Trajectories

I have a hard time believing it, but for the sake of argument, let’s say the Mac has reached the end of the line. Let’s say there’s little room left to innovate on the hardware side, and just room for small refinements and life-support maintenance on the software side. Let’s say Apple is not entirely wrong in choosing to neglect the Mac. Let’s say iOS is really the future and the right bet.

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.

Current iOS power users, proficient tech people who have mastered the art of picking the right apps and perfecting workflows, would certainly be happier if iOS allowed for more built-in flexibility and interoperability, so as to make such workflows (mostly reliant on third-party apps) even smoother. They certainly wouldn’t mind the added complexity of the user interface/interaction.

Brief aside: I’m speaking of ‘complexity’ in relative terms. Think, for example, how iOS 7 was more complex than iOS 4, and how iOS 10 is more complex than iOS 7. It’s a complexity derived from the addition of features, gestures, layers of interaction.

There’s an observation that has stuck with me, something an acquaintance wrote me some time ago. I talked about his experience in this article. He said (emphasis mine): I can learn to become efficient on the iPad more or less to the point where I am now with Macs and PCs […] but at the same time I wonder why I should bother. […] My impression is that to switch to iPad-only, I have to take three steps back in order to make one step forward, while I just can keep moving forward by staying on the Mac. I may be totally wrong, but it doesn’t really feel like ‘progress’, this re-learning of workflows to maybe one day be as efficient and productive as I already am now.

I realise there are people today who experience iOS first, and maybe Mac OS later, or even not at all. The afore-quoted observation may not apply to them, but I think it’s still valid for a great number of people out there.

Suppose Mac OS is demoted to ‘hobby status’ inside Apple, and that iOS receives all the attention from now on. What is iOS’s trajectory going to be? How is it going to evolve? One of iOS’s major strengths is the hardware-software integration, which is perhaps even more cohesive than the Mac’s. If the future is iOS-first or iOS-only in Apple’s plans, it is necessary that new iOS devices appear at a certain point. Devices that need to be more sophisticated, maybe with bigger displays or with hardware capabilities that let them interface with external displays and peripherals. Solutions will have to be implemented to provide a seamless experience for the user if or when these hypothetical desktop-oriented iOS devices appear. If touch remains the only input method in iOS, how can the user interface and the user interaction be kept ‘simple’ when future iOS devices need to connect and interact with other peripherals? The relatively straightforward scenario where a future iOS tablet or laptop hybrid connects to an external display to do more than just desktop mirroring begets all kinds of user experience considerations. To make just one example — Does the main device display essentially become a touchpad and the OS interface gets transferred to the external display, and will there be some sort of pointer to manipulate the UI in this configuration?

When I walk down this hypothetical path, what I see in iOS’s trajectory, more than sheer innovation, is a reinvention of the wheel. iOS was born as a simpler, streamlined version of Mac OS X; its multi-touch interface was ingenious and groundbreaking when applied to a smartphone and (similarly, but less strikingly) to a tablet; to then evolve — through a series of iterations and feature creep — into… Mac OS X?

Perhaps I’m exaggerating, perhaps I’m just following a pet theory I have and am blinded by confirmation bias, but when I look at possible trajectories for iOS, all I see is a not-fully-mature operating system that, year after year, version after version, is approaching a point the ‘old’ Mac OS X reached a while ago. Innovation in the iOS platform is mostly hardware-driven, in my opinion. Oversimplifying a bit, the software part is a touch-based container for apps. 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.

What I’m trying to argue here is 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 [1] than a tangible progression. iOS has made some things simpler for a wider number of people, and that’s really nice, but for now this purported ‘Post-PC era’ is (to me) still rough and somewhat disappointing. If I understood Steve Jobs’s vision, the ‘Post-PC era’ should be a time where iPhones and iPads can be valid solutions to accomplish most tasks in a mobile-driven scenario, instead of having to bring traditional computers everywhere, but where traditional computers — and especially the Mac — still have a place to take care of all the complex tasks they excel at.

Instead, what I’m feeling when I consider how Apple is currently treating the Mac (both the hardware and the software), is a different take on the jobsian Post-PC era of ‘cars’ and ‘trucks’. It’s a take where the traditional computer and its operating system are dumbed down and made progressively less relevant to push a platform that is still not equipped to fully stand on its own. A Post-PC era where we should eventually get rid of traditional computers to switch to devices and an operating system that will have to behave more like traditional computers to provide a similar level of versatility. And we will have gone through the effort to reach a similar level of productivity as we have now on the Mac because…? Because iOS is nicer and feels fresher? And for how long will iOS keep feeling nicer and fresher? Is there something more in iOS’s trajectory than iteratively better iPhones and iPads?


Related reading: The Mac is just as compelling

 


  • 1. An undeniably cool one, but still. ↩︎

 

Category Software Tags , , , ,

Notes from a short trip

One

There is a man sitting at a small round table in the Starbucks at Valencia airport this early morning. Remnants of what must have been his breakfast are pushed aside, and he’s busy checking stuff on an iPad. The iPad is propped up thanks to some sort of smart cover (non-Apple), and he’s using a third-party Bluetooth keyboard to type things every now and then. He doesn’t look like a novice user, yet he doesn’t strike me as being particularly comfortable operating the device. At times he’s unsure whether to use the keyboard’s arrow keys or raise his hand towards the iPad screen and just move around by using his fingers to scroll and swipe. He hops from one app to another, then back again. He looks more impatient now. He grumbles and frowns.

