The dongle game

What follows is an entirely speculative article, based on the assumption that the next generation of MacBook Pros will provide a completely revolutionised port configuration, featuring only four USB-C type ports. I usually wait for actual changes to products to appear before sharing my musings, because I don’t like to — what’s the technical expression? — talk out of my arse. But while I was writing it I thought: “I’m a prospective MacBook Pro buyer and am waiting for this update with trepidation. Maybe in my speculation I’m missing some important solution or alternative point of view.” So I ultimately decided to impose these 2,000 words of speculation on you, dear readers. Perhaps you’ll share my views, or perhaps you’ll offer a different perspective.

 


 

Purchased in 1999, decommissioned sometime in 2003 after it broke for the second time, the blueberry iMac G3 (slot loading) has been my last desktop Mac. Or rather, the last desktop Mac I’ve used as primary work machine. From 2003 on, I’ve switched to laptop Macs as primary workhorses. My first ‘road warrior’ has been a clamshell iBook G3/466 SE (FireWire), followed in mid-2004 by a 12-inch PowerBook G4, followed in mid-2009 by a 15-inch MacBook Pro.

When I went from desktop to laptop, I was mainly following a need: in late 2002 my work started requiring more mobility, so in addition to the iMac G3 I bought the iBook; the iMac remained the home office main machine, while the iBook was the mobile office. Any necessary syncing was carried out across the home network when I’d return in the evening after a day out. When, after the iMac died, I went laptop-only, I also realised the flexibility of such a setup. Yes, initially it was a bit hard going from the iMac’s 15-inch 1024×768 display to the iBook’s 12-inch 800×600 display, but when I upgraded to the 12-inch PowerBook G4 and got an external display, things really got better — desktop setup at home, with a full extended keyboard, a mouse and the external display; and a very compact, lightweight machine when it was time to hit the road.

For my needs, the iBook G3/466 before and the 12-inch PowerBook G4 later on, were excellent portable solutions, powerful enough not to make me miss a standalone desktop Mac. I didn’t expect the little PowerBook G4 to last five full years as my primary Mac, especially in the 2004-2009 period, if you consider the transition to Intel architecture that took place in 2006, quickly making PowerPC Macs less and less relevant. But the MacBook Pro has proven to be an even long-lasting beast, having just surpassed seven years of service.

All the Mac laptops I’ve owned have had an adequate number and variety of ports and connections. The three notable exceptions have been, chronologically, the PowerBook 150, the PowerBook Duo 280c, and the original clamshell iBook G3/300:

  • The PowerBook 150 (1994-1995) only had one serial port and one SCSI port, an audio-out jack and an internal connector for an optional modem card.
  • The PowerBook Duo 280c (1994-1996), like all the other models in the Duo line, only had one serial port, and a Dock connector. But at least the Duo MiniDock was a portable enough accessory, and provided the Duo with a lot of connections.
  • The original clamshell iBook (1999-2000) only had a modem port, an Ethernet port, an audio-out jack, and one USB 1.1 port. At least it could be equipped with an internal AirPort card for wireless capabilities.

The PowerBook 150 was introduced as a low-cost portable solution back then, and that was essentially the reason behind the paucity of ports.

The PowerBook Duo was a more professional machine, and its ingenious concept was to have an ultra-light portable solution when you were out and about, that could become a desktop system through a desktop DuoDock once you got back to your desk at home or at the office.

Macintosh Duo System

The subnotebook form factor of the Duo meant having only the most basic connections (one serial port and an optional modem port), but once the machine was docked, its DuoDock provided quite the assortment of ports (1 ADB port, 2 Serial ports, 1 SCSI port, Video out, Audio in/out, two NuBus slots, and an Ethernet connection on the later DuoDock Plus and DuoDock II models), plus a floppy drive and an additional hard drive.

The original iBook was very much a consumer machine: if you were a professional back then and needed more speed, more ports and more flexibility, the portable pro solution was the PowerBook G3 line, which has seen some of the most expandable Mac laptops ever.

Let’s fast forward a bit and consider what has happened to the available ports on the MacBook Pro, the current professional line of Mac laptops. A peak has perhaps been reached with the late-2011 17-inch MacBook Pro, which offered:

  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Three USB 2.0 ports
  • One FireWire 800 port
  • One Thunderbolt port
  • Audio line in
  • Audio line out
  • Express/34 slot

After this model, the 17-inch MacBook Pro was discontinued. The remaining 13-inch and 15-inch models, after being redesigned, made thinner and equipped with retina displays, were reduced to these ports:

  • Two Thunderbolt ports
  • Two USB 3 ports
  • One HDMI port
  • Headphone port
  • An SDXC card slot

This port configuration has remained unchanged from 2012 up to now, with the only difference being that now the MacBook Pros have two faster Thunderbolt 2 ports. Do you want to connect the MacBook Pro to an Ethernet network or to FireWire 800 peripherals? You get dongles. You need to connect it to any display that doesn’t have a Thunderbolt or HDMI connector? You get a dongle. Well, technically they’re called adapters, but dongle is a better term to represent their quintessential annoyance as appendages.

Two USB 3 ports and two Thunderbolt 2 ports make for decent expandability, especially with the added bonus of a separate HDMI port for video (but even if you use one of the Thunderbolt ports to connect to an external display, you can still daisy-chain lots of other Thunderbolt peripherals, so you don’t lose anything), and the separate port for power — the MagSafe connector.

