The Turn

You’ll have to excuse the forthcoming confusion but I think Siegler is using the wrong analogy to make his point. In any magic trick the purpose of the turn is to fool the audience into believing what’s happening on stage, to convince them that what’s unfolding before their eyes isn’t a magician’s simulacra but in fact reality. The prestige, where magic is concerned, is the byproduct of an effective deception. Siegler’s turn— Apple’s meticulous penchant for innovating through repeated iteration, isn’t deception: All those hardware refinements actually come together to create a phone that’s lighter, faster, larger, and more beautiful than anything before it. The difference this year is that the resulting prestige isn’t as effective. If anything, it’s hard to see in the iPhone 5 any difference between turn and prestige.

If I can empathize1 with any part of all these articles lamenting its writers disappointment in the iPhone 5, it would be the absence of any exclusive feature or experience that can’t be had on an iPhone that already exists. You can explain some of this simply as smartphones arriving to computing maturity. The issues that weighed down the original iPhone have long been addressed. The turns of each subsequent generation provided useful and desirable prestige-s: competent networking in the iPhone 3G, the gaming and processing advances of the 3GS, the photographic prowess of the 4, and a next generation2 user interface in the 4S. Each advancement introduced by each successive version of the iPhone were not only leaps in technology, but often unprecedented. All thanks— as Siegler argues, to Apple’s relentless attention to the turn.

The difference this year is that rather than selling us on the prestige created by its advancements in the turn, Apple took the stage and sold us the turn as prestige. Although every Apple keynote is filled with long and detailed accounts of its design and engineering efforts, this year’s keynote offered little evidence of the exclusive leaps in experience3 these advancements were supposed to provide. The iPhone 5 may be superior technically, but little about using it will feel unprecedented. Perhaps this explains why the presentation emphasized the design and engineering processes above all else. It’s uncharacteristic of Apple to tout how hard it works as an argument for why we should buy their products. Worse, it’s highly uncharacteristic of Apple to have as few and uninspiring4 reasons why all that hard work — most of which goes unnoticed, matters once the device is in our hands.

Where I differ from the aforementioned lament-ees is in the belief that this year’s lack of surprises, this year’s dissatisfying prestige, is somehow foreboding. The iPhone remains the best smartphone experience one can purchase, and this latest version keeps taking steps forward. Nor is this the end of Apple as the beacon of innovation. At best the iPhone 5 presents a difficult upgrade decision for 4S owners. At worst it’s a signal that priorities in hardware5 are, if not reaching a plateau, arriving to a golden age where performance gaps between successive generations of smartphones are narrow. If this is the case then Siegler’s argument is on the mark, despite the misplaced metaphor: the endgame is indeed in the turn.

  1. As an iPhone 4S owner. If you’re coming from any device prior, the upgrade will feel significant.

  2. Beta.

  3. Compare the unveiling of the taller iPhone 5 screen to the Retina Display reveal, or the introduction of the iPad. With the latter, it was easy for Apple to be unequivocal about how game-changing these turns were going to be for your enjoyment of iOS devices or how they advanced the industry. Besides widescreen video (which I’d argue is more relevant to the iPod touch) and a fifth row of apps, Apple was surprisingly short on reasons why we should care for a taller iPhone. By contrast, it’s obvious why a taller iPhone matters for Apple to achieve its engineering and strategic (read: responding to market trends) goals.

  4. Faster, lighter, taller!

  5. Alternatively, the “worst” part might be that Apple presented such a disappointing homecoming for iOS 6. If they have cornered the hardware turns market, the market for software turns is a lot more competitive. And it’s over the latter that the battle will be fought.

A Necessary Evil?

Mike Monterio doing his thing on Twitter1:

The tweet may have Mike’s typical facetious cadence, but beneath that veneer his tweet speaks volumes2 about the dichotomy between the tech community’s dislike of patents’ ability to stifle innovation, and its dependance on patents to protect and defend those same innovations. This is the reason why I’m having mixed emotions about the outcome of this trial. I’m happy that Apple was successful in defending itself against Samsung. They had clear motives to do so and they obtained the verdict most would agree they— and Samsung, deserved. Yet I can’t help but worry that this case could set a precedent which, used in the wrong hands, has the potential to cause real harm to the industry.3 In the long run, will this trial end up causing more damage than it put a end to yesterday?

