Desktop

The conceit

Picking a desktop PC platform right now is a classic case of picking your poison. Apple cares way less about their desktop platform for every passing day, but so apparently does the rest of the world. I use Windows 10 every day, and I wish I didn’t - if Microsoft was still interested in advancing their platform in the way they did between Windows Vista and Windows 7, I might switch to Windows tomorrow and make my life much easier.

It’s frighteningly clear that no one at Apple or Microsoft values the way macOS and Windows respectively has worked enough to not see turning parts of it into a tablet OS – irrespective of the fact that tablets have not gone beyond gimmicks for most desktop users – as progress.

The third place

The Linux crowd is what’s left, and they cook their own punch, so they seem like an obvious refuge. I’ve been giving them short shrift for reasons that make sense to me, but may not be obvious.

The words “user experience” is thrown around a lot these days in place of “UI” and sadly also in place of “usability”. I’ve always been curious and tried using many platforms. I cut my teeth learning to use computers in the System 6 era of the Macintosh, during the period where there was a clear chasm between the Macintosh OS and Windows 3.11. The Mac was a coherently designed platform, with cohesion, with a sense of nuance and personality. It, and Windows 95 after it, had a culture that became synonymous with the OS, that put clear expectations in your head as a user and that you could fulfill as a developer. You don’t need a single company to do this, but you need a place of authority that’s open to criticism and change, that will adapt and survive, that exudes longevity.

Unix is a platform like this, and it has a coherent and cohesive user experience. It has clear rules and ideals that make sense - they’re all about doing one thing and being able to be reused. The problem isn’t Unix. The problem is that if you don’t want to live your life inside a command prompt (no offense to the people who do), it starts to fall apart. Package managers work great. X is a trainwreck, fixing it is impossible and getting people to move to Wayland is still an uphill battle. The Unix idioms and ideas are being applied to graphical UIs, where they don’t make sense, and what results is a cacaphonic mess, not conducive to a pleasant and effortless user experience; things will look different and work different and be largely programmed, structured and maintained by people who do not care about usability. There are people who do care about it, but in this culture they tend to move on to other things.

All this said, the significant time I’ve spent in various forms of GNOME or KDE over two decades has not once instilled confidence in me. (Again, aside from package managers. Although with systemd now being a sprawling, hot mess prone to extreme security flaws but still heading to near universal adoption, maybe I just have no idea what’s going on, and all of this can be ignored.)

The continuation

The previous section was not simply a detour. You may notice that other platforms have their own signature viewed through the platform cohesion prism. Windows 95 and Windows XP were both very cohesive. iOS started out being incredibly cohesive, has gone here and there, and is arriving at a point where I may not agree with all the decisions, but at least the apps in the OS feel reasonably consistent.

The Web is a difficult beast. Web pages, by and large, are easily understood. They have an easier job because they’re not asking for a lot of interaction. They are mostly vehicles for information (text, video) with limited interactivity. Web pages are cohesive, for the same reason reading a magazine is cohesive. There’s no learning curve.

Web apps? It depends on the app itself. The original version of Gmail looked like someone had made a UI toolkit out of Google’s own web site, but it was easy enough to use and solved more problems than it created.

Web apps as a way to implement the range of functionality most often associated with full-on desktop applications? Only very rarely done well, and I can’t think of a good example off the top of my head.

Web apps are part of the problem, but they’re not even the only part of the problem. The other part is the copy-that-floppy road of lazily emergent (read: lack of) user experience design. People wanted to make early mobile apps that put many choices at a user’s fingertips, so they invented the hamburger button, opening a sidebar menu, as a reduced example of a menu bar. Other people wanted to not change user paradigms, so they put the same interface on a tablet app. Yet other people wanted to make desktop apps look modern, so they made them look like tablet apps. And so what we now have are web implementations of 3.5”-ish touch screen assumptions for a desktop platform. If your goal is to make an application that users of desktop applications will find familiar, you couldn’t start from a worse place if you tried.

It’s not that desktop apps should look the same if you leave the planet and come back ten years later. It’s that they should at least not completely give up everything that was put in place to make them understandable and efficient; and that if they do replace those things, that they are replaced with things designed with desktop applications in mind. Shrugging your shoulders and saying “but everyone has a phone and everyone uses the web” is like arguing the door on a microwave should look like an actual house door or the lid of a toilet.

The future

So what’s the answer?

Wipe the slate clean. I don’t mean of influences - I mean to take everything that has worked at some point or another, everything that wasn’t just ported over from somewhere else in the name of expediency, and build something new from those parts. Flat design for things that are interactive is a usability disaster because not being able to tell when things are different will slow you down. (If nothing is interactive, you don’t have a problem that a magazine art director from 1965 couldn’t solve; go about your day.)

We’re at a saddle point in history right now, where the road back makes you look old, and the road forward is daunting because who even talks about desktop PC environments anymore, right? But that line of thinking has gotten us 10-15 years of a desktop rat king, made from tablets, phones, web pages and a little backported, misappropriated good old magazine layouting. It’s time for someone to sit in a hammock for a year and work this out.

Predictions for the Microsoft Build 2018 Keynote

  • Absolutely nothing that in any way challenges the grab-first-ask-questions-later approach to privacy in Windows 10, or the constant disrespect of user opinions and decisions by pushing Edge, Cortana and Microsoft Store, bundling gobs of uninstallable apps and a smaller amount of installable but unwanted apps (Candy Crush on a server, anyone?) and then redoing it all again on every semi-annual Update.
  • Continued dead reckoning in the Windows 8 course to a) imagine we all love touch, b) pretend dipping all of Windows in Metro, sorry, Modern Design, sorry, Fluent was not a mistake and c) continuing letting the ~100% of Windows 10 users who do not use it on tablets, phones or mixed reality devices put up with this bullshit because Microsoft would rather light its own intestines on fire with a firecracker than listen to its users and speak to their concerns.
  • Fucks given about introducing a persistent timeline of user activities, syncing to their cloud and activated without explicit user consent within three weeks of GDPR taking legal effect in Europe: roughly zero.
  • Assurances that all the above is okay because some (reasonable) things are now open source and hey, you can now pay them money to run Linux stuff in Azure, how ‘bout that.

