Obamacare deserves better

On December 6, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana lost a run-off election to Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy.  Time magazine explains why:

“Landrieu didn’t lose because of a superior opponent, but because of her association with a deeply unpopular President and his health-care law. Landrieu—the daughter of a former New Orleans mayor and the sister to the current one—lost more so than Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy won. Even Cassidy, who cruised to a win Saturday, acknowledges that to some extent. When asked to define the campaign’s turning point, he pointed to Landrieu’s support of the Affordable Care Act, which passed four years ago.”

There were other factors in her loss of course. But the idea that an otherwise good, probably superior, candidate lost primarily because of her support of Obamacare remains baffling to me. To be clear, I’m not naive. I understand the politics of the matter, so I am not baffled at that level. It’s just that I remain convinced that Obamacare is a fundamentally good idea — at least one that significantly improves the prior status quo. It doesn’t deserve the intense level of hostility and resistance in inspires among the opposition. Not even close.

The basic idea of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is this: There is an individual mandate, which means you must have health insurance. For those who can afford it, you (or your employer) pays for the insurance. For those too poor to afford it, government subsidies fill the gap.

What does the average citizen get in exchange for this?

You get guaranteed insurance coverage no matter what. Even if you lose your job and remain unemployed for an extended period of time, you remain covered. In fact, if your income drops significantly, your costs go down.

Plus, you are guaranteed that you cannot be turned down for insurance because of a pre-existing medical condition. No longer can an insurance company tell you that because you have a heart condition, or whatever, they won’t sell you insurance.

Additionally, there are more peripheral, but still important, benefits — such as allowing your children to be covered by their parents’ insurance until they are 26. This can save a family money at a time when their kids may be in school — or just getting started in a job — and unable to pay the cost on their own.

As for the people who are getting subsidized by the government, this will likely save taxpayers money in the long run. Why? Because poor people will no longer have to depend on emergency rooms in public hospitals as their primary source of health care. Seeing a general practitioner in their office (covered by Obamacare) is much less expensive than a uninsured visit to the emergency room. The overall savings here are likely to be huge.

Yes, it means that some people will be “forced” to pay for insurance that might otherwise have unwisely chosen to go without any. But it is essential that the system works this way. Otherwise, people will choose to get insurance only when they are sick (thus always getting more in benefits than they pay in) and the system would soon go bankrupt. In any case, people who already have insurance will be able to keep it, often at a lower rate than they were paying before.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Sure, I understand that this is a best-case-scenario vision of what Obamacare does. The devil, as they say, is in the details. And there are problems at the detail level. For example, for some individuals, the cost of insurance under Obamacare has turned out to be significantly more than they were paying before. In most cases, the reported problems are not intended consequences of the Act. They are the result of an imperfect implementation of the plan. No major legislation is ever perfect the first time around. Obamacare is no exception.

This doesn’t mean the solution is to repeal the act or gut its essential provisions. If Obamacare doesn’t work well in every instance, let’s improve it so it does. Let’s fix the legislation so it works as intended. In less contentious political times, this is exactly what would happen. But we do not live in such times.

It seems that the majority of those who oppose Obamacare do not view it even as a potentially good idea that needs fixing. Rather, they view it as a terrible idea that needs to be completely trashed. In many cases, I believe this is because the opposition has no clear idea what Obamacare does and does not do. They oppose it because they oppose everything President Obama does, or because they view it as an intrusion by a government that can’t be trusted, or as an expensive program that will raise taxes without any compensating benefit, or because its labeled as socialism. But these are sound-bite emotion-generating criticisms designed to get knee-jerk opposition from the Republican base.

Unfortunately, the attacks work. Which is is really frustrating — because I remain convinced that the vast majority of Americans, including most people who oppose Obamacare, would support the legislation if they could shed their political biases and really look at what it accomplishes. The truth is the vast majority of Americans will be better off, financially and healthfully, under Obamacare. It’s certainly a improvement over the pre-existing unfair and increasingly expensive system that still left millions uninsured. It’s not as if Obamacare is a case of “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Polls have shown that most people support the individual components of Obamacare — if the question is asked in a way that does not link the component to the legislation. Similarly, recall that the basic ideas behind Obamacare were originally proposed by Republicans. Heck, even health insurance companies now see Obamacare as a potential win. And yet, opposition to Obamacare remains so viscerally intense that it can be the determining factor in a Senate election in Louisiana. Obamacare deserves better.

