Smaller is the new larger

Back in the old days (of less than a decade ago), for any device that had a screen, users most lusted for the largest size they could get. Cost and space considerations might prohibit such a purchase, but “bigger is better” remained the mantra.

Old: Bigger is better

Interested in buying a laptop? It was the 17-inch model that turned the most heads. Deciding on a new iMac? If you had the dough, you got the one with the largest display.

Over the years, Apple’s Cinema/Thunderbolt Displays have increased in size from 22” to 27”. You can’t buy a smaller one today even if you wanted to do so.

Getting a new flat-panel television? The preferred choice has been the largest one that fits within your room and your budget.

New: Smaller is better

In the last few years, however, the apple of a tech user’s eye has often taken a U-turn.

Apple has eliminated any 17-inch laptop from its lineup. Even the 15-inch MacBook Pro seems to be falling out of favor, as the 13-inch size emerges as the new standard. For the MacBook Air, many reviewers cite the 11-inch model as preferable to the 13-inch. A similar situation exists with the iPad Air vs. iPad mini, with a majority of reviews (at least among the ones that I’ve read) leaning towards a preference for the mini.

That’s right…even techno-savvy “power users” that write reviews, and for whom price is usually not a prime consideration, often say they want the smallest model they can get. What a turn-around!

Apple’s new Mac Pro is being lauded for its small size, compared to the old Mac Pro behemoth…even though the size reduction comes at the expense of internal expandability.

Among flat-panel TVs, larger sizes still rule. But even here, I’ve noticed a trend towards downsizing from a few years ago. Buyers now seem more averse to getting a television that overpowers their room — unless they are setting up the room as a dedicated home theater. Users also seem increasingly content to watch movies on their iPads, skipping the larger television entirely.

What’s going on?

What exactly is going on here? What’s behind this seismic shift, with smaller now the new larger?

To some extent, it’s been developing for quite some time. Sales of laptops have long ago eclipsed desktop machines, despite a laptop’s much smaller display. In fact, many analysts predict that consumer desktop computers will disappear from the landscape altogether in the not-too-distant future. For most, the convenience of being able to move around with the computer outweighs all other considerations.

However, I trace the origins of the more recent surge to the arrival of the iPhone. The iPhone was the first device to offer most of the functionality of a laptop computer, but with a size that could fit in your pocket. Suddenly, mobility and portability were the buzz words of the day.

With the advent of the iPad, even laptops are now viewed as heavy and clunky in comparison. Tablets are well on their way to replacing laptops as the primary computing device of the masses.

Helping to fuel this transition are improvements in display quality. In the past, buying a small-sized device often required accepting a trade-off of an impractically tiny display. But with today’s higher resolution screens, including Apple’s Retina display, a small display can show an incredible amount of real estate and still have legible text.

The result is that smaller is not only more acceptable these days, but preferred — especially for those who place a high value on mobility. Such users increasingly extol the advantages of smaller. They complain that you can’t use a full-sized iPad with one hand or that a 15-inch laptop is too big to use within the confines of an airline seat. Smaller sizes are deemed more convenient for any sort of travel.

There remains one major exception to this shift: smartphones. Although Apple has so far largely resisted the trend, Android users have shown a preference for the largest phone that can fit in their pocket (or, in some cases, one too large to fit). There are now 6-inch Android smartphones! Perhaps conceding to this trend, there are rumors that Apple will release a larger iPhone later this year.

Of course, even a 6-inch phone is still quite small — compared to a tablet, a laptop or a desktop computer.

Overall, I view the shift towards “smaller is better” as part of a larger technological and cultural shift away from viewing computers as a “destination” (something you go to an office to sit down and use) towards becoming a transparent and ever-present part of our lives. I suppose the inevitable end-point will be when computers are implanted in our brains and have no external size at all. Not to worry. That’s still at least a few years away.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Technology | Comments Off on Smaller is the new larger

My Mac Pro column: A reply to comments

Last week, I posted a column detailing why I thought the high cost and, to a lesser extent, the limited internal expandability of the forthcoming Mac Pro would mean that many current Mac Pro owners, including myself, would not upgrade to the new model.