He has some sort of eureka moment. He grabs the iPad and puts it in portrait orientation. Whatever it is he’s working on, it seems to read better in portrait orientation, but now he can’t prop up the iPad like before, because its cover only allows for comfortable positioning in landscape orientation. He takes some bestseller from his messenger bag and tries to use it as a stand, but without much success. He then holds the iPad with one hand and types with the other using the virtual keyboard, but he’s clearly more uncomfortable than before. Begrudgingly, he repositions the iPad horizontally and reverts to the previous setup. He sighs and checks his iPhone.

I like to do some people watching, every now and then, especially when it involves the use of tech products I read about every day and use myself. My vantage point is excellent for inconspicuously watching what this man is doing, while not invading his privacy, because I can’t see (and I’m not interested in) what exactly he’s doing on his iPad, but I can see how he’s doing it. Again, he looks like someone who knows how to use an iPad, but nonetheless his actions do not convey that he’s enjoying it much. The interaction with the device lacks fluidity. If this is ‘the future,’ I really hope the present will last just a while longer.

Two

I’m travelling light, since I’ll be staying away just for one week. Yet, I need my primary iPhone, a secondary iPhone with my Italian number, and a third iPhone I will use with yet another SIM, because the data plan in that SIM is the most generous and convenient. I’ll have to work, since I’ve previously communicated my availability, so I’ll have to bring my MacBook Pro. What about my iPad? It would be a ‘nice to have too’ option, but a Mac, an iPad, and three iPhones are just a bit too much and certainly don’t qualify as ‘travelling light’, so I decide that the iPad is staying home. Will I miss it? I don’t know. It’s not my main device, but it’s also more than just a satellite in my setup.

After two days away, I realise I don’t miss it. Sure, bringing it with me instead of the MacBook Pro would have made for an even lighter travelling, but apart from the fact that I couldn’t have used it for work, I would have had to make a couple of adjustments I’m not sure I was willing to do. Storage is still an enormous advantage when you have your Mac with you. My MacBook Pro is equipped with a 240 GB SSD and a 500 GB hard drive. While I was away I could enjoy watching movies and shows I’d previously ripped or transferred to the Mac without worrying about running out of available space. If I had brought only the iPad with me, I would have had to delete games and other apps I probably wouldn’t need on my trip, to hopefully make space for those 9-10 GB of media I wanted to watch.

But then another problem would have emerged: I wouldn’t have had enough space on the iPad to also transfer the photos taken with my DSLR. Yes, I could have purchased more iCloud space… to then enjoy the transfer of several megabytes on a cellular network with 3G speeds on a good day. No, thanks. Much better a Mac with lots of local storage space, a fast-enough USB 2.0 connection speed, and no hassles whatsoever. I’ll gladly carry 1.6 kilograms more on my shoulders if it spares me the time I’d waste trying to free up space on the iPad. For content I’d move away from the iPad just a few days later anyway. Sometimes, comfort goes beyond just how much a device weighs.

Three

In one day, I’ve taken a plane, two busses, a train, plus several underground trains while in Milan. I’ve passed through several crowded — and sometimes cramped — spaces. You can’t imagine how glad I was to wear wired earphones and not, say, a pair of AirPods. Getting off the train at Duomo station, a guy bumped into me so hard, both my earbuds dropped off. Being wired, I was able to put them back in quickly. Then there were places where the background noise was, in passing, too loud for me to keep listening to music: it was easy to just give the earphones’ cables a gentle pull and let the earbuds hang and my ears rest, to then resume the listening a bit later, in quieter places. I didn’t have to worry about where to put the AirPods when not using them. Sure, I could have temporarily stored them in my coat pocket. Or just paused the music and kept them both in my ears. Maybe mine are old habits, but I found my good old wired earphones to be too practical in these kinds of situations, and I never found myself wishing for wireless alternatives — as incredible as that might sound to some of you dear readers.

Four

I’m getting back. On the train to Pisa, I decide to review some stuff and maybe write something related to my work-in-progress science fiction novel Low Fidelity. I take out the MacBook Pro. I open it on my lap. I find the right angle for the display to avoid stray reflections. I still miss the antiglare displays of a few years back. Mac OS X finishes booting and I’m presented with the same apps and windows I was using before shutting the Mac down. I write, read, check what I wanted to check. I hop from one app to another, from one virtual desktop to another, and then back again. My hands are firmly in place on the keyboard. My movements are minimal and measured. Sometimes I need to use the trackpad, but it’s right there below the keyboard. I’m comfortable. I feel in control of the interface before me. I don’t have to navigate it by gesturing like a conductor. I don’t feel the need to reach for something to tap on the MacBook Pro’s display, and I ask myself why some people would want a Mac laptop with a touchscreen. I may not be a fan of the latest MacBook Pros, but I’m really glad Apple still has a clear idea of how interfaces should behave on different kinds of devices.

Category Tech Life Tags , , , ,

Vantage Point magazine is ceasing publications

Issue №24 — Off

VP cover iss24

The cover of Issue №24 — the last one for Vantage Point.

