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Caught between computers

Caught between computersIn terms of computing platforms, I‘ve been set adrift.

On the one hand, I don’t really want to return to Windows. Don’t get me wrong; unlike many Apple converts, I like Microsoft’s OS, and I frequently miss features and workflows from that platform.

But I left Windows for a reason; my favorite apps—OmniFocus, Procreate, Drafts—are exclusive to Apple’s platforms. There are no real equivalents on Windows, and I’m tired of “making do” with half-baked imitations.

On the other hand, it’s not a great time to have shifted to macOS. Yes, it’s true that Apple has suddenly remembered to make new hardware (see the new Air and Mini or the promised Mac Pro). But the software platform has stagnated, the App Store is eerily quiet, and Mac unit sales have declined in eight of the last twelve quarters, year-over-year. Settling in “Mac land” now feels like buying beachfront real estate in an era of rising sea levels—OK for now, but unsustainable in the long-term.

So what about iOS? Might I make “landfall” there? The short answer is, “Not yet.” Yes, the new iPad Pros are amazing kit, and the software has slowly matured. But too many of my workflows depend on a ‘real’ web browser (e.g. administering SharePoint) or ‘real’ Outlook (building pixel-perfect email templates).

Besides, even if I didn’t work in the enterprise, iOS would be a frustrating place to settle. I want legit external screen support, more robust keyboard shortcuts, and easier font installation. Hopefully, these power user features are on their way. But until they arrive, I can’t make permanent camp on iPad Island. ■

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Stranger in a strange land: a long-time Windows power user switches to the Mac

I spent decades using Windows as my primary computing platform. I may not love Microsoft’s OS, but I had learned to live with it, tolerating its quirks and forgiving its faults. By the time I had turned thirty, I was comfortable (if not quite content) in the Windows world.

More recently, though, Apple has managed to win me over. Since picking up an iPod Touch back in 2009, I’ve bought nearly a dozen different iOS devices. Then, I installed OS X in a VM, just so that I could run Omnifocus. And finally, this past July, I switched to an actual Mac as my full-time machine.

Adopting macOS wasn’t quite what I expected—hardly the aesthetic epiphany promised in those old John Hodgman ads. Here are some thoughts on switching to the Mac as a long-time Windows user:

The good!

  • After years spent Alt-Tabbing back and forth from a VM, I’m glad to have all my favorite software integrated into a single platform. There’s only one machine to shut down at day’s end, and I can freely shuffle data between apps. For example, I can now use AppleScript to push work emails to Omnifocus in just a few keystrokes.
  • I love that the Mac gets so much attention from design-minded software developers. Drafts, Fantastical, and Tweetbot are now indispensable parts of my daily workflow; none of these apps have true equivalents in the Windows world.

The bad.

  • Windows may lack polished indie apps, but there’s an equivalent problem on the Mac: underbaked enterprise-grade software. Microsoft Office is far superior on Windows: faster, more reliable, and more feature-rich. In fact, I’m forced to keep a PC close at hand, just so that I can occasionally boot into Windows to fix the formatting of an email or a PowerPoint deck.
  • It’s not just Microsoft’s apps, either. Cisco’s Webex is terrible on all platforms, but it’s far worse on the Mac. It takes me twice as long to join meetings as my Windows-running colleagues, and entire features are absent in the Mac app. For example, I can’t choose which display to share when I’m on a conference call.
  • macOS’s native PDF export options are surprisingly sub-par. Back on Windows, the PDF print dialog offers a rich suite of formatting options. But on the Mac, exporting a PDF feels like a guessing game, with no rich preview and a paltry set of levers to try.
  • I miss the ability to pin documents to apps in the taskbar (or the Dock, in macOS parlance). The built-in “Open Recent” command doesn’t cut it—and it’s only available when the app itself is open!
  • Windows is far better than the Mac when it comes to onscreen app arrangement. “Snapping” windows works so well that the Mac’s “Split View” feels like an afterthought. Yes, you can install third-party Mac utilities that imitate Window’s native behavior (I’m partial to Magnet), but that functionality should come baked in, for free.
  • Finally, this isn’t a software issue, but I don’t understand the MacBook’s charging brick. On the one hand, I like being able to disconnect the USB-C cable and wrap it up separately. On the other hand, the pluggable brick can easily fall out of some outlets, depending on the angle and slot design. That never happened with the PC power cords I’m used to.

The ugly.

