On the Mac for Switchers

Following Apple’s recent summit with journalists on the future of the Mac Pro line, Macworld contributor and podcaster Dan Moren wrote a great piece on the versatility of the Mac mini (the company’s cheapest desktop computer). This device has always been a bit of an oddball in the line-up — originally intended as a low-price option to entice Windows PC switchers to the Mac ecosystem.

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Mac mini (2014)

The conundrum for Apple has always been that Windows users may be reluctant to spend their savings an expensive, all-in-one Mac. The mini, which has always been sold without a screen, keyboard or mouse, was designed to fit in with people’s existing desk set-ups. Over time, the mini has been used in a number of ways by different types of user. Sure, switchers have taken advantage of the machine, but it has also become a favourite of certain Mac enthusiasts as a TV-connected media player or even in professional server situations.

In 2014 (when the mini was last updated), it lost its faster, quad-core option and the ability to upgrade RAM in the base of the machine was also removed. Many were upset about these changes, which is understandable due to the product’s changing meaning and use cases since its introduction in 2005. Also, like the 2013 ‘trash can’ Mac Pro, it has been neglected for some time, leaving users doubtful about its future in the Apple product line.

I bought the 2014 Mac mini as a refurbished machine in 2015, and have been thrilled with it ever since. With a 1 TB Fusion Drive option, I have plenty of space for my content, whilst still enjoying great speed across a variety of more basic and demanding apps with the SSD section on the drive. Boot-up is quick and I rarely see apps bouncing in my dock upon launch. Of course, quad-core processors and the ability to increase the RAM even more would be great, but it in no way restricts my personal use.

As far as the future of this product goes (other than discontinuation, which I hope will not be the case), I think there are two ways that Apple could deal with it. First, Apple could bump up the processors and retain the same case design. Whilst a tad large for ‘mini’ for 2017, this could help to keep the price down. Faster processors and an upgrade to two or three USB-C ports (like Dan Moren suggested), would make it more relevant in an industry that is moving to the new standard. A low price with some new components would make this a much more appealing product for price-conscious switchers or even those who want to use it as a media centre in their lounge rooms.

Second, and also more salivating of an idea, would be Apple redefining ‘mini’ for this desktop product. With more people using their mobile devices like iPhones and iPads as primary computers, Apple could spark new interest in the desktop space with a significantly smaller, SSD-based Mac. At a fraction of the size and with cooler operation, Apple could make a pocket-sized Mac that can be picked up easily and transported between different desk set-ups.

I don’t think this second option is necessarily likely, but it’s good fun to think about how Apple will move forwards in the desktop space, particularly with its break from conventional secrecy with its Mac Pro plans. Pros don’t only use the Mac Pro or upgraded iMacs; they also use devices like the Mac mini for servers, media players or perhaps even as computers for their kids. Showing a greater interest in the versatility and design of this machine would be further evidence of Apple’s commitment to desktop users, increasing options for those new to and experienced in the Apple ecosystem. As a long-time Mac enthusiast who loves his mini, I’m very keen to see what the future holds for the desktop in a world of mobile devices.

Image credit: Apple (2014)

Ad: ‘Sticker Fight’

Undoubtedly, one of the most exciting changes to come in iOS 10 last year was the updated Messages app. iMessage apps, screen animations, tapbacks and Digital Touch sketches have really strengthened an already fantastic service from Apple, making it even more integral to the broader ecosystem.

Perhaps the greatest addition, however, was stickers. Easily downloaded from the iMessage App Store within the Messages app, stickers have added a whole new level of fun to iOS messaging. Of course, there are many free and priced options. I certainly use this feature a lot with my family, friends and fiancée. Trash Doves, cutiefood, Dancing Food and the Star Wars packs are particular favourites of mine.

To spread the word further about how cool these stickers are, Apple has made a great ad that reflects the fun of using them. Check it out below, and if you haven’t gotten into iMessage stickers yet, then you should definitely do something about that.

ABC News: ‘Why Virtual Assistants Are Predominantly Female’

I have been seeing quite a few tech articles about this recently… all virtual assistants, (with the exception of the customisable Siri) are female. I tried switching to different accents and between the two genders, but always went back to the Australian female Siri. It just felt the most natural and the friendliest to me.

With some academic evidence and commentary, ABC News looked into it a bit more.

‘Jery Get Macintosh’

Now, this image speaks to me. It brings back a lot of happy ‘Seinfeld’ viewing memories and Mac associations. 😁

Long before @Seinfeld2000 started posing ‘modarn’ Seinfeld situations and hilariously speculating on Twitter as to whether ‘Jery get iPhone?’ or ‘Jery get iPad?’, Jerry Seinfeld actually went through several Macintosh desktops throughout the duration of the classic series. As a young Seinfeldian and Mac zealot, I took notice of his high-tech desk (for the time) in the background of just about every shot of his New York City apartment.

