By John Gruber
Go ahead. Forget your passwords. 1Password remembers them all for you.
Today I opened a major Apple Manufacturing [sic] plant in Texas that will bring high paying jobs back to America. Today Nancy Pelosi closed Congress because she doesn’t care about American Workers! [sic]
I’ve been on board with Cook’s stance on engaging Trump. Participating in Trump’s technology council does not imply support for Trump. Engaging Trump personally, in private phone calls and dinners, does not imply support. But appearing alongside Trump at an Apple facility in a staged photo-op is implicit support for Trump and his re-election.
This wasn’t a promotion for the Mac Pro or its assembly plant. It was a promotion for Trump. This video makes it look like Trump’s trade policies have been good for Apple and that Tim Cook supports Trump. Both of those things are false. Even Trump’s predictable claim that this is a new facility is false — Apple, in what at the time was a high-profile shift, has been manufacturing Mac Pros at the same facility since 2013. Apple isn’t bringing Mac Pro assembly back to the U.S. because of Trump’s trade policies; Apple is keeping Mac Pro production here solely because Trump granted Apple an exemption to his tariffs — tariffs that he himself clearly does not understand.
But Cook went into this knowing that this is how Trump would play it — a big pile of nonsensical horseshit all the way down.
This is how Apple chose to unveil the packaging for the Mac Pro — in a poorly-shot overexposed propaganda video by the White House, scored with bombastic music that sounds like it came from an SNL parody of a Michael Bay film. Think about how it feels to work on that team at Apple.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump called Mr. Cook a “very special person” because of his ability to create jobs. He turned to Mr. Cook and said, “What would you say about our economy compared to everybody else?”
Mr. Cook replied, “I think we have the strongest economy in the world.”
“Strongest in the world,” Mr. Trump said.
The president then took questions on the impeachment inquiry and launched into a tirade against “the fake press.” Mr. Cook stood silently nearby.
“Mr. Cook stood silently nearby.”
A low moment in Apple’s proud history, and a sadly iconic moment for Tim Cook. I hope avoiding those tariffs is worth it. ★
If you’re not into vaping, it’s pretty easy to cheer this action. For starters, some vaping companies are terrible people. Second, some kinds of vaping are simply not good for you, even when they don’t contain cyanide. So who could be against this move?
Well, vapers, certainly. There are actually very good reasons why some people vape, medical ones. For now those who have installed the apps can continue to use them, but in the long term developers have no way to deliver updates that could provide bug fixes or firmware updates.
It’s worth pointing out that the canisters that did contain cyanide were counterfeit. The Macalope just checked his local liquor store and we haven’t banned alcohol sales because prison wine blinded some people. He also checked the App Store and we haven’t banned mixology apps, either. But one of the apps Apple banned actually checked canisters to see if they were counterfeit.
But there are also more sophisticated devices that have USB and even Bluetooth interfaces to enable the patient to control heat settings, display lights, and update the firmware. The Bluetooth devices are accompanied by apps on the iOS and Android mobile platforms which can allow the patient to measure and monitor their usage, and, as is the case with PAX to identify the medication loaded into the device, and to understand its contents, such as the overall cannabinoid profile, the terpene mix, and other components. It also allows a user to validate the authenticity of the medication as well as testing and batch results.
Those apps — and by extension, device functionality — are no longer available to iPhone users — you can’t get this level of functionality in a browser — not because regulators ruled them illegal, or because Congress passed a law, but because a group of technology executives said so. And, what they said held sway because the App Store is integrated with the iPhone: Apple has a monopoly on what apps can or cannot be installed.
To keep it all here on one page, my take from Monday:
I think I’m OK with this overall, but it’s a close call. The stuff about selling cartridges, and sharing news — it’s fine for that stuff to be out of the App Store because you can get it on the web. But Bluetooth stuff where apps were used as the interface for controlling hardware — web apps can’t do that (nor should they be able to). There is no alternative to a native app, and native apps are only available on the App Store. This would be an easy call to make (and would have been made from the get-go by Apple) if vaping were illegal. But it’s not illegal.
A few readers, objecting to my “I think I’m OK with this overall” stance, posed the same question The Macalope did: why not alcohol-related apps, too? Wouldn’t I — who partakes of an occasional libation — staunchly object to a ban on, say, cocktail recipe apps? Well, no. If Apple were to issue a blanket ban on alcohol-related apps, I wouldn’t object so much as I would worry that Apple had lost its mind. Vaping and alcohol are both legal in the U.S., but they are not in the same ballpark.
