waffle

Waffle is a weblog.
The author of Waffle, some guy in Sweden, also occasionally writes stmts.net.

Lately on Waffle

For Want of a Need

If you at all care about any of this, you will already know that MacBook Pros were introduced that swapped out the F-keys and the Escape key for a Touch Bar. You will also have seen the slow unspooling of Apple professional users’ minds over the last few months.

Let’s go back; and to switch things up, let’s go way the hell back, to the Apple II, which was the last product on which Steve Wozniak won a substantial design argument against Steve Jobs. Jobs didn’t want slots, Woz did, and so the Apple II had slots. (Dan Bricklin just mentioned that VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet software, was one reason that Apple was successful; in a world of build-it-yourself-PCs where the expectation was that you’d probably code a lot of stuff, hardware expansion was likely just as vibrant a market as the software market of the day.)

It’s interesting stepping slightly into the future; first to the Apple III, which was a train wreck due to ill-managed constraints, and the original Macintosh, which was epochal but which did not on its own and immediately spark a revolution, and which was largely an industrial design success due to well-managed constraints.

The original Macintosh was not perfect, but slowly acquired some of the chops necessary by incremental hardware adoption. They didn’t necessarily do it in the predicted way, though – in a world where Apple II and most competitors already had color, the Mac operating system would get support for multiple monitors before colors.

It’s easy to cast the original Macintosh versus, say, the IBM PC, as command line versus a graphical pull-down-menu, draggable-window, icons-on-desktop interface metaphor. The Macintosh had something else, a distinction that it’s hard to even fathom right now – a crisp display with high enough resolution and square pixels. What does this let you do in the late 80’s? Desktop publishing. You got Aldus PageMaker and you got WYSIWYG, “What You See [on the screen] Is What You Get [when you print it out]”. If you were willing or attempting to do this on phosphorous green-on-black screens with non-square pixels, you did not get good results. The Macintosh was necessary to birth this idea because it was the only platform, absent the various Xerox platforms that cost ridiculous amounts of money, where it was possible to do it right.

The point of this is not to gloat in Apple success in the 80’s. The point is to highlight that the capabilities of the hardware allowed software to flourish, new professions to sprout and people to become more productive. It built a company, a platform and a user base.

When the first iMac ships without mainstay ports and only USB, it is arriving early to a technical transition. When the first MacBook Air ships without an optical drive, the “one-port” MacBook ships without most of anything, the new MacBook Pro ships with only Thunderbolt 3, they too are arriving as the first harbingers of an I/O landscape that may come to pass.

When Apple, as has come to be their modus operandi, sells the Touch Bar as the second coming of the user interface instead of a rethink that questions some of the most entrenched ideas in keyboard user interface, they do so at their own peril. It is not wrong of them to point out that it could be used for some kinds of chording and particularly live feedback – of course you know that it was prototyped by Bret “artists need to be able to see what they are doing” Victor – that just would not be possible otherwise. It just turns into a freak show when the impression you’re left with from their unveiling, from their luscious product porn videos, from their framing, from their demonstrations that you could live your life inside that Touch Bar.

But being able to feel for keys you use hundreds of times daily, as important as it is for many people, is still minor compared to the other points. One of them is definitely that Apple is now hawking two competing computing platforms where the problem of each is that it’s both too much and not enough like the other.

The plainer point, the point already made a thousand times, the point that does have everybody worried is that Apple is not as intent on giving professionals the tools they need anymore. When people were in uproar, then pumped, then gently let down and now abandoned again about the state of the Mac Pro, the reason is that the “new” Mac Pro is a nifty architecture that happened to throw away a lot of utility in the process. It changed architectures from a sophisticated version of a high-end workstation to a set-in-stone configuration with very high-end but non-upgradable graphics cards. It cost everyone who did not switch to updated or rewritten pro apps (to take advantage of this new architecture) a lot of performance. It felt like a first step taken on the path to something else, but not only has the other shoe not yet dropped, it has not even been updated. Thunderbolt 3 is a gimme. Hell, updated graphics cards and Xeon processors that come from 2014, 2015 or 2016 have seemed like gimmes. So it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the requirement of the “new” Mac Pro just wasn’t to satisfy the people who intended to use it.

