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

Lately on Waffle

Heard Mentality

Let’s talk about distortion.

It is now fewer than 48 hours left until Apple unveils the iPhone 7. Barring any unforeseen events, it will be the first iPhone without a 3.5 mm headphone jack. It will likely be the first flagship phone of its kind to forgo a headphone jack, and it will set Apple on the path to inexorably eliminate them from at least some of its products.

Rumors of this have swirled around for many months now, long enough for speculation, frank discussion and sober comparisons to take place. The killer point is that very few people who have went into depth on this issue see many ultimate upsides. Lightning, MFi headphones already exist, and are more reliably correlated with high prices than with superb audio quality. (Followers of Beats will not be surprised.)

The argument that Apple is institutionally driven to remove the wire and move to wireless technology has undeniable cultural and psychological merit, especially with both the MacBook Air and the MacBook having been introduced since the first iPhone, with and without the involvement of Steve Jobs.

For me, it isn’t so much about standards and leaving gadgetry behind as it is about this: how will it be better? Right now, wireless headphones come with strong trade-offs – they’re the right piece of equipment for some people, but not for everyone. They need to be paired, you can lose contact with them and drop signals, you don’t easily see at a glance that they’re plugged in and god help you if you pair them to multiple devices, or a single device to multiple headphones. Some of the above are pain points for Bluetooh and could conceivably not be for a new wireless standard, but not all of them can be waved away like this.

Passing through the human body is just about the worst case scenario at least for the 2.4 GHz radio used by Bluetooth headphones and the transmitters they are able to use, and Apple would not ship chunkier smaller earbud-type headphones. The Bragi Dash has attempted to sidestep Bluetooth for bud-to-bud communication in favor of near-field magnetic induction, to what seems like widespread disappointment. And as relatively simple as Apple has made some of its interfaces for connecting to other wireless devices or networks or sending things here and there, they’ve also been plauged by connectivity and reliability issues – like how I can’t AirDrop things from my Mac to my iPhone, but vice versa is fine, and how this behavior suddenly changes sometimes, but not in response to OS updates, router restarts or network interface reenabling.

The user interface for a headphone is as simple as possible, and not simpler. You plug it into where it picks up the sound from. The cable both ferries the sound from the source to the target and is a cue for connection, and if you yank it, it disconnects. It is tactile and understandable, to a point where Apple has even went to pains to finish the story digitally, in making its devices stop playback when the cable is disconnected, one of few flaws.

Meanwhile, getting wireless headphones to pair with a device, making sure they stay connected, in range, not forgetting to change devices if your headphones are mobile, too – which they well might be in the case of the $300—400—or–much–worse monsters that some take to for a bearable sonic experience – involve work. It is a struggle, it is a downgrade in reliability, it is another increment of compounded frustration. For some, who have optimized their workflow to minimize these pains, or for whom the freedom of no wires is significant enough, the tradeoff is worth it. But not, by a long shot, for every single of the 40-or-so-million iPhone 7/iPhone 7 Plus owners we will see within the next year.

These people will instead be treated to a choice between a Lightning version of the craptastic Earpods, or the (guessing) $19/$29 little dongly thing, converting from the 2010s to the 19th century. The sort of little dongly thing that looks stupid on a MacBook and thoroughly ridiculous on a phone, even more so if it is big enough to allow for the Lightning pass-through to allow for charging.

I am dumb enough for many things, but not to believe that this will prevent Apple from going this route. They will set this path subject only to their own discretion, and I praise their freedom to do so. What I can’t quite get over is seeing people who were open earlier to seeing the alternate solution, the unseen parts of this equation, what only Apple knows right now, are taking delight already in consigning anyone not already dancing in the streets over the loss of the shackles of old jacks to the slow luddite moron basket. So much for sticking to the argument, seeing it play out, and possibly even taking Apple to task for killing something that was actually simplicity in its purest form over something that – for the purposes of being a replacement – is simple in wolf’s clothing, bringing side effects, needless manuevering, repetetive loss of connection and general anguish in its wake.