 

In June 2014 I launched Vantage Point, a compact digital magazine available on iOS’s Newsstand, as a way to offer a sort of Membership feature to this site. As I wrote in the original post about the launch of the magazine, “I wanted to create a sort of Supplement for this website. A publication that could offer new materials related to the subjects I usually talk about here on Morrick.me, and also be an extension of Morrick.me by providing articles about other topics I’m interested in but rarely mention here. I want this website to stay focussed on a few selected categories and subjects, and things like book reviews, music reviews, non-tech opinion pieces, articles about movies or television series, etc., would be a bit out of place on Morrick.me. But not on a dedicated, compact digital Supplement like Vantage Point.”

I tried to do everything right with this project. A monthly subscription to Vantage Point was an affordable $2.99. Each issue was made up of an average of 3-4 articles, plus an episode of my serialised science fiction novel Low Fidelity. I tried to find interesting subjects to write about (each issue had its own ‘theme’). I did my best to offer a good-quality product, in a digestible package (a fast reader could probably finish an issue in about 45 minutes). When I realised I couldn’t keep up with the initial self-imposed periodicity of two issues per month, I created the Vantage Point Single Special, a sort of stripped-down issue featuring a short story, that would be published along with a regular issue when I couldn’t come up with two full issues. I’m a one-man operation, so I advertised the magazine the best I could.

It was not enough.

I poured a significant amount of energies into Vantage Point, and since the technical side of the operation (content hosting, app creation and issue delivery) was handled by another company (Type Engine), maintaining the magazine has had its costs. After two years, 23 regular issues, 4 Single Specials, it’s time to call it and cease publications. When projects simply do not work, when it’s clear that they’re going nowhere, perseverance is unwise.

Overall I had fun publishing Vantage Point for these past two years, and part of me is sad to have to shelve it.

When I started Vantage Point, I took into account that I might have ended up operating at a loss for an initial period. But the magazine has unfortunately remained a niche product, and never reached a stage where I earned more than what I invested. If I didn’t close the project before was because I still believed in its potential; it was because I kept wanting to give it a second chance. With things like these, and with online writing, the advice you keep hearing from successful people is to persevere, to keep at it, to keep working hard, etc. It’s what I did, but hey, sometimes a cake doesn’t turn out that well even if you follow the recipe.

I’ve made a few mistakes with Vantage Point, no doubt:

  • I could have been more aggressive in promoting it. I always err on the side of tact and politeness in promoting what I do. I don’t like to annoy people and push them away.
  • I could have looked for collaborators or asked other people to contribute to the magazine with an article or two. This way, these contributors themselves could have helped to spread the word among their circles, and consequently bring more subscribers. I could have done this, but it always felt a bit like cheating to me. I wanted to offer something that had my voice and style. I have a strict No guest posts policy on my site, and I wanted my magazine to reflect that. While that policy will likely never change for this site, I realise it’s been a somewhat myopic decision for my magazine.
  • I probably should have kept a stricter publication schedule. In its second year especially, Vantage Point magazine issues have been following a more erratic periodicity. Sometimes the reason for a delay was illness, sometimes it was work or other personal stuff. I should have perhaps lowered the subscription fee in light of this. In truth, I was afraid to break something in the process (again, I wasn’t in direct control of the technical aspects of the magazine’s distribution — I should have asked Type Engine support for help).

I’m immensely thankful to all the (few) subscribers who decided to give me and my magazine a change, and to offer their support. I really, really appreciate that.

At the same time, I wish the people who subscribed and appreciated the magazine and my fiction would have been a bit more, er, vocal about their appreciation. Save for a couple of exceptions, in the two years I published Vantage Point, there has been very little endorsement, and an absolute lack of feedback, either positive or negative.

Just to make myself clear right away: I’m not saying my readers should have taken care of advertising the magazine and do the marketing legwork for me; but you know, spreading the word with a tweet or writing a few lines in a Facebook update if that’s more your thing, or even leaving a brief review on the App Store… it wouldn’t have taken much of your time, and wouldn’t have hurt. I see many other tech and creative types get this kind of support on social media for everything they do. I’m just wishing I got the same treatment.

What about Low Fidelity?

The worst part of ceasing publications of a magazine that features a serialised novel is when such discontinuation leaves the narrative unfinished. The first book in the Low Fidelity series is made of 32 episodes, and so far I’ve published only 23 on Vantage Point magazine. I intend to publish the entire book in the first quarter of 2017 and make it available for both iOS and the Kindle platform. Watch this space and the Crosslines/Low Fidelity website for more updates on the matter.

Closing remarks about ‘memberships’ and ‘exclusive content’

Vantage Point magazine was my idea of providing a membership model for this site, but via a stand-alone paid product with original, previously-unpublished content (for the most part), instead of paywalls, newsletters and other solutions I saw on other tech blogs — solutions I didn’t like much.

In the two years I published Vantage Point, however, I often found myself preparing an article for the magazine and thinking that somehow it felt wrong to make it available for just a subset of my audience. And the more I thought about it, the less I liked this model based on exclusivity. I want to reach as many people as possible with what I write — whether it’s tech-oriented commentary or a fiction piece — and establishing a membership-based paid option that provides ‘exclusive content’ divides readers in tiers, the standard audience and the premium audience. For other blogs and authors, this option for monetising their spaces works well. I, on the other hand, feel a bit uncomfortable publishing an article or commentary not everybody can enjoy. Of course with fiction it’s a whole other matter: my books of short stories are finished products that are one-time purchases and can be enjoyed separately. I’m not ‘hiding’ potentially interesting content from the visitors and readers of my blog.

