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Two Cents (and not a penny more) on iPad and the Future of Computing

Topic du jour is the continuing slow decline of the iPad, and Apple’s priorities with regard to it and the steady-if-boring Mac. Background: Marco Arment’s blog The future of computing, the last two episodes (207 and 208) of Accidental Tech Podcast, and some of the reactions quoted in Michael Tsai’s Apple’s Q1 2017 results roundup.

So here’s my two cents, and I’ll keep it short. The ATP discussion considers the fact that even in its diminished state, the iPad sells twice what the Mac does, so why shouldn’t it command more attention?

Here’s a counter-argument that is being overlooked: the iPad represents effectively all of the “productivity tablet” market, which is a completely fanciful market I have pulled out of my ass because in the era of alternative facts we are apparently now allowed to do that. But seriously, the iPad is the only device where there’s any story or any expectation that it can or will be used to do more than read mail/web/ebooks and watch streaming video. Nobody is talking about doing creative work or managing documents with an Amazon Fire, for example, or the $75 piece of crap Android tablet at Big Lots. As far as using this sort of device for computing goes, the iPad is the only game in town.

And it’s shrinking.

Now even if the Mac sells less than the iPad, the PC market as a whole is massive… much larger than tablets, and larger still than my contrived “productivity tablet” market. And Mac’s not even 10% of this giant PC market.

So, in terms of growth opportunities, which is more realistic: finding non-tablet-users to adopt the iPad for their productivity or work needs (and making the iPad more suitable for that), or flipping more of the 90% of people already using PCs to a better version of the same thing?

Sure, Apple’s spent its whole life trying to woo switchers, and I’m not saying we need to pull in Justin Long and John Hodgman for a new series of “I’m a Mac” ads. But if I’m looking for growth, the ostensibly-boring personal computer might still be a better bet than turning around the iPad’s decline. At the very least, it’s a lot easier to identify who my potential new customers are.

Capitulation

So, this happened:

Yes, I bought a new Mac Pro. For certain values of “new”. Hear me out, though, after the jump.

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Alternatives…

Meanwhile, in Apple’s Mac marketing department:

Screenshot from Muv-Luv Unlimited, providing five equally bad choices

Look, you hardly need me to pile on to what’s already been said about the state of the Mac — @mjtsai is doing a bang-up job of that — but when even long-time Mac fans like @flargh say that the message is “Apple to creative pros: go f*** yourselves”, you’ve got to hope that someone with a corner office is listening.

Because in the here and now, I am badly overdue for a new Mac, and I hate all my choices.

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Let It Snow

I’m not the first to say this. Chances are you saw Marco Arment tweeting about it earlier in the week:

The latter half of 2014 has been a disaster in terms of quality of Apple software. As I was finishing up the book, I kept an index card of all the bugs I needed to file. I ran out of room.

List of bugs to file

Some of these have caused real pain, such as the Xcode 6.1 iOS Simulator not supporting internationalization — horrible for us when the third chapter of our iOS 8 SDK Development book walks through an i18n example, and a later chapter shows how to make a third-party keyboard extension, which doesn’t work because the simulator now only supports the US English and emoji keyboards.

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Doctor, It Hurts When I Downgrade Mavericks To Mountain Lion (So Don’t Downgrade Mavericks To Mountain Lion)

There are better ways to spend a rainy Monday in Grand Rapids…

I’m posting this just in case anyone else runs into this problem where you set up an older version of OS X on a partition and then when you try to log in, it does the dissolve, but then immediately returns you to the login screen. tl;dr is “forget about doing Migration Assistant from Mavericks back down to 10.6”, but that’s just what finally worked for me.

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Perfect Example of Unicode Character ‘PILE OF POO’ (U+1F4A9)

The Colony Drop Twitter account just passed along this little gem from Tumblr (transcription below):

It reads:

what is emojis? those emoticons? why are they classist?
Emojis are emoticons that can only be typed by iPhones and read by iPhones and iPod Touches. They cannot be typed or read by computers or non-smart phones. The emoji is inherently classist because it excludes people who do not own expensive Apple products. Most people cannot afford iPhones and iPod Touches… when you type an emoji, you type a symbol that only financially advantaged people can read. That is classism.

Wow. That is a lot of stupid packed into one paragraph. The first sentence alone has at least four factual errors (emoji are not emoticons per se, the plural of emoji is just “emoji”, they can be entered by devices other than iPhones, they can be read by many devices), and it doesn’t get better after that (the poster has clearly never heard of Unicode or the free-with-contract iPhone 3GS).

Obviously, it was beyond the poster’s ability to look up the Emoji entry on Wikipedia.

I’d love to quote Colony Drop’s witty comment from their tweet but, alas, WordPress can’t handle Unicode emoji!

Bored Now

A thought occurred to me last year when Apple moved the new iPhone model to a late-year release, along with the new iPad mini, and a rev’ed iPad: what are they going to do in the first half of 2013?