The time has come to upgrade my main Mac, and I look forward to the new, redesigned MacBook Pros which are purportedly coming as soon as next month. But I’m also worried by some of the rumoured changes. I can certainly live with the OLED mini-display replacing the Function Key row at the top of the keyboard. But for the sake of argument, let’s say the new MacBook Pros really come with just four USB-C ports — I’ll basically have to get dongles for everything:

  • One for connecting the MacBook Pro to my current external display, which has VGA and DVI connectors;
  • At least two for connecting all the USB 2 and USB 3 peripherals I currently own (external hard drives, CD/DVD burner, keyboards, my iPhones and iPods, several pendrives, CF Card reader, and I’ve surely left something out…);
  • One for connecting to Ethernet networks or other Macs via Ethernet cable;
  • Another one for connecting a couple of FireWire 400 and 800 drives I still have around;
  • Another one for reading SD cards.[1]

Of course I wouldn’t need to carry around all these dongles while I’m out and about, but even in desktop configuration it’s not really an elegant setup. But one dongle I would definitely have to take with me at all times is the USB-C to regular USB — there are simply too many devices that still use the ubiquitous USB 2 or USB 3 connection.

I understand Apple thinking forward, but wouldn’t a MacBook Pro with only 4 USB-C ports be a bit too abrupt a change? I’m certain this would be a major nudge to all companies manufacturing external drives and assorted peripherals to definitely jump on the USB-C bandwagon. But I’m also certain that, like me, there are many users out there who are going to be extremely inconvenienced by having to resort to all kinds of dongles to bear the cost of yet another transition. A transition which seems mostly dictated by design: the next MacBook Pros have to be thinner therefore they have to be equipped with thinner ports.

But why not leave all the thinning experiments to the consumer line of MacBooks, and keep the pro line a little thicker, so that MacBook Pros could have a bigger battery and more varied ports and connections?

I’m afraid that the answer is that the ‘Pro’ moniker is getting increasingly meaningless, and the line between consumer models and professional models increasingly blurred. MacBooks are getting the iPad treatment: a 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a few more features than a 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 and a faster CPU, but the distinction between the two devices isn’t all that marked.

Look, I’m not saying that Apple should keep all kinds of ports available until every associated technology is way past its performance and usefulness. I’m not saying that USB-C is a bad choice per se. It’s a fast and versatile connection. Having the same port on both sides of the machine means, for example, that you’re no longer forced to attach the power cable (or an external display) on the left of the Mac. But unless I also purchase a new display and new peripherals with the USB-C connector — and why should I, given that everything I have now still works just fine? — I’ll have to resort to dongles.

For the way I treat my Macs, I can mitigate the issue. Since I’m planning to keep my 2009 MacBook Pro around as a secondary machine anyway, I could turn it into a permanent desktop solution, and keep the new MacBook Pro in ‘pure’ portable configuration even at home, making space for it on another desk. I’d connect legacy peripherals to the older MacBook Pro, and use Wi-Fi for any data transfer between the two machines. But I guess I’d still have to get a USB-C to regular USB dongle whenever I want to directly access large amounts of data stored on one of my external drives (e.g. media files), or if I want to repurpose one of said drives as a Time Machine backup drive for the new MacBook Pro.

But when I put myself in the shoes of those users who get a new Mac and sell the old one, the port configuration of the new MacBook Pro will likely be a bit of a nuisance. I’m thinking of professionals with a varied range of peripherals, most with connections that are not USB-C — they’ll find themselves deep in the dongle game.[2] If the new MacBook Pros will lack a traditional Thunderbolt port too, these professionals will have to use a dongle even for that — and Thunderbolt is hardly an old or inadequate technology. But hey, they’ll have a thinner laptop, probably 50-80 grams lighter too. Because that’s what ultimately they care about, right?

Sigh.

Looking back at other key moments of ‘port transitions’ in portable pro machines, I’m reminded of smarter configurations like the one found in the PowerBook G3 Bronze Keyboard (‘Lombard’) in 1999: it featured the then-new USB connection along with the older SCSI that was being phased out. The subsequent PowerBook G3 model that came out a year later — the ‘Pismo’ — dropped SCSI in favour of the then-new (and newer than USB) FireWire 400 port.

Provided the rumours about the next MacBook Pro having only four USB-C ports are true, I think Apple is taking too drastic a decision, when probably a machine with, say, two USB-C ports and two regular USB ports would allow for a smoother transition. Unless they plan to throw a couple of dongles in the MacBook Pro box…

Anyway, for the first time in years I’m considering going back to a desktop Mac as my primary work machine.

 


  • 1. Admittedly, I could avoid this by getting a new CF/SD card reader with a USB-C port. ↩︎
  • 2. Not to mention those who use a pro desktop workstation at home, like a Mac Pro or a high-end iMac or even a fully maxed-out Mac mini (all with regular USB and Thunderbolt ports), use a MacBook Pro for working off site, and want to upgrade to the new MacBook Pro. Lots of dongles for them too if they want to share the same drives and peripherals between the two Macs. But I guess this is considered an endangered niche of users now. ↩︎

 

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Thoughts on the iPhone 7

IPhone 7 recap

IPhone 7 Plus recap

Step 1, the emotional reaction — I want the iPhone 7 in black matte finish. This model, with this finish, would probably convince me to upgrade to a bigger display than the 4-inch of my iPhone 5 I love so much. The 32 GB storage size would be enough. My current iPhone 5 is a 32 GB model and I have about 9 GB free at the moment.

I’d probably use it without a case. It’s too cool to have it hidden behind a case.

Step 2, rationality starts kicking in — Or rather, rationalising why I would upgrade. Well, those advances in camera technology and CPU/GPU performance can’t be overlooked. The gap between my iPhone 5 and the iPhone 7 would probably be as tangible as the one I experienced when upgrading from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5. Also, while it’s true that my iPhone 5 will support iOS 10, perhaps it’s time I jumped on the 64-bit device bandwagon…

Step 3, reality and its cold shower — An iPhone 7 is out of my budget. I also have other aging devices — an iPad 3 and a seven-year-old MacBook Pro — and if I have to prioritise, the Mac comes first. I’ll wait and see how the upcoming redesigned MacBook Pros look and what they’ll offer.