Between my translation work, writing fiction, preparing materials for Vantage Point magazine, I’ve ended up writing less on this blog — something I truly regret. It’s hard to find a balance between producing/curating ‘exclusive content’ for a selected premium audience and writing stuff for the standard audience at large. That’s why, until I find a better solution (i.e. a solution that makes me feel better), I’m done with the membership model. The ideal would be that writers receive support/patronage so that they can continue to write for everyone. While I know that most people won’t care, I’ll place a PayPal link on this blog’s sidebar in case someone wants to show their support every now and then.

For now, a heartfelt thank you to all you Vantage Point subscribers, and my thanks to Type Engine and The Smyth Group for the opportunity.

Any comment or feedback, you know where to find me.

 


Technical note

All current subscribers will get an email from iTunes stating that their subscriptions will not renew. Any content a user already has downloaded will remain on their device (unless they delete it).

Category Et Cetera Tags , ,

Thinnotations

One common complaint in the general criticism following the introduction of the latest MacBook Pro models can be summarised as follows: These are supposed to be pro machines — performance should be the design priority, not thinness. On Twitter and around the Web, I’ve read many professional and power users say that they would gladly prefer having thicker Apple notebooks if that allowed for more powerful CPUs, GPUs and a higher RAM ceiling (32 or even 64 GB); and if a side effect of such improvement turned out to be less battery life, so be it. Many have been quite vocal in expressing their frustration at Apple’s obsession with thinness & lightness, and I myself admittedly am getting tired of it too.

On the other hand, Joe Cieplinski makes a very good point:

It’s perfectly normal to be upset that the ideal laptop for you isn’t being made by Apple. But where you lose me is in assuming that decision is a mistake, or a purposeful snub, on Apple’s part.

Apple wants its products to succeed. And that’s as far as the want goes.

For all we know, Apple mocked up a more perfect laptop for developers, complete with Cherry switches on the keyboard and an oversized escape key. But then they analyzed the data, predicted the number of sales of such a beast, and decided it would lose money. So they opted not to make it.

Seems more likely to me than believing Tim Cook either doesn’t know what developers want, or that he doesn’t care because Apple is “obsessed with thin.”

These are not emotion-driven decisions. They are data-driven decisions.

The problem, as I see it, is that at this point thinness has become a trapping vicious circle.

Back in 2007, netbooks were all the rage. They were small, light, cheap portable computers that a surprisingly large amount of people were willing to carry and work on while out and about despite their compromises and shortcomings. I remember how everybody in the tech sphere was arguing that Apple should follow suit and release some sort of cheap subnotebook to enter this thriving market and quickly conquer it. But the pundits who understand Apple better were saying, Yeah, not gonna happen, pointing out that typically you don’t find the words ‘Apple’ and ‘cheap’ in the same sentence. They were right.

Nevertheless Steve Jobs smartly recognised that the need for very portable and lightweight machines was legitimate. And Jobs, being Jobs, decided that Apple was equipped to produce a better candidate, a computer that didn’t compromise on keyboard size, trackpad size, display size, and battery life; the only compromise for the prospective customer was the premium price ($1,799). That computer was the MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air was another great example of ‘the Apple way’: 1) detect a possibly profitable market; 2) introduce a product that fits that market but on Apple’s terms, i.e. a higher-quality, premium product; 3) be successful. It’s what Apple did with the iPod and the iPhone, for example.

MacBook Air intro

The introduction of the MacBook Air was a great moment in Apple’s notebook history: from that moment, people who wanted to purchase a laptop from Apple could choose affordability (the MacBook line), power/performance (the MacBook Pro line), or extreme portability (MacBook Air). The 2008-2009 timeframe gave us this very well-balanced choice in Apple’s notebook family. Then lines got a bit more blurred (I’m simplifying here):

  • With the introduction of the 13-inch MacBook Pro in mid 2009, the MacBook started its path towards redundancy. At the time, it was still the most affordable option with the entry price of $999, but the base 13-inch MacBook Pro was only $200 more expensive, more powerful, slightly thinner and lighter, featured a better, more robust aluminium unibody enclosure, etc.
  • In late 2010, the MacBook Air family was redesigned and expanded. The 13-inch model got slightly thinner and lighter, and its price was reduced by $200 (the two previous 2009 configurations sold for $1,499 and $1,799; now they cost $1,299 and $1,599). But more importantly, a smaller, 11-inch model was introduced, and although it didn’t have an Ethernet port and an optical drive, its base configuration cost $999 just like the MacBook. At this point, extreme portability and affordability were starting to converge.
  • In mid 2011 the MacBook is no more. This is the time when Apple’s notebook line is at its most streamlined: MacBook Air (11 and 13-inch), and MacBook Pro (13, 15 and 17-inch). The MacBook Air is the very portable, affordable-enough option; the 15 and 17-inch MacBook Pros are the professional machines (the 17-inch model in particular); and the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the new balance between portability and power [1].

What happened to the MacBook is that it was made progressively irrelevant by the MacBook Air. It’s clear than people liked thinness & lightness for their Apple laptops. At the same time it’s worth noting how the MacBook Air design has remained unchanged since 2010. Only the GPU, the storage options and the connections have improved over the years [2].

