Apple WWDC 2012
by Mark W. Hibben
The Post-HD Revolution Continues
Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference was mostly about updates: Ivy Bridge processor updates for Mac Books, and new releases of Mac OS and iOS. These were welcome to be sure, and further cement Apple’s technical lead in notebooks and operating systems, but the one revolutionary announcement was the new flagship 15 inch Mac Book Pro. This next gen Pro features a “Retina” display with a pixel resolution of 2880 x 1800 pixels, a first for any laptop. Apple is extending the Post-HD revolution it started with the new iPad to include laptops, and, we can expect eventually, to all of its displays as well. Apple is moving so fast in applying this technology that the rest of the industry haven’t even realized what’s hit them.
Tim Cook’s Intro
Cook’s delivery is definitely improving, stronger and a little faster paced. But we miss the easy affability of Jobs and his almost effortless command of his subject matter. At times Cook seems to exhibit nearly religious fervor for Apple, but perhaps he cannot be blamed. The numbers are a little staggering: 650 K apps in the App Store, 400 M accounts with one-click purchasing – more than any other internet retailer, and availability in 130 countries, soon to grow to 150. With US$ 5 B paid to developers, it’s no wonder the conference sold out in less than two hours.
The New Mac Books
The integration of Ivy Bridge processors into the Mac Book line was as inevitable as sunrise. Apple is, if anything, moving out even more rapidly in adopting the new processor family, which wasn’t always the case in the past. In the early Airs, the processors were well behind the leading edge, as Apple sacrificed performance for light weight and low power consumption. New owners of Mac Books, whether Airs or Pros, won’t have to make such compromises. They’ll be getting best-in-class, latest generation Core processors featuring Intel’s most advanced 22 nm process. Ivy Bridge is even more environmentally friendly than the previous Sandy Bridge processor family (used in the previous gen Mac Books), consuming even less electrical power to accomplish the same tasks at the same speed. All of the new Mac Books should run noticeably cooler as a result.
Ivy Bridge processors also feature Intel’s latest generation HD 4000 internal graphics, which is as much as 60 % faster than the previous HD 3000 graphics of Sandy Bridge. The internal graphics processors also dramatically reduce power consumption compared to discrete graphics chips, even mobile versions, and the new Airs rely exclusively on the internal graphics. However, the Airs can still drive an external monitor through a Thunderbolt port as well as their built in display simultaneously.
The 15 inch Mac Book Pros will get an additional graphics chip, the nVidia GeForce GT 650M, a member of nVidia’s latest generation 600M series mobile graphics chips, but the goodness of the Ivy Bridge internal graphics won’t be wasted. Mac Books, like other Ivy Bridge based computers, will be able to switch on the fly between the internal and discrete graphics, thus optimizing power consumption while providing a performance boost when needed. It’s a best of both worlds scenario that’s proven to work very well in Sandy Bridge.
In refreshing the Pro lineup, Apple has created two slightly different flavors of Pro, which I’ll call Traditional and Next Gen. The new Traditional Pros get Ivy Bridge, but retain their physical form factors, being about an inch thick and possessing optical drives. They have two USB 3.0 ports (finally) as well as a Thunderbolt port, a Firewire 800 port, an Ethernet port, and an SD XC slot. These don’t have the “Retina Display” and come in the 13 and 15 inch (screen diagonal) sizes. The 17 inch diagonal Pro (my favorite, as I’m writing this on one), seems to have quietly disappeared from the lineup. By offering the Traditional flavor, Apple seem to be hedging their bets on Next Gen Pro.
Next Gen Pro is very special, but a departure from the previous generations of Pros in many ways. It has the 15.4 inch diagonal “Retina Display” with 2880 x 1800 pixels, but is only 0.71 inch thick and weighs only 4.46 pounds vs. the 5.6 pounds of Traditional 15 inch Pro. Most of the weight and thickness loss in Next Gen Pro is accomplished by dispensing with the optical drive and by relying exclusively on flash storage rather than disk drives or even SSDs. Although I personally don’t welcome the trend, it’s clear that Apple is moving away from optical drives in general (witness the latest Mac Mini) as Apple embraces cloud distribution of apps and content. But the break with tradition doesn’t stop with the optical drive. Next Gen Pro also loses the wired Ethernet connector, relying exclusively (almost) on WiFi.
This is perhaps more jarring, but in fact, Next Gen Pro is too skinny to accommodate the RJ-45 connector commonly used. According to Phil Schiller, who presented the new Mac Books, people don’t need wired Ethernet any more. Really? That message won’t go over well in many workplaces, especially those concerned about security. No wonder Apple is hedging, and no wonder they also offer a Thunderbolt to Ethernet adapter. Still, Next Gen Pro offers a nice array of ports, including two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a full size HDMI port, and an SDXC card slot. Both Next Gen and Traditional 15 inch Pros can drive dual external displays through a single Thunderbolt port, as long as one of the displays is Apple’s Thunderbolt Display, which has a Thunderbolt pass through.
Apple seem to be stretching the term “Retina Display” to fit all sizes of their Post-HD displays. At the resolution of the iPhone 4S display of 326 pixels/inch, the term was awkward but at least credible: no matter how close you held the phone, you couldn’t discern individual pixels. Then the term was applied to the new iPad’s 264 pixels/inch display, with the proviso that the screen had to be viewed at a certain minimum distance. With Next Gen Pro, the definition of “Retina” is now down to 220 pixels/inch. It’s not that we don’t like the display. The display is beautiful, and the more pixels the better, but we’re tired of the term, especially since it isn’t quite true anymore.
