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Posts Tagged ‘Apple’

How To Make An iMac Pro

WWDC is nearly upon us once again. Usually this marks the software focused portion of Apple’s year. New OS’s will soon be previewed, with new APIs to play with and new features to fuss over. This year, however, there are strong rumors of new hardware. Siri-in-a-can, new Mac laptops, and iPad Pros. To be frank, there aren’t many Apple products for sale right now that aren’t due for some attention.

Apple’s recent willingness to let old hardware linger notwithstanding, it’s past time for new iPad Pros. With signs pointing to an upcoming refresh, or even re-design, there’s been a lot of speculation about what Apple could add to these new devices. One possibility the hosts of ATP were discussing was the ability to pair your iPad with your Mac and use it as a second screen. As John says, there are apps that will let you do this today, but ideally Apple could add tighter integration and make for a better experience. Imagine being able to use your Apple Pencil to draw in real desktop Photoshop. What design professional wouldn’t want that? 

This got me thinking about the iMac Pro that Apple execs hinted at during the recent Mac Pro roundtable. We know that new versions of the iMac are due this year, including, in Phil Schiller’s words, “configurations of iMac specifically with the pro customer in mind”. The unanswered question is, what would distinguish a pro iMac? I’ve seen suggestions that this could mean Xeon processors squeezed into an iMac casing, or ECC ram. But those answers seemed too boring for modern Apple. What if the answer is something a little crazier. 

My Crazy Prediction 

There’s been a lot of discussion this year about who Apple considers a professional. For iOS, the answer is clear. The iPad Pro—the only explicitly branded “Pro” iOS hardware to date—is aimed squarely at visual artists. The Pro iPad is built around its screen and it’s support for the Apple Pencil. Apple is saying that Multi-Touch is good for casual interactions with your iOS device, but pros need more precise input. The Apple Pencil is, in Apple’s words, “the ideal tool for artists of every kind”.

Defining a pro Mac user has been more difficult. Marco Arment has discussed this at length on ATP this year, and I won’t rehash his arguments here. Instead, I just want to look at how Apple themselves presents their Pro hardware in use. On the MacBook Pro landing page, most product photographs show the laptops open and running either 2D image-editing software such as Photoshop or video-editing software such as Final Cut. (The Mac Pro page, which has not been updated significantly since 2013, does not show or discuss any software).

Apple seems to believe the following:

  • Visual-design and video professionals are important markets for them. 
  • The Mac is an important product for these customers.
  • The Apple Pencil is the best input device for visual design and video professionals

It’s possible that Apple thinks the best way to serve the customers is to turn the iPad Pro into a glorified Cintiq. But what if they’re thinking… different?

iMac With Apple Pencil Support

I’m going to start with a disclaimer. I’m not a visual artist. I don’t so much as doodle in my notebooks. So to me this is purely a thought experiment. But the more I weigh the pros and cons, the more this seems like a no-brainer. 

Apple has been clear that they see no room for Multi-Touch on the Mac. Their two main arguments against this seem to be:

  1. macOS is designed for the precise input of a mouse and pointer, not big kludgy fingers
  2. The ergonomics would be terrible.
Lets take these in turn. First, I am not suggesting that Apple bring Multi-Touch to the Mac. It’s possible to implement Apple Pencil support without full touch support. No need to worry about trying to poke at macOS’s small touch targets. In my scenario, if you were to stab at your iMac Pro screen with your finger, nothing would happen. The Pencil, though, wouldn’t have to be an all-purpose input device. Maybe at first there’s limited support for it in AppKit, where it could scroll an NSScrollView and click an NSButton for free. If, as rumors suggest, Apple has come up with a drag-and-drop paradigm for iOS, maybe they could port that to the Mac for use with the Apple Pencil. From there, developers could decide for themselves how to best support the pencil in their apps.

Now for the second objection. Yes, drawing on an iMac, as we know it today, would be no fun. But there are other ways to design a big screen on a hinge. I believe Apple’s designers could find a to make an all-in-one PC that allowed you to draw without gorilla-arm. They’ve already shown themselves to be flexible regarding ergonomics. Using an iPad with a smart keyboard are exactly as uncomfortable as using a MacBook with Multi-Touch, and yet that is a product you could buy today. 

