That's What I was Thinking

A few links from the Department of OMG! I Was Thinking Exactly the Same Thing!!!

Khoi Vinh is not so enamored with the aesthetics of the latest iPhones:

The iPhone 5’s lines are sophisticated and modern; each bevel or corner or detail seems unique, well considered and essential. I still marvel at its beauty when I hold it in my hands.
By contrast, the iPhone 6’s form seems uninspired, harkening back to the dated-looking forms of the original iPhone, and barely managing to distinguish itself from the countless other phones that have since aped that look.

I couldn't agree more. When rumor sites were publishing these images I thought, "These can't possibly be the finished designs." But they were. Sorry, but those antennae are, if not downright ugly, certainly sub-par for an Apple product.

Allen Pike is not happy with the lack of clarity in shift key activation in iOS 7 and above:

When the shift key is on, it blends in with the letter keys. When it’s off, it blends in with the function keys. Neither state sticks out enough to read as active, especially in a split second.

This has been driving me up a wall as well, and I'm relived to find I'm not alone. To my way of thinking, the shift key activation appearance is backwards. And I find it almost impossible to learn a backwards thing, but even more so when it's placed within — and reinforced by — a field of not-backwards things. Such is the current state of the iOS shift key, and it is maddening. Pike's solution, though, is inspired.

Russel Ivanovic is displeased with the rapid pace of Apple OS releases at the expense of stability and reliability:

I just wish that Apple would slow down their breakneck pace and spend the time required to build stable software that their hardware so desperately needs. The yearly release cycles of OS X, iOS, iPhone & iPad are resulting in too many things seeing the light of day that aren’t finished yet. Perhaps the world wouldn’t let them, perhaps the expectations are now too high, but I’d kill for Snow iOS 8 and Snow Yosemite next year. I’m fairly confident I’m not alone in that feeling.

Don't get me wrong, I like iOS 8. But since upgrading, apps crash with alarming regularity. Even FileMaker Go 13, which I'm now using all the time, and which, for my purposes, requires a login at each launch, and which is owned by Apple, crashes with hair-pullingly annoying frequency. I, too, long for the days of Snow Leopard, a release whose focus was on efficiency and stability. It was quite possibly the most rock-solid OS release I've ever used. And it was glorious. 

Even Gruber's bugged by this unreliability:

(Just today: My iPhone 6 rebooted after I changed the home screen wallpaper. Tapped a new image in the wallpaper settings, and poof, it rebooted. Worse, it never stopped rebooting. Endless reboot cycle. Now I’m doing a full restore with iTunes. After changing my wallpaper to a different image.)

Which makes it an almost mainstream gripe.

 

Super Initial Impressions

Normally on Keynote Day I'm right there, but today was an exception. I have a perfectly nerdy excuse: SAN Installation. So I missed all of toady's Apple announcements. I've only skimmed the info on the new products, but I wanted to get down my very initial impressions.  

 Mac OS X Mavericks

The new  version of Mac OS X was announced today. The name is a little corny, but I have to admit it's catchy and it's already growing on me. Time will tell. 

 Yes. I am excited about Finder Tabs.

Yes. I am excited about Finder Tabs.

Feature-wise, I audibly called out, "Finally!" multiple times while skimming the list. Don't get me wrong, I'm pleased as punch about a number of the new features — tags, tabs, books for Christ's sake, yes! — but really, what took you so long? Some of this stuff is great, but a little obvious and a bit of a reach. Makes it looks like Apple might be short on new ideas.

iOS 7

When Microsoft released its mobile OS a few years back I really liked the look of it: flat, simple, classy and downright minimalist. It was a terrific contrast to Apple's bouncy translucent eye candy. 

But now iOS 7 is taking a similar approach, and while the new look holds a certain appeal, I can't help feeling they borrowed the idea from Microsoft. I also worry they may have taken things a bit too far, with control screens that look more like software prototypes than actual working apps.

 Does this button do anything?

Does this button do anything?

Again, though, time will tell, and reading about a product is by no means the same as using it. 

MacBook Air 

Each iteration brings the Air one step closer to a product I can use. This release is no different, with solid — though hardly surprising — gains in performance.

The real story here, though, is the battery life. A very competent computer with battery life that rivals the iPad? Very cool!  

Mac Pro 

Most of today's announcements were hardly earth-shattering. But the Mac Pro is just that

When I first opened the page I said to myself, "Why is there a picture of a giant lens? Where's the computer?" Slowly it dawned on me: That is the computer. 

