Apple’s product design and attention to detail (the 1st gen Mac Pro)

There’s no mistaking Apple is second to none when it comes to product design. Their attention to detail can be seen throughout the design of their products, both inside and out. Sir Jony Ive was knighted for his service to the design industry in 2012.

Some details are surprising when you see them first hand, and the lengths that Apple goes to. Take for example the unique design of the case for the Power Mac G5 and first generation Mac Pro. It’s uniquely recognizable and even could be described as iconic. The design of the perforated ‘cheese grater’ grill is more than just aesthetics, it provides an essential purpose in the design of the cooling of the machine, allowing air to be pulled through the front grill in a number of distinctly controllable cooling zones through the case and allowing exhaust to exit the rear of the case.

At the rear is something interesting though, and maybe even overlooked. Power cords commonly called ‘kettle cords’ have been used to supply power to PC desktop cases for years, but what’s interesting about the power cord for the Mac Pro is that the plastic is molded with a flange that allows it to fit flush to the back of the case when inserted. A minor detail, but a perfect example of the lengths Apple goes to.

Here’s the cord/plug,

showing the surrounding flange at the back of the plug molding:

 

 

 

 

The plug inserted,

fitting flush to the back of the case:

Simple details, but details like this leave a lasting impression.

 

 

Retro collection just acquired a more recent, not-so-retro, addition (2008 Mac Pro 8 core)

Having grown up with 8 bit computers, starting with an Atari VCS and then a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, I find it fascinating that decades later there’s an increasing level of interest in computers from the 80s and 90s with thriving online communities, podcasts and even meetup groups of enthusiasts who get together to discuss the original hardware and also new device add-ons, blending modern tech (e.g. using SD cards for storage) with old.

The ZX Spectrum recently has a number of modern remakes:

As much as I really wanted to get a ZX Spectrum Next, I couldn’t bring myself to put down 175UKP for the base model. I suspect I might come back and pick one up at some point.

My other favorite computer was an Atari ST, I had an 520STFM. I picked up an 1040STF with an Atari monitor on eBay a while back, and it sits on my desk in my office. I also picked up an CosmosEx device which is an interesting example of current tech complementing old – it’s a Raspberry Pi based device that provides SD card support for floppy disk and hard disk images, as well as USB keyboard and mouse support, and also networking.

Something that’s interested me for a while is what it looks like to browse the web using old hardware. The short story is that it’s generally a terrible experience (slow, and current web technologies are poorly supported, if at all). I’ve tried setting up CAB on my ST, but with only 1MB RAM it can’t load anything but the simplest HTML page with text and 1 or 2 images before it fails from not enough memory.

For a while I browsed eBay looking to pick up a used Atari Falcon, but for a 25 year old 16/32 bit computer, it’s incredible that they typically go for anything about $800 to $1000 if you can even find one (they cost 599 UKP new when the launched). With it’s 68030, it has significantly more grunt than the original 68000 based STs.

I then got distracted by the idea of picking up a modern remake of an ST – the Coldfire project has developed the Firebee, which uses a 264MHz Coldfire processor and 512MB RAM, with 68000 backwards compatibility, but with the addition of modern hardware features like USB, PCI expansion slots, ethernet networking, and many of features we currently take for granted in current devices. Despite torturing myself by watching every Firebee video on YouTube, the current price of a new Firebee of 560 Euros is a little more than I can justify to buy a modern Atari ST in 2017 (despite how awesome it actually is).

Continuing with my (odd) interest of browsing the web on old hardware, I picked up a Power Mac G4 2002 Quicksilver.  Classilla in OS9 is perfectly usable and TenFourFox in Mac OS 10.4 is ok, but (at least on my single cpu G4) not really good enough for a daily driver (scrolling is sluggish).

I very nearly decided to up the horsepower and look for a dual G5 Mac Power Mac,

but noticed the price started to get close to what you could pick up a used Intel Xeon Mac Pro for, so … long story short, I just picked up a 2008 8 core Mac Pro on eBay. Super excited for when it arrives!

Are Augmented Reality phones closer than we think?

