How's that Windows Phone experiment going?

Tech Life

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Left: Nokia Lumia 925 with Windows Phone 8.1. Right: Nokia Lumia 830 with Windows 10 Mobile

One of my readers remembered my lengthy piece from November — A few days with Windows Phone 8.1 and a Nokia Lumia 925 — and has noticed I’ve recently doubled down by also getting a Nokia Lumia 830 to update it to Windows 10 Mobile and try that more recent version of Windows for mobile devices. So I received a brief email the other day and, among other things, I was asked: So, how’s that Windows Phone experiment going? Thinking about embracing the dark side for good?

Pretty well, I’d say. And no, I’m not switching to Windows Phone full time and leaving iOS behind. But — after using the Lumia 925 for more than three months, and the Lumia 830 for one month and a half — my experience with the hardware and the software has been truly positively surprising. I’m at a point where what started as a mere experiment driven by curiosity for the user interface of Windows Phone, now isn’t an experiment anymore. I always carry with me one of those two phones above, together with my primary iPhone. They are valid secondary devices, and in a rare instance where the iPhone ran out of battery, they managed the role of primary device with little effort.

When I first got the Lumia 925 back in early November and started finding my way around Windows Phone 8.1, looking for apps and trying out many of them, I was impressed by how the system kept up with anything I tested, and by how the phone maintained responsiveness. But you know, I thought, these are just a few days, the system has been freshly restored and all… Let’s see if things start degrading after a longer period of time. They have not.

In three months’ daily usage (usually light to moderate), the Lumia 925 with Windows Phone 8.1 has been the most stable system I’ve used that is not iOS. The phone has never shown unexpected behaviour, never froze, never stuttered. In a couple of occasions, an app had to be uninstalled and reinstalled to restore functionality, but I ascribe that to a bug of an app which clearly lacks refinements, and which I later deleted for good. As I wrote in my original piece, I really enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, Windows Phone 8.1’s UI. It’s consistent, predictable, thoughtful, visually vibrant, fun to interact with and, especially in my initial exploratory phase, it has been a breath of fresh air versus iOS’s ‘business as usual’.

When it comes to the Nokia Lumia 830 and Windows 10 Mobile combination, my general impression is roughly the same, although I must say I enjoy Windows 10 Mobile a bit less than 8.1, and that the Lumia 830 has impressed me more than the software. Specifically, I’m surprised at how well this phone handles the more resource-hungry Windows 10. The experience has had a few more bumps so far than Windows Phone 8.1 on the other Lumia: sometimes apps have quit on launch, and one time the default camera app became unexpectedly unresponsive, but nothing more (even under iOS I experienced similar issues in the past). I know things are smoother on devices such as the Nokia Lumia 930, 1520, and 950/950XL, all phones with faster CPUs and more RAM.

I’m still looking for a 930; I made do with an 830 because I found one in good condition at a bargain price, but it’s a nicer phone than I expected. For someone who finds 4.7-inch iPhones to be the maximum comfortable size, the 5-inch Lumia 830 handles quite well in my hands, and I have very little problems reaching the farthest areas of the UI. The fact that it has a removable battery and expandable storage through mini-SD cards is certainly a bonus and helps extend the phone’s life and usefulness.

Windows 10 Mobile vs. Windows Phone 8.1

Earlier I said I enjoy Windows 10 Mobile a bit less than Windows Phone 8.1, and I wanted to elaborate a little. While the general interface of Win10M retains an indubitable degree of familiarity for those coming from WP8.1 — the customisable Start screen, Live Tiles, lock screen, status bar, the All Apps list view, etc. — there has been a refresh across the whole UI to make it look perhaps more ‘professional’, more homogeneous across various Windows devices (tablets, convertibles, PCs), more subdued, with familiar UI elements taken from other platforms (e.g. the so-called hamburger menus); and the end result, while still visually pleasing, is also blander and more unimaginative. And even a bit inconsistent in places.

Perhaps my very first impression is still the best summary of Win10M’s general feel. As I said on Twitter in January: It’s as if WP8.1 got married, had kids, and stopped being a rebel artist.

A few quick comparisons (WP8.1 on the left, Win10M on the right):

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Calendar, week view — The Win10M version may sport a sleeker interface, but by mimicking the week view of a paper organiser, the WP8.1 version delivers more information at a glance (including weather).

