No Escape

Apple, to the extent they ever were, has stopped being a company that can move quickly. They have long pipelines, characterized even by Tim Cook as a “treadmill of innovation”. They know which product they will put out, roughly, in a year, which OS it will align with, and which new standards will be ready by then that can be taken advantage of. I think this is why I am having so conflicted feelings about what’s going on now as different products transition in and out.

The new Mac Pro was introduced, and it again embraces what a fully loaded up computer can be and the power it gives to its user, going as far as to bake in the “cheese grater” worship into the visual. (They knew.) But it also starts at a wallet-melting $5999. (You know how much money that is? That’s, like, six Pro Stands!) The grater everyone was wishing for started at $2499, and was within range of many more Mac users.

The (12-inch, one-USB-C-port) MacBook was scrapped today, but so was the MacBook Pro “Escape”, the 13-inch model without a Touch Bar. The new models are upgraded and better, unless you want to do advanced things like press down a key and be reasonably sure which letter shows up on the screen and how many of them.

The last four or five years have been like a walk in the desert for Apple. They are exceptionally good at some things, like miniaturization and betting on new standards and “skating to where the puck is going to be”, and in a world where you risk getting stranded atop local maxima, it’s a good tool to have in your belt. But that’s all it is - it’s a tool.

Starting roughly around the 12-inch MacBook, they let it be their only virtue. The problem is that they are the only vendor in their own platform, and have an increasing number of people with a wide range of problems to solve. There’s nothing wrong with having a laptop with only USB-C ports, but if several years on people haven’t dropped the other ports, it’s quite possible it’s a good idea to have a computer with both USB-C and other ports on it. It’s quite possible you could shrink the Mac Pro down a bit to not be quite so monstrous, sell it with a moderately powerful i7/i9 (or AMD Ryzen, once USB 4 comes around and Thunderbolt support doesn’t have to be dropped) at less than half the price and rule the galaxy. It’s quite possible you could offer MacBook Pros with both Touch Bars and no Touch Bars, and letting people choose which they like.

None of this means they’ll have to stop doing what they were previously doing - which shouldn’t matter, but since to Apple “not being completely right” seems to be heart-aching, world-view-shattering anathema, maybe it helps. I notice that in the grand scale of things, a more capable computer in the MacBook Air won out either in the marketplace or in Apple’s plans (probably both) over the sleek-for-sleekness-sake 12” MacBook, and that seems promising.

Simplification is a useful tool, too. Having fewer products is better. But it’s only better as long as you end up making the right computer for your user base.

(Edit: Another positive sign I missed - the SSD upgrades have gone from armed robbery to mere pickpocketing. When you can slough off $1400 for an upgrade and prices are still high, at least you know they were extortionate to begin with.)

Exit, Not Pursued by a Bear

There are many things to say about WWDC, and I may say some of them in other posts, but the more I look at SwiftUI, the more I like it. Marzipan/Project Catalyst/UIKit on Mac/“iPad apps on Mac” is still as much of a stop-gap money grab as it ever was, but I was wrong to assume that it was the totality of what was up the Cupertonian sleeve.

SwiftUI is in software what so many of the hardware hits have been - a hundred small things that individually have been done before, but put together in a coherent package and seemingly done well. Whether you find precedence in Elm, Svelte, React or WPF/XAML, SwiftUI is an amalgam of sane, well-chosen ideas, mixed with some new ones, like the ostensive compaction of wrapper views down to a sparse and efficient rendered layer. And for once, SwiftUI isn’t a misnomer. It builds on years of wrangling a new language to the place that it allows something like it, like the pervasiveness of a deep and dependable mutability model, without which the checks signed by all the features couldn’t be cashed.

So many of Apple’s decisions, especially for operating systems and frameworks, have been made from a position of weakness and under the pressure of deadlines. If there had been no SwiftUI, this would still have been the biggest WWDC for many years. But SwiftUI looks like it’s been a new idea that’s been allowed to grow and mature; built after a long, hard think, driven by exploration and ideas instead of forced deadlines.

