Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Spring Forward, Indeed

Apple is truly a company in a class of one. It is consistently unafraid of redefining expectations and the boundaries of what a tech company is seemingly supposed to do. Today’s “Spring Ahead” event once again put this skill on show for the press, testing our collective ability to — at the same time — embrace our dreams, and to accept the upheaval of our fundamental beliefs.

ResearchKit

In some ways, this was the most impactful news of the event. It wasn’t leaked; it wasn’t even anticipated. But ResearchKit could very well profoundly shape our understanding of a wide variety of medical conditions, simply because no other company, and certainly no medical company, has the kind of reach that Apple does to devices that can track and analyze movement. This means more people participating in studies, which means more data, which means a lower margin of error, which should translate into far more accurate analysis.

ResearchKit supports tests (PDF) for motion, fitness, screen tapping, memory, and voice. That’s a lot of data to collect, which is understandably concerning. But this is Apple, not Google: your health data won’t be sold for ads. In fact, Apple apparently won’t even see the data because it goes straight to the universities, hospitals, and institutions conducting the studies.

This probably isn’t the news you tuned in to hear, but it was a nice surprise. Jeff Williams presented extremely well for his first keynote appearance, and the news was equally impressive. It’s easy to imagine the possibilities of ResearchKit in the future, with likely Apple Watch integration and a myriad of third-party products.

MacBook

I was really looking forward to this announcement. Ever since Mark Gurman’s prescient report from January, this has felt like my next computer. What was revealed was even more impressive than I imagined.

The MacBookjust the MacBook — is, for all intents and purposes, an updated version of the 12-inch PowerBook, but it is way, way better than just a thinner, narrower, and taller 11-inch MacBook Air.

Based on the hands-on reports I’ve read, the display is stunning. It’s a Retina display, of course, and it’s the full IPS, laminated, ridiculously thin kind of display that they’re getting really good at making. The display alone is tempting me to upgrade from my mid-2012 MacBook Air, which is equipped with a truly mediocre screen. (I think a portable device should have way better viewing angles than this display has.)

The new keyboard also appears to be a significant development. Apple switched from scissor switches to their own proprietary “butterfly” switches, which they say results in a firmer, more accurate key actuation. It also has individual key backlighting, which is something The Godfather has long wished for, and the key labels are now printed in San Francisco instead of VAG Rounded. If I don’t get one of these Macs for a while, I at least hope this new keyboard will find its way into a new Bluetooth keyboard, because this looks terrific. It appears to combine the short key travel of a chiclet keyboard with the precision of mechanical switches. That sounds like quite the recipe.

Best of all, the new MacBook has no fan, so it’s totally silent, and that’s a small miracle in of itself. The processor I’m guessing they’re using is rated for a Turbo Boost of up to 2.6 GHz; the new MacBook only goes up to 2.4 GHz, which makes me think that Apple is limiting the top end, probably for thermal reasons. But the fact that Apple has built a full MacBook into something of near-iPad weight and thickness is remarkable. I do wonder how this processor will perform while encoding video or playing games, though.

The biggest surprise for people who didn’t read Gurman’s preview was that the new MacBook lacks virtually all of the ports you would expect: there’s no Thunderbolt port, no SD card slot, and no MagSafe. It even lacks the “standard” USB port we’re all used to. All of these ports have been replaced by a single USB type C port, which joins the headphone jack to create the entirety of wired peripheral connection possibilities for this Mac. The USB-C port supports charging, USB data, and DisplayPort output. With a couple of ugly-ass adapters, you can output to HDMI or VGA, too.