  • macOS feels slow. Honestly, Windows feels downright snappy. On the Mac, it takes longer to launch programs, switch between them, and close them at day’s end. And macOS’s penchant for animating everything often gets in my way. Windows somehow felt “closer to the metal” (even if that’s not technically true).1
  • The Mac’s window model drives me crazy. For some reason, closing an app’s window doesn’t close the app. Instead, the program hangs around, burning resources in the background. And because there’s no easy way to close apps with the mouse, I often end up with far more apps open than I need.
  • There’s something wonky about macOS’s Bluetooth stack. I can’t use more than one Bluetooth device at a time. When I connect both my Logitech mouse and my Plantronics headset, audio playback stutters and skips. This is apparently a known issue, and there are a variety of proposed workarounds, but this never happened on my PC.

Wrap-up

To be fair, most of my complaints boil down to unfamiliarity. A life-long Mac user would probably have the reverse experience switching to Windows. For me, though, macOS feels like foreign territory; I don’t know the terminology and I sometimes struggle to find my way around. ■


  1. FWIW, my most recent Windows machine and this 2017 MacBook Pro are roughly equal, spec-wise. ↩︎
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Imagining external touchscreen support on the iPad Pro

Ever since rumors first surfaced of USB-C support in the forthcoming iPad Pros, I’ve wondered about what that means for the iPad’s future.

Most likely, this riddle has a simple (and somewhat disappointing) answer: the new iPad Pros will allow screen-mirroring to 4K displays over the USB connection. (The current Lightning AV adapter only supports mirroring at 1080p).

But what if “external display support on iPad” represented something more interesting? Something like… this?

iPad Pro touchscreen concept

(Excuse my crude drawing!) To summarize what I’m proposing here, I’d like to see the iPad Pro support external touchscreen displays—effectively turning a touch monitor into a giant iOS device.

The basic form factor would resemble Microsoft’s Surface Studio—especially its sweet tilting hinge, which swings the display from a traditional, perpendicular alignment down to a drafting table angle, right at your fingertips.

Unlike the Studio, my imagined setup would put the “brains” of the operation into the iPad (rather than into a weighted base). Another change from the Studio: =Apple could take advantage of the “docked” iPad to display a virtual touchpad and/or some accessory controls (like Photoshop palettes or a zoom dial).

Questions

Do you really think Apple’s ready to debut something like this?

Nope. But wouldn’t it be amazing if they did?

Why not just buy a Surface Studio?

Well, for one, the Studio starts at $3,500. That’s awfully steep.

Even if it were cheaper, I’m still not convinced that porting touch support to a legacy OS was such a great idea. Check out this preview of the brand-new Surface Studio 2; I can’t help but notice the jittery scrolling and laggy stylus support. And, while Windows grows more touch-friendly with each release, you don’t have to dig very far to find decades-old cruft that’s ill-suited for finger manipulation.

Would this external iPad display require touchscreen control—or would iOS also gain support for external pointing devices—mice and trackpads?

Who knows? A few months ago, I might have guessed that Apple would never add a legit mouse cursor to iOS. But the UIKit-based “Marzipan” apps in macOS Mojave prove that Apple’s not above allowing iOS(ish) apps to be controlled with a mouse. Plus, as many others have observed, iOS already supports a “cursor mode” in text fields; this could simply be expanded to allow clicking and dragging across the entire UI.

Finally, there’s that enigmatic reference to a “Puck” input method unearthed by (who else?) Guilherme Rambo a few weeks back. Could “Puck” be a tongue-in-cheek reference to iPad mouse support?

Even if iOS does add mouse support, I expect that it would be a secondary input method—an addition to touch (rather than an alternative). That’s why I would bet on external touchscreen support happening before (or alongside) mouse support. For a different take on the “external touchscreen or mouse” question, though, listen to the last few minutes of Matt Birchler’s most recent podcast episode.

Why not just build a bigger iPad?

I struggled with this. Apple’s already proven its preference for self-contained systems, from the original Mac to the iMac to the iPad itself. They like to own the whole widget, so why not build a really big iPad widget, with the “guts” of the computer embedded behind the screen (or in the base, a la the Surface Studio)? No wires, no dongles—no muss, no fuss.

That’s possible, of course. But my gut tells me that the iPad should remain a portable device. There’s real value in being able to disconnect your accessories and carry your computer with you. After all, isn’t that a major reason the laptop has hung around so long? It’s convenient to have one device that fits in your backpack and can drive big screens. Why wouldn’t that be true for the iPad, too?

It’s also probably easier to convince customers to buy an iPad accessory (that would work with future iPad purchases) than to sell a “desktop iPad” (that would be outdated within two or three years).

What about an iPad “extended desktop”?

Power users of macOS (and Windows) rely on the platform’s support for multiple monitors, side by side. But on a touch-first OS, such a setup presents a problem: how do you deal with the physical separation of the two screens? How, for example, would you drag and drop a file from one display to the other with your finger? You’d hit one screen’s bezel and be left with no way to “bridge the gap.”

In my sketch above, the iPad itself becomes an accessory to the external display. iOS might use the smaller device to display app-specific controls or a virtual touchpad. This side-steps the “gap” problem while still making some use of the “docked” iPad.

