The Life Aquatic

I recently stumbled onto a site hosting various Apple media from over the years, and I went to have a look at the first session introducing Aqua at WWDC, and what I heard was very interesting.

Don Linsay, Apple User Interface group, WWDC 2000, Session 140: Aqua Overview

[excerpt starts at 07:20]

Now, we played around a lot with translucency. We tried translucent windows, we tried all sorts of controls that were fading in and fading out, and what we discovered in all of that exploration was that translucency is a novelty, that you could very quickly tire of this.

So, our conclusion was that translucency only added value if it had meaning. This is very important because it comes up again in something else I’m going to talk to. We chose to use translucency on those controls which are of more transient nature.

So, for example, I can see here a menu. Menus come and go, they only exist for a very short time. You make a selection and it disappears. Translucency is nice because it reinforces that a menu is very light.

Likewise we use translucency in our sheets. Sheets, again, typically only exist for a short time. They’re usually not presented for long periods of time: saving a document, printing a document, or an alert for example. Sheets come and go, therefore translucency was perfect. Translucency was perfect for sheets as well because sheets are tied to their parent document; of course they obscure some of the content that’s underneath, so using translucency allowed you to reveal just enough of what was underneath to remind you what that document was.

Like translucency, we had the opportunity to use a lot of color in Aqua, and we tried a lot of colors. We played around with colors for the better part of last year, trying to find what kinds of colors, what palette to use, what would be the theme of our color, but like translucency, we came to the conclusion that color was useful only, again, if it had meaning, and in this example, in this dialog where you see an assortment of controls, color says “I am the selected control; I’m the one you’ve chosen”. The tab, for example, that’s the selected tab. Radio buttons, check boxes, even the pop-up says that “I am the current choice that you have”. That’s the meaning of color and how we have chosen to color our controls.

In the windows, we actually have used three colors. We have three controls in our title bar, we have carried forward from Mac OS 9. We have the close box, we have the minimize control and we have the zoom control. And they have very different functionality, so first of all we knew we had to group them. Secondly, we had to distinguish them somehow. So we chose to go with three colors - somewhat of a playful decision but I think it’s quite effective.

Yes, the first version of Aqua looks gaudy by today’s standards, but a lot of thought went into principles that still hold up well today. The controls all had visibly different shapes. Color was used to mark selection (and the ability to select something) even on top of different other affordances - and as confirmed by the Graphite theme, the color affected the contrast, and so didn’t depend on being able to tell one color from another. Translucency was showy but was also relegated only to places where it would not grate on you by sticking around, and it was purposeful.

One way or another these principles are basically abandoned by now in macOS and iOS. Transparency is turned into a showier way to distinguish some element or other, and is continuously present, causing constantly new patterns to parse if laid over content, or making a desktop picture a decision that will seep through almost every app. And the only alternative to side-step these choices is to tell the OS wholesale to opt out of transparency.

One of the goals of Aqua was to find a UI that would be easy to learn and easy to be productive in, that would fit everyone. What we have now instead in macOS is a much more showy look — showy in the way that it abdicates usability to look slightly sleeker, or bleed backgrounds through in a slightly more sophisticated way. And instead of making it work for more people, they created elaborate escape hatches, which give up and add clarity almost passive-aggressively, at the cost of changing a deliberate experience to one annotated with a sharpie; like a restaurant staffed with quietly lilting mumblers as waiters, who upon each “what was that” take our a megaphone and e-nun-ci-ate ev-‘ry syl-la-ble.

I’m not asking for a return to Aqua (especially not the Mac OS X 10.0 version used in the video), but I do think it’s time for the current interface to undergo a revision to these ends, and to drop the obsession with letting things show through for its own sake, or to give the appearance of personalization. And look at a text field and a button in Aqua from the video, and then look at a text field and a button in today’s Finder toolbar - they both have practically identical bezels. With that kind of interface, you don’t make pros more productive, nor newcomers more familiar.

Platform Fatigue

Among our many platforms, each of them were developed so we could provide better solutions for problems in a context or situation or on a device’s form factor.