Sadly, it may yet turn out that Obamacare never gets the chance to prove itself — thanks to the fear-mongering and distortions by a Republican Congress abetted by conservative political action groups, a conservative-friendly Supreme Court and talk radio hosts intent on using the issue for political gain. If that happens, it will be a loss for all of us.

Posted in Media, Politics | Leave a comment

Apple’s hardware announcements: How odd

My reaction to the new hardware announced at today’s Apple media event was hardly a typical one. “How odd” pretty much sums it up. How so?

• Apple introduces the iPad Air 2. The first thing Apple wants you to know about the new iPad Air 2 is that it’s slightly thinner than last year’s model. At some point, increased thinness starts having diminishing returns. For me, we are now at that point. Last year’s Air is already thin enough. So I didn’t get excited by the .05 inches Apple managed to cut off.

Beyond that, the new Air’s dimensions and design are exactly the same as the previous model. Oh, it comes in gold, if that’s of any interest to you.

The new Air has an improved camera (8MP instead of 5MP). However, given that I never take photos with my iPad (I use my iPhone instead), this matters not at all to me.

The new Air has an improved “fused” display, 802.11ac support, a faster processor, TouchID and Apple Pay support. The cellular version also comes with a new Apple SIM that allows you to switch carriers whenever you want without needing to change SIMs. These are welcome additions, and they save the iPad from the doldrums I’ve just described. The end result is that the new iPad emerges as a significant upgrade. It’s not a major overhaul, but you can’t expect Apple to do that every year.

Overall, I don’t see the new iPad as a big enough change to justify upgrading from a prior iPad Air for most people. If you have a pre-Air iPad, or no iPad at all, that’s another story. The upgrade is definitely attractive. Kudos to Apple here.

By itself, we’re not yet in truly “odd” territory, but we’re just getting started.

• Apple announces the not-so-new iPad mini 3. Last year, the only difference in specs between the iPad Air and the iPad mini was the display size. Every other feature was identical. This meant, in deciding which model you preferred, all you had to consider was how big an iPad you wanted. This parity was greeted with unanimous praise by iPad owners.

That’s why it’s odd that Apple abandoned this parity with the new mini. The iPad mini 3 adds TouchID, Apple Pay support and the gold color option. As far as I can tell, that’s it. In every other way, including thinness, it remains the same as last year’s model.

• Apple keeps older models in the lineup. Apple has a history of maintaining older iPhones and iPads when a new model comes out. This allows it to offer lower price point models for those who shop primarily based on cost.

So it wasn’t odd to see Apple do that again this time around. But Apple has gone beyond its usual limits. You can now get last year’s iPad Air, last year’s iPad mini and even the original iPad mini from 2 years ago. This means Apple’s current iPad line-up includes 2 new models and three older ones. And among the two newer ones, only one (the Air) is significantly new. Very odd.

• 16 GB iPads. The storage on the new iPads follows the pattern of the iPhone 6 models: an entry-level 16GB model which bumps up to 64GB for $100 more. I really don’t see why Apple continues to sell the 16GB model. Given that, until this year, Apple has always offered double the storage for each $100 extra, why not start with 32GB? My cynical guess is that Apple expects most people to go for the 64GB model, making more money for Apple than if they had gotten a cheaper 32GB device. Obviously, Apple has not confirmed my speculation. Still, I find it all a bit odd.

[Note: You can compare the specs of all the iPad models here.]

• The Mac mini gets an uninspired upgrade. Apple introduced an entirely new line-up of Mac minis today. While it’s great to see support for Thunderbolt 2 and upgraded processors, this is not the Mac mini I was hoping for.

The top-of-the-line specs for the Mac mini still do not attain the levels available in the iMac. There seems no reason Apple could not do this. But they don’t. The internals of the mini are more like a MacBook than a desktop Mac.

If you were hoping that the Mac mini might evolve into a scaled-down cheaper alternative to the Mac Pro, for people who prefer a “headless” Mac, forget it. As Phil Schiller indicated at the event, Apple views the mini as a very low end model, targeted to first time Mac buyers or to those who want a server for a modest home network.