There is a stigma — growing rapidly — attached to vaping that is not attached to alcohol. Vaping is controversial in ways that drinking is not. Is that fair? No. Apple cited 42 recent vaping-related deaths in the U.S. in its decision to ban vaping apps from the App Store. The National Institute of Health estimates that 88,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes annually — which, if true, means over 240 per day. There’s a good chance someone in the U.S. will die from an alcohol-related cause by the time you finish reading this article. Is it fair that we as a society have accepted that, but consider 42 vaping-relating deaths a crisis? No.
This isn’t about vaping being bad and alcohol being good. It’s about vaping being controversial and alcohol being firmly socially accepted. President Trump has not called for a ban on fruit-flavored vodka, but he did call for a ban on fruit-flavored vape cartridges. Now, in the past week, Trump has walked away from that proposed ban, because, it turns out, his proposed ban was politically risky. My point here isn’t whether vape users skew toward being Trump supporters — I have no idea, and wouldn’t be surprised if vaping demographics showed no tilt toward the left or right, per se, but merely toward being young — but simply to point out that vaping is so controversial as to have risen to the level of presidential politics.
If alcohol were as contentious an issue in the U.S. today as it were 100 years ago, I would expect Apple to ban alcohol-related apps long before Prohibition became the law of the land. But it’s not contentious today.
And, speaking of alcohol-related apps, in the early days of the App Store there were apps that flagged the locations of DUI checkpoints. These apps were not illegal — in some cases the data for the apps came from the police departments themselves. In testimony before the U.S. Senate in May 2011, Apple VP Bud Tribble cited that fact as one reason why Apple allowed the apps in the App Store.
Three weeks later, Apple updated its App Store guidelines to ban such apps, and removed them from the store. They have not returned.
Like vaping apps, those DUI apps were perfectly legal. Also like vaping, they were controversial. The analogy is not perfect. Having executives drawn into testimony before Congress — as with the DUI checkpoint apps — is no small matter. There are no Senate hearings on the vaping epidemic — yet. Look at those graphs in the PEW Research demographic study of vapers I linked to above — particularly this one. The rate at which vaping is growing among high school and college students is striking. In 2016 13 percent of high school seniors reported vaping in the previous 30 days; two years later it was double that figure. If this continues apace, it seems inevitable vaping will soon reach the level of Congressional investigations.
I would wager that Apple changed its mind back in 2011 on DUI checkpoint apps not because of political pressure — remember, they defended them in a Senate hearing — but because they decided it was simply the right thing to do. I would bet that’s a factor with the vaping ban.
Online gambling is legal in several U.S. states today. It’s perfectly legal in numerous countries around the word. There have never been any apps in the App Store that let you gamble with real money.1 Most pornography is legal — never been in the App Store, never will be. All of it: controversial. And, to varying extents: seedy.
Apple certainly isn’t being cowardly here. If anything, the quick political backlash to Trump’s proposed outlawing of flavored vape cartridges shows that taking a stand against vaping is the riskier route.
Search the App Store for “tobacco” or “cigarettes” and most of what you’ll find are apps intended to help people quit smoking. But there are some eyebrow-raising exceptions.
“Tobacco Inc. (Cigarette Inc.)” is an iOS game with the following premise:
You have been a president of tobacco company. By developing new varieties and diverse additives and by making cigarette having high-addictiveness, grow the company as the best company in the world. Achieve 99.9% of global smoking rate and 99.9% of market share.
The future of cigarette is up to you.
It’s not clear if that 99.9% figure includes children. (Also, consider one big “[sic]” applied to that whole description.)
A few others: “itSmoke” (a cigarette smoking simulator — with decent graphics!), “iRoll Up the Rolling and Smoking Simulator Game” (a “game” in which you roll and “spark up” your own “cigarettes”), and an entire sub-genre of games that show up when you search for “weed baron”.
As it stands today, tobacco and marijuana are OK in the App Store if you smoke them but banned if you vape them. That distinction seems impossible to defend, other than by noting that vaping is a hot topic in the news, and cigarettes and weed baroning are not.
All that said, my personal take remains unchanged: I think I’m OK with Apple’s decision, but it’s a close call. I’m not even saying I agree with it. If the decision were mine to make, I’d have left the vape apps in the store — for now at least. But I think it’s an edge case that makes for a close call, so I’m OK with it.