Human

I am coming to terms with what I’m really missing most in apps, web sites, software, interface design, etc is the allowance for me to be human.

Being human sometimes means being gruff and conservative, sometimes wide-eyed and progressive, sometimes strict, sometimes random, sometimes irreverent. What it really boils down to is that you are many different things, often contradictory, all at the same time.

Take John

For example: When my sometimes acquaintance John Gruber writes the latest instalment in his personal bet that the 3.5 millimeter headphone jack is not long for this world and insisting that sentimentalism must not inpinge on the need for progress, he is doing so on a Movable Type installation that has been tweaked over years, on top of a background color that’s been set so long it had a Flickr group before it had a Twitter hashtag.

There’s good reason for John to do this. He writes for a living. He invented (together with the late Aaron Swartz) his own formatting language Markdown, to minimize the distance between the raw text and the desired formatting, and before that the quote curler SmartyPants, to keep typography alive on a platform that seems to have forgotten them. His site has looked more or less the exact same for at least 10 years now, and his writing process seems to be identical too. (My guess is that he’s still using BBEdit, a piece of software that debuted in 1992 for System 6.)

He has molded his tools to fit him like a glove, the way you do with something you care about. You pick through alternatives, you try new things, you settle on what works well for you.

50 Shades of Grey

Recently I attempted to survive a week with my phone set to the greyscale color filter, under the premise that it might seem less appealing and cool down the desire to activate it during every idle moment and bounce around between the apps. I am more hooked than I think, but it also drove home just how dysfunctional flat design (or “iOS 7 Thought”) can be.

The primary differentiator in iOS for an active button is color. Wash out colors and you’re hanging on by trying to discern the level of saturation, which varies not only from app to app, but from screen to screen. The colors are all different, since the color is intended to be a primary method of personalizing and branding apps. For me, this hell is self-imposed - for the color blind or visually impaired, this is constant. There are color filters for improving life for people living with color blindness, and there are accessibility options to turn on “button shapes”, just as to minimize motion and translucency, make text bold and set the font size.

I was going to write this post partially about Agenda, a promising app that seems to take an approach to continuous note taking that I’ve long requested. But when I downloaded it and opened it and looked around, even though it had got the mental model closer to what I’d like, it was too flat, too barren. And while iOS has a single dial for font size, Agenda has none, and no way to zoom in or increase the font size. I tried typing but it did not feel right to me. When I type posts or articles, I want my text a bit bigger; when I type other things, I want it smaller, when I read, I go back and forth.

I’m instead writing this post in Visual Studio Code, of all things, because it is a competent Markdown experience also keeping related files in reach. It’s not particularly important for this post, but it’s worth noting that it also has a flat design motif without once leaving it up for question what’s clickable. If it’s there, it’s either text in the editor or clickable - it is most likely selectable and the state of the tabs is never confusing. There are issues with the app as a whole, but they got this more right than iOS.

Physical

The phone or tablet iOS runs on is a physical object. It was considered in endless variants. The volume buttons, the lock button, the home button (something else possibly not long for this world) has to work for everyone. The user interface, the software, the soul of the device, does not have to. It is adaptive. All of iOS can change with a software update. We can go from having buttons that are clearly demarcated as buttons to buttons that we just know are buttons because of contextual cues and because the text is blue.

It’s not worth imagining this is a fundamental insight or new information, but iOS’s flat soul was inspired by advertisement materials, by page layouted brochures. The hurdle in this is that a brochure has very few, if any, interactive parts, while software is almost all interactive parts. Wanting for the elimination of computer administrative debris is worthwhile and even enviable. Wanting it to the elimination of usability, of utility, of cognitive agility is less enviable.

Needing bolder text and bigger fonts and inverted colors is fine. Needing fundamental tweaks to the aesthetics to make the user interface tractable at all means that you have failed at your job as a user interface designer. Apple’s WWDC theme is intriguing because it suggests a return in some form to user interface elements as semi-physical objects with weight, with depth, with importance and character. Laying the red herring of loupe-inspected linen textures aside, hints to inform the character of each element make the interface a thousand times smoother.

Flat Jack

I am not going to (successfully) unite the frayed ends into a red thread. But there is something fundamentally similar in a working headphone jack being thrown out, in a flat design esthetic with little to no backing in user interface lore being forced on an entire platform and in the feeling both programmers, pro users and everyday people get when something they use has been all of a sudden “updated”. So often, the new does not maintain the core of what was useful and expedient. So often, the desire to simply progress shortchanges the priorities of the people of flesh and blood who are relying on this tool every day.

By all means, introduce new things, and by all means get rid of stuff when it’s old and busted. But new iPhones don’t make it impossible to use new wired headphones - they make it impossible to use good, common, reasonably priced wired headphones without an adapter. Bluetooth headphones may be great, but they’re not for everyone, and we are left high and dry.

And iOS’s flat aesthetic gives it an airy and maybe subjectively less dated feel, but one which still has reasonably basic usability issues even four versions in. In particular, its options may be confused for personalization at a distance, but amount to escape hatches unworthy of the world’s second most used mobile operating system. It should all be much clearer than this, and this kind of upheaval says, first and foremost, that respecting the tool’s ability to fit you like a glove is not as high a priority as, say, Apple’s desire to dip everything in new paint, some of which is vibrantly acrylic, and or ham-handedly attempt to copy the dynamic Material Design headers.

Stuck

Brent Simmons:

We could be excused for thinking that Micro.blog is like App.net — a Twitter alternative greeted with enthusiasm but that eventually closed.

It’s not the same thing, though, and I’ll explain why.

[reasonable explanation worth reading on its own merits elided]

You might think this is too difficult for normal people, that it’s all too nerdy, and that it won’t make headway against Twitter, so who cares.