But the response has been lowest-common-denominator design of apps and systems. Making web pages, or things of a similar structure, that look extremely similar, that try to feel at-home by aping some aspect or some part of the platform on each platform.

When there were fewer platforms, it was easier to spend the energy to make something that felt at home on each platform, especially if you only really had one platform to support. But now when there are many platforms, and with it more and more opportunities to provide a better experience on each one, fewer and fewer of them are able to be realized, and an increasing number of times, a substandard solution is chosen for more platforms instead.

The cambrian explosion backfired and sold us out. Likely as not, the platform proliferation will find itself contracting into fewer platforms, whose home is the substrate of forced, averaged commonalities. Likely as not, this substrate will be the web, where what isn’t built-in will need to be, essentially, cobbled together in an ad-hoc manner from scratch, either directly by the developer or by someone else.

More people than ever are working in the field of User Experience/Interface Design. But what they’re spending their days doing is inventing per-company, per-client, per-app, per-framework implementations of things we already figured out years ago. Be it web design, WPF/XAML or Cocoa for the past two decades, there’s no real need to define a checkbox from the ground up. Styling, okay, sure. On/off-style switches? Yes. We need more of contrast, context and wisdom in our controls. Not all buttons look alike, and you can send a message by making buttons used for different purposes look different while still making them feel buttonesque.

There should be different families of buttons. There are buttons that are grouped together because they toggle or perform related functions, there are big buttons that cancel or perform something or are red because they exit the program or perform a destructive action, there are small buttons that do do something, but to an area that won’t dismiss the task you’re working on, there are even buttons in text that look like slightly different, clickable text so as to indicate interaction but not ruin readability (links, they’re called). This is all part of having a rich vocabulary, it’s part of everyday design vocabulary among everything we do.

When we start over all the time, we never get to the rich vocabulary. We throw away the familiar, the dependable. Imagine mingling in a room with 500 interesting strangers that you’d love to talk to where, when you talk to them, if you get off-subject in a way they don’t like, they turn away, or slap you in the face. (Feel free to imagine Twitter, if you’d like.) At some point you’ll hole yourself up with the three people you understand, or you’ll talk to everyone but only about the most mundane things.

This is what using computers, devices, phones, anything with a UI is like for most people.

Learning a new platform, a new landscape of interaction is hard unless you’re at the right time and place in your life to do so, and have extreme incentive to do so. Most people never get anywhere, and have to fight to learn the basics little by little. When things change all the time, everywhere, and nothing stays the same, they get frustrated and they blame themselves. They think they’re not smart enough. Whether that makes them sad or angry, they lose interest; if they’re really unlucky, they have to stay and do battle with this application or system because they have to.

And even if, for some reason, you don’t care about these people because you think you have a better hand with computers, you are not immune to this. These inefficiencies, this lack of care and thoughtfulness is impacting your life too, all the time.

Software is eating the world, and there are many recent examples of how that makes people’s lives worse. There is something to be said for making it easier to go from an idea to a prototype with readily accessible tools, of course. And sometimes you need to do something off the beaten path to actually move forward or extend a metaphor already in use. But there’s no need to throw out any pretenses to grow a more sophisticated user interface. Unless the base of what you’re doing is inventing an entirely new metaphor to make something accessible in a way it just isn’t today, your users will thank you if you take the time you would have otherwise spent reinventing the wheel and spend it mostly following a predictable, established route that they can understand, learn and navigate.

Catastrophe

“Project Catalyst”, the adaptation of iOS and UIKit unto macOS, is an unmitigated disaster. Maybe it didn’t have to be, but it definitely is. Let’s take one of the better in-box apps, Podcasts, as an example.

Podcasts is set up well for success - it is a relatively clean slice out of the now broken-up iTunes pie, it feels reasonably like a cohesive, first-class citizen app on iOS and it is an application with a handful of obvious actions and limited depth.

The Podcasts app that ships in macOS Catalina is not successful.

