Tipping Point

I’ve noticed that there’s been a curious tipping point in the tenor and timbre of the Apple press as of late. At this point, there have been many pieces lamenting Apple’s lack of attention to pros (since basically 2011, although even before that), but it seems like things are rapidly coming to a head. It’s not just Apple’s pro hardware that has suffered from a lack of upgrades—it’s Apple’s entire Mac lineup.

How bad is it? Bad enough that a well-respected and well-known Mac developer publicly complained about it:

It’s very difficult to recommend much from the current crop of Macs to customers, and that’s deeply worrisome to us, as a Mac-based software company. For our own internal needs, we’ve wound up purchasing used hardware for testing, rather than opting to compromise heavily on a new machine. That isn’t good for Apple, nor is it what we want. […] Apple could and should simply provide updates and speed bumps to the entire lineup on a much more frequent basis. The much smaller Apple of the mid-2000s managed this with ease. Their current failure to keep the Mac lineup fresh, even as they approach a trillion dollar market cap, is both baffling and frightening to anyone who depends on the platform for their livelihood.

Of course, Rogue Amoeba has a horse in this race—they produce Mac software, and a lack of new hardware hurts their business directly as they develop on those machines, and indirectly as Apple’s actions threaten the erode the Mac ecosystem. But they’re not wrong; Apple in the earlier 2000s was delivering updates to its lineup at a tremendous pace compared to now; the MacBook, for instance, historically saw closer to two updates a year rather than more than a year without one.

There’s a lot you can complain about the current Mac lineup—very slow 5400 RPM hard drives that make the entry-level models of its desktops inadvisable to purchase, for instance—but the simplest complaint is that updates are slow. Intel’s continued delays on delivering chips is part of the reason, and that’s certainly something outside Apple’s control, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. While Apple has publicly admitted they backed themselves into a “thermal corner” with the 2013 Mac Pro design especially regarding the GPUs, that doesn’t fully explain why they failed to update the processors in the machine; after the December 2013 release of the Intel Ivy-Bridge-EP Mac Pros, Intel released compatible replacement Xeons in September 2014 (Haswell-EP) and June 2016 (Broadwell-EP) that Apple failed to do anything with.

Today’s personal computers last much longer than the Macs of yesteryear; I’m still using a 2010 Mac Pro as a work machine in 2018; the idea of using a a PowerMac G4 from 2002 as a daily driver in 2010 would have been laughable. To a certain degree, especially considering how small Apple’s Mac sales are in comparison to the rest of its product lineup, it makes a certain amount of sense to slow down updates. But you can’t slow to an 18-24 month cycle that is opaque to outsiders who need to purchase machines and expect them to be happy never knowing when or even if new hardware is coming.

Thus far, Apple’s missteps in hardware haven’t critically hurt its Mac sales longterm, which have remained pretty steady over the past few years. But it certainly seems that as more and more of its product lineup falls prey to what ails the Mac mini and Mac Pro, that might change. In which case, the Mac is dying from an entirely self-inflicted wound.

WWDC 2018

Today was the kickoff for Apple’s 2018 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC, or “Dub Dub” if you must shorten everything.) The focus-grabbing part of WWDC is the opening keynote that kicks everything off and provides a basic, press- and consumer-friendly overview of features that will be coming in the next few months to new versions of Apple’s products.

This year was a year that was all about software—no new hardware products were shown, which continues a trend in the recent Apple era that it’s roughly a 50-50 shot that WWDC will feature hardware.1 That’s probably a bummer to people who think their MacBook Pro’s keyboard is a ticking time bomb, but there was a ton to cover and only few slow parts of the keynote as Apple execs had to cover new versions of iOS, watchOS, tvOS, and macOS.

iOS

Version 12 of iOS came with a slew of new features and changes. Apple led off with augmented reality (AR) additions, such as the .USDZ AR file format, and its own augmented-reality measuring tape tool. AR at this point looks cool but still feels gimmicky (holding out your phone or your iPad to view digital LEGO constructions seems like it’d get tiresome fast) but Apple is definitely making sure that if AR takes off, it won’t be left behind, and it’s possible that this is all underpinning some unreleased product (AR glasses?) that Apple has in the works.

Another chunk of the iOS segment was taken up with “digital health” features. Basically, if you’re addicted to your phone, Apple has some features to try and wean you off, such as muting the phone and notifications during hours you should be sleeping, letting you see just how much time you spend Instagramming, and setting limits to try and stop you from spending just that much time Instagramming. Not much use for me, but I imagine for parents especially these are probably welcome features. At the very least, I’m curious what my graph will show as my big time-wasters.

Grouped notifications were a big wishlist item for users that got checked off today, but also up there was Apple creating “Shortcuts”, an application to create customized voice-controlled workflows—allowing you to create a command that will execute a series of chained events based on that. Combined with other updates to the Siri voice assistant that allow third party integration via customizable commands, this seems to be Apple’s answer to criticism that Siri isn’t as fancy or full-featured as Alexa or Google and other voice assistants out there. Personally, I mostly use Siri for the stuff it gets right 90%+ of the time—setting timers and alarms, dictating notes, and answering my uncle’s queries as to just how tall that celebrity is. But the possible workflow powers that this gives iOS users (and it’s pretty clear that Apple’s purchase of the similar automation app Workflow underpins a lot of Shortcuts) could be a huge boon.

