22 Dec 2011

Examining the integrated model

I've heard for almost a decade that the fact that Mac OS X runs only on Apple hardware makes for a better user experience. I hadn't really understood why or stopped to think about it, so I did that now, and here are some ways it helps.

  • Lion's fullscreen mode is amazing. The three-finger swipe makes it easier to switch between fullscreen apps (or spaces, for that matter) than to switch between windows. This is a tremendous achievement, since the traditional full-screen mode makes it harder to switch between apps, and so full-screen is not used much, except for movies and presentations. Besides, Lion's full-screen mode makes the Mac more of a distraction-free device like the iPad, making it pleasanter and more relaxing to use. It also makes better use of screen space, which I never have enough of on my 15-inch Macbook, let alone on 13- or 11-inch Macbooks. In fact, one could say that Lion's full-screen mode lets us have these small laptops in the first place, without severely trading off comfort or productivity. Finally, smaller laptops are lighter, more portable and cheaper. All this is made possible because of Lion's full-screen mode, which is practical to use only because of the three-finger swipe.
This requires a trackpad that supports three-point touch, is sensitive enough, and big enough that you can comfortably swipe with three fingers. There are other multitouch gestures in Lion; three-finger swipe is just an example. The point is that it doesn't make sense to build multitouch gestures into the OS without hardware that makes it convenient enough to be useful or vice-versa. Otherwise, you just get a meaningless item on a checklist. Windows PCs suffer from this perennial chicken-and-egg problem.
  • Apple can add dedicated hardware buttons for things like Mission Control. Again, how easy it is to use something often determines whether it makes sense in the first place.
  • Macs don't need you to install drivers for things like the webcam, extra keys on the keyboard, the infrared remote control, etc. Drivers on Windows are not well integrated into the OS and feel like a kludge, they don't show up in Control Panel, they need to be separately installed and updated, they make the system slower, clutter up the system tray (I don't need an icon for my webcam any more than I need one for my hard disc), come with bundled crapware apps, and generally don't work anywhere as well as on the Mac. I remember when I switched to the Mac a few years ago that everything worked without all this detritus. It was a "less is more" moment for me.
  • Apple can add hardware capabilities like WiFi Direct to enable features like AirDrop. In retrospect, isn't it backward not to make use of physical proximity to send files more easily?
  • Apple has eliminated support for obsolete hardware to simplify and improve things for users. For example, Apple has been using EFI for years, while most PC hardware is stuck with BIOS. EFI boots faster and from hard discs bigger than 2.2TB. Similarly, Lion requires a 64-bit CPU. This is easy since Apple hasn't shipped a Mac with a 32-bit CPU in years. Whereas Windows 8 still has to support 32-bit CPUs. When I read that to boot from a 3TB hard disc, you need 64-bit Windows (which of course requires a 64-bit CPU) on a system with EFI rather than BIOS, it makes me angry. Why does this stuff have to be so complex? Why should someone configuring a machine with a bigger hard disc for their movies have to get their hands dirty with all this arcane stuff? Why can't the damn thing just work? Computers are broken in many ways, and getting rid of legacy stuff, as with this example, simplifies things for users. This is much easier when you control both the hardware and the the software.
  • Mac USB ports provide extra power for iPhones to charge quickly (1100mA compared to the 500mA maximum under the USB 2 spec) [1]. Similarly, Macs can wake up when accessed via WiFi, not just Ethernet.
  • Internet recovery is built in to the firmware on recent Macs, so if you have a hard disc that's somehow been wiped clean, you can boot off Apple's servers and run the installer, rather than having to boot from a DVD (you may not have a DVD or a DVD drive). A Mac can no longer get into a state it can't recover from, and this is possible only because Apple controls the firmware.
  • OS X doesn't need to handle an endless variety of hardware, including broken ASUS stuff.

The bottom line is that if you're in the business of making the best user experience, the integrated model is the way to go.

[1] For that matter, I wish Apple supplies 100W power via the Thunderbolt bolt on the Apple Thunderbolt Display, so that you can plug your Macbook or Mac Mini into your Thunderbolt Display with a single cable for charging, video and data. When your data cable supplies all the power you need, you don't need another cable.

Similarly, iPads should use a Thunderbolt port so that you can plug it in to a Thunderbolt Display and have it charge while using the external monitor (and maybe even a keyboard and mouse), or plug it into a Mac and have it charge (iPads need 10W, and Apple's USB ports supply only 5.5). It doesn't make sense for Apple to have two different connectors that both support data, power and video.

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