That third iPhone

Thanks to the Apple rumour industry, by now it seems rather obvious that Apple will introduce three iPhones in September, two being the usual ‘speed bump’ versions of the current iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The third iPhone — which many refer to as the ‘iPhone 8’ — is the one sporting a significant redesign, with a bezel-less display taking up most of the front of the device, and apparently a new authentication technology based on facial recognition replacing Touch ID.

The possible positioning and pricing of this all-new iPhone has been the subject of recent speculation, and John Gruber has made a compelling argument in favour of the concept of a high-end iPhone ‘Pro’, with a ‘Pro’ price tier. Where his piece got me thinking was here:

Let’s take a serious look at this. $1,500 as a starting price is probably way too high. But I think $1,200 is quite likely as the starting price, with the high-end model at $1,300 or $1,400.

and here:

Furthermore, why shouldn’t there be a deluxe “Pro” tier for phones? For many people, phones are every bit as much an essential professional tool as their laptops. For some people, even more so. And I’d bet my bottom dollar there are more people who consider their iPhone a “pro” tool (and be willing to pay “pro” prices) than who think so regarding their iPad, and we’ll have had iPad Pros for two years by the time new iPhones are announced in September. If there are iPad Pros and MacBook Pros, why not iPhone Pros?

Well, the idea of an iPhone Pro sounds a bit ludicrous to me. As I tweeted the other day, in the common-sense world I live in, current iPhones already are Pro devices with Pro prices. The iPad line is a bit different: Pro iPads have certain hardware characteristics that set them apart from regular iPads. (Although I can’t but point out how the iPad Pro line looks more ‘pro’ now mostly because the 5th-generation iPad is a dumbed-down device; the lines were more blurred when Apple was selling the 9.7″ iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2).

To be called ‘Pro’, the new bezel-less iPhone has to feature something much more compelling and groundbreaking than simply having a big display on the front and some kind of facial recognition technology. These aren’t features specifically aimed at pros. There has to be something else and something more to justify a ‘pro’ price tag of $1,300–1,400. “Apple Pencil support,” you say? That may work with the iPad, but an iPhone screen doesn’t have the ideal size to be considered an artist’s canvas, wouldn’t you agree? 

On the other hand, maybe it would be a little less ludicrous if Apple introduced such an iPhone as some sort of ‘Edition’ or ‘Deluxe’ variant[1]. Again, it would still need some sort of stand-out, defining feature to be considered a limited edition product. In the case of the Apple Watch Edition, we had an otherwise regular Watch but with a gold chassis. Perhaps Apple has something up its sleeve when it comes to the materials employed in manufacturing this new ‘iPhone Deluxe’, or some other cutting-edge technology that can’t yet be implemented on a large scale, making such iPhone a bit exclusive.

But whether it’s going to be a ‘Pro’ or ‘Deluxe’ iPhone, the problem is: what’s going to happen a year from now? 

If a new iPhone Pro line is introduced, is Apple going to operate in a similar way as with the iPad line? i.e. Keeping the ‘regular’ iPhones interesting enough but a bit dumbed down, so that the iPhone Pro can shine in all its Pro glory, which I assume it’s made of unique pro hardware capabilities and even specialised software features?

If it’s going to be an Edition/Deluxe iPhone, will Apple keep producing it as the high-end model with its own update cycle à la iPhone SE? Will it be a one-time product like the gold Apple Watch? And if this is the case, what is this iPhone Edition going to have that makes it so special?

But most importantly, how will this new iPhone impact the design progression of the whole iPhone line? In September 2018, will we see regular iPhones updated to the same bezel-less design and hardware characteristics, or is Apple going to maintain the design (and feature) differences, keeping the bezel and ‘soft’ Home button on regular iPhones, while pushing the design envelope with the Pro/Edition model? If Apple unifies the design, it’s interesting to see what will make high-end the high-end model. If Apple keeps the two designs, it’s interesting to see how long it can keep things sustainable design-wise. It feels quite challenging however you look at it, if you ask me.

On a closing note, I find the splitting of the iPad line in ‘regular iPads’ and ‘pro iPads’ to be rather unnecessary and a bit contrived. Before such split, customers would buy the latest iPad, certain that they were also buying the greatest. Now there’s this artificial and arbitrary division between the cutting-edge iPads and the dumbed-down budget versions. Sure, this gives people more choice, and access to decent iPads for those who can’t afford the more expensive, feature-rich ones. But again, how is this design/feature separation going to play out in the next iterations? Will the sixth-generation iPad get a bit of what the current iPad Pros offer now, while Apple continues to concentrate innovation on the Pro line? It’s an interesting design problem Apple created by themselves. I’m sure they know how to address it. At the same time, it’s something that could have been avoided by keeping the iPad product family more streamlined.