Mountain Lion (ML), the next major release of Mac OS X (10.8), continues the back-to-the-Mac process of folding in many iOS features. While Lion focused on user interface features such as multi-touch gesture support and full screen apps, Mountain Lion fills in some infrastructure gaps, mostly in iCloud support. iOS 5 device users have been able to effortlessly update documents on all their iOS devices through iCloud, but moving between iOS and Mac OS devices was a little cumbersome. Mountain Lion implements Documents in the Cloud for Mac apps that now works as effortlessly as it has for iOS, including sharing documents between the platforms.
Most of the new features of ML involve iCloud services or infrastructure. There’s a notification function that works almost identically to iOS. Notifications aren’t just for receiving baseball scores or announcements of Order and Chaos updates, but are now supposed to be the principal method that apps use to send alerts to the user. This will be a boon to developers by providing a consistent set of APIs to handle alerts, and be welcome to users by providing a way to tailor how alerts appear on the screen or whether they appear at all.
Although Siri is spreading to other iOS devices, she isn’t on the Mac – yet. But the necessary infrastructure for voice recognition has been put into place in ML. To my knowledge Mac OS is the first operating system to offer voice recognition as a fully integrated service available to all apps. Any app that uses a keyboard will now have the option to take dictation instead. Siri’s knowledge base will come to the Mac eventually, as Apple continues to expand its server farm capacity.
Other iCloud based apps familiar to iOS users will be coming to Mac OS. These include iMessage, which will automatically update your message history as you move between various Mac OS and iOS devices, and Reminders, which will have the location-based feature of the iOS version as well. Game Center will also be coming to the Mac, and works essentially the same as the iOS version.
On the hardware support side, ML will implement a Power Nap feature that allows Ivy Bridge Macs to get useful work done while in sleep mode. Most of this work has to do with iCloud features such as downloading and installing updates. Finally, Mac OS will support Airplay video mirroring. Since Lion, it’s been possible to stream iTunes content wirelessly via Airplay to an Apple TV. Now ML users will be able to stream their desktop live at full 1080p HD resolution for third gen Apple TVs. Craig Federighi gave a very convincing demo of this feature with a head to head competition playing CSR Racing live against someone who was on an iPad. As I showed in my recent review of the new iPad, Airplay is great for video gaming, and it’s great to see this feature coming to the Mac.
iOS just keeps getting better, and the strength of Apple’s hardware/software integration can be seen in the rate of adoption of new versions of the OS. While the adoption rate of Android 4 is only about 7 %, the rate for iOS 5 is 80 %, which is all the more impressive considering that Apple doesn’t work that hard to maintain backward compatibility. Apple can think long term both in hardware and software architectures, and this is reflected in the forward compatibility of iOS devices for new iOS updates.
As expected, Siri is coming to iPad, at least to new iPad, and probably iPad 2 eventually if not immediately. And Siri’s role in iOS is becoming more important. Siri has a larger knowledge base, and can now handle more functions such as launching apps. Apple plans to use Siri for its Eyes Free automobile feature, in which the driver can control the iPhone (for purposes of calling, messaging, and navigation) without having to even look at the phone. Most major manufacturers (except Ford, which has a relationship with Microsoft), have signed up to support Eyes Free with an activation button on the steering wheel. Siri has also been recruited to provide turn-by-turn navigation directions in Apple’s proprietary mapping software.
That Apple is ditching Google Maps for its own app provoked one pundit to announce that Apple had declared war on Google. Well duh! The war’s been going on for a couple of years, guys, get a clue. The replacement of Google Maps by something that to all appearances is superior was nevertheless a defensive measure on Apple’s part.
The integration of Siri into Google Maps wouldn’t have been possible without sharing much proprietary information, something Apple would be loath to do. Now that Apple has conquered mapping, can search be far behind? Apple is in a far better position to take market share away from Google than Microsoft is, and better able to monetize its own search as well for iOS devices. If Apple does search, it won’t lose buckets of money the way Microsoft has. I wouldn’t be surprised if AppleSearch appears in the next iOS release.
Since FaceTime first appeared, its utility has been hampered by the fact that it only worked over WiFi. AT&T, the iPhone’s only US carrier at the time, was reluctant to burden its already overloaded network with high volume video data. That was then.
Now Apple has more carrier options, and the carriers have upgraded or are upgrading to 4G service, so Apple has been able to prevail upon them to accept FaceTime over cellular. Getting the carriers to go along was really all it took to make it happen. Now iPhone users (and I hope wireless version iPad users) will be able to make FaceTime calls wherever they have cellular service. The era of the video phone has finally arrived.
Safari also got a refresh with iCloud tabs, equivalent to the Mac OS version, and a search window integrated with the URL window, a feature of many browsers for some time. Users will now be able to upload photos to web sites from within Safari.
One feature that I know will be extremely welcome to most users is Do Not Disturb, which allows the user to filter which notifications and calls are received. You’ll be able to select which callers get through the filter and even elect to receive incoming calls if they are repeated within a short time.
In recognition of the burgeoning popularity of the iPad in the classroom and other educational settings, iOS is providing Guided Access, which allows developers to provide users with a way to limit or disable common controls in the iPad. For instance, a testing app might disable the home button in order to keep kids from looking up the answer on the Internet.
My favorite new feature of iOS 6 is Passbook, which supports electronic ticketing, gift cards and coupons through a barcode-like display on the phone. Passbook keeps all of these neatly organized, instantly accessible, and most importantly secure.