 

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Mail — The reason the backgrounds are so different is because on the Lumia 925 (WP8.1) I prefer the Light theme, while Outlook Mail in Win10M on the Lumia 830 is set to match the ‘Windows mode’ on the phone. As for the UI here, it’s a matter of taste. I prefer WP8.1’s bigger text and the navigation by headlines. I can easily switch from All, to Unread, to Urgent by tapping on those big targets, while under Win10M a similar effect is achieved by tapping that small ‘All’ drop-down menu on the top right, which triggers an equally had-to-tap list of options.

 

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MSN Weather — At first glance, the UIs aren’t that different, but on Win10M the information doesn’t feel as efficiently organised. On WP8.1 there is a clear hierarchy, designed to guide your eyes towards what feels more important. Another thing that WP8.1 in general got right (more on this later) is the horizontal navigation, where you usually get pages of information you access by swiping horizontally. In MSN Weather on WP8.1, then, there is more breathing room, because you get separate pages for the Daily and Hourly forecasts. On Win10M, all the information is compressed in a single page and you just scroll down to see it all. There is little differentiation among the app’s visual elements and the overall impression is that it’s just a bunch of information thrown at you.

 

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MSN News — Here the difference in how the information is displayed and accessed is more evident, and while the Win10M version has the typical ‘big photo + headline’ presentation of many other news publications on the web, the WP8.1 displays more content at a glance, and feels more organised hierarchically. And you have to scroll less.

 

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Blue Skies — This is a third-party weather app, but I chose it because once again it exemplifies the difference between the two core paradigms for content presentation and navigation in WP8.1 and Win10M: in WP8.1 we have distinct screens or pages, where you don’t need to scroll down because all the information is neatly displayed in each page; then, usually, you move to the other page or section horizontally. In Blue Skies for WP8.1, the three blue dots at the bottom clearly indicate that the information is spread across three pages: the landing page (current weather), then a Today page, with a summary of the weather for the day, and finally a 5 Day page, with the forecast for the next 5 days. In Blue Skies for Win10M, all the information is presented in a single page, and you have to scroll, scroll, scroll to see everything. Swiping horizontally, looking at the content thoughtfully presented in a paginated view is, in my opinion, a better UI design and it’s less tiring when you use the phone one-handed.

 

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Settings — In this case, Win10M has definitely the better UI. While I love the WP8.1 aesthetics, in Win10M the different system settings are more clearly divided in subcategories. They’re easier to discover and memorise.

Stray observations

The Windows Phone interface has nice touches and features here and there that add to an overall smooth and pleasant experience. When you adjust the volume with the phone hardware buttons, an overlay appears at the top of the screen, showing the volume level; this overlay can be expanded and you can easily see and adjust the volume levels for Ringer + Notifications, and Media + Apps. This way you can, for example, keep notifications at a volume you can hear, and mute any sound produced by media content and apps, so that if you stumble on an autoplaying video while checking a website, you can make sure you (and those around you) won’t be startled by a sudden blast of music or sound effects.

The Battery Saver settings in Win10M have a clever feature I highlighted in this tweet: you can specify exactly when the battery saver should turn on. On iOS, the equivalent Low Power Mode can either be activated when battery drops to 20%, or manually, whenever you need it. But you have to remember to activate it, if you want it to kick in before the iPhone battery reaches the 20% threshold. In Win10M, things are a bit more flexible: I can set it to any value beforehand, start in the morning with the phone battery at 100%, and when it reaches, say, 55% the battery saver activates.

What we know as Notification Centre and Control Centre in iOS, can be found merged in the same pane in both WP8.1 and Win10M. You swipe from the top of the screen, the Notifications pane slides into view, and at the top of it you can access Quick Actions (the Windows Phone equivalent of iOS’s Control Centre). In WP8.1 these are just four (customisable). In Win10M you still see four, but they can be expanded to show all available Quick Actions. There is no Today View or other fancy things we have in iOS, but in daily usage I’ve found this more utilitarian approach to be refreshing and effective in its simplicity. It’s all there, you don’t need to memorise where to swipe from to get what.

It truly is a pity that Microsoft has decided to not develop Windows 10 further for mobile phones, and it’s sad that the ‘lack of apps’ mantra has contributed to the sinking of the whole platform. It’s true, there is less choice than on iOS or Android, but — on Win10M more than WP8.1 — there are enough decent apps to cover almost all the essential services and provide enough functionality to make a Windows Phone handset still useful today.

