My Take on the WWDC Keynote: Net Positive

First, if you’ve not watched the WWDC Keynote yet, you can watch it here: WWDC 2016 Keynote (You can also see a write-up over at Wired and a Liveblog of the event at Engadget.) There are a few things that came up that I think are pretty notable.

First, Continuity continues to be a big push: Apple wants as seamless an ecosystem as possible across all devices and platforms in their stable of products. We started seeing some elements of this in Yosemite and El Capitan, and it looks like they’re doubling down on it in Sierra. I have some reservations about this — mainly, lock-in and whether or not it will play well with third parties. The concept itself, though, makes a ton of sense. I’m curious to see what sort of response we’ll see from Microsoft and Google in this space (MS is starting to point this direction with their push towards a single core across platforms, but at the same time we’re seeing a de-emphasis of Windows Phone, so curious how this will play out).

Second, Machine Learning. All the big players are getting into it (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant), and Apple has clearly invested heavily in this area, with tight integration of Siri into iOS and macOS. One thing I think is notable about Apple’s choices with this, though, is keeping the AI on-device, rather than web-driven. I’m very curious to see how this evolves in future releases.

Third, Security, Privacy, and Encryption. Several times in the keynote, they made a point of calling out that they’re NOT building profiles of user, and are keeping PII on your device, not on their servers. This emphasis on privacy (and security) pervades a number of the choices they’re making, which I applaud them for committing to. While I disagree with some of their product decisions (single-port computers, charging ports on the bottom of the new magic mouse, etc), I genuinely appreciate that they’re sticking to their guns in the face of pressure from the government.

Fourth, Opening up new APIs. A big concern I’ve had in recent releases from Apple is continued lockdown of services, where it felt like if you weren’t Apple, you couldn’t play on the playground. This release sees several integrated services get opened up to third parties (Messages, Maps, Siri being the big three to me), which gives me some hope that Apple isn’t entirely forgetting what made OS X so great.

Fifth, Swift Playground. It’s worth noting that this closed out the keynote, and for good reason. Apple is committing to bringing programming into education in a big way, by making what appears to be a robust learning app that targets youth where they are (mobile devices like iPads), teaching them a language they can directly use for real, complex applications. This is a big win for both Apple and STEM: For Apple, it gets a new generation of developers started using their tools, environment, and language, which you can bet will make an impact on what they choose to use in the future. For STEM, they’re providing free tools, free resources (entire books, including guides on how to teach it and incorporate into your curriculum), already targeted to youth. That’s awesome. You can read more about the whole initiative at their Everyone Can Code page.

It wasn’t covered in the keynote, but has been brought up elsewhere: they’re also releasing a new Apple File System, replacing the old and creaky HFS+. This is significant: Apple’s been using HFS (and then an expanded HFS+) for basically the entire time Mac OS has existed. From reports, it sounds like a robust, next-generation file system that brings some brilliant and essential features. While we likely won’t see the OS truly make the most of these new features until the version after Sierra, this is still quite interesting, and I’m excited to see what gets done with it.

Overall, it felt like a productive developer-centric keynote. It leaves me feeling cautiously hopeful about the future of the ecosystem, and that they’re placing their bets in the right places.

Lions, Dashboards, and Calculators (Oh My!)

This summer, Apple is planning to release their next iteration of Mac OS X, 10.7 (codenamed “Lion”). From the looks of things, their primary focus this time around is interface improvements to make the user experience more fluid and effective. In general, I’m liking what I’ve been seeing, though looking at the system requirements that have been coming out suggests that I’ll be on the hairy edge of being able to run it at all (a Core 2 Duo or higher is required, of which I’m running the first Core 2 Duo Macbook Pro they offered), so I’m not sure how much real benefit I’ll be seeing in the near future. That said, one of the design changes they’re making seems like a horrible idea: they’re moving the Dashboard into its own space, rather than continuing to work as an overlay over whatever screen you’re on.

Given that the dashboard is for quick-reach, simple widgets, this seems remarkably backwards, and more like something you’d do to get people to not use it so it can be phased out of a later release. Think about it for a second: widgets are meant to show information at a glance, i.e. without significantly interfering or distracting the user from their task at hand. While several widgets seem like simply a bad idea to be shoved into their own space, there are a few that will have their usefulness significantly reduced, most notably the calculator.

