Subtle Changes

In last week’s episode of The Talk Show, Erica Ogg and John Gruber talk about the simplicity of the iOS home screen, and how Apple could apply a Podcasts-inspired visual update to iOS that would woo critics that complain about the lack of skin-deep changes.

I don’t believe that freshening up of the UI of iOS, by itself, is enough to convince anyone that “Apple is no longer doomed” and no longer “forced to follow as Android leads”. If anything, I believe skin-deep updates alone may only further that line of thinking.

I think strongly that a subtle make-over of the UI should go hand in hand with a bigger update, like inter-app cooperation, default applications, home screen widgets, etc. to really impact the perceived —if not real— lack of progress in iOS in some of these matters.

Talking about the home screen, one thing Apple could do to update this iconic part of iOS, besides something as horrible and alien as widgets, is fixing the static nature of its icons —also known as the “always a pleasant 73 degrees and sunny in Cupertino” issue. Currently, iOS has one built-in app that can change its home screen icon to show the latest information and that’s the Calendar app. But what if Apple were to open this up to third party developers? Yes, I’m aware developers can already badge their apps with a number, but while being very visible, they are also very intrusive and limited in what they can express. Badges are really only meant to notify the user of incoming messages or unseen items. It feels wrong to use it to indicate, for instance, the current temperature.

Instead, I’m suggesting something a lot more subtle and perhaps much more versatile. Although my imagination falls short in coming up with interesting applications other than weather and calendar apps and a more beautiful way to indicate badges, I’m sure developers will come up with something to surprise and amaze us.

Then again, the simplicity of the home screen is probably the number one reason that Apple is very hesitant to change something that might harm it.

I’ve Started To Worry

I am truly surprised there isn’t more analysis happening on the rather remarkable interview that Phil Schiller allowed by the WSJ (Weak Shit, Journal).

Apple has sneered at or made fun of the competition before, most often during keynotes and the famous Mac vs. PC ad campaign. The most recent occasions I can remember are Siri making fun of Android during an intro of the WWDC 2012 keynote, and Schiller comparing the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini to Android in terms of screen real estate.

But this was different. This time Schiller apparently felt it was necessary to downplay Android and Samsung, although without mentioning the latter by name, on the eve of the release of the Samsung Galaxy S iv.

If I worked for Samsung or Google, this interview would put a smile on my face. It feels like Apple is truly, almost desperately, worried about this release. Why else grant an interview at this time, about this subject. Sometimes, it seems Apple is talking more about Android than Samsung is.

Times like these, I would welcome the Jobsian silence treatment. I’d almost feel this would warrant an “this wouldn’t have happened under Jobs” article.

I’ve started to worry about what Apple has up their sleeve for iOS and the iPhone this year.

The Unfairness in the Surface Pro vs. MacBook Air Argument

A lot has been written and echoed about the Surface Pro and the limited amount of available storage space out of the box. In case you are confused, this isn’t the first time that people are having this discussion. Back in October of 2012, when Microsoft launched the Surface RT, people were complaining about the same issue. Long story short, in the case of the Surface RT device:

A 32GB Surface [RT] has a lot less usable disk space than a 32GB Android or iOS tablet, and while this can be expanded with SD, that’s not as clean or convenient as one would like. If you want to load up your Surface [RT] with media, this makes the 64GB device more compelling—but you pay a hefty price premium for the privilege.

Now back to February 2013. Microsoft has just released the Surface Pro tablet-notebook hybrid, and critics are at it again: “Microsoft’s Surface Pro is a [storage] hog”.

However, this time, Ed Bott chimes in with a really good point. The Surface Pro shouldn’t be compared to the iPad, but to the MacBook Air:

“They’re both ultraportable devices that run full-strength operating systems. Both use similar CPUs, offer similar amounts of RAM, and advertise 128 GB of storage. The Surface Pro has touch capabilities and can be used as a tablet, but at its heart it is a full-strength PC designed for extreme mobility.”

Then Bott goes on to compare the out-of-the-box storage requirements of both the Surface and the Air. And while I agree that such a comparison is less dishonest than a comparison with a true tablet like the iPad, I do have a problem with his sloppy analysis of the MacBook Air. To be clear, I’m not implying Bott is being dishonest, but as he himself admits in the article:

I don’t have a MacBook Air to do the same calculation, but I confirmed from several online sources […]

It turns out there are a of lot online sources that are saying many different things, and without a MacBook Air on your desk, it’s really hard to verify these sources or understand what’s really going on1.