My reply: it’s okay if this is a work in progress and isn’t ready for everybody yet. It’s okay if it takes time. We don’t know how it will all work in the end.

We’re discovering the future as we build it.

I don’t fundamentally have a problem with this line of reasoning. But I do have a problem with where we end up.

Everything Old is New Again

You don’t need to tell me that Twitter was created as a sidecar to other projects, and was intended as a way to “check in” so that the rest of the original bunch of people knew what you were up to. The problem with Twitter isn’t that. The problem with Twitter isn’t the role that it’s played in the past few years, it’s not in a set character limit.

The problem with Twitter is that it encourages conversations with people you don’t know in a medium that is almost uniquely poorly designed to follow a conversation. It is the software equivalent to setting up a conversationalist convention, and holding it in a dark, smelly, crowded room with loud music playing and having a blood alcohol level requirement before you can enter.

And furthermore, the problem with Twitter being created, the reason it was created, is that time and time again the simple solutions get reinvented.

Unwind the tape to the start of the century. “Everyone” had a weblog. (Since I still use that term, I was obviously present.) “Everyone” hosted it themselves and could duct tape Movable Type or debate the merits of Textile. In retrospect, it is easy to understand that this wasn’t some Sheikah-like ancient civilization where every interesting person on the face of the Earth knew these things - it’s just that it was chiefly open to them.

The Medium is The Message

What’s happened since then? If you’re tempted to say Facebook and Twitter, I don’t disagree with that. Tumblr also happened. Tumblr was first and more brazen about taking the very simplest expressions and pulling them into individual posts, and then gradually turning it into a “social network” with reposts.

The problem isn’t that Tumblr handles the “Mac-and-cheese” of publishing. The problem is that it is so successful at doing so that it moves the spectrum. If people have Tumblr, they are more likely to feed it with found items and paraphernalia, and less likely to write engaging things. If people have Twitter, they are more likely to feed it with one-liners and retweets and the briefest of observations. And if people have a crafted Movable Type installation, they are more likely to publish posts.

Giving a damn

Facebook and Twitter and dozens of other platforms hooked us on the idea that the web does not have to be funny shaped and unruly and different. Twitter’s Bootstrap is helping out with the normalization process, but we’re all drawn to use the simplest thing we can figure out to share our own thoughts and the most voluble thing we can figure out to ingest those of others.

RSS and its related technologies is in some way at the core of all this. RSS had to be refined to podcasting and brought into a semi-benevolently maintained directory (Apple’s) to reach the success and adoption that it has. It’s not that no one listened - it’s that for everyone to listen, it has to come down to pointing and clicking.

There’s been precious few technologies like this for personal publishing. Those that have not had an agenda have been providing their value in a shrinking ecosystem. Even if ten useful, new and fully developed solutions popped up tomorrow, they would be subject to the same realities. And this is one half of the problem of the Do It With Open Technologies path.

The other half is that they are trying to pull together some aspect that the closed platforms handle. Most problems that the closed platforms handle are legitimate research efforts. Navigating the friend graph on Facebook, indexing tweets for hashtags, even deciding on a tweet’s ID are Hard Problems. And we’re trying to do it in a distributed way. Ask anyone doing distributed systems if this way is easier. We’re not literally trying to reconstruct and solve every problem, of course. But the result is that whatever we build, whatever our solution looks like, when viewed from a distance, is not going to be as coherent as the closed platforms.

If you’re yelling at your screen that this is the point, and that we’re not trying to remake Facebook, you’re correct. But someone moved the goal posts on us.

The App

I am not going to touch on actual apps. But being relegated to a 3.5” prison meant that clarity had to come to the fore. Things had to be easy. Getting around had to be obvious. (And it was, before someone starting making hamburgers.) We were all taught to think in terms of the unit, and to deliver the unit, to concentrate on the morsel, which possibly could be expanded into the short scroll view.

The app for Twitter is obvious. The app for Facebook is obvious. The apps for Tumblr, Reddit, Medium and Instagram are all obvious. We could all close our eyes and imagine how they would work. The app for weblog-shaped objects is stuck at being the RSS reader. There’s nothing wrong with the RSS reader, but the focus is entirely on the technology. Maybe you could argue that it has to be to some extent because in a decentralized system you have to be able to discover things and add in other things.

Consider the web browser - if people still relied on typing in web addresses, we would all browse much, much less every day. But we don’t. We have our favorite search engine and we have links. They all depend on, but abstract, the technology below. The RSS reader is best described, when masking away particular technologies, as a “feed” reader. People understand what a web is. Most people don’t like that they have to tend to, curate, maintain a list of feeds. Maybe they wisely consider that the friction of adding a feed, not only in finding the subscribe button but in thenceforth reading more stuff, leads them to listen to fewer or more palatable opinions.

The apps that exist and are somewhat successful are the platform apps of individual actors, like Tumblr, Medium, Reddit and news aggregation apps like Apple News. (These all tend to be local, so it’s hard to exemplify them.) They all have the podcasting problem too. But being decentralized, like the web, means that everyone has to run a little piece of infrastructure wherever they host what they write. And it means that there will have to be a few open vendors to collect or refine the result of this infrastructure (Technorati then, Disqus now).

Seven red lines, all perpendicular to each other

This is where I’m stuck as I think about this. I am less inclined than ever to imagine that people will start demanding sharper crayons from their hosting providers - or to consider whichever way they publish their thinking a “hosting provider”. I am less inclined than ever to imagine that individual vendors will pop up to solve the hard problems or to provide the bird’s eye view that would bring more clarity to the process.

Medium is interesting to prove that people haven’t stopped wanting to think and to publish. They’ll do so given the tools available to them. But Medium itself is still just another closed platform that would rather you read more from its network. It’s not in Medium’s best interest to point readers to things hosted outside of Medium, and it’s not even obvious to me how Medium will survive for the next few years.