There were a few other updates here and there, but Apple spent a lot of time demoing “Memoji”, a version of their face-tracked animoji that turn you into a cartoon avatar that you can slot into video calls or send messages. Mostly, memoji are hilarious in that they totally blow Samsung’s creepy animoji alternative out of the water; they look fun, very customizable, and not at all uncanny and dead-eyed (although the ability to stick the cartoon version of yourself on top of your live-action body does look odd.) There were probably plenty of people who hate that so much time is taken up by these Snapchat-esque features, but it’s pretty clear that emoji are hugely popular and creating even more of an ecosystem lock-in with Apple’s Messages is good for Apple.

watchOS

When the Apple Watch was unveiled, Apple positioned the device as a precise timepiece, intimate communication device, and a powerful fitness tracker. The first prong of their strategy was arguably shooting fish in a barrel, the second didn’t really pan out, but the fitness element is clearly what Apple has zeroed in on as the most important part of it. The Apple Watch has gotten GPS and cellular networking and become waterproof to make it a better fitness tracker, and Apple’s watchOS updates are clearly about pushing that forward with more ways to metagame your fitness goals and manage your workouts.

Surprisingly, though, the Walkie-Talkie feature—which turns your Watch into, well, a Walkie-Talkie—does circle back to that second prong of the device’s genesis. Using your Watch as a rapid push-to-talk mechanism gives it a distinct identity and utility beyond the phone and digital touch options, and the little David inside me just finds it cool, even if its novelty might be the biggest lasting part of the feature. Like with a lot of the health features, you’re going to need friends and families with Watches of their own to make greater use of these.

Also of note—the original “Series 0” generation of the Watch, released April 2015, is not going to receive this update. Always sad to see a device sunsetted, but like the original iPhone the OG Apple Watch was terribly underpowered and probably a millstone around the necks of developers who want to support the platform.

tvOS

There was basically nothing of note in the tvOS category; in fact it seemed strangely like the only one that didn’t have much relevance to developers. New screensavers and Dolby Atmos support (which was already confirmed coming) did not make for an interesting segment.

macOS

The next macOS version, Mojave, will probably be most striking for its system-wide Dark Mode. As someone who always liked the dark versions of the menu bar and dock that became available with OS X Yosemite years ago, I will probably give Dark Mode a whirl, although I think I remind a bit old-fashioned in my preference for lighter interfaces (I still crank up the brightness of the UI in After Effects, for all the good that does these days.)

Another big change is turning the desktop into a sort of pseudo-folders in folders setup with “stacks”. This seems more a concession to people who can’t tame their messy desktops rather than a useful feature for those who are already organized, but it’s still kind of neat to be able to scrub and drag items from these stacks.

The new, redesigned Mac App Store follows in the footsteps of its iOS brethren, and Apple announced new developers coming to the store, but I’m not sure if it solves the problems inherent with the Mac App Store—apps are more limited than the unsandboxed ones you can download from elsewhere, and for a developer you can’t offer free trials or paid upgrades, meaning a more inflexible product and purchasing environment. We’ll see what these changes do towards addressing those problems (perhaps there have been changes to Apple’s terms that make it more attractive to devs?)

Finally, Apple added a slew of privacy features, most notably in trying to prevent web sites from creating a hardware fingerprint to track you. This is awesome, and it’s nice to see Apple continuing to lock down user information and resist the general tide towards users-as-product strategy employed by Google and others.

Overall, I think the conference was enjoyable, and the new features look promising. No new hardware is always disappointing, but software is arguably more important anyhow.

Stray thoughts

  • Some find Apple’s brand of comedy a bit kitschy or cringe-worthy, but in general I’ve found it enjoyable in a knowing, dad-joke-level casual lightheartedness. The opening skit, “Developer Migration“, poked fun at its developers with a Planet Earth-inspired nature documentary format, followed up at the end by a more heartfelt thanks. Jokes about executive Craig Federighi’s hair never fail to amuse me, and little easter eggs like the subject lines of mail in a screenshot reward keen-eyed watchers.
  • I found something kind of amusing about this shot, from the pre-show livestream crawl:
    A decade ago, Blackberry was still scoffing at upstart Apple, believing that their smartphone dominance would remain. Now, they basically exist as a zombie that barely produces phones and has been relegated to a messaging app slide on a competitors’ banner of applications on their platform.
  • There seemed like there were noticeably more women presenting than at past Apple events. Make of that what you will, but it certainly seems like they have a deeper bench of people they’re pulling onstage than in previous years, where the male executives (Cook, Federighi, Eddy Cue) took up most of the time.
  • Apple positioned some of its features as “pro tools that regular joes can also benefit from”, which is an interesting positioning and also probably aligns with Apple’s return to courting pro users.

  1. By my reckoning, since 2006 (the kickoff of the ‘modern’ Apple era of Intel PC hardware) the years 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2017 had some kind of hardware announcements, while 2007, 2011, 2014–2016, and now 2018 did not.