Based on the large number of retweets and Facebook “likes” the article generated, it apparently resonated positively with a significant segment of readers. That’s always nice to see. However, you wouldn’t have guessed this by just reading the posted comments, which were mainly critical. I guess that’s to be expected; people are generally more motivated to write when they disagree. [Update: Dec. 4: Interestingly, most of the comments posted in the last two days have been positive. Go figure.]

I’ve read and considered all the comments. Rather than separately respond to each one, I decided to offer this more general reply. As many of the comments repeated the same basic points, this seemed a more reasonable and effective way to go.

Paradigm shift? Maybe, maybe not

Numerous comments indicated that the new Mac Pro represents a “paradigm shift.” In contrast, I was accused of being stuck in “old school” mode, unable to “get it.”

Most especially, rather than viewing the shift in emphasis from internal to external storage as a negative, many viewed it as preferable. They noted that, with the superfast Thunderbolt 2 connectors, users would be unlikely to see any speed deficit with external drives as compared to internal storage. Further, external drives give you more flexibility, allowing you to add or swap drives with ease. One commenter even questioned why anyone would need more than 256GB of internal storage anymore.

I am generally as enthusiastic about embracing paradigm shifts as anyone. I am not typically one to reject any change that represents progress. So I have to admit that it’s possible I’ve missed the mark here.

However, let me be clear: This is not an either-or situation. It’s not as if one has to choose to keep all storage internal or all external (beyond some minimal 256GB). I have a combination of internal and external drives now with my current Mac Pro, and I would expect that arrangement to continue with any new model I might purchase. So, you can have your cake and eat it too.

Still, there is a certain minimum amount of software (applications, documents, media etc.) that I prefer to keep on my startup drive. For one thing, I like to know that, in the event that the Thunderbolt connection fails for any reason, I still have access to these essentials. And 256GB is not sufficient to allow me to do this.

In this regard, it’s worth noting that a 27-inch iMac with a 1TB Fusion drive can be had for under $2000. A 1TB Fusion drive Mac mini costs under $1000. You can get a MacBook Pro with 512GB for as little as $1800. These are common configurations. Certainly, I would expect desktop Pro users to want at least as much storage. At the very least, I can’t see viewing a smaller drive as an advantage.

Still, some commenters compared the situation here to previous Apple-initiated “paradigm shifts” involving getting rid of floppy drives or, more recently, optical drives.

“Again Apple has seen the future much sooner than most. Remember when everyone was up in arms because Apple stopped using the floppy disk? Seems rather silly now, huh?”

One problem I see with such comparisons is that these other shifts began on Apple’s lowest cost machines—the iMac or the MacBook Air. They eventually spread throughout the Mac’s entire line-up. In contrast, this supposed shift in emphasis from internal to external storage is making its first appearance with Apple’s top-of-the-line machine. I will be surprised if it trickles down to iMacs and laptops. If this is a paradigm shift, it is one that will be restricted to pro desktops.

More generally, there is the Mac Pro’s relative lack of internal expansion options of any kind, not just storage. In this case, I do see a more typical paradigm shift in play here. There is virtually no internal expansion for today’s MacBooks and iMacs. This approach has now spread to the Mac Pro as well. This is clearly the direction Apple wants to go, for better or worse. In either case, I don’t view it as a “deal-breaker” for the Pro. So I don’t want to make too much of this.

For professionals only? Yes

A related criticism was that I didn’t grasp that the Mac Pro wasn’t meant for users such as myself. Rather, it was meant for “high-end professionals”—users who will come out financially ahead by buying a Mac Pro because its “tech spec” advantages will save money in the long-run, outweighing its initial high cost.

