Ramblings of General Geekery

Missing The Point Again

I’ve seen quite a few Apple bloggers link to this piece from Adam Geitgey about the new MacBook Pro, and how it’s supposedly “kind of great for hackers”. All because you can plug a lot of different things thanks to USB-C ports1.

Huh… OK?

Well first, it’s great to see Apple users realize the benefits of standard ports – and based on how Adam seems to easily use lots of peripherals without any apparent problem, it’s good to know that some concerns about the compatibility landmine of USB-C may be overblown. I thought it was a given, that standard ports are better, and that yes, Apple ditching proprietary ports is an excellent (although baffling in some ways) development. But MacBook Pros having USB ports of any version is not a new thing. The only new thing is that they upgraded to the latest version of the standard… should we celebrate them for that? Isn’t that like saying “thank you” to cars stopping at red lights?

I feel like people are missing the point. Again.

The problem isn’t whether the new MacBook Pro is a good machine or not. It is a good machine. It’s the best MacBook Air that Apple ever released. It’s arguably an excellent MacBook, too. It’s just a shitty MacBook Pro because, in many ways, it’s a downgrade from the previous iterations – something that Apple does quite often.

But of course, it seems to pay off. Like I said before, Apple is now focused on mass consumer markets.

Someone (I don’t remember who) said that “Pro” now meant “Premium” in Apple’s line-ups. You don’t necessarily get a more complicated machine anymore. Instead, you get a fancier and pricier one. That’s arguably why they called the big iPad an “iPad Pro”. Not “iPad XL”, or “12” iPad”, or “the new new bigger iPad” or something. “Pro” is now the opposite of “Mini” and “Air2 – not the opposite of
consumer” or “simple”.

  1. You know what would be great for hackers? For Apple to stop changing,
    obfuscating, and removing the Unix-y parts of macOS. So we can keep hacking
    things. Plugging a peripheral into an USB port is not what I would call
    “hack-y”, unless I’m some character in a Hollywood blockuster thriller about
    being chased on the Internet or something. ↩︎

  2. Air” actually doesn’t mean much anymore either. It’s the middle point
    in the iPad line, but the lower point in the MacBook line. ↩︎

From New York To Stockholm

I’m back from some travels – plural, which is extremely rare for me.

New York City (first time visit) followed by the usual annual trip to Stockholm for EA’s Frostbite DevDays conference, where various game devs from the company converge from all around the world to chat and drink.

EA is a weird company in the sense that, for a video game company, people tend to stay there for very long stretches of time. It’s very common to talk to people who have been at EA for more than 10 years – at EA Vancouver, DICE, Bioware, whatever. This makes it difficult to find new points of views on technical problems… although, well, maybe it’s the same in many other big companies like Activision or UbiSoft, I don’t know.

Either way, I was happy to meet several people who not only have shipped AAA games at other companies, but also worked on those games’ cameras – which is my current area of interest, being in charge of the Frostbite Camera System. Finding people who work on (and care about!) cameras is a challenge to begin with, seeing how little infrastructure and long term investments are generally done on that crucial aspect of any game (more on that in a future post), so I’m pretty happy with this year’s conference for that, at least.

The iOS-ification of hardware

It’s been an interesting week. Apple announced some new Macbook Pros and everybody’s unhappy in the Apple blogosphere – something I wasn’t sure could happen anymore. Just look at Michael Tsai’ roundup and be amazed. All those people unhappy because they finally realized Apple doesn’t care about “pro” users. Apple effectively made a new version of the MacBook Air, but called it “Pro” and that’s obviously not a great move.

It’s not a great move because it means a lot of compromises. A shitty keyboard. Mediocre specs. No useful ports. Some people are getting into the wrong debate, discussing how Apple designs for the future, but the reality is different. Will DSLRs use USB-C keys to store photos? Will network switches use USB-C for connections? What kind of future has Apple in mind where you won’t need adapters and dongles to efficiently transfer gigantic RAW pictures onto your NAS or other safe storage?

The truth is that this has been coming for a long time. This is a company that killed their pro-sumer photo editing software Aperture and replaced it with the family-friendly Photos. The company that crushed their pro video editing software into Final Cut Pro X and only looked back when petitions grew big. The company that is, slowly, inexorably, removing or hiding pieces of macOS’s underlying Unix system. The company that, over the years, removed the ability of customers to hack their own machines, whether it’s just replacing the battery or RAM or hard-drive in a notebook, or more important upgrades like replacing the CPU or GPU in a desktop machines.

At first this was all dismissed as “reasonable” compromises because hey, look how sleek those Macs look and work compared to the competition… but more and more people started getting annoyed. And now maybe we’ve hit some kind of point of no return? I does look like the majority (or a much more vocal than previously minority) is saying “that’s enough”.

I wonder if it’s too late. Apple has made 1/6th of the keyboard into a touch screen, while the remaining keys are slowly disappearing into the frame – it’s a matter of time until that keyboard is so flat that they have no problem replacing it with a giant touch screen. Actually, hardware is becoming so integrated that I wouldn’t be surprised if next year they were announcing a yearly subscription for MacBooks, similar to the one for iPhones. You were licensing your media, and then you were licensing your software – soon you’ll be licensing your hardware. And all the while they’ll continue their (timid, for now) attempts at hiding the file-system from users. Phil Schiller may say now that they will never merge macOS and iOS together but that doesn’t mean they can’t replicate the iPhone’s success formula with Macs… and it wouldn’t be the first time an Apple exec (or any exec for that matter) flat out lied about something they were doing.

I wonder if it’s too late. Even Microsoft is doing Apple-ish stuff. Their new Surface Studio looks amazing, but instead of being a monitor you plug into a computer you can replace or upgrade, it’s an all-in-one, tightly integrated system. Either you’re rich, or you learn to live with the same specs for 6 years.

I wonder if it’s too late. Tim Cook thinks you can replace PCs with iOS devices, and that the iPad Pro is the “future of personal computing”. Sure, he’s probably talking about the average, mass-market customer here, but that tells you all you need to know about where Apple’s focus is. Apple’s focus is not on the million-dollar markets anymore. It’s on the billion-dollar ones. They’ve tasted absolute power and boy how did it absolutely taste neat.

I wonder what Apple programmers will have on their desk in 5 years… Maybe that’s what will keep Apple in check eventually – can they build software and cloud services on average consumer hardware?