If indeed there is going to be a split of the iPhone line in ‘regular iPhones’ and an iPhone Pro, I have to say it’s a separation I find even more artificial than the iPad’s — the current iPhones are already advanced devices with Pro-level hardware (and Pro-level prices). The introduction of an iPhone Pro means Apple is ready to introduce a device that is two generations ahead of the current iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The introduction of an iPhone Pro means having to deal with the same challenges related to maintaining two different sets of features (one for the regular iPhone, one for the iPhone Pro) across future iterations. I’m very curious to see what Apple’s approach will be. 

 


  • 1. A little less ludicrous because if this new iPhone has nothing inherently, truly ‘Pro’ to offer, at least calling it ‘Edition’ or something along these lines would be more honest than offering a redesigned iPhone that Apple arbitrarily labels Pro to justify the price tag. I hope I’m making sense. ↩︎

 

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The ‘iPad as laptop replacement’ angle is legitimate

I’m frankly surprised that some tech pundits have made a big deal out of this. Sure, maybe having a whole review revolving around this one angle — is this new iPad with iOS 11 a viable laptop replacement? — is misplaced. Maybe Matt Gemmell is right in his belabouring of the point; and I don’t disagree with John Gruber when he writes:

Again, Apple is not trying to convince everyone to replace a traditional Mac or PC with an iPad. Apple executives say that the Mac has a bright and long future because they really do think the Mac has a bright and long future. Any review of the iPad and iOS 11 from the perspective of whether it can replace a MacBook for everyone is going to completely miss what is better about the iPad and why.

However, in my opinion, things are much simpler than that. I believe that many articles have talked about the iPad as laptop replacement because that’s exactly the thing regular people ask the most about the iPad when they visit Apple stores and electronics stores with a dedicated Apple space inside. And it’s the most frequent question I’m asked by less tech-savvy acquaintances who would like to upgrade their old laptops with something more lightweight and ‘modern’, to use their words. Intrigued by the ‘Pro’ moniker, they ask me: Can I use this new iPad to do this and that stuff I usually take my laptop for? Or: If I get this iPad and the Smart Keyboard, can I just ditch my old laptop and use the iPad instead?

Some simply formulate the question in such fashion out of sheer curiosity: they never used an iPad but have a general idea of what an iPad can do. Some are a bit more informed and they ask whether the iPad can be used as laptop replacement as a way to ask whether the iPad has matured enough to be more than just a tablet for consumption, because that’s the image they’ve been having of it (or because they used to have one of the earlier iPads and it didn’t feel much versatile to them back then). Some picture the iPad Pro as Apple’s version of Microsoft Surface Pro, and since they consider the Surface a laptop replacement — or better, a laptop equivalent — they’re basically ascertaining whether the iPad Pro is in the same league.

But whether tech pundits like this ‘iPad as laptop replacement’ argument or not, many people ask about the iPad, and especially the recent iPad Pros, in these terms. Of course, regular people may be ‘asking it wrong’, and some iPad Pro reviews may be giving too much importance to the whole Can the iPad be a laptop replacement? matter. Surely everything is complicated by the extreme, inherent subjectivity of it all. It’s not possible to give a universal piece of advice here, because different people do different things with their laptops. Because people have different reasons to choose a laptop in the first place. Sometimes it’s all about the hardware: when netbooks were a thing — remember!? — I knew people who got attracted to them merely because of their size. Power and software weren’t really a concern. They were happy to carry around these compact devices to catch up with their email or write Word documents wherever they went. For these people, netbooks were viable laptop replacements. 

Other times it’s the software, and all the related workflows. And again, some workflows can be translated to the iPad, or adapted without much fiddling. Some people who don’t need platform-specific software can certainly work from an iPad if the workflow aspect isn’t a roadblock or a deal breaker.

Other times again it’s the general role the laptop plays in one’s tech life: is it a primary machine? Is it — heh — a desktop replacement? (In a famous 1999 advertising campaign, Apple referred to the first iBook as iMac, to go). Or is it a secondary machine, an addition whose main convenience derives from portability and whose main purpose is to take care of temporary tasks while out and about?

In all my years as a Mac consultant, I’ve met a fair amount of people for whom a laptop was simply overkill. But back then, before the iPad, before the iPhone, before the netbook, what practical choice did they have? Pre-iPhone smartphones could be used to handle email, calendar tasks, some very light WAP-sized web browsing. There wasn’t a device that combined a certain subset of tasks and applications, with a laptop-like form factor, all wrapped in the simplicity of an operating system designed for mobility.