Think back a bit: when the iPhone first came out, it was announced in January and went on sale in like July (months are approximate… I’m trying to avoid using seasons for fear of Northern Hemisphere bias. You’re welcome, Australia.) For a few years, iPhone was a mid-year product, with a corresponding iPod touch coming out later in the year. Then the iPad came out in early 2010 and was updated again in early 2011 and early 2012. But now, all of these products got late-2012 updates. So… what does that leave for the next six months?

Macs? The iMac got updated in late-2012 too, and the laptops have moved to a mid-year schedule (with an announcement at WWDC), better suited to back-to-school buying. Even if we do get the Mythical Modern Mac Pro in the next few months — and I am by no means optimistic about that — it’s a niche product.

And as developers, everything interesting is now a once-a-year update to iOS at WWDC. OS X is supposedly moving to an annual schedule, so that should be getting previewed soon (with an eye to mid-year release), but the simple fact is that very few of us can get Mac programming gigs, so it’s not worth the time of tracking an OS X beta and its new APIs very closely.

If Cocoa development is indeed a cargo cult — and it’s a pretty comfortable cult to be in if so — then the planes aren’t coming back with new stuff until July. Literally the only thing I can imagine happening before then is an Apple TV SDK, and there are few signs of that happening soon, or ever.

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13½th Mac

Before I’m even done updating all the copies of my bio to say I’ve owned 12½ Macs over the years, now I’m up to 13½.

I have a Mac Mini that’s on 24/7 to perform various server duties — most importantly, it’s an in-house Subversion server, but it has also been a Time Capsule remote backup and a public web server (when I feel like messing with port mapping on the DSL modem and wifi router). Since it’s on all the time, I don’t mind the kids playing their stuff on it, and they complained a few times over the past month that it got hung up on login. I figured it was the usual disk issues that come with time, but when I found that it took four tries to boot from DVD, I started to suspect that the logic board or memory was about to go, and I needed to move.

So, here’s the new Mini getting set up:

Migrating from old Mini to new

Note that the old Mini started life in 2006 as a Core Solo, and is the one that I levelled up with a Core 2 Duo in 2007. So my crappy thermal paste job held up for five years… not bad.

The new one seems really slow for a brand-new i5, but that may be my being spoiled by SSDs on my Mac Pro and new MacBook Air. Also, this is the bottom-of-the-line machine with integrated graphics that uses system RAM for graphics memory, so it’s a no-brainer to head over to Crucial or NewEgg to get 8GB tout suite.

Speaking of the Air, funny story there… remember, this is a 2011 Air that I bought the week before WWDC in order to teach a class, because I believe in buying what you need when you need it, and not trying to game retailer’s return policy when a new machine comes out. Thing is, the Air had some sort of severe problem where it would just black out — not shut down, not kernel panic, just entirely turn off — and come back up from a cold boot with the clock set to 1/1/12 00:00:00 GMT. That’s either a bad SMC, bad battery, or something else seriously wrong.

I took it to the Genius Bar in Grand Rapids, perhaps fortunate that it had blacked out with the lid closed on the way home from last week’s class in Detroit. I knew that from the system log, where there was one last entry from around 10:30 PM Monday (which would have been while I was driving home), and the next one was a boot at 1/1/12 00:00:00 GMT. Problems that come and go are a bitch to demonstrate to a seller, but this one could be documented, and once the geniuses hooked up the diagnostics, the battery test failed. In the end, they decided it was more trouble than it was worth to fix, and called me the next day to send me home with a new Air. I’d have been happy with a refurb 2011 Air — all I need is something that works and is equivalent to what I bought — but it turns out I came home with the 2012, with all its USB 3 goodness. I’ve heard of stories like this, maybe a little concerned that Apple has set customer expectations of special treatment, so I set my own expectations lower.

After all, optimists can never be pleasantly surprised.

Naming scheme update on the Mini: the old one was Dagger, with external partitions Eiko and Freya. Rather than using the next name in the well-established series — Yuna is already in use, and I’d like to save Ashe for a new Mac Pro someday — I switched to Dagger’s other name, Garnet. For anyone who doesn’t understand (and actually wants to), here ya go.

12½th Mac

I’m going to be teaching intro iOS development classes this summer at Develop Detroit (no, Detroit isn’t particularly close to Grand Rapids… shut up), and between that and the Core Audio all-day tutorial I’ll be doing at CocoaConf Columbus in August, I decided that it would be a good time to update from the 2008 MacBook that takes 10-15 minutes to build the largest of my client projects.

Of course, yes, this is me, the iPad partisan who leaves the laptop at home whenever possible. But the simple fact is, I need to be in Xcode to teach these classes, and Xcode for iPad hasn’t happened yet (though I still consider it inevitable).

Given my delight at the iPad’s light weight and super-fast SSD, I of course opted for the 11″ MacBook Air, with the 4GB RAM and larger SSD.