Decentralization tends to lead to parts that survive on their lonesome no matter what. It would be great if this resiliency, this freedom could form an open platform. But like asking for seven red lines, all of them strictly perpendicular, some with green ink and some with transparent, there are boulders in our path that I don’t know how to work around, that make me think that what I remember wasn’t so much a golden age to which we can return but a fortuitous pocket in history, a reality that was inevitable to lose and that we would have to work very hard to bring back.

Look for something else, something big, something that changes the equation, something that makes it easier to write and less frustrating to follow and discover. For lack of anything new, we may as well all be wearing red hats.

Up Top

This is an attempt to conceptualize the previously hypothesized pins in a more approachable and concrete way. That post was almost like a manifest, this will hopefully be more down to earth and reasoning and sell you on the benefits.

As always, there’s a risk by taking a bunch of ideas and putting them together in a concrete way that someone might say “I don’t like that, therefore the whole thing is crap”, and that’s fine. But there’s also a chance it can get people thinking “why don’t we have anything like this now?” or “why is it that no one is thinking in these terms?” and that’s what I want, more than Apple or Google or Samsung or HTC or Huawei taking this thing and literally implementing it.

So let’s start describing Up Top as if it existed and was already implemented. (This is not a rumored feature. This is just me dreaming.)

What is Up Top?

Up Top is a new part of using your phone. Up Top is where your ongoing things end up. Just like Siri is a person you can ask, Up Top is a place you can look.

It’s called Up Top because it’s above the status bar. Pull down on the status bar (or the left ear of the iPhone X) and you pull down Up Top. Pull even further to pull down the lock screen and see your notifications.

What’s in Up Top?

Anything you put there. We’ll call the things you put in Up Top items for now. There should be a snappier name for them, I just haven’t been able to think of one yet.

In a transit app, you can put the countdown to a bus or train there. In your calendar, you can put an event there, for quick access. Turn-based games like Words with Friends or Chess can put an ongoing match there.

Each of these items are the size of two app icons - you can fit two of them side by side, and if there’s a lot of information you’d like to see, you can let an item be twice as wide and fill the screen.

Sounds like notifications to me.

Notifications are a bit messy - they show up out of nowhere, go away, all show up in the same list from which they have to be cleared out. Items in Up Top are more focused. They are each associated with a thing, so they are persistent, and they’re like a little part of the app you add them from. Each item is like a widget dedicated to the thing you added.

So if you added a bus or train ride, you see the countdown in minutes, and you see how far away you are, and you can tap the item to hop straight into the app and go directly to the ride to see the rest of the info. And once you’re done with it, you can toss it.

So this is just for things that are about to happen?

No - you can also add places and people to Up Top and associate/tag other items or other things with them. You can add a store across town, and tag it with a review or shopping list. You can add a friend, and tag them with something you want to show them the next time you see them, like a link or a photo album.

That must get very crowded.

Yes and no. You can put a lot of items there, but it won’t be as crowded as you might think.

By default, what you see is the current items (like the bus countdown) and the items that are relevant to you right now.

If you have a conversation with your friend open in an app and pull down Up Top and you added them to it, their items will show up there. Same with places - if you’re physically close to a place and pull down Up Top, the items you linked with the place will show up. The friend and the place will be like folders of items - you tap them to show everything.

And of course, you can choose to see everything you put Up Top, and search for what you found.

So I have to pull down Up Top to look at things?

Yes and no.

For one thing, Up Top shows up on the lock screen too, for the same reason your recent notifications do. They’re relevant to you right now. But Up Top items also integrate with notifications.

Now, if you have a countdown or a stock quote there, it would be very distracting if they sent notifications every time it changed, every time there’s a new minute, every time there’s a new stock market tick, so that’s not what happens. But for example, the bus countdown could send you a notification when it’s about time to leave. A game match could send you a notification when it’s your turn. And you could have a stop or limit or alert for the stock quote, so that it would tell you when the market price has reached a certain point.

And when you get a notification from an item, both the item itself and the notification message will slide down and give you much more information and context than if just the notification message had appeared - which means that the notification message itself can be shorter. You can pull down Up Top and take a look at your items as they are, and when something notable happens, like your ride is here or your order has shipped, the item slides down along with the notification.

Okay, so this sounds fine, but what about the more fleeting items? I’ll have to go into apps to readd these things all the time.

You could. But when the app lets you add an item to Up Top, it can also recommend a pattern or attach to the people and places you already have there.

For example: If you have your home as a place in Up Top, you could have a template of sorts for keeping track of the next ride with the bus you take to work. It wouldn’t send you any notifications or be visually conspicuous, but if you have to head off to the bus, you slide down Up Top, tap Home and tap the template item for your bus. It turns into the real item, you see the countdown, you start getting any related notifications, and so on - all without you having to set it up again from scratch.

So what’s the difference between this and a widget then?

A widget is one thing to summarize the state of an entire app. It’s an overview (like the next few upcoming calendar events), or it’s a mirror of the most important function in an app (like a mini calculator or the result of the number in a clipboard for a directory app). Widgets are still useful for what they are. Up Top items are like what would happen if the particular thing you were interested in in one app got to have its own widget.

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Chunky

There’s nothing wrong with Apple today that can’t be solved with a bit of Howard Moskowitz.

Basis

If you are one of the five now living people who have not yet seen one of the first TED talks to break when they started being published, allow me to summarize the Malcolm Gladwell talk on spaghetti sauce:

Howard Moskowitz is a psychophysicist - an expert in what satisfies us. One of his clients is Pepsi, who is developing Diet Pepsi and demands of him to find the right level of sweetness in a small span of allowed sweetness. He does the obvious thing of making small batches of Pepsi at each interval of sweetness, but there’s no dominant, obvious perfect match. This bedevils him long past the end of the contract until he figures out that there’s not necessarily one perfect, platonic Diet Pepsi.

