Grieving for Apple

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Apple I once loved is moribund, on the brink of becoming a thriving, trillion-dollar parody of its former self, even as its soul leaves its body and drifts slowly upwards, looking down on itself from above and wondering what the hell happened.

I’ve been an Apple user for my entire adult life, but I don’t know how much longer that’s going to be the case.

For a about five years now, I’ve been nervously eyeing the exits. Looking at non-Apple hardware options and running thought experiments on what Linux distro I would choose if I had to jump ship. Exploring which alternatives I might be able to turn to on a platform without my favorite macOS-only applications.

This all started when Apple, once again striving to show just how seriously they continued to take the "Think Different" philosophy even in a post-Jobs era, ushered us all into a dystopian new world where our "pro" MacBooks featured "impossibly thin" keyboards which would fail whenever a speck of dust looked at them askance. Keyboards with a horrible tactile feel that would crackle and pop like a bowl of cereal when pressed, the noises varying according to the key pressed, the ambient temperature, or the contents of the astrology column in the local newspaper. And adding insult to injury, the defective keyboards couldn’t be easily serviced or replaced. If I recall correctly, it was years until Apple finally acknowledged — in a limited way — the existence of the problem and opened up its Keyboard Service Program for MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro. (Now there’s a link that I don’t expect to remain alive if I come back looking at this article 5 or 10 years from now).

This was a new era where the obsession with minimalism and newness banished a host of useful ports and slots — including truly innovative and valuable beauties like the MagSafe connector, and unglamorous but handy ones like the SD card slot — in the name of shaving off a millimeter or so from the device height, condemning their premium-paying customers to the purgatory of a life plagued with dongles and adapters. Maybe I should find it funny that the one thing Apple wasn’t minimalist about was minimalism itself, but I’m not laughing.

Where the Touch Bar brought the worst of the touch interface to the smallest and most impractical of locations. I mean, I don’t really care about the loss of the function keys (although I know some do) — I care that they marshalled so many resources researching and developing such an absurd farce of an interface; that the existence of this stupid thingamajig led developers to waste their time and effort on coding against APIs to use it; and that Apple would be so ridiculously misguided as to really imagine its users’ lives would somehow be improved by putting interface controls in a narrow strip that requires them to take their eyes off of where they should be (the screen) and bend their necks down so that they can peer exactly where they shouldn’t be looking at (the keyboard, which for any fluent computer user has, since the moment they attained mastery, been a tactile-only, sightless instrument).

I could go on, but the point is, I hate every machine they’ve made after 2015. I watched nervously for a couple of years, hoping that they’d show some sign that they were at least on a trajectory to fix the most egregious of their transgressions, but by 2017 the prognosis was still bad, and I bought a refurbished mid-2015 model which I love. From a utility perspective, it’s the best laptop they’ve ever made, with a bunch of stuff that you’d reasonably expect to find on a "pro" Apple laptop: namely, 8 ports/slots, and a working keyboard. It’s not much to ask. Meanwhile, the 2018 model that my employer provides me with sits on a laptop stand with an external keyboard plugged into it (via a dongle, of course). Then only thing I really appreciate about it is the Touch ID sensor. They’ve made baby steps towards improvement with the various iterations of their keyboard, but let’s not fall prey to Stockholm syndrome — the machines are unworthy of their pedigree; they should be the best laptops in the world but they remain a far cry from it. We should expect better from the many brilliant minds that still populate Apple’s design and engineering teams.

And while this concerning tire fire has been billowing smoke and flames into the air over the last five years on the hardware front, on the software side, things are no less unsettling. Apple seems bent on locking things down in the name of security (a laudable effort), but at the cost of breaking shit for developers who just want to get along with their work. First came System Integrity Protection which was only a minor annoyance and probably a net win in terms of the security-vs-convenience trade-off. But then it was followed by an increasingly draconian series of cumbersome security measures, culminating with incessant authorization prompts reminiscent of Windows Vista’s infamous User Account Control and, most recently, with the horrible network-gated permission checks to do simple things like, er, running executables.

I’m still on High Sierra (10.13) here because it is still getting security updates and none of the new features that Apple has touted in the two subsequent major releases (Mojave and Catalina) seem like it would in any way yield a quality of life improvement to me, or a new capability that would empower me to be more effective. A trendy dark mode UI doesn’t cut it for me, nor do a bunch of crippled cross platform Marzipan apps that have been dumbed down enough to run on both iOS and the desktop.

And those are the headline features. Underneath the covers, Apple is constantly rolling out major new API surface areas, ruthlessly deprecating others, and churning their developers on an endless treadmill of busywork that requires them to rewrite and reimplement things in different ways just to keep their apps doing the thing that they were already doing perfectly well the year before.

I expect that security updates to High Sierra will stop by the end of this year, and I’ll be forced onto Mojave. No way in hell will I go all the way to Catalina, or whatever comes after it, until there’s no other choice. And at that point, my moment to switch to Linux may finally have come.

The reason why this is all so emotional for me is because it’s not just about a competitive technology landscape where solutions evolve, new winners are crowned, and the old guard recedes. This feels more like a Greek tragedy in which the hero of an epic poem stumbles after decades of struggle and is condemned to some kind of unthinkably ignominious end. There’s no poetic justice to it, nothing that would redeem or restore balance; it’s just a pointless descent into decadence. And it all feels so unnecessary: Apple isn’t going to lose because something better came along; it is going to lose because it shat the bed repeatedly for so many years that people like me are no longer going to want to sleep with it. Somehow, the fact that this "loss" isn’t actually going to hurt their bottom line in any significant way makes it all the more tragic. Apple will continue to rake in billions selling its overpriced portable devices — which surely bring as much suffering and ennui to the world as they do pleasure — while folks like me that have owned Macs for literally decades (since 1996 in my case), just want to craft beautiful and useful things, move off the platform. And not because we want to, but because Apple leaves us no choice.

There’s still a tiny part of me that holds out hope that Apple can mend its erroneous ways, but it’s like a burnt and blackened corner of my soul, hardly something that you could call "alive". If it was just their hardware situation that was fucked, or just their OS, I might be more optimistic, but it’s both; and it’s not just the current state that’s broken, it’s the trend-line that is concerning. Apple has built up a lot of inertia as it barrels down this wayward course. This is a big ship to turn around, and it seems less and less likely that they’ll be able to do so. It’s not even about Steve Jobs: Apple had already made some wrongheaded decisions while he was still at the helm, and some of the tendencies that have caused me so much consternation in recent years — such as the excessive minimalism, or the Touch Bar — sure look like they have Steve’s fingerprints, or at least traces of his DNA, all over them. Apple looks terminally ill, and it may be too late to look for a miracle.

So I’m writing this not looking for answers, but mostly out of a need for catharsis. I wanted a platform that I could invest in, a digital roof above my head that I could live under and make things, but in the end I am going to have to accept the reality that this is just another stop along the journey. I’ll be able to take my command-line tools and my browser with me — that’s where I really spend 95% of my time — and I’ll learn to live without the rest. It’s only a matter of time until the moment comes to make the switch.