To be clear, the dashboard calculator is not especially robust. It has no history or “tape”, no special functions, just your basic arithmetic. About the extent of its bells and whistles is that it accepts numeric input instead of being forced to use the buttons. But you know what? That’s the point. It’s a simple calculator for when you want to run some numbers really quickly, without interfering with the rest of your workflow. More often than not, these numbers will be pulled off a website or email, or chat. You aren’t particularly invested in running the numbers, you just want to check them really quickly. This, specifically, is the value of the dashboard calculator: just pull up the dashboard, and you can punch in the numbers, which are still visible, into the calculator for a quick total, without going through the process of loading up a separate application. I don’t want to have to constantly page back and forth between two screens just to run a quick number check. At that point, why not just use the actual Calculator app?

I doubt I’ll ever know, but I would love to find who made this particular design decision and ask them what on earth they were thinking.

The MacBook Update

As I’m sure many are aware, Apple updated their laptop line today. There are some interesting technological advances going on, but (and their stock fluctuations today can attest) there seems to be a large backlash against several changes they made to their lineup — some justifiable, some spurious. Let’s look at the spurious complaints first:

  • “There’s no DVI port!” — and were you making the same complaint when DVI started to supersede VGA? Let’s be objective about this: DisplayPort is a VESA-certified industry standard meant specifically to address the needs of the computing market, in the same way that HDMI is meant to address the consumer electronics market. There are adapters already in existence to convert from DisplayPort to DVI (or even VGA) and back again. I know it’s hard when new standards come out, but you need to recognize that they’re coming out because what we have is no longer suitable for moving forward. HDMI is a marked improvement over Component. Well, DisplayPort is a marked improvement over DVI.
  • “There’s no button on the trackpad!” — anyone who has been paying attention could see this coming — look at the iPhone and iPod Touch and tell me you couldn’t foresee virtualized buttons coming. There are some complaints that they hate “tap-to-click,” and I can certainly concede that, but from looking at hands-on reports of the new setup, the system is designed in such a way that your muscle memory to hit the button with your thumb will still work in exactly the same fashion. The current button on the trackpads drops a millimeter, maybe two — you are in effect already “tapping” the button. The short of it is that by going to a virtualized solution, it becomes easier to adapt the trackpad to specific needs and solutions. I’m certain I can’t be the only who sees this.

There are definitely some very real gripes to be had, however:

  • “The black keyboard and black bezel are ugly.” — yes, I’m counting this as a real gripe. While from the exterior, the new laptops are sexy, when you open them up, the result a step backward; it is reminiscent of several offerings by Sony, Acer, even HP. Some are heralding it as a return to the Powerbook Titanium design philosophy, but I don’t really see that as a good thing. Why go back, when they clearly had so many options to move forward? Their external keyboards use a white on silver color scheme that would be markedly less jarring, let alone going with a silver-silver like they did with prior MacBook Pros. I consider this a valid complaint because part of what gets people to buy a Mac instead of a PC isn’t just the OS, it’s the hardware. The more it looks like everyone else’s offerings, the less reason there is to purchase the (more expensive) Mac option. Black on silver does not look good, I’m sorry. If they were going to go with the black bezel and black keyboard, in my opinion they should have gone with a black body. Either anodized or powder-coated black aluminum would still qualify for their EPEAT Gold rating, and yet would overall be more aesthetically unified.
  • “No firewire in the MacBooks!” — completely agreed. I don’t know what the hell Apple was thinking. Adding a FireWire 800 port would not have been difficult, even in the smaller enclosure, and yet by doing so, there would be a wealth of devices that would become available, including daisy chained hard drives and their own Target Disk Mode. Yes, that’s right, they’ve removed a technology that makes it easier to buy more of their products (by easing the process of migration). I understand the desire to further delineate between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, but this is a grievous oversight.
  • “The dual graphics cards are neat, but can only use one or the other!” — I’m on the fence as to whether this is a valid or invalid complaint. My suspicion is that when 10.6 rolls out and OpenCL and Grand Central becomes more of a reality, we’ll start seeing the ability to prioritize processes and send some to one card, and others to another. If not Apple, then a third party developer. Given that nVidia has gone on record saying they’re supporting OpenCL, I think this is a reasonable prognostication. In the meantime, however, it’s just a “shiny-shiny” to give the marketers something to chew on. I really don’t care about the difference between a 4 hour and a 5 hour battery life — more often than not, if I’m in one place for that long, I’m able to plug in somewhere. So why not save the space in the laptop and just do the high end graphics card? (Of course, I consider this yet another reason to believe that there WILL be communication across the two cards in the future.)

