates that this is a major problem. This is one of the reasons why Apple spends so much time on Focus in iOS 15 and I suspect we will see some more in iOS 16 and I welcome that.
I think Focus is one of the coolest features to be added to iOS in a long time. I use it a lot. I do find sometimes it’s not as reliable as I would like. For example, when I run the Kindle or books app, I have a Focus set up that is supposed to silence most notifications. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and I’m not really sure why that is, but it does look like we’re going to see more changes in notifications in iOS 16.
What would you like to see? There is still time if you want to get your opinions in and time for the next episode, which we will publish just before WWDC, by all means, email@example.com is my email address, attach an audio clip, or just write something down and you can also call our listener line on 864-60 Mosen, 864-606 6736.
Here’s Rick Rodrick. He says, “I love my iPhone, but like anything else, it could be improved, here are some of my thoughts.” First of all, fix the bugs in Braille with a lowercase b. I do most of my entry with a Braille display. Often when I am entering a password, it is simply not accepted. Okay that’s interesting because we’ve got another listener complaining about this very thing.
Rick continues, “Scott Davett confirms that it is an Apple bug. In each release, I look for a fix, but it still hasn’t happened. Second, says Rick, get a better mail voice for Siri. Most are quite clear, but I really haven’t found one that I like. One idea would be to use a celebrity voice such as Anderson Cooper or James Earl Jones. It should be a very resonant voice. Make Siri able to do follow-ups. I would like to be able to do the complete action of ordering an Uber or Lyft completely hands-free. Here is the way I envision it. ”
Me: “Summon Lyft.
Siri: “I hope your current address at 1915 Rockridge Avenue. Is this correct?”
Siri: “Where would you like to go?”
Me: “American Printing House.”
Siri: “Is that American Printing House at 1839 Frankfurt Avenue?”
Siri: “Request sent.”
The Lyft or Uber apps would then open. I would like to see the ability to link the GPS apps with Apple maps for a route. I find that many of the POIs on existing GPS programs are outdated. I don’t expect perfection, but if a business hasn’t been at a particular location for over two years, I think something is amiss. This is off-topic, but I will say it anyway. I have written to Amazon about this one.
I have a hearing loss and I sometimes wish the soup drinker could be made to enunciate better. This I think would be by giving a greater emphasis to consonants. Thanks, Rick. I would be interested in knowing if you have tried the new mail voice that is available, certainly with the United States market and whether you find that any better. Rick concludes, I use the app for spectrum TV, our cable provider, one of the accessibility options is closed captioning. These come through on my Braille displays. However, they are so fleeting that they are not useful. I would like to have more of a scrolling experience. I would be able to read about five minutes of captioning at a time. I could then sync it with what I was hearing. Some very well thought through ideas there Rick, thank you so much for sharing them.
Brett: Hey Jonathan, Brett Wilhelm here from O’Fallon, Missouri. With WWDC around the corner, I thought I would mention something that is on my Apple wishlist. I just got an Apple Watch Series 7, and one thing I was hoping it would have, and it does not appear to do this is support for streaming audio to MFI, hearing aids, and cochlear implants. I have two cochlear implants and what I was really hoping I would be able to do is to go up to our neighborhood pool, go swimming with my watch and stream music to my implants through the watch. I don’t see a way to do this and I think really being able to stream audio to the implants from the watch would be awesome.
In the meantime, I’m curious if anyone knows maybe some Bluetooth headphones that would be waterproof and would fit comfortably over my cochlear implant processors and I do have the waterproof accessory for wearing them in the water. I should also mention I am using the cochlear Nucleus 7 Processors. Hopefully someone there has a suggestion. I’m really enjoying the podcast. Thanks, bye.
Jonathan: Oh, bye Brett. I agree with you completely and I think we were close in the last beta cycle. I’m pretty sure that it was then that I recall seeing what looked like the beginnings of a user interface for made for iPhone hearing aids to be supported on the Apple Watch. Then at some point during the cycle, it went away. Perhaps they concluded for whatever reason that they weren’t quite ready for this yet. Maybe it’ll come back in this beta cycle of what choice, that would be great if that is the case.
It is only the beginning of a resolution though because I don’t know whether you Brett have an iPad and it’s working for you, but when I had an iPad, in addition to my iPhone, it would not seamlessly switch with my made for iPhone hearing aids, which are the Oticon open S1. What I found was that despite having everything set up correctly, I would switch off my iPhone, put it into standby. It should then release the connection to the hearing aid and what should then happen is that I should be able to unlock the screen of my iPad, having done all the pairing correctly, of course, beforehand, and the iPad should be sent to the MFI hearing aids.
That never worked for me and I did some troubleshooting with Apple tech support. Eventually, they just dropped it. I think they concluded that it was in the too hard basket, so I ended up selling my iPad. I don’t own an iPad now because I simply could not get voiceover to switch seamlessly after having dropped one device to another device, but if MFi hearing aid support comes to the watch and if they can get that sorted out for voiceover users then it would really change the way that I use the watch. It would allow me to use podcasts and audio books and a range of other things that I’m not doing on the watch at the moment. It would be a big one. Let’s hope that it’s in the release and that it actually works. After last week’s episode I realized I missed a trick. I’ve got this sweep here that I could have played and I didn’t. I’ll play it now.
Now it’s time for more Adventures in Android.
This has been unfolding for a couple of episodes now after Google announced that an Android 13 TalkBack would include Braille support without the need to install BrailleBack. People’s excitement about this has been tempered by the fact that it looked as if TalkBack in Android 13 was not going to have support for HID, human interface device, Braille displays.
These are considered to be the future because the idea is that you can plug and play simply connect a Braille device and it should work if, and it’s a big if all Braille display manufacturers adhere to the protocol and all screen readers support it. HumanWare has gone all in with its newer devices and of course that affects the American Printing House devices as well, Mantis and chameleon. It affects human wear’s Brailliant and it also affects the NLS, National Library Service devices in the United States that have been manufactured by HumanWare.
The library of Congress in the US is using two manufacturers. You may get the HumanWare one, or you may not. Other Braille display manufacturers, such as Orbit Research are also supporting HID, but they’ve hedged their bets. They have a backward compatibility mode, which means that they emulate older more widely supported Braille displays as well. In the last exciting and enthralling episode of this saga, I took you through the atrocious tech support experience I had from Google. Just trying to get a straight answer. Is it actually true that TalkBack in Android 13 is not going to support HID displays. I realized actually that there is a threshold that we reach and that threshold will differ from person to person where a tech support experience that you are having is so bad. It actually gets funny [laughs] and the only way to cope with it is to laugh and wonder how long it will go on and how much worse can it get.
In Episode 179, we got to the point where I asked this person to please escalate this to a supervisor because they were not reading what I was writing. They were not making any attempt to answer my question. I then got a reply in which he declined to escalate my issue to a supervisor repeating the same questions all over again about what version of Android I was running, what device I had et cetera, which have no relevance to the question that I was asking.
I then wrote back and said since you are declining to escalate this to a supervisor, could you please advise what official process exists to lodge a formal complaint about the technical support experience that I’m receiving? I got the same thing back again. Basically, I’m not going to tell you anything unless you tell me what version of Android you have and what version of TalkBack you’re running and all of this malarkey.
By this stage, Episode 179 had been published. As I expected, people were appalled that a company like Google could provide this level of lack of helpfulness, lack of comprehension, lack of cooperation. There was a bit of chatter about this on Twitter. I made reference to it on Twitter and got back that canned response again asking me to please go to this URL and complete the form there so they could escalate and troubleshoot further. I made comments about it being Groundhog Day at Google Tech support.
What happened was a number of people said “This account is clearly being staffed by bots. There’s no other explanation. We know that Google dabbles in artificial intelligence clearly, we are being [laughs] experimented on here as blind people and artificial intelligence is running rampant on this Twitter account.” Now, what was interesting about this and this observation was made by several people on Twitter. Is that that actually elicited a response that was off the script.
If you’re in England you’ll be well familiar with this. If you’re not, you may not be, but it’s like one of those old English pantomimes where you say this thing is a bot and they all come back and they go,
“Oh no, we’re not.”
Of course, it’s your job in a pantomime to say, oh yes you are. They come back and they say.
“Oh no, we’re not.”
That’s what happened here you see. They came back and they said, “No, this Twitter account is actually staffed by people from the Google accessibility team to which many people on Twitter who’ve been following the saga went, “oh, brother.” All this Twitter dialogue seems to have woken somebody up with a modicum of customer service because they got back to me and said, “Sorry for the trouble. Could you give us the reference number for this inquiry and we’ll look into it further.” I gave the reference number. At that point things changed dramatically. I got a sensible reply via email apologizing for the difficulty I’ve had in getting a straight answer and acknowledging that the audience of this podcast want an answer too.
I do want to thank the wider Mosen at large community, together we can get stuff done. I finally do have an answer from Google to my question. Now it may not be the answer you want, but it is the answer I think most of us were expecting after APH went public with their comment. They would not have made that public comment without very good cause. Here’s what I got. “Hi, Jonathan Mosen. We hope you are doing well.” “I’m doing very well, Google, thank you for asking.”
Google continues, “Thanks for your interest in Braille with a lowercase B display, head support and TalkBack. We are happy to inform you that TalkBack 13.0 will have built in support for Braille displays without having to download a separate app and provide a better experience overall for Braille users. For now, we are focusing on providing a great experience for devices that connect through the Bluetooth RF com (serial protocol), which is the protocol used by most customers we talk with. We are also looking at the Braille with an uppercase B HID standard because we know one major display manufacturer has switched their product line from serial protocol to Braille HID. Thank you for providing your feedback so that we can make the best product for everyone. We would be happy to help you if there is any inquiry regarding assistive technology accessibility features or Google products, feel free to write back. Thank you for contacting the Google disability support team.”
Now that was a very carefully worded email. Someone senior, either in cons or product management or a combination of both wrote that email. I am encouraged by that because it means that this issue with HID support has got on somebody’s radar, who can actually make a difference. It said the bare minimum. It has made it clear that there will be no HID brail support in the initial version of TalkBack that supports Braille when Android 13 is released. That confirms what APH have told us, as I expected would be the case.