In 2012, after an outer design that had remained the same since 2008, the MacBook Pros gained a retina display and a thinning treatment. It was a rather significant weight loss: the 15-inch retina MacBook Pro was 2.02 kilograms versus the 2.56 kilograms of the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro; it was slightly shorter in length (35.89 cm versus the 36.4 of the regular MacBook Pro) and width (24.71 cm versus the 24.9 of the regular MacBook Pro), but notably thinner: 1.8 cm versus the 2.41 of the regular MacBook Pro).

The retina MacBook Pro was still a powerful machine, and that retina display was really an attractive feature, but with thinness a few compromises started to appear:

  • The RAM was not upgradable anymore: you had to pick either 8 or 16 GB at purchase time.
  • The Ethernet and FireWire 800 ports were gone (although the retina MacBook Pro came with two Thunderbolt ports instead of one, plus an additional HDMI port).
  • No space for an optical drive.
  • Lateral vents were added for thermal dissipation.

Mind you, these were rather acceptable compromises: a retina display, a faster flash architecture (the RAM was soldered to the motherboard, but the SSD was not and could be upgraded later), two Thunderbolt ports, an HDMI port, USB 3 ports, a bigger and more powerful battery… The benefits still outweighed the drawbacks. One big disappointment for pro users remained, however: the discontinuation of the 17-inch MacBook Pro.

These two examples of thinning process — the slight redesign of the MacBook Air line in 2010, and the introduction of the retina display MacBook Pros in 2012 — can be considered a kind of optimisation. Particularly in the case of the retina MacBook Pro: Apple managed to create ‘denser’ machines on the inside, sacrificing as little as possible.

When the 12-inch retina MacBook appeared in 2015, that kind of iteration of the thinning process felt largely unnecessary to me. Is that MacBook an engineering feat? No doubt. Is it an ‘achievement unlocked’ for Apple’s design team? No doubt. Was it a data-driven decision? I don’t know, but I have my doubts about it. At the time, I remember a lot of MacBook Air users wanting one specific upgrade for their machines — a retina display. I never heard a MacBook Air user complain about their laptop’s thinness and lightness. An 11-inch MacBook Air weighs little more than 1 kg; the 13-inch model is 1.35 kg. People have handled heavier and bulkier books in their bags.

Probably the 12-inch retina MacBook was born to address the need of those spoiled by the practicality of their iPad used in conjunction with an external keyboard, who wished to have a similar setup on the go, but with a Mac and not an iOS device. That, and the simple deduction: If people love thin and light, they’ll love thinner and lighter. Well, yes, they do. But unconditionally? Eh.

With the retina MacBook we start to see an increasing number of compromises. You get lightness, thinness, a retina display, even an iPhone-like choice of colours, but to allow for such a diminutive chassis, you also get:

  • Non-upgradable RAM, of course.
  • Non-upgradable SSD flash storage.
  • One single USB-C type port.
  • A significantly thinner keyboard providing a worse user experience, no matter what Apple claims.
  • Less powerful CPU.
  • Less powerful battery, meaning shorter battery life compared to a 13-inch MacBook Air of the same age.

Extreme portability and a better display: these are the only advantages over the MacBook Air line (and with regard to portability alone, the 11-inch Air is still a good contender). Now that it’s even clearer that the 12-inch MacBook is supposed to replace the MacBook Air, I can’t help but think that it’s not a particularly great trade-off for a MacBook Air user who would want to upgrade. That’s perhaps why Schiller suggested the 13-inch non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro as a ‘compelling’ upgrade path. Sure, it has a better processor than a regular MacBook, but only one port more. I still find that 13-inch MacBook Air vs 13-inch MacBook Pro showdown a baffling moment of Apple’s 27 October special event.

Again I have to ask: is the 12-inch MacBook the improvement MacBook Air users wanted? I’m not sure about that. Yes, I know that famous quote attributed to Henry Ford — “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” — but probably all MacBook Air users wanted was more or less the same machine, only with a better display.

The thinning process that led to the retina MacBook feels to me more like a design exercise, a self-imposed design challenge on Apple’s part. The challenge was won. At what cost for the user, though? Is having a better display and a thinner/lighter machine enough? Are there really so many people who would choose fewer ports and a less powerful CPU just to have a machine that weighs 300 grams less? Is versatility less important than sheer portability? Note that I’m not comparing two machines that have a wildly different footprint and weight.

And here we are now, with these new MacBook Pro models, witnessing a similar transformation and thinning process as the 12-inch retina MacBook compared to the MacBook Air line. But while the compromises imposed by ‘thinner & lighter’ in consumer-oriented machines can be digested — they’re data-driven decisions, as Cieplinski points out, so maybe there really was a large target audience at which to aim the retina MacBook — it doesn’t seem to be the case with the new MacBook Pros. Granted, they are going to sell well, mainly because an update was long overdue and those users who need to upgrade aren’t left with much choice. But again, this new iteration of ‘thinner & lighter’, in these supposedly-pro Macs, feels more like another self-imposed design challenge on Apple’s part.

I admit, I’ve frequently used that phrase, “obsessed with thin”, when talking about Apple as of late. But getting back to Joe Cieplinski’s piece, I want to point out that I certainly don’t believe this ‘obsession’ comes from a bunch of capricious Apple executives. My stance is more like The road to thinness is paved with good intentions. I can believe that these anorexic new Macs are the result of data-driven decisions. I don’t deny that, in general, having to carry around a light device with a small footprint is more comfortable than carrying around a bigger computer that weighs the double. People like thin & light, people buy thin & light, so let’s give them thin & light. And when the next round comes, let’s give them thinner & lighter. And again. This is the ‘trapping vicious circle’ I was mentioning earlier.

