Why Apple’s Productivity Apps Should be Separated from macOS

As we are heading toward WWDC in June, many folks have ideas about what they expect or what they’d like to see. Something I’d like to see Apple do is remove their native apps (Mail, Calendar, Reminders, Contacts, and the like) from macOS.

Historically, Apple has kept these apps tied to the operating system release cycle. That means once a year, at best, we get some updates. I say “at best” because there are years in which these native apps get little, if anything, in terms of an update. This annual cycle plays a role in the pitiful state of some of these apps. Apple Mail is the poster child for this. We’ve been asking Apple to modernize Apple Mail for so many years now that, at this point, most pundits have just given up and moved on. Even when Apple does make significant improvements on a native app, Reminders is the most recent to get this, it still suffers because the refinements that become obvious after release will require a whole year to see an update (again, at best).

In contrast, look at the iWork Suite, Pages, Keynote, and Numbers. These apps have their own development teams and their own release cycles. As a result, we regularly see improvements, small and large, that make the apps more functional, user-friendly, and stable.

What is the basis for this seemingly arbitrary distinction between Pages and Reminders? They are both productivity apps that Apple’s customers rely upon daily. One has a dedicated team of developers and regular updates, and the other seems to have neither. Whatever the original reason was for giving Pages a team and making Reminders part of the operating system, I suspect few people are left at Apple that remember when or why. It feels something more akin to institutional momentum that keeps some apps trapped in the operating system while letting others escape it. Despite being a company that has so often freed itself from various forms of lock-in, it baffles me why Apple still shackles some of its most important applications to the operating system update cycle, but even after many years, it continues to be the case.

While I have hopes for Apple’s direction with its hardware and software at this year’s WWDC, I have little hope that they will remove these native apps from the operating system. I don’t know enough about the way Apple works with these apps to know why this continues, but it’s time to let them free of macOS.

Thinking About Touch Screen Macs

I’ve been thinking more lately about touch screen Macs. There’s lots of talk in the community about how Microsoft has added touch screen to Windows and it’s now time for Apple to follow suit. Just a few days ago, I was sent a link for the Air Bar, which is a bolt-on sort of thingy that sort of adds a touch screen to a 13 inch MacBook Air. 

I have no inside knowledge but I think you’re dreaming if you expect Apple to add a touch screen monitor to the Mac. Microsoft added touch to Windows because they were unable to successfully launch a separate touch interface. Even with that, Windows touch implementation still has a very long way to go before it is as intuitive or easy to use as iOS. Making a single interface that can satisfy both touch and keyboard/mouse users is no easy task and I’m not convinced Microsoft (or even Apple) can pull it off.

Apple will expand upon touch computing through iOS, not the Mac. The hold up right now is that iOS needs more power but that will come along with bigger and better iPads. You won’t get your touch screen Mac. Instead, you’ll get a gigantic iPad (or whatever Apple ends up calling it). For the Mac, the Touch Bar is probably all we’ll ever get in terms of touch. If they do go further with touch on the Mac, however, I’d expect it to be a full touch screen keyboard, not a touch screen monitor.

FBI vs. Apple: Where is this Going?

Several times over the course of my legal career, I’ve either had cause to delay a hearing on motion or had opposing counsel do the same. While nothing I have ever worked on has the sex appeal of the FBI vs. Apple, I can tell you that sometimes the reason for the delay is because one party thinks they’re losing and want some time to either get additional evidence or find some other way out.

With the FBI vs. Apple matter, the stakes are very high in terms of public relations and important but probably not as high in terms of legal precedent. A federal magistrate judge is a pretty important person but also at the bottom of the federal precedent pecking order. I’ve had a lot of people write me asking if they think this delay was the result of reconsideration at the FBI and my answer would be, “quite possibly”.

I don’t talk about it at MacSparky much but I served as a judicial extern for a federal judge a long time ago and spent some time in the trenches. That got me thinking about where this is all heading.

One point I think is generally missed by the tech press is that no matter what happens with the magistrate judge or, for that matter, the next judge on the next case, this issue will not get resolved for some time. An issue this big is going to work its way up through the Court of Appeals. Both Apple and the government know that and I suspect everybody is in it for the long haul.

