Of Lions and Apples

Apple events have been a bit uneven over the years and it is all too easy to criticize, but the best word I have to describe the “Back to the Mac” event is “meh”.

It’s not that iLife‘11, the Lion preview or the new Air aren’t improvements (mostly), but rather that the “best ever” monologues are starting to grate a bit, inexorably eroding the suspension of disbelief of old.

Another factor is that I’m actually older, arguably wiser and way more cynic, which makes it all a bit dull. I actually like iLife apps in full-screen, although I find it intolerable when applied to other real-life use cases, like running an office app alongside an IM app.

And I suspect the “apps for grannies” UX design school is going to have a field day with the entire suite, but I would rather have better color management and editing tools in iPhoto than social features, and (echoing other folks’ gripes) decent integration between iMovie and iDVD.

The suite’s GarageBand/wooden panels/texturing restyling is, I’m afraid, a sad reminder that most people have absolutely no sense of taste regarding visual design, and arguably not Apple’s fault - they’re just finessing their approach to their target market for the suite, i.e., normal people.

But their relatively slow pace of improvement is their fault - the normal logic of cannibalization between product lines doesn’t apply to Apple, so I can’t say that they’re afraid of eating into the profits from Aperture or Final Cut Pro, and yet there is no other explanation for the slow pace of improvement in iLife other than it being a good enough perk of buying a Mac.

One that used to be heralded as “Office for the rest of your life”, and that, like office apps, has become a commodity.

And you don’t go for revolutionary improvements in commodity software, because you quickly hit some kind of diminishing returns - so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, say, the budget for continuous development of iLife had been established as a ratio of the targets for Mac sales until it was more important to reallocate resources to more profitable pieces of software (like, say, iWork‘11, which will probably pop up soon and over which we can all start obsessing about).

Which mostly explains Facetime’s status quo. I don’t particularly care for it - it’s just another (arguably quite cheap) way for Apple to boost demand for the iPhone 4 via what I like to call “ineffectual benefits” (i.e., stuff that you think about using but never actually get around to), and the beta status of the desktop app is not an accident - if it fed into a real (even if indirect) revenue stream, Apple would have shipped final product by the time the iPhone 4 was out.    

As to the App Store, I think it’s long overdue. I couldn’t care less about the conspiracy theories regarding curated computing overload at this point, since the App Store has the potential to solve two very real issues: the mess that iTunes has become (it doesn’t take a genius to picture some sort of unified App Store), and crappy installation procedures like Adobe’s and Google’s (both notorious for reinventing the installer/updated wheels on the Mac).

The irony of Adobe using Apple’s store to sell their stuff isn’t lost on me, but then again they already do so for the iPhone.

The losers here are the Kagis and Esselerates of this world, and I don’t think there will be many indie developers who won’t place their wares on a store that will be preloaded on every Mac. There will be the usual rants, of course, but as long as the App Store doesn’t become the sole authorized way of installing apps, I see no particular trouble with it.

But if Lion comes out without a unified App Store for all platforms and iTunes still a shop/sync/play mess, Apple better have a very good reason for not cleaning it up.

And as to Lion itself, quite honestly, I don’t see the advantages - perhaps yet, perhaps never. Cutting and pasting the iOS UI onto a desktop fails to impress or excite me, both due to my preference for a clean desktop and to the existence of Spotlight.

Granted that a good many people still have trouble grasping the notion of folders and other mundane conventional UI elements, but I see little point in duplicating those as app groups and whatnot, or in messing about with Spaces and Exposé to create what appears to be (without the benefit of usage) a somewhat confusing mongrel that breaks spatial references and overlays yet another window management metaphor on top of the existing ones.

Again, and picking up on my office/IM use case above, I can see the benefit of Mission Control for people who run a single app full screen, but I actually prefer to tile windows or arrange them in work sets to make the best use of real estate and minimize “dead” space.

If it can really help me do that, then great, but if not, I might as well go full out and use a tiling window manager in Linux or something of the sort…

By the way, if you’ve been keeping track, there has been an increase in the amount of little window management utilities for the Mac featuring easy window tiling or positioning. I personally use ShiftIt, which does precisely what I need, and does it well.

