I’m Not a Mac #15–Everything New Is Old Again

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This post is part of my “I’m Not a Mac” series, chronicling my migration away from Apple after many years as a Mac user–and back again. Find other entries in the “I’m Not a Mac” series archive.

Last year, when I became a Mac user again after 5 years away, I never expected my return-migration to be bittersweet. I love my iPad Pro. But I increasingly miss the feeling of Apple leading the industry way while celebrating its own unique charm.

Not counting my half-decade dalliance in the Windows/Android world, I’ve been an Apple user for 16 of the past 21 years. When longtime Mac users talk about the joy and wonder of having used archaic Performa pizza boxes, Wall Street PowerBooks, and original iMacs in the 1990s land before time, I get it. I was there. I used most of the classic machines, too, not to mention most of the more modern bygone classics. The goose-neck/hairdryer iMac? Early iPods and iPhones? Pick almost any iBook or MacBook? Check.

Unlike hordes of younger, plaintive Apple fans, I know Apple’s penchant for changing technologies of connectivity, dropping ports, and forcing new user interfaces and usability paradigms has been around as long as I’ve been using Apple gear. Under Steve Jobs, the gist alwaysused to be that whatever technological or engineering advances Apple made, they were almost always supported by both a visionary user case and an emotionally palpable design style. With every new product release or iteration, you suddenly realized not only how much use you would get out of Apple’s widget of the moment both at that moment and into the future, but you also realized you much you loved it, too.

Returning to the user base last year, there was a great sense of familiarity for me, made better by five years of technological advances and usability improvements in Apple products across the board—the best of which the tight and still-tightening integration between Mac OS and iOS. And yet, under new Apple CEO Tim Cook, I could sense something was missing.

Since he became CEO, Mac journalists have justified Cook’s habit of leaving product announcements regarding the usability and design improvements—the things customers emotionally connect with most—to other Apple leaders, and even frequently to marketing videos. Some of them deify Jobs by saying no one else could have his unified vision, but I think that sells Cook and, really, the rest of humanity short. As an engineer, Cook sticks to talking about the engineering improvements in Apple products, which is understandable in its way. But shouldn’t your CEO be able to find it in themselves to connect with your products the same way that your customers do, too? Could it be that Tim Cook selling himself short instead of challenging himself to connect with Apple’s own products with all parts of his being—not just the intellectual but the emotional side, too—is impacting the company’s ability to live up to its formerly highly visionary heritage?

As Walt Mossberg recently wrote, the “PC has become part of the furniture.” In 2016, no one can be expected anymore to greet a computing or smart phone announcement with the same sense of awe, wonder, and expectation of impending coolness that was common in years past. I agree, the shininess wore off long ago, right around when the ubiquity set it. But Apple’s secret sauce never banked exclusively on the wow factor. The simplicity of the product matrix was important, too.

That’s why under for so long Jobs, Apple deliberately stuck to a couple of choices each in four man categories—consumer and pro laptops and consumer and pro desktops—as well as a couple of main choices in each mobile device category (iPod, iPhone, and iPad.) No stressing over multiple overlapping product lines and price schemes. If you were purchasing an Apple device, it was easy to comprehend what your choices were. Jobs often talked about the importance of keeping product visionaries in charge of technology companies and the danger of putting sales and marketing people in charge. Jobs believed that unfettered power given to sales executives always results in a reduction in visionary thought and an increase in overlapping product lines and incremental improvements stemming from a misplaced goal to chase industry trends.

Isn’t that exactly what’s happening at Apple now, under the leadership of Tim Cook—formerly Apple’s Chief Operating Officer in charge of worldwide sales and market development?

Hello? Is this thing on?

Some Apple observers, unaware of or ignoring Jobs’ cautionary words about putting sales in charge of the store, justify Apple’s five years of incrementalism, lack of consistent major product updates, and ballooning product matrix as wise choices by Cook necessities in a market where technology is no longer considered cool and customers demand as many options as possible. However, people with longer memories recall industry media often lambasting Steve Jobs for not deferring high-concept product visioning to the more mundane goals of incrementalism and product line bloat in order to satisfy industry and market whims. Had Jobs then made the same decisions that Cook is making now, would Apple have managed to become the global economic and branding giant it is today?