It declines to answer the rest of my questions though. Why is this the case? They’ve spun this to suggest that it’s because they’re concentrating on supporting the protocol that most people use and that that’s their emphasis because they’re serving most of their customers. My understanding is that there may be a bit more to it than that, as I mentioned last week. That there is a problem with supporting HID via Bluetooth because of the Bluetooth stack in Android devices. That it might take some cross-functional effort.
We have got a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. One of the reasons why even some new displays are emulating older displays is because companies like Google are dragging the chain on HID. Someone’s got a blink first. We’re in this really weird game of high tech Braille chicken. If you are launching a new feature like supporting Braille in a screen reader, it would make sense would it not to go with the future as well as ensure as much maximum backward compatibility as you can. You have the answer there. The question is what do we do about it? What does human wear in particular do about it? If you have any thoughts. 864-60 Mosen is my phone number 864-606-6736. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I do want to discuss a related issue with you though. I think it’s quite important. It’s a difficult one. It is this, when I wasn’t getting any sort of meaningful response from Google after about a week and a half of this, I contacted a couple of technology journalists. I’m not going to name them because I still have hope that maybe one day I can foster a positive relationship with them. I chose the journalists carefully. One was from a Google specific publication, another was from a general technology publication, but both of them had written stories in recent times on Google and specifically Google accessibility. I’m over the fact that I have to preface some of these comments with what I’m about to say, but I will anyway just to make it clear, every day when I use technology at home, in my job, in all walks of life, I am amazed and incredibly grateful for how far we’ve come, but we’ve got some problems with mainstream companies providing lackluster accessibility that impedes our productivity and our independence. I take Braille particularly seriously because deaf-blind people in particular are extremely vulnerable when the Braille breaks.
What frustrates me about the coverage of mainstream technology supporting accessibility is that it is very superficial. Part of this I’ve concluded is sheer laziness on the part of journalists, another part is low expectations that non-disabled people have of disabled people, and part of it is also that they just don’t think enough of their readers will be interested in the nitty-gritty.
It makes them feel good when they run a release, say from Google in this instance on Global Accessibility Awareness Day that talks about all the marvelous things that are coming in accessibility in TalkBack, and indeed many of them are marvelous, but then when somebody points out to them. Actually there is a really serious issue here relating to Braille that interferes with their narrative that this is all just marvelous and peachy and all is right with the world.
When I wrote to these tech journalists who had recently covered Google’s accessibility initiatives, I said to them, “Imagine what would happen if there was a really popular printer on the market or a really popular monitor on the market and there was an open standard that an operating system manufacturer had agreed to support pertaining to that monitor or that printer and then it turns out they’re going to shut out a popular manufacturer of monitors or printers. You’d cover that, wouldn’t you?” I said to the journalists. “Can you cover this issue with HID Braille displays?”
I never heard a thing back from either journalist. This incidentally is something that I raised when I interviewed Ned Desmond. We need more disabled technology journalists, and we need more disabled technology journalists who will write more than the fluff pieces, the likes of which we get from some of the disabled tech journalists that are published.
Of course, we should talk about the way that it has changed our lives, but we should also talk about some of the real concerns that are ongoing that we’ve canvased in this podcast and that affect our lives every day. We’ve got to get in there. If anybody has any thoughts on how we raise awareness of some of these ongoing issues with mainstream manufacturers providing assistive technology, then be my guest. The reason why it’s important is that when mainstream tech media starts to cover some of these defects, it puts the pressure on.
Here’s Daniel Semro who says, “Hey, Jonathan, you may or may not remember when we talked on The Blind Podmaker about my issues that I was having at the time with my Focus 40 blue. To recap for those who weren’t listening to that presentation, my dot four key was unusable with the exception of a little bit of typing, but as far as navigation, it was unusable.
Anyway, I called Vispero about two weeks ago and scheduled it for repair. Since then, it has been sent in and repaired. I will have it once again in my hands by Thursday or Friday. I feel bad for my parents though as they had to pay $875 and 75 cents US for the work. They had to replace my mainboard, eight dome keys, two Braille with a lowercase B cells and the battery, and they also deep cleaned the Braille cell blocks themselves. At least, they took the $15 shipping off.
I was very impressed with the technical support experience, the professionalism of the IMA team, and the quick repair job they did on my display.” Nothing like having a Braille display in pristine condition, Daniel, I’m sure that you will enjoy that.
Jim: Hey Jonathan, this is Jim East from Sunny Florida. I wanted to share with you and the audience, not like it will affect your lives much that on the 24th, I’m going to be having total knee joint replacement surgery on my left knee. The reason I tell you about this is that the last few years we’ve been using an app which I find to be very accessible with my doctor’s offices and stuff with the University of Florida Health [unintelligible [00:25:01] Organization.
It’s called MyChart. MyChart apparently is out of some company, I think out of Pennsylvania or New Jersey or something, but when it started out, it had problems, but the people from MyChart when I shared concerns, they were welcoming feedback. The people here in Gainesville put me in touch with them or them in touch with me.
We had a few conversations and I would think that others were probably had input too that were using screen readers, but they’ve actually done a really, really good job. I don’t believe there’s a part of MyChart that’s not accessible to people who use the iPhone and voiceover. I don’t know about large print or anything like that.
I’m totally blind right now. I have been for a number of years, but I find MyChart to be very accessible. If people are involved in any large organizations and their medical organization in particular and they have an app or looking into getting one, MyChart’s great that you schedule your appointments. I don’t take those annoying appointment cards with me because what good are they for me anyway?
I don’t have a fireplace so fire tending is not a good idea. MyChart, it’s good stuff. I thought I would share that. Going back to my original question with Brightbart, I just couldn’t get it to save after I’d fill in the forms. It was just really giving me all kinds of problems and I had a hard time finding my event and it wasn’t working well. I’ve got sight assistance to do that.
Jonathan: Congratulations Jim on the role that you played there in advocating for improved accessibility, it goes to show we can all do our bit and make the world a more inclusive place. Most important of all though, all the very best for your surgery. I hope that goes okay. Robert Kingett has a shiny new gadget, but sadly, it’s not working out so well.
He writes, “Hi Jonathan and company, I was hoping you could help with a voiceover output problem. Lately, even after getting a new iPhone SE 3, voiceover will suddenly and abruptly adopt the same kind of output heard when you are in a phone call. I could be reading an email and then all of a sudden voiceover sounds like I am on an active phone call on speakerphone.
I am not on an active phone call. When I play some piece of audio again or any media, then voiceover behaves normally and stops sounding as if we’re on an active phone call. I’ve tried disabling Bluetooth and never have this problem again. I’d like to keep Bluetooth enabled because I often play media through my echo fourth-generation device without using the soup drinker or the soup drinker app.
In my limited testing, I am sure of a few things. There is no pattern I can detect. The switch to phone mode with voiceover happens randomly when no audio is playing. If another Bluetooth speaker is connected and playing audio, audio just stops as if the iPhone isn’t sure where to play the audio. This does not happen when playing audio from the iPhone to my echo device.
I haven’t tried removing any Bluetooth speakers yet, but I’ve got connected via Bluetooth, a zag limitless keyboard, JBL Clip 3 shower speaker, Amazon Echo 4th Generation. Does anyone have any ideas as to what is happening? Perhaps the echo is somehow appearing to iOS as a phone, so voiceover is suddenly speaking like we are in a phone call.”
I hope somebody can help you with this one Robert because we are a Sonos household. We don’t use the echos as speakers for iOS. It’s not something I’ve tried. I think there is something behind your theory though, but if anybody has any words of wisdom to share on this, please chime in. It must be a very frustrating thing when it happens.
The only thing I can think of off the top of my head to ask is whether when it gets into this state, is there a rotor option that has appeared called audio destination? If there is and you change the audio destination, does that make a difference? Good luck. Hopefully, somebody can help.
Adrian: Hello, Mosen at Large. I’m just making some comments about the fitness activity. I’m one of the subscribers, or better saying I was one of the subscribers of Fitness+. I quit the subscription simply because just here, just a few exercises there with audio description or proper made for blind or visually impaired people. For those who are in the position to have, I don’t know, some residual site good enough to watch a big screen or whatever, it’s fine but for me as a completely blind person is absolutely useless. I quit this subscription, but because I had in my mind for a long time to make something in regards the fitness and exercises and this kind of thing, isn’t it prior found in the end a way to deal with this situation as a blind person. My choice is to go to the gym. I know it’s not easy for anyone, but for me was difficult in the very beginning, probably for the first couple of weeks. The first days was a bit difficult because I had to arrive to dissenter there in my own. I was there before with some other people but never walking, never being in my own.
I put up my phone, I was ringing a member of family and trying to help me a little bit from the point where the little roads get in the parking. I had to cross over the parking area. I had to reach the door of the leisure center, where I’m going to the gym. I’m proud from the beginning of August last year. Actually, I didn’t miss a day from the program which I was making for myself as a routine. I’m going to the gym six days in a week. Six days, Monday to Saturday. Sundays, one day off. I’m proud for my commitment.
After a while, I started to reap the benefits. I’ve lost 17 kilos. I’ve changed my lifestyle. I’ve changed my blood pressure situation because I have started to go to the gym and I took this decision to go regular and to make this change in my life because I started to put lots of weight during the pandemic, because I started to have blood pressure issues and even a mini-stroke, which didn’t affect me too much, but was a strong signal. I can’t afford to have no care for my health and for my exercise routines.
As I said, now I do one hour of cross-trainer. I do 25 minutes of rowing machine. That’s my daily program. Twice in a week, I’m going to sauna for half an hour. How I have started. I just told you was the very beginning. It was an interesting story with the staff which I had to deal with in the very beginning, like any other particular organization or place where blind people wish to go or to be involved, may appear some problems here and there. When they’ve seen I was coming there day after day after day. After few days, they said, “Well, do you have a friend to come with you? We’re not sure we can ensure your–” I said, “I will see.”
