Over the summer, San Francisco was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, leveling buildings and injuring 172 Bay Area residents. However, much of the Bay Area breathed a sigh of relief: They had been spared the big one, once again.
Unbeknownst to many Bay Area residents, however, researchers at places like the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with technology that would provide an early warning system for the next major earthquake. In this case, the technology worked, sounding an alarm just seconds before the North Bay quake.
ShakeAlert, as it’s called, is a partnership between Cal, the University of Washington, CalTech, the Southern California Earthquake Center, and the United States Geological Survey. And it is fascinating how it works:
The objective of warning of an early earthquake is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage, arrives.
Similar systems are already in use in Mexico and Japan, where they’ve provided early warning for quakes. Yet, it’s facing an $80 million funding shortfall — despite a state mandate to create an early-warning system and private funding supporting the research.
Currently, only private firms offer early warning systems, and these are primarily geared towards industry, not public works and individual consumers. If you want an early warning system to turn off valves in an oil refinery, for example, you can find the equipment to do it — if you can afford the materials, installation costs, and ongoing maintenance.
Testing of such systems uses real-time tracking of seismic events, paired with predictions, to determine accuracy, increase lead time on warnings, and estimate error rates. But experimental data still aren’t made public, even if such information could provide a public safety benefit.
Will California, or another U.S. state, have to wait for a major quake before the necessary funding is pushed through? This may be exactly what happens, as California is struggling to fund ShakeAlert and the necessary equipment, seismic observation stations, and personnel to make the system work with a high degree of accuracy.
Proponents of the ShakeAlert could release the rudimentary system, stressing that it is incomplete, not quite ready for launch, and potentially unreliable, but it is better than nothing. The launch would have to be accompanied with warnings that citizens shouldn’t get too complacent, because the advance notice provided likely wouldn’t be very extensive, and false alarms could occur. Citizens would need to back up ShakeAlert or a similar system with earthquakepreparations as already recommended by the state and other agencies.
Or, they could keep the technology under wraps as it remains under development, focusing on making it as good as possible before it’s released. In the meantime, earthquakes could cause millions or billions worth of damage accompanied by severe injuries and loss of life that could have been prevented had such a system been implemented, leaving officials in an unenviable position.
The images that have circulated the internet following the earthquake of broken wine stocks and bottles in Napa Valley and minor damage in other areas are just a tiny sliver of California’s possible future, the consequence of living on fractured and restless ground. In the face of that knowledge, how can the state defend a refusal to fund life-saving technology?
For the first few years, Apple’s iPhone product strategy was as simple as it gets: release one new model per year. To be clear, it is still simple, even as the company has released two separate models in each of the past two years. As Apple broadens its portfolio to target different market segments, the strategic considerations going forward become a little bit more complex.
Apple’s move upmarket to larger phones has been anticipated for quite some time, and investors are clearly optimistic about the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as shares continue to flirt with all-time highs. The company was able to partially resist the trend toward larger phones by releasing the 4-inch iPhone 5 in 2012. It was becoming painfully obvious that 3.5-inch displays wouldn’t be sufficient for much longer, especially in flagship high-end smartphones competing with Samsung Galaxies.
However, the shift from 4-inch displays to 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays is a bit different. The market for 4-inch smartphones will likely sustain itself. Apple now faces an interesting strategic conundrum. Each year, Apple shifts older models to successively lower price points. This strategy is beneficial because it effectively extends the useful life of each model to 3 years or more, which is utterly unheard of in the smartphone industry. That also means Apple milks plenty of value out of all the manufacturing gear it installs to produce the devices, getting a lot of bang for its capital expenditure bucks.
Under the current trajectory, the iPhone 6 would fall to the mid-range $100 on contract price in 2015, and subsequently be free on contract in 2016. That would also theoretically include discontinuing all smaller devices at that point, and 4.7-inch displays would be the norm.
Alternatively, what if Apple were to update each model for each market segment each year? Consumers in the market for 4-inch phones don’t want to always be relegated to last year’s specs and features. Taking this notion a step farther, Apple could even introduce 3 models per year to target each segment (4-inch, 4.7-inch, and 5.5-inch), and use the waterfall strategy within each. Seeing as how Apple is moving to two models per year, three doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.
Of course, product depth has always been a key strength for Apple. The risk would be that Apple’s iPhone lineup becomes bloated to the point of distraction, which is a common weakness of rival smartphone OEMs. The aforementioned strategy would eventually expand the portfolio to 9 distinct devices, up from the current 4. The last thing that Apple wants to do is spread itself too thin, but the company could strike a balance.
It could also increase Apple’s capital requirements if the company needs to acquire even more manufacturing equipment. That’s not to say that Apple can’t afford it with its $141 billion in cash, and capital expenditures are currently less than 5% of revenue over the past four quarters.
But the benefit would be a stronger lineup within each discrete market segment, and Apple could exert its typical pricing power and extract a premium for its efforts. That might be worth the trouble.