I rhetorically asked for a “Cocoa X” rethink. SwiftUI is only the UI, but it is a fundamental rethink of that problem. It’s additive and incremental, and still looks and feels native, because it is; no iPad-looking concoction transplanted into the middle of your Mac app, or vice versa.

James Joyce said: “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” Show last week’s Objective-C code written against the iOS 12 SDK UIKit to a NeXTStep developer, and they might still recognize most things. Code doesn’t rot, but new ideas do come around. It is worth looking back at the past, looking at the timeless gist of the problem, and wondering if, 32 years later, we don’t have a better way to get where we need to go.

This is The Moment Everything Changes

Preface

Anyone reading Waffle as a matter of course for the past dozen years or so know that most of it has been aimed at discussing Apple, or changes in the technology landscape, or preferably the overlap thereof. Most of what I write tends to come out saying the same things, which could be pointedly but not indefensibly summed up as change is wrong. I am a strange creature, both pouncing on the new and the exciting, rushing to extol its virtues and celebrate seeing things from a new angle, but also demanding what’s good about the old is maintained, lessons not lost like drawings in the sand.

In raving about the new, I am rarely alone, and in supplying critique, I am rarely the best, so it would not be a surprise to me being viewed as a one-trick pony, an obsessed kook. I should choose wider subjects, but I write about these things because the potential (and all too often actual) downsides affect all of us, and I see so few attempts to cover them end to end over time, in depth, with the focus of someone who for better or worse thinks about it all the time. Not only do I make these kinds of decisions for the software I work on, everyone else’s decisions have consequences for everyone, me included. I don’t think I can talk back the tide, but if the tide is going to swallow something I love, at least it shouldn’t go silently.

WWDC

On Monday, June 3rd, Apple holds its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, WWDC, in San José, and is expected to set out its direction on a number of issues. It will be a momentuous day. I have at times made a series of predictions, but this time I thought it was better to talk about them instead.

Marzipan

First, Apple is supposed to complete the curveball it threw all of us for in last year’s WWDC, when it started to say that iOS apps are not coming to Mac, and following it up by saying that instead, UIKit is coming to the Mac, presenting four new apps that looked like straight-up ports from their new iOS incarnations that had in fact not even been ports. Supposedly, UIKit on Mac is codenamed “Marzipan”, and this codename leaked well ahead of last year’s WWDC.

I am not wild about Marzipan. Steve Troughton-Smith, who has at least a five year record of believing UIKit is the future of all UIs anywhere, likes to frame it as a fear of change. Of course there’s a point that if you start a new application framework design in 2005-2006, have the learnings of Mac OS X in fresh memory and are restrained from doing wild stuff by weak hardware and few resources, you’ll probably end up with a lot of fat trimmed, and many mistakes not repeated anew.

The reason I’m not wild about Marzipan is because wanting to use a Mac in the first place has always been about liking the way things are subtly different and subtly better. The Marzipan apps so far have been completely bled of this quality. They make the same mistake “Universal” Windows applications did, which is to believe that taking a touch interface and sprinkling keyboard-and-mouse adaptiveness on top of it is “enough”. It is “enough” for a dropdown menu to be one of those scrollable list pickers - the ones designed for a finger to swipe through on a constrained display, with haptic feedback guiding you. (This was UI that Apple actually shipped in an app that wasn’t just a major feature of an OS update but a flagship app of a new framework.) At least the UWP applications can more readily expect the screen on a laptop to respond to touch.

The thought of Marzipan being capable of delivering something Mac users will recognize and praise as Mac-like is laughable; the thought of it subsuming Cocoa to become the recommended default is offensive. Cocoa eclipsed Carbon because it was better at providing a Mac-like experience. For all the recent iOSsification of macOS, I still don’t see this being the case without extensive surgery. If anything, the way forward should have been a “Cocoa X”, designed from scratch with the learnings of both UIKit and AppKit/Cocoa in mind. The current Marzipan apps are abominations, not aspirations.

Mac Pro

The Mac Pro timeline for the past 8 years is near comical. The classical big honkin’ tower Mac Pro (the only one with a traditional desktop form factor and support for expansion cards) was left without updates long enough that people worried where it was going, until finally, Apple revealed a cylindrical Mac Pro with almost no built-in expansion, under the promise of more to come, only to leave it, too, hung out with no updates for several years, until they invited a few journalists to leak that they were working on a new “modular” Mac Pro. This was now more than two years ago.