I stumbled across this great picture mash-up over at pcmag.com, and it shows Jerry’s Macintosh SE (1987) in the early seasons, all the way up to the infamous/rare/early-Jony-Ive-special 20th Anniversary Macintosh (1997) towards the end of the show. He had good taste and this is an early example of Apple’s effective product placement (often unpaid) throughout TV and film history.

If you’ve never watched the show, you should really check it out. It has certainly played a big part in my life, as I watched re-runs very night as a kid and recited quotes endlessly. It even led me to my beautiful partner, Natasha, who also loves the show.

Whilst we may now laugh at the 1990s, a time without iPhones and social media, but instead full of puffier hair and clunky desktops, the comedic situations are still as hilarious and relevant as ever.

Courage

The year 2016 was a very interesting one for Apple, with its fair share of praise and controversy. Mostly, it seems that the company attracted negative attention for issues such as delayed product delivery, a failure to upgrade desktop Macs and the release of the apparently no-longer-pro MacBook Pro. The Mac is probably the biggest sore spot at this point in time.

Whilst I agree that it wasn’t Apple’s best year, I do think that as usual, Apple unjustifiably copped far more of a beating than many of its competitors, even with impressive product innovation and comparatively stellar sales. Consider the amazing design and engineering work involved in the AirPods, Touch Bar and wheelchair-focused fitness functions in watchOS 3, for example. In addition, Apple pushed its services even further, with a revamped Apple Music interface, differential privacy and the biggest release of iOS yet, opening up even more opportunities to developers in the form of iMessage apps.

Perhaps one of the most discussed topics of Apple’s business in 2016 was the decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone. Heated discussion developed online following the iPhone keynote, where Senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller stated that in making such a decision, Apple had shown ‘courage’. Schiller was mocked immediately for saying this, but I believe this to be the case. Like the removal of floppy disk and optical drives, Apple made a decision to drive a more wireless future.

In the Tim Cook era at Apple, I believe we now also see a reversal of the once-famous Jobsian ‘reality distortion field’. Whilst Jobs once apparently distorted reality around product launches, tech journalists now distort reality, praising companies such as Google and Microsoft for announcing products that either never get released, or that sell only a fraction of what Apple achieves. Remember when Microsoft’s bot turned into a Nazi online? Yep, people forgot about that. Remember when Google copied the external design of the iPhone 6 with its Pixel, leaving behind the not-so-successful Nexus line? Yep, people didn’t really care about that either.

The topic of courage and Apple’s different way of doing things was brought to my mind again after finding an excerpt from one of Jobs’s appearances at the D Conference, from back in 2010. In this excerpt, from the 2 min 15 sec mark, Jobs elaborates on what Apple believes it takes to make a successful, effective product. It involves making compromises and saying “No” to things that may seem crazy to exclude. Check it out below.

Apple has always made controversial decisions, and even the most devoted loyalists seem to forget this. Is the Mac being forgotten? No, of course not. The focus is instead on iOS, where the most consumer appeal and sales are happening. Entirely new input technologies like the Touch Bar do not occur in product categories that are being phased out. Likewise, whilst Apple is apparently exiting the display and router (AirPort) business, this is most likely another example of sharpening the company’s product focus. Remember when Apple used to make digital cameras, printers and even a gaming console? All of those products were given the chop, and when Jobs returned in 1997, he reduced the entire company’s product line to the famous consumer-pro matrix. In recent years, Apple has proudly stated that it is the company whose products all fit onto a single table.

What Jobs said in the video above remains true today. Indeed, the company can always listen to its customers more, and it should not ignore the interests of the pros and loyalists who kept it going in its darkest times. I do think, however, that more exciting things are still on the horizon. Apple continues to show courage in its design decisions, and is never afraid to do what may be unpopular for success in the long run.

Review: Designed by Apple in California

Well, this was unexpected…


A short time ago, Apple released a new product; no, it isn’t a computer, in fact, it isn’t electronic at all. It’s a book, and a beautiful book at that. Titled Designed by Apple in California, the book chronicles the last 20 years of Apple product design, with a suave introduction by none other than Chief Design Officer Jony Ive. The photos were taken by Andrew Zuckerman.


Upon hearing of the book, I knew that I had to have it. I already possess Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation, by Jonathan Zufi, and that does a fantastic job of tracing Apple’s entire product history. A book by Apple, however, is unique and intriguing. It is both a product in its own right and an ingenious marketing tool.

Apple’s own effort, eight years in the making, is somewhat different from Iconic in the sense that it only focuses on the last 20 years. Apple doesn’t often look back, as many analysts have noted. In this case, however, it has looked back to the point of Apple’s metaphorical ‘rebirth’, with the return of co-founder Steve Jobs. The book is even dedicated to him.