In some of these cases, I have to wonder whether the readers didn’t actually read my column. The comments seem to be attacking a “straw man”—someone who was claiming that new Mac Pros are inferior machines with problems that are so telling that the machines are doomed to fail. When the Mac Pro goes on sale and proves to be a success, this straw man will “eat his words.”

The problem with these arguments is that I never said or implied any such thing. In contrast, I recognized that the Mac Pro is most assuredly a “professionals-only” machine—designed for people working in video production, graphics layout, publishing, science labs and such. I specifically stated that “the new Mac Pro will appeal to this small but profitable professional market.” Indeed, I expect this market will enthusiastically embrace the new Mac Pro. I also acknowledged the Mac Pro is attractive even to a “not high-end user” such as myself: “The promise of lightning-fast speed combined with the allure of its futuristic cylindrical design seemed irresistible.”

My key assertion was a limited one: Given the high cost of a “fully configured” Mac Pro setup—especially when compared to the improved relative performance of Apple’s latest less expensive Macs—I expect most “pro-sumers” (not high-end professionals) who previously opted for a Mac Pro will not do so this time around.

There was a time when the Mac Pro line suited the needs of more than just the highest end of the market. This no longer appears to be the case. This doesn’t mean the Mac Pro is doomed. But it does mean that the Mac Pro will have a more narrow appeal. At least, that’s my assessment. If I’m wrong, we’ll know soon enough.

Expensive? Yes, but

Speaking of cost, a few commenters challenged my basic assertion that a new Mac Pro setup is “expensive.” To buttress their argument, some cited examples of the much higher costs of previous generation computing devices, going back as far as decades ago. Such comparisons don’t make much sense to me. Yes, computers back in the 1960’s could cost hundred of thousands, if not millions, of dollars and yet have less computing power than today’s iPhone. But so what? That’s not the choice facing today’s users.

It may also be true that the new Mac Pro is cheaper than some workstation solutions that exist today. Again, this is largely besides the point.

The simple point is this: The new Mac Pro, even adjusted for inflation, will cost significantly more than a comparable prior-generation Mac Pro. Unless you truly need a workstation-like machine, it’s going to be very hard to justify this cost.

Whining? Sigh

Not surprisingly, some comments amounted to name-calling attacks—using phrases such as “whiner,” “strained hit piece,” “yellow journalism” and more. Such is life on the Internet.

Some of these commenters clearly have no idea of my background. If they did, they would know that I have owned nothing but Apple computing devices since buying a Macintosh in 1984. I have made a career writing about Apple products, primarily lauding their advantages over the competition. The idea that I would be motivated to write some sort of “hit piece” is almost funny.

Even if this were not the case, such comments shed no light on the discussion. That’s why, beyond what I’ve written already, I see little point in directly responding to these comments. It only gives the commenters more attention than they deserve.

Happily, most of the comments did not fall into this “attack” category. Rather, they were respectful disagreements. As such, they pushed me to rethink my positions, in an effort either to better defend them or to change them. I always welcome that opportunity.

Posted in Apple Inc, Mac | 12 Comments

What’s going on with iWork?

In the unlikely event that you haven’t yet heard, let me be the one to break the news to you: the new iWork ’13 apps for OS X have been “dumbed down.” At least that’s the prevailing view. Distressed at the loss of numerous significant features from the previous iWork ’09 versions, including vanishing AppleScript support, many users have lamented that the new apps amount to “an unmitigated disaster.”

At the same time, other users have just as strongly cautioned against over-reacting to these changes. For example, in his Macworld review of Keynote 6.0, Joe Kissell wrote:

 “Despite the missing features, it would be unfair to characterize Keynote 6 as being ‘dumbed down.’ Indeed, Apple has added splendid capabilities that make Keynote smarter in several respects.”

Matthew Panzarino, writing on TechCrunch, offered a similar reaction:

“Lots of folks are getting all worked up about iWork being ‘dumbed down,’ but it feels like a reset to me.”