 Is that the barrel of a gun? No, it's a Mac Pro.

Is that the barrel of a gun? No, it's a Mac Pro.

From an industrial design standpoint, the new Mac Pro is a wonder. It's the sexiest thing Apple's released since the iPhone. It's straight up beautiful. But perhaps more important is the fact that it's geared towards professional computer users. Here you have an extremely beautiful, thoughtful, exciting product in a category most people had written off. Apple hasn't done something this exciting in this space for perhaps a decade. And I didn't think they ever would again. 

The new Mac Pro may prove me wrong.

I have yet to even look at the specs or talk to my pro user friends. But if the new Mac Pro is only a symbol, it could just be the sort of symbol pros need to take Apple seriously again. It's the first sign we've seen of Apple making something that at least looks amazing specifically for pros since Final Cut Pro X. We all know how that turned out. Or do we? 

Apple's stance on the pro market has been unclear over the past few years. The Mac Pro makes it a bit clearer. It remains to be seen what this machine's really all about. Does it have what it takes to win over pros? But it's heartening to see Apple making a real effort. Though only time will tell if it's enough. 

Either way, I can't wait to read all about it. Which is what I'll be doing for the rest of the night.

Happy Keynote, everyone! 

 

In Defense of Maps

First off, let me just say, people need to chill the fuck out and quit all the bitching. Yes, I grasp the irony of bitching about people bitching. But the fact is that, before the iPhone all cell phones were total pieces of shit, and no one ever complained about it. Now Apple releases a new and better iPhone every year and all people do is complain about it. It reminds me of Louis CK's brilliant Everything's Amazing and No One's Happy bit.

Second, and along similar lines, I want to take a moment to respond to a ridiculous attempt at tech punditry by the New York Times' Joe Nocera. Let me be clear from the outset: I am not a tech pundit. I make no claim to be able to write competently about business, tech or otherwise. When all's said and done, I'm a technician. But I've been following Apple and using and supporting their products for over a decade now. And I have a brain and a perspective, and these things lead me to call bullshit on Nocera's article.

Nocera is basically arguing that, now that Apple is big and Steve Jobs is gone, the company will never be innovative again. And his Exhibit A is the iPhone 5 and the new Maps application. Let's go through his article bit by bit and see where things fall apart.

Nocera starts off by invoking the Ghost of Steve Jobs:

As Apple’s chief executive, Jobs was a perfectionist. He had no tolerance for corner-cutting or mediocre products.

This is certainly true. But Jobs also knew when to ship. And he knew that shipping great products was as important as making them. And Jobs understood that 1.0 releases would be feature incomplete and imperfect. And that that was okay. Take any new Apple release from the last decade — like, I don't know, the first iPhone — and you'll see what I mean. I'd argue that Maps is not mediocre, it's just new.

Nocera then writes:

The three devices that made Apple the most valuable company in America — the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — were all genuine innovations that forced every other technology company to play catch-up.

This is certainly true. But suggesting that this level of innovation is possible on a yearly basis is folly. These are once-in-a-decade releases. Most innovation comes not in leaps and bounds, but rather in baby steps. Take Mac OS X, the iPod or even iOS as examples of consistent, year over year evolutions. This is how it works.

Nocera complains a bit more about Apple's recent lack of innovation, and then goes on to criticize the new Maps application:

In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

But what Nocera fails to grasp is that it's not a mistake at all. Maps is an example of the very innovation that Nocera claims Apple now fails to attempt. Let's face it, the old Maps app hadn't been significantly updated since iOS 1. And with relations between Apple and Google strained, getting Google to improve the product was, I'd guess, an increasingly daunting task. Apple's belief was that they could do it themselves and do it better. The new Maps is the first iteration of that gamble.

Nocera then goes on to write about how this never would have happened without Jobs, and then:

Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but it’s just not the same without the man himself [Jobs] looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that.

No, the Maps "glitch" is exactly the kind of innovative nudge Jobs would've done. It is, in fact, precisely how Apple has innovated over the past decade: by destroying the old and rebuilding it. The current team, to my eye, seems to be behaving perfectly in the Jobsian style, even if they may not be able to sell it as well.

Next, Nocera begins to contradict his very own argument:

When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, after 12 years in exile, Apple was in deep trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model, because it had nothing to lose.

So wait, you're saying that Apple has just replaced the "mapping gold standard" on its flagship products with what it believes will one day be a better solution, thus pissing off lots of people, taking huge amounts of criticism and possibly hurting the brand, at least in the short run, but that they're no longer willing to take big risks? Whatever their motivation, and despite what you may think of the app, replacing Maps with their own, non-Google version is a hugely ballsy move and shows that that's just not true.

