X-Rayted Files: Genius, Evil, or Evil Genius?

While an awful lot has been written about the Apple ecosystem, the recent release of the Apple AirTag got me thinking about it once again. We just had the AirTag in our applications lab so we could image it in support of iFixit’s initial teardown, and we were able to get a good look at how AirTags compare to similar products we had X-rayed from Tile (RIP?) and Samsung. 

As expected, the Apple AirTags had some premium touches (an actual speaker and incredible materials), as well as some uniquely Apple shortcomings (no key ring). Features aside, AirTags represent another example of Apple’s influence on the consumer electronics landscape: its ability to carefully craft user experiences, as well as impact on other enterprises in the space. I’m also exceedingly interested to see the unique uses folks cook up for this “new” device. 

I’m a big proponent of reducing friction. I admire those who have mastered it and am always on the lookout for ways to reduce friction in my own enterprise. In particular, I appreciate the times I experience it as a consumer. Within the Apple ecosystem, reducing friction and creating a seamless user experience across the entire family of products and services is, of course, a key strength. At the center of it all is the iPhone, and with each of its products and accessories working better with that core device than virtually every competitive product in every category, the (frictionless) choice for consumers is easy: choose Apple.

And, as good as they are at enticing users to make the decision to stay within the ecosystem when choosing complementary products, Apple has also managed to make their products extremely sticky. In addition to crafting great user experiences—and while there is little friction in adopting Apple products—making the decision to trade your iPhone and all its complementary products and services for a competitive platform is anything but frictionless. Genius? Evil? Evil genius? I’m not here to judge, but I do find it remarkable. 

Will AirTags end up strengthening the bond between Apple users and the ecosystem? It is one of the reasons it will be so interesting to watch the ways in which people’s use of them evolve. They will likely be more than just a tool for finding things lost or stolen; you name it: keys, phones, luggage, wallets, bicycles, pets or children. While all of these things have already been done with Tile and other competitive products, the prospect of such devices now being able to utilize the breadth of the Apple network would suggest that new and creative uses for AirTags will likely eclipse those of their predecessors. This also begs the question: Does this spell the end for Tile? 

As a reminder of Apple’s power to standardize a vertical, Figure 1 is a photograph taken during Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone. That was the smartphone ecosystem prior to the iPhone: Moto, Palm, BlackBerry, Nokia. Since the iPhone, all smartphones look the same—a rectangular piece of glass. Those who didn’t adapt fast enough died. Same for the iPad. Same for the Apple Watch. Same for the MacBook. Same for the AirTag?

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Figure 1: Steve Jobs shows the soon-to-be-defunct line of competitors during the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.

While Tile will likely continue to have a place in the market, its prospects for growth are dim. Tile, like others, can choose to make products that are compatible with Apple’s network, but consumers who choose them aren’t likely to have the same friction-free experience; knowing this, many (likely most) Apple users seeking to purchase tracking accessories will simply choose AirTags anyway.

Furthermore, migrating Tile users to the Apple network will only serve to cannibalize Tile’s own network, further damaging their prospects. Tile’s conundrum, as well as its likely fate, is nothing new, nor is it limited to those enterprises playing within the Apple ecosystem, but there is something unique about the challenges for those who wish to make complementary or competitive products to those of Apple. There’s a long list of products and apps that have found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to compete for the affections of Apple users in the face of direct competition from Apple. The attrition of its competitors, whether predatory on Apple’s part or not, starts to smell of monopoly, with a heck of a lot more than Monopoly money at stake.

Apple's outsized reach and influence isn’t just limited to the extent of its own product and service offerings. Even titans like Google and Facebook aren’t immune to being jostled by Apple’s wake. Both find their business models affected by Apple’s seemingly altruistic shift toward user privacy with the release of iOS 14.5. With this otherwise innocuous update, Apple’s decision to make users actively decide whether the apps they use have permission to track their online activity, the very ground beneath the giants shifted.

Google and Facebook both generate massive revenue from the ad retargeting made possible by such tracking, and simply by revising the way in which consumers give permission to be tracked, Apple has exercised huge influence on how two of the world’s biggest companies do business. Facebook, of course, points out that they have also had an outsized influence on how businesses of all sizes are able to reach their customers. Altruistic? Idealistic? Predatory? Again, I’m not going to judge, but likewise find it remarkable. 

Full disclosure: I am an Apple user and have appreciated and admired the consumer experience. That said, I’ve also long aspired to build a better mouse trap and I just hope that when I do, it doesn’t end up trapped in the Apple ecosystem. I also hope that Apple stays out of the X-ray business.

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron. 

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2021

X-Rayted Files: Genius, Evil, or Evil Genius?

05-20-2021

Apple dominates its market in many ways. Is this genius for the consumer, or does it effectively rule out any competition? Columnist Bill Cardoso debates its merits—and disadvantages for other players.