New MacBook Air (Ovelia)

Can’t tell if it’s fully practical for Xcode yet… I’m updating from a Snow Leopard machine with Xcode 4.2, so I need to run a bunch of system and software updates just to get Xcode runnable again. Tweeps assured me that Xcode can run on the Air, even with just 4 GB (as opposed to the 10 GB that finally satisfied my Mac Pro).

If you’ve ever seen my bio, you know it ends with a count of the Macs I’ve ever owned, and I now need to update that to indicate that I’ve owned 12½ of them. Offhand (and with device names, once I started assigning those in OS X):

  • PowerBook 160
  • Performa 6400/200
  • iMac (Bondi blue)
  • iBook (Bondi blue)
  • PowerMac G4 Cube
  • iBook (G3/900)
  • PowerMac G5 – [Aeris]
  • PowerBook G4 – [Rinoa]
  • Mac Mini (Core Solo) – [Dagger]
  • MacBook (early 2008) – [Agrias]
  • Mac Pro (early 2008) – [Yuna]
  • MacBook Air (early 2012) [Ovelia]

That’s 12. So what about the “half”? I’m surprised more people don’t ask me about that. Well, my first Mac was actually the Spectre GCR, a cartridge for the Atari ST that allowed it run as a full-on Mac emulator. It required a cartridge because you needed to get the 128K Mac ROMs as a service part and mount them on the cartridge — copying them into the software would be an obvious copyright violation. But once you were all set, the Atari 520 ST basically ran as a slightly-faster Mac Plus, supporting up to System 6.0.8 (I don’t think I ever put System 7 on here before getting my first PowerBook). Since all my friends in college had Macs, this was crucial for working on projects like the writing staff of Big Game Gaieties, for which the ability to read and write Mac discs was crucial (and a pretty impressive trick, considering Mac disk drives were variable speed, and Atari ST diskettes were constant speed).

Anyways, it wasn’t a real Mac, per se, but required some Mac hardware (the ROMs) and System 6, so I count it as half a Mac.

Seriously, would it be so hard to ship a new Mac Pro?

Can’t be a WWDC prediction because Apple would never expend precious keynote time on it, but why oh why can’t we have a new Mac Pro? Seriously, it hasn’t been updated in nearly two years, and if sales are poor, that’s probably a reflection of selling 2010 technology at 2012 prices.

I don’t see either the Mini or the iMac as a suitable replacement for the Mac Pro. For me, there’s a specific issue of drive technology. I put an SSD in my Pro as the boot drive, which has given me much needed relief from the 10-minute disk-thrashing festival that is Lion startup (#lionsucks), and provides a substantial (if not extraordinary) improvement for large Xcode builds. But I have traditional platters in the other bays to handle enormous amounts of media: my 1,000-album iTunes library, all my DVD rips, Final Cut and Soundtrack projects, etc.

SSDs are a terrible choice for big media files: the files are large, seldom accessed, and are read sequentially, meaning they gain nothing from the fast-access traits of flash memory, and certainly don’t justify the price. It’s gruesome to think of the idea of someone sync’ing their iPad to a MacBook Air and burning up a big chunk of the laptop’s storage with backups of the apps… a problem I didn’t think about until my kids’ iPads exhausted the puny 60 GB internal drive in the Mac Mini the family shares.

On the Mini, I have a 1 TB external drive that houses iTunes libraries (and now hosts the various “Mobile Applications” directories, which insist on living at ~/Music/Mobile Applications, but can be moved to another volume with a Unix simlink), my Subversion repository, old websites, etc. It’s not bad, but it’s a little kludgy to have external drives sprawling all over the desk.

Well, in a no-Pro future, we’re all going to have to make that choice: either use a traditional platter in the Mini or iMac and suffer the slowness, or boot on an SSD and then waste half its capacity or connect a bunch of external drives to hold all our media and iOS backups. Alex Lindsay keeps saying on MacBreak Weekly that Apple sees Thunderbolt as obviating most of the need for Mac Pros — Thunderbolt’s bandwidth supporting external storage, multiple displays, video input, etc. — but a sprawl of daisy-chained devices all over the place seems like a return to the bad old 80’s (check out what happens when you connect all the available peripherals to a TI-99). Furthermore, third-party Thunderbolt adoption has been disappointing, and it’s hardly unfair to say it’s just FireWire all over again.

Perhaps the other story is that Apple expects iCloud to serve our long-term storage needs for things like iOS device backups and media storage. I admit I haven’t given iCloud much of a chance — I activated the first beta during WWDC 2011 and soon had three copies of all my calendar events and contacts, so I’ve been slow to trust it with my data again. So, maybe this is their long-term answer.

But in the here and now, when I’m at my desktop, I want 3.5″ drive bays and monstrous CPU and GPU capacity. Screw the MacBook Pro — the iPad has all but obviated laptops for me — I want the pro Pro back.