This seems to be problematic for some readers to come to grips with — that I can accept a decision I disagree with. To me, it’s like watching an instant replay in baseball. The umpire calls the baserunner out. One replay camera angle makes the runner look safe; a different angle makes the runner look out. Neither angle is conclusive. Maybe I feel the angle that makes the runner look safe is more compelling. But the umps review the play and the call stands: out. I’m OK with that, because it was close. Usually, instant replays in baseball are conclusive. Usually, with App Store rejections and policy changes, the correct course of action for Apple is clear.
My strong preference for the App Store, so long as it remains the only way to install apps as a consumer2 (that is to say, non-developer, non-enterprise users), is for Apple to be guided by two factors: the law, and compliance with App Store technical policies.
The legal part is obvious. Apple has no choice but to comply with the laws around the world in every country in which the App Store operates. On the matter of technical polices, I mean things like forbidding the use of private APIs, abusing system resources, violating the privacy or security of users, etc. Rules that should apply equally to all apps from all third-party developers.
Does the app adhere to the law? Does the app adhere to Apple’s rules? If the answer is yes to both questions then the app should be in the App Store.
But there are always going to be exceptions. Pornography, gambling, and hate speech have been exceptions from the beginning.
The X-factor with Apple’s vaperware ban is Bluetooth — using apps to control hardware devices. All sorts of things that are banned from the App Store are adequately, if not equally, accessible via the web. The HKMaps.live app is a great example of that: the hkmaps.live website offers almost the exact same features and experience as the native app Apple yanked from the App Store. (To be clear, I oppose Apple’s decision in that case — I simply feel better about it knowing that iPhone-owning Hongkongers still have access to the same information.)
Hardware is different. Web apps can’t access Bluetooth. Without a native app there is no workaround. From Pax’s well-argued response to Apple’s ban:
At PAX, we are committed to delivering technology that enables adults to make educated, informed choices. Millions of consumers in 34 legal states, including a large number of medical patients and veterans, rely on the PAX Mobile App to control their session size, set the correct temperature and have lockout abilities to prevent children from accessing our devices. Last Tuesday, we announced our new PodID feature, which — in light of the current threats posed by the illicit market — provides consumers with unprecedented access to information about what’s in their pods, including strain information, cannabinoid and terpene profiles, access to state-regulated test results and more.
There are exceptions to almost every rule, and if Apple is considering exceptions to its vaping ban — and they should be — they should start with companies like Pax, whose apps cannot be replicated on the web and whose products can and often are used in legal, medically-sanctioned ways. ★
Unless it’s on Wall Street, where it’s called “investing” and is A-OK. ↩︎
Which of course raises the obvious and long-debated solution to any dispute regarding Apple’s unconstrained control over what is allowed in the App Store: allowing apps to be sideloaded. Allow iOS to work like MacOS — where only App Store apps are allowed by default but users have the option to also install apps from identified developers. That would be a solution to the problem of Apple’s capricousness and/or moral rectitude — but the full ramifications of allowing sideloading on iOS aren’t simple at all. It’s a complicated situation that would require a complicated explication, and to pretend that it’s only about Apple protecting its 15-30 percent revenue cut — although undeniably that’s a huge factor — is disingenuous. ↩︎︎
Apple today released its much-rumored new 16-inch MacBook Pro.
It is full of good news.
Yesterday, Apple held a series of roundtable briefings for the media in New York. There was an on-the-record introduction followed by an off-the-record series of demos.1 The introduction was led by MacBook Pro product manager Shruti Haldea, along with senior director of Mac product marketing Tom Boger and Phil Schiller. Attending media received loaner units to review. Let’s not even pretend that a few hours is enough time for a proper review, but it’s more than enough time to establish some strong broad impressions. Here’s what you need to know, in what I think is the order of importance.
We got it all: a return of scissor key mechanisms in lieu of butterfly switches, a return of the inverted-T arrow key arrangement, and a hardware Escape key. Apple stated explicitly that their inspiration for this keyboard is the Magic Keyboard that ships with iMacs. At a glance, it looks very similar to the butterfly-switch keyboards on the previous 15-inch MacBook Pros. But don’t let that fool you — it feels completely different. There’s a full 1mm of key travel; the butterfly keyboards only have 0.5mm. This is a very good compromise on key travel, balancing the superior feel and accuracy of more travel with the goal of keeping the overall device thin. (The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is, in fact, a little thicker than the previous 15-inch models overall.) Calling it the “Magic Keyboard” threads the impossible marketing needle they needed to thread: it concedes everything while confessing nothing. Apple has always had a great keyboard that could fit in a MacBook — it just hasn’t been in a MacBook the last three years.
