Random thoughts kicked off by the new MacBook Pros (or, really, by people’s reaction to them):
- It was really weird to see how strongly people reacted to the 16GB memory limit.
I totally get being disappointed that 16GB is the cap: that felt low to me, too. But (and I wish I’d saved links) the reaction seemed much stronger than that: that a 16GB cap means that this isn’t a pro machine, that it’s impossible for professionals to get work done in 16GB.
And that’s ridiculous. I’m a professional; I use Macs for work; all of my Macs have 16GB of memory. And, given that Apple hasn’t released a laptop with more than 16GB of memory, there are plenty of people serving as existence proofs that professionals can use a 16GB Mac.
- The shape of Apple’s laptop line
Then, once it turned out that the reason for the limit was because of chipset limitations, the reaction changed: some people said “fine, I guess Apple made a good tradeoff”, and other people said “pros want a powerful machine, so Apple should have released something heavier and/or with less battery life so that we could have gotten more memory”.
Which is something nice to wish for in an alternate universe, but I can’t imagine it happening in this one. Apple’s laptop strategy is clear and consistent: they want to have two models, a cheap and light one and a more powerful but still pretty light one. Sometimes (as is happening now) they go through a transition period, where they introduce a new, lighter model that starts out in the middle and then, as the price drops, replaces the bottom one; we saw this with the Air replacing the plastic MacBook, and we’re seeing this now with the non-Pro MacBook being introduced in the middle but being named in a way that makes it clear that Apple intends it to replace the Air once its price drops enough. (The lack of retina Air models, or of Air updates at all, also makes the intended transition clear.)
Apple isn’t going to introduce a third, even-more-pro level; Apple isn’t going to make people who can’t fit in the skinny MacBook’s constraints use something fat; and it’s abundantly clear from their OS work over the last few years that battery life is a priority for Apple.
Also, they only update the body for their machines every few years. So, if they make the machines large this year, that will affect them for years to come, even after chipsets have been released that allow them to use more memory at low power draws. Again, it’s no surprise that Apple is going to choose a tradeoff that makes the machine a little underpowered now, growing into something entirely adequate in future years: we’ve seen that play out before.
- The dangers of single suppliers
Even though it’s no surprise that Apple made the tradeoff they did, that doesn’t mean that other people should prefer that tradeoff. It happens to be one that I’m personally happy with — 16GB is fine with me, while more weight is not fine with my back — but there’s no reason why everybody should have the same priorities as I do.
Disruption theory warns about the dangers of overserving; part of me wants to say that some of what’s going on here is that Apple is being smart by not giving into the temptation being led into overserving by following their most profitable customers. Apple has always been a weird case for disruption theory, though: they stay in the high end but remain in touch with enough people that they can continue to grab large profits because of both their volumes and profit margins. I wish I understood what was going on there, but it feels to me like they probably understand something about product placement / stratification that basically nobody else does, and I suspect that staying a bit away from the high end is part of that.
But that choice leaves those best customers frustrated. In most circumstances, that would be fine, another company would spring up; that’s harder in this case. I do wonder if enough people will flee to either Windows or Linux to make a difference in the medium term, though.
The other situation in which a single supplier is causing problems here is Intel, with their chipsets. I’ve mostly ignored the ARM Mac rumors before as not relevant any time soon, but now I am wondering if they’ll come to pass sooner rather than later: the ARM chips are catching up very quickly in power, and if Intel is causing active problems for Apple, then maybe Apple really will jump ship in a few years?
I also wonder if Apple can stick with Intel CPUs while designing their own chipsets. I heard something about there being licensing issues that would prevent that; I’m not sure if that’s true, and, if it is, what might be the ways around that. (Can Apple twist Intel’s arm enough? Do a deal with AMD? Buy AMD?)