The iPad today may not be designed to replace a laptop for everybody, otherwise, as Gruber implies, Apple would just stop producing MacBooks. But for some people it is certainly a solid alternative, because they can use it to carry out all the tasks they previously (under)used a laptop for. For others who just need a secondary device to check stuff while they’re not in their office or home office, a laptop might be overkill, and an iPad the perfect solution. For others, like me, the iPad will never be a laptop replacement, but always an invaluable addition to their personal tech ecosystem.

Matt Gemmell postulates that There’s no such thing as a laptop replacement, and if there were, the iPad isn’t meant to be one. I concede that the iPad isn’t meant to be one, not by design; yet I have witnessed more than once that for some people (most of them not techies — what a shocker) the iPad can definitely be one.

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Back to the smartphone experience of 2006

Around this week ten years ago, the iPhone went on sale. It revolutionised everything about the mobile phone landscape. Year after year, iteration after iteration — both in the iPhone hardware and iOS — we have been getting so accustomed to the ‘new order’ and to the revolution brought by the iPhone that, understandably, there are a lot of things we now take for granted.

Just two days ago, I had a sobering reminder of what was life with a smartphone before the iPhone. My wife and I noticed a discarded Nokia E61 near her workplace. The phone looked a bit battered. The battery, while present, appeared damaged in one corner. I decided to bring it home anyway, like with any discarded electronic device I deem interesting, the idea being, Let’s see if it works. If it ends up not working, I can always throw it away myself. My wife used to own a Nokia 6630 and I remembered we still had its accessories around (charger, USB data cable, earphones). Now, Nokia is one of the best when it comes to accessory compatibility in their older phones, and I was happy to see that everything could be easily connected to this E61.

After a short while connected to the charger, surprise surprise, the E61 came alive:

Nokia E61 - alive

(Photo taken with an iPhone 4 in terrible lighting conditions — apologies for the quality.)

What’s even more surprising is that, despite the physical damage, the battery works and still holds an impressive charge.

So, I got lucky. Then I started fiddling with the phone, while looking for more information about it. I remember chasing after this series of Nokia smartphones in the pre-iPhone era. They looked ‘professional’ and capable. Now its tech specs definitely make us chuckle. It was 2006 after all. Still, thanks to the iPhone happening, smartphones like this feel even older now. To be fair, the E61 is capable enough to connect to WPA wireless networks; it easily paired via Bluetooth with my Mac; it is especially good at handling email; and has decent calendar/organiser apps, like many other similar smartphones/PDAs of the era. Even the physical keyboard is tolerable (better, say, than the Palm Pre’s) and the joystick is better than certain mushy ‘pads’ I operated on other dumbphones and pre-iPhone smartphones. Oh, and the speaker is surprisingly loud and crisp: music obviously sounds richer through the earphones, but it is otherwise quite listenable. The speaker is positioned on the side of the phone, so the music doesn’t come out muffled when you leave the phone on any kind of surface. 

Nokia E61

The real shock in going back to a phone that existed before the iPhone and iOS is with regard to the interface and the user interaction. Trivial tasks such as connecting to a wireless network involve convoluted trips to menus in different areas of the phone; it took me a while to figure things out because now I just turn Wi-Fi on, tell my iPhone which network to connect to, and I can easily see on the status bar if and when the iPhone is connected to a wireless network. On this Nokia, I had to revert to the previous concept of having connectivity ‘on demand’; I had to remember that logic to understand why it was necessary to first create a sort of profile to designate e.g. my wireless home network as access point to connect to when needed. You don’t just point at your network on the list of available networks and tell the phone to connect to it, like you do now.

As you can see in the picture above, the UI of these phones was more folder-based than app-based, and the folder structure a bit more rigid than how we’re accustomed to doing things now. It wasn’t worse per se, it made sense for how you used such phones, but it certainly was more of a pain to navigate.

Returning to a physical keyboard, despite being rather decent as this one, reminded me how I sorely don’t miss one and how grateful I am for the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. Sure, at this point I’d probably have to spend a week using only the Nokia E61 to properly get accustomed to its keyboard and gain typing speed, but again, I had forgotten how tedious and frustrating the ‘hunt for a symbol or diacritic’ game was. At least it’s a full keyboard and I didn’t have to go back to T9 input.

