Sunday, March 12, 2017

I love Apple, but here are a few problems

First off, I love Apple products. I’ve had only Apple computers for just about 2 decades, and have been really happy to see their products evolve in that time from bold, renegade items to the refined, powerful computers they are today. My lab is filled with Macs, and I view the few PCs that we have to use to run our microscopes with utter disdain. (I’m sort of okay with the Linux workstations we have for power applications, but they honestly don’t get very much use and they’re kind of a pain.)

That said, lately, I’ve noticed a couple problems, and these are not just things like “Apple doesn’t care about Mac software reliability” or “iTunes sucks” or whatever. These are fundamental bets Apple has made, one in hardware and one in software, that I think are showing signs of being misplaced. So I wrote these notes on the off chance that somehow, somewhere, they make their way back to Apple.

One big problem is that Apple’s hardware has lost its innovative edge, mostly because Apple seems disinclined to innovate for various reasons. This has become plainly obvious by watching the undergraduate population at Penn over the last several years. A few years ago, it used to be that a pretty fair chunk of the undergrads I met had MacBook Airs. Like, a huge chunk. It was essentially the standard computer for young people. And rightly so: it was powerful (enough), lightweight, not too expensive, and the OS was clean and let you do all the things you needed to do.

Nowadays, not so much. I’m seeing all these kids with the Surfaces and so forth that are real computers, but with a touch screen/tablet “mode” as well. And here’s the thing: even I’m jealous. Now, I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I have read enough Apple commentary on various blogs to get Apple’s reasons for not making such a computer. First off, Apple believes that most casual users, perhaps including students, should just be using iPads, and that iOS serves their needs while providing the touch/tablet interface. Secondly, they believe that the touch interface has no place, both ergonomically or in principle, on laptop and desktop Macs. And if you’re one of the weird people who somehow needs a touch interface and full laptop capabilities, you should buy both a Mac and an iPad. I’m just realizing now that Apple is just plain wrong on this.

Why don’t I see students with iPads, or an iPad Pro instead of a computer? The reality is that, no matter how much Apple wants to believe it and Apple fans want to rationalize it (typically for “other people”), iOS is just not useful for doing a lot of real work. People want filesystems. People want to easily have multiple windows open, and use programs that just don’t exist on iOS (especially students who may need to install special software for class). The few people I know who have iPad Pros are those who have money to burn on having an iPad Pro as an extra computer, but not as a replacement. The ONLY person I know who would probably be able to work exclusively or even primarily with an iPad is my mom, and even she insists on using what she calls a “real” computer (MacBook Pro).

(Note about filesystems: Apple keeps trying to push this “post-filesystem” world on us, and it just isn’t taking. Philosophical debates aside, here’s a practical example: Apple tried to make people switch away from using “Save As…” to a more versioned system more compatible with the iOS post-filesystem mindset, with commands like “Revert” and “Duplicate”. I tried to buy in, I really did. I memorized all the weird new keyboard shortcuts and kept saying to myself “it’ll become natural any day now”. Never did. Our brains just don’t work that way. And it’s not just me: honestly, I’m the only one in my lab who even understands all this “Duplicate” “Revert” nonsense. The rest of them can’t be bothered—and mostly just use other software without this “functionality” and… Google Drive.)

So you know what would be nice? Having a laptop with a tablet mode/touch screen! Apple’s position is it’s an interface and ergonomic disaster. It’s hard to use interface elements with touch, and it’s hard to use a touch screen on a vertical laptop screen. There are merits to these arguments, but you know what? I see these kids writing notes freehand on their computer, and sketching drawings on their computer, and I really wish I could do that. And no, I don’t want to lug around an iPad to do that and synchronize with my Mac via their stupid janky iCloud. I want it all in one computer. The bottom line is that Surface is cool. Is it as well done as Apple would do it? No. But it does something that I can’t do on an Apple, and I wish I could. Apple is convinced that people don’t want to do those things, and that you shouldn’t be able to do those things. The reality seems to be that people do want to do those things and that it’s actually pretty useful for them. Apple’s mistake is thinking that the reason people bought Apples was for design purity. We bought Apples because they had design functionality. Sometimes these overlap, which has been part of Apple’s genius over the last 15 years, and so you can mistake one for the other. But in the end, a computer is a tool to do things I need.

Speaking of which, the other big problem that Apple has is its approach to cloud computing. I think it’s pretty universally acknowledged that Apple’s cloud computing efforts suck, and I won’t document all that here. Mostly, I’ve been trying to understand exactly why, and I think that the fundamental problem is that Apple is thinking synchronize while everyone else is thinking synchronous. What does that mean? Apple’s is stuck in an “upload/download” (i.e., synchronize) mindset from ten years ago while everyone else has moved on to a far more seamless design in which the distinction between cloud and non-cloud is largely invisible. And whatever attempts Apple has made to move to the latter have been pretty poorly executed (although that at least gives hope that they are thinking about it).

Examples abound, and they largely manifest as irritations in using Apple’s software. Take, for example, something as simple as the Podcast App in the iPhone, which I use every day when I bike to work (using Aftershokz bone conduction headphones, suhweet, try them!). If I didn’t pre-download the next podcast, half the time, it craps out when it gets to the next episode in my playlist, even though I have cell service the whole way. Why? Because when it gets there, it waits to download the next one before playing, and sometimes gets mixed up during the download. So I end up trying to remember to pre-download them. And then I have to watch space with all the downloads, making sure the app removes the downloads. Why am I even thinking about this nowadays? Why can’t it just look at my playlist and make them play seamlessly? Upload/download is an anachronism from a time of synchronize when most things are moving to synchronous.

Same with AppleTV (sucks) compared to Netflix on my computer, or Amazon on my computer, or HBO, or whatever. They just work without me having to thinking about the pre-download of the whatever before the movie can start.

I suppose there was a time when this was important for when you were offline. Whatever, I’m writing this in a Google Doc on an airplane without WiFi. And when I get back online, it will all just merge up seamlessly. With careful thought, it can be done. (And yes, I am one of the 8 people alive who has actually used Pages on the web synchronized with Pages on the Mac—not quite there yet, sorry.)

To its credit, I think Apple does sort of get the problem, belatedly. Problem is that when they have tried synchronous, it’s not well done. Take the example of iCloud Photos or whatever the hell they call it. One critical new feature that I was excited about was that it will sense if you’re running out of space on your device and then delete local copies of old photos, storing just the thumbnails. All your photos accessible, but using up only a bit of space, sounds very synchronous! Problem is that as currently implemented, I have only around 150MB free on my Phone and ~1+ GB of space used by Photos. Same on my wife’s MacBook Pro: not a lot of HD space, but Photos starts doing this cloud sync only when things are already almost completely full. The problem is that Apple views this whole system as a backup measure to kick in only in emergencies, when if they bought into the mentality completely, Photos on my computer would take up only a small fraction of the space it does, freeing up the rest of the computer for everything else I need it to do (you know, with my filesystem). Not to mention that any synchronization and space freeing is completely opaque and happens seemingly at random, so I never trust it. Again, great idea, poor execution.

Anyway, I guess this was marginally more productive than doing the Sudoku in back of United Magazine, but not particularly so, so I’ll stop there. Apple, please get with it, we love you!