Unfortunately, the Air I’ve got here in front of me isn’t the 11-inch model, but rather the 13-inch one with the same 128GB Apple SSD (TS128E). However, I don’t see any reason to believe that this has an impact on the storage requirements of OS X.

In this discussion, I will address the exact some points as in Bott’s article: the difference in disk size reporting, the less-than-advertised disk size on the Apple SSD, the disk space configuration on the Air under Mountain Lion, and finally, how much space is really left on the Air?

1. The difference in disk size reporting

The difference in disk size reporting is, as Bott explains, related to marketing, but also to this little thing called international standards.

These standards state that there are two ways of scaling a unit —in this case the byte— either by using a decimal prefix (base-10) or a binary prefix (base-2). The decimal prefixes we are most familiar with are the kilo-, mega-, giga-, and tera-, and they represent x 10^3 (a thousand), x 10^6 (a million), x 10^9 (a billion), and x 10^12 (a trillion), respectively. In the context of our discussion, 128 gigabyte is 128,000,000,000 bytes. These scaled units of bytes are often abbreviated, using their corresponding international symbols: KB, MB, GB and TB.

In the case of binary prefixes, we are dealing with x 2^10 (or 1024), 2^20 (or 1024 x 1024), 2^30 (or 1024^3), etc. The standards prescribe the use of the terms kibi, mebi, gibi, and tebi to indicate that they are, in fact, different from the kilo, mega, giga and tera. Using these prefixes, 128,000,000,000 bytes is only 119 gibibyte or 119 GiB when abbreviated using its symbol.

This allows us to conclude that Apple is complying with the standard, while Microsoft is not. Apple uses the KB, MB, GB and TB units and measures in a 10-base system, while Microsoft uses the same symbols, but measures in a 2-base system.

That is not to say that Apple switched to the 10-base system in 2009 just to comply with the standards—as the standards had been around for several years by then. There is certainly some marketing strategy involved. Since Apple ships industry-standard disks in many of its machines, it is bound by the disks that its partners produce, and the way they measure size. If Apple hadn’t switched to the 10-base system, it would have to sell 59 Gib and 119 GiB MacBook Airs, possibly confusing a lot more customers in the process.

2. The less-than-advertised disk size on the Apple SSD

Now we’ve come to the point where Apple’s practice could be called unfair or misleading. A point that Bott got totally wrong in his article, as it is unrelated to the difference between 10-base and 2-base.

In the previous point I explained why Apple is indeed allowed to use the size measurement of 128 GB to indicate 128,000,000,000 bytes, and the difference with 119GiB. In this point, however, I will briefly touch on why I believe it’s unfair for Apple to put even the 64 GB and 128 GB labels on it’s MacBook Airs.

If you buy a hard disk or SDD from a third party vendor that lists a storage capacity of 128 GB on the box, it will come with 128 gigabytes, or 128,000,000,000 bytes, of useable space in a 10-base system. The Samsung SSD I have in my MacBook Pro is shown having a capacity of 256GB in Mountain Lion:

Capacity:   256.06 GB (256,060,514,304 bytes)
Model:      SAMSUNG SSD 830 Series
Revision:   CXM03B1Q

However, looking at the Apple SSD—which Apple is calling flash storage on its website, because it doesn’t have the standard 2.5″ SSD form factor— in the MacBook Air 13-inch, we can see that it is about 7GB shy of 128GB:

Capacity:   121.33 GB (121,332,826,112 bytes)
Model:      APPLE SSD TS128E
Revision:   TPSABBF0

This is the physical size of the storage device that is available to the machine. It is unaffected by EFI (boot) and Recovery Partitions, and any space reserved for the operating system. Based on my own understanding and some internet sources, I’d say this lost space is related to the spare blocks that Apple mentions in its support article. Maybe Apple’s Flash-chip partners don’t factor this in by creating chips that are a bit larger than 128GB to account for these spare blocks. Who knows?

In the end, Apple is selling laptops with less available total space as advertised. The Surface Pro 128 comes with 127.90 GB (represented as 119.12 GB), and that is indeed 7 GB more than the MacBook Air’s 121,33 GB, but for reasons that are different from those that Bott states in his article. Fact remains, Bott has a point here that the Air is at a 7 GB disadvantage.