  1. Look at me sell out to Twitter’s rules of the road. 

  2. About the speed at which we hop from one bandwagon to the other. 

  3. On the other hand, the ruling should hopefully stop anyone’s desire to take cues from the Samsung design guidebook. 

A Parting Gift

When Steve Jobs unveiled the original MacBook Air in January 2008, part of me believed that what he was actually pulling out of his manila envelope was not the world’s lightest and thinnest notebook but a promise. The mystique surrounding the original Air was always about what it hinted at as opposed to what it actually was.1 Each subsequent improvement to the line chiseled and refined that promise. Made it clearer, ever closer to reality. On that stage Jobs was talking about nothing less than the future of the notebook, and it took Apple little more than 4 years to reach it. Today it was Tim Cook’s turn to stand on stage and present his own vision for the notebook’s future, in the form of the new Retina MacBook Pro2. Yet Cook’s vision doesn’t hint — or even promise much; the difference between his vision and Jobs’s is that former is already the conclusion of the latter’s. The Retina MacBook Pro isn’t the next evolution of the notebook: It is the notebook utterly, nakedely, and fully realized. When he reached into that envelope in 2008, it’s not a stretch to imagine that today’s MacBook Pro is what Jobs was hoping would come out.

I’m sitting at home staring at the splash page on Apple.com and there it is, imposing its stunning beauty and inconceivable pairing of pixels and speed. Yet where I should be thinking “Here. We. Go!”, the voice in my head can only muster “This is it kiddo!”. Even if both exclamations can be exclaimed with the requisite combination of bravado and charm any cutting edge piece of technology ought to have, one hints at experiences unexplored and the other if what you tell yourself as you arrive to the last Christmas present tucked under the tree. There’s a sense of finality tied to its announcement. It’s hard to imagine how else to improve the Retina Display MacBook Pro. Imagining needing more than what it can provide today harder still. I doubt there’s someone gazing upon it and deciding that the amount of pixels and cores isn’t sufficient for his needs.3 Beyond the internal, how could Apple radically change the form factor next time around? It’s a topic I’ve broached at my weekly round table meetings discussing phones and tablets but it’s just as fitting in the case of notebooks. Although you can certainly toy around with materials for aesthetic means, I’m stretching my imagination thinking of ways Apple could design an even thinner, lighter notebook enclosed in some new impossibly dense and durable alloy, one that’s constructed of non-magical parts and makes practical and economical sense as a consumer good. That there will be new MacBooks in the future is guaranteed, but I question whether there’s any mystery about what they’ll look like.4 Common sense suggests that it’s all a matter of time until the price of the Retina MacBook Pro’s components become cheap enough to carry over to the rest of Apple’s notebook line. That and perhaps one more generation of kids growing up without physical media. Whether MacBook Airs become more powerful or the MacBook Pros become miniaturized is inconsequential. Simply imagine a line of suffix-less MacBooks who’s only differentiation are in the sizes of its Retina Displays and there you have it.

It’s hard to stay excited reading a book you already know the ending to. Worse, I wonder if it means I’m also losing a part of myself in the process. That part which accumulated all sorts of obscure hardware details, those that helped identify the difference between good computers and bad one and in which context. The geeky part of me that wondered where notebooks and desktops could go next, what kind of processors they would have, and which computer to suggest to a friend who sometimes makes movies, not always, but when he does those movies are always in high definition and he wants them to feel like feature films and otherwise he browses the web although lately he’s been eying some new video game that’s set to come out in the next 6 months. It’s the part of me who knows exactly5 what that friend needs. It’s that portion of myself that I never knew existed until I lay eyes on something like the MacBook Air or the first aluminium MacBook Pros. That part of me unfortunately, that collection of knowledge and interests, isn’t needed anymore.6 That part of me is caught in an undertow, drifting away slowly beneath the surface and out beyond the horizon, where other promises lay waiting to be discovered. I’m not sure I’m ready. I still like what’s on shore.