These more benign interpretations emphasize that the new iWork ’13 apps are not really upgrades from the previous versions. Rather, they are entirely redesigned-from-the-ground-up new programs. Having to make this sort of drastic revision, especially within the inevitable time and resource constraints, almost guarantees that some features will get dropped along the way.

So why did Apple make such drastic changes? The obvious and conventional wisdom answer is that Apple wanted to bring parity and cross-platform compatibility to the OS X and iOS versions of the iWork apps. Doing this required a rewrite of the software. In this goal, almost everyone agrees that Apple succeeded. You can seamlessly move among the apps on each platform without skipping a beat. As Jeffery Battersby put it in his review of Pages for iOS:

“There is now no noticeable difference between all of Apple’s Pages apps.”

Or, as Nigel Warren explained:

 “The fact that iWork on the Mac has lost functionality isn’t because Apple is blind to power users. It’s because they’re willing to make a short-term sacrifice in functionality so that they can create a foundation that is equal across the Mac, iOS, and web versions.”

Given the tortured history of cross-platform file syncing among iWork documents, this is great news. As for the lost features, the optimists expect them to return over time. There is certainly precedent for this expectation, most notably with Final Cut Pro X. Similarly, just last week, after the release of a new version of iMovie met with the same sorts of criticism, Apple promised that it will at least return the ability to import movie projects between iOS and Macs. Even better, Apple just announced that it intends to “reintroduce some of the [missing iWork] features in the next few releases.” [Update: See this Apple support article for more details.]

Still, there is a big question that remains: How far will this recovery go? Can we really expect that all or almost all of the MIA features will be restored? My answer is: No.

Given the admirable intent to maintain seamless cross-platform compatibility, Apple cannot restore features to the OS X versions of iWork apps unless those features can be matched on iOS devices, especially if the inconsistency would break the ability of a file to look and act the same on both platforms. Given the inherent limitations of iOS compared to OS X, including the more severe restrictions of sandboxing in iOS, this means that certain iWork ’09 features will be lost for a long long time. Perhaps forever.

As one example, I believe AppleScript falls into this category. There is no AppleScript in iOS, and I don’t expect this to change. As such, I doubt will we ever see any significant restoration of AppleScript in the OS X iWork apps. [Update: Despite Apple’s promise to “make improvements to AppleScript support” in future versions Keynote and Numbers, I don’t expect this to amount to much.] This doesn’t mean that Apple intends to entirely drop AppleScript from OS X. But it does mean a lessening of support for it going forward. There’s a chance that Apple might introduce some entirely new method of automation, one that works on both Macs and iOS devices. But I wouldn’t assign a high probability to this.

Apple’s actions here should not be a big surprise. They continue a trend that has been developing and growing over the past several years. Apple’s mobile devices have eclipsed Macs as the company’s primary source of revenue and profit. The result is that the evolution of OS X and OS X apps is driven by how well they integrate with iPhones and iPads.

Apple isn’t abandoning its power users. At least not yet. There’s a new Mac Pro coming (although it has already caused some grumbling due to its lack of internal expandability) and Apple continues to support apps such as Final Cut Pro. But these make up a shrinking portion of Apple’s revenue. And they live in an environment separate from concerns about iOS compatibility. There’s no iOS equivalent of Final Cut Pro.

The consumer market is Apple’s future, its “bread-and-butter.” Many analysts have predicted that, over the next several years, desktop machines — and perhaps even laptops— will all but vanish as users increasingly adopt tablets as their only computing device. To the extent that this happens, for any consumer Mac software that survives, compatibility with iOS devices will far outweigh any consideration about what “pro” features may be missing. Marco Tabini makes a similar point in a recent Macworld article:

 “…it’s also possible that Apple is ‘dumbing down’ its apps because the company believes that the kind of comprehensive software to which we have become accustomed will no longer belong in the personal computing landscape of the future.”