Then after a few days, they came again with the same question and I said, “Let’s have a chat with the manager.” I was going to the manager and I said, “Look, I’m intending to come six days in a week here in this center to do my exercise. If you can offer me this particular help to go from the changing room to the machine and to help me to move from a machine to the other, it’s not necessary to stay after me. You can go, you can make your other jobs. I don’t need assistance for the whole period of time spent in the gym.” Okay. I said, if I’ll find a friend, I’ll come with a friend, I’ll take this burden out of your back. I can guarantee I can find any friend or relative or person interested to come with me six days in a week. That’s for sure. [laughs]
I said with friend or without a friend, I’ll be here six days in a week. They said nothing. I said nothing and I was carrying on. We are very good friends. Now, I think I know all the staff there, all the shifts they’ve changed the shift side, medium-size center. They’ve got a swimming pool. They’ve got all sorts of machinery there. Why I’ve decided this, another option was to buy a couple of machines here. The Cross-trainer and rowing machine to have them in my flat and do exercise in my flat here. I said I have to be seen by the sun. No, isn’t it? [chuckles] If the sun doesn’t see you probably the doctor will see you soon. I know myself. If I will have the machines here probably will be a week or two until I’ll get out one step out of my flat.
I said I’m going to the gym, it’s 50-minutes walk from my flat to that center if I’m walking slowly as a blind person, and going by bus is under half an hour but when it’s nice, whether I’m walking when I’m in hurry or is whether I use the bus, life is good. Life is good. I’ve got good friends now in the center there. They know me. All I’ve done good reviews on Google and slowly, slowly, we became friends.
They know my routine. They give me a hand. Everything gets smooth and nice when it’s about the gym there. I don’t know how much they were prepared to offer the help. I don’t know how much they were offering the help just to not get any problem for health and safety things but I was ending up in having a good relation with the staff. I keep going to the gym. Thank you for listening. I encourage you to start doing something. Stop talking about this and start doing. [laughs] Thank you again and congrats for this nice podcast.
Announcer: What’s on your mind? Send an email with a recording of your voice, or just write it down. Jonathan@mushroomfm.com. That’s email@example.com or phone our listener line. The number in the United States is 864-60 Mosen. That’s 864-606-673-6.
Joe: Hello, Jonathan. This is Joe Norton here in Dalton, Georgia, United States again. I wanted to thank you for mentioning that book, Exploding The Phone by Phil Lapsley. There are two audio versions available, and I wanted to mention something about that, that might be of interest to some listeners. The book is available on BARD and the BARD version is narrated by Bill Hensel and he really did a pretty good job narrating it. He sounds enthusiastic and of course, with the NLS narrators read all the footnotes and various things like that, which commercial narrators don’t always do.
One of the little pet peeves though that I had with him is that there were certain words that he didn’t know how the phone people pronounced him. For example, the expression rate and route, he pronounced it as rate and route, and the word routing, he pronounced routing, but in the phone nomenclature that’s the former pronunciation is what’s used, but at any rate, it’s still a good narration, especially the fact that it doesn’t cost anything, but the audible version, I do love that version because it is narrated by a former phone phreak, Johan North, who in the ’70s and [unintelligible [00:38:13] went by the freak handle, Evan Doorbell.
He is very familiar with how the old phone system worked in the ’70s and ’80s and so the nomenclature, you don’t have to worry about that. Anything phone-related, he’s going to say it the right way. I’ve known Johan for quite some time. I asked him about the narration process. It turns out that there’s an interesting story behind that narration. In compiling the book, Phil Lapsley interviewed Johan as one of the former freaks in the book. Johan has done phone tape narration, and he thought I could narrate this book. He approached Phil with the idea and Phil thought it was a great idea. Studio time was arranged.
Johan found that on average, he was making about three mistakes per paragraph. When he offered to do his own editing, it turned out there was someone in the studio that wanted to be paid to do the editing and Johan didn’t make too much of a fuss about it. Everything worked out okay. He found that his limit was about two hours a day, which I understand is common for full-time narrators, if I remember correctly.
There was one unfortunate side effect. Johan was consuming energy drinks to perk himself up for the narration. This caused problems with teeth grinding at night, which caused a couple of his teeth to be broken. These were teeth that had previously had root canals done on them. Still, he is glad to have done the narration and I do highly recommend the audible version if at all possible. I don’t think though that he’s going to be narrating any more Audiobooks anytime soon. Speaking of Johan North, I’d like to mention the website that he has put together. It is www.evan-doorbell.com. I’ll spell that out. It’s E-V-A-N—D-O-O-R B-E-L-L.com. In this website are featured many of the recordings that were made of the analog network in the 70s. Back at that time, Johan and his friend Ben went around New York City especially and recorded a whole lot of tapes from payphones. Beginning probably in the early 2000s, or possibly the late 90s, he decided to digitize these tapes, and has since put many of them on the internet and has been able to actually narrate them. If you go to that website, evan-doorbell.com, and look in the production section, you’ll find close to 300 tapes that explain different facets of the analog network of the 70s, including local sounds, long distance calls, and many other aspects of the network that are almost nonexistent today.
The network is quite different now from what it was then, but some really fascinating material. There’s a couple of short tapes from Great Britain. One of the things that I was amazed at when listening to the recordings from Britain was the dial tone. The dial tone that you hear now from Britain, I believe, is 350 Hertz, and 450 Hertz. At least I think that’s what it is. I’m not 100% sure, I need to Google it, I suppose. The old dial tone was actually a sound that was more like. When I first heard that, I was amazed, I was like, “Wow, that’s different.”
If I had picked up a phone and just heard that, and didn’t know what I was listening to, I would have thought I was listening to maybe the ring voltage or the ringing current for something like that, I wouldn’t have known what that was to start with. I would have probably tried to dial something on it that my curiosity being the way it is. If you want to go to that website and give it a listen, if you’re of a technical nature, I think you’ll find a lot of fascinating material on the old network. Also, in the production section, you’ll find a documentary that Johan is making about how he became a phone phreak so it’s rather interesting material as well.
Something about the phones, I can say I’ve had a little bit of phone phreaking experience. I don’t necessarily consider myself a full-fledged phone phreak like some of the ones that you read about in the book, but I did a pretty good bit of exploring around the system. It all started when I was probably about seven years old and I’d had a cousin come down to visit us from Dalton, Georgia, which is in the northwest corner of the state, famous for carpets. Anyway, he came down to visit and I was living in Macon, Georgia at the time, which is in the middle part of the state.
Anyway, he said something about calling the time and I wondered what he meant by that. My mom looked up the phone number and we called it and I was amazed. Hey, you can call this number and it’ll tell you what time it is plays a little advertisement. Anyway, I thought that was neat. I wondered what sort of a machine was this. I really didn’t know what to picture since the only phone device I ever seen was a phone. At any rate, I started to think about what other things you could call and there were things like dial a prayer, and some other things like that.
Then I came to visit my sister here, and she showed me the time number and she also showed me the movie information number where you could see what was playing at the various theaters in Dalton. Well, I went back to Macon and I was asking my parents or asking my mom rather how to call my family back here and Dalton. She thought that would probably wasn’t a bad idea to make sure I knew how to do that just in case. She gave me my different relatives phone numbers, but what I did, of course was to proceed to call things.
I called my relatives, one of the short calls I made which back then you didn’t ruin and make a short long distance call, unless you absolutely had to because long distance rates being what they were I bet that phone call probably cost 50 60 cents somewhere along there. One time I called up my cousin and she picked up the phone I said, “Hey Selena.” She said, “Hey.” I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “Nothing.” I said, “Well, bye.” Bye, and we hung up. That’s not much for 60 cents, especially back in 1975, 60 cents could buy a lot more than it does today.
Anyway, I was calling that, I was calling the time, I was calling the movie information number and various things like that and just having a good old time didn’t know what the phone bill was going to be. One thing that I also discovered was that I wanted to know what would happen if I called 1234567890 just kept dialing out till I dialed all the numbers. Now later on I read the book Curious George and it called the fire department for him but that wasn’t what happened to me, but I will tell you what did happen.
Before I continue, I would like to mention that the two examples you’re about to hear are from material that was found on the evan-doorbell.com website. The first call however, is what I would call an amalgamation. I took the ring from a call to one city and the recording from a call to another city, so that you could have as close to the same audio experience that I had back in 1975, when I made this call. The recording that you’re hearing, however, is from Savannah, Georgia and I do believe that it is the very same recording that I first heard back when I was about seven years old when I went to the phone and tried my little experiment. The actual call you’re about to hear was dialed in February of 1977. I picked up the phone and proceeded to dial 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 and when it got to eight, this happened. Wait, it’s doing something? Where’s it going? That sounds like long distance, listen to that [unintelligible [00:45:51] and a few seconds later, the phone rang. In fact, the ring did something interesting. It hiccuped, and a few seconds later, I got a recording.
Customer care: We are sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording an error, please check the number or try your call again.
Joe: Now I was seven years old, I didn’t know where this was and it said something about I had reached this recording an error, is error the name of the place? I didn’t realize that error is the Southern pronunciation for error because I still had a lot of words that I needed to learn as I was growing up. The recording repeats, says exactly the same thing and I sat there and listened and it did something really unusual.
Customer care: What number did you dial?
Joe: It went to a special operator, that asked what number did I dial? That was absolutely amazing to me, then I’d never heard of recording, playing and then sending you somewhere else so that was even more surprising. Then something that was even more surprising than that happened, the phone bill came. That phone bill, I believe was about $60 or so. Back in 1975, just imagine what $60 was worth. I’m not sure what that’s worth now, but I think that was probably more than two thirds of my dad’s paycheck so that was not a very good thing to happen.
In fact, what my parents had to do was to cut the phone off, I think they had to make payments on it or something like that. I was without phone service for about a month or so maybe a little bit more than that and I did not want that to happen again. Well, my next thought was what if I went to someone else’s house, the phone bill comes here so if I go to my neighbor’s house, and make a phone call, maybe nobody will know anything about it. I tried that. That backfired on me of course, because of course the bill came.
Then we went to a total strangers house that we’d never met before. I was there and I was like, “Can I use your phone?” They said, “Sure.” Then I picked up the phone and was calling the time. This sounds just like the phone at home in fact, it turned out it actually sounded better. I believe the telephone line may have been not as unbalanced as my own line was maybe they were closer to the central office. I’m not really sure, but anyway, I was standing there just dialing one number after another and there was a girl sitting there that was the daughter and she kept saying, “Who are you calling?” I didn’t say anything, just kept dialing.