- The role of the laptop
What do we want out of a laptop? The current consensus vision is: we want to have a single computer which we use wherever we are, doing whatever we want on it. If we’re at work, we’ll plug it into a monitor (and maybe connect a keyboard, a mouse, potentially other devices, or we’ll take it with us as we go from meeting to meeting. If we’re at home, maybe we’ll also sit at a desk and plug it into a monitor, maybe we’ll sit in a comfortable chair and have it in our lap. If we’re in a coffee shop, we’ll plunk it on the table next to us.
Depending on the kind of work we do, the kinds of environments we like spending time in, our modes of transportation, and just our personal preferences, we’ll value aspects of the laptop differently: maybe we’ll want more compute power, more storage, more battery life, less weight, a smaller size, a larger screen. But modern laptops are, year after year, reducing these tradeoffs: these machines are very powerful, very light, have a battery that can last all day, and a lovely screen. Not powerful enough for everybody, not a big enough battery for everybody, and so forth, but really: laptops these days are great for lots and lots of people in lots and lots of situations!
At the same time, though: networks get better and better as well, as do the services available over those networks. So why worry so much about having a laptop as a single machine that you can do everything on? You can reach the same files anywhere with Dropbox, your e-mail is stored in Gmail, you spend huge amount of time browsing the web, and AWS is happy to provide vast computing and storage resources for you. With that lens, it’s less clear that it’s important to focus on the power of your laptop.
To return to the question of wanting more memory: for me, personally, lots of the situations where I would want more memory are situations where, honestly, I’d be just fine doing the task in question on a Linux server somewhere. It happens to be the case that, much of the time, my laptop is good enough; but if it’s not, it’s not particularly clear to me why I would prefer a more powerful laptop over spinning up an AWS instance. (Or, for that matter, over putting a generic desktop machine under my desk and installing Linux on it.) The laptop is a nice interface to that compute power, but that doesn’t mean the laptop has to host that compute power.
Maybe I’m eccentric in that regard; but I imagine that a lot of programmers feel the same way, as do a lot of people who are, say, doing scientific computing. I’m sure there are people out there who need to do tasks that require a rich graphical interface that’s colocated with significant compute power (people who spend lots of time doing video work, maybe?); I also bet that there are lots of people (including me, honestly) who work that way mostly out of habit, though, or because of tooling limitations.
I’m pretty sure that most of the people who are talking about how awful the new Macs are will stick with them; but it wouldn’t surprise me if a non-negligible number ended up in a split world between a Mac and a Linux server (or servers) somewhere. And I suppose it’s possible that enough will go to Windows to make a difference; I’m glad that Microsoft is trying out some interesting hardware ideas.
- Apple’s commitment to the Mac
Another phase of the reaction: the new laptops are a sign that Apple doesn’t care about the Mac. I don’t see how to square that claim with the existence of the Touch Bar: nobody was asking Apple to create the Touch Bar, it required real engineering effort at a hardware level, they put in the work to add support across a wide range of their applications, and apparently the API is well-done as well.
That doesn’t mean that the Touch Bar is a good idea! It just means that Apple spent significant engineering effort on this Mac, effort from a wide range of teams, and effort that they could easily have avoided spending.
I’m not saying that Apple cares as much about the Mac as they do about the iPhone: it’s much more important to them to make a splash with a new iPhone every year than to constantly improve their Macs. But there’s a big difference between “iPhones are more important to Apple” and “Macs aren’t important to Apple”.
- Mac desktops
The above arguments mostly settled down to a general feeling that the new laptops are okay, but that we still need thinkpieces about the Mac being doomed, because Apple clearly doesn’t care about professional needs for the desktop.
And it’s not so clear to me how that will play out in 2017. I’m almost positive that those worries are significantly overblown, if for no other reason than that articles about Apple being doomed are 1) frequent and 2) always wrong; but I can’t see the details. And it’s certainly the case that the Mac Pro raises eyebrows: I can’t imagine that Apple’s plan when they launched that machine was to leave it basically untouched after launch for three and a half years and counting. So something changed their plans, and I don’t know what caused that change or what their new plan is.