• Apple introduces the iMac with Retina display. This is the big one I was waiting for: a 27-inch iMac with a Retina display — a 5K display with 4x as many pixels as you get with a 4K television. Whoa!

It starts at $2499. Expensive. But considering what you get with it, that’s quite reasonable. As Apple points out, a comparable stand-alone display could cost $3000 — and that doesn’t include a computer! I expect to buy one in the coming months.

What’s a bit odd here is not the new iMac itself but that it’s the only new or upgraded iMac in the lineup. Apple continues to sell the same 21.5- and 27-inch iMacs from last year. There is no 21.5- or 24-inch Retina display model.

This is similar to what Apple did when it first introduced the MacBook Pro with Retina display. If Apple follows the same pattern here, we can expect to see an “all-Retina” iMac lineup within a year or so. Still, taken together with the new iPad line-up, I can’t recall a time when Apple continued to sell so many versions of older hardware, after new models were announced. Odd.

• No stand-alone Retina 5K display is announced. Apple did not announce a stand-alone 5K Retina display. I have read speculation that this is because current Mac hardware could not drive the display through a Thunderbolt port; it needs the custom direct connection of the iMac. This may be so.

Regardless, this means that Mac Pro users, despite having Apple’s most expensive and powerful machine, cannot get an Apple display that matches what is available with the iMac. Odd. Perhaps it too will come next year.

• Yosemite and iOS 8.1 arrive. Nothing especially new here. Apple had already announced the specs back in June at WWDC and in last month’s iPhone event. Still, it’s good to see that the OS versions are finally live (or will be by next week) — as are Apple Pay and new versions of iWork apps.

Personally, I find the new OS versions much more exciting than the new hardware announced today. I especially look forward to using iCloud Drive and other Continuity features, now that both iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite are out.

• The long view. More than anything else, I’m struck with how, despite the new iPads and iMac announced today, Apple kept older models in its lineups. I’m not sure what this means from a “big picture” perspective, but it certainly suggests that Apple is less motivated to push an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new marketing approach than it has in the past. When you consider that the remaining iMacs are basically 2012 models, Apple is sticking with “old” for an especially long time.

Perhaps we’ve gotten to a plateau where significant hardware advances don’t happen every year or two anymore. So major new hardware is not possible on an annual or even biannual basis. If so, Apple’s marketing has clearly adjusted to this new reality.

As for the new hardware: the iPad Air 2 is a worthy update; the iMac with Retina display is truly ground-breaking. As for the rest, it still strikes me as odd. Perhaps, in a few days, I’ll shake that feeling. But that’s where I am for now.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, Mac, Technology | 5 Comments

Saying goodbye to Macworld Expo

Yesterday, IDG announced that Macworld|iWorld will not take place next year, 2015. While the press release described Macworld as going on “hiatus,” the reality is that the event will almost certainly never return — in any form.

[Coincidentally, I decided to retire from speaking at Macworld last year. I delivered a “farewell” session, looking back at my career and at Macworld over the years. Little did I know that I was foreshadowing the farewell of Macworld itself.]

For those of us in the Apple community, the end of Macworld Expo (I never got used to its newer name; it will always be “the Expo” for me) means saying goodbye to yet another long-standing stalwart. Combined with the recent demise of the print version of Macworld magazine (also produced by IDG), it’s a particularly sad convergence.

At one time, Macworld magazine was the most respected, most authoritative and most popular magazine covering Apple products. Now it is gone, except as a reduced-in-scope website.

At one time, Macworld Expo was the biggest and most significant Apple event of the year (twice a year back in the day) for both the industry and consumers. Before Apple pulled out of the event, it was where Apple and Steve Jobs delivered the company’s most important keynotes, including the unveiling of the iPhone back in 2007.

After Apple pulled out, the Expo rebranded itself as Macworld|iWorld and struggled to survive. Now, the struggle has ended, but not in the way we would have liked.

Beyond Apple’s departure, if you want to blame someone or something for what happened to the Expo, blame the Internet. Expos are expensive to produce and expensive to attend. With blogs and live streaming and a wealth of related content instantly available on the web, it’s become too hard to make money holding a consumer-focused expo and just as hard to justify the cost of attending one. So, Macworld’s closure is not exactly a surprise. It’s following a trend that has already engulfed almost all other technology expos (such as Comdex).