Then of course there’s the matter of the screen. It’s okay, and has enough contrast. The pixels are visible but not as conspicuously as the photo above may suggest. Still, it’s QVGA: 320×240 pixels, and browsing the Web is… well… not really pleasant. I managed to install the Opera Mini browser, which is more usable, but still: websites (those that are gracious enough to adjust to this kind of vintage device) are hard to navigate and difficult to read. Checking my Gmail account was tolerable, as is handling emails in general on this phone, but again, fonts were small and legibility low. You just miss a retina display badly.

As I’m sure you understand, I’m not writing a review of the Nokia E61. It wouldn’t be fair and wouldn’t make any sense, but checking out this smartphone from 2006 is useful for the perspective it gives. It’s fascinating to have this kind of throwback experience and be reminded of the sheer magnitude of the iPhone’s impact right thereafter and from that point onward. I had to spend a couple of days with a previous concept of smartphone to fully realise the amount of details, user interface and user interaction paradigms we take for granted today.

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Tap swipe hold scroll flick drag drop

If iOS were a game franchise, its eleventh iteration coming in a few months would perhaps be called iOS 11 — A Release for Geeks. I want to make clear something from the start: I do think iOS 11 is one of the most interesting and exciting versions of iOS I’ve seen at least since iOS 7. And particularly for the iPad, it’s possibly the best iOS version ever. I like how finally the potential of the iPad is also recognised in software by the addition of iPad-specific features.

But what I also noticed, both in the WWDC 2017 keynote demos and on Apple’s iOS 11 Preview page, is a new layer of complexity which makes me wonder if maybe with iOS 11 we’re witnessing the start of a new phase that may ultimately bring a less intuitive — or at least less immediate — iOS user interface. Especially for new users.

Before I proceed, I wanted to recap a few things I’ve been pointing out over time.

In Rebuilding the toy box, an article I wrote in March 2012 in the era of iOS 5, I observed:

Now, in my opinion, Apple has managed to do something incredibly difficult: on one side it had to make the toy box [iOS’s user interface, the ‘container’] more complex to accommodate new features and keep it manageable as users pour more applications into it; on the other, Apple has been able to maintain the user interface as simple and as consistent as possible. Compared to the first-generation iPhone, very few new gestures or commands have appeared during these years. The learning curve has remained consistently low. Yet, feature-wise, if you put the first iPhone with iPhone OS 1.x and an iPhone 4S with iOS 5 side by side, there’s an abyss between them.

In my final observations in The Mac is just as compelling (February 2016), I wrote:

iOS is praised but at the same time you hear that it needs certain refinements — especially when it comes to the iPad Pro — to fully take advantage of the hardware and the possibilities it opens. As I said previously, to achieve that, to become a more powerful, less rigid system, iOS will have to get a bit more complex. If you want a higher degree of freedom when multitasking in iOS, things will have to behave in a more Mac-like way. And that’s ironic, is it not? A few days back I saw someone posting a design for a drag-and-drop interface between windows in iOS, and the general reaction seemed to be: That’s a cool idea. I thought: Of course, it’s like on the Mac. It’s one of the simple things of the Mac. You can tell me it’s great to move files from an app to another by using share sheets. Dragging and dropping is just as simple, and works basically everywhere.

In Trajectories (December 2016), I wrote:

How is iOS supposed to evolve to become as mature and versatile a platform as the Mac?

If how iOS has evolved until now is of any indication, the trajectory points towards the addition of Mac-like features and behaviours to the operating system. For example, iPads have become better tools for doing ‘serious work’ by adding more (and more useful) keyboard shortcuts, and by improving app multitasking with features like Slide Over, Split View, and Picture in Picture.

I may be wrong about this but my theory is that, in order for iOS to become more powerful and versatile, its user interface and user interaction are bound to get progressively more complex. The need may arise to increase the number of specialised, iPad-only features, features that would make little sense on the iPhone’s smaller footprint, or for the way people use iPhones versus iPads.

And further on:

In iOS’s software and user interface, the innovative bit happened at the beginning: simplicity through a series of well-designed, easily predictable touch gestures. Henceforth, it has been an accumulation of features, new gestures, new layers to interact with. The system has maintained a certain degree of intuitiveness, but many new features and gestures are truly intuitive mostly to long-time iOS users. Discoverability is still an issue for people who are not tech-savvy.