Camera and performance

Camera features

Phil Schiller’s presentation was divided into ten chapters/features:

  1. Design
  2. Home button
  3. Water & dust resistant
  4. Camera
  5. Retina HD display
  6. Audio
  7. EarPods (with Lightning connector)
  8. Wireless (AirPods)
  9. Apple Pay (and Japan)
  10. Performance

If I theoretically could afford to upgrade, the two features that would certainly win me over are camera and performance. These are, in my opinion, the essence of the iPhone now. At every iteration, the iPhone is becoming an increasingly more powerful computer with the ability of taking increasingly better photos. My most advanced standalone digital camera is an 8-megapixel Nikon I purchased in 2006. I haven’t bought another since, because a) I’ve always been more interested in film photography, and after a brief love affair with digital cameras in the years 2002-2007, I progressively lost interest and returned to film; and b) since I got my first iPhone, it has truly become my main digital point-and-shoot camera. Especially since 2011, when I bought an iPhone 4 with a drastically better camera than the one in the old iPhone 3G, I’ve found that the iPhone has been more than enough for my digital photography needs.

Without belabouring the point too much, digital photography for me is like fast food, and film photography is like slow food. Most of my digital photography are snapshots captured and shared. When I want to slow down and take my time to hunt for interesting scenes and subjects to shoot, I grab my film equipment — it’s the process I enjoy most.

Therefore, considering the way I do digital photography, the iPhone is really the best device to have with me and the only digital camera I’ve invested in since 2011. If you’re into digital photography in a similar way, the camera improvements in the iPhone 7 are really worth considering, especially if you own an older iPhone like me. If you’re really into camera performance, I’d say you should take a look at the iPhone 7 even if you own an iPhone 6, while I don’t think it’s worth upgrading from a 6s.

Of all the new camera improvements in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus — as ingenious as the dual camera system is on the bigger iPhone — my favourite is the flicker sensor. As Schiller explained, The flicker sensor reads the flickering of artificial lighting and can compensate for it in the photos and videos you take. I take a lot of indoor photos, and the flickering can be very annoying, especially when you want to include the source of artificial light in the frame. If this works as advertised, indoor photos and videos taken under artificial light will definitely look better, probably with more natural tones.

As for performance, well, I admit I was a bit speechless when I saw these slides:

Two high performance cores

Processing performance

Graphics performance

Graphics performance graph

This is certainly impressive. It is impressive how distant my humble iPhone 5 is on that graph, but equally impressive is the distance the iPhone 7 puts between itself and the iPhone 6 and 6s. Processing and graphics powers are tricky to evaluate in day-to-day normal use, though. My iPhone 5 feels fast and snappy enough. I remember trying out an iPhone 6 and a 6s, and they felt fast too, but not in a way that made my 5 feel hopelessly slow, if you know what I mean. The real difference can be appreciated when you give all these phones certain processing and graphics tasks (high-end video games, sophisticated image editing apps, photo apps that can overlay different complex filters, etc.) and see how long they take to complete operations.

Another advantage of the iPhone 7 CPU, the A10 Fusion chip, is that its asymmetrical architecture — two high-performance cores, two smaller efficiency cores, an Apple-designed performance controller — allows the iPhone 7 to simultaneously be more powerful and less power hungry than its predecessors. True, both the iPhone 7 and the 7 Plus also have slightly bigger batteries than the 6s and 6s Plus, but I’m willing to bet the A10 would have allowed for an increased battery life nonetheless.

Stray observations

  • The design may be nothing new compared to the iPhone 6s line. Nothing major has changed in the iPhone’s shape, but the jet black finish is striking enough to make the 7 look like a different iPhone altogether. And personally, a minor detail like the redesigned antenna lines, now decidedly less garish and noticeable, makes the iPhone 7 a more attractive model than the 6 or 6s. Have I mentioned I love the matte black finish?
  • To those who say the iPhone 7 is ‘boring’ because it doesn’t look different enough from a 6s: yes, outside maybe. Under the bonnet, everything’s different.
  • Regarding the new Home button, I’m ambivalent. A brief reminder: the Home button on the iPhone 7 is a force-sensitive, solid state button. It uses the Taptic engine to simulate clicking, like the trackpad on the MacBooks. Reports are divided — some say it feels great, other say it feels weak and weird, and while the Taptic engine behind a MacBook trackpad manages to realistically simulate the clicking movement, the iPhone 7 Home button is much smaller, and the effect isn’t as realistic. This is the classic kind of hardware feature I have to try personally before passing judgment. I understand the design decision: the Home button’s tasks have increased over the years, and now it’s used for quitting apps, Multitasking, Siri, Accessibility, Touch ID, Reachability, and Apple Pay operations. It’s logical to want to do without a moving part that gets so much used (and more prone to breaking or malfunctioning). At the same time, a true, clicky button is a better feedback. Again, I’ll have to try before having an opinion on this, but I understand where Apple is going and it makes sense.
  • The removal of the headphone jack: I’ve already expressed my opinion on the matter, and more specifically on the new AirPods in my previous article. But I want to sum up my position as follows: It’s not that I don’t think wireless is the future for audio. Nor I think Apple should continue to keep the headphone jack indefinitely. My argument against the jack removal is that the alternative solution Apple has presented doesn’t feel elegant, effective or compelling enough. Since everyone is quick to bring up past examples, I’ll say that again: every time Apple purposely dropped a technology from its hardware, the chosen alternative was better in every way, more elegant, more practical, more efficient — just compare the huge advantages of FireWire over SCSI, to make one example. What Apple has proposed as an alternative to wired audio on the iPhone doesn’t feel this better, but more like a stopgap. To make the necessary improvements inside the iPhone 7, the headphone jack’s space had to be sacrificed, so Apple needed a ‘Plan B’. I understand this, but I don’t have to like it. Schiller’s speech about ‘courage’ felt off to me because it sounded like when you have to devise a ‘Plan B’ and you try to make it pass as if it had been your genius plan all along.
  • Bye bye, 16 GB — The 16 GB storage tier is finally disappearing, and the 16/64/128 offering becomes 32/128/256, which are storage sizes much more in line with today’s needs. All iPads too have been updated, storage-wise, and the 16 GB tier is gone in favour of 32 GB. The only two devices that still retain a 16 GB option are the iPod Touch and the iPhone SE. And I believe Apple should just offer a 64 GB iPhone SE at $399, because the current 64 GB model at $449 is starting to feel a bit pricy when you consider that for $200 more you can get a 32 GB iPhone 7. (Not to mention the fact that every iPhone gets more expensive when you look at the prices outside the US.)