3. The disk space configuration on the Air with Mountain Lion

At this point, Bott’s numbers are all wrong.

This is an overview of the three partitions on the SSD of the MacBook Air 128 GB:

#:                      TYPE NAME              SIZE
0:     GUID_partition_scheme                  *121.1 GB
1:                       EFI                   209.7 MB
2:                 Apple_HFS Macintosh HD      120.47 GB
3:                Apple_Boot Recovery HD       650.0 MB

As you can see, some partitioning overhead gives us a total space of 121.1 GB (down 0.2GB from the 121.3 GB total physical space):

  1. 209.7 MB (0.2 GB) is allocated to the EFI boot partition.
  2. 120,47 GB is left for the operating system, applications and documents.
  3. 650 MB (0.6 GB) is allocated to the Recovery partition, which includes tools to recover and reinstall Mountain Lion.

This makes a total of about 1GB (rounded) allocated to “the EFI and Recovery partitions and other system items” that is about 7 times less than the 7.53 GB that he has in his article. This compares very favorably to the 8.61 GB of boot and recovery partitions on the Surface Pro.

4. How much space is really left on the Air?

At this point the Surface Pro is down to 119,29 GB of free space (before the operating system), while the Air is down to 120,47 GB. This is still a draw, but that’s about to change.

From Bott’s article: the available space on the Surface Pro out of the box is 96,3 GB. This puts Windows 8 and included applications at about 23 GB. This is comparable to a Windows 8 installation on a desktop computer.

In comparison, a MacBook Air with Mountain Lion and iLife out-of-the-box comes in at about 12 GB, which brings the Air down to 108 GB.

Given that the recovery partition on the MacBook Air is only 650 MB, compared to 7,81 GB on Windows, removing it on the MacBook will not result in much reclaimed space. In addition, Bott’s claim that it is not possible to remove the recovery partition on the MacBook Air is false. It is possible, though a little less fool-proof than on the Surface Pro.

In conclusion, a stock MacBook Air 128GB has about 108 GB of available space, while the Surface Pro has 96,3 GB. That’s a difference of 11,7 GB or 12 percent. Let’s also not forget Apple is shipping the Airs with about 7 GB of physical space less as advertised, which is arguably more unfair than Microsoft’s failure at reducing the size of Windows.

But I’ll quote Bott’s last statement:

Of course, neither device can compare to a tablet or phone OS in terms of efficiency. Tablet operating systems are designed to be small, and they sacrifice all sorts of capabilities that you expect in a full-strength PC. But if you’re going to complain about operating systems using too much of the available storage, you’d better make sure your letter to Redmond is cc’ed to Cupertino.

  1. This is why I’m not criticizing any of his Surface Pro numbers. 

Pull To Refresh

James Gowans on Pull-To-Refresh:

But what need or desire is compelling this action? What are we expecting to have transpired or changed in the brief moment since this application was opened? What update could possibly have been applied that would require another check so soon? This feeling is particularly insidious in regards to social media applications. What are we looking for when we pull-to-refresh?

I agree.

In addition —in a technological sense— I feel a (Pull-To) Refresh feature is adding to the problem instead of fixing it.

Created To Be Sold

Dustin Curtis on selecting “the best” products he can find, quotes Sori Yanagi, a Japanese product designer:

Things that are easy to use survive, regardless of what is fashionable, and people want to use them forever. But if things are created merely for a passing vogue and not for a purpose, people soon get bored with them and throw them away. The fundamental problem is that many products are created to be sold, not used.


The Apple Haters’ 7 Stages of Grief

Stream of Superior Consciousness reposting an anonymous forum comment1:

  1. Predict failure of new Apple product
  2. Attribute early success of new Apple product to rabid fanbois affected by the reality distortion field
  3. Attribute longer term success of product to stupidity of consumers
  4. Purchase previously scorned product for stupid relatives so they stop bothering you to help support the open source version of Apple product sold by Super Lucky Technology Extreme Inc. that you convinced them to buy
  5. Purchase previously scorned product for yourself just to see what all the fuss is about
  6. Admit that you now own and use the product, but complain about the product’s lack of SD card slot on random Internet forum
  7. Forget prior criticism of product, claim that it was revolutionary and an example of how Apple used to be really innovative, but has now lost its edge

Though, most Apple haters I know drop out after step 3.

  1. Yes, I’m aware of the irony. Pot. Kettle.