Delusions of Grandeur January 2017

The Thing about Trucks.

About a year ago, a friend and I were talking about geeks—specifically how do you know if someone is really a geek. He came up with an interesting question to ask someone. Consider a scenario where someone unplugged your computer from the internet.

How long before you become bored and step away from the computer?

His point—the degree to which you’re a geek is directly proportional to the amount of time you remained occupied—may sound nostalgic, but there’s a more interesting distinction. Not about the extent to which you’re a geek1, but how you use a computer and what you want from that experience.

There were two arguments about computing that I found interesting from 2016. The first comes from a camp of iPad-only users. There’s a fair amount of zealotry, and dogma amongst this group, but I found the following a well-balanced summary of their argument:

Yes, you may not be able to use an iPad full time, but that’s not the point of what I, and many others, are saying. What we are saying is the same thing which got many to the Mac in 2004-5: life is better here, come take a stroll.

I couldn’t use my Mac as my only machine in 2004, but in 2005 I could. A big enough user base in any one category means that people take the platform seriously.

Excerpt from iPad Productivity Report – 1/2/17, Ben Brooks

Brooks’ argument is astute. For many, I imagine (lack of) app support is what mentally blocks iPad (and other iOS devices) from broader adoption as a primary computer. However, iPad does not lack for the kind of apps that plagued my use of a Mac in the early 2000s. iPad is supported by Microsoft Exchange, and a full complement of Microsoft Office apps are available.

The issue isn’t that corporations and software companies won’t take iPad seriously. The problem is customers. At the end of 2015, after purchasing the 12.9” iPad Pro, I went iPad-only2 for a week to try it out. A month later, it was no longer an experiment.

It took a dedicated keyboard, but I finally saw the iPad as a viable computer for day-to-day work. What changed wasn’t the iPad or iOS, it was my perception of the device and its viability as a general purpose computer.

The second argument stems from angst over a perceived lack of excitement in the 2016 Mac line-up. I’m certainly too biased to comment on the current state of the Mac line-up, but I am curious about why the Mac still matters to so many. Consider this:

[…] it took so long — not years but decades — for MacOS to get to where it is that I don’t think any other OS could ever catch up. That’s what’s driving the arguably paranoid fear that Apple is abandoning the Mac… if the Mac goes away, the world will be left without a Mac-quality desktop OS.

Excerpt from Wesley Moore’s Search for an Alternative To MacOS, John Gruber

While Brooks and others are arguing that iPad will eventually replace the Mac, Gruber is arguing there will always be a need for macOS—specifically a desktop operating system. Despite what my aforementioned dalliance with iPad might suggest, I’m firmly in Gruber’s camp.

Here’s the thought experiment, which I used to inform my opinion: If you could take only one device3 with you, which one would you take? Ben Brooks or Federico Viticci would almost certainly choose an iPad.

However, I’d take a Mac. Exactly the 11” MacBook Air, which I’m using to write this article.

My thinking goes like this: I can borrow someone else’s phone if I need to make a call, but I want my Mac if I need to do any sort of deep thinking. This feeling of personalization runs deep in a desktop operating system. It’s much more than wallpaper, or color schemes. My Mac is loaded with software and utilities that I have written custom for my specific use. I’m not talking about general software development, but scripting, and automation which ease my everyday tasks.

This level of customization is nigh impossible on iOS devices, by design. Might sound like I’m being facetious or setting up a strawman argument. In fact, I believe this capability for deep customization is the crux of the division between the iPad-only and Mac loyalist camps.

A new computer is barely usable until I’ve tricked it out with my macros, and launchers, and scripts, and customisations.

Excerpt from Lifting the Mouse, Matt Gemmell

Deep customization comes at a cost to the general experience of using a computer. If you remove this capability, you can create a computer that is more secure, more predictable, and more adaptable. That is why the iPad (and iOS in general) feels like such a revelation. It makes—meaningless to many—tradeoffs in customization for meaningful improvements to the user experience for those who don’t need it.

If you want deep customization that only a desktop operating system can provide—but still desire a high-quality experience—your best option is macOS.

