Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Seams, Stitches, And The Decline Of The Mac

I wonder if anybody at Apple realises that every argument they make against adding touch screens to the Mac is also an argument against the iPad being a Mac replacement?

Apple announced new iPads Pro, a Mac Mini and a MacBook Air this week. This prompted a lot of writing and coverage as usual but for me it hammered home just how much of a mess Apple is making of its productivity devices.

This isn’t an ‘Apple is doomed’ post. Apple is clearly in great shape as a business. They’re doing well selling life management devices, aka ‘phones’. And they’ll continue to make a decent buck selling a variety of services to consumers under the iCloud/iTunes umbrella.

But for a lot of us who have been using their productivity devices for work (iPad and MacBook Pro, in my case) their positioning is worrying.

The Mac

From a 2014 article at CNET:

Federighi added that it’s awkward and uncomfortable to sit at a desk and continuously reach forward to touch a computer screen.

And Federighi again, this time from a 2018 article in Wired:

We really feel that the ergonomics of using a Mac are that your hands are rested on a surface, and that lifting your arm up to poke a screen is a pretty fatiguing thing to do

The ergonomics of an iPad being used for productivity tasks with an external keyboard are actually worse than that of a laptop with a touchscreen. You can’t use an external touchpad or mouse. You have to use the touch screen, even in the cases where a mouse or touchpad would be vastly more effective (such as with text selection).

If having a touchscreen doesn’t help tasks that require keyboards and/or a precise, indirect pointer (i.e. trackpad or mouse) then that invalidates the positioning of the iPad as a productivity device.

If their conclusion is that a touch screen is counterproductive during these tasks then that positioning is a joke.

Of course, Apple’s messaging is insincere. One of Apple’s long term failings is that their obsession with secrecy and misleading their competitors inevitably results in misleading and deceitful public statements.

That much isn’t new.

What is new in the post-iPad era is how insincere their product positioning has been.

Before the iPad, Apple used to have extremely clear product positioning:

  • iPhone for communications and managing your life
  • MacBook Air for portable productivity
  • MacBook Pro for the power user
  • iMacs or the Mac Mini for the desktop user (depending on whether you wanted to bring your own screen or not)
  • Mac Pro for the high end power user

Now, their only clear product positioning is the iPhone: they present it as the best, most privacy-conscious device for managing your life. While the ‘best’ part is debatable, being privacy-conscious is a solid way to differentiate it from Google’s Android.

The rest of their line-up, however, is just a jumbled mess. They have a ton of devices with 11-13 inch screens. All of them are ostensibly targeting the portable productivity category with little to no differentiation.

All of the compromises their ‘pro’ machines make are in favour of portability. None of their devices make any meaningful compromises in portability to add ‘pro’ features (which would be an incredibly easy way to differentiate the MacBooks Pro from the rest or even the Macs in general from the iPads).

Instead of each product line seeing an iterative evolution that improves its differentiation, positioning, and suitability for its target demographics, what we’re actually getting every time they update any of the MacBook product lines is just another spin of the “let’s make a new MacBook Air variant” wheel.

Really. Every. Single. Time.

  • MacBook: “let’s see if that MacBook Air lightning can strike twice”
  • MacBook Pro: “Thinner is better! Just like the MacBook Air!"
  • New MacBook Air: “Just like our MacBook Pro, which was like the original MacBook Air, except this time with tapered edges!"

Sometimes they add a gimmick like the Touch Bar but for the most part every new laptop update they make is just another go at the same 12-13 inch ultra-portable category.

At this point it’s a safe bet that the next MacBook Pro update will just be more of the same. A little thinner. A little lighter. More battery and performance compromises and an unreliable keyboard.

Which would be bad enough if Apple’s focus on the iPad wasn’t casting doubt on the future of the Mac as a platform.

The iPad

I love my iPad. I really do. It’s an iPad Air 2. Still works great. And I read everything on it: ebooks, websites, feeds, social media, news, PDFs, comics.

It’s fantastic for reading and browsing photos. Even, occasionally, for watching video.

It isn’t a replacement for any of my productivity devices

Writing is a huge pain on it because text selection on all touch screen devices is a huge pain. The ‘press to get an on-screen trackpad’ feature, which is useful on the phone, becomes a gimmick on the iPad. It only works with an on-screen keyboard and serious writing requires an external keyboard.

So, the iPad is an inferior alternative for any task that involves a lot of work with text. You can make it work, sure. But it is objectively a worse choice for most people.

Even tasks that it should be great at, image manipulation and similar graphical tasks, are problematic because of explicit OS limitations:

  • These tasks often require a lot of disk space. The storage requirements of working with raw images (from my Fujifilm X-T20, for example) and the iPad’s inability to use external storage means that they can only ever be secondary devices for these tasks. Cloud storage is not a realistic requirement for most people when your storage needs can easily hit the multi-TeraByte range.