Well, we eventually left and I thought everything was cool. Then about three or so weeks later, the lady I guess had come to my mom or called or something and if I’ve got this story right, I believe she actually hid the phone bill from her husband because she was afraid of what he’d say when he saw it. That had been straightened out. We never visited those people again. I wonder why. Needless to say, I knew that I had to do something better if I was going to keep learning about the phone. Over the years, I knew that I could call numbers as long as nothing answered those recordings, for example, that tell you that a number is not in service.
Generally, they don’t answer and they were all different depending on what part of the country you called. Back in those days, they didn’t have standard voice recordings for the most part, or if they did, they were regional. I was also afraid of what would happen when the call was answered. Well as time went by, I figured out something about the way the telephone company worked. At that time, they had something in place, which I believe is called supervision grace. I guess just to explain the term supervision, what I mean by that is that when you make a long distance call or even a local call when the phone at the far end is picked up, a signal is sent back to your central office, letting them know that the call has been answered and they can start billing you for it if that’s necessary. What bell decided to do with the phone company I guess I should say. They decided that if a customer were already hanging up the phone, that they would give them a certain amount of time to do that and not charge the customer. Say, for example if you were hanging up the phone, the phone was headed from your ear to the cradle. Even if the person that you called picked up the phone, you would already be hanging up. I think they just decided to give you that couple of seconds. It was usually about two and a half seconds or so, or maybe two and a third is what one person told me.
If you hung up during that time, during that very short period of time you would not be charged. As time went by I figured out how to listen for that particular sound that showed me that I was about to be charged for it. Let me see if I can demonstrate it real quick. Here is an example of a typical call, similar to one that I might have made back in the day.
The number’s been dialed and the call is going through. Now, you hear the long distance sound come up and in just a few seconds, the phone is going to ring at the far end. [phone ringing] There it goes. I guess this gentleman is walking to the phone to see who’s on the other end. In just a moment, you’ll hear a couple of clicks when he answers.
I’m gone. I don’t want to get charged for this call. Of course, this gentleman’s probably a little bit annoyed. He went to answer his phone. There wasn’t anybody there much anyway. [laughs] Now I’m just going to play the clicks back and you’ll hear two sets of clicks. You’ll hear one when the call is answered and see if you can hear the next one. I’m going to slow it down here.
I don’t know if you heard that a clump bump sound. I slowed that down again. That first little clump was when the phone was picked up at the other end. Then there was a much sharper a pump click, and that’s the click that I would always listen for. Then I heard that click, my finger was on that button pretty quick, because I didn’t want to get charged after all.
Sometimes my curiosity would get the better of me, but usually it didn’t. There were probably a lot of people that got their phone rang by me throughout the country, but none, usually the same twice. Hopefully it didn’t annoy too many people. Anyway, when you mentioned books, one other thing I keep forgetting to mention, I don’t know if you’ve read The Ender series, but one of the characters in the books by Orson Scott Card, there’s a book called Ender’s Game is the first one that he wrote. There’s a character in there that is supposed to be half Maori and his name is Mazer Rackham. I was just wondering does that sound like a name that you might possibly hear in New Zealand?
Jonathan: I suspect that our noise reduction algorithms may have taken care of some of that hiss unfortunately, and it’s a bit hard for me to isolate this one, recording from that because of the way that we process things. Hopefully, you heard the rings of the clicks and everything okay. You brought back so many memories Joe of answering machines.
I was fascinated by answering machines as a kid. We had one that the local picture theater ran and you would call it when no one was there and hear what was coming up and when it was screening, I was interested in just hearing the message. If they answered, I would quickly hang up. We also had a dial, a prayer and another one called dial a message that was a sermon really and there was dial a Bible reading. There was dial a story for a while.
There was also one that belonged to the VD clinic, the venereal disease clinic, and in some parts of New Zealand then we only had five digit numbers. There was a lot of variation there. Wasn’t the consistency that we have now with our numbering plan. I still remember that if you called 33123, and anyone listening in Auckland, New Zealand from that area will remember this.
You got the answering machine about venereal disease clinic and what you can do if you had this. We used to go around singing this little song that we made up about 33123, please help me I’ve got VD. I don’t know whether many of us really knew what VD was in those days. [chuckles] I used to have all sorts of fun playing with the phone, but the answering machines were my fascination. I don’t even know how I discovered this, but I somehow found out that if you whistled a certain way, you could trigger certain answering machines.
I guess it was like a variation on the whole captain crunch thing that is so legendary in US circles. I found that by whistling, I could get into answering machines, sometimes change the outgoing message, but certainly clear the messages, do all sorts of things. One day I was playing with an answering machine that belonged to a company called Crosby’s Electrical.
The only reason why I discovered it was that it had a phone number on our exchange 69999. I was curious about who had that number and I dialed it. When I found out that it had an answering machine, I was just ecstatic. Then when I managed to whistle a fifth octave B and find that that was the thing that triggered the playback of the answering machine and getting into the special mode and you could get it to do really cool things.
It would say, thank you for calling this machine is now closing down to await further telephone calls. It was a cool message.
Anyway, I was playing with this and my dad said, Jonathan, will you stop playing with the phone and come and eat lunch? Obviously, by this stage I had risen the suspicion of the people who ran this business about who was playing with the phone and they were listening on the call or maybe the machine was recording. I don’t remember which, but they had the magic ingredient. They had my name by then.
Next weekend, I think I was calling in just fooling with this answering machine. Next thing I know, I hear this really scary, booming voice saying, Jonathan, should you be playing with a telephone like that? God, I jumped like 10 feet into the air. I was so spooked by this and I slammed that phone down, but a couple of weeks went by and I thought, I’d give it another go.
Then I was just playing and next thing I know Jonathan it said again, well that really did it well, not long after that, I had a tape recorder that stopped working and my parents said, well, we are obviously going to have to get it looked at, let’s take it into Crosby’s Electrical, it’s local. I was like, no, don’t go there.
I was literally shaking when they took this tape recorder in there in case they worked out that I was the person who had been fooling with their answering machine, but they didn’t make the connection. I do not believe, or if they did, they wanted their money for repairing the tape recorder. Then when we were teenagers, we were still interested in the phone and some of us got access to this little remote control that belonged to an answer phone that was quite commonly used at radio stations because it used two standard cassettes and the quality was very good and it was quite flexible.
The benefit of it using standard cassettes was that you could record in a studio if you were in a radio station, copy the recording onto a cassette and then put that cassette into the machine for the outgoing message. It sounded really good. There were radio stations using these things for snow reports and news services and all sorts of things.
My late friend, Marcel and I, bought one of these machines each because we were quite interested in answer phones even then. That meant that we had the little remote control and there was only a set number of configurations for this little remote that you would put up to the mouthpiece of the phone and you would push the button and it would play those double bleep down the phone and let you in. Once you were in, you could change the outgoing message you could do all sorts of things, because it had a little multi-position switch on the side of the phone.
You would flick that switch to wherever you needed it to be and then press the button and get all kinds of signals to this machine. I suppose it was quite advanced for the mid-1980’s. My friend, Marcel. He was really into making electronic music. He had an in Sonic Mirage and I remember that machine because you would put a blank 3.5 inch disk into it and you’d press a key on a keyboard and it would say, this is a blank formatted diskette, but he had a little studio of sorts I guess.
He worked with open reel and things and he would put together his own electronic music. One day we dialed into this snow report that we thought was very boring, just giving the ski conditions for the slopes a long way away. Marcel provided the music and I did the button pressing and we actually overrode this radio station’s snow report which they were advertising heavily. Call our snow report line for the latest ski conditions and in the place of the outgoing message, we put some of Marcel’s music instead and we just took great joy in calling it up and hearing Marcel’s music there. We really were naughty.
As for your book question, Joe, that doesn’t sound like a Maori name, but of course, sometimes names come from the other half of the parent’s lineage. If someone’s half Maori and they may have ancestry from another place, then they could have an English or some other sounding name, but that definitely doesn’t sound like a Maori name to me.
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Jonathan: We’ve referred on a couple of episodes of the podcast to After Steve, it’s a new book, all about Apple in the post-Jobs era by journalist Tripp Mickle. Its subtitle is How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul. To discuss the book, I am joined by the author, Tripp Mickle. Welcome to the podcast.
Tripp Mickle: Hey, thanks for having me.
Jonathan: Got to say I love the book. I read it on my iPhone and I did think that the iPhone was getting a bit hotter during some parts of it. It obviously was getting the effect of its ears burning or something like that.
Tripp: Yes, that’s great, that’s great.
Jonathan: Apple is a notoriously secretive company and it’s famously intolerant of leaks. Obviously, some of your sources will have been former employees, but you must have built up a lot of trusts for people to give you the degree of TikTok that you got.
Tripp: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I covered the company for the better part of four years and spent about seven intensive months working on the book in terms of reporting and writing. During the course of that, I have an opportunity to go to people and say, “Look, this is going to be a different type of undertaking than what you’re accustomed to. This isn’t an article that’s going to pop out and generate some headlines tomorrow. This is something that’s going to stay on bookshelves for a really long time. I think you should give some thought to talking to me,” and people were persuaded.
Some, it took more time than others, but I think persuaded in part because they recognize that what they went through in the aftermath of Steve Jobs’ death was unique in corporate history. I mean, you really don’t get a founder who dies much less a founder who’s as beloved as Steve Jobs was by the people who worked for him. I think there was a real conviction on their part to share their perspective and share their experience because it was so distinguished among what’s happened in business history.
Jonathan: Did it get a bit clandestine at times because Apple really does not tolerate leaking among its staff?
Tripp: Yes, they don’t, but also you’re dealing with people who are having to make those judgments by themselves on an individual basis. Many people wrestle with that. Some people are quicker to want to talk and share their stories than others, but others want to wait and see, “All right, how serious are you?” There’s a bit of testing to see whether or not you’re committed to getting the full story. Sometimes you go back to somebody and say, “Well, I was doing some reporting last week and some research, and I learned this about this event.”
They’ll say to you, “Really? You knew Jony Ive was on a cleanse during the watch development process. How the hell in the world do you know that?” Then, all of a sudden, you have a breadcrumb of currency that cracks a door a little bit and they take you a little more seriously.
Jonathan: Tim Cook was Steve Jobs’ handpicked successor. Do you think that Jobs got that wrong?