I agree. For the vast majority of users, what we used to do with apps such as iWork (and Microsoft Office, for that matter) will become an increasingly distant and irrelevant memory. What we expect from computing devices and how we interact them is undergoing a dramatic shift. Inexpensive, more focused, simple-to-use software is the currency of the day. The new iWork apps are not an aberration. Despite what concessions Apple may make going forward, Apple has no intention of reversing directions. Whether you call it “dumbing down” or “iOS-ification,” whether you view it as an overall positive or negative shift, this is where things are headed. Get on board, get out of the way, or get run over.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 2 Comments


So here we are. The federal government has been shut down.

The shutdown was not the result of a failure to reach a compromise between our two political parties. The shutdown was orchestrated entirely by the Tea Party, a minority wing of the Republican party. It was abetted by the remainder of the Republicans in Congress, who apparently do not have the fortitude to stand up to their extreme right flank.

Let’s be clear. A shutdown was the goal of the Tea Party from the very beginning. As I tweeted the other day:

“There is no debate over the shutdown. A majority of both houses would vote to end it today…if the House were allowed to vote on it……the ONLY issue is Tea-Party representatives wanting to use a shutdown as a means to extort a defunding of Obamacare.”

“When your opponents pass a bill and the bill withstands four years of repeated congressional and legal challenges…including the Supreme Court…what do you do? Admit that it’s time to move on? Not if you’re a Republican. Nope, you blackmail to shut down the government unless you get your way.”

Actually, it may be even worse than that. While Tea Partiers would have welcomed a Democratic concession to dismantle Obamacare, I believe most of them in Congress (although perhaps not their supporters at home) understood that this would never happen prior to a shutdown. Obama and the Democrats would never agree to such blatant extortion. So, instead, the Tea Party aimed to carry out a shutdown as the most likely way to achieve their goals. The potential destructive effects to the country would be acceptable collateral damage.

The idea that the Republicans and Democrats are playing some game of chicken, that both sides are equally to blame would be laughable if it were not repeated so often in the media. As @WillMcAvoyACN said on Twitter:

“Why is the debt ceiling a negotiating point? Why is paying our bills something Republicans think we should compromise for?”

I provided my own analogy to make the same point:

“If Democrats threatened to shut down the government unless all Republicans resigned from Congress…would the media criticize Republicans for an unwillingness to compromise? I mean…couldn’t Republicans at least consider a compromise where only half of them resign?”

Or, as Brian Tashman put it:

“…these notions of ‘compromise’ are based on the absurd premise that simply funding the government is itself a concession on the part of Republicans, and Democrats now should return the favor by agreeing to their objective of undermining the health care reform law.”

The totality of this is still hard for me to fathom. What is so terrible about offering the chance of health care to millions of uninsured Americans that makes it worth the risk of wrecking our economy, while breaking almost every accepted boundary of good governance, in an attempt to stop it? The word “crazy” keeps popping up.

The bigger question is: How did such a small minority wind up with the power to do this in the first place? How did our democracy get so derailed?

The answer can be found in a confluence of several shifts in our political landscape, shifts that have been building for decades:

• The increased willingness of some in Congress to use any routine function of government, from passing budgets to raising the debt ceiling to continuing funding, as a means to extort political gain. The result is a never-ending crisis, where the rest of what Congress should be doing is left to languish.

• The increased use of the veto in the Senate, especially by Republicans, to the point where majority rule no longer exists.

• The continuing polarization of political parties to the point where the most leftist Republicans are still to the right of the most right-leaning Democrats.

• The ability of corporations and rich individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, thanks to the Supreme Court.

• The increased gerrymandering of voting districts to an extreme that leaves most congressmen in “safe” districts where winning their primary guarantees their election to office.

• The rise of right-wing talk radio, Fox News and other extremist media (on both sides) that wall people off from ever hearing opinions that differ from their entrenched biases. Rather, it serves to confirm and inflame their biases.