Conclusion

If you have an iPhone older than the 6s, I’d say it’s worth upgrading, unless you don’t give much importance to the camera improvements or you’re not comfortable with the two sizes of the iPhone 7 (4.7 and 5.5 inches). I already heard people say they won’t upgrade their iPhones until they see the next major redesign (coming with the iPhone 8, I assume), and that’s an understandable position if you never liked the iPhone 6 form factor. I have small hands and consider the iPhone 5 – 5s and SE form factor the best so far, and still the matte black iPhone 7 is extremely tempting. Alas, I’ll have to consider my restricted budget, so my more realistic path upgrade would be to aim for an iPhone SE — it has a familiar, comfortable form factor, it has Touch ID and most of the iPhone 6s features (especially that 12-megapixel rear camera), it has good battery life and an A9 CPU. It would still be a huge performance gap coming from an iPhone 5 and it should last me long enough until the iPhone 8 comes out.

If you’re comfortable wearing the EarPods, and they are your earphones of choice when you use your iPhone, then you’ll be fine using the Lightning EarPods that come with the iPhone 7, and the removal of the headphone jack won’t really bother you (unless you’re accustomed to charge your iPhone while listening to music or podcasts — in that case the solution isn’t very elegant).

If you mostly care about camera technology, processing power, and battery life, I think the iPhone 7 is a great upgrade in this regard. If you’re also a fan of the Plus size, the dual-camera solution and capabilities of the 7 Plus are amazing and should offer you an increased versatility, especially if the iPhone is your main device for digital photography.

If budget is a concern, and you own an old iPhone, and you don’t mind the bigger size, upgrading to a 6s might be good enough. Even looking for a used iPhone 6 might be a nice solution if you’re still using, say, a 4s or a 5/5c/5s. If you can’t stand the bigger size, the iPhone SE is your best option.

The iPhone 7 may be very similar to the 6s on the outside, but inside it’s a very different story. I wish I could review it properly, but even on paper it’s clear to me that the iPhone 7 is a worthy upgrade and a fantastic device overall.

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Pods full of Air

I’m preparing my observations about yesterday’s Apple event, but I wanted to give the removal of the headphone port and the new AirPods their own separate post, to avoid writing too long an article.

 

Speaking of Apple’s innovation, in my previous article I wrote:

I’m not saying that Apple, post-Jobs, has ceased to innovate. What I’ll say, from my humble point of view, is that Apple’s innovation, too, feels different, more fragmented and ‘schizophrenic’. There are areas of brilliance, there are unquestionable feats of engineering and manufacturing […] but certain design decisions seem to reflect a lack of a plan, and seem motivated more by a sort of ‘Let’s try this thing’ approach.

When Apple unveiled the AirPods at yesterday’s event, I instantly saw them as yet another confirmation of the feeling I verbalise above. The AirPods pack so much technology and smart solutions inside, but I can’t believe the team of designers has overlooked a few important impracticalities that make the AirPods an awkward accessory at best. Or, if they have not overlooked those impracticalities, I wonder how the designers can be fine with them.

1. First, the obvious — what everyone said on Twitter the moment the AirPods were unveiled: that it’s going to be so easy to lose them. If your current wired EarPods don’t fit perfectly in your ears, forget about the AirPods. Here’s the thing with wired earphones, though: if you’re like me — with one earbud fitting perfectly in one ear, and the other earbud fitting not that perfectly (it moves and falls off after a while) — you can still use the EarPods when you’re out and about. When the less-fitting earbud falls off, it just hangs from the wire; you can easily put it back in your ear and readjust it a bit, so that it doesn’t fall off for another half hour or so.

Picture the same scenario, but without wires: the left earbud falls off and… oops. If you’re lucky, you swiftly pick it up from the ground. But what if you’re jogging in some park and one AirPod bounces off and get lost in the grass or falls somewhere you can’t see? What if you’re standing in a crowded place (bus, train, underground) and it falls out of reach or someone inadvertently steps on it? Or what if you’re walking in the street and it falls down in some grate near the pavement, or gets crushed by a car? (You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s say you run to cross a road to catch the green light before it turns to red, and one AirPod falls in the middle of the road before you get to the other side but you only realise that after you’ve crossed, and now the cars have the green light…)

But even if the AirPods fit in your ears perfectly and you find this informal test reassuring, are you really comfortable with going out with two small things in your ears that might fall off anyway for any number of reasons?

2. Another practical scenario: you’re listening to music, or talking with somebody and wearing the AirPods. A friend, or a stranger nearby taps your shoulder and asks you something. The typical gesture is to remove one earbud and, if you’re wearing wired earphones, you just let it hang from the wire. When you return to whatever or whoever you were listening to, you just put that earbud back in. With the AirPods, you remove one and… what, you keep it in your hand? You store it temporarily in a pocket? And if you have no pockets, in your purse or bag? You can do all that, of course. It’s just a bit less practical than simply having the earbud hang from its wire.

Mr Robot S2E6a

Mr Robot S2E6b

3. From a user interaction standpoint, I’m not sure that a double tap on the AirPods to activate Siri is such a good idea, unless they can register very light taps. To me, that’s just an invitation to make an earbud drop. (Also, if you’re comfortable talking to Siri via the AirPods while out and about, good for you. I don’t think I ever will.)