The loss of a “legacy port” and of another fraction of a millimeter of thickness – they’re both disproportionate sacrifices. And I may yet be wrong, but it will likely take some brilliant engineering to bring the tactility back to the user experience of being able to plug in headphones and be crystal clear about what exactly that means, and how easy it is to stop using them.

My only prediction for Wednesday’s event is that there will be no “it just works” over the wireless headphone story for iPhone 7. Oh, and that the new audio source/AirPlay audio icon, the arrow with the circular emanating waves on the second card in Control Center, will come to mean something more, possibly even be given an InterCaps name.

Media Library

We did not know how good we had it.

Yesterday, it was about a trove of LPs. Your collection of grammophone records. Then tapes, of the audio and VHS kind. Then CDs, then possibly DVDs…

The point is, it’s never been possible to say: I own a copy of this movie or of this song. You own a copy of a recording of it. That’s all. In the shape that it’s in. Like in Wii Virtual Console, you could buy, say, Super Mario Bros. And then when Wii U Virtual Console came out, you could bring them along, but also had to upgrade them so they’d follow along to the Wii U’s menu instead of living in the Wii menu, because of course the upgrade took someone’s time and work and effort, and it’s time to charge a little bit for that.

I’m not going to talk about how DRM and such things work against conservation, or note how it’s in the interests of producer companies to be able to re-spruce up things constantly and sell you a new copy. This observation has been made before.

What I don’t think has been worn to such a stub before is about the “balkanization” of your possessions. Maybe you’ve never really been able to pour all your belongings into one big pile on the floor and swim through them with what I assume is a very light touch, Scrooge McDuck-style. But to the extent that you could mix and match how you arranged these things before, you can’t anymore.

Every app is its own jail. Every container is its own new shop of horrors, working in a new way, showing its small subset of available creations.

I don’t hold much nostalgia for physical record stores, or video stores. But here’s what I didn’t have to do when I walked into them: I didn’t have to work out which of the 57 resellers, distributors, networks or partnerships a particular thing was available in, I didn’t have to hope that they were available in my city, I didn’t have to look up any of a number of set of terms that will eventually allow me to get the thing, I didn’t have to hunt for discount codes or settle on trial periods or work out which currency is best to pay in, I mostly didn’t have to find the right store to be able to use the payment method I’m most comfortable with, and I sure as fuck never had to worry about whatever I bought being repossessed because three years later, someone is being huffy in a contract negotiation.

Apple TV and things like it are doing the best they can trying to solve all this. But we used to make standards – a CD was a CD was a CD. Now it’s platforms and apps. Now it’s signing up for HBO or Netflix or going manually to Louis CK’s web site to buy Horace and Pete. Now it’s managing a thousand overlapping terms of services and payment schedules.

I understand that this shit is not easy and that everyone wants to make their mark, make their platform the best. But why the shelf died, I will not understand. Why it can’t be that we all work out a set of standards for what a piece of media is, what a payment method is, what a media provider is, and have them all intermingle in some sort of post-iTunes, post-Spotify, post-Amazon, neo-Delicious Library of the fucking 2010s already, where you go to search and it searches all the things that anyone wants to sell, possibly via aggregators because spambots are still a thing, and it’s a click to find something and a click to buy something, and they don’t scurry off into their own apps and you have to sigh deeply when you go to watch that show that’s on the network with the horrible app, and if you’re unsatisfied with this particular neo-Delicious Library, you can get any of a number of clients like this because it’s all just fucking standards.