Motivated by Wesley Moore’s search, I wiped my soon-to-be-retired 11” MacBook Air, and gave Elementary OS a spin. Or at least, I tried.

Do you know anything about EFI bootloaders? If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time getting eOS to run on anything but a USB key plugged into your Mac. It’s a pain-in-the-ass to install, even with several tutorials available online.

Even though I was unsuccessful with eOS, I was struck with an epiphany during the process.

The Mac Experiment.

Before I started, I knew an eOS computer wouldn’t have access to the App store, iCloud, or iMessage. In order to determine if a Linux computer could be useful, I had to consider alternatives based on what was available for the platform, or simply live without them. Turns out the latter was the simpler option for an experiment.

Instead of a full replacement for my Macs, the Linux computer would be dedicated to writing code, and writing for this website. Available were a cocktail of terminal commands, small single-purpose programs, and text editors such as vim and emacs.

When I finally gave up on eOS, two things happened. First, I remembered why I loved the 11” MBA hardware so much. The compact size, extended battery life, and true widescreen aspect ratio all came back to me. I also took the time to properly calibrate the display, and now it portrays color more precisely4.

Second, I realized a Mac with the same restricted app use, and minimal network services would make for a powerful machine—even with outdated hardware. So, I rebuilt the machine from scratch using the recovery partition. Seems this Mac isn’t ready to retire, after all.

No iMessage. Haven’t logged into the App store, and the only iCloud service I have enabled is Find My Mac. I haven’t configured Mail, Photos, or Facetime. I did install iTunes, because I prefer to control music from my computer when I’m deep in thought.

I had to install Xcode from here5. And since both have left the App store recently, I have direct licenses for BBEdit and Sketch. The rest of the apps I installed are open-source utilities.

I’ve also installed Courier Prime Code, my favorite monospace font. Just about everything I will see on this computer will be set in Courier Prime or San Francisco. Then there’s all of the scripts, and tweaks I’ve installed, including my custom prompt for fish shell, software I’ve built to publish my site, and numerous minor customizations that make life easier.

The resulting machine is fast, and nimble, with ample hard drive space for future projects. I get 10-11 hours of battery life—enough to drive it multiple days between charges. And a quick 20 minute top-off from the Architect’s 85W MacBook Pro charger6 gets me to 70%.

Stripped down, and perfect.

I can’t describe how much I enjoy using this Mac. And that’s the real point here. I use an iPhone, and iPad daily to write emails, look up references, read the news, listen to music, get directions, and edit documents. In many ways, the iOS devices are my work devices—i.e., the devices I use to accomplish things I have to do.

The Mac is where I go to accomplish what I want to do. If you enjoy playing games or reading7, you’ll probably think of the iPad as your fun machine. It’s okay. That is why there is more than one camp.

If you prefer a cleaner experience, and don’t need to customize your machine heavily or build your own utilities, then an iPad is an excellent primary computer. It is arguably the best realization of a general purpose computer, to date.

But if you’re like me, and want a machine that you can customize, and expand at your whim, there is no computer quite like a Mac.

  1. Geeks come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and gender. The trick is that we know one when we see one, so make sure you own it.

  2. It was primarily a work experiment, which is the lion-share of time I spent in front of a computer.

  3. Presumably a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, but you are free to substitute whichever computer, phone, or tablet you wish.

  4. The MacBook Airs have a reputation for awful color reproduction out of the box. Specifically, the grays of the macOS chrome are extremely washed out, and the color temperature of the display has a strong blue bias. If you run through the calibration on expert mode, in plenty of neutral light, you can correct for most of the bias. However, I still wouldn’t recommend this screen for photography or other work which requires precise handling of color.

  5. Not really, but I can’t share the links I actually used.

  6. Actually, chargers. She has a few strategically placed around the house. The smaller 45W brick usually stays in my bag.

  7. I use a B/W Kindle for reading. It’s light, easy to hold, and is never without a charge, despite only needed a power brick once a month. You’re probably noticing a trend: I prefer devices I don’t need to charge every single night.