The tech press also often writes about how a legislative solution will solve this and while on principal that makes sense, practically I’m not so sure. Judges generally prefer that the legislature come up with a specific law for questions before it rather than requiring the court to interpret some 200-year-old law that was never intended for regulating cellular phone encryption. I have my doubts as to whether any law could get passed given the current stalemate in Congress but given the way everyone goes a little crazy whenever the word “terrorist” is used, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could pass a law. Indeed, such a law is already in motion.

However, thinking forward if Congress were to pass some sort of backdoor legislation and the President were to sign it into law, I expect we would land right back in the courts as Apple and other manufacturers and consumer protection groups, like the EFF, challenge such a law on constitutional grounds. That, in turn, would lead to more trips up the ladder at the courts of appeal and, most likely, the Supreme Court.

The best case scenario at the legislative end would be for a law to be passed restricting access and prohibiting the government from requiring backdoors in cellular phones. Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath for that one. In my opinion if there is going to be a law passed, it’s going to be a law requiring installation of a backdoor and not the opposite.

If that’s not enough to make your head spin, now think about 50 different individual state legislatures and countless foreign nations also taking a crack at requiring back door access to cell phone data.

Ultimately, I believe this question as to whether or not the government can force access into our mobile devices has to be decided by the Supreme Court. Until then, a great cloud will hang over this entire issue and for the next few years I’m guessing we will see lots of ink spilled on this issue. Put simply, even if the FBI backs down on the San Bernardino case, this issue is hardly over for any of us, including Apple.

iPhone Divergence

There are a lot of rumblings lately about divergence of features in the iPhone 7. Some reports say Apple is serious about a smaller phone that will lose some of the features found in the current iPhone 6s line. Other reports, like this one, explain that the iPhone 7 Plus is going to get a dual-lens system that will give it a significantly better camera than the iPhone 7.

The interesting question for me in all of this is whether Apple would be willing to start separating the iPhone line with differing product features. The case against it is pretty obvious. When people go into the Apple Store to buy a new phone, they want it to be a simple decision. There is nothing easier than saying, “They are all the same. Pick your screen size and you’re good.” Not only does this make things easier for consumers, it also eliminates the inevitable frustration that comes from people that want a smaller screen but also the best possible camera. But this, of course, isn’t even true with the current iPhones where the Plus phones have image stabilization features that the standard line does not.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that Apple’s preference would be to keep the phones as similar as possible. However, the market brings its own pressures. Android phones are a lot better than they used to be and Apple is quite serious about making the iPhone the best mobile phone on the market. Repeatedly Apple has shown its dedication to the iPhone camera system. So given this pride in the iPhone and the continuing press of competition, would Apple diverge the lines to such an extent to put a dual-lens camera in the iPhone 7 Plus? I think they would.

Not only do I think they would, I also think they should. Artificially holding specific models back because other models can’t support the same features seems silly to me. If you can put a better lens system in one phone, then you should. Consumers will sort it out and I’m sure it will result in some people upgrading to the bigger (and presumably more profitable) phone. When it comes to the iPhone, I don’t think Apple should hold back. If Apple is going to continue to succeed with the iPhone, it needs to continue making the best possible iPhone it can.

Wibbly-Wobbly Apple

There has been a lot of news lately about Apple reversing course with various apps using  extensions and widgets in iOS 8. At WWDC a few months ago Apple (or more precisely the engineering branch of Apple) announced a lot of new toys they’d thrown in iOS 8 to make it easier for developers to extend the experience of their apps to notification center, other applications, and cloud based storage. To me, and a lot of other people, it felt like exactly what iOS needed. 

Then a group of smart developers started building things with these new tools We got Today View widgets that could open apps, calculate a tip, and otherwise increase the functionality of our iThingies. More developers dug in on the cloud accessibility with, perhaps one of the best new apps being Panic’s Transmit which gave us the ability to move files between different cloud services at will.

Apple approved these apps, put them up for sale, and, in some cases, even featured them. We paid money for the apps and now a bunch of them are being required to remove the innovative features we bought them for at risk of being pulled from the App Store.

So how did Apple get so bi-polar on extensibility in iOS? I’d argue they’ve always had warring factions over this issue but the battles have always been behind closed doors in Cupertino. Now it’s public. Now we actually see some really great functionality only to have the carpet yanked from under us. If Microsoft or Google were changing its mind publicly like this, all of us Apple geeks would be giggling about it.