  • Several months in, I still can’t get around the app that well, and that’s as a daily user of both iTunes (for over 15 years) and the iOS/iPadOS Podcasts app.
  • Podcasts are inexplicably referred to as “shows”, perhaps because of potential mixups where “podcast” can mean both “the entire run” or “one episode in particular”. Wanting to resolve the mixup is fair enough, but the term “show” catches me by surprise since it’s not an anticipated noun, especially since “show” is a common UI verb.
  • In iTunes, I could hit Command+L to jump to the currently playing episode selected in the list from which it was played and find another episode in the same podcast. In Podcasts, the shortcut doesn’t work, and there’s no persistent menu item - there is one in the little ellipsis/“More” menu next to the episode info in the top of the player, but the only way to trigger it is to click the More icon and pick it from the menu. I can go to System Preferences → Keyboard → Shortcuts → App Shortcuts and add a custom shortcut, and it appears on the menu item from the More menu, but because the menu is constructed on the fly, hitting the shortcut doesn’t trigger the command unless you have already clicked the More icon to open the menu.
  • In the top right are buttons with an “info” icon and a “list” icon. Both trigger slide-in overlays from the edge - none have any mouse-over-effect to highlight that they are clickable beyond the miniscule icon itself, nor do they have tooltips showing the purpose of the buttons. And the overlay is a semi-transparent overlay and not an additional pane showing up persistently or a popover. [Update: this is also the case in the Music app — it’s still UI amateur hour.]
  • There are almost no menu items for anything. Most things are iOS-style “link buttons” (with no delineating borders) in situ.
  • The default view of the Podcasts section in iTunes - a sidebar with podcasts on the left and, when selected, lists of episodes to the right - is not available anywhere in the application. This is arguably the most natural view for any podcast application with a source-list-style sidebar. Instead, the source list contains various views of “Apple Podcasts” (which is half nebulous grouping of the podcasts available on Apple’s online podcast directory, half the application itself), “Library” and “Stations”, which seems to be the manually assembled playlists in iTunes with individual podcast episodes. “Stations”, in combination with “Shows” and with the Stations metaphor in Apple Music, evokes a function where you might be able to discover episodes in other podcasts similar to what you’re listening to. Instead, it seems like a word invented specifically to not be “playlist”.
  • Of these views, the default view when opening the application can not be set to anything else than “Listen Now”, which contain “Up Next” entries that are completely baffling to me - they have nothing to do with the most recent episodes, alphabetical order of podcast or episode title, the most globally or personally popular podcasts or the podcasts I have added most or least recently. Below, the section “Recently played” has yet to actually change since starting to use Catalina.
  • When in a podcast (“show”), if I want to see the episodes in the podcast’s feed aside from the ones I have somehow kept, I have to scroll manually all the way down to the list. I can not use Command+↓ - that lowers the volume. I can not use End or Page Down - that does nothing. While at the bottom, I can access See All Episodes, or the entire chunk of relevant UI that’s put below the list, like Ratings & Reviews and You Might Also Like. In iTunes, I could switch between “my” episodes and the feed by clicking another tab, and the set of tabs were always visible and didn’t scroll with the list.
  • For no reason whatsoever, the top bar is semi-transparent, but the navigation bar containing only the back button way over on the left isn’t. This causes completely legible, non-blurred remnants of the “page” to shine through in an annoying way.
  • Going to a podcast’s Settings opens an inexplicable fixed height “card view” in the middle of the window, with an iOS-style scrollable list, when all options would have been perfectly reasonable as a small popover or sheet, or have at least fit without scrolling if given more height. You also can’t hit Escape to close it.
  • The Search field in the source list has an unclear sense of hierarchy - it seems like it should filter the source list, instead of activating a global search mode.

The longer I go, the more I could find, but I’m stopping here. There are so many problems here that I don’t know where to begin.