The answer to that question, of course, is clearly no. Jobs had his own reasons for annointing Cook his successor. Maybe in his incredibly close connection with Cook he saw something that belied Cook’s supply-chain background. But Jobs was known to make mistakes, too. (G4 Cube, hockey-puck round mouse, anyone?) And Cook doesn’t seem intent on living up to whatever hidden ability Jobs saw in him, either. From a generation-long Apple user’s perspective, that’s actually kind of sad. Not snarky sad. But honest-to-goodness, misty-eyed, “Where did our beloved Apple go?” sad.

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About this past year-and-a-half of mine back in the Apple user fold. Although it was unexpected, I was overjoyed when I ditched an underpowered (and more importantly, broken) Windows laptop for an overpowered MacBook Air 11″ in spring 2015. But I couldn’t understand why, after five years on the market, Apple still hadn’t improved the half-decade-old display specs that made using the laptop feel like looking through a dirty screen door.

I quickly traded up to a MacBook Air 13″ in order to see the screen better. But I couldn’t understand why Apple still hadn’t improved the half-decade-old form factor that made the giant laptop feel like holding a pizza box on my lap—one that liked to tip precariously backward unless the screen was set at an inconvenient angle.

I replaced it with a first-generation Retina MacBook to finally have a truly modern, high-resolution display. But I couldn’t understand why what seemed essentially to be the replacement for the MacBook Air line was surprisingly expensive with depressingly short battery life. And even I as a longtime Mac user began to get confused when trying to make sense out of Apple’s laptop product strategy.

Along the way, I also traded in my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 for an iPhone 6 Plus. I loved the finesse of the contemporary version of iOS. But I wondered why my enormous screen was noticeably dimmer than the screen of the Android phone I was giving up—not to mention why the phone was engineered to be alarmingly slippery in the hand.

In January, after the release of the truly gigantic iPad Pro 12.9″, I scoffed again, until I realized how much easier my ADHD life would be with just one operating system to contend with, instead of hopping back an forth between the iOS world of my iPhone and the Mac OS world of my laptop. It was the first moment in the months since returning to being an Apple user that I finally felt an old-school twinge of emotion and awe at a new piece of Apple kit.

I don’t give any credence to the Apple pundits who review devices like the iPad Pro—and even the Retina MacBook—and complain that they could never become your full-time computers because you can’t do studio-level video editing, magazine-level photo editing, or hard-core software coding on them very easily since they either have underpowered processors (the Retina MacBook) or cannot run desktop suites of editing software (the iPad Pro.) Mostly because that’s baloney. You can edit video and photos remarkably well and easily on both, most people don’t work at magazines, movie studios, or software houses, and anyone who actually does need a pro machine will buy a pro machine instead.

For the clear majority of everyone else, incremental increases in Apple laptop processor speed became virtually transparent to average users in 2013 or earlier. (Which, of course, is why people hold onto their laptops so much longer in 2016 than we did in 2006.) And since we already live half our lives on our smart phones, we’ve all essentially migrated from a traditional desktop OS to a mobile one, anyway, without really noticing that we did so.

So I replaced my Retina Macbook with a 12.9″ iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, and Smart Keyboard and decided to try going all-in on iOS. In almost nine months of exclusive use of iOS, I agree with Cook. I can’t imagine ever going back to owning a laptop, after managing my entire life from the giant and exceedingly convenient touch-screen of my iPad Pro.

Especially since Mac laptops still don’t have touch-screen interfaces. I get it. Apple has said for years that it has no desire to merge Mac OS and iOS into a one-size-fits-all-devices OS the way Microsoft has done with Windows 10. But not merging the two OSes doesn’t mean ignoring the now-universal standard in the Windows world—not to mention in the entire mobile OS world including iOS—that makes using a Mac laptop increasingly ergonomically bizarre for anyone who spends most of their day in iOS or on a PC. Just because Apple refuses to give MacBooks touch screens doesn’t mean that millions of MacBook users don’t out of habit reach out to touch their screens in vain several times a day, anyway. Considering that Apple’s own iOS was the impetus for touch-based OSes to take over the world, holding touch back from Mac laptops just seems like closing the barn door after the horses have bolted.

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And then last week Apple released new MacBook Pros with a Touch Bar. A half-inch tall touch display where the function keys used to be. Because looking down at your hands instead of up at your screen when you’re using your laptop is convenient. Right.

I can’t even.