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X-Rayted Files: Crafting Our ‘Next Normal’

04-20-2021

As profound an experience as it has been to lead an enterprise through the pandemic, what’s to come may make every bit as much of an impression. So many things that we took for granted as practices and behaviors etched in stone, were interrupted, suspended, or eliminated entirely. As we exit the tunnel into the light of the post-pandemic, we will be challenged collectively in crafting the next normal.

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X-Rayted Files: The Bright Side of the Chip Shortage

03-17-2021

In his previous column, “The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage: Counterfeits,” Bill addressed one of unanticipated outcome of the crisis: the shortage of electronic components and predictable wave of counterfeit components likely to flood the market. Combating that tsunami of fakes may also accelerate the adoption of advanced techniques for detecting counterfeit components.

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X-Rayted Files: The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage—Counterfeits

02-17-2021

It’s February 2021, and as the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, another problem plagues the global economy: the electronic component shortage. What some economists have deemed to be a decade of immense prosperity and growth, the “roaring ‘20s” started with a hiccup.

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X-Rayted Files: The Year of 2020 Vision

01-20-2021

What else can we say about 2020 that hasn’t been said? We have so much to reflect on, both to mourn and to be thankful for. The global pandemic has made an indelible mark on us all, and we, like everyone else, are changed forever. With the year behind us, and light at the end of the tunnel, we take a moment to look back as well as look forward.

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2020

X-Rayted Files: Solving for the Limits of Human Visual Inspection

12-16-2020

Because a key element of quality control in manufacturing is still good old-fashioned visual inspection, it’s important to understand the ability of operators to sustain their focus and what we can do to support their success. And while the fallibility of human inspection presents challenges, Dr. Bill Cardoso details how there are many ways to address shortcomings.

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X-Rayted Files: iPhone Transparency—A Window Into SMT

11-17-2020

Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. Modern teardowns provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. As an example, Dr. Bill Cardoso details the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 2

10-28-2020

As one of the main users of X-ray inspection, the automotive industry has been one of the main drivers for the development of higher power and higher resolution X-ray imaging systems. Dr. Bill Cardoso continues with Part 2 of this column series.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 1

09-29-2020

If you have read any of Bill Cardoso's previous columns, you know that he is passionate about X-rays, cars, and electronics. In this column series, he talks about some of his idols, including Curie, Roentgen, Marconi, Galvin, and Ford.

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X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

08-19-2020

In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. Some may say, “Quality is priceless,” but Bill Cardoso explains how it isn't.

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X-Rayted Files: Marching Toward 2021, 20 Miles at a Time

07-29-2020

We’re only at the halfway mark, and 2020 has been a real challenge. Our best-laid plans have been cast in doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this transformational time, Dr. Bill Cardoso looks back a century for a bit of inspiration from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

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X-Rayted Files: E-Commerce Boom Fraught With Risk—X-Rays to the Rescue

06-17-2020

It’s not news that online sales are increasing dramatically during this global pandemic. However, with increased sales comes the increased risk of return fraud and abuse. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains how X-ray can help detect dummy and counterfeit merchandise.

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X-Rayted Files: Why Do We Break Stuff? Intelligence From Teardowns

05-20-2020

The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" and to “learn how it works” is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of teardowns, which have helped us to understand how the SMT industry has changed over these years. Bill Cardoso investigates.

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X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

04-08-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso usually writes about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, he shifts gears and shares some of the things Creative Electron has been doing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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X-rayted Files: X-ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 2

03-18-2020

In Part 1, Dr. Bill Cardoso covered the basics of the relationship between X-ray inspection and artificial intelligence (AI). In Part 2, Cardoso takes a step forward to cover some of the practical ways we use AI to improve the efficiency of our X-ray inspections.

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2019

X-Rayted Files: Will Radiation Damage My Electronic Component?

12-17-2019

Before I start talking about radiation damage on electronic components, let me warn you: if you are looking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question, "Will radiation damage my electronic component?" stop reading now. Things will get complicated. You may feel like I did not answer the question at all, and you would be correct. There are whole conferences dedicated to this question (check IEEE’s Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference), so the goal of this column is to give you some background to guide you to the right answer for your specific situation. Ultimately, the best way is to ask an expert.

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X-Rayted Files: The Currency of Technology

11-11-2019

In the ever-moving tide of technology, the need to innovate requires a constant shift in vision, and this need has never been more evident than in PCB manufacturing. In fact, innovation has become so valuable that PCBs are quickly becoming the currency of technology. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains.

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X-Rayted Files: The Risk of Installing Counterfeit Parts

10-02-2019

In high-tech manufacturing, the use of sub-standard components can be catastrophic. There is no greater need for quality control than in PCBs, as they are only as good as the components installed on them; therein lies the problem. Some components shipped to manufacturers are counterfeit!

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X-Rayted Files: Just Because You Can't See the Problem Doesn't Mean It's Not There!

08-20-2019

In this new column, Dr. Bill Cardoso will cover everything related to X-rays from cool historical facts to the latest in technological advancements, starting with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

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