  • Podcasts feels, more than anything else, as if it were modeled to be like iTunes but stripped off everything that wasn’t Podcasts, and then molded to sort of be like the new Music app. Podcasts was an island in iTunes - this is not a good idea.
  • Podcasts pulls off the pirouette of both being annoyingly like iOS Podcasts in interface mannerisms but also feeling completely foreign to a devout iOS Podcasts user. I feel lost in the navigation choices made. The familiar tabs have been eschewed, and in its place is a pseudo-familiar ripped-from-Music organization, except that iTunes Podcasts never looked like that, and everything that was ever clever or easy or simple or handy or clear has been muddled.
  • Podcasts for iOS makes choices that you have to make if you’re a mobile device application. You can’t afford tons of fixed real-estate, and having everything be an item in a list is a reasonable trade-off from fixed positions to having everything be able to be acquired (clicked, located, activated) in a reasonable time. But on macOS, there is, comparatively speaking, nothing but space. Showing a feed vs your own downloaded/kept episodes deserves a simple and present tab/segmented control, and got one in iTunes. Switching between podcasts by having them in the source list seems like a gimme - why not have a “Discover” section with the podcast directory, maybe a meta section with all the new stuff, and then a “Podcasts” sections with all the individual podcasts, one by one? (Bizarrely, Playback speed, which seems like it should be a popup choice near the play button, is only available from the menu bar, in a reversal of fortunes.)

Almost all of the odd choices can be boiled down to, in my mind: it would be terribly inconvenient to have a shared code base for apps that would actually behave so differently. They already do behave differently enough to be confusing, though, so I have no idea what’s going on.

Podcasts should be the optimal poster child for Catalyst because it exists on many platforms, and I think it could be made to work so much better by being responsive to ways in which a Mac is not an iOS device. But what upsets me is not a lack of polish as such, it’s that this was deemed anywhere near good enough to ship. It’s not a good podcasting app, it’s not a good Catalyst example, it’s not a good macOS citizen and it’s not even a good reincarnation of the Podcasts app. It’s just a mess.

MacBook Pro 16-inch (Review)

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Setting

My previous MacBook Pro was a mid-2014, 15-inch model, purchased somewhere shortly after the introduction of the ill-fated USB-C MacBook in 2015. In the first few months, I saw the butterfly keyboard essentially crash and burn in the press, the USB-C “dongle life” get ridiculed, and the Force Touch trackpad also land in a MacBook Pro revision.

Then, later on in the year, the first MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar was introduced and the butterfly keyboard and USB-C adopted wholesale. That’s when I got the sinking feeling that, without serious backlash, there’s a significant risk Apple has made up its mind and is going to turn a corner. Very rarely are hardware changes, once introduced, reverted. Floppy drive and pre-USB IO goes, it’s done. Unibody manufacturing, glass trackpads? Kept forever. Occasionally, a whole line is dropped, like the PowerMac G4 Cube, or the rare first-time-around MacBook aluminium is retconned into a MacBook Pro, and a unibody plastic MacBook introduced. Change is possible, but was it likely?

Odds against me, having just gotten a new one, I decided to sit this out. (I’m also sitting out developing for iOS while they only have an App Store, so, you know, I’m that guy.)

Fevered

I wasn’t the only one to miss the old MacBooks Pro though. Even if the whole keyboard debacle can be elided at this point (and strangely underreported by the non-Mac parts of the web, maybe under the impression that being failed by a keyboard was a mark of the parodically effete, and that surely not even Apple could so botch a keyboard), the picture of the old MacBook Pro generation being a stalwart warrior of comfort and utility earned some cultural purchase and nodding agreement. As much as you may like Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C, no one likes the dongle life per se. And as updates didn’t seem to address much aside from bumping specs (and prices), thermals cast yet more shadows, leaving recent Intel chips to throttle in a sweltering aluminium prison.

Earlier this year, rumors started spreading about another model which would finally clean up some of the weaknesses, and the days thence filled with silent prayer: let this bastard hold until the new one’s out. The rubber feet cracked and peeled off, and the battery bloated to push up against the trackpad, rendering it cumbersome to press and starting its own countdown to a required exchange (which would be the third of its kind for that generation of MacBook Pro for me, just as a reminder that they had their issues too). But my fingers now bounce on a reborn scissor-switch keyboard inside a Space Grey chassis; this is the very first MacBook Pro 16”. Our long national nightmare is over.