I think this is even more evident by taking a look at the new iPad-specific features and gestures introduced in iOS 11. In the first incarnations of iOS, what truly amazed me was how much you could accomplish with a relatively bare-bones gesture vocabulary, and how many of the core gestures of iOS’s multi-touch interaction were so intuitive, so instinctual, that a lot of regular users of any age could pick them up with surprising ease and speed, and be able to handle an iOS device in no time. Think gestures like pinch-to-zoom, swiping to browse items, tap-and-hold to select text, etc. When the iPhone was introduced, Apple produced a ‘welcome’ instructional video to teach people how to interact with the new device. It was very well made, but I was surprised that many non-techies in my circle of friends and acquaintances found it mostly redundant. Apple had managed to introduce a completely new interface and user interaction that needed very little explanation to be grasped by regular people. Exciting times, indeed. Revolutionary, even.

Then things got necessarily more complex at each iOS iteration. Still, as I noted in my past articles, how Apple could introduce more complexity while maintaining intuitiveness in the user interface and interaction was truly admirable. The core gestures and behaviours remained consistent for several iterations, but then an increasing number of panels, controls, screens, interactions, made matters more complex. The added complexity was sometimes mitigated by a predictable behaviour: when Notification Centre was introduced in iOS 5, invoking its panel was rather straightforward: you pulled it down from the top by swiping downwards. There was nothing associated with this gesture before, and the matte panel with linen motif was visually distinctive — it felt like pulling down a curtain or a virtual cover for the Springboard. It added depth as intuitively as possible.

Other times the added complexity went hand in hand with inconsistency or with the introduction of gestures that interfered with previously-learnt and ingrained ones. Take for example Spotlight search: since its introduction in iOS 3, it was presented as a separate screen virtually positioned on the left of the Home screen (and indicated by a small loupe icon instead of a dot, so that you knew you were accessing a different screen, and not just another screen with apps), and it was easily accessible by swiping right. Then, starting with iOS 7, that separate Spotlight screen disappeared, and you had to drag downwards from any of the screens of apps on your device to reveal a Spotlight search text field. A gesture that somewhat interfered with the ‘swipe down from the top edge to invoke Notification Centre’ gesture. (I know, I only have anecdotal data, but I witnessed many regular people struggle with this new gesture back then). This behaviour lasted from iOS 7 to iOS 9, and remains in iOS 10 with a twist: you can access Spotlight search by also swiping right from the Home screen, just like old times, but in iOS 10 you’ll also access the Today View.

As iOS’s interface got more complex in recent versions, with the addition of new layers, UI elements, behaviours, even hardware features (3D Touch), the gesture vocabulary has increased in richness. On the one hand, it’s fascinating how single gestures (or chain of gestures) have been kept relatively simple in themselves, considering the level of sophistication of the commands and instructions they carry out. On the other, it has become a bit more difficult to remember all these gestures — or to learn new gestures substituting old, ingrained ones, like Press Home to open replacing the tried-and-trusted Slide to Unlock. And new users who start getting acquainted with iOS today have to be shown many of such gestures, otherwise it’s unlikely they’d come naturally to them (another thing I personally witnessed in an Apple Store). It’s a very different scenario from the early days when regular people picked up a lot about handling an iOS device simply by playing with it for a while.

Let’s take some of iOS 11’s new features for the iPad. The Dock has been expanded to be more like Mac OS’s Dock, both in its appearance when viewed in the Springboard, and in its multitasking-related behaviour. Now, when you’re inside an app, you can invoke the Dock by simply swiping up from the bottom of the screen. A gesture that up to now was reserved to summon Control Centre, by the way. Yes, you can still access Control Centre from the bottom, together with the new app switcher, but you have to keep swiping up. As you have probably guessed, I’m not a fan of this kind of gesture overlap.

From the Dock, you can do things like this:

 
which is still a relatively simple thing to do. Swipe up, tap and hold, then select. (I’m sure the interface won’t appear as simple if more files or options are displayed when you tap and hold on different apps).

But take this series of gestures:

 

Not exactly an example of something that would come to you naturally if no one told you how to do it. And something you’d probably even have to practice a few times to pick it up or perform fluently.

Selecting multiple objects to drag to another app open in split view, or even across spaces, is another gesture that’s cleverly implemented if you consider what it achieves without using a mouse and a pointer, but takes a bit to practice, and it certainly needs to be performed with the iPad placed on a stable surface. (See Craig Federighi demoing it at about the 1:10:32 mark on the WWDC 2017 keynote video). It’s a gesture that makes sense once you stop and think about the dynamics, but can be physically intricate when you want to multi-select and drag, say, more than five objects. I wonder if it couldn’t be made more straightforward — especially when multi-selecting files in the new Files app — for example by doing this: you tap and hold on the first item, a series of radio buttons appear next to all the other items, you select all the items you want, and then you tap and drag the selection to the intended destination. It sounds more complex when described, but I think it’s simpler and less fatiguing in its execution.