The future of audio is wireless

One of the best articles post-event I’ve read so far is Inside iPhone 7: Why Apple Killed The Headphone Jack by John Paczkowski. In it, you’ll find the technical explanation as to why the headphone port was left out of the iPhone 7:

A tentpole feature of the new iPhones are improved camera systems that are larger than the cameras in the devices that preceded them. The iPhone 7 now has the optical image stabilization feature previously reserved for its larger Plus siblings. And the iPhone 7 Plus has two complete camera systems side by side — one with a fixed wide-angle lens, the other with a 2x zoom telephoto lens. At the top of both devices is something called the “driver ledge” — a small printed circuit board that drives the iPhone’s display and its backlight. Historically, Apple placed it there to accommodate improvements in battery capacity, where it was out of the way. But according to Riccio, the driver ledge interfered with the iPhone 7 line’s new larger camera systems, so Apple moved the ledge lower in both devices. But there, it interfered with other components, particularly the audio jack.

So the company’s engineers tried removing the jack.

In doing so, they discovered a few things. First, it was easier to install the “Taptic Engine” that drives the iPhone 7’s new pressure-sensitive home button, which, like the trackpads on Apple’s latest MacBook, uses vibrating haptic sensations to simulate the feeling of a click — without actually clicking.

I think it would have been more honest to explain just that during the event — perhaps in more layman’s terms — instead of all that talk about ‘courage’ and (I’m paraphrasing) ‘someone had to do it sooner or later’.

In Paczkowski’s article, Apple’s executives all try to justify the decision of removing the headphone port, but I didn’t find their arguments particularly convincing.

“The audio connector is more than 100 years old,” Joswiak says. “It had its last big innovation about 50 years ago. You know what that was? They made it smaller. It hasn’t been touched since then. It’s a dinosaur. It’s time to move on.”

Is it? The argument that something has to be replaced because it’s old may hold water in other contexts. In this one, I’m not so sure. And please, I’ve heard enough about how Apple boldly removed the floppy drive back in 1998. Floppy disks were already inadequate storage supports at the time. Truly better technologies were already developed. Removing the floppy drive was an act of mercy. But, as Paczkowski beautifully puts it:

The 3.5-millimeter audio jack, however, is neither inadequate nor in obvious need of replacement. Sure, it is certainly dusty. But it is widely used and unencumbered by patents. You don’t have to pay anyone to use it. The signal it transmits doesn’t need to be decoded. And because it is an analog and not a digital standard, it cannot be locked down with digital rights management (DRM). Like the AC power socket adorning the walls of our homes, the headphone jack is a dumb interface. In Apple parlance, “it just works.” Buy a pair of headphones — from an audiophile store or an airport vending machine — and plug them into a headphone jack and you’ll likely hear whatever it is you were planning on listening to. So why send it off for a dirt nap?

In the article Phil Schiller is quoted as saying: We are removing the audio jack because we have developed a better way to deliver audio. Is wireless a better way to deliver audio? It may be a more convenient way, because you’re not encumbered by the presence of audio cables or limited in movement by their length. But wired solutions, too, have their practicality. Look at the technology the AirPods have to contain to basically do what every wired pair of earphones and headphones already do: be connected to some other device and ‘just work’. It’s true, the AirPods’ pairing process is fast and ingenious, and involving iCloud for device syncing is, well, courageous. But with wired earphones you don’t have to worry about audio dropping or battery life. And wired earphones are more practical to manage and less likely to get dropped or lost than the AirPods.

“We do understand that this might be a difficult transition for some people who love their wired headphones,” says Schiller. “But the transition is inevitable. You’ve got to do it at some point. Sooner or later the headphone jack is going away. There are just too many reasons aligned against it sticking around any longer. There’s a little bit of pain in every transition, but we can’t let that stop us from making it. If we did, we’d never make any progress at all. […]

“Remember, we’ve been through this many times before,” says Schiller. “We got rid of parallel ports, the serial bus, floppy drives, physical keyboards on phones — do you miss the physical keyboards on your phone? … At some point — some point soon, I think — we’re all going to look back at the furor over the headphone jack and wonder what the big deal was.”

I’d really like to read a list of those “too many reasons aligned against it sticking around any longer”, but the fact is that this transition Schiller talks about isn’t yet necessary. Instead of solving an existing problem, Apple has created a problem to then solve it their way and feed us the narrative of the courageous pioneer. All the examples of past transitions Schiller makes are valid because all those were technologies that were made obsolete by the appearance of newer, more advanced, better solutions. Deciding to just kill the headphone jack off because “it’s old” and because “sooner or later it’s going away anyway” sounds arbitrary and a little too arrogant to me. Where is the better solution here? Where is the incredibly advanced solution that replaces the headphone port and jack in all their current uses and truly represents a compelling progress? Not Bluetooth technology and certainly not those AirPods.

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Apple, mistakes, quality, innovation, etc.

Craig Federighi, as quoted in this piece by Rick Tetzeli on FastCompany:

A world where people do not care about the quality of their experience is not a good world for Apple. A world where people care about those details and want to complain about them is the world where our values shine. That is our obsession.

Michael Tsai, back in August, in Learning from Apple’s Failures:

He’s saying the right things, but I’m not seeing this consistently come through in the products. Apple seems too unfocused, spread too thin, still in denial of how buggy their software has become. The iOS 9.3.4 update still hasn’t fixed the Camera audio bug, and it made my iPhone stop charging, at a very inconvenient time, so that I thought its Lightning port was damaged. Preview, long a reliable app, now regularly has drawing glitches and hangs. One of my apps hasn’t been up-to-date in the Mac App Store since May, and it is currently removed from sale, because of multiple backend store bugs. True or not, the perception is that the reality TV show and the car are distracting the company from working on the aging Mac lineup. Schiller’s triumphant “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass” line has become a punchline. The removal of the iPhone’s headphone jack seems like a parody of an Apple design decision. I want a new MacBook Pro, but at this point I’m more worried about the new keyboard and that Apple might do something more to make it less Pro, like remove Thunderbolt or the SD slot, than I am excited about what new features it might offer.

