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.