I’ll close by reiterating a paragraph taken from the conclusion of my previous piece on Windows Phone: Now that I’ve used (and own) iOS, Android, webOS, and finally Windows Phone devices, I think it’s really sad that today it’s just iOS vs Android, basically. The real pity is that, UI-wise, the ‘loser’ platforms are, in many aspects, more innovative, creative, daring, and in most cases more consistent than the two giants. And after more than three months with these Windows Phone smartphones, I can also add that Windows Phone (especially 8.1) has proven to be more stable and reliable, if not than iOS, at least than Android.

Snow Leopardise to not compromise

Software

Commenting on a recent Bloomberg article by Mark Gurman, How Apple Plans to Root Out Bugs, Revamp iPhone Software, Michael Tsai references an otherwise insightful tweetstorm by Steven Sinofsky (a former President of the Windows Division at Microsoft), and shares a few critical observations:

A lot of people are pointing to Steven Sinofsky’s comments. He makes some good points about the “broader context,” but I think he’s completely wrong about Apple’s software quality:

In any absolute sense the quality of Mac/iOS + h/w are at quality levels our industry has just not seen before. […] On any absolute scale number of bugs—non-working, data losing, hanging mistakes—in iOS/Mac is far far less today than ever before.

I don’t see how that can be taken seriously. He doesn’t have access to Apple’s bug database, so how would he know? I really doubt that the number of open bugs is lower than in the past, and even if it were there’s no reason to assume that Radar is representative of the actual number of bugs. He later says that the list of bugs is “infinitely long,” so this whole line of argument seems nonsensical. In what way is today’s Mac/iOS quality better in “any absolute sense” than in, say, 2010? He doesn’t say, except that more people are using it: […]

Well, we can look at how many problems an individual user runs into. Is it higher or lower than before? This measure is independent of Apple’s scale. So is the circle of people I hear complaining. Apple’s customer base has doubled many times over, but the number of family members, friends, and customers that I communicate with has not. Now you could argue that maybe we have become exceptionally unlucky and are running into more than our share of issues, but I don’t find that very convincing.

He wants to discount the actual experiences of “many super smart/skilled people” because “the more a product is used the more hyper-sensitive people get to how it works.” What does that even mean? The number of hours in a day hasn’t increased; I don’t think my Mac/iPhone usage has increased much, if at all. Hardly anyone complains to me about the “slightest changes”; I hear about things that flat out don’t work. That’s not being hyper-sensitive.

I fully agree with Michael here. In a piece I wrote in 2015 — The perceived decline in Apple’s software quality — I argued that “this perceived decline in the quality of Apple’s software products (OS X included) is more related to the nature of the flaws/bugs/annoyances, than the sheer number of those. In other words, it’s not that Apple’s software is quantitatively more buggy today than, say, in the Mac OS 8–9 era, but the issues are (or feel) more critical, and that in turn affects the general level of satisfaction of working with the Mac.”

At the same time, like Michael and unlike Steven, I can’t say I find today’s Apple software to be far far less buggy or problematic than before. Again, I don’t have access to Apple’s bug database either, so my observations are all necessarily empirical and based on an intensive daily experience with different Macs and different OS X versions. Elaborating on my previous remark, that the perceived decline in Apple’s software quality has more to do with the nature and prominence of the bugs rather than their number, I can say that the latest versions of iOS and Mac OS present a series of annoyances (visual glitches, functional issues, things that work intermittently, etc.) that when manifesting, they have enough prominence and impact to give the whole OS an aura of unpredictability and unreliability; in such a way that, even when everything appears to work just fine, I’m often wondering what kind of issue awaits me round the corner.

And you know what’s ironic? That my experience with Mac OS X High Sierra and iOS 11 has been, for now, limited to borrowed devices and hardware. Devices and Macs I haven’t used as extensively and intensely as my main, older hardware (an iPhone 5 on iOS 10, a MacBook Pro on Mac OS X El Capitan) — and despite the limited usage, I’ve had plenty of occasions to notice buggy behaviours. So this is not being hyper-sensitive towards these issues, because my familiarity with the latest Apple software is only superficial, not developed by an increased usage of a Mac or iPad.