Then there are gestures I frankly don’t get, such as how QuickType is supposed to improve your typing experience with the new virtual keyboard. The relevant paragraph on the iOS 11 Preview page reads: Letters, numbers, symbols, and punctuation marks are now all on the same keyboard — no more switching back and forth. Just flick down on a key to quickly select what you need.

 

I don’t find this method quick at all. You may save a tap or two when inserting the occasional symbol, but when writing long passages or sentences containing a mix of letters, numbers, symbols, I find this gesture to actually slow down typing, and a bit impractical in general. (Maybe it’s something you need some time to get accustomed to — in my admittedly quick test at an Apple Store, I often had to stop and think, and that flicking down didn’t exactly come naturally while typing).

A couple of stray observations

  • On the iPhone, Apple should really stop fiddling with the Lock screen and Notification Centre for a bit. iOS 11 introduces subtle new behaviours when invoking notifications (you swipe down as usual, but you’re actually pulling down the Lock screen, which displays the most recent notification, but you can pull up to have a list of all recent notifications; and then of course you can pull right to access good old Today View… And I keep wondering what was wrong with iOS 10’s implementation of Notification Centre. I don’t see any meaningful improvement in iOS 11’s implementation, just a few redundant gestures added on top of an interface that’s getting progressively layered — from a cognitive standpoint — at each new iteration.
  • 3D Touch continues to puzzle me as far as gestures are concerned. When Federighi showed how the redesigned Control Centre works, you can see that basically all the controls can be further explored, revealing additional settings, by using 3D Touch on them. On Twitter, I sarcastically remarked how iPhone SE owners are going to love this (the iPhone SE doesn’t feature 3D Touch — and neither do the iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, and 6 Plus, all devices that will be capable of running iOS 11). I soon learnt that, on devices that lack 3D Touch, the same can be achieved by tapping and holding. And that in turn made me wonder: why can’t the tap-and-hold gesture be used system-wide to act as a ‘poor man’s 3D Touch’ on iOS devices that lack that feature? Further: why not just use the tap-and-hold gesture instead of 3D Touch, everywhere? As it is, 3D Touch to me looks more like a showing off of technology, innovation for innovation’s sake, rather than a truly useful, irreplaceable gesture. It adds complexity, a new gesture to memorise, for mainly invoking contextual menus / options / settings. It is exclusive to a subset of iOS devices (only recent iPhones), and if you have a 3D Touch-equipped iPhone, and also own an iPad, I wonder how many times you’ve tried 3D Touching on the iPad as well, out of habit. If your objection is, But simply tapping and holding on apps to replace 3D Touch will interfere with the very old gesture to rearrange the apps on the Springboard, I will say that ‘Rearrange apps’ could very well become an option in the invoked contextual menu. Again, simpler to implement than to describe.

(Provisional) conclusion

Not long ago, after a series of posts where I was particularly critical of Apple, I received some feedback privately that essentially amounted to: It seems that you’re always trying to find things to complain about Apple, meaning that I was simply turning into a contrarian when it came to Apple, their hardware and software, and so forth. I could quickly respond by saying that if I didn’t care deeply about Apple, I wouldn’t write articles of more than 2,400 words such as the one you’re reading now. As I warned at the beginning, I’m not belittling Apple’s efforts with regard to iOS 11. I really think it’s a feature- and technology-packed release, and it’s great that we finally have iPad-specific features that make certain tasks much easier and certain workflows smoother and more Mac-like.

In the process, I’m simply observing how the added functionality and Mac-likeness inevitably brings new, more complex gestures to memorise and master; something I predicted it would happen some time ago. iOS devices have made computing much more accessible to many tech-averse people, and they managed to achieve that thanks to their simplicity. Touch and the multi-touch interaction have played an important part in delivering such simplicity, immediacy, and intuitiveness, but we shouldn’t forget that the graphical user interface has played an equally essential part. iOS apps are more accessible than traditional computer apps, with more discoverable commands and options, and sometimes even a clearer, more direct way to present information and act on it.

As features and capabilities are added, part of me fears that we’ll lose a bit of that initial simplicity and intuitiveness that attracted so many people to iOS in the first place. A lot of gestures and UI paradigms at this stage assume familiarity with Mac OS and assume a long-time familiarity with iOS. People, especially tech-savvy people, who started with the first iPhone ten years ago, and have been iOS users ever since, have made an iterative evolution in their use of iOS that has gone hand in hand with the progression of iOS itself. But today, every time I see people approach iOS for the first time, I often notice a mild bewilderment (“How do I do this?” — “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that” — etc.) that I didn’t see previously.