  • These tasks often require a lot of screen real estate and productively using an external (non-touch) screen to extend the iPad’s screen real estate requires the use of an indirect pointer such as a trackpad or a mouse. Which iOS explicitly does not support. Otherwise the extended screen can only be used for mirroring or for non-interactive previews. And even if you could get a touch-capable external monitor the usability would be limited. You still could’t drag a file (for example) from one screen to another using touch, even if the OS supported such a screen.

  • iOS’s support for automation is still too limited. It’s gotten better with the rollout of the Shortcuts app but a command-line—especially one that can ‘talk’ to the other apps on the device—is an extremely powerful productivity feature that visual apps like Shortcuts, Automator, or Workflow can never fully replicate. Combining the power of the command line with a decades old ecosystem like the Unix/Linux ecosystem would be a killer app for many productivity use cases. Microsoft understands this, which is why Windows got the Windows Subsystem for Linux. Google understands this which is why ChromeOS is getting hack-free Linux app support (command-line and graphical).

Those are just the issues that are baked into iOS and doesn’t go into how potentially problematic Apple’s app store policies can be when it comes to making a healthy environment for productivity apps, but that is a topic for another day.

(Also, iOS, Android, and ChromeOS all suffer from a shortage of good productivity apps. And iOS arguably has it least bad of the three in terms of app availability. Which suggests that the issue isn’t just a question of App Store policies.)

For the reasons listed above the iPad Pro just can’t be a good productivity device for a large portion of the market they are positioning it for, mostly due to intentional OS limitations. It is objectively a poor choice, lacking essential features for a lot of users but Apple is still positioning it as a fully fledged MacBook/MacBook Air replacement.

They have to know that this positioning is outright deceitful. There is just no way they don’t know that it’s unsuitable for a lot of the jobs they are positioning it for.

What makes this worse is that the iPad Pro hardware is amazing. It’s fast, powerful, light, and has a great screen. It’s what the Surface Pro wishes it could be.

But, the iOS team and the iPad hardware team are clearly working from two different playbooks and Apple pretending they aren’t is just making it look confused.

The Seams

Ever since Apple switched to Intel, you could make a strong case that their laptops were objectively the best available.

The best laptops running the nicest-to-use OS.

But since that peak, the competition has caught up and continued to invest in their desktop OSes. Windows and ChromeOS are both improving at a greater pace than macOS. And while iOS gets substantial improvements every year, most of those improvements aren’t meaningful for productivity tasks.

Even if you don’t think the competition has caught up, it’s only a matter of time before they do. The only aspect of the ‘Apple’ experience that Windows and ChromeOS are unlikely to every achieve is the relatively seamless experience of the Apple ecosystem and user experience.

That’s fine. ‘Seamless’ is overrated.

Sometimes the explicit, in-your-face, presence of an obvious stitch in the conceptual architecture of your software is essential to help the user understand what is going on and how to make the most use of it.

You can’t support external drives, screens, or trackpads in a locked down touch device without introducing a seam or two into your design. And you can’t add touch support to an OS designed for indirect pointers without unravelling the fabric a bit and then stitching it back together in obvious and obtrusive ways. Devices that are supposed to help you out with complex tasks have to be learnable. That means that completely masking the device OS’s workings to create a seamless experience can actually make it less suitable for the task it’s designed for.

The mistake Apple is making, and has always made to some extent, is to confuse seams and stitches with ugliness.

Seamlessness isn’t pretty; it’s opaque and obscures the underlying structures of the tool you are making.

A stitch or a seam isn’t ugly; it’s an affordance that exposes the design, construction, and make of what you’ve made in a way that lends itself to learning.

Beauty and uniformity are two entirely independent characteristics. Seamlessness can look ugly and stitches can be pretty.

Good design can only be seamless when it has just one job to do. Add more jobs and seamlessness becomes a hindrance.

Apple used to know this.

The Mac at its peak was a patchwork quilt of every major computing paradigm available at the time:

  • WIMP-oriented (Windows, Icons, Menu, and Pointer) Mac apps? Definitely.
  • Unix CLI? Yes, and thank you.
  • Cross-platform browser-based services? Absolutely.
  • Flash apps? You got it.
  • Ugly java apps? Ugly gets the work done!
  • Windows apps? Dual-boot using Apple-provided drivers.
  • Archaic X Windows apps? Here’s an Apple-maintained X Windows Server.

You think it’s interesting that Google has added support for desktop Linux apps to ChromeOS? Apple literally did that for Mac OS X fifteen years ago.

The Mac is full of seams and is the more beautiful for it. Microsoft and Google seem to understand that and the directions they are taking Windows and ChromeOS, respectively, are more faithful to the spirit of Mac OS X than wherever it is that macOS is heading these days.

At some point after its success with the iPhone, Apple, as an organisation, fell in love with seamlessness and conceptual uniformity to a degree that is compromising the usefulness of both the iPad and the Mac.