There’s also more space between keys — about 0.5mm. This difference is much more noticeable by feel than by sight. Making it easier to feel the gaps between keys really does make a difference. Like the 15-inch MacBook Pro, all 16-inch models come with the Touch Bar. But even there, there’s a slight improvement: it’s been nudged further above the top row of keys, to help avoid accidental touches. No haptic feedback or any other functional changes to the Touch Bar, though.
It’s hard not to speculate that all of these changes are, to some degree, a de-Jony-Ive-ification of the keyboard. For all we on the outside know, this exact same keyboard might have shipped today even if Jony Ive were still at Apple.2 I’m not sure I know anyone, though, who would disagree that over the last 5-6 years, Apple’s balance of how things work versus how things look has veered problematically toward making things look better — hardware and software — at the expense of how they function.
Allow me to fixate on one particular detail: the arrow keys. The only reason to switch from the classic upside-down T arrangement to full-size left and right arrow keys is that it makes the keyboard look better. With the upside-down T arrangement, the gaps above the left and right arrow look a little funny, in the abstract. But those gaps serve a huge functional purpose — they make it so much easier to put your fingers on those keys without looking at the keyboard. The gaps give you something to feel for. Having used recent MacBook family keyboards for months at a time over the past few years, the arrow key arrangement has been my biggest annoyance by far. More than the low-travel keys, more than the missing hardware Escape button, more than narrow gaps between keys. I just could never get used to not having those gaps in the arrow key layout. I resorted to putting small strips of gaffer tape on the lower half of the left and right keys to have something to feel for.
What Apple emphasized yesterday in its presentation is not that the butterfly-switch keyboards are problematic or unpopular. They can’t do that — they still include them on every MacBook other than this new 16-inch model. And even if they do eventually switch the whole lineup to this new keyboard — and I think they will, but of course, when asked about that, they had no comment on any future products — it’s not Apple’s style to throw one of their old products under the proverbial bus. What Apple emphasized is simply that they listened to the complaints from professional MacBook users. They recognized how important the Escape key is to developers — they even mentioned Vim by name during a developer tool demo. And they emphasized that they studied what makes for a good keyboard. What reduces mistakes, what increases efficiency. And they didn’t throw away the good parts of the butterfly keyboard — including excellent backlighting and especially the increased stability, where keys go down flat even when pressed off-center. The keys on this keyboard don’t wobble like the keys on pre-2016 MacBook Pro keyboards do.
Typing is very quiet on the new keyboard, and the sound it does make is satisfying. Less click-ity, more chunk-ity.
In short, Apple did not simply go back to the old style keyboards. It’s a new design, with the best attributes of the old 2015 keyboards and the recent butterfly-switch keyboards.
Lastly, Apple seems very confident that this new keyboard design is durable and reliable. The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is not covered by Apple’s keyboard service program, because they apparently don’t need to be.
I expected Apple to do this — to correct the mistakes of the previous keyboard. But I feared that they wouldn’t, out of stubborn pride or just plain bad taste in keyboard design. It is a bit frustrating that it took them three years to do it, but they did it. This is what their modern MacBook keyboards should have been like all along.
A keyboard reboot we all saw coming. Here’s one I did not: the new 16-inch MacBook Pro has radically improved built-in speakers. This is the audio equivalent of going from chunky pixels to retina displays. It’s that big a difference.
It’s not simply about being louder, although they are louder at maximum volume. They just sound impossibly better. They don’t merely sound like good laptop speakers — they sound like good dedicated portable speakers, period. In a small room, you can credibly use the 16-inch MacBook Pro to play music as though it’s an entertainment speaker system. And at maximum volume they really are a lot louder — without the sort of distortion we’ve all come to expect from laptop speakers at high volume.
Apple’s demos pitted the new MacBook Pro against high-end models from Dell, Razer, and (I think) HP. It was an embarrassing comparison. I of course can see why Apple’s own demo compared the new MacBook Pro against laptops from competitors, but the difference is just as stark when compared to the 15-inch MacBook Pro from 2018.
In addition to sounding holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-these-are-laptop-speakers better, the new speakers also vibrate less when the volume is high. Other laptop speakers, including Apple’s, pump audio through the keyboard. You can feel the whole machine vibrate with your fingers on the keys. Not so much with the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, even with the volume pumped all the way. Apple credits this to force-canceling woofers. Speaker drivers are paired back-to-back, emitting sound both up and down, which cancels out the physical force that creates vibrations and distorted sound. They provide some real bass.