Yes, I know. Getting people to agree to this would be like pulling teeth, and would make even the normally sort of reasonable people look like the normally unreasonable people, because you’re saying “what if your business model was suddenly worth a lot less?”. But I’m just saying – what if this did exist? People would get paid in droves. Things would stay where you put them and you’d pick the best organization that worked for you. People who listened to classical music could pick an organizer that knew what being composer-centric was, and gain back three hours daily from fighting inefficiencies and/or telling people about it. And most importantly – there would be a chance at a single, coherent collection, not beholden to the success of any particular hare-brained, topping-out-at-9%-of-the-market-for-a-few-years, venture-funded platform.

At ARM’s Length

A few months ago, Intel gave up on trying to get Atom processors into the smallest of devices, after years of trying to achieve widespread success. Meanwhile, ARM processors have been getting more and more capable without giving up the power efficiency Intel apparently never came close to maintaining.

At this point, with an Apple interested in creating MacBook-style, er, MacBooks, it’s only a question of time until there will one day be a MacBook that can run non-x86/x86-64 applications. Instead of trying to predict when, I’m interested in figuring out “how”?

Bitcode. Although it would be more cumbersome and require introducing this technology to macOS, being able to recompile applications to a new target architecture is already mostly a solved problem and would finally give anyone a good reason to use the Mac App Store – giving you compatible versions without requiring developers to recompile their apps. Naturally, all of Apple’s own stuff would be Universal for x86-64 and 64-bit ARM, and naturally every developer could make their own apps Universal.

A double chip solution. Some parts of this would require some heroic engineering, like being able to have an operating system span, straddle or move across from one CPU to the other, but the potential to run the apps that are available in ARM versions on a separate ARM chip and let the x86 processor nap for a lot longer is irresistible.

Apple already makes a video adapter and a remote with ARM chips, and a beefier ARM chip could subsume some of the ancillary tasks that require separate chips today and possibly pay its weight in both board location and power budget even before we get to running apps.

The OS would likely run handily on ARM, and with the decade long effort to spread out tasks into isolated processes, running them on the most appropriate processor would suddenly be viable.

Rosett-me-not. Survivors of the 2006 Mac PowerPC to Intel transition may remember Rosetta, the dynamic binary translator that made it possible to run PowerPC apps mostly transparently and with some caveats. Survivors of the 1994 Mac 68k to PowerPC transition may remember the 68k emulator layer that was more capable and so efficient that when the Mac OS X strategy was first presented in 1998, a major point was made of how it was all finally going to be PowerPC native – the emulator had worked so well that parts of the OS had simply never been rewritten.

What this tells us is that the relative strengths of the architectures involved plays a role in the viability of providing emulation in the first place. Maybe by the time Apple cuts over, the ARM processor will be sufficiently able to emulate or translate the x86 instruction set at usable speeds for the intended devices, but I’m betting against that. For one thing, I think that ARM isn’t more energy efficient because of pixie dust but because of an instruction set that more easily lends itself to being implemented in an energy efficient way. Asking it to emulate the x86 instruction set has the air of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, no matter how desirable being able to execute x86 instructions may be.

The Apple instruction set. Continuing from the previous points, one of the reasons that ARM has been able to progress is that it has been able to introduce new instruction sets and set a new cadence for compilers and other tools. You can continue to use the instructions you already use, or you can switch to these new ones and not only speed things up but save energy. One of the big ways power is saved in new processors is by shutting parts of the chip down when work isn’t happening. Apple’s “don’t call it PA Semi” department, led by Johny Srouji are becoming experts in making improvements to ARM designs and are surely keeping track of what an even more ideal processor would look like. Who’s to say that what I’ve been referring to as ARM won’t instead be a processor that works much more like ARM than x86, but which has new fundamentals and a new instruction set in addition to the ARM instruction sets (and may not even be backwards compatible with much of ARM at all)? I call it AppleArch and am hoping for a repeat of the reasonably correct forecasting of xlangSwift.

End note: I am pulling all of this completely out of my ass, and many are the subjects where I know only just enough to be dangerous, like following the unveiling of the Mill with equal interest and befuddlement. Treat me like an authority on your own peril. That said, it all seems to make sense to me.

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