The problem is: for how long can it continue? At every iteration, thinning the device brings a series of new considerations: how can we fit a battery there, that’s power-efficient and lasting at least as much as the previous one that was inside a bigger chassis? What do we sacrifice? What about thermal dissipation? What’s the best CPU in terms of performance and power-efficiency that we can fit there? Should we design one? Can we create an even flatter keyboard and keyboard mechanism?

What will this ultimate MacBook look like, in terms of lightness and thinness? A paper-thin sheet of battery inside a paper-thin sheet of aluminium, with a virtual keyboard like an iPad? A black-boxed Mac whose only connections are wireless (charging included)? But the most pressing question is: is this absolutely necessary? And another, more pragmatic question: when thinness and lightness reach the absolute limit, what’s next? What’s going to be the pitch? I know, some of you are thinking that the Mac will have already disappeared altogether by then, but that’s a digression for another article.

In closing, I want to go back to this bit from the afore-quoted Cieplinski:

For all we know, Apple mocked up a more perfect laptop for developers, complete with Cherry switches on the keyboard and an oversized escape key. But then they analyzed the data, predicted the number of sales of such a beast, and decided it would lose money. So they opted not to make it.

I still believe there is a place for a performance-oriented version of the retina 15-inch MacBook Pro. Along with the new, thinner ones, Apple could have introduced a second 15-inch MacBook Pro with a similar look and colour options, but retaining the thickness of the 2015 model. Such thickness (we’re talking about 1.8 cm, I’d hardly call that ‘thick’ anyway) would have allowed Apple more breathing room to optimise the internals for performance and battery efficiency. Port-wise, it could have featured the new USB-C type Thunderbolt 3 ports in the same configuration (two per side), plus a legacy USB-A type port and an SD card slot. If this was too much work for a niche machine, Apple could have sold it at an even higher pricing tier. Considering the backlash from professionals (Michael Tsai did an admirable job collecting the most varied contributions on the matter in his New MacBook Pros and the State of the Mac), I’m pretty sure such a MacBook Pro could easily sell for $4,000-4,500 and this intended audience wouldn’t complain.

So, thinness and lightness may very well be features derived from data-driven decisions, but lately it seems that it’s all about thinness and lightness. It seems that every new design iteration starts with thinner & lighter being the primary requirements, and everything else must follow; whether it’s for a ‘consumer’ machine or a ‘pro’ machine. Less and less space to work with brings compromises, more and more at every iteration. It’s a process that can’t go on forever, and I’m curious to see what will happen when Apple devices reach maximum possible thinness. It’s worth noting that technological advances can effectively bring more computational power and battery life. Thinness has physical limits. Aesthetic too, I would add.

 


  • 1. Looking back, I still find this to be the optimal state of Apple’s notebook lineup. All capable, versatile machines, with few compromises overall. All very well tailored to meet different needs from different customers’ sectors. I don’t see the same kind of focus today — but that’s me. ↩︎
  • 2. And very few people complained about that, as far as I know. The MacBook Air has been a very successful, much-loved Mac. ↩︎

 

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A step forward, in some direction

The only thing Steve Jobs was visibly not excited to present at a keynote was probably the Motorola ROKR phone. The man surely knew how to make his enthusiasm contagious every time he introduced a new Apple product. His keynotes were famously full of amazing, awesome, fantastic and other superlatives. He was a great salesman, and one of the main factors that made him such a great salesman was that he was genuinely enthusiastic and proud of the products. Often it felt as if he couldn’t wait to get back to his office and enjoy the hell out of that new iMac, or PowerBook, or MacBook Air, iPhone, iPad.

At yesterday’s ‘Hello Again’ Apple Special Event, conversely, Tim Cook sounded distracted, stumbled a couple of times while delivering his part of the speech, and his amazing and other superlatives felt like something read from a script. I didn’t like the event much because — and this is certainly a personal impression — there was an air of Guys, we promised there would be a Mac event, so let’s get on with it. Apart from a few sparks (Phil Schiller, always eager on stage and a competent presenter; Craig Federighi and his humour; Bradee Evans from Adobe, refreshingly witty and funny; Susan Prescott VP of Apps Product Marketing, effervescent as usual), there certainly wasn’t the same excitement we saw in September at the iPhone/iOS 10 event. Which is weird, in a way, because the MacBook Pro line has been finally redesigned after years. Yesterday was the time to be proud, to be excited.

Anyway.

As a technology observer and enthusiast, I like the new MacBook Pros a lot. I haven’t seen them in person yet, of course, but still, the design is yet another iteration towards Apple’s idea of notebook quintessence, and even in photos and watching Federighi using one on stage, these new MacBook Pros look even sturdier than the previous ones. The trackpad is generously spacious. The displays are better and brighter and have more colours. The new port configuration — four Thunderbolt 3 ports, one headphone jack — is bold in its removal of basically all legacy ports, and positively forward-looking. Thunderbolt 3 is fast and powerful — it provides 40Gb/s bandwidth and supports 10Gb/s USB 3.1 Gen 2 and DisplayPort 1.2. The new Touch Bar seems to be well thought-out overall, and less gimmicky than I thought it would be.