Before even opening the packaging, it’s a product to behold. The outer packaging is in fact a part of the overall book product, acting as a protective cover and with an elegant Apple product decoration on the inside.

Apple’s signature pull-tab on the box, which tears cleanly down the middle of the packaging
Packaging that functions as part of the product
An elegant, ‘whole-book dust jacket’, so to speak…

The design of this book is very impressive, as it uses ‘specially milled German paper with gilded matte silver edges’. These page edges beautifully mimic the aluminium sheen of Macs’ unibody enclosures.

Even the ink on the inside has been considered, as certain product images act differently under direct light. Take, for example, the first product that is featured: the iMac from 1998. The computer’s translucent plastic body remains matte on the page, whilst holes in the body and chrome finishes reflect light as the page is turned. This is an outstanding effect, and one can’t help but think of the more skeuomorphic design that was used in earlier versions of OS X and iOS. These printed images behave like the real-world products that they represent, just as digital buttons, icons and finishes once represented the real. This style was eventually replaced with the more minimalistic, flat design that we know today, but it makes complete sense now in a book that attempts to showcase design, without the actual products in front of the reader.

The photo doesn’t do it justice, but notice the shininess of the blue in contrast to the matte white.

If you’re curious to have a closer look at this hardcover book, you’ll have to visit one of only a selection of Apple stores. I visited the Sydney store on George Street, where both the large and small versions were displayed on custom book stands close the Apple Watch tables.

The small version, which I purchased, cost AU$289. Whilst quite expensive, the price is ultimately reflected in the quality of the product. Check out the book online here.

Some analysts and fans are concerned about the amount of retrospection that Apple has been doing of late (e.g. the recent MacBook Pro reveal video). I’m not concerned, in fact, I’m excited. Apple’s strength has always been in communicating its brand and product stories, and this is another way of doing precisely that. The company is recalling its past and understanding where its successes (and failures) lie.

Looking back at this company’s past makes me even more excited about its future.

The iPod lives on…

For years now, iPod sales have been declining. The reasons are obvious: cannibalisation by the iPhone; and the rise of music streaming over the purchase/download model. While we see fewer and fewer iPods these days, they do appear regularly in a number of different contexts. The first examples that come to mind are those who use iPods with older docking stations with 30-pin connectors, and people who enjoy exercising with iPod nanos and shuffles.

Perhaps the most intriguing situation is one that I have seen numerous times on public transport: people using iPod Classics and nanos for music consumption, all the while using their Android phones for apps and other general tasks. I consider this to be a sign of Apple’s influence in the broader music industry. Even with the plethora of music consumption choices on Google’s Play Store, be it Spotify, Pandora, Guvera or some other service, there is a significant number of people who stick to the tried-and-true model of downloading songs from iTunes and syncing with an iPod.

We can speculate about the reasons for this. Perhaps it’s just easier for these users to stick with what works. Maybe they like to keep their old iPods (or even buy new ones) for exercise. They may even prefer to have an alternative music source in case their smartphone battery dies.

I think there’s a deeper meaning.

I believe that this (specific) continued use of iPods is an indication of Apple’s brand power, as well as the significance of music ownership. During the Jobs era, Apple clearly established itself as the home of digital music: a legal, accessible alternative to worrisome services at the time, like Napster. This dominance has since been challenged, particularly by Spotify, however Apple is quickly growing its newest service, Apple Music, with millions of paid subscribers. For these persistent iPod users, Apple continues to be the best place to find music. iTunes remains to be a service that they can trust, no matter how bloated it might have become. Considering that some (not all) Android users dislike iPhones, it’s fascinating to see how a subset of users cling to these Apple devices even when their smartphones can do so much more, all in the one package.

On the topic of music purchasing versus streaming, there is something to be said about owning your music. While I love using Apple Music now, prior to its introduction I was vehemently against streaming. The idea of paying a subscription fee rather than maintaining purchasing habit seemed ridiculous to me. I’ve converted now (and I’m happy that I did), as access to such a broad library of 30 million songs, along with curated radio stations and playlists, is just too appealing. I can understand, however, why others may not be so willing. Owning stuff feels more familiar and secure.

I have always been and will continue to be a fan of the iPod. After the iMac, which reinvigorated a dying company in 1998, the iPod was the beginning of Apple’s truly magnificent success in the early 2000s, leading up to today with the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. No one else had ever achieved the level of integration in consumer electronics and services that Apple did at the time, and that’s still the case. Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook all offer comprehensive services and ecosystems, but no one offers the whole widget like Apple does.

The iPod’s influence was so huge that it is still felt today, and it seems that even some devoted Android smartphone users haven’t forgotten this.