I thought about writing a eulogy of Macworld Expo here. Ultimately, I decided it would be redundant. I’ve already written it — via the dozens of columns I’ve posted covering the Expo over the years. Three of these columns, in particular, focused on a long view perspective that, taken together, form as good a eulogy as anything I could write today:

Macworld Expo remembered. Written in 2008, shortly after Apple announced it would no longer be attending the Expo, this is my definitive look back at all the preceding years. If you want to know what Macworld Expo was like in its heyday and why it mattered so much, this is the one to read.

The Once and Future Macworld Expo. This was my assessment of the status of the Expo at what turned out to be the last year, 2011, that the event was called Macworld Expo.

Macworld|iWorld Reinvents Itself. Written in 2012, this was my op-ed on the transition of Macworld Expo to Macworld|iWorld.

Unfortunately, the final paragraph of the 2012 column did not turn out to be prophetic: “I for one am finished with laments about how Macworld used to be. This year’s Macworld | iWorld was jam-packed with more good stuff to see and hear than any one person could squeeze into their schedule. To me, that spells: success. Let the word go forth: Macworld is back!”

I only wish it were so.

For me, beyond the exhibit floor and the tech talks and the parties, the biggest personal loss of not having Macworld, is not having the annual opportunity to gather with all of my Apple community friends and colleagues, people that I otherwise only get to “see” virtually via Twitter and such. I don’t know if there will ever be something to replace this. I doubt it.

[A final personal note: Thanks to Paul Kent and Kathy Moran, the hard-working organizers of Macworld. What a great job they’ve done these past years. It’s been a privilege to have worked with them.]

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The myth that AppleCare+ is worth it

Back in 2006, I advised against getting AppleCare for your Mac, arguing that the odds that it would save you money were too low to make it worth buying. In 2011, I reached the same negative conclusion regarding AppleCare+ for iOS devices.

While I thought I had built a pretty air-tight case, there are apparently still people who remain unconvinced. The myth persists that AppleCare is worth getting. As one recent example, a Cult of Mac column, discussing AppleCare for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, stated: “AppleCare+ should be strongly considered for those devices.”

Had something changed since 2011? I decided to take a closer look. I found that nothing had changed. Except for a few rare circumstances, AppleCare+ remains as bad a deal as it ever was.

To see why, let’s look at exactly what AppleCare+ covers. AppleCare+ for an iPhone 6 offers two years of coverage for $99. For the moment, let’s ignore accident protection and just examine the basic coverage.

Basic coverage

The most critical point to grasp is that AppleCare’s coverage is very limited. You don’t even have a chance of saving money with AppleCare except during a relatively narrow window.

Basic AppleCare only covers things that are not your fault, such as failures due to manufacturing defects. One year of this same basic coverage is included free with each iPhone.

This means, for covered service issues, purchasing AppleCare+ is a complete waste of money for the first year.

Further, most things that go wrong with an electronic device due to manufacturing defects and such tend to happen within the first year. This means that the second year of coverage is not likely to be of much value either. And if you happen to be someone who gets a new iPhone every year, selling or trading in the old one, the second year of coverage is entirely irrelevant.

By the third year, you have to pay for any repairs, whether or not you purchased AppleCare+. Once again, having AppleCare+ becomes worthless at this point.

In other words, the only time that AppleCare+ can be of any help here (and it’s a low chance) is during the 12 month interval between one and two years after you purchase the iPhone.

Even if something does go wrong during this second year, it still may work out to your disadvantage to have paid for AppleCare+. For example, if your iPhone 6 battery dies, you can get a new one for free with AppleCare+. Without AppleCare+, it will cost you $79. This means that, should this turn out to be the only time you need AppleCare+, you will have paid $20 more for the replacement battery by getting AppleCare+ than if you had foregone the coverage.

From a probability perspective, I can’t see any way to argue that AppleCare+ is likely to pay off for basic coverage.

Accident protection

AppleCare+ offers one additional benefit: you get two years protection against “accidental damage.” This is protection that the one year free warranty does to cover at all. As such, people who favor AppleCare+ typically cite this as the key reason to buy it.