Leap

I find myself in the fresh embrace of multiple new technologies that aren’t really new to this model. The SSD is now NVMe-based, lapping the previous model by three or four times in both read and write performance. The display is capable of going almost disgustingly bright and covering the DCI P3 color space, although I’ve never discerned going to or from such a display.

Also new-but-not-really are several advances in input and human-computer interaction.

The Touch Bar

The idea behind the Touch Bar is, in isolation, admirable. F1 through F12 are originally remnants of terminal clients from the 70’s, and we deserve a clearer instrument for what is now often labeled “commanding”, the act of issuing an instruction to an application. Although I disagree with its implementation, and my immediate reaction to the physical Escape key being added back was that they were now ¹⁄₁₃ of the way to a solution, I have tried to give it its due.

To me, there are two major usability flaws. The first is that the commanding is constantly changing and dependent on state. This may sound strange, since this dynamism is the primary observation from which the Touch Bar springboards. But at least my eyes are constantly on the screen. The Touch Bar morphs to offer commands as you make changes or make your way across windows and input states. Knowing that some button is in some place will take repetitive learning.

Combined with the second flaw, that any sense of tactile or haptic feedback is missing, it adds up to an environment hostile to pattern forming. When you look at a tablet or a phone, your eyes are already looking at where your fingers are tapping. There’s no second step needed to acquire a new target and verify that it’s what you thought — you just do. The Touch Bar, at least set to the app-contextual “App Controls” commands, constantly needs these affirmations, landing you in the odd situation of diverting your attention from a ~1120 points high screen to one that is 30 points high, and from a tactile lattice of keys that we all know to operate from muscle memory built up over decades to a shallow strip with no feedback except visual. Since effective commanding is often about being able to do things blindfolded, this gets in the way.

The Touch Bar does open a few doors – it can display colors (and therefore also emoji), it can offer fine motor control without affecting the mouse cursor or requiring precision in two axes. If you can fit your workflow into scrubbing or sliding or panning, you can operate it without needing to look, allowing a new kind of gesture not offered by the trackpad with both precision and agility, and at least local efficiency gains.

A Matter of Control

I consciously have been keeping track of all F-key presses, and they add up to 0 now. (In sharp contrast to Escape key presses, which I lost count of the first day.) I mostly don’t use the Function keys themselves at all in my daily routine; many people do, especially developers, gamers, professional application users (which this thing is ostensibly for) and double/triple-booting multi-platform users, but not me. What I do use are the global control commands – controlling volume, music playback and brightness (both screen and key backlighting – the new backlighting looks much better). I use enough of the commands that they don’t fit well into the condensed right-edge “Control Strip” partition, which essentially kills the App Controls view for me, since the extra command to show the full Control Strip is to tap the smallest known target in the whole Touch Bar, an expander chevron sitting right next to one and often two commands I don’t wish to activate.

Set to show the Expanded Control Strip at all times, the predictability helps, but at what cost? An opportunity lost – App Controls tossed to the wolves because of how they shadowed the, for me, much more common global controls; the Touch Bar only existing to poorly and lossily reincarnate what was previously there. “So don’t get a Touch Bar” is a valid complaint, and if I could have gotten a model with plain function keys, I certainly would have. Or, better yet, a model with a Touch Bar set in a row beyond the function keys. Certainly in the 16” model, there’s room for another row up top, maybe at the cost of being slightly uncomfortable to reach for.

If you live your computing life inside the auspices of the Touch Bar’s functionality and manage to use it to the hilt, you may well feel fonder of its flexibility than I do, especially if it adds significantly to your personal workflow. For me, it just plain doesn’t – and I miss the utility, tactility, predictability and dependability of what was there before. It is tempting but harsh to say “the reason it’s called a bar is because it makes you want to drink”, but it nevertheless sums up my experience with it even after giving it a chance.