I’m not necessarily saying that Apple’s doing something wrong in this regard. Complexity in software is inevitable for the iPad, if only to fully harness its impressive hardware and power. I only hope that down the road the interface won’t become unnecessarily complex and too similar to a traditional computer’s UI with all the problems this involves — such as feature discoverability or poorly-designed, overly-crowded interfaces. And that, if the gesture vocabulary is destined to grow, that it grows by remaining as consistent as possible throughout iOS releases, to avoid confusion, to avoid unnecessary cognitive load, and unnecessary re-training. And when this can’t be achieved, then obscurity has to be avoided at all costs. The interface should guide users to discover new gestures — especially if such gestures are simultaneously essential and complex — with visual cues and well-designed buttons and controls.

In the afore-linked Trajectories I argued that if we zoom out a bit and consider the big picture, the revolution in personal computing brought by iOS feels (to me) more like a reinvention of the wheel than a tangible progression. On the one hand, I find devices like the new iPad Pros really exciting, with incredible hardware and, with iOS 11, a more versatile operating system. On the other hand, I try to picture what’s next, and all I can see for now are devices and an operating system that, to be even more versatile, will have to implement features and paradigms we’ve already seen in traditional computers and systems. And this doesn’t really strike me as something revolutionary, conceptually speaking.

Category Software Tags , ,

The price of upgrading a Mac

I will soon share my observations about the WWDC 2017, but more pressing matters had me looking into various options for a Mac upgrade. (My good old 2009 MacBook Pro lately has been giving me troubling signs that it may not be long for this world.)

During the WWDC 2017 keynote, Apple has announced widespread updates for the Mac line: the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and iMac product families all received better processors and hardware configurations — even the MacBook Air — and also a gentle retouch of certain prices, so that now there is a more affordable ‘entry-level’ 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) at $1,299, and a really interesting 21.5-inch iMac with retina 4K display model at the same price.

Given the retina display, the latest-generation 3 GHz quad-core Intel i5 CPU, the discrete Radeon Pro 555 GPU with 2 GB of video memory, and the generous port configuration (two Thunderbolt 3 ports, four USB 3 ports, an SDXC card slot, headphone jack and Gigabit Ethernet), this 21.5-inch 4K iMac has truly attracted my interest, and is the most probable candidate for my next upgrade. The problem is that it’s less affordable than it seems.

First off, let’s take a look at the price in Euro (I live in Spain) and with added taxes, and the base configuration of this 21.5-inch 4K iMac costs €1,499. To be fair, the $1,299 starting price in the US is before taxes. I simulated a purchase as if I were a New York resident, and the final estimate on the Apple Store page was about $1,400. Still, $1,400 are not €1,500. After a true currency conversion with today’s rates, $1,400 are €1,249. Now, that would be fair.

Then, let’s take a closer look at that base configuration: it has 8 GB of RAM and a 5400rpm 1 TB hard drive. Yes, a hard drive. If you’ve ever upgraded your Mac by switching from a hard drive to a solid-state drive, you know just what kind of a bottleneck a hard drive is with regard to the general responsiveness and speed of the Mac. So, let’s go to the customisation options for this iMac: a 1 TB Fusion Drive costs €120 more; a 256 GB SSD is €240 more; a 512 GB SSD is €480 more. If I settle for a 256 GB SSD, the price of the iMac becomes €1,739 already.

Then there’s the RAM. Now, I’m not saying 8 GB are bad, but given that a Mac’s upgrade cycle is generally slow, with machines lasting more than a few years (for regular customers without specific ‘pro’ needs), 8 GB may not be enough down the road. A wiser, more forward-looking decision is to opt for 16 GB of RAM. And that is €240 more — the ‘affordable’ 21.5-inch 4K iMac has now reached a price of €1,979, simply for choosing a couple of extras that, in mid-2017, should really be standard fare. If not the RAM, at least the SSD.

But hey, if one’s budget is limited, a solution could be to just purchase the iMac as is, and update the RAM and drive later. The good news comes from the iFixit folks who, when performing their 21.5-inch 4K iMac teardown, have discovered that the RAM is user-replaceable and not soldered on the motherboard. (The drive is replaceable too, but that was more obvious). The bad news is that, to replace the drive and add more RAM, you basically have to dismantle the whole iMac, and I for one am not thrilled by having to cut out and separate the display to get to the machine’s innards. 