I am sure that Apple still cares about Mac desktops: the most recent iMac iteration is apparently a pretty glorious machine. And it’s a machine that’s good enough for the vast majority of users, like the new MacBook Pro; but desktop machines should have a higher ceiling than laptop machines, and the iMac has a lot of headroom above it.
Certainly something more powerful will come in 2017: if nothing else, an iMac that supports more than 16GB of memory! (And presumably with an external keyboard with Touch Bar, though I don’t know for sure if Bluetooth has bandwidth constraints that would make that unworkable.)
I kind of feel like something else is coming, though. Above, I claimed that Apple has historically had exactly two classes of laptops, one for most people and one higher-end one; they’ve also generally had that for desktops, an iMac and a Mac Pro. And I like symmetry concerns, which means that I expect that to continue to be the case!
Except that, for years now, they’ve actually had three desktop lines, with the Mac Mini in the mix as well; and, unlike the three laptop lines, it hasn’t been a temporary measure caused by phasing out old models and phasing in new models. So their product lineup hasn’t actually been that symmetric in the past; and symmetry, while nice for mathematicians, isn’t necessarily the best business strategy anyways.
I think that the Mac Mini is on its way out: its use cases have largely either gone away or been satisfied by the Apple TV or been satisfied by NAS devices. Really, the important gap is at the high end, not at the low end.
But it’s less clear to me that there’s a reason for physical distinction in desktop machines the same way there is for laptop machines. And the main reason for a physical difference at the high end would be to allow expandability / user replacement of parts, which is something that Apple has been steadily moving away from over the last decade.
So I can see Apple saying that the iMac form factor is good, and just putting in more options for high-end components there; that probably seems like the most likely option to me? (Possibly branding some configurations as an “iMac Pro”, but with the two versions as much more of a single continuum than their laptops are.) I guess the second most likely option to me seems to go back to an expandable Mac Pro: it’s going in an un-Apple direction, but it does provide a clear justification for a split between two lines of desktops, and clearly there’s something about their non-expandable Mac Pro that didn’t turn out the way they hoped. The third option would be a new model of non-expandable Mac Pro (with a promise that this time it will be different?); and the least-likely-sounding option to me is for them to say “the iMac at basically it’s current power level is fine, we’re not going to try to make desktop computers for the 2% or 5% or whatever of people who want something more”.
I’m really not sure, though: with the laptops, there have been lots of examples over the last few years about the direction Apple is going in and what’s important to them, while with desktops, there have been many fewer examples. And, well, it’s harder to make predictions about the future than about the past.
- The retina transition
I expected the retina transition to be quite smooth, after observing the first couple of examples; but it sure hasn’t been for Macs, with Apple still not offering a cheap retina laptop, with the Mac Pro mess, and with them only now having a good solution to plug a laptop into a retina monitor.
So: I underestimated the ease of the retina transition and the importance of the bandwidth that ports provide. And that is one possible story behind the Mac Pro stagnation: Apple was unwilling to invest in improvements to machines that didn’t support retina displays, and it took longer than they expected for a suitable connector to appear? Actually, now that I type it, that seems pretty plausible: maybe my third scenario (new non-expandable Mac Pro) is more likely after all, with Apple claiming that, with USB C / Thunderbolt 3, everything will be wonderful and they will continue to improve it. Not sure the Mac Pro audience will trust Apple if they make that claim, though.
(And, while I’m on the subject of ports: anybody who was surprised about the ports on the new MacBook Pros hadn’t been paying attention. Though I don’t think too many people were surprised, even if they were complaining.)
- The machines themselves
So: the machines seem like they fit pretty well into what you would expect from Apple. My home laptop was quite old, so I’d been waiting for new models to be released so I could replace it; I got a 15" base model MacBook Pro.