Touch ID

Touch ID exists and works. It works well, it works fast, it’s integrated in many places, it’s available to third-party applications and it’s convenient, even making double-clicking the Apple Watch side button (which also serves as authentication) feel like a comparative struggle. It is the best kind of feature, implemented in the best kind of way; it is also incredibly boring in its perfection.

Force Touch trackpad

The main conceit of the Force Touch trackpad — besides having an eyebrow-raising name — is the observation that administering haptic feedback from below (using the Taptic Engine linear actuator) feels, to the finger, indistinguishable from the trackpad button actually depressing, in the way of traditional “diving board” trackpads. For this to work, force has to be sensed, and the click simulated beyond a threshold, and this sensing is also used to provide “deeper” presses with alternate meanings.

As a side note: Being used to a trackpad misbehaving with a swelling battery underneath it, my clicks were forceful/deep enough to naturally trigger deep presses unless I took care to go feather light and feel for the activation point during the setup process, which lead me to activate the “deep press lookup” feature on many links, instead of merely following them to skip steps — a fate I posit is both common and confusing, since the force touch capability is not obvious and not explained along the way.

The trackpad allows configuring a click stiffness, as well as turning off deep presses entirely. In theory I like the idea of deep pressing to trigger lookups, and also to “press harder” to fast forward even faster, but I have switched the lookup feature to use the old three finger tap instead, since it was too easy to activate by accident; similarly, dragging files in the Finder is likely to accidentally trigger renaming. I am hopeful that, having some haptic feedback, there is room for muscle memory to relearn these parameters, unlike with the Touch Bar.

Lastly, the trackbar is also comically huge at first glance. The palm rejection is stellar – I have not given related errant input once in the form of clicks. As a consequence of its virtual nature, it also allows clicking at any point on its surface, which comes in handy but doesn’t yet readily occur to me.

Running with Scissors

Aside from the Escape key, the previously described features were all present and in full force on the models I resigned to stay away from. Readily absent, however, is the butterfly mechanism. The scissor switch is nicked almost wholesale from the standalone Magic Keyboard, with the notable adjustments of a slightly lower profile key and reintroducing the inverted-T layout of the arrow keys, which serves as a necessary locating feature. It feels different than the previous scissor switch mechanism, but is so close that it will take weeks to game out if there even is a winner in comparison.

San Francisco ably replaces VAG Rounded in the clear legend (and for what it’s worth, Apple maintains their decision to keep separate keyboards for Swedish/Finnish, Danish and Norwegian lettering, bucking the trend of laptop manufacturers smearing all Nordic languages onto the same key caps into an unreadable mess leaving some keys looking like an explosion in the glyph factory). Overall, it’s just plain good, and returns to the Apple laptop keyboard tradition of yore of being unremarkable in its silent exceptionalism.

Brawn

I am not the right person to objectively judge the performance of this model, due to my upgrade path. A lot of things happen in five years. But thanks to the ability to load it up with significant GPU memory (a presumed funnel point; individual Safari tabs would often glitch out massively post-Catalina upgrade), RAM and SSD, there’s once again a lot of headroom for many medium-sized tasks, and I haven’t ran into being bottleneck by really anything. It plows through everything with ease. This makes sense: the thermal envelope has been raised by reconfiguring the inside to free up more airflow and allow the fans to do a better job, leading the CPU to throttle less.

The SSD upgrade pricing is extortionate, but notably less so than before a price adjustment earlier this year, and the 8 TB upgrade option is somewhat reasonable in its ridiculousness due to the lack of such options across the industry. I am expecting this model to last at least as long as the previous model, and to deliver solid performance for at least the first four years.

The model also has much improved speakers and microphone; I will not be mentioning them due to not listening a lot to speakers directly. But the going consensus is that they are genuine technical achievements and worth reading up on. And on the flip side, the 720p camera is laughable, and a pro laptop launched at this date should include Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), already present in this year’s iPhones.

USB-C

There are four Thunderbolt 3, USB-C ports and one 3.5 mm headphone jack, and that’s still it. USB-C is more commonplace now, so the market has moved the needle and improved Apple’s justification.