To further corroborate my agreement with Tsai against Sinofsky’s “the more a product is used the more hyper-sensitive people get to how it works” argument, I’ll make a different example, taken from another angle.

I’m still using a fair amount of vintage PowerPC Macs and older iOS devices on a daily basis. I’m writing this on a 17-inch PowerBook G4 from 2003/2004, running Mac OS X 10.5.8 Leopard. I also use other Macs running Tiger (10.4) and even Panther (10.3). I’ve been using these Macs and these versions of Mac OS X constantly for years — and in the case of an iBook G3 and the 12-inch PowerBook G4, since their introduction, April 2005 for Tiger, October 2007 for Leopard. While I indeed encountered a few annoying bugs when Tiger and Leopard were in active development, I remember how the most egregious usually disappeared after a minor OS X release (I even remember resolving an issue on one of my Macs by downloading a Combo Update and reinstalling).

Whether small or a bit more serious, the bugs, then, felt like something transient passing through an otherwise rock-solid environment. In my 10+ years of using these PowerPC Macs running Tiger and Leopard, I’ve never encountered new issues or noticed things I didn’t before, and I’ve had plenty of time to become ‘hyper-sensitive’ to how they work. Sure, the PowerPC platform isn’t in active development anymore, and I’m speaking of machines and systems that are basically crystallised in their most mature state. But still, in all these years of use, with all the first-party and third-party software I’ve thrown at them, I should have been able to encounter bugs I’d previously missed, or trigger unexpected behaviours.

While I’m certain there are still underlying issues left unsolved in both Tiger and Leopard, in day-to-day general use, nothing prominent shows up on my radar. I turn on this PowerBook, it boots into Mac OS X 10.5.8, I open whatever apps I need for this session, and I feel I’m working in a stable, predictable environment. The only unfortunate thing I notice is that in places the hardware shows its age, or that certain features or services are too new to support this platform, but neither this particular vintage Mac nor its Mac OS X version are at fault. And it’s pretty amazing I’m still being productive with a 14-year old machine.

I use these PowerBooks, iBooks, and Power Macs, and Mail doesn’t quit unexpectedly or corrupts its message archive; the Finder doesn’t hang randomly, making the machine almost completely unresponsive; after leaving these Macs for a while, I don’t find their fans spinning at maximum speed because a couple of rogue processes are using 134% of CPU resources each(!); their Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth connection doesn’t drop for apparently no reason at random time intervals (and a couple of those Macs even use third-party Bluetooth dongles!); these and other issues I have instead experienced on more modern Intel Macs with Mac OS X 10.9 and later. And these and other issues are prominent enough to impact the user experience and make people feel distrust towards the operating system and the machine.

I’m just an outside observer, with perhaps the vantage point of having been using Apple hardware for almost 30 years. I can’t say with certainty that today both Mac OS and iOS have more bugs and issues than before. I’m also not saying that everything was 100% perfect before and now it’s all rubbish, because it’s not true. But from having extensively used (almost) each version of Mac OS and iOS, what I do notice is that behind the scenes there was a different approach to their development before a certain point in Mac OS X’s timeline, and that something changed (for the worse) after that point. I roughly place that point between Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and 10.7 Lion. With iOS things are less clear-cut, because I feel it has always had a lot of attention inside Apple, but the ousting of Scott Forstall clearly was a definite turning point, again not for the better[1].

Back to Gurman’s article, which originated the whole discussion, on the one hand I really hope that whatever internal software development rethinking process Apple plans to carry out is geared towards recovering part of the old approach to development and quality control I mentioned above; on the other hand, I’m not holding my breath. Not for lack of trust, but because these changes take time and a certain resilience to internal and external pressures.

 


  • 1. Another figure I sorely miss is Bertrand Serlet. ↩︎

 

Better both worlds than the best of both worlds

Tech Life

When I sat at my Mac to start writing this article, I knew I had to link to a series of past observations, because it’s not the first time I’ve spoken my mind about the iOS vs Mac OS debate. Checking the archives, I realised I’ve already written a piece that sums up all those past observations, wraps them up, and builds on them: it’s Tap swipe hold scroll flick drag drop from June 2017. I urge you to read that before proceeding, to better understand my stance on the matter. This article, in fact, builds on that one.