When the time comes for me to get a new Mac — and given my MacBook Pro’s current conditions, it’ll have to be soon — I will very likely choose this entry-level Retina 4K iMac because overall it’s good value for its money compared to other solutions. After doing some easy calculations, however, it seems I’ll be able to afford only one configuration upgrade, and I hate to be put in a position where I have to decide to either choose more RAM or a better internal drive. I have been using Apple computers since 1989 and never questioned the premium one usually pays when choosing Apple, but these iMac base configurations and related built-to-order options feel like a bit of nickel-and-diming on Apple’s part.

Aside from my personal needs and upgrade scenarios, if we look at other solutions in the current Mac product lines, we encounter details such as these:

  • Even the top-of-the-line 27-inch Retina 5K iMac is offered with only 8 GB of RAM. I mean, it’s the current, most professional configuration for a desktop Mac; it wouldn’t hurt having 16 GB already in its base configuration, and Apple could easily charge $200 more for it. It’d look better and I don’t think anyone would complain. Well, at least the RAM in the 27-inch iMac is easily upgradable by the user.
  • The entry-level 12-inch Retina MacBook and the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar) both cost $1,299. The latter has a bigger and brighter screen with more resolution, a better processor, one more USB-C port, a better GPU, and even a better camera. Compared to the 12-inch MacBook, the only ‘drawbacks’ are that it’s slightly larger, that it weighs 450 grams more, and that it has a 128 GB SSD instead of a 256 GB SSD. I’m sure there are people whose priority is having the lightest, most compact portable Mac, and who, faced with this comparison, would undoubtedly choose the 12-inch MacBook. But in my view, offering these two models for the same price immediately puts the smaller MacBook at a disadvantage. The moment weight and dimensions cease to be crucial, anyone can see how the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the better deal here.
  • Pay attention when you’re customising the configuration of the Mac you intend to buy. As Adam Engst at TidBITS warns, you could end up with a worse configuration for the same price depending on how you start, or you might pay more for the same configuration. Read the article for more detailed information and advice.

Final considerations

While I understand that certain design constraints may impact the upgradability of a machine, I’m still rather baffled at the relative rigidity of Apple’s offerings. Having to decide how much RAM, what kind of storage solution, and how much storage at the time of purchase puts customers in a difficult position, as they have to make a decision right away that will very often affect their Mac for its entire lifecycle. No Mac is a throwaway machine, and while there are exceptions, a lot of people keep their Macs for many years. Looking at the stingy base configurations for many Macs, Apple pushes people towards two main behaviours:

  1. Be content with the base configuration of a Mac model, and as soon as it’s not enough for your needs (or to handle whatever new technology will be thrown at you down the road), just get another Mac.
  2. Customise at once the Mac model you want, and end up with a fairly future-proof machine that will certainly last you more years, but spending much more money on it in the process.

From Apple’s standpoint, this is a great strategy, of course. It makes sense. I’m a terribly budget-conscious customer, alas, but even if I weren’t, the thing that irritates me the most is how certain components of many Mac base configurations look purposefully unappealing to induce people to upgrade them right away, thus spending more money. I mean, a spinning 5400rpm hard drive in a retina iMac, in 2017? I had a 5400rpm hard drive when I purchased my 12-inch PowerBook G4 more than 13 years ago. Eight gigabytes of RAM in the high-end 27-inch Retina 5K iMac, aimed at customers whose needs very likely demand a bare minimum of 16 GB of RAM? Laptops with a non-upgradable 128 GB SSD? All this with base model configurations that aren’t exactly cheap from the start. It doesn’t strike me as treating your customers respectfully.

Every time I bring up this topic, some people feel the need to point out that my complaints are simply dictated by my limited budget, but my beef is less money-related than it seems. It has to do with something I already pointed out above — and that is essentially the way Apple controls and conditions most upgrade paths when it comes to purchasing a new Mac. You either stick with underwhelming base configurations that will remain unchanged for as long as you have that Mac, or you upgrade components at once, up-front, at the time of purchase, and put up with the considerable premium Apple charges you for that[1]. And in those cases (like the 21.5-inch 4K Retina iMac I’m interested in) where you technically could upgrade RAM and hard drive yourself at a later date, having to dismantle the machine completely to achieve that (with the far-from-remote possibility that you end up damaging something in the process) makes the option unappealing and a very ‘last resort’ one at that.

 


  • 1. While they might not classify as ‘considerable premiums’, don’t get me started on the customisation options for included accessories like keyboards, mice, and trackpads. If I want a Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad instead of the more compact one, Apple charges €30 more. When you’re buying a machine that already costs €1,500 — and may cost you as much as €6,199 for a fully upgraded high-end 27-inch iMac — those additional 30 euros look downright offensive. ↩︎

 

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