Good Reads for November, 2019

Every month, we’ll be bringing you a handful of kindly knitted, if slightly longer, reads about the wonderful world of Apple. Sometimes, these will be interviews with Apple execs about what it’s like to face and respond to what seems like years-long widespread criticism of one aspect of Apple laptops, thoughtful reasonings behind some of the slightly more baffling decisions Apple seems to make, or simply highlights of the best of Apple Arcade. All I know is, bring your own Instapaper account, because this is Good Reads.

  • Apple may have quietly released the 16-inch MacBook Pro in mid-November, but it made a big splash. Mostly because it came with a different keyboard than the divisive — but anecdotally unreliable — Butterfly-style keyboard found on every post-2015 MacBook Pro and every Mac laptop today. Of course, Apple being Apple, it wasn’t enough to merely switch to the old keyboard design, they also made a number of other changes to the keyboard: a real escape key, better key spacing, more thoughtfully positioned Touch Bar, and separate Touch ID. IFixit called it a throwback to a time when Mac laptop keyboards were good, then gave us plenty of details about what changed in their teardown.

The new Magic Keyboard in the 16-inch MacBook Pro uses a scissor switch that looks almost identical to the switches in the desktop Magic Keyboard, and MacBooks sold before the butterfly blunder. The switch is two plastic pieces, crossed, with a pivot in the middle to control key movement. It’s more robust than butterfly switches, and there’s more space to tolerate debris within its movements. This is backed up by the lack of a membrane around the keys, and the lack of an extended warranty (so far) on this keyboard. Apple seems confident about durability (or noise levels, perhaps).

  • Cnet’s interview with Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller about the new keyboard gives us some perspective about the decision-making process that went into the change. It can’t have been something Apple would have taken lightly, as it would have been an admission of years of Butterfly failures, but I think the Butterfly keyboard was getting to the point where it wasn’t possible to engineer a solution, and it just needed to be replaced wholesale. You could make the argument that Apple ditching the Butterfly keyboard mechanism is a tacit admission that it missed the mark, but Schiller prefers to say that they are, for the time being, continuing both designs.

There’s always something to learn to make a product better, no matter what the feedback, and so what can we do to make it better? Can we make it better along the lines of what we already have, or do we need to go in another direction — and for who? The team took the time to do the work to investigate research, explore and reinvent. The team has learned a lot over the last few years in this area.

  • It’s popular opinion that iOS 13 has been one of the buggiest releases in a while. A rough open beta cycle and numerous general availability releases in quick succession indicates that something was wrong with software development at Apple this time around, atypical of a company that usually known for solid, stable, software updates. Bloomberg reports that Apple are changing things up internally to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, but the proof will be in the pudding when we see the next major releases of iOS, iPadOS, and macOS in about a year or so.

The issues show how complex iPhones have become and how easily users can be disappointed by a company known for the smooth integration of hardware and software. Annual software updates timed for release with the latest iPhones are a critical way for Apple to add new capabilities and keep users from defecting to archrival Android. Refreshed operating systems also give developers more tools for app creation, catalyzing more revenue for Apple from its App Store.

  • I can’t decide whether US or Australian politics is worse at the moment, but in much the same way that the Butterfly keyboard was divisive, Apple CEO Tim Cook’s support of Donald Trump is equally polarising. There are those that think the CEO of the largest company in the world shouldn’t be seen siding with and playing ball with Trump, much less being used to prop up Trump’s agenda. Then there are those that seem to think that for Apple to not do so would be economical suicide, despite the potential for a moral and social victory that would otherwise align with Apple’s ethos that it so often touts in its videos and other marketing. As The Verge postulates, it’s about Apple being between a rock and a hard place. I strongly suspect Cook finds himself in the completely unenviable position of being forced to choose between the economical good of the company by rubbing shoulders with Trump, versus the potential economic impact if they opposed him.

If you haven’t been tracking Cook’s social calendar, you might be surprised to see Apple stepping into politics in this way. Without a content empire to moderate or an ad network to maintain, Apple has largely stayed out of the contemporary political maelstrom, which has done so much damage to Google and Facebook. Apple doesn’t have Amazon’s reputation for ruthless capitalism or Microsoft’s reliance on government contracts, and it’s generally cultivated a principled nonpartisanship.

  • The good news about Apple Arcade is that it’s been mostly a hit, with new games continuing to push the needle well into value-for-money territory. The bad news about Apple Arcade is that it’s plagued by the same issues that has afflicted the App Store since WWDC tickets had to be issued by lottery, and that’s discoverability. Fortunately, there are no end of articles telling you which games are worth playing on Apple Arcade, and Ars Technica’s guide to the hidden gems of Apple Arcade is no slouch in this regard.

Apple Arcade, with its smaller, more carefully curated library, helps remedy that problem a bit. But with dozens of games included in an Apple Arcade subscription, it’s still hard to find the hidden gems languishing behind those few hyped in the spotlight. In between the Sayonara Wild Hearts (which is beautiful) and Grindstone (oh, is it 2am already?) are games that you absolutely should be playing, if only you knew to take the time.

  • At the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo says that Steve Jobs was right, and that smartphones and tablets killed the PC. With the release of iPadOS, iPads can now replace your laptop or PC for a great many things that you do on a regular computer, and even do plenty of things that your laptop or desktop can’t. That’s not saying that traditional PCs are dead, or that old PC-conventions and workflows are hard to give up, but for the most part, a lot of the time it feels like iPads are the computers of the future. See also: Ben Brooks’ reasons on why you should ditch your laptop for an iPad Pro.

Apple’s latest iPads are different. Not only can you get work done on them; in many ways they’re productivity dream machines. Today’s iPads are powered by custom-designed processors that are faster than the chips on some of the Macs Apple makes, and the iPad’s separately sold keyboard is better and more durable than the accursed, falling-apart mess of a keyboard that Apple is shipping on its much-maligned current line of laptops.

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