I feel exactly the same as Michael. I’m a long-time experienced Mac user. I’m not sure I would call myself a ‘pro’ user, because the way I use my Macs has always revolved around text processing, with frequent incursions into image editing & photo retouching, the occasional small project in iMovie or Final Cut Express, and the occasional gaming session. Mine are tasks that today’s non-Pro Macs could handle without much hassle. I love Macintosh computers of all vintages and I like to have a few finely-tuned machines around performing several different tasks and serving different purposes. While my main work machine, a 2009 MacBook Pro, is running current software and is still a dependable workhorse despite being seven years old, those secondary Macs are all PowerPC machines, most with a G4 processor, all running either Mac OS X Leopard (10.5.8) or Tiger (10.4.11), all manufactured between the years 2000 and 2004.

I mention this because my particular setup, a mix of old and newer hardware and software, may give me a certain perspective about the merits and flaws of ‘the new Apple’ versus ‘the old Apple’. And I can’t but confirm the impression that quality and focus have wandered a bit in recent years.

Whenever I’m working on one of my vintage G4 Macs, whenever I’m back using Mac OS X Tiger or Leopard, I very rarely encounter bugs or ‘surprises’. While I’m sure Tiger and Leopard aren’t perfect operating system versions where every single bug has been dealt with, the daily user experience on those machines appears to be seamless, and the environment extremely stable. When I wake one of my G4 PowerBooks from sleep, the reconnection to my home wireless network is instantaneous and reliable. On my MacBook Pro — even under the latest El Capitan minor update — it is still a hit-or-miss affair. Same with any Bluetooth peripheral that may be connected to the Mac.

Working with external displays doesn’t pose any kind of problem, and I’m able to connect/disconnect my PowerBooks to the bigger displays I own by simply removing the DVI-to-VGA or Mini DVI-to-VGA adapters (made by Apple), without having to put the computer to sleep or doing any other kind of voodoo procedure. To do the same with my MacBook Pro, I have to leave the MiniDisplay-to-VGA adapter connected, and disconnect the display’s VGA cable from the adapter’s VGA port. Because if I don’t do that, when I reconnect the adapter to the MacBook Pro, the Mac shuts down abruptly. I still don’t know the reason after all these years, and it’s not a faulty adapter because I already changed it (unless I was so unlucky as to get a second faulty adapter). And it’s not just that: every now and then, for no reason, when I wake my MacBook Pro with the external display attached, Display preferences get messed up, the display wakes in a different, lower resolution, with a different refresh rate; its colour profile isn’t loaded, and I have to repeatedly disconnect/reconnect the cable until everything’s back to normal. (Oh, of course I also need to reposition and resize several Finder and application windows when this happens.)

I still stand by what I wrote in The perceived decline in Apple’s software quality, published in early 2015, but there’s something I want to add to this paragraph:

But looking at things from a more emotional, more personal standpoint, something has indeed changed. Above I said that, in the past, us long-time Mac users were more willing to put up with flaws in the Mac operating system and first-party applications because the total amount of such occasional annoyances wasn’t enough to affect the general level of satisfaction of working with Mac OS. I suspect 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.

As time passes, I wouldn’t call it ‘decline’, but a progress characterised by an increased rocking movement, a sort of to and fro between progression and regression, with an environment where the addition of a couple of new features makes something else break or behave in unexpected ways. This is nothing new in software development, from what I hear (I’m not a developer myself), but Mac OS X, in general, felt less volatile in the Tiger-Leopard-Snow Leopard years. Yosemite felt like a regression after Mavericks’ improvement over Mountain Lion, and having a user interface with a new coat of paint felt like a pretty much insignificant gain when you consider major underlying issues including (but not limited to) network connectivity. El Capitan is definitely better and more stable, but still with issues popping up every now and then for no apparent reason (visual glitches in the Dock, the Finder that sometimes doesn’t update the amount of disk free space for hours, menubar icons disappearing then reappearing after a logout/login, intermittent Wi-Fi connectivity, the Preview issues mentioned by Tsai, the increased unpredictability of Disk Utility, etc.)

Regarding Apple’s innovation, I’m not a naysayer. I’m not saying that Apple, post-Jobs, has ceased to innovate. What I’ll say, from my humble point of view, is that Apple’s innovation, too, feels different, more fragmented and ‘schizophrenic’. There are areas of brilliance, there are unquestionable feats of engineering and manufacturing (I find the Taptic engine particularly ingenious, not to mention all the technology in current and upcoming iPhone cameras and retina displays), but certain design decisions seem to reflect a lack of a plan, and seem motivated more by a sort of Let’s try this thing approach. Other ideas seem to work very well, like 3D Touch, until you realise that only a limited subset of devices can take advantage of it, and this creates a different usability and UI experience on iOS depending on whether your device supports 3D Touch or not.

Certain iterations are starting to feel a bit too exhausting, like — and this is one of my strongest pet peeves, I know — the insistence on thinness when it comes to laptops. I understand, to a point, the compromises Apple chose when creating the 12-inch MacBook. You wanted to produce the ultimate portable machine, sacrificing (in part) CPU performance and, more importantly, ports. But what’s the reasoning behind making the next MacBook Pros thinner than the current ones? Lightness and portability are important, but maybe they are not the most important features pro users look for in a work machine. Like Tsai, as another prospective MacBook Pro buyer, I too am afraid of possible surprises (and compromises) in the upcoming MacBook Pro line, like the disappearance of ports and the adoption of that same awful keyboard the retina MacBook features. Will the rumoured new OLED mini-display that replaces the function key row on the keyboard be the foundation of an innovative, I-can’t-believe-how-I-managed-without-it-so-far functionality, or a gimmick that’ll be cause for new software and UI headaches down the road?

Tsai mentions Schiller’s famous “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass!” quip. Putting it in context, it was delivered during the presentation of the redesigned Mac Pro at WWDC 2013. A Mac Pro that has not received any kind of update since then. A machine packed with interesting solutions and engineering and manufacturing feats, yet, three years after, I have to ask “What’s the plan, here?” — because every Mac Pro user I’ve talked with has told me they find the previous Mac Pro design more practical and thought-out than the 2013 miniaturisation. (Yes, one could say the same for the Power Mac G4 Cube, but at least the Cube was not the only Power Mac G4 available at the time.)

