The Stochastic Game

Ramblings of General Geekery

Posts tagged with opinion

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 thatApple 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. 


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?


Missing The Point

It’s September 2016, and Apple showed once again some pretty cool hardware: dual cameras, clever asymmetrical core design, water resistance, blah blah. I’m not interested since I already have the very recent 6S (I’m not that rich or desperate) but it’s a very nice piece of technology.

The change that will create the most ripples on the rest of the market however is the removal of the headphone jack, I think. Actually, scratch that. The removal in itself is not that important – it’s what they replaced it with that’s important. Yet, 90% of the press gets hung up on the removal.

I think they’re all missing the point.

Comparison

The matter of the jack port removal is temporary. It’s going to be very annoying for those of us whose audio needs are not limited to “one phone and one pair of headphones”, but it will be temporary. Hopefully.

I don’t imagine Lightning port headpones will take off – as a manufacturer you’d have to be crazy to invest in a proprietary connector for which you need to pay licensing fees, which is something you didn’t have to do before, and which would also prevent you from selling your products to half of your market. Plus, even low-cost manufacturers are already able, to some degree, to produce relatively cheap Bluetooth headphones. So that’s where the market will go, and where Apple wants to go anyway.

AirPods for cheap

The real problem is that in my opinion Apple opened a can of worms with their wireless headphones: they run with a proprietary “secret sauce” layer on top of Bluetooth. Some people are worried about the potential for DRM but I’m mostly wondering if we’ll see some kind of “wireless protocol war” starting in the next couple years.

Right now, Apple’s “secret sauce” is supposed to be backwards compatible with normal Bluetooth devices, but you know how these things go. The proprietary layer will get bigger with each new release – I’m even expecting that you’ll have to download firmware updates for your headphones on a regular basis soon – but all those cool features will create envy. You can bet that someone like Samsung will come up with their half-assed version of another proprietary layer on top of Bluetooth, as a “me too” feature. Maybe there’s going to be a couple of those out there. Some of those implementations may have some kind of DRM, added under pressure from the movie or music industry, in exchange for some short term IP, marketing, or financial boost.

Eventually the Bluetooth SIG will try and draft some new version of Bluetooth that tries to fix all the basic problems that really should have been fixed before anybody decided to remove the jack port… and meanwhile, Apple has a 5+ year lead on wireless technology, keeps growing their accessory licensing revenue, and is laughing at how everybody else is still having trouble pairing headphones correctly. It’s like the dark ages of the W3C all over again, for audio.

So yeah, Apple is really clever here. I’ve got no doubt iPhone users will be buying increasingly more “W1” enabled headphones from approved manufacturers… it’s a smart move. But not a courageous one. Courage would be to open-source their Bluetooth layer. Courage would be to work with the Bluetooth SIG (which they’ve been a member of since last year) to improve wireless audio for everyone.

Hopefully Apple finds some real courage soon.


Wireless is better than wired

Gruber, about Apple probably removing the jack and maybe shipping wireless earbuds by default with the next iPhone:

[…]not that one port is better than another, but that wireless is better than wired.

It’s not that wireless is better than wired – it’s that Bluetooth (as it’s widely speculated that Apple would still stick to that technology) is a far better alternative than something proprietary like the Lightning port. The complete absence of the “proprietary vs. compatible/open” considerations from the Apple bloggers is not only baffling but incredibly worrying to me. If Apple was to use, say, AirPlay, that would still be a terrible choice.

A transition towards Bluetooth as the replacement to the venerable jack port would be tolerable in the short term, and would maybe (hopefully) drive improvement on how OSes and devices work with it – for instance, the experience of switching your wireless headphones between devices is far from ideal, and that’s a very common scenario for me, almost on a daily basis. But frankly, I’m not looking forward to having to manage yet another battery level, and having headphones become obsolete with wireless protocol updates.


Apple Headphones

The “Apple removing the headphone jack plug” story is warming up again.

The 2 best arguments against removing the jack plug in favor of a digital port, in my opinion, have been put forward by Patel and Streza in the previously linked articles:

  • Opportunities for audio DRM.
  • Necessity to move the DAC and amp into the headphones – which will most probably sound worse than before on average, or raise the price of headphones in general.

I can add one more that I haven’t seen yet:

  • A shared connector like Lightning or USB (as opposed to a port dedicated for headphones) means a connector that will change in a few years. Some of us buy expensive headphones that we expect to last for 10 or 20 years – well below the life expectancy of those digital ports.

The interesting thing though is that pro-removal people often make a weird logical leap. For instance, Gruber:

Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever? If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when?

He does his best to compare the jack plug to floppy disk drives, and how eventually it will all work out and Apple will once again be proven right in their forward thinking awesomeness… but the floppy disk drives weren’t replaced with a proprietary Apple device. They were replaced with USB sticks and downloads, all of which are superior in every way to floppy disks. It’s definitely not the case for the Lightning port – to quote OSNews’ Thom Holwerda: “as far as I can tell, there are only downsides”.

The whole point isn’t whether the jack plug is up for grabs or not – it’s debatable whether it should be right now, but nothing is sacred in technology. The whole point is that the replacement needs to fulfill the basic requirements that we expect from something to use headphones with. The Lightning port fails so many of those requirements (“standard” being probably the most important one) that it’s a really bad and, yes, user-hostile choice.

It’s a great choice for Apple however. It grows their accessories revenue, strengthen their hold on their users, and generally speaking puts them even more in control. It’s such a great idea for Apple that I can actually totally see them doing it. A lot of people will complain, but pretty much everybody will put up with it, as the cost of switching is much higher than the cost of tagging along. And what does it matter if it splits the audio market in two because of the proprietary port? It’s not like Gruber and other Apple bloggers are very sensitive about life outside of the walled garden anyway.