The amazing acoustic engineering that led to the HomePod and AirPods Pro is now starting to pay dividends in every product Apple makes with speakers. iPhone and iPad speakers have gotten really good too, but with those products, there’s been a steady improvement year after year. I can’t recall one single iPhone or iPad where the difference in sound quality over the previous generation was this significant.
Really, I don’t think there’s anything I can write here that will convince you how good these speakers sound. However good you think I’m saying they sound, they sound way better than that.
There’s more! Audio input is improved as well. The 16-inch MacBook Pro has a new 3-microphone array that Apple describes as “studio quality”. They claim you can credibly use it to record a podcast — a bold claim. The new three-microphone array certainly sounds noticeably better than the old built-in microphone. Here are some samples I recorded last night, at the desk in my basement where I usually record my podcast.
2018 15-inch MacBook Pro:
The new 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro:
My iPhone 11 Pro:
Shure Beta 87A microphone connected to an Onyx Blackjack XLR interface — the setup I use for my show:
Would I recommend the new built-in MacBook Pro microphone for recording a podcast? No. But would I be willing to use it for my own show in a pinch? Yes. And it should be a great improvement to audio for teleconferencing and FaceTime.
The new 16-inch display has a native resolution of 3072 × 1920 pixels, with a density of 226 pixels per inch. The old 15-inch retina display was 2880 × 1800 pixels, with a density of 220 pixels per inch. Apple didn’t just use the same number of pixels and make the pixels bigger — they actually made the pixels slightly smaller and added more of them to make a bigger display. Brightness and color gamut are unchanged. No rounded corners (like on the iPad Pro and iPhone X/XS/11) — the display is still a good old-fashioned rectangle with pure corners.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro is the new “big” MacBook Pro — it replaces the previous 15-inch MacBook Pro in the lineup at the same prices: $2400 for a 6-core base model and $2800 for the 8-core base model.
The Intel chips are the same as the ones available on the May 2019 15-inch MacBook Pro. So it goes, until Apple switches to its own chips for Macs — these are still the best laptop chips Intel makes. It’s a bit unusual, to say the least, that a major update to the flagship MacBook uses the same CPUs as the generation it’s replacing.
But there are performance improvements. An all-new thermal system means the chips can run at peak performance longer. Graphics are faster, with the debut of AMD’s Radeon Pro 5000M series GPUs. The base models come with 16 GB of faster DDR4 RAM, and can now be configured with up to 64 GB. Apple also now offers up to 8 TB of SSD storage, which they believe to be the first 8 TB SSD on the market.
The port situation is unchanged: four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports, two on each side, and a headphone jack.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro does have a slightly larger footprint than the old 15-inch models. It’s slightly heavier too (4.3 vs. 4.02 pounds) and as mentioned before, it’s slightly thicker (1.62 vs. 1.55 cm). But in hand and in use, it effectively feels the same size as the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
It feels a bit silly to be excited about a classic arrow key layout, a hardware Escape key, and key switches that function reliably and feel good when you type with them, but that’s where we are. The risk of being a Mac user is that we’re captive to a single company’s whims.
No one would ever suggest that the steering wheel for a car be designed by people who don’t drive. But yet somehow the entire Macintosh world has spent the last three years dealing with or avoiding keyboards that were seemingly designed by people who don’t type.3 The whole saga of the butterfly keyboards — their unreliable switches, poor typing feel, and anti-functional layout — betrays a certain arrogance. The more powerful an organization — a corporation, a nation, a sports team, whatever — the more at risk that organization is to hubris. It’s power that allows one to act on hubris.
We shouldn’t be celebrating the return of longstanding features we never should have lost in the first place. But Apple’s willingness to revisit these decisions — their explicit acknowledgment that, yes, keyboards are meant to be typed upon, not gazed upon — is, if not cause for a party, at the very least cause for a jubilant toast.
This is a MacBook you can once again argue is the best laptop hardware money can buy. ★
The demos all included the new Mac Pro too, which they announced will be shipping in “December”. No additional information on Mac Pro pricing until it ships, alas. ↩︎
One could argue too, that in addition to keyboards designed by people who don’t type, modern MacBooks offer ports selected by people who never connect peripherals to their computers. But while USB-C is clearly taking over slower than Apple expected, it is taking over. Apple still thinks it will be proven right on going all-in on USB-C for MacBook ports. ↩︎︎