Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

Browsing Posts published in June, 2011

If you missed it, here’s part 1.

Now, as I said, hardware details are becoming interesting only to developers – and even we don’t need to care overly about what CPU we’re developing for, now that we’re used to both 32-bit and 64-bit, big-endian and little-endian machines. (Game developers and players, of course, are a different demographic.)

As Steve Jobs said, it’s all about the software now. Here, too, too much emphasis on feature details can be misleading. I don’t really care whether Apple copied the notification graphic from Android, or whether it was the other way around. What’s important is that user interfaces are evolving by cross-pollination from many sources, and this is particularly interesting regarding iOS and OS X (note that the “Mac” prefix seems to be on its way out).

The two operating systems have always have had the same underpinnings in BSD Unix/Darwin and in several higher layers like Cocoa and many of the various Core managers. In their new versions, APIs from one are appearing in the other, and UI aspects are similarly being interchanged; compare, for instance, the Lion LaunchPad against the iOS SpringBoard (informally known to iOS users as “the app screen”).

Apple is not “converging” OS X and iOS just for convergence’s sake. Although desktops, laptops, tablets, phones and music players are all just “devices” now, the usage and form factor differences must be taken into account. Remember Apple’s 2×2 product matrix some years ago: desktops and laptops, consumer and pro machines? It hasn’t shown up lately, and we really need a new matrix; the new one should probably mobile and fixed, keyboard and touchscreen.

Don’t be misled by appearances! Yes, the LaunchPad looks like SpringBoard, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll have touchscreen desktops soon – rather, both interfaces are, in fact, a consequence of the respective App Store, being an easy way to show downloaded apps to the lay user. Apple is, however, exploring gesture-based interfaces and no doubt we’ll see the current gestures evolving into a universal set employed on all devices, the same way common keyboard shortcuts have becoming engrained. A common thread here is that hardware advances like touchpads, denser and thinner screens, better batteries and faster connections are becoming the main innovation drivers technologies, like processor speed and storage size used to be.

A subtle and very Apple-like aspect of this sort of convergence has become visible when the iPad came out. While some scoffed that the iPad was “just a larger iPod Touch”, in fact the iPod Touch had been, all the time, just a baby, trial-size version of the iPad! The Touch, the iPhone, and even the older iPods were an admirable way of getting the public used to keyboard less interfaces, and the iTunes Store was a similar precursor to the App Store. This means that when the iPad came out there was a legion of users already trained to its concepts and interface; an excellent trick, and one that only Apple could pull off.

Now we see that, in a similar way, the iPad and its smaller siblings are preparing the general public to migrating to larger, more powerful, devices which look comfortingly similar in many ways. Few consumers think of their iPhones or iPods as computers, even though they’re as capable as the supercomputers of 15 or 20 years. Now that desktops and laptops are just devices – and you won’t need a so-called computer anymore to set up your smaller devices – very soon this new class of “devices with keyboards” won’t be thought of as computers either, and the term will be used only for servers and mainframes, as it was in the old days.

I, for one, welcome our new post-PC overlords… 🙂

Whew. It’s over. This year’s WWDC was certainly one of the most intense – and one of the most promising – that I can remember.

It started on a somewhat sad note: Steve Jobs was clearly unwell, moving slowly and his voice was unusually weak. He was onstage for only a few minutes before turning things over to his VPs. Then, towards the end, when he talked about iCloud (which is obviously something he put a lot of energy into) he got better. Still, I have a feeling that this might have been Jobs’ last keynote; he’s clearly not going to be around for many more years. However, the general impression I had was that everybody feels that Apple is now synchronized enough with his mindset to go on indefinitely without him.

This WWDC was clearly about pointing out future directions. And it was all about software. Many commenters are pointing out this or that added feature in (say) Mail, or in the Finder, or in iOS 5. Others are bemoaning the lack of hardware announcements. Of course there have been the usual comments about Apple copying this or that from Windows. Still others are gleefully pointing out how the iPhone 5 (for instance) has been delayed – this when it hasn’t even been announced, but they apparently believe in each other’s rumors!

Let’s put the hardware issue away first. As I’ve been saying for a couple of years now, Apple’s heavy investment into Clang, LLVM and connected technologies like LLDB is now paying off. This trio will very soon be Apple’s main developer tools backend. They’ll be free from overweight, ancient, license-encumbered stuff like gcc and gdb and the results are very encouraging. Without going into details (NDA ahem), suffice it to say that fellow developers have seriously agreed with me that the new tools are better – this or that detail notwithstanding – than anything else on the mobile or desktop market today.

Also Apple is now free to make hardware details irrelevant. When Apple switched to Intel six years ago, I wrote:

Winners:

  • Apple, of course. As I commented below, they’re free (or will be, in a year) of the CPU-architecture-as-a-religion meme. They get a literally cool CPU/chipset for their PowerBooks; although I suppose they won’t use that name in the future; how about IBook icon_wink.gif? They get dual-core CPUs right now, and a 64-bit version in the future.

And this is still true. At that time, too, some people saw Apple “imitating” the Wintel machines by adopting Intel CPUs as a negative thing (or even as positive, depending on their bias). Now with Clang/LLVM becoming Apple’s mainstream tools, they could switch CPUs anytime without users noticing; the new Intel-based Macs were still normal Macs, and normal users didn’t care which architecture the ran on. And indeed, lately rumors have abounded about ARM-based MacBooks. But, as I wrote at WWDC 2005:

…it’s a new type of freedom. Freedom of architecture. IBM underperformed, they’re out; at least for now. Intel works better now, they’re in; at least for now. Next year, some other chip may be hot, Mac OS X will be on it, and recompiling will be even easier. We’re free!

For the normal user, hardware specs aren’t that important anymore beyond a certain threshold – if they’re sufficient for the job, the details are unimportant. As the old joke goes:

A lady stands in front of an enclosure in the London zoo and gestures towards one of the hippopotami, asking a passing zookeeper:

“Please, can you tell me if that hippopotamus is male or female”?

“I’m sorry to say that this information would be of interest only to another hippopotamus…”

As Jobs said in the keynote, now it’s all about “devices”. Desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones – all are equal devices in the iCloud. Few people think of their iPad/iPhone as a computer; the innards are of interest only to those of us who have to develop software or hardware to (ahem) “mate” with those devices. Will the next iPhone or laptop use Apple’s A5 chip, or will there be an A6? My mom doesn’t care, and yours shouldn’t – unless she’s a fellow developer. Not even if she’s a stock analyst!

Next: software directions.

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