It still carries all the previous problems of a budding universal connector, though; it connects directly to almost nothing, even for the many people who have made the deliberate transition. Not only early 2015 MacBook Pro models but also most laptops in the marketplace today come with additional ports for USB-A (the traditional plug), HDMI and, not unusually, an SD card slot. MacBook Pro also hosted the magnetically attached MagSafe 2 power connector, which absense is sorely felt not only in ease of detachment but in a charging LED indicator. (Its cable shroud is not known for its reliability, but I predict neither will the identical form used on the USB-C power cables be.) There are third-party alternatives available, but all of them look significantly clunkier, and almost none provide the full 96W offered by the included AC adapter.

Phil Schiller offers a reasonable-ish defense when pushed – that in their place, the connectors that deliver the widest landscape of opportunities are the Thunderbolt 3 ports, an argument clothed in the “giving the pros what they wanted” angle Apple chose for the release of this model. To me, it sounds off – Apple already makes plenty of sacrifices in the name of a more compact, more clean product. If giving the pros what they wanted was a high priority, delivering at least one of MagSafe, a USB-A port, an HDMI port or an SD card slot should have made the cut. (As would making the Touch Bar optional.) And the workaround dongles everyone will have to if not carry regularly, then at least acquire, do nothing to bolster a compact setup with a clean profile, and everything to highlight its inadequacy.

Displays, near and far

The major determinant of the product, the 16-inch display, has mostly gone unmentioned. Like Touch ID, it performs admirably in a boring way; unlike it, there are interesting details to mention. The slimmer bezels do a lot to make every other MacBook model look dated. True Tone (adjusting the white point to ambient lighting) is present and accounted for, and works as well here as every other Apple device it’s been implemented in (including the Touch Bar). The leap in resolution is not tremendous, but the added space is welcome. Although Apple is late to bring its ProMotion variable refresh rate (or high refresh rates of any kind) to any MacBook, it does offer manually selectable additional refresh rates that are integrally divisible with common refresh rates and thus avoids pull down.

The Catalina/iOS 13 feature Sidecar — using a recent iPad as a secondary display — is not new to this device, but it is the first time all the requirements have lined-up for me to be able to test it. It’s a wireless connection powering a retina-level display; knowing AirPlay’s performance, it shouldn’t work, but it is undeniably smooth with no discernable lag and runs miles around AirPlay in my brief testing (I’m not in the target audience). Look for matching wireless technology in a future Apple TV to upgrade AirPlay’s performance. I did see the Touch Bar having issues showing up, and also the triggering of another glitch, bringing us swiftly to the well-known nugget:

“Never buy an Apple first-generation product”

I have seen two glitches, both related to waking the MacBook Pro up. Some of the time, the display color reproduction gets out of wack with a saturated posterization and toggling True Tone, the refresh rate or automatic brightness adjustment is usually enough to get it to snap out of it. (The Sidecar tie-in is that changing its settings could result in triggering this condition, as well as causing the MacBook Pro display to forget its resolution and revert to the default.)

Worse, a significant fraction of the time, waking it from sleep will show either a login window that hasn’t finished initialization (no placeholder label in the login password field, for example), or a partially intact scene from one of the full-screen spaces, atop which a cursor forever beachballs, blissfully ignoring clicks, keys, Touch ID or Apple Watch unlocks. There’s no indication that this hang ever resolves.

(Both of these issues present on macOS Catalina 10.15.1, Supplemental Update included.)

Perfectly Conflicted

A machine is more than the sum of its parts. It can also be a way of communicating changed priorities. There is no contest that this is the most powerful MacBook Pro ever offered; it would be mad for any new MacBook Pro to be less powerful, but how this model manages to be that much more powerful than its immediate predecessor while still using the same CPUs is noteworthy.

It also reconsiders blind allies, some of which I was starting to give up on as lost causes. It makes decisions that I love, and it makes decisions, still, that make me roll my eyes. In ways that previous MacBooks Pro have been sub-par, it is thoroughly, stupendously good, but it is also shockingly expensive compared to what it should cost. And at least during testing, it had impactful, worrying glitches, my recommendation hinging on their timely resolution.