And, indeed: it’s a great machine, in basically unsurprising ways. I liked my prior laptop (a six-year-old 17" MBP), but I certainly prefer having a machine that’s significantly lighter and has a significantly nicer screen. One weird thing about the screen configuration: the default logical resolution the OS selects is a little higher than half the physical resolution. Honestly, it looks totally fine at that resolution, I didn’t notice pixel artifacts, but when I set it to exactly half the physical resolution instead, the larger text size made my aging eyes noticeably happier. At any rate, I appreciated the higher physical resolution giving me the flexibility to change logical resolutions.
The Touch Bar is a sign that Apple cares about the Mac, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea! And I’m still not completely sure what I think about the Touch Bar: numbered function keys do seem a little silly, but only having four function keys worth of operations available by default is a little low, and Safari in particular doesn’t provide useful functionality with the portion of the Touch Bar that it takes over for its own usage. (Not that I have a better idea about what Safari should do with that space.) The nonphysical escape key is totally fine, I can reliably reach it without looking, and Touch ID is great.
I was a little worried about the keyboard, but, once I’d spent a little time with it, I turned out to fall into the class of people who like the keyboard. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s now my favorite keyboard: I really like how little pressure you need to type on it. (So now I want all of my other machines to have that keyboard, so my fingers can really get used to it!) The big trackpad is great too, the fake click is magical, and (once I got used to the fact that I could now easily click with a finger instead of a thumb) I appreciate how little effort the click takes. I’m not entirely sure what I think about having two depths of click: it tripped me up several times when I was getting used to the trackpad, and while that doesn’t happen to me now, I’m not yet getting value out of the two levels that justifies the complication. Maybe I’ll like having the second level as I use it more?
I was excited about the True Tone display on the iPad Pro; I was expecting it to show up on all their new products, I was disappointed it wasn’t on the iPhone 7 (and I probably would have bought an iPhone 7 if it weren’t for that, actually), and I’m disappointed it’s not here. Which is another way in which I have to update my mental model of Apple’s behavior: it seems like the sort of improvement that would spread quickly everywhere, but now we have two existence proofs that that’s not the case. Not sure what’s going on there.
The USB C Thunderbolt 3 ports are great; I’ve only seriously used them once, but I was impressed how quickly I was able to use them to do a full-disk clone. Though, admittedly, I’m not sure how much of that is surprise the speed of the port and how much is my expectations being set by old hardware. I was expecting to miss MagSafe, but I haven’t particularly; I do miss the orange/green light on the charger a little bit, though. And I am not impressed by them not including a long cable from the power outlet to the brick in the box; the current Apple does seem a bit cheap in how they nickel-and-dime you.
I’ve run into a few more bugs than I would have liked. My initial restore when setting up the machine ran into enough problems that I had to bring it into an Apple store to reset it to factory settings: clearly Time Machine over the network isn’t as reliable as it should be. (I’ve since added SuperDuper as a backup option.) There were a few OS crashes; they’ve mostly or entirely gone away after the OS update, though. At first I was worried about battery life, but now the battery life is great; not sure if the problems were caused by OS problems that have been fixed or by some sort of new machine experience (the initial Spotlight index?) or by Miranda playing lots of MySims, but whatever was going on, I’m happy now. And in general the bug level has gone down to an acceptable level; not quite as low as I would like, but low enough, and the trajectory is in the right direction.
Touching on the “role of the laptop” note above, I’m starting to rethink what my machine mix should be. For the last few years, one decently powerful laptop plus an iMac with more storage (e.g. with my music library on the latter) has been the right choice for us, but I’m not convinced that it will be the right choice once Miranda has gone off to college. It seems like one decently powerful machine is a better choice for me, which either means a laptop that can do everything plus a monitor for times when I want it or else an iMac plus a lower-powered laptop. Not sure; for now, I’ll stick with my current configuration, and I’ll buy a new iMac when they release them, presumably in a few months. (My iMac still has a spinning disk, and that really is slowing it down.)
At any rate, it’s nice to be using a new computer again; one advantage of only upgrading rarely is that the upgrades feel better when you do them.