The success of iOS proved that removing abstraction can drastically improve user experience. Creative professionals have shown that they want to be able to interact directly with the UI, but many have also shown a preference for Macs, whether it’s because of advanced file system access and scriptability, large screens, or just because that’s what their IT departments expect them to use. They square this circle by using Wacom tablets, but that’s just another layer of abstraction waiting to be removed. 

I’m not suggesting that Apple will simply copy the Surface Studio. For one thing, the lack of full Multi-Touch support would make this a completely different beast. I also think there’s a lot that their hardware designers could bring to the table. But the more I think about it, the more obvious it seems. The next step forward for the Mac is the Pencil.

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Tea Leaves

September 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Sometimes Apple appears to be so together. You get the feeling that that their events are impeccably stage managed, and every detail is thought through (despite occasional evidence to the contrary).

Apple is also a company of patterns. They tend to like yearly patterns. It made sense to expect that they would split their holiday offerings into two events, one in September and another in October. Instead, however, they decided to have one big bash this year, with focus on four(!) major product lines:

  • Apple Watch
  • iPad
  • Apple TV
  • iPhone

Notice any omissions?

As far as I can see, there are two reasons Apple chose to ignore the Mac during today’s press event.

The Optimistic Take

This event was all about new hardware. iPhone 6s. New Apple TV. iPad Pro. Even new colors of Apple Watch. However, with the exception of brief recap of watchOS 2, there was no mention of new hardware-agnostic software features. No review of iOS 9 (except for discussion of how great iPad multitasking is on that huge iPad Pro screen). Maybe Apple would have loved to talk about the Mac, but there was no new hardware ready. Intel doesn’t have the Skylake processors ready yet, so the Mac would simply not have fit in with this program. Soon enough it will be back in the spotlight.

The Pessimistic Take

Apple was focused on the future today. The Mac received about as much screen time as Windows PCs and Android phones. It is a platform that Apple supports out of obligation. Computing is now mobile (read “touch”) centric, and the Mac is no longer a first class citizen. Sure, some dinosaurs will insist on things like access to the file system and arbitrarily placed windows for the time being, but Apple is moving on.

So which of these positions is Apple telegraphing by virtually ignoring the Mac? My best guess is that there are camps on both sides inside the company. But we should be able to suss out what direction they’re going down soon enough. After all, Apple is a company of patterns.

Categories: Computer Blue Tags: , ,

Mojo

The big question today on the tech blogs is has Apple lost it? You can rephrase that question several ways. Is Apple’s schedule of yearly iOS and OS X releases too ambitious? Are their priorities in the right place? Can any company reasonably expect to simultaneously grow platforms as complex as OS X and iOS and introduce a new watch platform while keeping software quality high? 

I don’t know the answer to that. But I can tell you that I don’t see Apple slowing down any time soon. 

Imagine a world where Apple held back several years between releases. We would all be using, what, Mountain Lion and iOS 6 today? Sure, it would be stable. But it would feel stagnant. Lacking of ideas. Your iPhone 6 would look antediluvian running a two year old OS, especially next to Android’s new Material design language. The “Apple bit off too much–is doomed!” argument would be replaced by “Apple is out of ideas–is doomed!”.

Apple are in a tough spot. On the mobile side, their competition is stronger than ever. Microsoft has stumbled on the desktop, but that doesn’t matter because the Mac is being measured against its younger siblings now. We expect our devices to work seamlessly together. 

As a customer, I do think now would be a good time for a “Snow Leopard” type release. Fix the weird little bugs. But I don’t think Apple can get away with that. A year is a long time to tell the world that you’re busying working on bug fixes. 

And frankly, while I do have complaints about the software I’m running today, I sure wouldn’t go back. 

Categories: Computer Blue Tags: , ,

My Week With The iPhone 6

September 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I know you’ve been thinking about getting an iPhone 6, but have been holding off. When is the official Nothing Was Delivered review going to drop? you ask. Well wait no more. 

The first thing you notice about the iPhone 6 is that it’s big. Not enormous, but it fills your hand in a way previous iPhones never did. One thing to remember is that the iPhone width has stayed pretty much the same for the past 7 years. Your fingers would wrap around the iPhone 5S nearly the same way as the original. 