The progression of Apple’s innovation, during the second Steve Jobs era, felt like the product of a plan with the occasional stumbling blocks along the way. Currently, such progression feels more like the product of an aggregation of mostly interesting ideas getting to a plan through a trial-and-error process.

Back to Tsai, he then quotes Nick Heer:

It doesn’t really matter whether there’s a real decline in Apple’s software quality, or if it’s mostly an exaggeration bolstered by a larger user base and increased media coverage. What is concerning is the sentiment I perceive in Cue’s explanation — that a bug affecting 1% of users is comparable in 2016 to one affecting 1% of users in, say, 2006 or 1996. But, as he says, there’s an enormous chasm in the actual number of users affected, and that’s what’s particularly concerning. If Apple is pushing out, to be generous, one-quarter of the number of these bugs as they were ten years ago, that means that they’re still affecting orders of magnitude more users.

and concludes:

My perception is that it’s not just the larger user base. I personally encounter a lot more Apple bugs than I used to.

I do too. And I also agree that it’s not just the larger user base. If you look back at the past decade, 2000-2010, if you search Mac forums’ archives, you’ll find plenty of complaints from regular users. You’ll always find regular Mac users complaining of what they call ‘bugs’ but which are often problems they stumbled on while configuring (or mis-configuring) something in their setup; or issues caused by third party software acting up but Apple takes the blame anyway; or simply mistakes made by the users themselves due to their inexperience; and so on and so forth. What I think is a more reliable indicator, instead, are the complaints from power users and software developers, because theirs is a subset of users that hasn’t grown at the same order of magnitude as regular users. And what I’ve noticed is more complaints from these people in recent years, with consistent issues that truly are first-party bugs, not temporary setbacks caused by specific hardware/software setups or one-time anomalies that are triggered by particularly esoteric circumstances.

During the years 1999 to 2005, I used to do a lot of technical assistance on the Mac platform. 95% of the time I was called to troubleshoot a ‘Mac problem’ or a ‘bug’, it turned out to be something caused by bad practices. Typically, the person had installed some dubious or poorly-written free software or hack that wreaked havoc on their Mac, triggering freezes or system conflicts. Or the user had ignored a warning and irretrievably deleted essential files. Or the user had followed the advice of some ‘tech-savvy friend’ to optimise their Mac, mistook the instructions, and ended up trashing documents required by the operating system. The examples are many. But I and other experienced Mac users I knew, with our pristine, finely-tuned systems, rarely encountered problems or bugs so egregious as to make us question what Apple was doing with regard to quality assurance. Today, I find this situation quite changed, and a lot of expert, long-time Mac users complaining about bugs and misbehaviours that can’t be attributed to user error or inexperience. That’s what I perceive to be more alarming.

 

Coda — Since there’s a lot of talking about Apple Maps in the interview with Cue and Federighi by Rick Tetzeli, let me give you a personal update on the matter. I still can’t rely on Apple Maps where I live. There are a lot of businesses that aren’t listed; a fair number of businesses that are listed closed down 2-3 years ago; and the app still can’t find my home address here in Valencia unless I write it down in its most complete form without omissions, otherwise it always suggests similar addresses from towns nearby. Google Maps is infinitely better, more accurate, with more pertinent suggestions and ‘educated guesses’ — and I use it without ever being logged into my Google account.

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The great disconnect

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– So, what did you do while on holiday?

– Mostly nothing.

– Seriously? So what, you just killed time?

– Yes and no. It was great. I’ll elaborate.

 

I reached the end of July in a sorry state. Sleep-deprived, overworked, anguished by deadlines; both the ‘hard’ deadlines related to work assignments I had to deliver, and the ‘soft’ deadlines I routinely self-impose for my writing projects. I had to publish a new issue of Vantage Point magazine before going on holiday, even if it was just a ‘Single Special’. I had to write Episode 4 of my series Off The Grid (no, I still haven’t published it, but it’s coming soon.) I had to publish a Kindle version of both Volume 1 and 2 of Minigrooves, my ongoing collection of short stories (and I did, check this post)…

I had to do this, I had to do that. I managed to do most of this and that in time, and barely retain my sanity, but I felt I went very close to experiencing the dreaded burnout.

“This summer, holidays will be different,” I told myself and my wife, “I really, really need to stop, recharge, retool.”

I decided to leave the MacBook Pro, my main work machine, at home. My luggage would consist of clothes, a couple of film cameras, three iPhones, my iPad, a couple of notebooks to keep taking notes for my Low Fidelity novel, nothing else. (I can see your eyes widen as you read three iPhones, but I had to take with me my main iPhone 5 with the Spanish SIM, my old iPhone 3G with the Italian SIM to use while in Italy, and a SIM-less iPhone 4 so that I could insert a second Italian SIM with a generous data plan that I use every time I visit my parents. They don’t have a landline, so I use the iPhone 4 as a personal hotspot to bring Internet to the other devices my wife and I use while on holiday.)

As I planned what to take with me, it was clear that, despite my wishes to disconnect and enjoy some offline time, I wanted to be able to access the Internet to keep following tech news, blogs and the usual stuff, though certainly at a more leisurely pace. This is the typical halo effect of today’s ‘always-on’ mentality and lifestyle. The need to stay in the loop at all costs.

The generous data plan I mentioned before gives you 10 GB of traffic at high cellular speed for a month. If you use all that up before the month is over, you don’t get charged for any additional traffic, you can still navigate at the glacial speed of 32kbps.

My wife and I made a terrible mistake, a mistake I’m almost embarrassed to share, given that I consider myself a seasoned, tech-savvy person. We both left Automatic App Updates activated on all our devices (three iPhones and two iPads). The result: we burnt through 10 GB of data in a little more than a week. The 10 GB offer would renew a couple of days before our return home. My wife begrudgingly managed without the high connection speed and with having Internet to the very bare minimum. I soon realised I didn’t care at all.