However, if you take a closer look, you’ll find that even the accidental damage protection is not likely to work to your advantage.

First, bear in mind that “accidental damage” does not cover a lost or stolen iPhone. You are still on your own if either of these things happen.

Second, each accident incident (and you are limited to a maximum of two) will cost you an additional $79. So, for example, if you need to replace a shattered screen it will cost you $79 if you have AppleCare+. Without AppleCare+, replacing the screen of an iPhone 6 will cost you $109 (for the 6 Plus, it’s $129). In other words, getting AppleCare+ for an iPhone 6 would only save you $30 here (and that’s not counting the $99 you paid to get AppleCare+ in the first place). To me, that’s not enough incentive to make it worth shelling out $99 for AppleCare+ — money that you will never recoup if nothing goes wrong with your iPhone.

However, if you don’t have AppleCare+ and you need to entirely replace your iPhone 6, it will cost you $299 ($329 for an iPhone 6 Plus). At last, here is a case where it seems you can save significant money if you purchased AppleCare+. It is this scenario that leads to online postings such as:

“I dropped my iPhone the other day and it completely broke. I needed to get the phone replaced. Because I had AppleCare+ coverage, it only cost me $79. I would have had to pay $329 otherwise. I’m so glad I had AppleCare. Definitely worth it. Highly recommend everyone getting it.”

First off, the person glosses over the fact that they also had to pay $99 to get AppleCare+. But let’s ignore this for now. The larger problem with such postings is that they are anecdotal. As I pointed out previously, anecdotal evidence by itself is essentially worthless. That’s because, for every anecdote supporting one point of view, someone can come up with a counter-anecdote that supports the other position.

For example, take my own situation. I have owned 8 iPhones. I started with the original iPhone in 2007 and have gotten a new one every year since (the older one transfers to my wife). I never purchased AppleCare for any of them. Only one of the phones ever needed an out-of-warranty repair — and that occurred after the device was more than two years old. Had I purchased AppleCare at the current $99 price for all of these phones, I would now be almost $800 in the hole. Clearly not worth it.

Actually, if the person quoted above had considered all of their iPhone purchases (as I did), they too might have come to my conclusion. For example, if this was their fourth iPhone and the first time they needed a replacement or any other repair, they would have spent $479 to save $329. Looking only at your most recent purchase (or any single purchase among many that you have made) gives a potentially false picture.

But let’s not place any more value on my negative experience than on someone else’s positive one. As isolated anecdotes, they are both useless as a means of helping you decide whether or not you should buy AppleCare.

What would help is some sort of experiment — such as picking 1000 iPhone owners at random and following them for four years — and seeing whether or not AppleCare+ would have saved or cost money in each case. In the absence of such data, what other options do you have for making an intelligent decision? Here’s what I would recommend:

• Assess the likelihood that you will damage your iPhone

Some people are more clumsy or careless or rough with their phones than are others. Are you the sort that frequently drops your iPhone? Or has that never happened? If you’ve owned smartphones for several years, consider your track record. Have you needed to replace a damaged phone once a year or so? Or have you never needed a replacement? If you find yourself on the “bad” end of this spectrum, perhaps you should get AppleCare+.

• Assess your finances

If you needed to pay $329 to replace your iPhone 6 Plus tomorrow, could you afford to do so? Or would you possibly have to forgo having a phone at all? If it’s the latter, perhaps it’s worth the peace of mind to get AppleCare+.

However, bear in mind that, by getting AppleCare+, it will still cost you $178 ($99 + $79) to replace a broken iPhone. In the long run, I would argue that you’re more likely better off putting the $99 in a bank account each time you buy a new iPhone, saving the money to cover the cost of a possible replacement phone down the road.

So where does all this leave you?

Getting AppleCare+ for any reason other than accident protection is definitely not worth it. As for accident protection, if neither of the above two assessments tilt clearly towards getting AppleCare+ (and I suspect that it won’t tilt that way for most iPhone users), then I would still strongly advise against getting AppleCare+. Remember: this is a probability assessment, not a guarantee. AppleCare+ could still save you money in some unlucky circumstances — but the odds are against it.

Bottom line? For the vast majority of iPhone owners, AppleCare+ remains “a sucker’s bet.”

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPhone, Technology | 5 Comments