There is a group of tech geeks who love iOS so much that they’ve gone to great lengths to reconfigure their hardware setups and software workflows to be iOS-first or iOS-only. More power to them, sincerely. But they’re also the people who, more or less directly, have contributed to spread this nasty ‘iOS vs Mac OS’ mentality I’ll always refuse to espouse, since I think that the best of both worlds is using both worlds and taking advantage of what each does best.

Instead, proponents of the iOS-only way of life have moved through two main phases. The first was emphasising how iOS was simpler and more intuitive to use than Mac OS; how iOS devices are more portable, more convenient, more battery efficient and simultaneously just as powerful as Mac laptops.

It’s true, the hardware advantage of the iOS platform is undeniable. But which is the better platform from a software and interface standpoint is certainly a more subjective question. It is also undeniable that for several iterations before iOS 11, iOS has been more lacking in flexibility than Mac OS, leading to a certain frustration among iOS-first users who found themselves with powerful hardware — the iPad Pro line — driven by an operating system that barely scratched the surface of that hardware’s potential.

The iPad-specific features introduced in iOS 11 have been a noteworthy step towards more flexibility and power for the platform. And so now we’re witnessing phase two: iOS-first power users who want even more pro features and solutions for iOS (and especially iOS-on-the-iPad); they want a dream device I’ve humorously called the ‘Apple Surface Pro’ — something with Mac-like hardware running an even more ‘pro’ flavour of iOS.

My position on this isn’t to sarcastically remark Not gonna happen, folks. I actually think Apple may produce some sort of 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid if the company thinks it could appeal to a large-enough audience. It’s not the hardware that concerns me (and I believe it doesn’t concern Apple, either) — it’s the software.

The days of iOS behaving the same way on every device are over. iOS 11 in particular has made that abundantly clear. This is good: both iOS hardware and software have matured and reached a point where it’s simply ridiculous to treat the iPad as ‘just a big iPhone’ — or the iPhone as a small iPad for that matter. The price to pay for this emancipation of iOS on the iPad, as I wrote in Tap swipe hold scroll flick drag drop, has been an added layer of complexity to the OS: more features, and more gestures, not all as intuitive as the ‘primitives’ established in the first half of iOS’s history.

Now, I can see the coolness factor in having a new iOS-driven Apple Surface Pro device; a sort of super-tablet that can become anything you want — a pleasantly intuitive tool for drawing, sketching and painting with an Apple Pencil; an eBook reader; a media player on the go… Then you dock it to its keyboard component (which is more than just a keyboard and may even have USB-C ports and an SD slot), and you can use it as an ultraportable notebook computer for a series of professional tasks requiring this particular form factor.

But how to handle all this from a software perspective? So far, what we’ve seen on iPhones and iPads is that certain iOS features and/or UI gestures are available or not according to the specific hardware. iOS will behave slightly differently if you’re using an iPhone 8, or an iPhone X, or an iPhone SE, or an iPhone 5s. On the iPad, the fifth-generation ‘regular’ iPad is a bit more limited than the iPad Pro. Supporting a new iOS-driven 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrid would involve designing and introducing another layer of complexity in iOS.

Whether Apple evolved iOS monolithically to support these fabled new pro features to reveal them to the user only on supported devices, while keeping things ‘simple’ on simpler devices; or created a separate ‘iOS Pro’ system flavour to specifically drive this hypothetical new Apple Surface Pro device, the fragmentation and complication of the platform would be inevitable. It would also be quite resource-draining for Apple, which is already struggling to keep all its software platforms running with an acceptable degree of quality assurance. Pushing iOS to this kind of next level is not unfeasible, but I wonder how big the impact would be on other endeavours, Mac OS in particular. And on iOS itself.

Ryan Christoffel’s article, What I Wish the iPad Would Gain from the Mac — which I’ve seen frequently quoted by other sources in my feeds as of late — definitely makes for an intriguing reading. In his conclusion, Christoffel writes:

The iPad is already proving a formidable Mac-alternative for some users – what happens if it continues closing the gap by adopting the Mac strengths I’ve listed? If the iPad offered support for multiple instances of an app, was available in a more diverse array of hardware, allowed apps to get things done persistently in the background, was home to Xcode, Final Cut Pro, and Logic Pro equivalents, and became a proper shared device with multiple user accounts – why would people continue using the Mac?

