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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)