What about ergonomics? Wouldn’t this “drafting table” design wreak havoc on users’ backs?

I’m not sure! But artists and architects have used these sorts of desks for many decades. It’s a proven design, and it answers the “gorilla arms” objection Apple has raised about PC touchscreens in the past.

How much would this thing cost?

A lot—more than the iPad itself, I would guess. The Apple Cinema Display was listed at $899 in 2010. Given that my hypothetical device would include capacitive touch, Pencil support, and maybe a Face ID sensor, I would think it might cost at least that much.

Final thoughts

Again, this is wish-casting to the nth degree. We haven’t heard any rumblings from the supply chain that would point to such a device, and I wouldn’t bet on seeing its debut at Apple’s October 30 event.

But something like this seems inevitable in the not-too-distant future. Until the iPad can drive big, honking, external displays, iOS will struggle to supplant its older sibling as Apple’s primary pro computing platform. ■

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Why the Apple Watch could replace the iPhone

As Horace Dediu recently observed, in its early days, the iPhone was effectively an accessory to the Mac / PC. But as backup and app management shifted onto the phone itself, desktop tethering grew unnecessary.

In the same way, recent Watch upgrades (specifically, the Series 3’s faster processor and cellular connectivity) could be Apple’s first steps towards detaching the Watch from its tether, the iPhone. And as it grows more capable, the Watch has started to usurp the phone’s role in our lives. Dediu writes,

The Watch is effectively stealing usage from the iPhone. At first it took alerts, timekeeping, and basic messaging away. Now it’s taking basic phone calls and music and maybe maps.

Phoneless computing

The Watch will inevitably continue along this trajectory. It’s not difficult to imagine the iPhone being “eaten alive,” its role absorbed by devices at either end of the size spectrum: the iPad on the large side, the Watch on the small.

To some extent, the Watch and iPad are already capable of shouldering the phone aside. The Watch handles many mobile tasks that previously required my phone: on-the-go notifications, fitness tracking, navigation, and light reading. And increasingly, the iPad can handle the “heavy lifting” tasks: long-form text entry, video and audio editing, and email triage.[1]

Why would anyone want this?

Shifting power computing tasks from the iPhone to the iPad would be fairly painless; the tablet’s larger screen actually makes many jobs easier.

But moving the other direction—shifting casual and mobile computing to the Watch—is trickier. That change comes with some downsides: the Watch’s processor is slower, its battery less capable, and its screen relatively tiny. Why sign up for all those downgrades?

Well, first, there’s the convenience factor. Tracking, carrying, and charging one device is easier than caring for two. And as the use cases for the Watch and the iPhone increasingly overlap, it will feel more and more redundant to keep both of them with you at all times.

Relatedly, the Watch has a major advantage over the phone as a portable device: it’s far less accident-prone. Phones can (and often do) slip out of hands and flop out of pockets, but a device that’s strapped to your body isn’t going anywhere. Also, because the Watch is so small, Apple can build it out of more durable materials (e.g. the scratch-resistant sapphire screen of the stainless steel models).

There’s a final reason that I’d like to see the Watch usurp the iPhone—one that’s more philosophical than pragmatic. Eliminating the pocket computer would help restore our attention to the people and places around us. As miraculous as smartphones have proved, too often we use them to distract us from being present here and now. The moment we even sniff a bit of boredom, we slip out our phones and snort greedily at Facebook or Instagram.[2]

The Watch’s form factor eliminates the temptation to pursue such soul-sapping dead ends. Its screen is too small to browse social media feeds. Its battery life is too limited and the processor too underpowered to watch video or play games. And because I have to lift my arm to view its screen, the Watch discourages extended use; fatigue sets in after just a few seconds.

As a hardware device, then, the Watch is designed to request my attention momentarily, then immediately release it, returning me to return to my surroundings.


Sometimes constraints are a good thing. Although the Apple Watch is less flexible and capable than the iPhone in some ways, its hardware constraints provide “bumper rails” that could help me avoid unhealthy and unproductive computing habits. ■


  1. We’re not quite there yet, though. The Watch needs a few basic additions to become a viable primary device. First, from a software perspective (and as mentioned above, Apple must eliminate the requirement that the Watch be tethered to the iPhone. Second, the Watch needs a camera. Yes, cue the Dick Tracy jokes. And yes, we’ll all look ridiculous holding up our wrists to align our Instagram shots. But I can’t leave behind my phone until Apple fits a great image sensor into its wearable. I’ve grown accustomed to having the best camera I’ve ever owned with me at all times.  ↩
  2. Substitute your mobile drug of choice: Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Bejeweled, or Words with Friends.  ↩


Pac-Man vector artwork courtesy of Christian Quiroz. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.