In a sentence, it is both perfect and stupid, rolled into one. It is not the computer I wished for, but it has things in it that I wished for, and it is enough to get me through the next few years and feel like charting that course wasn’t a fool’s errand — money given to a company that’s still willing to listen to its customers, even if it could work on its humility and attitude.

As the old Swedish saying goes: If you don’t get what you love, you get to love what you get.

(As tested: 2.4GHz 8‑core Intel Core i9; 64GB of DDR4 RAM; 4TB SSD; AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory.)

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

South China Morning Post:

“By allowing its platform to clear the way for an app that incites illegal behaviour, [does Apple] not worry about damaging its reputation and hurting the feelings of consumers?” said a bellicose commentary published on the app of People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece.

Apple’s current situation between a Communist dictatorship/market-that-the-stock-market-would-rather-it-found-its-future-growth-in and an increasingly concerned user base is entirely their own fault.

When the iPhone App Store first launched, downloadable and installable applications had been documented fact for several years, and even several generations of smartphones. What Steve Jobs - and there is significant evidence that as the last holdout when everyone else were foaming at the mouth to give developers permission and tools to make apps and games, it really was literally him - wrought upon the world was a form of developer platform that dressed up the closed market of an authoritarian state as a convenience and an enabler of security and trust.

I have discussed the flaws of the App Store at length, but looking at it from the prism of the current situation, an alternate universe emerges, where apps were possible to plainly and easily distribute, and Apple, among with other platforms, could have played the role it looks to define for itself as makers of tools for the misfits, rebels and square pegs in round holes. The alternate universe was the default, and Apple bent the arch of history towards the current situation.

Apple may not have created the first App Store in existence, but just as there was a before and after iPhone, there was a before and after App Store, and this model has now been picked up by most other platforms, making life easier not for the developer or customer, but for the platform runner, and certainly for illegitimate, repressive regimes like the one holding a sixth of the world’s population hostage.

Put a dent in the universe, indeed.

Fan-spec

CUPERTINO, Calif.

For immediate release.

Apple Inc. today announced its all-new revolutionary line of MacBook Pro notebooks, headlined by the brand new 16-inch MacBook Pro. This model has a 120 Hz ProMotion HDR Retina display, powered by a built-in Vega II graphics processor and fitting one more inch of display into the device dimensions of the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

“This is what our customers have been dreaming of for years,” said Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller.

All MacBook Pro models sport a stunning, time-proven, industry-leading scissor-switch keyboard, improving upon the radical butterfly mechanism. Additionally, customers get a choice of a full Touch Bar + Touch ID configuration or function keys + Touch ID.

“This is what our customers have been dreaming of for years,” said Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller.

The Thunderbolt 3, USB-C ports and 3.5 mm headphone jack are joined by two USB-A ports, an SDXC card slot and an HDMI 2.1 port, capable of fully powering a 4K external display at 120 Hz or an 8K display at 60 Hz.

“This is what our customers have been dreaming of for years,” said Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller.

The new MacBook Pro line also contains numerous other improvements, like the latest Intel processors, a new user-serviceable battery with 20% longer all-day battery life, a 4K FaceTime camera with a built-in privacy slider, even faster flash storage, up to 128 GB RAM and a matte display configuration.

“This is what our customers have been dreaming of for years,” said Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller.

While no one was looking, Apple also announced a 5K Pro HDR Display for $999 including a Pro Stand, and a modular Mac Pro mini starting at $1499 with an 8-core Intel i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of NVMe M.2 storage and three PCI Express expansion slots.

“We think the significant fraction of our customers who don’t work at movie lots with functionally infinite resources will appreciate our new additions to the pro—“ attempted Vice President of Special Projects and previous head of Mac Hardware Engineering Bob Mansfield, yelling from outside a third-level Apple Park press briefing room window, standing on a metal ladder that appeared to be indistinctly yanked away by an autonomous vehicle.

“This is what our customers have been dreaming of for years,” said mildly perspiring Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller.

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.