I thought the so-called ‘fear of missing out’ would kick in soon, but nothing. The only thing I did was to check my email every two-three days because I couldn’t afford not to, but for the rest, I really didn’t care I was basically cut off from any online activity. I read books, played Mahjong, took some photos, wrote a bit, enjoyed the company of my wife and my parents, enjoyed the occasional excursion, but mostly I rested. My mind needed rest.

Was I worried that my presence on social media was getting scarce, possibly leading to drop of attention and followers? No. There are more important things in life. There are your parents, both with health problems, both needing help in a way or another. There is the realisation that you get to visit them mostly once a year, for three weeks, and that this is not going to last for long. The realisation that when you say goodbye the day you’re leaving, who knows, it may be the last time you see one of them, or both. So you give priority to spending some quality time with them.

Was I worried that the unread count in my RSS feed reader would soon increase and get out of control? Not really. Lots of articles are idle speculation on future devices; or a-few-lines commentary after some news bits that cease to be worth exploring faster than the time it would take me to catch up on them; or podcast episode announcements; or lists of iOS/Mac apps of the week, deals and accessories; and so on and so forth. In the end, I can read all the stuff that really matters in my feeds in about two afternoons.

Was I worried that, by neglecting my own projects for a while, they would lose relevance and whatever interest I’d managed to raise about them would quickly fade away? Not really, for two reasons: the first is that my own writing and projects will never lose relevance for me, no matter how long a hiatus I take from them. The second is that — sadly, quite sadly — the interest I have indeed managed to raise about them has been so little, that there isn’t even the perception I have been ‘losing ground’, if you get my drift. I have noticed that, no matter how my writing in general is appreciated, when I start promoting my fiction it’s like talking about astrophysics at a party among drunk law students — either people turn a deaf ear, or they look at you funny. Or they don’t even register what you’re saying.

I’m not saying it’s not worth taking care of my projects and products. I’m just realising that something must be wrong with the way I advertise them or the way I approach their promotion. Maybe I’m not annoying enough. Maybe I should work on first creating connections with a few prominent people (as far as online presence and influence go), then expand my reach with their help. Maybe I keep trying to convince the wrong audience, people who are simply only interested in my tech-related writing and could not care less about my fiction. (But Matt Gemmell proves that a tech-oriented audience can indeed be interested in reading a novel written by a developer-recently-turned-writer — as for me, I’ve been writing fiction for 26 years!)

I’m digressing. My point is, I wasn’t worried about my projects and products losing traction while I was offline, because I’m planning some changes for the upcoming months anyway, so there wasn’t and isn’t anything to worry about. People will not magically start caring anyway, so making changes and redefining approaches is up to me.

During my time away from the Internet, what I did was mostly nothing, but it was the best nothing I experienced in a long time. It was a space that soon gave way to deep introspection. I thought about my routine, both the general daily routine — when I go to sleep, when I get up, how much time I spend at the computer or before a screen during the day, etc. — and the routine inside that time I spend at the computer. And there isn’t a better time than when you’re completely removed from such routine, that you can zoom out and take a better look at it. And you start noticing little silly things, like the amount of effort and energies you must invest to keep up-to-date with what goes on in technology (and many other disciplines) today, to then be able to add your voice to that cauldron of a debate, which keeps getting bigger every day and you end up drowning in irrelevancy most of the time anyway.

Writing online today, no matter how often you ‘show up’, often feels like a permanent state of paying one’s dues. Authority is achieved randomly: the public doesn’t seem to care if you’ve written about technology for the past 12 years or for just a few weeks. If the right people link to your piece and appreciate it, it’s a brilliant contribution and you’re worthy of attention, at least for a few days. You soon find out that you’re organising your approach to follow that model, so you read a lot, write a lot (quantity and ‘showing up’ frequency over quality), and every day you sit at your computer or mobile device and you’ve basically become a hamster spinning in your wheel. When you’re in your twenties and full of energy and passion and enthusiasm, this is fine. You may even have successfully found a way to monetise it — good for you. When you’re in your forties, have been doing it since your late twenties, and your efforts never seem to be enough, no matter how much quality you put in what you produce, your enthusiasm… gets reconfigured.

In this scenario, a disconnect is useful to understand that you have to stop being manipulated by the Internet and social media’s mechanisms. The worry related to how irrelevant the Internet makes you feel has to go away. The ‘fear of missing out’ is bullshit. The first time I accessed my Twitter timeline on the iPhone when I returned home, it felt as if nothing had changed. And nothing did. The same kinds of tweets: political satire, stupid nitpicking about first world problems, the same old banter, the same kind of meaningless memes, snarky remarks and subtweets, etc. etc. The first promoted tweet I saw was for some kind of product or service and began as follows: “Work from anywhere with this…” — another trap of this ‘always-on’ lifestyle. Working from anywhere might be convenient for certain people, but if you stop and think hard about it for a moment, it’s insane. These lines dividing work and leisure/time off, getting progressively more blurred to the point of disappearing, are creating a ridiculous, energy-sucking lifestyle. I don’t want to work from anywhere. I don’t want to bring technological gadgets everywhere so that I may do something work-related no matter what time it is or even if I’m technically on holiday. This blending of work/leisure feels more and more unhealthy to me. It’s like wearing a VR headset most of the time. It may be a fun experience when it’s on and you’re sucked in. But who are you, what are you when you remove it and realise just how exhausted you are? And was it really worthwhile?

My recent disconnect was bigger than anticipated, bigger than what I wanted, but turned out to be exactly what I needed at this juncture. I have realised that sometimes you have to get to a particular stage to fully understand how you need to ‘reboot’. In my case, the key was the realisation that I needed to truly stop caring about a series of aspects, mechanisms, and false problems related to the online sphere. To reach a sort of detachment that should be extremely useful in redefining my approach from now on.

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