The Mac Pro doesn’t affect me personally - but it affects me in so far as it defines the bounds of the platform. If Apple wanted to give exactly zero figs about professional usage (such as it traditionally applied to the platform; primarily scientific work and media production), the time for them to silently drop their involvement, Xserve-style, has come and gone. They have dug in, and with the iMac Pro has produced a stopgap model that while not perfect is at least a milk bone to this demographic.

My prediction for the Mac Pro is that their opaque talk about “modular” doesn’t mean that they have vectored back to their customers’ wishes, despite them being inconveniently fueled by actual needs and requirements. They are going to produce a computer that is physically somewhere between a Mac mini and a “Shuttle PC”, with extremely minimal, if any, internal expansion, and most use cases still routed to external (and expensive) Thunderbolt 3 (or possibly extremely early USB4, which subsumes it to some extent) devices and chassis. The Mac tower will remain dead, “modular” will refer only to that of not including the display in the body of the computer and opinions driven by facts will be vented and dismissed as “emotional” due to their inclusion in the ongoing facepalm saga that is the modern Mac Pro era.

The Future of the Mac

Marzipan will be the banner headline of a macOS release that will, years later, scarcely be remembered for anything aside from this. The way the Mac Pro goes will also give a clear signal of what’s most important to Apple at the end of the day. It has become apparent over the past few years that Apple is more interested in what is sleek and minimalist than what is actually useful, usable and powerful.

Apple’s first advertisement announced that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”; regular Mac users can enumerate many cases where the decision has gone for the simplistic or sophistry instead. People are holding on to their several year old laptops, hoping they don’t break, because the new keyboard is such a marvel of engineering it can’t successfully do things asked of every other keyboard on the planet. Steve Jobs once said that Apple doesn’t know how to build a $500 computer that isn’t a piece of shit - it’s now a worrying possibility that it has forgot how to supply a keyboard at any price that isn’t worse than the cheapest Dell pack-in.

But the keyword is “forgot”. There used to be a time when Apple had no trouble pumping out regular updates to its Macs, leaving the generational upgrades for every few years, and just putting out a spec bump now and then. Over the past few months they have seemingly been trying to get back into the habit of doing it again. It’s nothing a company jousting for the position of the world’s most highly valued should beat itself on the chest over, but when a sign of health has been missing, its recurrence is appreciated.

The maligned butterfly keyboard is still there on the MacBook Pro just bumped a few weeks back, and bizarrely listed the same day on the list of eligibility for the keyboard repair program. The favorable interpretation is that it’s there to calm customers, but that by definition it can’t be a status quo that lasts forever, so it’s a tacit confirmation that a keyboard free of all these issues is again being planned for future products. (When that’s the favorable interpretation, you know you’ve fucked up.)

Be it the increasingly tightened application environment (in the name of security), the inscrutable hardware decisions, the software quality issues and the increasing lack of a long-term roadmap, Mac users have been stuck in a time loop for years now. New OS versions bring few new features but many incompatibility worries, and applications not updated recently risk falling by the wayside, as do developers not ready to jump into whichever incremental feature or user interface fashion refresh ultimately will not benefit macOS users as much as a good old focus on bringing the productivity, usability and flexibility up.

Apple is a big company, devoting medium company resources to a small company mindset. Being a startup in terms of being agile and willing to take risks is great, but it’s now juggling both macOS Mac and iOS iPad as competing computing visions, where both can be said to be troubled, stymied by hardware and increasingly unwilling to let developers unleash their own creativity for the benefit of their users’ productivity and flexibility.

Whether I’ll like the outcome or not, the cards are stacked for Apple to weigh in heavily on all these things (including possibly by inaction, to focus much more on iOS) come Monday. If optimism left me easily, I would be typing this on a capable PC laptop instead (although possibly swearing equally at a UWP Windows future). But I am holding my breath, because one way or another, when all of WWDC has been summed up, we’ll be able to look back at it and say that it was the moment where everything finally, ultimately, irrevocably changed.


