Monday, September 24, 2018

Apple peaked in 2011

Anyone looking at my desk today could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into a time machine. An OLED TV and Nintendo Switch on the other side of the room would reassure them this was indeed 2018, but the desk is firmly planted in 2011. There's a MacBook Pro (Early 2011), a Mac Pro (Mid 2010), and an iPhone 4 (released February 2011). Look closer and you'll also see that all three devices are still running operating systems from 2011: Mac OS X Snow Leopard and iOS 5.

Perhaps I'm a Luddite, unable or afraid to upgrade to the current OS versions? Or maybe I'm too poor or cheap to upgrade my hardware, the last time I could afford to do so was during Obama's first term? I assure you that neither of these are the case. In my day job I run a network of Macs running the latest OS. Said job also provides a paycheck that I could use to buy new computers. In fact, those Macs were acquired this calendar year, but they are older models I got through Craigslist. I can and do run newer Mac OS versions inside VMWare or by booting from another partition when necessary. On the iOS side, I have an iPad running a recent iOS. So I'm perfectly familiar with the various Apple OS updates, but I choose to use the 2011 versions instead.

The reason is simple: I think the 2011 operating systems are the best ones Apple has made, and what has followed has been worse. So I have stuck with Snow Leopard and iOS 5 all these years. As newer computers can't run the old operating systems, my hardware is stuck in 2011 as well.

My refusal to upgrade started with the immediate successors to what I'm still using. iOS 6's big feature was a switch from the reliable Apple-designed Google Maps app to Apple Maps, so broken it compelled Apple to issue a rare apology. That was an easy skip. iOS 7 was re-designed to remove most of its character in Apple's quest to make everything as "simple" as possible. Not unusable, but why bother? Successive iOS versions have seemed to mostly boast advancements in Emoji technology. I think iOS 5 is still the best iOS.

On the Mac side, Slow Leopard was followed by Lion, which removed Rosetta and tried to make the Mac more like the iPad with the Launcher, App Store, "modern" document model, and full-screen apps. As a programmer, I was especially dismayed by the changes in Xcode 4. Not only was Apple trying to make the Mac into the iPad, they seemed to see the Mac as little more than the iOS development environment. Who needs a computer when you can check email and browse the web on your phone?

Subsequent Mac OS versions adopted the plain iOS 7 look and downgraded key apps like Mail, Calendar, iTunes, Pages, and Numbers, usually to have them match their less-capable iOS counterparts. Photos replaced the superior iPhoto, Mac OS security became overbearing, QuickTime became less functional, and OS X Server has been whittled away. The big new feature in the upcoming macOS Mojave is a color scheme, but the Emoji is state of the art!

Apple hardware has fared a better in some cases, worse in others. The iMac has plodded along, periodically getting bigger displays and thinner chassis. Thin seems to be Apple's top priority these days, such that Apple changed its iPhone connector and got rid of the headphone jack in its quest to make its phones ever thinner. I prefer the iPhone 4's smaller form factor, but at least there's no denying iPhone processors have stepped up in speed with each iteration and the cameras have improved as well.

Apple has relentlessly pushed its laptops thinner and lighter, dropping the optical drive and one port after another until USB-C is all that's left on the current models (R.I.P. MagSafe). In the process they have removed all that traditionally made a Pro computer professional: power and expandability. RAM and storage is no longer upgradeable and the CPUs are hobbled in the interest of cramming everything into the smallest possible case. And the current Mac Book Pro keyboard is simply awful—its key travel distance is minuscule, only slightly preferable to an Atari 400's membrane keyboard.

The Mac Mini seems neglected nearly to the point of death, probably not a good choice for anyone, but the real disgrace is the Mac Pro. The aluminum tower Mac Pro got a slight spec bump in 2012, in anticipation of the "trash can" Mac Pro released in 2013, which can only be described as an abomination. I don't personally know anyone who uses that over-designed, non-upgradeable doorstop, Apple's sequel to the G4 Cube. It is the epitome of this form-over-function philosophy Apple has followed from 2012 onward. (NB, Steve Jobs died in 2011.) Apple says a new Mac Pro is coming in 2019 and they have learned their lesson, but all their other hardware seems to indicate they haven't. If that new Mac Pro doesn't have some PCI slots, I don't think you can make an argument that pros should use the Mac anymore.

As I write this, there is not a single item in an Apple store that appeals to me. Not a single product for which I would prefer the current model over a past one. The other day I was in an Apple store to buy the last product of theirs I actually wanted, an iPhone SE, just before it was discontinued. That's right, I'm finally upgrading my phone.

Using the best OS versions all these years has been great, but I have paid a price. The software I'm running is as functional as ever, but the world I'm connecting to has been changing and finally I have to change with it. On Snow Leopard I'm stuck with older versions Firefox and Chrome (not to mention Safari) which become more incompatible with the modern web with each passing week. This, in turn, becomes a bigger problem as more things get pushed to the cloud and more apps become web apps. iOS 5's version of Safari does not work with most modern websites and finally, the coup de grĂ¢ce, the iMessage protocol has changed enough that texting has become problematic for myself and the people texting me as well.

So I'll move into the present with my phone and finally upgrade my laptop’s OS to keep pace. I give up. It will be inferior to what I'm using now, but at least texting will work and yes, those glorious diverse Emojis will be mine. I'm somewhat comforted to know that I can still run Xcode 3 in Snow Leopard by booting into another partition or in VMWare, and it’s even possible to use the final version of iPhoto in High Sierra.

For most of its history, computing seemed to move inexorably forward. Hardware got faster, software got better. Then these smart phones came around and mobility became the end-all, be-all. So what if your apps crash left and right, you can fit them in your pocket! Just as written communication went from articles to blogs to Facebook to Twitter, computing became more flashy but less functional. At the risk of sounding like the dinosaur that I am, I miss the good old days of 2011.

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