Nocera then goes on to make the inevitable Microsoft comparison, followed by some erroneous assumptions:

Once an ally, Google is now a rival, and the thought of allowing Google to promote its maps on Apple’s platform had become anathema. More to the point, Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals.

This is just wrong. From what I understand, Apple's license with Google had simply expired and they needed to decide if they would extend that license or go a new way. Apple has allowed a Google-branded YouTube application onto iOS, as well as Google's Chrome browser. And it's my understanding that a Google-branded mapping solution is in the works. If it's not, you can only blame Google for this. If it is, I have little doubt that it will soon be available in the App Store along with all the other Google products. This isn't Apple being anti-competitive, it's Apple being competitive. Apple thinks they can win here, not by forcing people to use its own products, but rather by making better ones.

Whether Maps is a good app or not is arguable. It has features not found in Google's maps app, but lacks some of that app's functionality as well. I've used it and I think it's good for a version 1 product. I certainly think the turn-by-turn navigation is very well implemented. And for most daily uses I think I'll be able to get by just as well with this new Maps, though, being in New York City, I will dearly miss street view in certain instances. Innovation always incurs tradeoffs, though. We technicians are well aware of this.

But Maps is not an indication of Apple being in decline or failing to innovate. If anything, it's just the opposite. This seems to be the same old Apple, making year-over-year improvements and taking the occasional risk that a change that pisses people off today may just be the thing everyone wants in a year or two. They're not always right about this, but they keep trying, and Maps and the iPhone 5 are the proof — not the refutation — of this.

Addendum:

One other thing has occurred to me while reading more about Apple's difficulties with the Maps launch. I keep reading that Google has had turn-by-turn directions in the Android version of its Maps app for some time now. But we've never seen this feature in iOS. This seems a strong indication to me that Google was not in any huge hurry to update its iOS Maps offering. Turn-by-turn is a feature — admittedly, perhaps the only one right now — where the new Apple Maps is actually better than the Google-made Maps. And its an important feature to a very large chunk of potential iPhone buyers. But more importantly, the addition of turn-by-turn is evidence that Apple wanted to make the Maps product better but was not getting any help from Google.

The fact is, none of us — not Joe Nocera, and certainly not me — knows what really went on behind the scenes to make this Maps deal go down. It's clearly been in the works for some time and there have likely been numerous factors at work. But I do believe that at least part of the decision was based on Apple making a better product for its customers.

The New Hotness and The Old Lameness

I have two points to make and then I'm out.

First: I have a deep and unbridled lust for the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display. I reserve final judgement for after I've actually held one in the flesh, but I think they look pretty great and I might end up getting one to replace my beloved but aging 17" behemoth.

The real shocker to me, though, is if you configure the standard, non-retina display MacBook Pro with a fast 512GB SSD drive it comes out to be $300 more than than its comparably equipped Retina Display toting sibling. Max the RAM out on the Retina Display MacBook Pro and it's still $100 cheaper! It's a no brainer: the Retina Display MacBook Pro is the one to get if you can afford to get something with fast, decent-sized storage.

Point the second: The paltry, pathetic, pointless Mac Pro update is your queue to exit the building if you're a real pro user whose needs entail high-end hardware. I'm sorry, but does anyone really expect anyone to buy this latest round of Mac Pros? Especially now, with Apple claiming they're going to announce some vague new hardware product aimed at professionals? (I can pretty much guarantee this will not be an actual Mac Pro, but something much more disappointing.) In 2013?

Frankly, this sounds exactly like the Final Cut Pro fiasco from last year: over-promise some hot new product for pros, then deliver something they not only dislike but really just can't use. Three years is too long to wait for a proper hardware upgrade, and with professional Apple products dropping like flies, it's clearer than ever: despite their claims, Apple truly no longer cares about the existing professional market. They may be interested in creating a new sort of professional market — one that appeals to new users and up-and-coming pro and prosumer types — but Apple couldn't give two shits about legacy pros.

Pros, I really believe it's time for you to abandon the Apple ship, because Apple has made it abundantly clear through their actions (though not through their words, I must say) that they have abandoned you. (For the record, I don't really consider myself a Pro user anymore. Though I am a sysadmin, my computing hardware needs are quite modest these days.)

That's it. That's all I've really got to say.