The idea of a completely clear phone that you can look through and which projects data onto the world that you see through it’s lens is not completely sci-fi when you think about what we’ve seen already with products like Google Glass, and the upcoming Microsoft Hololens. Google Glass was not true augmented reality though, as it presented data to you in a screen to the side of your vision, and not presenting images blended into your normal field of view.

Oculus has been paving the way for the past few years with the development of their VR headset, recently being released in March this year (2016) after the company was bought by Facebook for a staggering $2bn. Clearly, there’s serious interest in the technology and application of VR. There’s been a number of different phone related VR headsets, like Samsung’s Gear VR developed by Oculus, the HTC Vive, and others. The upcoming launch of the Playstation VR headset set for October 13 could be the one that bring’s VR to the masses. At $399 (but requiring a PS4 console), riding on the Sony and Playstation brand this could bring VR into many households this holiday season.

A couple of stories recently caught my attention. Robert Scoble has recently been tweeting about an Apple patent for a completely transparent phone, a solid piece of glass, with the electronics tucked into a narrow strip a the bottom. The patent is from 2014,  but he makes some guesses in his longer post on Medium about where he thinks Apple are heading with this. Based on discussions with hardware and material suppliers he draws some conclusions about what he thinks Apple are planning. He also thinks a device using this technology might be coming much sooner than we think, as soon as September 2017. I won’t summarize everything he covers in his article, you can read it for yourself, but he does paint an interesting picture of the possibility of a tech giant like Apple making a serious move in the AR/VR space. Could Apple be about to bring this technology to everyday consumers, like they did for portable music players and the smartphone? Time will tell.

The second story from earlier this year is the $780m in funding raised by Magic Leap, a company developing AR related technology. Google is also behind $542m of this funding. What’s interesting about Magic Leap is that they’ve been largely off the radar, but have apparently developed a technique of realistically presenting images directly into the user’s field of view. They don’t yet have a beta product, and whatever they have in the works is being kept under wraps. Whatever they have, there’s definitely significant movement and growing interest in this space right now, it will be interesting to see where they’re going.

Phones, tablets, laptops, desktops – different form factors with different usage styles. Why Apple won’t compromise and merge iOS and MacOS

Following Apple’s announcement of the new MacBook Pro models today and the impressive looking Touch Bar, cnet have a fascinating interview (and timeline of Apple’s laptops from the original PowerBook through to the latest MacBook Pro models) with Senior VP of Marketing Phil Schiller, software engineering lead Craig Federighi and Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jony Ive.

Although the media focus is predominantly on the new Touch Bar, there’s several interesting quotes in the article on why we won’t be seeing a combined or merged OS or hardware device from Apple that combines iPhone/iPad touchscreen functionality with the laptop format of the MacBook product line – Schiller said:

“We did spend a great deal of time looking at this a number of years ago and came to the conclusion that to make the best personal computer, you can’t try to turn MacOS into an iPhone. Conversely, you can’t turn iOS into a Mac…. So each one is best at what they’re meant to be — and we take what makes sense to add from each, but without fundamentally changing them so they’re compromised.”

I’ve agreed with this line of thought for a while, and discussed this last year when Tim Cook said something very similar.

While it might be immediately obvious to some that the way you interact with a smart phone that fits in your hand is a completely different experience to how you interact with a computer while sitting at a desk, Microsoft’s (failed?) attempt at combining both of these usage styles into a single phone device with Continuum that you can use as a phone or plug into a dock and use as a desktop has always seemed to me to be a massive compromise. How you use a phone with a small screen and limited input capability is so completely and radically different from how you interact with a desktop computer with a keyboard, mouse and large LCD screen, why you would even try to combine these two experiences into one device is just beyond me.

Anyway, I’m pleased to heard Apple reiterating on their understanding of how different devices have different capabilities. Until a radical new approach comes along for how you interact with your devices where the reduced physical size of a portable device is no longer a constraining factor, a phone is still best as a phone, and your desktop or laptop is still best as what they do. Even in this “Post-PC” era, there’s still a place for both.