The people who need less than desktop workstation – the lower end of the same spectrum and the developers – have been following along, have seen Apple almost not care at all about the Mac in comparison, and have been as hopeful for new things as they have been bracing for the same thing to happen to them. Their fears are now materializing. It’s not about dongles, it’s not about function keys turning into buttons on a Touch Bar, it’s about this: for years, you could honestly say that the MacBook Pro kept up reasonably with, and sometimes defined, the high end of the market. It got a high-resolution display along with an OS that could competently support it, it had built-in, fast solid-state storage, competent discrete graphics, a workable complement of I/O and lots of memory.

In the absence of something that will let people do what they just can’t do on other platforms, it is now required to keep up just to stand still, to provide what alternatives do, lest you get left behind. In most aspects they still do, but they are clearly slipping. In category after category, Apple is making tradeoffs that a large part of its audience simply don’t agree with, and sooner or later, it will result in them leaving.

The capabilities of the hardware Apple puts out now does not advance the state of computing one bit. It merely packages it in a smaller package. I’m all for miniaturization, I’m all for progress, I’m even all for maintaining the current MacBook – what I’m not for is being told to stop solving the problems I still need to solve, because our priorities shifted. If you’re going to be selling “trucks”, they’d better still be trucks.

Any moral claim Apple has ever had for claiming to do “what’s good for you” has evaporated, at least in this scenario, at least to this crowd. While they may still know how to “roll” to a certain degree, they have a Mac platform whose constituent parts, be it surrounding ecosystem of accessories, software quality or predictable hardware roadmap, are coming apart at the seams and a deafening, media-managed silence to explain it.

The ability to provide a platform that makes it possible to do things you did not even know you wanted has been replaced with not even being able to provide a platform that makes it possible to do the things you need to do, and it is entirely due to Apple’s infatuation with the role it has sometimes played; its recent obsession with trying to capture the elusive light in a bottle with every single thing it does, as if the mere belief that “only Apple can do that” made it so.

Headphone Meltdown

Apple has lost it completely:

  1. On macOS Sierra, when you click the play/pause button on attached headphones and Siri is Off, an alert comes up asking you whether you want to enable Siri. Every. Single. Time. No matter what you do. (Reported: Radar 28386625.)

  2. On iOS 10, if the screen is off, the Lightning headphone adapter stops playing back music after five minutes.

  3. On iOS 10, the controls on Lightning headphones stop responding intermittently.

I don’t say they’ve lost it completely because they’re completely debilitating bugs, I say it because anyone who’s affected would find it in the first day of use, and millions of people are affected.

You don’t get to say that everything just works, you don’t get to say that you’ve considered every detail, you don’t get to say that you have a good enough grasp of how your customers are using their products if this is the kind of stuff that slips through. Not the kind that appears in the first beta builds as everything is barely starting to click together – the kind that ships to millions of customers.

I don’t wish for someone to be fired over this, I just wish there were two grumps on every product team who didn’t buy into the full vision and who imagines what it’s like for some of these millions of customers to actually use what they’re putting together. Will the company who prides itself on “saying ‘no’ to a thousand things” please stop thinking up ways to build cars for ten seconds and test the stuff it’s shipping today?

(TL;DR: Bro, do you even test?)

But No Simpler

What has happened in the past few days is just a repetition, a perfect demonstration of Apple’s biggest problem.

And no, their biggest problem is not that they no longer have SCSI ports on MacBooks, or that they are called MacBooks and not PowerBooks. (It is very easy to be painted into this caricature if you happen to disagree with something cast as progress.)

