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.

Apple’s Darker Days

It’s a bit hard to remember (literally, in my cause, as I was still forming memories) but the 1990s were dark days for Apple. A succession of CEOs were unable to reverse the ailing company’s fortunes and lackluster hardware and software. How bad was it? Bad enough that Intel was directly purchasing ads in MacWorld to entice users to jump ship.

(From the January 1994 issue of Macworld, preserved via the Internet Archive.)

No New Mac Pro in 2018

Rather surprisingly, Apple had TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino back to Apple for a story that just released today. The title of the article is “Apple’s 2019 Mac Pro will be shaped by workflows“, with the key detail being confirmation that the new modular Mac Pro replacement for the 2013 model won’t be coming until 2019. If you need pro hardware, you have to either wait or buy an iMac Pro.

This is disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, and will surely stoke the conspiracy theories that Apple really wants to get rid of the Mac Pro and is trying to push everyone to the iMac instead. But the tone of Panzarino’s article and what it touches on with Apple’s pro scene in general suggest much more that Apple is undergoing a big reinvention within its walls; that after years of neglecting a segment of its consumers, Apple has elected to basically rebuild from the ground up.

In [the April 2017 roundtable], Apple SVP Phil Schiller acknowledged that pro customers including developers were hungry for evidence that Apple was paying attention to their needs.

“We recognize that they want to hear more from us. And so we want to communicate better with them. We want them to understand the importance they have for us, we want them to understand that we’re investing in new Macs — not only new MacBook Pros and iMacs but Mac Pros for them, we want them to know we are going to work on a display for a modular system,” Schiller said.

Now, it’s a year later and Apple has created a team inside the building that houses its pro products group. It’s called the Pro Workflow Team and they haven’t talked about it publicly before today. The group is under John Ternus and works closely with the engineering organization.

Apple creating a pro team is big news, especially since it’s generally been the case that Apple moves around personnel from hardware and software projects as needed. The description of the Pro Workflow Team suggests to me this is a dedicated group, and bringing in a wide variety of pros to test this hardware is a good idea, given that one of the complaints with Apple’s current hardware is less its power and more its lack of flexibility.

Ternus promises the new Mac Pro will be tuned to current pro needs with an eye towards where tech is heading in the future, which is simultaneously promising and worrisome. There are plenty of people out there who just want the return of the “cheesegrater” Mac Pro, a paradigm of “big tower with expansion slots” where RAM, hard drives, and graphics cards were simple swaps, and even CPU upgrades didn’t require a lot of effort (I’ve done it myself.) The fact that Apple hasn’t shipped a product like that, and the talk in Panzarino’s article about Thunderbolt-connected eGPUs and iOS peripherals, suggests that’s not what they have in mind.

On Pro Mac Pricing Trends

A while back, Marco Arment wrote a piece on Mac Pro pricing trends over time. Inspired by some discussion on the MacRumors forums and the Incomparable Members Slack, I went ahead and charted all pro desktop Macs’ pricing trends since 1999. In addition, I’ve added another two lines representing the original prices in $USD adjusted for inflation to November 2017 (via CPI).

Here’s the data, pulled from EveryMac.com and the MacTracker application:

ProductLaunch dateBase PriceBase Price, Adj.High End PriceBase Price, Adj.
PowerMac G3 1,1 (B&W)Aug-99$1,599.00$2,360.41$2,999.00$4,427.05
PowerMac G4 3,1 (AGP/PCI models)Dec-99$1,599.00$2,336.63$3,499.00$5,128.31
PowerMac G4 3,3 (Digital Audio)Jul-00$1,599.00$2,282.54$3,499.00$4,994.76
PowerMac G4 3,4Jan-01$1,699.00$2,393.44$3,499.00$4,929.15
PowerMac G5 3,5 QuicksilverJul-01$1,699.00$2,361.07$3,499.00$4,862.51
PowerMac G4 3,6 MDDAug-02$1,699.00$2,319.25$3,299.00$4,503.38
PowerMac G4 3,6 (FW800)Jan-03$1,499.00$2,034.99$2,699.00$3,664.06
PowerMac G5 7,2Jun-03$1,999.00$2,684.22$2,999.00$4,027.00
PowerMac G5 7,3Jun-04$1,999.00$2,599.32$2,999.00$3,899.63
PowerMac G5 7,3 (2005)Apr-05$1,999.00$2,533.87$2,999.00$3,801.44
PowerMac G5 11,3 (Late 2005)Oct-05$1,999.00$2,475.36$3,299.00$4,085.15
Mac Pro 1,1Aug-06$2,199.00$2,660.25$3,299.00$3,990.98
Mac Pro 2,1Apr-07$2,199.00$2,624.39$3,999.00$4,772.60
Mac Pro 3,1Jan-08$2,299.00$2,686.62$4,399.00$5,140.69
Mac Pro 4,1Mar-09$2,499.00$2,897.98$5,899.00$6,804.11
Mac Pro 5,1Jul-10$2,499.00$2,827.50$6,199.00$7,015.35
Mac Pro 5,1 (2012 bump)Jun-12$2,499.00$2,686.21$6,199.00$6,663.39
Mac Pro 6,1Dec-13$2,999.00$3,174.27$6,499.00$6,878.82
Mac Pro 6,1 (2017 price cuts)Apr-17$2,999.00$3,025.31$4,999.00$5,042.85