I love my iPad Pro. But it’s depressing enough that both the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro, and really, the iPhone lately, have form factors that have barely changed over years (and in the case of the Air, never will again.) Or the terrible ergonomics of the Retina MacBooks for which Apple touts a thinness and a compactness of frame that ensures they will never be comfortable to use on an average-sized American lap. Now we’re supposed to get excited about Apple deprecating their computer line with the longest battery life—the Airs—and adding several hundred dollars to the base cost of a MacBook Pro in order to have a half inch tall strip of a touchscreen? This is all just a sick joke to get other Mac OS users to throw up their hands and go all in with iOS, right?

Being an Apple fan over as many years as I have has never been easy. But if you look at the Apple Store right now, you’ll see high prices married with relatively mediocre specs compared to the prices and powers of machines in the Windows world—it’s a combination we haven’t seen in years, and it wasn’t a good combination last decade, either.

No, Apple doesn’t want to chase the industry trend of adding touch displays to its desktop OS machines. And yet, it’s chasing everything else. Microsoft charges nosebleed-level prices for its Surface line of devices because people trade-up their computers less frequently now? Apple follows suit with new MacBooks that cost hundreds of dollars more than the versions they replace, and by eliminating their most affordable laptops. Microsoft pushes keyboards and styluses in the Surface line? Apple adds them to the iPad line. Dell, ASUS, and Acer offer overlapping product lines to cover as many niche use cases as possible, while Samsung similarly niches out its Galaxy Tabs? Apple creates a product matrix that includes no fewer than five different tablets and—incredibly—nine different laptops.

I haven’t even mentioned the infinity of choices represented by the Apple Watch because, really, why bother? That unnecessarily confusing, organizationally unprecedented infinity of choices is exactly why the majority of Apple fans haven’t bothered to actually buy one.

And, really, Apple is chasing the desktop touch screen, too. Because that’s exactly what the “Touch Bar” is, even if Apple is too obstinate to add the technology to the actual main display.

And all of this is exactly the kind of opaque, muddled, desperate headlong rush in multiple directions that Jobs always warned was the result of putting sales executives in charge of a technology company. It’s also exactly the kind of business behavior Apple was enaging in when Steve Jobs returned to the company in the 1990s. How long will it take before industry watchers finally realize that in a really bad way, Apple has come full circle?

I prefer iOS to any other operating system. I prefer iPhones and iPads to Android mobile devices. I enjoy and, more importantly, trust Apple’s app and iCloud ecosystem. So it’s not like I intend to stop being an Apple user anytime soon. I’m happy to be back in the fold.

But I miss what Apple and Apple’s leadership used to believe themselves to be capable of. I’m really bored with product keynotes that celebrate mundane industry catch-up instead of awe-inspiring industry innovation.

Most of all, though, I’m aware that if my former Windows laptop, instead of conking out 18 months ago, waited to give up the ghost until today, I probably wouldn’t make the choice to become an Apple user again. Last spring, the affordability at the low-end of Apple’s consumer laptop line made purchasing a Macbook Air 11″on sale for $799 at a local Best Buy an easily justifiable choice. But if I had the same choice to make today, I don’t think I would find paying $200 more for an end-of-life MacBook Air 13″ or $500 more for the lowest end Retina Macbook very attractive. Especially since the computers I originally considered were highly specced, sub-$800 ultrabooks like the Dell XPS 13 and the ASUS ZenBook. Both of which still exist at that affordable price point today.

And I have to wonder how many Windows users, just like I was, who decide on the spur of the moment to consider buying a Mac, just like I decided, will take one look at Apple’s pricey, polluted product matrix and walk away.

Or pro users, for that matter. As this Mac writer observed, Apple seems to be lost in navel-going about past successes, and that compared to contemporary Windows competition, this month’s new MacBook Pros aren’t as “suitable for the heavy graphics, virtual reality, or 3D work” that in the past Macs were famous for. Actually, many leading Mac observers have written similar things since the last week’s release of the new Touch Bar MacBook Pros, some putting a fine point on the fact that Apple removed all the external ports most frequently used by their core base of creative professionals: SD card slots; HDMI; and standard USB.

Have I mentioned iOS 10’s cartoonish new notification widgets look like curvy-cornered clones of Android’s notification boxes?

Apple, you’re swerving. Can someone please grab the wheel?

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