What happens may be nirvana for iOS-only power users, but I also wonder whether it’s worth going to all this trouble to get to a point we have already reached today with the Mac. I closed the tweet that inspired this piece saying that, in my opinion, both platforms — iOS and Mac OS — may lose in the long run. What I meant is:

  1. That iOS, in all this effort to get more specialised, more ‘pro’, more Mac-like, ends up becoming less intuitive and approachable by regular people who don’t really care to use iOS and an iOS device in a power-user way, even if it’s the only device they have. The feature creep has certainly brought new capabilities to the platform, but also more complexity. Today I see a lot of people in Apple Stores that seek training to familiarise themselves with iOS devices, and my data might be anecdotal and all, but in the pre-iOS 7 days regular people seemed to pick up the gestures and the Multi-touch interface much more quickly and with less intervention from tech-savvy users or Apple Store staff.
  2. That Mac OS becomes more and more neglected, as both Apple and third-party developers devote more attention to iOS. That Mac OS is allowed to turn into a weaker platform because, as iOS cannibalises Mac OS features, Mac OS in return receives lukewarm apps that are mostly lazy iOS ports or little more than Web apps wrapped in a cumbersome, un-Mac-like UI. (And also loses features — see how the next Mac OS Server release will deprecate a number of services.)

If everything that has been hypothesised above (in my article and in Christoffel’s piece) should come true, we’re going to be living in ‘interesting’ times for sure. We might end up with a platform that, in trying to be more like its older sibling, a) loses its identity as really simple, really intuitive and friendly environment, especially for tech-averse people; and b) fails to be as powerful and versatile as Mac OS already is now. And as for Mac OS, its development path might be hampered by the shift towards iOS and, more dangerously, by the spreading idea and attitude among iOS-only fans that it all has to be a zero-sum game, that for iOS to win, Mac OS should lose. I’m worried that the efforts to achieve a product or platform that is supposedly the best of both words, might lead to sacrificing what is already really great about each of those worlds.

iOS and Mac OS are different platforms, with different user interfaces, different input methods, different paradigms, different approaches. I think that working to make both platforms shine by doubling down on their respective merits and strengths ultimately makes for a richer scenario. You just can’t keep adding features to iOS indiscriminately in order to turn it into a desktop-level operating system. And you can’t keep fiddling with Mac OS in a way that, instead of making the operating system more robust and refined, makes it increasingly buggier[1].

It’s also important to never lose sight of the limitations imposed by the vary nature of each platform. Pro apps can exist on iOS, but their degree of versatility and powerfulness is dictated by the task one wants to carry out, and the limitations of a platform’s paradigm. Multi-touch is a fun type of user interaction, but its input capabilities are more limited than those of a keyboard and a mouse. That’s why a hypothetical Logic or Final Cut for iOS can’t realistically be as powerful or versatile as the same applications on the Mac. iPads and iPhones certainly have capable processors, but raw CPU power isn’t everything in this equation. The very nature of the Mac’s user interface, its input methods, its paradigms, all these allow for complex yet usable UI layers and elements; for small yet precise controls, designed to be handled by a mouse; for a great number of contextual menus and commands, easily discoverable with a right-click; for an interface that’s 100% visible all the time, because your fingers or hands don’t get in the way while you’re tapping, scrolling, scrubbing or swiping.

Each platform can evolve by carefully considering its winning characteristics and figuring out new applications that leverage such characteristics. Augmented Reality (AR) could be a step in an interesting direction for mobile devices, once it gets (if it gets) past its current gimmick state. While the Mac can really become — or rather, get back to being — the platform for professionals, with high-end machines and suitable pro-level applications that take advantage of the tried-and-true user interface of Mac OS, and the sheer power, connections, and expandability of an iMac Pro or Mac Pro.

Maintaining the focus so that cars can be the best cars, and trucks the best trucks[2], shouldn’t be regarded as rigidity but as a renewed clarity of vision for each platform. I may be wrong, but I’m afraid that going after a ‘best of both worlds’ trajectory might just bring more compromises that negatively impact both iOS and Mac OS down the road.