But I own a Thunderbolt Display. It wasn’t released that long ago, and most of Apple’s computers support Thunderbolt. But this one doesn’t, and I don’t think it will for a while, because USB-C doesn’t yet support generic PCIe or Ethernet data, like Thunderbolt does. Apple hasn’t given up on Thunderbolt — the updated MacBook Airs and Pros are a sign of their ongoing commitment — but it hasn’t really made the kind of splash in the consumer market that I think Apple hoped it would. It’s probably destined to be this decade’s FireWire 800: a protocol that I, along with professionals in some markets, absolutely love, but which isn’t widely adopted. That’s fine; it still connects to an HDMI display. But I really, really like my Thunderbolt Display, and I really like this new MacBook, and I wish the two could talk to each other.

The new MacBook is also being offered in colours for the first time since the first iBook, and it’s a mirror of their iPhone and iPad colour lineup (and, in a way, that of the Watch, too): aluminum, “space grey”, and gold. I’m far too self-conscious to own a gold laptop, but I saw a lot of people on Twitter lusting after it. Apple sure knows their market. The back of the display looks even more like an iPad or an iPhone than ever before, because it has lost the glowing Apple logo; a polished metal logo contrasts with the bead-blasted aluminum instead.

Also iPad-like is the pricing. It comes in two models, separated only by capacity and processor speed, and only very slightly on the latter. The built-to-order options seem to be limited to processor speed; at this stage, it doesn’t appear that you can change RAM from the 8 GB standard configuration, nor can you increase storage capacity. Unlike the iPad, though, the MacBook starts with a respectable 256 GB of storage.

The whole time I was watching this part of the keynote, I couldn’t help but think that this felt an awful lot like the MacBook Air introduction in 2008. This is a product that’s way, way ahead of the curve — even Apple’s own USB-C-to-USB adapter feels like they’re copping to that. This is a future with the bare minimum of wired connectors, but without losing any of the software capability of a modern Mac. I think the name — “MacBook” — encapsulates this vision. There’s no suffix; it’s not a “Pro” or an “Air”. It’s the Mac notebook.1

You can bet you’ll be seeing PC copies of this in a year or two, once it has proved that it — like the Air before it — is the future of the consumer notebook.

If you like the sound of the new Force Touch trackpad2 and really fast RAM, you can get that in the updated 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, too. The Air lineup was also updated today but, curiously, not the 15-inch Retina Pro. WWDC should be exciting.

Apple Watch

Today’s main event, as it was, was undeniably the new superstar of Apple’s lineup. Kevin Lynch spent an awful lot of time recapping stuff we already knew: there are fitness capabilities, messaging capabilities, you can use Siri on it, and all that stuff. Lynch demoed a bunch of third-party apps this time around, too, showing notifications you might expect from a hotel app, or notifications from Uber, or notifications from a myriad of first-party apps. There was a lot of notifying going on today. Much like the hellish way notifications worked on iOS pre-5.0, I wonder how well this will scale. It’s become clear that many developers are not cognizant of the power they wield to make users’ pockets vibrate, so users will need to be selective of which apps post notifications to their wrist.

Of note, there was little talk today of technology. Nobody mentioned the S1, nor the display technology; Lynch said “Bluetooth” one time, by my count. Also unmentioned only briefly mentioned at the keynote but announced on the web was battery life, and it’s better than I thought it would be. Apple claims 18 hours of typical use, which is perfectly serviceable provided you charge it nightly. This underscored Apple’s intent of this being a fashion accessory first, and a digital device second.

But a whole lot of questions were answered today, chief among which was pricing. The $10,000 Edition dominated much of the post-keynote chatter I saw, surprising the uninitiated. And, it must be said, the pricing of the Edition looked especially egregious after introducing the Watch act of the keynote with a video of the product — though, not the Edition model — being used in a half marathon in one of the poorest countries on Earth. Oh, yes, it was also for a nonprofit that absolutely deserves the kind of attention an Apple keynote can bring. But there wasn’t nearly enough time between that video and the showcasing of an 18-karat gold watch with a $10,000 starting price for me to forget that the money spent on an Edition could instead buy a thousand pregnant Ugandan women two trips each to a hospital.