Tripp: I don’t think so actually. I mean, when you look at the executive ranks at the time of Jobs’ death and who was among them, he had to choose somebody who could build consensus among the group that remained. The one person among those people who had shown the real ability to do that in many ways was Tim Cook. He would run an operations division that was really built on consensus and working together in close collaboration. The reason that was important after Jobs’ death was that Jobs was so involved in the creative aspects of the company that they revolved around him.
I mean, he was the center of their orbit. He would spend time in sessions with Scott Forstall defining what the user interface would look like for the iPhone and then bounce over to Jony Ive’s design studio and make a suggestion about the rounding of a corner on the physical aspect of the iPhone. Then, a few days later, he’d be in a session with the advertising team from the Media Arts Lab, making suggestions about how they should market and promote the iPhone. Those were the things that really worked together in harmony to distinguish Apple during that period of its golden years, between 2000 and 2010.
Jonathan: It interests me that you talk about that consensus style that Cook would bring because isn’t that the absolute antithesis of Steve Jobs, that the reason why Apple worked so well is that Steve Jobs ruled with his iron fist and he told people how it was. When Tim Cook came along with that consensus style, it was almost like they got rudderless.
Tripp: Right. Rudderless would be your turn of phrase. But by the same token, what they needed to do was figure out a new way of operating because you’d taken the general out of the military. You had to find some way to get the troops to move forward. The best way to do that was to take the remaining lieutenants and galvanize them and build consensus and chart a path that could lead Apple ahead. Was it perfect? Was it flawless? No, and I think it was something that required an adjustment for a lot of people.
For people such as Jony Ive, it was an adjustment that he was unwilling to live with for perpetuity. He eventually decided he would leave the company because the consensus style he found personally draining as he developed the watch and wound up in debates over how it should be marketed and promoted.
Jonathan: If we were to write an alternative history, what kind of company do you think Apple would have become, say, had Scott Forstall become the chief executive?
Tripp: That’s an interesting proposal. Scott was so young at the time of Jobs’ death. While he had done a good job leading the team that he built, he’d been shortsighted in some of his collaboration with colleagues across other divisions, and that shortsightedness and the clashing, by shortsighted, I mean, he’d had political clashes with figures, such as Jony Ive, the Antennagates scandal wound up becoming a problem for him after Jobs was no longer there to protect and shield him. It’s really not possible for him to have been CEO in light of how he behaved before Jobs’ death.
Had he been CEO or become CEO? Had he had a different say bedside manner with his peers and become more endearing? I think he’d be looking at a company now. This is just a hypothetical that would have the Jobs-ian figure who was more involved in the product because that’s where Scott Forstall came out of it. It was what was familiar to him and that’s what Apple doesn’t have right now. Tim Cook doesn’t presume to know a lot about product and doesn’t try to get involved in product development.
Jonathan: There’s a lot of talk in the book about the Apple Maps fiasco. I think debacle, [chuckles] it didn’t get much worse than Apple Maps. Of course, Tim Cook did this very unusual on Apple, like Mea Culpa for Apple Maps, and managed Scott Forstall out of the building. Do you think, given that at the time, the business press were chattering about Tim Cook’s competency and longevity that he might have leveraged that Scott Forstall debacle to get him out of the organization?
Tripp: It’s a great question. It would be really interesting to ask Tim Cook directly about that himself. At the time of Scott Forstall’s ouster, it was broadly understood among the top leaders of the company that Scott thought of himself as potentially the only other person who could be CEO of the company. You can’t help but look at that and wonder if Tim Cook also knew that as his peers did and saw that as a threat to his long-term leadership of the operation.
I think the foremost concern of Tim Cook at that point, and this fact is that, Scott Forstall was more of a threat to the consensus structure and organization that Tim Cook was trying to develop at that time because of his history of conflict with his peers. That was more of a contributing factor. That was the primary reason that Scott Forstall was dismissed. It was less about Maps than it was about years of buildup of distrust with his peers.
Jonathan: All of us who follow Apple know the name Jony Ive and we know how excited, how swooning some Americans get because he would pop up on videos and he knew how to say aluminium properly, but perhaps many people didn’t really know his backstory until reading your book because he’s been quite a private kind of person. Reading the book, I was really struck by something. I thought to myself Jobs and Ive are like the Lennon and McCartney of technology.
Both extremely gifted, but somehow they were able to produce a hole when working together that was greater than the sum of the parts. What do you think Steve Jobs second coming at Apple would have been like if he and Ive hadn’t formed that close bond?
Tripp: Well, it’s interesting to think about it as Jobs second coming because, in his first stint at Apple, he’d found a partnership and a partner in Steve Wozniak with very different skill set than Jony Ive but one that was equally important, I mean, it was absolutely critical I guess, to the inception of Apple. When he returned and he found another partner to work with Jony Ive, the way that they complimented each other is the book details were not just in Jobs playing the role of editor to Jony Ive’s artistic sensibilities or Jony Ive playing the role of dreamer to Jobs products sensibilities.
Which was a way that they worked together and pushed and pulled each other. Also, in a sense, they balanced each other, I think, emotionally as well. There’s an interesting anecdote in the book about Jobs famous moment where he explodes about the CD tray and the iMac in ’97 or right before it’s about to be released. He comes in in the late ’90s just before they’re about to do the event and Cupertino pops it open and out comes a tray and he thought it was going to be a sliding CD slot.
He was just irate and he chewed out the engineers who worked on it and was cussing and threatening to cancel the event which was scheduled for the next day. Everybody was a bit horrified that they’d done all this work and it was going to be for not. He steamed off the stage and somewhere back behind the stage, Jony Ive found him and calmly said to him that, “Steve, that’s next year’s iMac, it’s coming next year.”
For whatever reason, Jony Ive with his cool demeanor was able to calm the valuable Steve Jobs and the two walked off down the hallway with Jobs his arm over Jony saying, “I know, I know.” From that moment forward, people who worked around them said that they just had that balance for each other that really worked. Jobs went out of his way over the years not to be critical of Jony personally because he knew Jony was relatively sensitive.
It’s interesting when you think about Jobs’ reputation for being a jerk that he could also recognize what the talent around him needed in order to excel and fine tune his own personal behavior and personality traits in order to bring the best out of his workforce.
Jonathan: I wonder if the reverse was also true because with some of the anecdotes that you recount about the way that Jony Ive courted, the fashion industry when the Apple Watch was being developed, I wonder whether Steve Jobs also helped to curb some of those tendencies that really were a bit of a tangent.
Tripp: It’s possible. Although I’d argue and I came into my reporting on the book equally skeptical about the fashion, marketing effort around the watch and left persuaded that it was actually probably the right sensibility if not a bit overkill. The reason being, if the fashion industry rejected the watch from the outset, it would’ve been doomed to living the life of a Fitbit. It would not be something that you’d see on the wrists of people at high-end restaurants in New York city much less on the wrist of an athlete who’s running around a track.
It needed to start with fashion and the acceptance of the fashion world so that the rest of the world could accept the device. Perhaps maybe leaning so far into that world would’ve been wise and prudent at the same time. The bigger problem with the watch that we haven’t mentioned is that its functionality was insufficient in the initial addition to really be much more than focused on around fashion.
Jonathan: Yes, and nobody really knew what it was for either.
Tripp: Right, I mean the book goes into great detail about the various strains within Apple that led to pursuing their watch. I mean there was an effort at around the time to do glucose monitoring so there were some health sensibilities. In addition to that, there were a group of engineers that were working on how to help women know that their phone was ringing when it was in their purse. They were looking at, “Well, should we create a broach or a bracelet that would buzz them so that they would know?”
All of these things were swirling around and then can became tied up in the watch itself, not to mention the external pressure from Wall Street which was saying, “Well, you have to make something new,” in the sense that they needed to replace the iPhone eventually.
Jonathan: By the time the watch came along, it was becoming less common to line up for hours for iPhones the day before. I do remember getting my first Apple Watch right after it came out and the sense of ceremony that accompanied it. You’d sit down for a fitting and you’d be helped to choose the band and the particular material that the watch was made of. It was an experience that they created with that.
Tripp: Right. The book goes into some detail about how they overhauled the store and went through a tremendous amount of training for staff so that they would identify who was walking through the door, what type of watch they might purchase, they would scan their wrist to see what type of watch they already had on, they could assess whether or not somebody was a wealthy farmer that should actually be buying a stainless steel watch or a teacher that was best suited in an aluminum watch, and then price them into what they deem most appropriate.
Jonathan: Yet it seems that the argument you’re making in the book is that by the time the Apple Watch came along, this is where the wheels really had started to fall off product development and the watch was forced out the door too soon. As you say, it was slow, it was clunky, and its purpose was not clearly defined so I guess you would consider that a bit of a botched launch to some degree.
Tripp: Right. There’s a moment at the tail end or just on the precipice of the watch’s launch a couple of months beforehand where one of the lead engineers goes to Jeff Williams, who was technically responsible for the watch’s development. He says to Jeff, “Hey, Jeff, if you showed up today and forgot your iPhone, what would you do?” Jeff says, “Go home and get it.” “Well, if you show up today and you forgot your watch, what would you do, Jeff?” He said, “I guess I get it tonight.”
The engineer looked at him and he said, “See? That’s why we shouldn’t launch the watch, it’s not ready yet,” because they really had not defined its capabilities in a way that would fulfill customers’ expectations. There’s so much emphasis at the time of that initial event on how accurate the timekeeping would be. Yet for many people inside Apple, when the real struggles as they went to promote it was their own recognition that it could only tell time half of the time that people wore it because the battery life needed to be prolonged.
They came up with this temporary solution where you had to tilt the watch to your face and look at it in order to get the time which meant, even as a timepiece, it wasn’t fully functional.
Jonathan: I read your book with voiceover on my phone, as I said. Something that came up was so extraordinary to me that I stopped and made voiceover read it again to make sure that I heard it right. You tell an extraordinary story in the book about a chip that Apple found from a startup during the development of the watch that could detect cancer. People were talking about implementing that chip and there was some discussion about false positives, reputational risk. Can you tell me a bit more about that and I’m curious about what became of that startup and that chip?
Tripp: It was really just emblematic of some of the health aspirations of the company at the time and what they hoped they could make the watch become. In the course of exploring those various avenues, they did come upon the possibility of a startup that said it could identify cancer and they investigated it. It was pretty– clearly, it was pretty abruptly shot down in part because someone on the team said, “Well, what’s it going to be like when Apple is the bearer of bad news and says, ‘Hey, you have cancer.'”