He sets out to broadcast this notion, at significant loss for his career. Eventually he is hired by Prego spaghetti sauce, where he tries out his theories by varying many constituent parts, and uncovering the need (and untapped market demand) for chunky spaghetti sauce, which is launched to great commercial success. With products that cater better to many different stances, customers will be happier, because they get something closer to what they desire.

Essential

The arrow of Apple, over time, is to strip down products to bare essentials. Fewer parts. Design that does not hit you over the head with how someone sweated over something. (You may think that Apple products look ostentatious, but go pick up a “gaming” oriented product and count the number of discrete surfaces, or angles, or glowing LEDs, or trackpads placed above the keyboard, and consider how much worse anodizing the whole thing rose gold really would have been.)

This is fine and good, but it also means that they want to remove as much as they can possibly remove. Make thinner as much as they possibly can make thinner. Recently, we’re seeing this desire fight actual purposefulness.

Apple has to keep around last generation’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air for the increasing number of people who do not want to live the dongle life, or worry that keys will be put out of commission by pieces of dust. And Apple had to publicly admit defeat in having bet on the wrong, minimalistic, two-GPUs-bolted-to-the-side-of-a-cooling-core horse and remake the Mac Pro from scratch.

What I’m proposing is that it doesn’t have to be a tug of war. There is a way to solve this. It’s called introducing another product.

Pro Proposal Prose

Slide the current Touch Bar MacBook Pro down and call it MacBook Pro Mini. (This or Pro Air. It’s not a perfect name, but they currently sell both the iMac Pro and the Mac Pro and they’re both pricey Pro desktops that differ by four years and one letter, so get off my back.) Leave it as is - allow it to get even thinner, even.

Introduce a new MacBook Pro, that is as “thick” as the previous MacBook Pro. Put MagSafe 2 on it, put Thunderbolt 3 on it, put USB-A 3.1 on it, put an SD card slot on it, put a headphone jack on it. Put its existing keyboard on it, function keys and all. Upgrade it to some variation of the butterfly mechanism if the improvements involve figuring out a way for it not to be disabled by individual specks of dust.

What about the Touch Bar? Make it a customizable option and put it above the keyboard (between it and the hinge) where it rests outside of the keyboard area.

Stuff it full of batteries. Stuff it full of discrete graphics capable of running two 5K displays. Stuff it full of 2 TB worth of SSD, 32 GB full of RAM.

Slice off some of it for the 13” version, to make it all fit. For extra credit, make a 17” version again and go nuts.

Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

There’s nothing controversial about this. (Maybe the Touch Bar.) I know the traumas and the war stories, but this is not a return to Steve Jobs coming to Apple and finding 15 lines of Macs whose strengths he couldn’t figure out. This is the same number of Mac laptops Apple already sells today, and with significantly improved messaging. This is a single spectrum: thinner means less capable but also less power hungry, and, well, thinner. Thicker means more capable. And even the thickest model isn’t thicker than what Apple is comfortable selling today.

If you are comfortable living the dongle life and not having function keys, pick the Pro Mini. If you need the power, pick the Pro. If your needs are the computational equivalent of subsisting on water and plankton and plug nothing in ever, pick the MacBook. No labyrinthine flowcharts required. No need to axe products that already exist. Just to offer more beside them, so that those of us who care can still do our job.

Apple isn’t uncomfortable making tradeoffs, it’s uncomfortable admitting to them. Don’t keep around last year’s model - simply make more models with clear and meaningful distinctions that appeal to more people, and put the desire for optimization to good use in making fewer debilitating compomises for each of them. Don’t pretend that you can only make one.

Switch

There is no perfect time to review a console. When it’s just on its way out to the store shelves, you’re judging based on what few games have slithered its way to the launch lineup, and the future is occluded by fog of war. When everything has shaken out for a year or two, it used to be safe, but nowadays fractional generation bumps like Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro have started to take over. So I think as these things go, right now is not a bad time to take a look at the Nintendo Switch.

Backdrop

I have always been a Nintendo fan. It used to be a whole lot less contentious. The NES and Super NES ruled the roost during my childhood, and they were the best of their kind. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Sega Mega Drive (known to philistines as the “Genesis”), but the Super NES with its game library may have been the most superior console of its corresponding generation ever.

Ever since Nintendo 64 started dropping this ball, we have been waiting patiently for Nintendo to pick it up and resume the position as a leader, scoffing at then-newcomers Sony and Microsoft, which ended out edging out first Sega and then largely Nintendo itself from the market.

Since then, in trying to find its place, Nintendo may not have compromised too much on its values and its priorities, but it did fall into the trap of playing to its niche. Nintendo’s role used to be to provide the best platform for all games; now it is to be Nintendo, because no one else is. As a fan of theirs, I am glad that they are, but I still always long for something better.

All for naughts

Starting with the original Xbox, the landscape turned into Xbox vs PlayStation in various iterations. 3D games meant more visually stunning games, more capacity for storytelling and atmosphere, and the games that followed tended to be more “grown-up”. Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid, Battlefield and so on. I don’t know that Nintendo wanted nothing to do with it, but ever following Gunpei Yokoi’s watchword Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology, once instrumental in birthing Game & Watch and Game Boy, the consoles’ relative lack of strength meant that games designed to impress on other platforms always looked worse and could not flex as far and as much on the Nintendo alternative.

True to their form, Nintendo’s only hit platform since (aside from handhelds where they have always been the only game in town) was the Wii, which had a gimmick that put it in the hands of casual gamers everywhere. It had a barely stronger GPU than the GameCube. And the Wii U, designed especially to up the brawn, ended up being so much of a disappointment that people started speculating that it would be the last Nintendo console.

Leading us at last to the Switch.

Ominous

You could not swing a Wii Remote around you by this time last year without finding someone who would tell you that the Switch was the wrong move, both too late and too early, and definitely doomed to failure. Not everyone said it, but it was a completely reasonable conclusion to draw.