Their biggest problem is this: knowing when to stop. Apple is one of a few non-solely-luxury companies to find success with the idea that doing something “right”, polishing every corner, letting the intent of the sculptor be the final word is more important than everything else.

The culture inside Apple is that what it does is in service of making the world a better place, and that Apple is needed to stress these things that might not otherwise get much of a shake. Although it may be seen as arrogant, when it comes down to it, I believe it’s more right than wrong.

What is missing is the ability to stand up, think clearly, as free from Apple-internal dogma as from the constraints adopted by their competitors, and walk 10 feet away from idealism. To realize that the clarity of one mission is within grasp, but to be pragmatic.

Here’s what’s going to happen shortly. “Headphone-gate” will plow onward, Apple will refuse to do anything other than protect the course it has already charted. Apple will present iPhone sales as one sales number, not providing a break-out number of iPhone 7, and since many people who decide a headphone jack is necessary decided to get an iPhone 6s or SE instead, it will appear that Apple has weathered the storm. Tim Cook will not betray a model breakdown besides possibly capacities during the quarterly results call, and that will be the end of it.

Apple has played this game before. Apple are the experts of coming out of things with the same attitude as it went into it with. The actual casualties will be ignored. The point is that Apple will never do anything that will allow the theories they put forward to be tested. It will never become a public fact that headphone jacks are beloved, and that models selling them are unexpectedly popular, until all models are phased out of the lineup, at which point it could be confused with a mysterious downturn, and attributed to the latest Android models.

Consider this: an iPhone 7 that is 3-4 mm thicker, has just about twice the battery life, no camera hump, possibly a small boost in performance and of course a headphone jack. Let’s call it the iPhone P, for Pragmatic (or L, for “Laggard”). I would buy the iPhone 7 today if it had a headphone jack, but I know many, many people who would give up their current phone in a heartbeat if such a beast as iPhone P existed.

Apple doesn’t offer this. It would solve all of their problems if they could. It would let them include everything they wanted, and could still be heart-achingly beautiful. It would let them keep offering the iPhone 7 and give customers the choice to decide which they value more. It would give whatever iPhone sale downturn they’re in a rapid and sudden reversal. Stock prices would soar, as would customer satisfaction.

Why don’t they offer this? Because it wants to be a company to which it is more important to be right than to serve the actual needs of their customers. It wants to put a dent in the universe in terms of causing upheaval and in terms of implementing an idealistically pure world view, not in terms of being solicitous towards the everyday problems of people. Letting people pick thicker mocks their effort and drive to make things thinner, even if that drive is exactly what would let them offer iPhone P, too.

Another good example of this is the onanistic metrics used to market the MacBook Air then and iMac now, where the thinnest single point of the computer is touted loudly and widely, as well as celebrated with forced perspective in glamorous product shots to give vistas that never actually benefit the customer in any meaningful way. The MacBook Air was thin, but what made it useful was that the overall thickness was very thin, not that the tapered edges were however many millimeters thin. To say nothing of the iMac, where it matters even less.

I am very wary writing this past bit because I do enjoy Apple’s sense of design and don’t want to tell anyone to hold it back, but part of the current malaise is that there’s no sense of appreciating when the improvements to the design stop having a practical effect. Taking a craft to its logical conclusion is worth appreciating, fostering and pursuing for its own sake. But when did it become more important than solving actual problems, like placing ports where they will be easy to reach for and find?

My own streak of buying every single iPhone flagship model has come to an abrupt halt, and I’ll be keeping my 6s until it gives out, and then who knows what will happen. I certainly am not expecting anything to change. I just don’t appreciate the lack of breadth in the current debate, where I’m expected to have to pick a side, and be unable to have reasoned arguments in support of something just because the case can be made that it is dated. If that’s the case, Apple just celebrated its 40th birthday. Where does the line for “legacy” go for computer and consumer electronics companies?

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