At the same time, I’m getting tired of this obsession with lighter/thinner at each design iteration. Professionals are more interested in sheer performance, in machines that can be upgraded and expanded down the road. Why can’t Apple leave the light & thin to the consumer line of notebooks, and offer pro notebooks that follow a more ‘function over form’ approach? What once was a clear distinction between ‘consumer’ and ‘pro’ machine, has now become something more like ‘regular’ versus ‘deluxe’ machines. Nowadays, a professional computer shouldn’t be constrained by a maximum of 16 GB of RAM. I know a few people who are barely comfortable with 32. Considering the non-trivial investment when you purchase one at its maximum tech specs, these MacBook Pros are supposed to last a few years. Good luck having only 16 GB of RAM in 2020 — or even a year from now, for that matter.

A few additional observations, in no particular order:

1. Admittedly, when I saw that the new MacBook Pros only have four USB-C-type Thunderbolt 3 ports, I felt annoyed and frustrated. The first thought was Oh dear, if I upgrade I’ll need an adapter for everything. Today, after rewatching a few bits of the event, I’m more open to Apple’s perspective here. As Schiller reminded on stage, this is the fastest, more versatile I/O configuration ever featured on a MacBook Pro. Any of the four ports can be used to charge the MacBook Pro, which is handy considering the twists and turns the power cable has to make in my office to reach the left side of my MacBook Pro. Further, any of the ports can be used to provide these connections:

Connections

It’s a flexible solution because if, for example, you have two ports in use as USB connections, and you need to attach an additional USB peripheral, now you can do so instead of being limited to just 2 physical USB ports and having to free one in order to connect the new peripheral.

2. On the other hand, if I purchase one of these new MacBook Pros, I will really have to purchase a bunch of different adapters if I want to maintain my current setup when I use the MacBook Pro in my home office. And since that involves having permanently connected an external monitor and an external USB keyboard, it means that my new MacBook Pro would already ‘lose’ two ports when in desktop configuration. Given that I usually also keep the Mac connected to the power, I would end up with just one free port. This in turn means that I should either look for some kind of powered USB-C hub or a decent wireless keyboard. Additional costs I have to incur on top of the already expensive purchase a new MacBook Pro would represent (more on this later).

3. Speaking of ports, I firmly believe that leaving the MagSafe connector behind is a poor decision on Apple’s part. Having MagSafe and four Thunderbolt 3 ports would have been quite amazing. It’s true, now you can connect the power adapter to any port you want, but we’re suddenly thrown back to the era of non-magnetic power cable connections — which means: careful not to trip over it or get it tangled up with something and see your very expensive new MacBook Pro get dragged to the floor. This is a step back, pure and simple.

4. I had feared that the Touch Bar would be a gimmicky addition, introduced more to impress than to be truly useful, but after watching the various demos at the event, I really think it’s a smart and versatile feature. I especially like how not only does it change according to the app you’re using, but that it may provide different functionalities within the same app, even becoming a secondary controller/input device, as the various demos at the event demonstrated (I particularly liked the PhotoShop demo). That’s why I think it’s a pity the Touch Bar isn’t taller like a row of regular keys. It would be even more useful and comfortable to use.

The only concern I have regarding the Touch Bar is of a practical nature: its usefulness would be reduced when using the MacBook Pro in a desktop setup with an external display and an external keyboard. There are some who keep their MacBooks front and centre, then place the external display behind and in a raised position, so that it basically extends the Mac’s desktop vertically. With the new MacBook Pro, these people can take advantage of its larger trackpad and the Touch Bar. But I can’t use a laptop this way on my desk. I need to have the external display and keyboard/mouse in front of me, and to keep the MacBook Pro on my right and at an angle. Not to mention those who keep the MacBook Pro’s lid closed when used in desktop configuration.

Some have said that Apple should release a new Touch Bar-enabled Magic Keyboard; it would be an intriguing solution, but it makes me wonder. Such a keyboard would provide the Touch Bar functionality even to Macs that don’t come equipped with it. Now, the Touch Bar seems to be one of the distinctive, selling points of the new MacBook Pro line. Are we sure Apple wants to give other Macs (even older Macs) that unique feature that makes a new MacBook Pro so alluring?

(By the way, I think Apple should do just that, actually. The Touch Bar is a useful addition and enables additional gestures and shortcuts that ought to be available on all Macs, as a way to unify the user interface. I really hope we won’t have something resembling the fragmentation of 3D Touch on iOS devices, which is only available on some of them.)

5. The new MacBook Pro’s keyboard, while sharing the same butterfly mechanism as the 12-inch MacBook’s (which I hate wholeheartedly) appears slightly different. Since the MacBook Pro is thicker than the MacBook, it seems that the keys may have a bit more travel. That, if true, would make this keyboard way more tolerable for me. The new arrow keys layout, sadly, remains a harder pill to swallow. The old ‘Inverted T’ layout was so much better.

6. Along with the new 13 and 15-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pros, Apple has introduced a third MacBook Pro: a less powerful 13-inch model without Touch Bar (it has a standard keyboard with the row of function keys), with only two Thunderbolt 3 ports. I call it the NFNF model, where NFNF stands for Neither Fish Nor Flesh. It’s a weird addition that simultaneously makes and doesn’t make sense to me. On the one hand, it can be a solution for those who aren’t interested in the Touch Bar, don’t need the power of the high-end MacBook Pros, and want a slightly more affordable and up-to-date machine. On the other, the 13-inch MacBook Air is a good contender for those who want an even more affordable machine with more battery life, don’t mind the non-retina display, and want more ports (the 13-inch Air has MagSafe 2, two regular USB 3 ports, one regular Thunderbolt 2 port, an SDXC card slot, and a headphone port).