Stray observations

  • When it comes to debating these topics among tech enthusiasts, I really wish we could lose the ‘iOS versus Mac OS’ approach and mentality. I really wish people would stop framing these matters as Mac OS is old and should be retired, while iOS is fresh, it’s the future, and can do everything Mac OS does and better. The truth is that keeping both platforms around — and healthy — is really the best course of action to provide a satisfactory multi-device ecosystem. As someone who masters both Mac OS and iOS, the user experience and level of productivity I derive from the combination of both is much better and more complete than choosing just one platform in the misguided belief that it can be a complete substitute for both.
  • In case I wasn’t clear earlier, I’m not arguing that iOS should remain ‘dumb’, while Mac OS remains the ‘smart’ sibling. I’m just saying that simplicity should always be top priority when it comes to iOS. Because simplicity is what has always made iOS stand out as an operating system — its ability to simplify a series of tasks and activities which regular people used to find a bit awkward to perform on a traditional computer or, worse, on a netbook. Pushing iOS to act more like a traditional computer’s OS kind of defeats the purpose. A lateral counterexample: In the evolution of watchOS there has been a course correction that has taken account of the limits of the smartwatch’s interface and user interaction more closely and more thoughtfully, greatly benefitting the user experience and the platform as a result.
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    • 1. The awful release that is Mac OS High Sierra, combined with all the issues that have been reported about the hardware quality of the MacBook/MacBook Pro line, isn’t doing the Mac platform any favours. It’s unfortunate that Mac OS is losing trust and ground this way. ↩︎
    • 2. I’m referring to the famous analogy made by Steve Jobs a few years back. See here, for example. ↩︎

     

Shortsightedness

Tech Life

Somehow I had missed this Tim Cook interview on The Guardian, but fortunately I have Kirk McElhearn in my RSS feeds, and his recent article The Tech Industry’s Tunnel Vision about Coding and Language has brought that interview to my attention.

Irritatingly, the article doesn’t present the full text of Cook’s contribution, just a series of quotes. And, like Kirk, I was a bit let down by this one in particular:

I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.

At first I was reminded, by contrast, of this famous Steve Jobs quote:

It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.

I wanted to emphasise what I perceive to be a stark difference between Jobs’s and Cook’s mindsets, so yesterday I tweeted those two quotes together. The excellent Zac Cichy, in turn, reminded me of Steve Jobs’s specific position on learning to program, and posted this excerpt from the seminal Steve Jobs — The Lost Interview (1995) with Robert X. Cringely. Essentially, Jobs says:

It had nothing to do with using [programs] for practical things, it had more to do with using them as a mirror of your thought process. To actually learn how to think. I think everyone in this country should learn to program a computer. Everyone should learn a computer language because it teaches you how to think. […] I think of computer science as a liberal art.

From what I understand, Jobs’s standpoint remains more articulate than Cook’s. Learning to program helps shape how you think, he says, and that’s important and should be taught in school in addition to all the other arts. Learning to program should be treated as another liberal art. In Cook’s view, coding is more important than learning a foreign language. This expresses a preference — A is better than B. Jobs’s point of view is more inclusive — we should have A and B. Cook’s is, at best, shortsighted.

An objection to my tweet points out that the two quotes “have different contexts.” That Jobs “talked about Apple’s main values, whilst Cook has explained — given the huge impact of technology nowadays — what is more important for education.” The contexts aren’t actually that different. One has to keep in mind that Apple’s main values were essentially Jobs’s values. What Jobs believed directly impacted Apple’s direction and actions. With Cook, things doesn’t look as clear-cut to me. His Apple has lately been pushing the importance of coding a lot (see for example the free Hour of Code sessions in all Apple Stores); but his personal views on technology don’t seem to fully embrace the same direction. More people who learn to code from a young age means wanting an even more technology-driven (and technology-obsessed) society. On the other hand, The Guardian’s article, paraphrasing Cook, opens with: The head of Apple, Tim Cook, believes there should be limits to the use of technology in schools and says he does not want his nephew to use a social network. And with the quote “I don’t believe in overuse [of technology]. I’m not a person that says we’ve achieved success if you’re using it all the time,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to that at all.” To me, this sounds a bit contradictory — or at least like the position of someone who wants to have his cake and eat it too.

As for the quote that started my reflection — It’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language — I fully agree with McElhearn:

Learning a language leads to all sorts of cognitive benefits, and kids who learn languages generally do better in other subjects as well. I don’t know if Mr. Cook speaks a foreign language, but his attitude about language is typically American.

[…]

No, coding is not a global language, you can’t talk to people with if – then statements. It’s a tool, not a means of communication. This sort of attitude is dangerous; not only because it neglects the other elements needed in tech – art and design, empathy and understanding – but it dumbs down the world and attempts to turn kids into drones. You can converse with far more people through music and art than you will ever be able to by learning code. And it’s a shame that Mr. Cook ignores that.