Regarding Linux (which I joked I’d be switching to, to much ballyhooing), I found a lot of the patronizing criticism coming from that camp amusing in several regards, largely because its proponents were the first to cry foul and paint dark, brooding scenarios of mind control and totalitarian curated computing (as well as comparing the App Store to the laughably bad Ubuntu Software Center, which in turn is inspired by the seldom mentioned Microsoft Software Store, one of their current - and arguably best - pieces of vaporware).

As it happens, I have an Optiplex 380 on my office desk running Ubuntu 10.10 that I log on to daily, and a Dell Mini 9 at home (the only use I could find for a netbook, but a good way to code short, if slow, proofs of concept). Both are currently being used for prototyping a few things - one of which will, ironically but fittingly, run on a Mac in its final form.

Linux is just more convenient to use as a development and test environment because I don’t have to deal with working with existing libraries and porting them at the same time, and because it’s now become infrastructure - i.e., it is a kernel that happens to load and run the C, Python and JavaScript code that I need to work with in the same way as our production environments and without much hassle, but also without much in terms of grace or polish.

Putting it another way, it’s a great worktable, but you don’t want to eat off it. And, very much like the tools on top of it, it’s likely to stay at the garage instead of in your living room. 

To get me to use Ubuntu (or, rather, Fedora, but Ubuntu is unfortunately more popular these days) as my primary work environment someone would have to come up with a decent mail client (it speaks volumes about the state of Linux desktops when the “credible” alternatives are the hideously bloated and buggy Evolution and the decaying, outclassed Thunderbird), a decent office suite (something far better than OpenOffice in terms of usability and quality, rather than brute force file format compatibility) and, given my recent “return” to a graphics/web design context, professional-grade design tools.

I can use it (a monkey could, and a pure-blooded cynic would quickly add that many do), but I can’t be productive in it in the same way as I am on a Mac - even ignoring the design angle, it’s all just too crude for continued comfort.

And taking the design angle into account, Inkscape (which I happen to like) currently rates roughly halfway up the usability and quality scale but barfs on most Illustrator files we’re handling - I review 30-50 assets a week in around a third as many different files - and the GIMP (which I happen to loathe) barely registers in any sensible usability scale - and it’s not about anything as pedestrian as PhotoShop menu layouts.  

None of that fixing I need is going to happen. Ever. Or, at least, “ever” in terms of Internet time, for the truth is that if it was to happen, we’d all be running Linux and a decent set of apps by now - there was enough time (i.e., friggin’ decades) to do it, just not enough focus from what is nebulously (and self-protectively) called “the Linux community” - which might as well be named that as a cop-out for easily blaming someone else for that state of affairs.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s talk hardware. 

The MacBook Air is quite attractively priced, but it would have been far more impressive (and perchance useful) before the iPad came along.

I rate it as more of a way to put “premium” netbooks out to pasture by setting higher standards on a cut-throat market with nearly residual margins than as a credible alternative to today’s MacBook Pros - and that largely due to the 2GB of RAM it’s limited to1, which will be enough to run Office or iWork (one app at a time, fullscreen or not…) but not really that useful for heavy work.

Marco has an excellent piece on the new Air if you want to know more about either model and its benefits/limitations, by the way.

Granted that it will be the perfect Mac for business travel (and I predict the 11” will sell out real fast), but it’s Apple’s way to squeeze out the competition (in conceptual and aspirational terms if not in price) rather than the shape of the future.

That, whether we want it or not, will be the iPad. At least until the next paradigm comes along.

  1. I’ve had enough feedback about this to justify a footnote - yes, you can BTO a 4GB configuration. Yes, the machine isn’t limited to 2GB. But the point I’m trying to get across here is that the $999 configuration is, in fact, limited to 2GB, and that Apple is placing that as an entry level machine when people who, say, need to do photo editing on the move will absolutely need 4GB. Either way, you can’t upgrade what you get. ↩︎