Note also that once you start customising the non-Touch-Bar MacBook Pro, it rapidly gets expensive to a point that you just start considering the Touch Bar-equipped models. The way Schiller put up the comparison between this base MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air sounded like: Yeah, we’re still offering the Air, but why would you buy that lemon? This MacBook Pro is so much cooler. And where I live, my friend, it is also €600 more expensive than the base MacBook Air and €350 more expensive than the MacBook Air with the better storage option. Having a retina display is great and all, but those who choose the Air typically choose it because they’re on a rather tight budget.

7. Speaking of purchases and BTO customisations… These new MacBook Pros are arrestingly expensive, especially outside the USA. The base model, priced at $1,499, becomes €1,699 in my country. The configuration I’m most interested in — 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, but with a faster i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of SSD storage — would end up costing €2,799. This is both expensive and not cost-effective if you consider that the base 15-inch MacBook Pro already comes with an i7 processor and 16 GB of RAM, and costs €2,699. Sure, it has a 256 GB SSD, but I’ll take the bigger display — and a better graphics card — over storage anytime.

But again, look at those prices! Back in 2009, my 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo 15-inch MacBook Pro, with 4 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard drive, cost me about €1,680. Over time I bought a more spacious 500 GB hard drive (+€80), then I upgraded the RAM to 8 GB (+€65), and finally got an OWC Data Doubler with a 240 GB SSD (+€110). The investment has then been a total of about €1,935. A similar MacBook Pro with today’s technology would cost me €2,699. Or €2,939 if I want a 512 GB SSD. Or €3,419 if I want a 1 TB SSD. Much, much more for a machine that is not as internally expandable, and that consequently forces me to decide (and pay) all the upgrades upfront.

As a prospective customer, as you can imagine, these new MacBook Pros pose indeed a few dilemmas for me. I don’t upgrade Macs frequently so, to make my setup as much future-proof as possible, I should choose higher-specced models, which I cannot afford at the moment. At the same time, investing money in a lesser MacBook Pro (or even in the 13-inch MacBook Air) seems like a waste, a bad move. I mentioned the 13-inch Air because — if I stop and consider my essential needs — it’s a machine that could theoretically serve me well. But purchasing one now increasingly feels like throwing money at something that’s going to get old very fast. I have waited and waited to make an upgrade, the least I can do is invest in better Macs. Similarly, I could accept the compromise and get the entry-level (lots of air quotes here) MacBook Pro, but two Thunderbolt 3 ports and nothing else is simply not enough. I could even wait some more and see what happens when Apple decides to update the Mac desktop line. I just hope the Mac mini won’t be discontinued or stupidly crippled like it happened with the 2014 update. All in all, I’m a bit nostalgic for those times when the Mac laptop line was less crowded, had a clearer distinction spec-wise, more expandability after purchase, fewer configurations and clearer pricing tiers.

8. For all the talk about ‘courage’ when it came to dropping the headphone port in the iPhone 7, Apple seems more of a ‘coward’ when it comes to the Mac notebook line. It remains a mess of models, prices, options. Apple might see this as giving customers more choices overall, but I don’t understand why they’re keeping the previous retina MacBook Pros around. And, philosophically, I don’t understand the new MacBook Pro without Touch Bar. These look like decisions of a committee, where some executives say “We have to push forward, the Touch Bar is awesome!”, while others say “Yes, but what if people are not convinced? We should offer a ‘regular’ MacBook Pro too, just to be safe”. I hate to be the Steve would have done things differently kind of guy, but here’s what I think Steve would have done:

  • Drop the MacBook Air line entirely.
  • Drop the prices of the current MacBook, making it become the more affordable option. Or introducing a cheaper, base $999 MacBook, to the same effect.
  • Introduce the new 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros with Touch Bar as the sole two new models. No Touch-Bar-less MacBook Pro.
  • Discontinue the previous retina MacBook Pro models.

Leaving us with a 12-inch MacBook, and 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros. Just three models (each with BTO options, naturally). That’s it. You know, the classic no-nonsense, thinking-forward Steve Jobs.

On a final note, I very much agree with Joe Cieplinski’s piece Taking the Enthusiasm out of Tech. I felt a lot of negativity on Twitter before, during, and after the Special Event. Part of this negativity was unwarranted. I admit I, too, made the occasional snarky or sarcastic comment, but I always approach my livetweeting with a mostly playful spirit. Really, there’s a lot to like in these new MacBook Pros if we just keep our focus on the hardware itself, and I don’t think Apple has abandoned the Mac desktop line just because they didn’t redesign and refresh the entire Mac arsenal and presented an all-encompassing update yesterday. At the same time, and despite the enthusiastic remarks about the Mac made by Apple’s executives, Apple still feels somewhat unfocused and indecisive to me. Things weren’t always perfect when Steve Jobs was at the helm, and there was the occasional blunder for sure, but the feeling I had as a Mac user was to not worry because, no matter how things might have looked at first, there was a ‘man with a plan’ in the building. Now I feel trepidation more than sheer excitement before every Apple event.

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