Mountain Lion Sneak Peek

I'm always excited to hear about new OS releases for the Mac. But that excitement is increasingly mixed with trepidation, and the Mountian Lion sneak peek is no exception.

 

Concerns

Count me among the "Pro" users who fear that the Mac and its OS are quite possibly headed towards an iOS-ification that would relegate lots of the professional functionality we've come to rely on to the dung heap. That's what happened with Final Cut Pro X, it seems to be where the Mac Pro is headed, and I, along with some of my colleagues, worry that that's where Mac OS X (now called, simply — and some might say, ominously — OS X) is headed. Take one look at the latest AirPort Utility — the most blatant example I've seen where Apple has actually removed key features from an app to make it simpler and more iOS-like — and you'll see what I'm talking about. Maybe you'll even start to get worried yourself.

Lion has had its fair share of clues that Apple is headed towards simplification in the OS and is becoming increasingly unconcerned with professional users. Some of the new features are great, or at least could be some day. I think the versioning system, while still problematic, could someday be transformative if a good deal of thought and effort are put into improving the UX. But little things, like the hiding of the user's Library folder, hint at more totalitarian possibilities, ones which lock the user out of the OS to an unprecedented degree. The suggestion that Apple might someday get rid of filesystem access in the desktop OS sends shivers up my spine, but I do consider it a very real possibility. Personally, I don't think this will happen any day soon. But some of my colleagues are less optimistic.

So it is against this backdrop of thought that I consider Mountain Lion.

The Worrisome

As with Lion, we see in Mountain Lion the iOS trend continue. This, in and of itself, might be cause for concern. iOS presents the OS in a simpler, more restrictive way, and more iOS on the desktop could be a sign of greater restrictiveness.

It's certainly worth noting that Software Update will be gone in Mountain Lion, replaced wholly by the Mac App Store. I suspect that this means it will be even harder to save archives of application and OS updates, if we'll even have the ability at all. And if you read this blog with any regularity you have a pretty good sense of how I feel about the Mac App Store in general (hint: it's not good). I suppose if you like iTunes, you'll be tickled pink that App Store will soon be handling core OS functions. But then, if you like iTunes, there is something seriously wrong with your brain.

I'm also a bit perturbed by the fact that X11 — the engine that powers numerous open source software projects, including GIMP and many of the OpenOffice ports — will no longer be included as part of the default install of the OS. It is still being developed and supported and will still be available, for now, from Apple, but as a separate download under the guise of XQuartz. Not a huge problem, per se, but, it could be argued, a sign of things to come.

Finally, it might also be of some concern that this year, for the first time ever, Apple decided not to announce this update with a big event. This year, instead, Apple chose to make the announcement quietly, to a select group of press members. It's almost eerie, the lack of fanfare.

The Promising

For the most part, however, Mountain Lion seems to be less about restrictions as it is about bringing iOS features to the Mac. Less about limitations and more about integration. And that's at least somewhat reassuring.

So mainly what we're seeing in Mountain Lion is the addition of numerous applications and interface trends brought over from iOS to OS X. Messages, Notes, Notification Center, Share Sheets, Game Center and AirPlay Mirroring are all applications or features that are being brought to the Mac desktop from iOS. As a Mac user, this is the kind of cross-pollination I want to see. A cool feature developed for iOS making it into OS X just makes good sense. The fact that Apple is doing this is yet another sign that perhaps they haven't completely given up on the desktop market.

I also think it's very promising that Apple has decided to begin refocusing efforts on the desktop with a commitment to yearly OS X updates. Sure, if the direction they take is bad, this could be a huge negative, I suppose, but at least they aren't letting the desktop languish; they see potential in the desktop market, and are developing for it. I take this as a positive sign.

Also, Gatekeeper, Apple's approach to application security, hits, I think, the right note. Its default mode, which requires all apps to be digitally signed, is perfect for mainstream users. But Apple has given pro users ultimate control and freedom by giving them the option to bypass Gate Keeper. To me, that's just the right balance between security and freedom. In fact, if Apple ever does choose the route of a hidden filesystem, I hope they do something like this, allowing pro users to see and access it easily, with a simple preference.

Final Thoughts

From what I've seen so far, Mountain Lion looks promising. I'm seeing less of the iOS restrictions hitting the desktop OS than I'd anticipated, and instead what looks to be happening is that a lot of iOS-only features are now getting integrated into OS X. I take this trend as a generally positive sign. So I remain hopeful.

If Apple follows a policy of integration and eschews the limitations of iOS on the desktop, I'll remain a happy Apple customer. I hope that's what they do.