(Postscript, five minutes before the keynote: I see via Twitter that I have left out contact details on this weblog. Since I am indeed a Comic Book Guy-like curmudgeon who can be dismissed as such, you should not feel the need to send any emails, since it would probably be a pointless exercise. Better yet, write up the reasons why I’m wrong and post them somewhere! That way you’ll inform more people than me. It’s okay if it takes more than 280 characters. And yes, it’s also okay if someone halfway across the Internet is wrong, puerile or misinformed.)

Tiny

There’s no real way to look at the Panic Playdate and see hard-edged, economically shrewd value. The metric itself leads you astray, overvaluing 8000-in-one White Label thingama-SouljaGames that are far closer to the predictable accusations of hipster indulgences.

What I love about it is a recently recurring theme that’s, amidst a polarized and increasingly de-humanized society, been easy to disregard: the glimmers of hope. A group of under a dozen people can still create a little thing like this, including its own damn OS, just because they love the feel of technology built by those who care.

There were a thousand reasons to not build it. There were a thousand reasons to run in the opposite direction, to give up, to completely cede the ground to consoles and touch and game streaming, to things that can be screen captured to Twitch.

But there are also a thousand reasons to do it. The reason our world is crap is because of the funneling of everything into gargantuan seas of milky mediocrity. The biggest entrant wins by subsuming everyone else, by swallowing and outspending and walking all over the competition. The only way out is for life to be a puzzle again, a challenge, for someone’s charming ideas and pet projects to be valued beyond digits on a bank balance readout.

Technology, science, human progress all exists so that we may stand on the shoulders of our forebearers. For decades we have bent semiconductors and materials to our will, but to see that a collection of people who can fit inside the average kitchen can build something more or less from the ground up with so much character but also so significantly outside of their comfort zone is truly inspiring. In a world full of cynicism and derivative madness, what could be better?

Who knows if I’ll get one, but I’m on their side.

The Ones Who See Things Differently

Think Different was about respect for creators. It was about creativity, unconventional thinking and real courage, to change people’s lives, turn the tide, bring education and humanity and a better understanding of the world to the masses. Think Different was about having people like that as your heroes, and wanting them and other people to have a tool that met them halfway and let them focus on what mattered to them.

It was a justification to do something differently than the behemoth.

Today’s event was about an Apple that may still have their sights of some important values compared to other behemoths, but where the focus is on the fervent belief that whole-banana-ism needs to extend to every corner of everyone’s life. Behemoths like Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft act as if they need to have fingers in every pie, provide solutions to every problem, build complete stacks.

Even people who loved Think Different and who still love Apple know there’s more to reading News than Apple News+ (or indeed the normal Apple News app), more to games than Apple Arcade (and indeed indie games have been turning conventions inside out for decades) and more to TV than Apple TV+. Regardless of whether they include good products, Apple is starting to insult both the people who use their products and the heroes they hopefully still respect.

The Internet has torn down walls and connected people, and even though everyone has a full stack and a streaming platform, no single place is a catch-all any longer. Every bucket of “exclusives” is a dated prayer for a dream of control and containment and world domination. What we all crave is for a world that understands interests and respects choice and diversity, where you choose what you want without juggling worries of incompatibility. Not snooty, self-important “curators”, claiming themselves the world’s greatest in fields they have not entered into before, when they can’t even keep fake “antivirus” apps out of their own decade-old App Store, stabilize spiraling software quality years in the making, and when their user interface vocabulary has you pressing a “Share” button to use a “Find on page” command.

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.

Like Giving a Glass of Hell to Somebody in Ice Water

Being one of the world’s highest valued companies means you can be brilliant at some things, completely useless at other things and have your head up your ass about most things.

So if all you can talk about here is how wrong they are, what’s keeping you?

This is a complicated question with a complicated answer. (If it makes things more expedient for you, feel free to just call me a shill, cult member and/or idiot.)

The desktop environment

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 tomorrow.

At the risk of disappearing up my own butt for a moment, 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.

So just switch to Linux

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 desktop environment (cont’d)

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” 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.

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.