Does the existence of the new MacBook Pro - of the notebook itself, even matter anymore? After all, we live in a world where notebook and desktops have acquiesced to smartphones and tablets. The oft maligned P-O-S-T-PC era. While it was busy sketching the future of notebooks with the MacBook Air in 2008, Apple was also secretly plotting the entire future of computing with a then 6-month old iPhone and a yet unreleased iPad. As it turned out, the future of portables was actually no portables at all. This is the part that’s so disheartening for my generation (or me anyways): Finally we’re given a notebook so impressive and so ideal as to be beyond reproach, but that arrives at a time when its existence couldn’t matter less. Irony fit for Alanis Morissette.

What is the use of asserting one’s dominance when the war has changed battlefields? If you find yourself struggling or rationalizing to find the answers, perhaps it’s because the questions may not be about the future of notebooks, but about ourselves and how a generation of people who’ve grown with and understood computing through the form and design of desktops and notebooks can continue to do so in a future lacking them. Some are already agonizing over this and trying to delay, while others have learnt to embrace change. I’d like to say I had the foresight to see it coming, but the realization only hit me today. My gut accepts it. Maybe it knew all along, even as I awaited the same feelings of surprise and elation I’ve always awaited when new Macs were around the corner. Except today my experience unfolded on a computer no notebook could ever match.

What Apple gave us today with the Retina Display MacBook Pro wasn’t a whole new vision of the notebook. It was a memento, one last hurrah. A parting gift.

  1. I still remember having a hard time wrapping my mind around the 1.8’ HDD on the refurbished first generation Air I bought when I travelled to Australia 3 years ago. Or the sheer frustration of watching the briefest YouTube clip bring the whole thing to its knees. Still I loved the thing, for many of the reasons people bring up today explaining why the iPad makes a good laptop replacement. I had an iMac and MacBook Pro sitting at home for the 2 months I was gone. I took the Air with me for the same reasons everyone is now taking iPads with them on pilgrimages to San Francisco every June. 

  2. My emphasis, not Apple’s marketing department. 

  3. There are, and if you’re reading this and are one of those people, let me tell you emphatically that you are wrong and that it is all in your head. 

  4. For the sake of my argument, I’m obviously discounting the possibility of some earth shattering new technology or material we’ve yet to uncover, or that other people have better imaginations than I do. But until someone crafts a flat, rectangular Arc Reactor or a Quantum processor with enough graphics capabilities to run Crysis 5 at 60 frames per second, its a reasonable stance to bet on marginal improvements to the status quo: processors getting faster, standard RAM configurations to double every few years, battery life to increase sporadically and for form factors to remain rather the same. The years of shaving a notebooks weight in half are far behind it, and we’ve finally arrived to large displays of ocular grade clarity. The bag of surprises is rather limp in the bottom. 

  5. I used to get up so early for grade school that the only thing on TV in the morning was a shopping channel whom’s most often promoted product after Beanie Babies and Samurai Swords were generic brand computers towers. What stuck out to me was that week over week, somedays only days, the specs of those computers would double or sometimes even triple. Buying a computer from a shopping channel without getting ripped off was a bit like playing the stock market; studying the long term trends were a safer bet than betting big on short term “hot items”. This was in the mid to late 90’s and in the end it never really mattered because by the time the computer would be shipped to your house it would likely be obsoleted, That is, unless you had been carefully studying the trends over the course of a few months which, as a youth of the TV generation, I had done very attentively. 

  6. That I can still use my 2007 MacBook without reservations or limitations probably hints that this was a long time coming. 

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Harry Marks’s Feelings About the 4” iPhone

This isn’t fun speculation anymore. This has mutated from harmless wondering and hoping for something new from Apple into “reports” and “confirmations” and other false truths about a product no one has even seen yet.

Reading Marks talk about it, I’m beginning to wonder if he can read into my mind.

The question I’ve yet to see answered1: How is a 4 inch iPhone going to significantly2 improve upon the experience of the current 3.5 inch version? The 16:9 perspective ratio is being thrown around as a boon for video watchers but I don’t see that as the imperative driving Apple to go out and place large orders of 4 inch displays.

My suspicion is that it doesn’t. Hence my incredible skepticism in regards to these rumors.

  1. And it’s likely no one will answer it, since the same people bending over backwards to make this rumor a reality are the same ones mocking every release of a 4 inch Android phone. The same people who, as Marks points out, keep repeating that Apple marches to the beat of its own drum except on this one caveat where they absolutely feel the need to respond to Android. 

  2. Emphasis here on something keynote worthy, not your own personal desire for an extra row of apps on your homescreen.