A Nintendo console would be based on the brains of Nvidia Tegra platform, known chiefly for its appearance in the Nvidia Shield mobile console which is remembered mostly for going absolutely nowhere. It would attempt to cater to everyone by going both mobile and stationary. It would have small, under-sized controls and motion controls, but with no sensor bar. It would have a screen and could attach to the TV, but you couldn’t use both as for the Wii U. And it would still run hot enough to necessitate a vent.

And Nintendo expected people to develop for this? Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be available, sure, but it would also be on the Wii U as originally promised. Fast forward through to the January announcement and the only other launch system seller was a game, 1-2 Switch where you sometimes weren’t even supposed to look at the screen. On the same event, a warmed over update of Mario Kart 8 is given top billing, and Nintendo managed to produce an EA representative proud to announce that FIFA (only) would be coming to the system. I don’t think I’m the only one to have a FIFA 64#Other_titles) flashback. And when Reggie assures that games won’t be a problem, the Wii U (lack of) software catalogue looms over his words.

Focus

With the Switch in hand, a few things immediately come to the fore. For the first time in recent memory, the interface of a Nintendo platform is actually snappy. It is responsive, pared-down, focused. From the moment you turn it on, you understand that it is there for one thing: games. Things load quickly, the shop can be opened from everywhere without closing the game and the interface is refreshingly non-“bubbly”. The style is more “modern iOS with a different font” than it is a refinement of the Wii U model. If not for the Miis and the Nintendo characters, it would be easy to miss that this is a Nintendo console going purely by the menus.

With everything down to games and no hopes for vague services like the ill-fated TVii to pad the offer, there’s really not much to say about the actual console. There’s rather more to say about the games. Having reached the tail end of what was forecast at January’s announcement, I can say this: this is the best year in a long while for Nintendo. Nintendo managed to do this with in part cheap ports, sure, but without full-on Virtual Console support and without even a fully developed online package.

Instead, when I wake up my Switch, I see games that aren’t simply fluff. There’s the inimitable Breath of the Wild, a genre defining game that’s the best Zelda ever. There’s the aforementioned FIFA, which may not have all features, but which is a fully competent, recognizable FIFA version, way unlike the FIFA 64 debacle, and many times better than a mobile port. There’s the radical Sonic Mania, an entry in the alternate Sonic history where they didn’t completely lose themselves in the character development and 3D wave and stop making actual Sonic games, worthy of an article in itself due to its storied background. There’s the fresh Super Mario Odyssey, a return to form for the 3D Mario platformer which makes me feel in depth and scope like I did playing Super Mario Bros. 3 for the first time. And there’s games that may not be groundbreaking, but are simply now available to me on a Nintendo console, like Worms W.M.D, which never would have come to the Wii U. (More normal people may be interested in noticing Skyrim in this roster too.)

Looking back on the first year, I get a good feeling seeing what the year has brought. It still bugs me that for every port, Nintendo wants there to be a Nintendo-ish stamp on it, like Zelda clothes in Skyrim and a whole Mario entry in the Rabbids series. But compared to the GameCube, Wii and Wii U, the Nintendo-ness has been dialed down and focused. What’s left is a competent console that has enough power to play decent and recent games, with a good conventional controller. The gimmicks turn into extras that enhance the experience, but don’t sell out the prospect of porting to it for those game makers unwilling to use them.

Breath of the Wild is a ridiculously beautiful game that’s just as ridiculously universally acclaimed. It put a lot of consoles in a lot of hands or docks, and you didn’t have to do some sort of Nintendo-specific handstand to take advantage of the feature du jour. It was just a good game that you could play on the go if you liked. Despite also being available for the Wii U, Nintendo managed to sell more copies of it than they did of the actual Switch console for the first quarter, and it set the tone for the entire console in the public mind. Good-looking enough games that were great to play. All the rest of the Nintendo-ness is there for those of us who know where to look, but for the first time since the Super NES, it doesn’t stand as an obstacle for everyone else. A solid, focused console with performance that is good enough is what lets you establish yourself as a viable alternative to owning an Xbox One S or a PlayStation 4 when half your launch lineup is literally NEO•GEO ports.

Year two

Looking into 2018, Nintendo’s own pipeline is looking a bit less bountiful. (I’ll probably get the upcoming Yoshi game, but I’m not into Metroid.) 2017 was a fantastic year whose shadow will fall heavy on the future; any year with significant Zelda and Mario outings will be hard to match, nevermind top. Nintendo’s next challenge is to make sure we don’t all fall into a collective depression over this. But the flow of third-party games is both steady and increasing, for the first time in recent memory. If you want to play the latest Battlefield, it’s still not the system for you, but it may be a viable alternative even for someone who isn’t remotely interested in Nintendo games, and that is a first.

Ten

iPhone X is the beginning of the second iPhone decade.

Flicking

It’s easy to divide iPhone’s eras up by technical criteria. Screen size, pixel density, camera megapixel count, cellular radio technology. The fault line between iOS 6 and 7 is also very enticing, as is counting home screen icon rows. But the reason most people who use iPhones use iPhones is that we like the way it feels to use. In this, the iPhone X brings something new.

You can often sniff out details of upcoming iPhones by noticing small changes in iOS. iOS 10 put time and energy into refining the audio source selection - because that’s much more important when you rely on wireless methods, as in the iPhone 7 and forward. And most changes in iOS 11 seem to make much more sense in iPhone X.

To a much larger degree than before, you can “flick” out out things like viewing photos. You tap to view it, then grab it and throw it a little bit, and it zooms back to its place on the previous screen. It’s hard to come up with a physical analogue to it, but it just feels right. Apps moving to and from their “cards” and being flung back to their icons both naturally limits unexpected motion and is motion you’re personally in control of, and the potential for motion sickness goes down by putting you in the figurative (but metaphorically appropriate) driver’s seat.