Oh, and, by the way, Mr. Cook, those developers you hire from India, China, Germany, Brazil, and other countries? They can only work for you because they learned a foreign language: English.

I’m trilingual, and my educational background is rooted in the liberal arts, so McElhearn’s standpoint resonates a lot.

What I believe to be severely lacking in schools everywhere, however, aren’t coding classes. What we need more and more, as this technological progress marches onward at breakneck speed, is learning how to use, how to handle technology properly; is learning how to healthily integrate it in our lives. It’s learning that technology isn’t everything and that it’s not necessary to let it dictate every aspect of our everyday life. It’s learning that an excessive reliance on technology may make our life easier on the surface, but also make us a bit dumber and antisocial in the process (again, if we let things go unchecked).

We need to teach and encourage critical thinking towards technology and its global impact on how everything is shaped today. That this critical thinking is largely absent is apparent everywhere you look on the Internet and social media. We’ve come to a point where scientifically proven facts are ‘debated’ while a lot of people are ready to believe everything they read online if it gets repeated enough. We’ve come to a point where people eat evidently poisonous things just because they saw a funny video.

We have to bring back critical thinking and common sense. I think this is more important than coding.

Chrome has left the Dock

Briefly / Software

I’ve never been one of those people who only use one browser to interact with the Web. I use tabbed navigation heavily for work and leisure, and I also love to try different browsers to see what kind of features and approaches they present, what makes them unique or in what ways each browser can be the best tool for the job. Over the years, my preferences have varied depending on a browser’s UI, its performance, its resource- and energy consumption, its memory management. As browsers have evolved, they’ve got better at managing their impact on the CPU and RAM, but there have been periods of relapses even for the best among them.

Since version 3, I’ve been using Safari as my primary browser, and have been quite happy with it all this time. But my habits and workflows have always demanded at least a second browser, and very often a third. For a long time, my setup was pretty much like this:

  1. Safari
  2. Google Chrome
  3. Whatever other browser I was testing/exploring.

That third seat has been occupied by several different browsers. In no particular order: Stainless, OmniWeb, Firefox, Camino, Shiira, Opera, Sunrise, Sleipnir, and recently Vivaldi and Brave — both very interesting projects in my opinion. I talked about the built-in ad-blocking features of Brave back in May in this article.

In that article on the Brave browser, I wrote:

My preferences for these secondary browsers have changed with time. […] When I decided to remove Flash from my system, the secondary browser would become Chrome because it incorporates a Flash plug-in, and I would resort to Chrome to access those websites requiring Flash to work. Then in recent years, when 99% of the sites I visit either don’t use Flash anymore, or serve HTML5 content, I’ve basically stopped using Chrome.

After a period of using Safari, Opera, and Firefox as main browsers (being very pleased by the recent improvements of Opera: much faster, with some ad-blocking features that don’t require extensions, etc.), and after a subsequent period using Safari, Vivaldi, and Brave, I briefly returned to Chrome, after a friend suggested I should try to explore the many extensions and resources available to turn it into a ‘power tool’ (his words). Well, I don’t know if suddenly my aging MacBook Pro was not enough to handle Chrome, or if Chrome has become more resource-hungry, or if I had installed perhaps too many extensions, but the experience was pretty much terrible. Considering that about two years ago I was often choosing Chrome over Safari for the better overall performance, I was rather disappointed.

Then, around mid-November, Mozilla introduced Firefox Quantum. Intrigued by that blog post, I immediately updated Firefox, and put to the test Mozilla’s claims regarding speed. I was stunned. The jump in performance compared with the ‘old’ Firefox was very noticeable. Not only that: the new look and UI had got better, too. Suddenly, Firefox had become a browser I enjoyed using. If you haven’t tried it yet, download it, and see for yourself. Great job, Mozilla.

While I still use Opera and Vivaldi every now and then, for the past two months my browser setup has been steadily Safari, Firefox, and Brave. And Chrome has been uninstalled for good, as it’s no longer needed, at least on my Mac. Why go all the way? Because removing another piece of Google from my ecosystem doesn’t hurt. Now it’s just a few Gmail accounts I mainly use for newsletters and mailing lists; and Google Maps because, quite frankly, it’s irreplaceable.