Meanwhile Windows, ChromeOS, and even desktop Linux environments like Gnome are all forging paths forward that embraces seams as inevitable and accept that the complex and diverse tasks facing its users require complex and diverse solutions.

Gnome 3-based OSes like Ubuntu or PopOS are excellent software development environments and have come a long, long way over the past decade. A Dell XPS 13 with Ubuntu pre-installed is a great laptop that’s going to be just as effective a web development tool as a MacBook Pro. And you don’t have to pay a premium for a Touch Bar you won’t use.

The Surface devices are all amazing devices for graphical work, letting you switch from using a mouse, to a pen, to touch as needed while supporting a range of great applications. This used to be the Mac’s core target audience. Not anymore.

And if most of the apps you are using are web-based with the occasional Android app in the mix, ChromeOS is an affordable alternative. It honestly isn’t great (yet) but, if you can tolerate Google Docs, it’s a cost-effective and productive writing tool, largely because the OS isn’t afraid to let you have both a trackpad and a touch screen if you want it.

Given Apple’s inability to commit to making the improvements the Mac and the iPad need to improve as productivity devices and their seeming unwillingness to invest in the Mac, the sensible thing for users to do is to migrate away from using Apple devices for work or for creativity. Apple’s obsession with secrecy means we have no idea what they’re planning to do with the Mac (or, honestly, the iPad). Which wouldn’t be a problem if we could trust that Apple wasn’t planning to abandon us as a target market.

The MacBook Air, very probably Apple’s most popular Mac, has spent most of the past five years as an outdated, overpriced and slow relic. The new version is its first meaningful update in eight years.

When Apple pays this little attention to what is almost certainly its most popular Mac, it’s rational for Mac users to worry that Apple has stopped investing in the platform.

When Apple keeps positioning the iPad as the next generation of productivity devices but none of that positioning involves implementing any of the four major missing productivity features mentioned above (external trackpads or mice, external storage, better use of external displays, and proper scripting) it’s also rational for productivity users and media creators to worry that Apple simply is not interested in us as a market.

When Apple no longer has a dedicated macOS team but instead has one OS team to serve all devices, both Mac and iPad users should be worried that the needs of the iPhone consumer market are going to dominate and both the macOS and iPad productivity features will suffer.

When Apple’s drive for secrecy prevents them from telling us what exact plans they have, long term, for both the iPad and the Mac—which would be the single most effective way of putting our doubts to rest—it’s rational for us to start to look elsewhere.

Since the late 80s I’ve primarily been a Mac user (with some desktop Linux experimentation in college, as you do). I didn’t give up on the Mac in the 90s, even though I probably should have. I weathered the transition to Mac OS X even though many of the apps I used didn’t. I’ve been here from (almost) the beginning but I’m not going to hang around for the long, drawn out end.

Continuing to invest in the Mac when I have no idea what Apple has planned for it just isn’t an option.

A couple of weeks ago I bought myself an Intel NUC even though I was anticipating Apple finally updating the Mac Mini this week.

On one disk I installed Windows 10 and Capture One and on the other I set up Ubuntu for web development. And, since the Windows Subsystem for Linux is working better than I expected, I may even drop the Ubuntu drive in favour of getting more disk space for photos. Windows is a bit clunky to use, but that’s mostly because it’s completely unfamiliar to me.

Capture One is blazing fast on this device. It is a joy to use. Windows 10 overall is nicer than I expected. Even Ubuntu’s Gnome 3.0 was nice and easy to use, only really held back in my case by a lack of applications for working with photographs.

I’m still using a 2015 13 inch MacBook Pro as my primary work laptop. And I’m going to keep using it for as long as it lasts as it really is a great laptop. But unless something drastic changes, I think it’s going to be the last Mac I’ve bought. For work purposes both Windows 10 and Ubuntu are more than good enough. Either is likely to suit when the time comes to get a new work laptop.

(Which will hopefully not be any time soon. I really like this laptop.)

I will probably get a new iPad when my Air 2 dies. An iPad is still a great secondary device. But it won’t be my primary productivity device.

Apple keeps saying that we should just trust them—they have great plans for the Mac. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. I don’t know and I can’t know, because of their obsession with secrecy. Apple has squandered the trust they had earned over the years. They’ve let their Mac product lines languish and they’ve continually compromised usability and productivity on the altar of portability and out of a dubious adherence to aesthetic consistency.

I’ve yet to see them take a single meaningful action to earn back our trust. A higher-specced iMac, a well overdue update to the MacBook Air, and a spec-bump to the 15” MacBook Pro are not meaningful actions but the minimum effort required to stay in the productivity and media creation business.

Meaningful actions require transparency. They require a public commitment to give professionals and creators the tools they need even if that makes the devices less elegant or bulkier. They require admitting that to make iOS more useful you would have to introduce seams and stitches into the iPad user experience. They require exploring adding touch interfaces to macOS.

Meaningful actions require a lot. But Apple is only giving us a little.

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