When the physical home button was made into a fake button in iPhone 7 I was skeptical. The force touch trackpad on newer MacBooks works because the Taptic Engine (linear actuator) is directly below the trackpad and smaller than it, and because of the phenomenon where that feedback to your finger feels like the button is being depressed. But the Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7 is not underneath the home button. It feels like the entire phone, more or less, is giving nondescript feedback - much like the clumsy attempt at haptic feedback for some early software keyboards on BlackBerry phones. It’s not an unpleasant experience, but it’s also not a button press. You can’t fake a button press like that.

The home button strip owns this problem - it doesn’t try to. When Bret Victor describes the limits of touch screens, he is correct in observing that all you can basically do is tap and swipe. As it turns out, swiping is great for app management. Swiping left/right to speedily switch apps, or pull up to get the carousel is easy. The combination of the OLED display’s color, contrast and fast updates with a CPU that they will really have to work to feel bogged down in three years’ time with the iOS 14 update means that everything is really fast, really fluid, really responsive and never drops any frames. This can only get even better when iPhones get “ProMotion displays” with variable and higher frame rates, but everyone responsible for this part of the experience can confidently ask for a bonus this year.

(A side note on the aforementioned Bret Victor: he’s also one of the guys behind the much-maligned Touch Bar. The reason the Touch Bar is a bad idea is that it ruins the expectations while it doesn’t play to the strength of the replacement. Sure, you get a dynamic repertoire of commands, but most people are used to be able to use muscle memory to achieve the same dynamism, and the lack of key-like haptic feedback all but destroys it. And since it’s so small, although swiping can be used to provide finely-grained input, halfway down the palmrest is a trackpad, which also now is pressure-sensitive. As long as the Touch Bar has to live in that environment, the people who it doesn’t completely charm, it can’t help but disappoint.)

The iPhone X feels like a new kind of iPhone in a way that iOS 11 on an iPhone 8 doesn’t. I’m not sold on iOS 11’s visuals or typography as a whole, but it is a cohesive package, where motion, interaction and “cards” cross the entire operating system and repeat across apps. iOS 7’s introduction of physics is reaching full bloom and things react predictably and consistently. Face ID so far works so well as to assume transparency, which is what you would wish the camera/sensor notch would also assume, but which is not a noticeable problem in use in portrait. If the role of iPhone X was to set up the second decade of the iPhone as a new generation: mission accomplished.

Listening

It’s also easy to come off or be painted as a curmudgeon if you say anything about a certain 3.5 mm headphone jack.

There is great utility in being able to listen to something just by plugging in a cable. There is great freedom in being able to listen to something without worrying about battery life. There is great convenience in being able to push a button and hang up or go to the next song or adjust volume.

When Apple pulled away the jack from under our feet and said “it’s okay, we’ve got the AirPods”, they may well have introduced the smoothest functioning pair of wireless headphones ever, but they do nothing to solve those problems. A true advancement makes the previous limits irrelevant, and what Apple did is pull the Apple Maps gambit, saying “we’re close enough, this is gonna fly”, out-and-out dropping whole swaths of functionality while painting it as an improvement.

I hate the fundamental interaction model of wireless headphones, but I would maybe tolerate it if the battery lasted for a week. It doesn’t. Not even for the ones that actually do have remote control buttons. There are now wireless interfaces, little things where you’d plug in your wired headphones and vend them as wireless headphones, and I’d get one if they made one that didn’t simply match the pathetic battery life on most wireless headphones.

The sad thing about Apple being Apple is that when they’re wrong, they’re likely to stay wrong. They go all out in total war against every opposite viewpoint and make it next to impossible for themselves to back up and rethink something. If their rallying cry for the AirPods had been “these are the nicest-to-use wireless headphones ever”, they could have gone back on this decision, or offered a model with a headphone jack and a lower IP rating and let customers decide which is more important.

By letting all of us swallow the good with the bad, they can claim victory in any argument simply by taking advantage of most customers not fleeing to Android. Between this and the insistence of all USB-C, all the time in the MacBooks, I think many of us are looking for a more pragmatic Apple, the sort that already rears its head every now and then, deciding to take the Mac Pro back from the brink, to put more ports in the second generation MacBook Air, to drop the original iMac puck mouse or to start making the Mac mini. Instead we get the Apple that proclaims its stores are now “town squares”. Barf.

Charging

So why’d I get one then? Because with inductive charging, at least I can still perform the mind-blowing, high tech maneuver of both charging the damn thing and listening to music on it at the same time.

And so far, it seems to work just fine. There are small alignment issues - put it significantly off-center and the coils won’t align. I’m using the Mophie charger because of the promise that it will be updated to support faster charging. It is simple and unobtrusive enough, and the combined form factors also make it easy to tell with a glance whether there will be alignment. The phone hasn’t slipped off of the base, but the cord is also laughably short.

None of which is to say that this is impressive. Adequacy is the name of the game, and I’m to understand that the charge speed is slightly crippled compared to an ordinary charger, which may be a real impairment. How the upcoming AirPower charging mat will change this is anyone’s guess. Unless it ups charging capacity and eliminates alignment issues, it will likely not be worth the… I’m guessing $99–$169 it will go for. The wider format is a plus, but I own nothing else that will be charged by it.

Ten is just One with a zero following it

It is more expensive than it should be. A lot. And the decision to skip a size and demand more for a 256 GB model is a nickel-and-dime move - one that may also be explainable by wanting to limit demand in the face of poor production capacity, but a nickel-and-dime move nonetheless.

Just like the original iPhone’s initial hefty price tag, it is hard to justify. Like the original iPhone, it will go down fast if you’re willing to wait. But also like the original iPhone, it is a place where the future of the smartphone, incomplete and still fledging as it may be, is showcased first. And, far from any sort of desire to “show off”, I guess that more than anything else tickles me: finding the new not in the application of facial scanning, world-class processor design and high quality screens bleeding almost as far as they ever could, but in ostensibly small tweaks to a user experience ten years in the making breathing new life into it and establishing an interaction model and vocabulary that can go so many places over the next few years. Notches, dongles and misplaced priorities aside, how can I resist that?