There is no doubt in my mind who should win. I think the extensions mentioned above only make iOS better. They are all in applications that users must download and extensions that users must enable. I can’t see how the “this will confuse users” argument holds any weight since these all require action by the user to enable. If I found myself sitting at Tim Cook’s desk, I’d say let them through. I’m sure developers are taking the iOS 8 tools to places the iOS development team didn’t anticipate. However, I think this is something to celebrate, not restrict.

There is a separate, equally troubling question arising from all of this. How is this all happening in public? Regardless of whether or not Apple agrees with me about what developers can and can’t do, somebody needs to decide, predictable standards should be identified, and we should move on. Let’s hope the days of wibbly-wobbly changes like this are nearly over.

Multiple Variables

One of the great things about last year’s iPad release was the device parity Apple brought to both devices. They both had retina screens. They both and the same camera. They both had the same processor. They both had the same memory. All of this resulted in much easier consumer decisions when choosing between them. Do you want the big screen or the little one?

If the rumor sites are to be believed, this won’t be the case with the two different sized iPhones we are expected to see next week. Not only will screen size be different but we may also have differences in camera quality. I would speculate that differences in display quality, battery life, and storage could also easily be in play. Assuming that the bigger phone does get some of the better components, what do the people who want a smaller screen with the better components do? They have to make tough choices. I suspect much digital ink will be sacrificed in relation to this question in the coming weeks.

Broadwell and ARM Macs

wrote last month about Broadwell’s delays and the expected impact on the release of new Macs. It appears that is coming true. The recently updated MacBook Pros just received slightly bumped Haswell chips and, as Macworld reports, the speed improvements are small.

Moreover, I’m more convinced than ever that the rumored 12″ MacBook Air with retina screen, assuming it exists, will get pushed back until next year when Apple can get the Broadwell chips it needs to put a retina screen in a small MacBook. If Apple were to release a Haswell-based MacBook Air with retina screen, I’d recommend waiting.

There is also more buzz about the idea of an ARM-based Mac. The ARM chips that currently power iOS devices are Apple designed and Apple controlled. If Apple could put those in Macs, they wouldn’t be dependent on Intel for future Mac releases and wouldn’t get saddled with the problems they have with the current Broadwell delays.

The problem is that ARM chips aren’t nearly as powerful as these Intel chips and it would incur a substantial performance hit. Another downside of ARM Macs would be that they don’t run Windows nearly as easily as Intel based Macs do. (However, I have to wonder how important that is as we increasingly move to web-based services and Windows becomes less relevant.)

On the plus side, ARM based Macs would have ridiculously great battery life. When you think about it, a thin, light Mac that sucks at Final Cut but runs Safari and Mail for 24 hours on a single charge may have a pretty large audience. If Apple were to go this route, I suspect that initially they would keep producing high-end Intel Macs for people that need the power.

Yesterday, Jean-Louis Gassée (who knows more about this stuff in his pinky finger than I do in my entire body) wrote that he believes an ARM based Mac may very well lie in the not so distant future. One of the points he made that hadn’t occurred to me is that since Apple is designing the chips, they could create a separate ARM design for the Mac that is a bit more powerful and uses a bit more power. Pound-for-pound though, I suspect Apple would have a hard time matching Intel on the power end, especially now that the Broadwell chip is on a 14nm dye.

Could something like this be already in the works at Apple? To answer that question I’d state that just a few months ago Apple announced an entirely new programming language for the Mac and iOS that they’d been internally developing for years and nobody on the outside had a clue of its existence.

In Defense of Tim

Dan Frommer has a nice piece up about Tim Cook.

“In many ways, Cook is running Apple better than Jobs ever did.”

I think anyone following Steve Jobs has the deck stacked against him. Nevertheless, looking at all the news from WWDC, I also think Tim Cook is the right guy to follow Steve Jobs. If you think Tim is under heat now, just wait until Apple actually releases a watch or fitness band. That market is much smaller than the iPhone market. Even a product pitched by Steve Jobs with his reality distortion field turned up to full power is not going to touch iPhone numbers. When this inevitably happens, all the long knives will come out for Tim in the tech press.