Then, what’s worse than that what if Apple doesn’t tell you, and then is it liable for that failure, that shortcoming? They quickly realized that the world of health was far more complex than the world of sending email, texts, opening up apps, and playing music on your phone so they abandoned the effort. I am not sure what happened to that particular startup, I couldn’t begin to tell you but it was more just a flavor in the process of the heyday and thrill of thinking big and broad about what the watch could be.
Then, the realization that within that pursuit that they couldn’t do everything that they wanted to because health is just such a complicated field, one that they had never really tried to tap before.
Jonathan: You see now that I know that, I know of a couple of people actually who have died of cancer who were Apple Watch owners. I stopped in my tracks after reading that paragraph in the book and I thought, “Had they been given an early diagnosis, would they still be here?”
Tripp: Yes, I mean it’s an amazing thing to think about but as you talk to people who worked on the health aspects of the watch and the glucose monitoring, ambitions of the company, everybody’s body is so different physiologically that it’s impossible to streamline a device in a way that it performs consistently for every single individual. Much less go through the hoops of getting the FDA approval and navigating the bureaucracy in the US that you would need to release it so I hear what you’re saying.
You can imagine why everyone was wide-eyed about the possibility and potential of this capability but also quickly brought back down to earth by some of the complications and the reality of what implementing that would mean.
Jonathan: The subtitle of the book which says that Apple has Lost Its Soul even though by Wall Street definitions, it’s one of the most successful companies in the world. It’s extremely rare for any company, of course, to produce one truly disruptive product, and Apple’s done it several times when Ive and Jobs were working together. Is it realistic to think that had Jobs lived, they would’ve been able to continue that degree of disruption or might we have seen the incrementalism that we now have anyway?
Tripp: People who work closely with Jobs like to laugh and think that if he was still there, the company would have never reached the financial achievements that it has, in part because I think he would have decided to disrupt the iPhone with some other device and cut off and choked off all that growth and potentially other devices that have been rocket fuel for their business performance. I can’t help but laugh and think about that because he’s so cavalier and he did that time and time again, whether that was with the iPod Mini being replaced by the iPod Nano or the iPod itself really being replaced by the iPhone.
He showed he was willing to roll the dice and make risk. I can only assume that he would try to do so. I think the open question is what would be the consequences of that and would it be successful or not? In retrospect, we can look back at the past decade and say, “There really hasn’t been a revolutionary new product.” There’s been the implementation of AI and artificial intelligence across speakers through the Echo and Alexa and Google Assistant Google Home and Apple’s attempts with the HomePod. That product hasn’t been truly disruptive.
Electric vehicles, as developed by Tesla have disrupted the automobile industry. Apple hasn’t participated in that field. Television is being unbundled, but it’s not been disrupted by any single device. I don’t know that Apple has missed anything but it has not inspired the imagination in the same way that it did with the series of devices that developed between 2000 and 2010.
Jonathan: It’s interesting because some of Apple’s innovations haven’t evolved to the degree that I thought they would. Siri is a prime example for me. When it came out in 2011, I thought it was pretty good for its time. Obviously, it’s been superseded by both Alexa and Google Assistant now.
What I was expecting at the stage is the ability to be able to give quite complex instructions to technologies like Siri and say, “I’m looking for a flight to depart my home city between [9:00] and midday next Monday. I want to come home between [6:00] and [8:00] that same day, and I’d like the cheapest flight,” and have it go and do those things and we are not there.
Tripp: No, we’re not there. When you bring up a complicated request like that, I can only think that Google is the company most prepared to answer and field a question like that just because they’ve been collecting so much data over the years in terms of what customers want with searches and flight queries and everything else that you would assume would help inform its guidance and the guidance of Google Assistant. Apple’s at a somewhat of a disadvantage in that regard because it’s not a search job. The data that it gathers is certainly not as rich as what Google is able to amass.
Jonathan: Your recap of the crisis and the debate around the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting was really interesting. It did leave me wondering, has the pendulum swung too far? Clearly, this is part of Apple’s brand now. We care about your privacy, we don’t sell your data. We keep it on the device as much as possible. Other things that can be done are suffering as a consequence.
Tripp: I don’t know. What things would you propose can be done that might be suffering?
Jonathan: Really coming back to the comments that you were talking about in terms of Google Assistant being more capable, for example, because it can use off-device intelligence searching for things collecting data, and cross-matching in a way that Apple chooses not to do.
Tripp: Right, there been a number of stories that have covered how some of the privacy philosophy that permeates the company has impaired its ability to, for example, make the search and recommendations on Apple TV+ more sophisticated and more inline or in step with Netflix than say what it currently is. I don’t know that that’s a consequence of San Bernardino much as that’s just a philosophy that’s embedded inside the company that it’s really hard to shake the company free of that.
Jonathan: Yes. [crosstalk]
Tripp: Require it to become an Apple to do something different.
Jonathan: To me, San Bernardino, what’s the trigger in the sense that that was when Apple really nailed its colors to the mass and made a badge of honor of its privacy campaign really.
Tripp: Yes, it went public with its position in a way it had never really done in the past because of the spotlight and attention that was on it at that time. Certainly, Jobs had talked about privacy or not being guided by the company in the years that followed in terms of its own position and philosophy on it, but it wasn’t until San Bernardino and the moment where Tim Cook had to say, “I’m going to take on the US government,” that you really see the company have to fully commit to its position in a way that it hadn’t done in the past.
Jonathan: I was delighted to read the derisive tone in which you described the removal of the headphone jack. As a hearing-impaired person who really needed that jack at the time, it was a major frustration and an inconvenience. Who drove that decision? Was that a Jony Ive’s decision to ditch the headphone jack? Why do you think they were committed to it, even though there was quite a lot of opposition to it?
Tripp: I don’t know. I don’t know. I didn’t delve into who drove the decision. Obviously, the elimination of the headphone jack itself was directly correlated to the release of AirPods and the promise of those. Those AirPods go back to the idea for them to go back to the watch and the desire at the time to make the watch something that can replace the iPhone and free people from having to carry their phones around with them. The only way that the designers thought they could do that was if you had some Bluetooth headset that allowed you to listen to music on the go or make phone calls from your wrist.
Jonathan: Purely self-serving commercial decision to take something as ubiquitous as the headphone jack as a way to generate demand for a product that they knew was coming in the roadmap.
Tripp: I don’t know I couldn’t tell you whether or not it was totally self-serving or not or if it was– it just was not part of my reporting.
Jonathan: The headphone jack removal leaked really early. It leaked from multiple sources. There are times when I think Apple does this where it allows leaks to take place to test the waters to test the public reaction. Do you think that that was the case with the headphone jack?
Tripp: I don’t know. Again, I think you’re more attuned to the headphone jack than– my focus on it was more as it was announced and the reaction to it, but mostly on the AirPods and the story of the AirPods and what that revealed about some of the challenges with product development inside Apple.
Jonathan: Yes, there was this real glut of horrible decisions around this time. One thing I don’t think was mentioned in the book was the brand-damaging butterfly keyboard on the Mac and that was a disaster, it had all consequences in terms of frequent repairs and damage. Then, there was the Touch Bar as well. It seems to be a bit of a low point for the Mac because many professionals really felt betrayed by the direction of travel of the Mac. They’ve redeemed themselves, of course, with the M1, which is phenomenal hardware but the Mac really went into a trough for a while there.
Tripp: Yes, they certainly took it on the chin publicly. There were a lot of tech reviewers and critics who continue to bang the drum about the quality of that product, namely, Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal, who did a number of pieces year after year just about the frustrations of Mac customers whose keyboards weren’t working. That was a product and a device that became a real sore point for the company during that period.
Jonathan: One perception I get from tech journalists, certainly some tech journalists, is they really are reluctant to go too hard on Apple because Apple can be quite vindictive and the repercussions can be quite significant. You can get blacklisted and all those things. Is that real?
Tripp: Apple is pretty closed off. They operate under this philosophy of corporate [unintelligible [01:28:18] and they don’t offer a lot. It’s hard for them to take away a lot. I understand the reputation that you speak to. By the same token, it’s hard for them to be vindictive when what they offer up is relatively limited, to begin with.
Jonathan: Another one that I think you left alone, which was incredibly magnanimous of you really, was the AirPower. I think I’m right in saying that this is the only product that Apple has given keynote time to that turned into vaporware. I guess that speaks to your whole thesis about product development having gone quite off the rails there.
Tripp: Right. I don’t know if it’s the only product that they gave AirTime to at a keynote that didn’t get released. Certainly, in some previous reporting, the problem with the product was the engineering. The designers had a vision for what they wanted it to be. As they were making that product at some previous Wall Street Journal reporting, they found that it kept heating anything that they placed on the device like a hot plate.
If you accidentally let electric keys touch it, and then pick up your keys, they would be warm to the touch in a way that you could get scorched, not like burned, but I’d say this somewhat tongue in cheek, it was a bit fiery. They had to abandon the effort as a consequence of the engineering challenges and it was a real source of internal embarrassment for the team that was working on it.
Jonathan: They should have made it compatible with Apple Books and called it Apple Fire.
Tripp: [laughs] Amazon probably has a trademark on the fire.
Jonathan: Trademark, trademark. We read in the tech press that the Siri team was frustrated that they’re feeling a bit constrained because of the privacy things that we talked about. You gave a lot of background on the car. A lot of people in this audience are very interested in this car because you can appreciate if you’re a blind person and we do get to the point where you’ve got a car that is truly autonomous, that regulators agree is safe enough to drive itself. That is a colossal game changer for blind people but it sounds like it’s a bit stuck.
Tripp: It’s not just stuck at Apple, it’s stuck across the board. I think there’s been a realization, obviously, that the ambitions for autonomy and full autonomy are not going to be attained anytime in the near future. The alarming thing about that is that if you think back in 2015, they were thinking the opposite. They thought that we’d be riding around in autonomous vehicles by 2021. This was consensus broadly across the valley, not just Apple.
Google thought that and they’ve really pushed Waymo really, really hard but Waymo being the leader among anybody who’s pursued this has shown that the challenges of it, they’re really only operating in an autonomous fashion for customers in Chandler, Arizona, which is a suburb of Phoenix and there’s the large wide lanes and relatively predictable traffic patterns. That just speaks to the challenge of what they’re trying to do.