And here’s the resulting graph:

Pro desktop Mac prices 1999-2017

The results show that Arments’s observation that Mac Pro prices have steadily increased over time actually holds for the pro desktop lineup in the modern era, although factoring in the real dollar cost with inflation shows that it’s not as steady a slope as the unadjusted dollars would suggest. Starting in 1999 with the release of the Blue & White PowerMac G3, which had an entry-level price of $1599 (or $2360 today), the entry-level cost of a new PowerMac and later Mac Pro slowly but steadily drifted upward, to $2999 with the release of the Mac Pro 6,1 at the end of 2013. The only significant model to buck the trend is in 2003, when Apple released the PowerMac G4 3,6 (or FW 800 Mirrored-Drive Doors) at a record-low $1499 price, just six months before it was replaced by the far-more-capable PowerMac G5.

Another interesting observation—the very end of the G4 era and the G5 era is interesting in the price difference between lowest and highest processor SKUs was at its smallest; the delta has since ballooned in the Intel era.

When considering the price of the upcoming Mac Pro, it’s worth considering the wider context of the pro desktop line. When the PowerMac G4 hit the scene, Apple was at the height of its famous four-product matrix. The iMac retailed for $999, a mere $600 dollar difference to jump from Apple’s cheapest consumer computer to their cheapest pro machine. That’s a far cry from the $2500 difference today to get you from the lowly and neglected Mac mini to the less lowly but similarly neglected Mac Pro.

 

Box Office Originality In the Modern Era

On Twitter, Todd Vaziri posted a series of tweets pointing out that domestically and worldwide, the vast majority of films this year are adaptations or sequels.

I and others pointed out that his point of comparison, 1981, was a bit odd; why a year 14 years in the past? And do two years adequately function as evidence for any sort of commentary? Todd suggested more investigation was warranted, and I agreed. There’s often an implication with these sorts of comparisons, not asserted by Todd but often declared by many others in many different places, that movies “back in the day” were better, or at least more original.

To take on that thesis, insofar as that you can objectively argue what are adaptations and sequels versus original works, I went through Box Office Mojo’s yearly domestic box office charts, and picked the original films out of each year’s top twenty.

In regards to actual classification, it’s worth noting upfront that this is really my count, and depending on what you classify as “original” you’ll end up with some fluctuation in your own tallies. I decided adaptations of historical events or people themselves were not enough to get classified as unoriginal, unless they were specifically adapted off a work. So in the case of Disney films like Hercules, Mulan, and Pocahontas—these count as original films based off historical or mythical events and characters. The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Adaptation. The Lion King? Well it’s a ripoff of Shakespeare, but counts as original in this instance (and Shakespeare himself isn’t exactly the font of unbridled creativity he’s sometimes portrayed as.) Also counted as “original” are parody movies (e.g. Scary Movie). There are some films I legitimately saw as toss-ups, such as the recent Maleficent, but counted as non-original because they were at least heavily drawing on a previous film, aside from previous folklore.

box office chart

There’s some takeaways here. First, in the selected period, there is a definite trendline of fewer original films, though it’s skewed heavily by just the last few years where the number has been historically low. Secondly, that drop can be mostly explained by “superhero movies” and “animated sequels”.

Indeed, animated films giveth, and animated films taketh away: in the 1990s and 2000s a bunch of original animated films pop up (Toy Story! Shrek! Ice Age! Despicable Me!) that prop up numbers of original films in one year, and drag it down significantly the next when there’s a glut of animated sequels (Toy Story 3! Shrek 3! Minions!)

I don’t think that there’s still enough data to say much about enduring trends, though. Certainly, as the worldwide box office has become more important, it’s made big, universal blockbusters with lots of effects much more of an important part of the filmmaking business. That’s coincided with the increased intensity of the blockbuster phenomenon itself (Jaws opened in 1975 at hundreds of theaters in an unusually wide release; these days films launch simultaneously at thousands.)

I’m wary of going more into whether or not this fixation on adapted properties and the associated tie-ins is a good thing; it’s certainly happening, and with the 2015 data not even including The Force Awakens this year is far from over for franchises. To me asserting that “original = better” is akin to the old adage of “CG is making movies worse“—which as a motion graphics guy myself strikes me as blaming computers for the failings of screenwriters and producers (Joe Rosensteel has several excellent pieces, including this one, that breaks down some of the rhetoric in the computer vs. practical effects debates.)

I included the original and inflation-adjusted domestic grosses for each year to suggest a possible counterpoint: that despite how much we complain about sequels, about how bad CG is, and how the 80s were the good old days, the increasing number of adaptations and sequels doesn’t seem to have actually hurt Hollywood. At least yet.