I’m still very interested in getting a new MacBook Pro, as my current machine is starting to get long in the tooth and showing its age. Once I have a job that I can justify the expense, I imagine I’ll be getting one of the new machines, but if you’re in the generation immediately prior, I’d be hard pressed to encourage an upgrade. Honestly, a part of me (as lustful for a new machine as I am) wants to wait and see if they start offering a gun-metal-black iteration in 6 months.

Leopard and You

I’m currently sitting in the conference room of the Hilton in Dedham, waiting for the Mac OS X Leopard Tech Talk to start (it’s a developer seminar previewing the new stuff coming up in 10.5… they did one for 10.4 as well that I made it to). I’m still pretty pleased that I managed to make it here, as they really are a lot of fun, and I like knowing things, even if I don’t really get a chance to make much use of it. I won’t necessarily be liveblogging the event (some of this is still under NDAs), but I will try to give a general sense of what’s coming up without getting in trouble with Apple’s legal department. It’s really nice sitting here and seeing dozens and dozens of MacBooks, Powerbooks, and MacBook Pros, and logging into the complimentary available wireless network and seeing everyone up via Bonjour. If I were a bit more adventurous, I’d even try IMing people.

[Update: 2 PM They were quite happy to point out that yes, a lot of this is under NDA, and if things are leaked, they don’t get to continue doing these, so please bear in mind that there’s a LOT of information here that I just can’t go into detail about.

My first session was the introduction to the seminar, which covered basic sales numbers, general updates about the application, and then showcased some shiny new features that are definitely pretty exciting. I’m feeling pretty good about what’s changing in printing, and I’d say those of you who are worried about it changing should be well pleased with what’s being done. Core Animation is showing a lot of potential, and a lot of it has already been integrated in ways that you may not really realize: it’s not meant to just be a shiny, a lot of the time animation is a subtle thing to enhance the user experience, to make the UI more clear in what’s happening. An example is the dock, already: if you drag an application icon around on the dock, things move and shift out of the way. It makes it immediately clear where and what’s happening. In 10.5, developers will be able to leverage a lot more of that sort of animation capability for “free”. I’m really excited about some of the new graphics related toolkits that they highlighted.

My second session was an introduction to Xcode 3.0 and Interface Builder 3.0. I’ve got to say, I’m quite impressed with the new features. I like what they’ve done to streamline the workflow, and the new interface builder is sharp, and seems a bit more intuitive. It’s also apparently significantly more extensible than the old version. A lot of the information is available on the developer site, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you’re interested in using OS X as a developer platform.

My third session was “Modern OpenGL”, and it was a treasure trove for my particular field of interest — game development. They’re expanding their support of OpenGL, and some of the features they’ve added have already begun to show a marked increase in speed in existing apps: adding multithreading support on the graphics side to a popular game I play gave a 90% frames per second increase. Some of the example apps were crazy impressive in what they were able to pull off, and easily half to two thirds of the presentation covered ways to modernize OpenGL code and optimize it for performance. Some really nice caveats to remember (I have them written down) if I get back into programming.

I’m taking a break at the moment to let my battery charge, but at 3:15, there’s a session on what’s new in Cocoa that I’d really like to attend. Hoping to attend the sessions on Resolution Independence and Printing in Leopard after that, since those are things that are directly relevant to both myself and others I know. Then there’s just the reception and a chance to shmooze with folks before heading back north. Pretty fun day, all told. Kudos to Apple for hosting it!]