Most people in that field feel like they’re not going to get full autonomy delivered until there’s artificial general intelligence when essentially a machine can function with the same sophistication as a human brain. Nobody knows when that breakthrough is going to happen.
Jonathan: I realized that accessibility is not your beat as such but just a couple of days ago, as we record this, Apple made some announcements about some of the ways that they’re using LIDAR in the Pro phones in the next version of iOS, which will be iOS 16, to do things like door detection for blind people. You’ll have a combination of camera and LIDAR technologies that will read signs on doors, detect whether they’re open or closed, and how you open them.
It occurs to me that because the blind community is so engaged with Apple and willing to give feedback positive and otherwise, we are a bit of a testbed for these augmented reality glasses. A lot of that technology will find its way in there. What’s your perception of that project and how close it is to delivery?
Tripp: Bloomberg had an interesting report today on that, and Mark Gurman reported that the board had recently seen, not the glasses, but the VR headset that Apple has been–
Jonathan: Didn’t I read they were using Windows to do the demo?
Tripp: I don’t think that was Gurman’s report, I think you may be thinking of the information’s report that was longer and more about the development of the headset itself. That headset, of course, is a precursor to glasses, I’m not sure what that means about when we could see glasses. There’s continue to be a huge technical leap for engineers because of the battery power that you would need, the sophistication, the lenses, the weight, and all the other challenges that they’re going to have to resolve in order to bring this to market.
Jonathan: I guess the inevitable question is, is the golden age of Apple over?
Tripp: If you’re an investor or somebody on Wall Street, you think you’re swimming in the golden age, right? It all depends on who you pose the question to. Apple is a bit of an optical illusion and the book speaks to that. You could talk to some people and they could look at the book. I mean, it’s like that there’s an imprint illustration that some people look at and they see a duck and some people look at it and see a rabbit. If you see a rabbit, you can’t see a duck and if you see a duck, you can’t see a rabbit.
Some people look at the book and say, “Tim Cook nailed it, they’re a multi-trillion dollar company, and they’ve done a great job, and he’s made the most out of the iPhone business and he’s built up this incredible business in China, and he’s turned Apple into the adoration of Wall Street.” Then, other people look at it and say, “He’s done all that on the back of legacy products that were really developed by Jobs and Ive,” and Ive was left, and will they ever make another product that can have the same degree of success and achievement as either the iPhone or the iPad or the Mac or even the watch?
Because Jony was the one who drove the watch. This gesture, we don’t know. We don’t know who Tim Cook will lean on within that team to develop and drive the next product and the next product iteration that could bring Apple forward. I mean, it’s been what, almost eight years since they introduced the watch. It went on sale in the spring of 2015 so seven years since it went on sale, and some time has passed.
It’ll be interesting if they launched this headset, how it’s received, if it’s something that people embrace, or if it’s much like the Oculus headset, which is designed to be something for people who are in the gaming community or early adopters of technology and hasn’t quite crossed over to really when mainstream acceptance.
Jonathan: We speculated earlier about whether Tim Cook was quite pleased to see Scott Forstall leave the building and there might have been some politics there. The reverse, I think was true with Jony Ive that perhaps because of the potential reaction from investors, perhaps because of the knowledge that he had, maybe Tim Cook allowed Jony Ives to hang on far too long, his heart wasn’t in it for a long time.
Tripp: Yes, it’s possible. In 2015, the book recounts how Jony came to Tim Cook quite fatigued after the development of the watch and said that he wanted to take a break or leave or find some other arrangement if he was going to stay. Tim Cook agreed to shift them into a part-time role so that he would work primarily on future product and the completion of Apple Park. They also agreed that he’d take on a new title, chief design officer, and be freed from having a lot of the managerial responsibilities that he’d had over the software design team and the industrial design team.
The arrangements seem like on its surface a wise one and one that certainly Tim Cook favored at that time because as he told others, he didn’t want to be remembered as the CEO who lost Jony Ive because Jobs billed Jony Ive to a bit of a legacy within the world of Apple by saying that he was the second most powerful figure at Apple after Jobs himself.
Jonathan: Of course, Apple has always prided itself on controlling the entire user experience. This is one of the big sales pitches. They do both the hardware and the software. They see that as a strength. I guess it does make sense at an intellectual level, it’s quite consistent with Apple’s philosophy that they are increasingly trying to provide you with the services that you use on the devices that they make.
Tripp: Yes, it makes sense on an intellectual level. I think the bigger case that has been made internally for doing that is that it makes sense for business reasons. One of the things that they are tapping into with the development of Apple Music and the launch of TV+ and Apple Fitness, and some of these other services that they’ve launched, is recurring revenue that comes in month after month after month.
That can be a real benefit for a company that needs to diversify beyond the iPhone, especially at a time when the cost of components, since we’re in an inflationary time period are going to be going up in the iPhone. The great thing about services is you can control those costs and the monthly payments keep coming in until your profit margins are really, really fat on services. That’s been a big reason that Apple leaned into that business.
Jonathan: Are there some obvious places for Apple still to go in terms of services that they haven’t explored yet?
Tripp: One of the things that are elbowing their way into and they’re in the earliest phases of doing it, and it’s a service, but it’s not one that you would think of initially when you think of Apple, is this idea on device management and security that many companies rely on to make sure that their workforce doesn’t download malware, but Apple’s elbowing into that world. That’s a huge potential business for them to enter. In doing so, they risk upsetting regulators, as they’ve done in the past with things like AirTags and Tile because you’re entering a field where there’s somebody else already in it.
They look at the advantages that Apple has in developing a product and having the direct access to the customer pays, but it is if Apple is able to tap into it, a really large market that can be really beneficial to them. You don’t think of that as a service, it’s not TV+, it’s not sexy, but it’s substantial financially.
Jonathan: Of course, it also looks like Apple was going to be allowing people to subscribe to iPhone itself as a service.
Tripp: Right, and that’s the power of all as you can bundle it all together, you can create the equivalent of an Amazon Prime, which Apple has a smaller version of that at this point, but if you roll in your iPhone, you roll in your iPad, maybe instead of buying a base level iPad, you say, “If I can stretch these payments over the span of a few years, I’m going to buy an iPad Pro,” so Apple is able to sell a higher-end version of the device and collect more money from it. That such like premium sales as they call it in the world of finance in Wall Street, have been key to Apple’s business strength over the past few years. Because a lot more people who aren’t traveling and aren’t spending money on going out to dinner decided to buy the iPhone Pro and spend more than they would in previous years.
Jonathan: Of course, the big elephant in the room with the services strategy is regulation. Even if the dysfunctional United States Congress doesn’t get it together, it looks like the EU is getting it together really quickly. Do you think that Apple as a company in the way that it is structured today will be the same in five years’ time?
Tripp: If the digital markets act goes through as planned and they’re able to get out of court in time, who knows how long these companies will try to keep that law locked up in court? Then, no. It’s impossible for Apple or Google or Amazon, any of these companies to emerge from the other side of that act looking as they do today.
Probably the biggest potential repercussion for Apple in that wall would be the discontinuation in Europe at the very least, if not in other markets of its lucrative deal to make Google the default search provider and search engine on iPhones, which I think analysts say if they lose that, it would cost Apple something on the order of 2% to 3% of total gross profit on an annual basis, which just underscores how valuable that deal is for them.
Jonathan: Who do you think will replace Tim Cook when the time comes?
Tripp: That’s a great question. He has filled the employee or the senior employee ranks with a lot of his top lieutenants. Jeff Williams has worked at his side since their days at IBM. I think he’s the logical candidate to succeed Tim Cook, especially if Tim Cook were to move into a role like chairman and replace the current chairman of the board. The other option from operations that’s on the executive team is Deirdre O’Brien. She’s moved into a role there as well.
Luca Maestri is really an influential figure as the CFO, but he’d probably, I would imagine, I’m just speculating here, I don’t know that’d be a role that he’d necessarily slide into. That’d be up to the board but I think Jeff and Deirdre know the business well and were so close to Tim Cook over the years that they would be the most logical successors at this point.
Jonathan: It is likely you think to be an internal appointment, somebody that they may be grooming for succession rather than some external candidate they might bring in?
Tripp: Apple doesn’t do well when it brings in external candidate.
Jonathan: That’s true. [chuckles]
Tripp: I think they have a saying there that the body rejects the organ quite quickly at Apple. You can point to a lot more people who’ve been rejected than those that have been accepted. The famous rejection was John Browett who was there for about a year to work on the Apple retail efforts. He came in and cut a bunch of costs in Apple retail because that’s what Tim Cook wanted. Then, many of the stores were upset and so he was dismissed relatively soon thereafter or decided to leave. It’s a bit unclear.
Then, John Giannandrea, who came over from Google, is the exception to that rule. He has joined the company and had some staying power, but that doesn’t happen often especially not in the senior ranks like John Giannandrea inhabits.
Jonathan: We are seeing what I can describe I think as a breakdown in Apple’s discipline, we’ve got constant leaks about the degree of upset that there is regarding the strict return to the office policy that Apple is trying to implement. We have the Apple 2 movement. It’s not possible. It seems for Apple to hold together that cloak of secrecy like they used to.
Tripp: Yes. The company’s employee ranks have just exploded over the past decade. When you have that many more people, it’s hard to maintain the culture that Apple had built over the years. That becomes even harder when you add on the complications from the pandemic and the fact that people were working remotely. It’s really hard to kind of immerse them in the culture of Apple when they’re working from home. As a result, I think we’re seeing a lot more independence from their workforce than you had seen before.
I think one of the hallmarks of working at Apple was solidarity and belief in what Apple was doing and its mission in the world. There’s some cracks in that right now.
Jonathan: What I really like about your book is that it mirrors my own feelings about Apple, as a blind person having benefited from many of the things that Apple has delivered. I own a lot of Apple products, written quite a few books on Apple, and have praised a lot of what they do, but I’ve also been very critical or I’ve felt that it’s justified of quality control issues and various other things. Your book is quite nuanced. I really like that because it is hard to find objective writing about Apple.
Are there things overall that you think Apple needs to correct? Is there a particular path there on where you think somebody needs to come in and make a course correction here?