The Edition itself is a bit of a mystery to me. There are plenty of Patek Philippes, Rolexes, and Omegas available for that kind of money, and they have handcrafted movements that can be passed down for generations. The Edition shares its internals with the other two models in the lineup, but is over nine times more expensive than the next most pricey model, the 42mm black stainless steel. It’s a product for the people with that kind of money to blow on a first-generation device, who aren’t necessarily sure what they’re going to use it for.

And that brings me to the big unanswered question of today: what problems, specifically, does the Watch solve? Apple has traditionally introduced products to the market that addressed specific shortcomings in existing product categories. They have refined and defined markets time and time again. The iPod solved the question of what CDs to bring with you for your Discman, and the iPhone defined the future of the phone in myriad ways, creating the perfect convergence device. They created the perfect travelling or kick-back-on-the-couch companion with the iPad.

But the Watch doesn’t have an easy story like these. There are a bunch of ways Apple suggests you use it: you can now have your calendar chime on your Mac, your iPhone, your iPad, and your Watch at approximately the same time; you can track your workouts; you can use miniaturized versions of your iPhone apps on it; you can pay for stuff with it; and you can communicate with other Apple Watch wearers in subtle ways. Perhaps this is a compelling package — I certainly have never wanted one more than I do today. But I’m still not confident enough to drop over $400 Canadian on one, I don’t think.

In some ways, I think Android Wear is a clearer vision for the watch. It utilizes the time-sensitive nature of the “watch”, but adds contemporary features to the space. You look at your wrist to see what time it is, often to jog your memory of what’s next in your calendar, or what time the next train arrives, or to estimate how far away you are from a meeting point. This functionality seems to come more naturally via Google Now than it does on the Apple Watch.

The crazy part of this whole thing is that I think I would vastly prefer using an Apple Watch. Based on everything I saw today — admittedly, from a distance — it has a much more elegant look and feel, and it’s nowhere near as nerdy as most Android Wear devices. But, if I’m honest with myself, I’d probably only wear it as a health tracker. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; health is clearly one of the focus areas of the Watch. Much of the other functionality, though, seems wasted on me and, much as I think the stainless steel model looks stunning, I simply don’t yet find it compelling. For now, for day-to-day wear, I think I’ll be sticking with my trusty seven year-old Boccia.


You may be reading this thinking I was let down by today’s event. I wasn’t. The new MacBook is almost exactly what I want in a notebook, and ResearchKit looks like it will make a profound impact. The Watch was even huge; as I said, I have never wanted one more than I do now. What was significant about the event today for me, however, was not the products themselves, but what they represented: Apple’s singular ability to entirely upend markets and pave new ground.

Think about it: how many other companies would create a brand new power connector, then update it a few years later, only to abandon it with a product that was surely in the pipeline around the same time as the update? How many other companies would enter a market with a product that ranges in price between $350 and $17,000? How many other companies would create entirely custom materials and techniques for a product that probably won’t have the reach of their flagships? And, crucially, how many companies would be alright doing this?

Apple is in a class of one in stepping out on a limb like this, and fully embracing what they think comes next. They’re not going into the wearable space with a half-baked product; they’re going full-bore into it with a solid fucking gold luxury offering. If nothing else, that takes guts.

I’m not convinced yet that the Watch represents the future of the company, but what I do know is that the most feared aspect of post-Steve Apple — that it would sit still — shouldn’t be a fear at all. They’re doing what they’ve always done: create viable markets with compelling products. We’re about to find out if they still have that magic and, judging by my Twitter timeline and searches today, the outlook is promising.


  1. It’s probably the closest the Mac and the iPad have come to converging, and likely the closest they will come. Very few “normal” people will likely own both one of these and an iPad. ↩︎

  2. Which, by the way, Apple touts as being pressure sensitive and perfect for drawing. Something tells me an iPad with a pressure-sensitive display might be in the cards this autumn. ↩︎