Pulse

I was here before and I’m here again.

Now and before

The current climate is confrontational. It’s more or less people convinced that they are correct, running into each other head first. Sometimes not everyone of these people will be correct.

It’s easy to point to Twitter or Facebook or whatever and point to it as the problem. It’s easy to corral an opinion that the only thing that changed is that people got fewer characters to type with. It’s easy to take that as far as to think that you can, to take an example at random, swing an election that way.

It’s also easy to point to the “good old days”, when everyone had their own web site, hand layouted CSS and knew every line of JavaScript by heart. Every post was written by someone putting their other distractions down and focusing their attention on what they wanted to convey.

It is true that we all, mostly, are information junkies with shorter attention spans than before. But that’s not a change over 20 months - try 20 years. Those of us, most of us, prone to lap this all up have it in us from birth. And as more and more of the world pulls apart from bound books, from neat, nestled entities into the big weave of opinions and memes and eddies in the space-time continuum, it would be against our nature to find this one or both of fascinating and interesting. Certainly, it dispenses with a lot of messy ceremony and context.

Pavlov’s fumes

Waffle was here before and ran on fumes, continuing on the foundation it had once established. It had a formula, and I wrote to it. The reason I wrote to it is simple: I like thinking about things. I like ruminating. I am not super smart, I am not super insightful, I do not in any way live my life without a box, so that I may think outside it, and if I did there’s no guarantee that those thoughts would be of particular import or brilliance.

But as you might do, being the pattern recognizing biped that you are, you might write more or less random crap (with som thought put into it, but still, random crap) for over 12 years and occasionally strike upon something that resonates. You may even time some of those with being the first to say something in particular, or to point something out in particular. And you may fall in love with “having been right”, or being in some way hard to replace.

We’re all hard to replace, and we’re all easy to replace. Every cemetery is full of indispensible people.

So, past a certain point, it may be that I played the role of writing Waffle, and each time, expecting what I wrote to take off at least in some minor way. Since almost nothing ever did, this was a harmful delusion.

Thinking about the climate and the tempo, it’s not hard to understand what’s going on. At most, what I write is going to be a link passed around from place to place. Everyone sees hundreds if not thousands of them each day. The chance of winning that lottery is miniscule, and of course relies on having something that is either truly good or that strikes a tone beyond just being lucky enough to get noticed.

And from my perspective, not having a Twitter account especially and not tooting my own horn beyond publishing new items in my Atom feed (a minute, please, to mentally commiserate the ghosts of Echo, nEcho and Pie - and if that means anything to you, know that you have a good memory, and that you understand what I was comfortable with as being the “good old days”), the whole process is both opaque and hopeless, like putting things in a shop window in a shop on a long since forgotten dank alley, and wondering why there are never any customers.

Telling people to go to hell

I did a lot of it this year. Out of the combination of chaos, stagnation and feeling of helplessness, there had to be some destruction. If nothing matters anymore, you eventually punch a wall to see what happens - to see if there will be a mark, to see if your hand will hurt. There will be pain and anguish.

To me, there was the horrible sense that I defined myself as being someone who tried to think about things and tell people about them, and now I was living in a world where all everyone cared about was sharing their opinions on everything to the point where it overshadowed what was important. Even knowing how silly this sounds, it caused me no end of deep existential misery.

Once again, it’s not that I’m brilliant or exceptional, or really think I am. It’s that I’d been acting a bit as if I was, and the tide of evidence telling me how wrong I was crashed down hard on me.

I threw in the towel with everything. I licked my wounds for months. I turned inward. I held in a lot of things, I clenched my fist in the dark, and I thought all of this meant I wasn’t allowed to have or communicate ideas anymore, as if there was a privilege I’d lost.

Only very recently did it dawn on me that I should just keep doing what I was doing, but for the sake of doing it for myself. You can call this a five cent, one-hour-mark Pixar epiphany if you’d like, but that’s how it happened. If reasoning and thinking and feeling conviction is so important, for fuck’s sake, just do that, then. Write it down. Put it up. Don’t sit on it. Get it out.

So I am.

A relic

I’m still holding out on joining Twitter. I think I’m hyper enough already, and I still think it’s a horrible medium for both conversation and publication. I still think it feels like talking loudly at people. But even if I liked it, I wouldn’t want to care too much. This is now a strategy. To not care whether something gets linked, read, noticed, those things. If they do, fine. But no writing hoping it will. No writing unless something moves me.

There are two more things. The first is “subheads”, and maybe some of you are saying, well, thank god, what took you since 2003? Looking back, not using them was a stylistic choice, but it also reinforced the idea that I don’t even have to try. I can just stream-of-consciousness something and it’ll be brilliant. That’s not it. I avoided them because I knew I’d hate the awful puns I’d make up, and knowing myself I will, and already have, done so, but that’s just going to be the lesser evil.

The second is that I’m going to try to be honest and humble, and not self deprecating. I am not a happy person and I am struggling with many things. But as little as it is a shame to be covered is it a violin to be played for pity.

The first real entry has some energy to it, and I wanted it to have energy to it, because I wanted it to push its own idea. It proposes something new that from a distance can be pigeonholed as other things. But if it’s anything I’m tired of that existed even in the happy tightly-knit, turn-of-the-century era of people writing well-considered weblog posts at each other, it’s that so many of them were written with an angry superiority, as if establishing absolute dominance over its subject matter, proclaiming the absolute best way to peel that particular onion. I don’t want to do that in general, but I feel that a new idea is fragile enough to deserve some pompous presentation as armor and shield from the environment.

Technology

I also dropped WordPress and its consequences. Right now, this is generated by a static site generator, and I am using a default theme, shame of shames, albeit heavily modified to cut a lot of crap out. I type it locally, I generate it manually and I upload everything myself like a rube. But the file transfer connection is SFTP and not FTP, so you can tell it’s 2017. Having to do all this hopefully helps me not want to do it unless something really moves me enough to write.