Tripp: It’s not for me to offer my opinion on a course correction for them. They deal with a ton of critics all the time and you can find those all over the place from the FCC, which has been challenging them on their position in China, around the Voice of America app. They’ve faced criticism from privacy advocates over some of their plans for cooperation with governments around the world on CSAM. As we discuss from customers and tech reviewers, like Joanna Stern on some of the shortcomings of the design and engineering and the MacBook and that butterfly keyboard system that they finally got rid of.
There are more of those out there than not. The book does hit on some of those challenges and highlights where Apple will face tests in the years ahead to your point services and the European regulatory front and US regulatory front is going to be a challenge. China in a world where geopolitical tensions are ever heightened, particularly with the war in Ukraine that promises to pose a big challenge for Tim Cook in the years ahead.
Jonathan: Yes, it is hard to retain those lofty principles that Apple is so willing to trumpet when you’re jeopardizing a big market like China, right?
Tripp: Right. It’s about a fifth of their sales and then more important than that, it accounts for almost all of its exports. They really are totally dependent on China and Chinese workers to make their business go.
Jonathan: Tripp, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. I think the book is a brilliant read. I couldn’t put it down. I appreciate you giving me some time to have a chat about it today.
Tripp: Yes, delighted to connect and I appreciate you reaching out.
Jonathan: And that familiar yet unfamiliar in this context, music ushers in another edition of the Bonnie Bulletin with our incredible cohost, Bonnie Mosen.
Bonnie Mosen: Hello. Hi.
Bonnie: I was trying to decide what language to talk in today.
Jonathan: [chuckles] People might wonder why are we starting with that and if people are completely off the grid, what that is is I still have faith in you. It has had an amazing history. This song. I remember it so clearly, I think I woke the world up. It was on a Friday. Pretty sure it was Friday, the 27th of April, 2018. I was minding my business and I’m a huge ABBA fan. I’ve read lots of ABBA books. I’ve got all the albums and it was pretty clear that perhaps relations between the four members of the band were thawing a little bit.
What was amazing was back in 2016, they got up on stage and they did The Way Old Friends Do and some enterprising person captured this at a private party. The only recording of it that exists from a smartphone. It was just amazing. That’s a lovely song, The Way Old Friends Do, it’s almost earth a kit-like. Anyway, so on the 27th of April, 2018, the word came through that ABBA were doing this digital project and originally, it was going to be an NBC and BBC documentary. They were going to do a two-hour film special using this avatar concept.
As part of that, they had recorded two songs. One of which they said was called I Still Have Faith In You. Eventually, we found out that the other was called Don’t Shut Me Down. Then, the long wait began. I was talking on The Mosen Explosion on Mushroom FM regularly and I’d say, “Okay, so when are we getting these epic songs?” Originally, they said, it would be by Christmas of 2018 that we’d get the new songs. That came and went and Björn and Benny kept saying, “Be patient, be patient.”
2019 came and went and, of course, then the pandemic came along and everybody was thinking, “What does the delay mean? Does it mean that there’s more coming or have they got cold feet or what’s the deal?” Then, of course, finally, last year we got the word that this project had changed considerably because originally, they said they were going to tour the world with this avatar project. It would be coming to a venue near us and then they changed the whole thing and they’ve built this purpose-built arena. The project was much more ambitious in every respect.
In the sense that there was going to be this 90-minute concert. Also, there would be a new ABBA album, which was just amazing. When the ABBA Voyage Project was announced late last year, I thought, “Would I go? What would it be like for a blind person?” In London, they’ve got this arena, the ABBA arena and they have redone the building several times at rooftop level because they had to accommodate the lighting rig apparently so they’ve re-roofed it about seven times now to accommodate the lighting rig so it’s been a long, long project in the gestation.
The ABBA Voyage Project opened on Friday, UK Time. I kept thinking, “What would it be like for a blind person to go to this?” They’ve got a live band on the stage, but obviously, the four ABBA members are virtual so you will get new sound, and in the end, the pool was just too irresistible. I thought if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life so it was a very long intro and now over to Bonnie to talk about what we’re up to.
Bonnie: We’re going to be having a literally whirlwind tour because we’re going to be going around the entire world basically. We’re going to be going to London because originally, he was thinking about just flying over there for the show and he wanted to know did I want to go. I said, “I don’t really want to just fly over for a show if I can’t spend time in London.” He thought about it and went back and consulted with the travel gods or travel goddess, I guess, in this case, and figured out a way that we could spend time a few days in London, looking at the prices.
Of course, if you make a convoluted trip, it’s a lot cheaper than if you fly straight and decide to take Nicola, because originally, it was just going to go with Nicola because she’s the four kids, she’s the biggest ABBA fan then it would be good to have her along as a guide. It was just originally going to be Jonathan and Nicola if they were going to make this dash to London and back again trip.
He calls me yesterday at work and says, “I have this we can go on Lufthansa and there’s a few days we can stay a few days and go to Paris if you want to and we can also go over to Stockholm to see the ABBA Museum.” I said, “Yes, I’ll do that.” Of course, there’s always the, what is it, the downside of anything. The downside is being we’re going to be spending a lot of time on a Boeing or whatever they’re flying. It’s a lot of flying.
Jonathan: If we’re going to go that far, we may as well do the whole ABBA experience and go to the ABBA Museum. What was funny was when I called Nicola, because I’ve been keeping this under wraps, because the one thing you don’t want to do is disappoint one of your kids about something like this. If I’d even speculated with her and then decided that we couldn’t do it for whatever reason and I still wrestle with it, I think is this just a real extravagance but ABBA is a big part of my life, always has been a big part of my life since when I was a kid and I was fortunate.
I’m a huge Beatles fan, but the Beatles were always post era for me, but with ABBA I grew up with it. Anyway, I just decided I’m going to have to do this. I called Nicola yesterday when it was clear we are committed and I said to her, “Do you want to come to the ABBA concert with me?” She was quite chill and she’s still a teenager just. She said, “Yes. When is it?” I said, “Oh, we’re thinking of going in September,” and she said, “Yes, okay.” Then I paused and I said to her, “It’s in London.” She said, “London?”
I said, “Where did you think we were going?” She said, “I thought you were talking about some cover band that was coming here.” I said, “No, we’re going to the real deal. We’re going to go to Stockholm,” and she couldn’t believe it. I’m so excited about this. I really am and just being online, I use the assistance of Aira in the end to book the tickets to make sure we got one with a really good view so that Nicola can enjoy that from her point of view.
We’ve got amazing seats because we are booking so far in advance and just doing it and knowing that we have these tickets now, man, it’s amazing. It really is amazing.
Bonnie: We fly to Los Angeles then Munich.
Jonathan: Looking forward to that bit.
Bonnie: No, and then Munich, then London. We get to recover for a few days and then the Eurostar over to Paris.
Jonathan: Well, there’s something about Americans in London. Given how much you guys struggle to get rid of them, I find it amazing that so many Americans are fascinated so I did want to–
Bonnie: The majority of Americans are English stock.
Jonathan: Sure. I wanted to build in plenty of time to do the things that many American tourists like to and Nicola wants to do them as well.
Bonnie: Nicola wants to go to the London Eye.
Jonathan: London Eye.
Bonnie: Which is an observation wheel it calls itself, which sounds quite interesting. It’s the biggest tourist attraction in the UK which surprised me. I figured Buckingham Palace would be, but no, it’s this– I don’t quite understand how it works because it’s not what I envision a Ferris wheel because apparently, you can walk on and off of it as it moves except if you’re elderly or disabled and they will stop it for you.
Jonathan: That’s kind of them.
Bonnie: I’m sure it’s completely different, but reminds me of those Sky Gondolas at Queenstown because they’re all air-conditioned, like an air-conditioned pod that holds up to 30 people and it moves and it takes about 30 minutes to make its rotation and you look out over all of London.
Jonathan: Then the Eurostar trip, both Nicola and Bonnie are really keen to do the Eurostar to Paris so we’ll do that and we may even pay a visit to Louis Braille’s birthplace.
Bonnie: Yes, depending on where that is.
Jonathan: Yes, if we can make it, if we can fit it in. It’s going to be as Bonnie says, I don’t know if she gets whirlwind itinerary from, but it is going to be a bit of a full trip. I think we’re going to just have to make a list of all the things we need to get done and get it done. Otherwise, we fritter the day away, speculating about all the things that we could do.
Bonnie: I did find out that there is a Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know if it’s still there because a lot of things change, but apparently, there’s a Sherlock Holmes Hotel.
Jonathan: Me on Bakers Street?
Bonnie: Also, a Sherlock Holmes Museum, if you would be interested in that.
Jonathan: Well, that would be really cool. Actually, I like Sherlock Holmes. There’s so much that we could do.
Bonnie: Definitely want to take some walks in the gardens and then we have to do some shopping because everyone’s like, “Oh, you’re going to do some shopping.” I’m like, “Absolutely.” If you’ve been to Stockholm, I know it’s a beautiful city, very clean, and pretty but if there’s anything specific, we should see in Stockholm, we’ll be going to the ABBA Museum, but we’ll also be having some time to do some other exploring.
It looks like there’s some canal trips you can take like a boat trip down the Royal Canal, which looks nice and a lot of the old part of Stockholm that you can walk around in the waterfront so it sounds like it’s a very pretty area, lot of greenery.
Jonathan: The ABBA Museum does sound really cool. You can go in there and get an audio guide. You can get on stage apparently with members of the group virtually and do some mixing apparently and singing and things so I’m sure Nicola, in particular, will really enjoy that.
Bonnie: For those wondering Eclipse is not going on this trip.
Bonnie: It’s just for a multitude of reasons, all the flying getting into Europe is pretty easy at least France and probably Germany and Sweden, but Britain is a lot like New Zealand, so all the paperwork and stuff so she is going to be babysat by Heidi for two weeks.
Jonathan: We’ll keep people posted and it’s very possible that next week’s Bonnie Bulletin will be even more consequential.
Bonnie: Yes, work it.
Jonathan: All right. Goodbye. [music] I’d love to hear from you, so if you have any comments you want to contribute to the show, drop me an email written down or with an audio attachment to Jonathan, J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N@mushroomfm.com. If you’d rather call in, use the listener line number in the United States, 864-606-6736.
[01:58:06] [END OF AUDIO]