The 6 changes that, adding width while shaving off depth. Apple tries to distract from the increased size by moving away from the monolith shape. The new phone is rounded on all sides. Even the glass on the front curves down to meet the front. It feels really nice but also really slippery. I am afraid I’m going to drop the 6 in ways I wasn’t afraid before. In practice, I have only dropped it once so far, but it will take some getting used to. 

The larger screen still seems wasted. Nice for looking at photos or watching videos, or even for the occasional responsive web site. But most of my apps still seem to be just scaled up versions of their iOS 7 predecessors. Even among those that have updated their apps for the new iPhones, no one seems to be doing much with the extra real estate. 

My big complaint, however, is with one-handed use. My hands seem fairly unremarkable. They’re not particularly large, no are that especially dainty. I grip my phone somewhat loosely with my right hand, the right side nestled in my palm, my pinky providing support in the lower left hand corner, my ring and middle fingers gripping around the side, and my pointer finger propping up the back. The entirety of the screen that I can therefore comfortably interact with is within the arc of my thumb. 

If I position my phone in this usual set up, then I can easily reach the home button, the dock, and all but the top rows of apps. I can (barely) reach the top right app, but the top left is an app too far. Apple’s primary solution is Reachability, which is, unfortunately, kinda gross. What I used to be able to reach easily with my thumb now requires two taps on the home button, then a swing all the way back towards the top of my reach. What was one motion is now three. A terrible kludge. 

Luckily, the item that is most often in that upper left corner is a “Back” button, and Apple had one last trick up their sleeve. Swiping in from the left edge of the screen is now generally treated as a “Back” gesture. Still, I am going to make sure my most useless apps fill that top corner, because it’s generally not worth the effort. 

(note to self – come up with a placeholder app that doesn’t do anything, just sits in the top left corner of your iPhone. Step 3, profit). 

When all is said and done, this is a great phone, but the compromises are clear. Apple decided that the public wanted bigger phones (don’t get me started on the 6 +). And judging by their opening weekend sales, they’re probably right. But honestly, I kind of wish they made a phone with the 6’s internals and a 4” screen. That’s not going to happen this year, so I’ll have to somehow get by with a magic 4.7” computer that fits in my pocket. If there’s any lesson to be learned here it’s that screen sizes are going to keep changing. One day the fashion will no doubt swing back to smaller screens (iPhone Nano, anyone?). Till then, I welcome our new gigantic iPhone overlords. 

Categories: Computer Blue Tags: ,

An Index In Your Head

It’s been a month since I said that this blog would have a new direction and I haven’t posted anything meaningful on the subject. Let that not reflect on the subject matter, since there has been plenty that I meant to write about. I just… got side tracked.

So what have I been doing? Well, summer is never the most productive time of the year, but I have found some time to sit myself down and try to figure this thing out. 

My main study guide has been Aaron Hillegass and Mikey Ward’s Objective-C Programming (2nd Edition). I found this to be a good place to start due to what it is not. It is not a book on how to make iPhone apps. The arcane incantations that get Xcode to work are only touched on briefly. Mostly this book aims lower. Start at the language. How does Objective-C work? What is Object Oriented Programming, and how does Apple want you to use it? What is going on in memory while your code is doing its thing? How the fuck do blocks work?

It remains to be seen whether this detour was worth it. There’s still plenty I don’t quite grok, but I’m betting that once I’m done with the text books and sample code, just having read these books and having a rough index in my head will be helpful. 

Parlez-vous Swift?

So here I am ready to make an iOS app from scratch, except that I have no idea how make iOS apps (or apps of any other kind, for that matter). But I do know that you need to program in Objective-C, a language developed largely by NeXT in the late 80’s, adopted by Apple in the early 2000s, and used today mostly to make apps for the iPhone. So I bought a couple of books and set to work learning the basics. 

Every year, just as summer is getting under way, Apple hosts their World Wide Developers Conference, where they lay out their current thinking on the best way to make apps. There are new technologies introduced, lessons available, and for those of us who can’t take a week off to fly to San Francisco, they put videos of everything up on line. Knowing this was coming up, I thought I could focus on learning the basics of the Objective-C language, as the higher level elements were likely to change.

Then Apple upended everything. Objective-C, they said, is no longer the only way to make apps for their devices. Swift was a brand new language created in secret by small team inside Apple. It was modern, they said, and apps built using it would be less likely to crash. 