• The increased acceptance of “truthiness” in news and in political ads, where fiction is claimed as fact and is left unchallenged.

• The increased cowardice of the general media, to the point where every political debate gets reported as “he said, she said” with equal blame assigned to both sides even when no such equality exists.

And more. The end result is a serious threat to the foundations of our democracy. I know this sounds alarmist. It seems every day someone claims that something is destroying our country. It makes such claims easy to dismiss as “the sky is falling” hyperbole. I can only hope this turns out to be true here. But I fear not.

Don’t believe me? I’ll conclude with excerpts from what several others (with more credentials and authority than myself) have written on this subject in the past few days:

The Shutdown and “He Said-She Said” Reporting by Joshua Holland

“This showdown is by far the most dangerous of a series of fiscal ‘crises’ that have been contrived during the Obama presidency.

Beltway reporters who see their professed neutrality as a higher ground bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance. With a few notable exceptions, the media have framed what Jonathan Chait called ‘a kind of quasi-impeachment’ in typical he said-she said fashion, obscuring the fact that the basic norms that govern Congress have been thrown out the window by a small cabal of tea party-endorsed legislators from overwhelmingly Republican districts. The media treat unprecedented legislative extortion as typical partisan negotiations, and in doing so they normalize it.

But it’s not normal. Republicans are demanding that Democrats unwind their signature achievement – a piece of legislation that took 18 months to pass, survived a Supreme Court challenge and a presidential election – in exchange for a stopgap budget resolution. On Saturday, they tacked on a provision that would limit access to contraceptives.

The second reason the standard-issue Beltway framing is wrong is it doesn’t capture the nature of the so-called ‘negotiation.’ A negotiation is between two parties that want different things and come to some compromise. Nobody should want a shutdown or a default and passing budgets and paying the federal government’s debts aren’t Democratic priorities. Rather, what we are seeing now is a ‘negotiation’ in which Republicans are demanding a lot and offering absolutely nothing in return.”

Our Democracy Is at Stake by Thomas Friedman

This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking — not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.

What we’re seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point — creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government. And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded.

 The Reign of Morons Is Here by Charles Pierce

“There has never been in a single Congress — or, more precisely, in a single House of the Congress — a more lethal combination of political ambition, political stupidity, and political vainglory than exists in this one, which has arranged to shut down the federal government because it disapproves of a law passed by a previous Congress, signed by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court, a law that does nothing more than extend the possibility of health insurance to the millions of Americans who do not presently have it, a law based on a proposal from a conservative think-tank and taken out on the test track in Massachusetts by a Republican governor who also happens to have been the party’s 2012 nominee for president of the United States. That is why the government of the United States is, in large measure, closed this morning.

We did this. We looked at our great legacy of self-government and we handed ourselves over to the reign of morons. This is what they came to Washington to do — to break the government of the United States.

What is there to be done? The first and most important thing is to recognize how we came to this pass. Both sides did not do this. Both sides are not to blame. There is no compromise to be had here that will leave the current structure of the government intact. There can be no reward for this behavior. I am less sanguine than are many people that this whole thing will redound to the credit of the Democratic party. For that to happen, the country would have to make a nuanced judgment over who is to blame that, I believe, will be discouraged by the courtier press of the Beltway and that, in any case, the country has not shown itself capable of making. For that to happen, the Democratic party would have to be demonstrably ruthless enough to risk its own political standing to make the point, which the Democratic party never has shown itself capable of doing. With the vandals tucked away in safe, gerrymandered districts, and their control over state governments probably unshaken by events in Washington, there will be no great wave election that sweeps them out of power. I do not see profound political consequences for enough of them to change the character of a Congress gone delusional. The only real consequences will be felt by the millions of people affected by what this Congress has forced upon the nation, which was the whole point all along.”

Posted in Media, Politics | 1 Comment