That’s all well and good, but I was just starting to get a hang on the old way! Did I now need to start from scratch? How would I even do that? Swift was brand new, and the only way to learn it was an ebook that Apple released that was clearly aimed at people with a better understanding of how computing worked. 

After spending roughly a week paralyzed with indecision about which path to take, I picked back up the book I had been working on. For the time being, I’m making this app the old fashioned way. A couple of points factored in to this decision. 

  • Swift is really new, and was created by a very small (though I’m sure very smart) team inside Apple. Now that there are hundreds of thousands of developers poking around through it, I’m sure they’re going to find bugs. And I’m sure that Apple is going to fix some of those bugs, meaning that the language is going to change quickly. Behaviors you can expect today might not apply a year or two down the road. That could cause problems that I’m not confident I’d be able to detect. 
  • Objective-C is old. In some sense, that means it’s creaky, and there are some difficult concepts to grok that are papered over in newer languages like Swift. But it also means that it is well tested, and that it’s peculiarities are well documented. If I have questions, it’s pretty easy to google the method names I’m working with and find explainers, and other people who have had the same issues. Answers are abundant, and if I can’t find them already existing online there are tons of people with experience working with these technologies that I can ask. 
  • I already have the books.
  • Swift and Objective-C code can live side by side. Apps are written as smaller files that are compiled and combined into that neat little icon on your phone. You will be able to Objective-C and Swift files together in the same app to solve different problems. That is exciting because it means I can start today in Objective-C, and then start adding Swift files in the future once I see that it is starting to mature, and I won’t have to go back and redo everything I had already built. 
  • Swift is clearly the future, but Objective-C is not yet the past. It’s still being used by Apple itself for most everything, and likely will be for years to come. That means it’s not going to go away any time soon. I don’t think we have to be afraid of Apple coming in next year and saying that all submissions must be Swift-only. This is going to be a slow transition, and the end state is going to be a world where Swift is the preferred, but not only language.  

So on a beautiful Saturday like today, I am hashing this around in my head, and I think I’ve finally convinced myself. Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, I can go enjoy the day.

Categories: Computer Blue Tags: , , ,

Re-Inventing The Wheel

Now that we’ve all had the weekend to digest the Apple vs Samsung verdict and it’s become old news, I thought I’d chime in. John Gruber doesn’t see this ruling being harmful to consumers.

But I don’t think there’s anything in this verdict that would prevent Google, Nokia, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC, Sony, or RIM from creating a new phone that is way better than the iPhone. Better necessarily implies different. What this verdict should prevent is any of them making phones that are disturbingly similar to Apple’s.

I don’t buy it. The iPhone is not a monolithic thing that a competitor can be judged “better than” or “worse than”. it is a collection of details. Other smart phones, likewise, are the sum of their collections of details, both obvious and subtle.

Matt Yglesias likens today’s smart phone race to the early days of automobiles.

Think about cars and you’ll see that, of course, lots of different companies make cars. But they all have some very similar user interface elements. In particular, there’s a steering wheel that you turn left and right to shift the wheels and there’s a gas pedal and breaks that you hit with your right foot. Imagine if the way the automobile industry worked was that each car maker had to devise a unique user interface. So maybe GM cars would have a steering wheel, but Toyotas would have a joystick, and Honda you would steer with your feel and use your hands to control the gas and breaks.

Cars today don’t operate drastically different from cars created 50 years ago, but it’s hard to argue that technology has stood still. But let’s consider what would have happened if Ford had been granted exclusive rights to the steering wheel some time during the past. Sure, it’s possible that, faced with the prospect of being unable to simply try to iterate, making a steering wheel that turns smoother or is angles more ergonomically, they would go back to the drawing board and invent the next big thing. Instead of cars, we could all be moving around on giant family sized Segways today. but I doubt it.

Invention is great, but day to day progress is made through innovation. Taking an existing idea, tweaking it, then putting it back out in the world. Call me a dirty pinko, but I think technology moves fastest through novel collections of existing tech. This verdict just means we’re going to see companies settling for inferior solutions so as to avoid a lawsuit. Any time a designer spends worrying about the fine line of IP infringement and not about making the best product they can is a huge waste.

Categories: Computer Blue Tags: , , , ,