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Apple is over-thinking the Mac Pro

Today Apple announced they are rethinking the entire design of the Mac Pro after three years without an update.

The current Mac Pro is an extremely impressive piece of design and engineering. Unfortunately the design was too clever and  over-engineered and it neither met customers' needs nor allowed Apple to easily upgrade it.

Apple issued an apology, which is extremely rare, and it's great to see they have recognized and taken ownership of the issue. It's almost unprecedented for Apple to announce unfinished products without a ship date and they're timing this right before NAB, so I'm assuming this move is to do with damage control.

The only problem is that I'm spotting a pattern here. Apple abandoned the old (pre-2013) Mac Pro and barely updated it, then after a customer outcry they released a completely redesigned model, which they then abandoned again. Now they are completely redesigning it again but it won't ship for at least a year and we don't know much about it except that it will be modular to some degree.

It sounds like Apple may be about to fall into the same trap again: over-thinking the problem in panic mode with an over-engineered solution. Apple behaves like this is a really difficult problem to solve but it's actually extremely simple. We want to use Macs, so all Apple has to do is not get in the way.

What Apple fails to grasp is that the design factors that made the iPhone successful have little relevance to the pro desktop market. Sure, design is important to creative people, but it's not #1 on the priority list - it's maybe #7 or #8. Our #1 priority is being able to do our jobs quickly with as few restrictions or workarounds as possible. I'm sure a sizable number of pro users would be happy enough with 2017 specs in the 2012 case.

If Apple wants to impress their professional customers they need to do two things: design their pro products backwards by thinking about what their capabilities should be first and then thinking about their physical design, and do a better job of maintaining a dialogue with pro customers (hint: dialogues are in both directions). There are a lot more options now and Apple should be competing for our business instead of assuming we'll just stick around like we have so far.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Apr 4 2017 to Analysis, Apple, Hardware
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WWDC - What we'd like to see in OS X 10.12

WWDC is right around the corner and Apple will most likely be unveiling a new version of OS X. Here's what we'd like to see. 

HEVC / H.265 support

H.265 (also known as HEVC), promises to halve the bitrate of its predecessor, H.264. This means that you can deliver the same video at half the bandwidth, or alternatively double the quality within the same bandwidth. This could greatly increase the popularity of 4K video on the web. 

The problem so far has been a legal one - instead of having everything tidily packaged within a single patent pool, there are two competing pools in competition with each other. 

In particular, the HEVC Advance pool initially had onerous terms that would have cost hardware and software providers considerably more money than they paid to license H.264. Most of these provisions have now been scaled back fortunately. 

Whenever a new codec comes out there is always a chicken-and-egg problem - there's no reason to make content because people can't play it and there's no reason to enable people to play it because there's no content. So now is a great time for Apple to take the plunge and kickstart the H.265 / HEVC format. 

System-wide Dark Mode

In OS X 10.11, Apple added a Dark Mode option which dims the menu bar to fit in better with dark-UI pro apps like DaVinci Resolve. 

We'd like to see this taken one step further and offer the ability to toggle the entire UI of an app light or dark. For many apps this will require no changes so it could probably be an opt-out option for developers.

Finder tags

When Apple introduced OS X 10.9 they included Finder tags which allowed you to tag a file with additional metadata.

However, this is not particularly useful because the tags appear as color dots instead of text and they are very small and overlap each other. It also means you can no longer color code the entire filename, making it easy to miss color-coded files.

So my proposal is for two types of tags: color tags and text tags. Color tags affect the background color of the file in the list and can be easily spotted when scrolling. You can only assign one color to a file.

Text tags do not affect the background color of the file, even when colored, but appear in a bubble next to the filename. So you can tag it “VFX” and “Delivery" for example and anyone can see at a glance that it is a VFX deliverable. Any tags that can’t fit in can be expanded by clicking an ellipsis icon next to the filename.

Airplay video streaming

It should be possible to stream video from a Mac video player like QuickTime or CinePlay to an Apple TV. This is something that can already be done in iOS but still hasn’t made it to the Mac.

There are some solutions to this but they are very hacky and developers would benefit from an officially-sanctioned method.

AV Foundation: Don’t treat remote files as second-class citizens

There are some very powerful tools in Apple’s AV Foundation media framework. Unfortunately many of the functions for scanning media files and extracting information are limited only to files that exist on the user’s local hard drive. This can limit the options you have for dealing with files on a remote web or FTP server.

There is no real reason for this because even though the data originates on a remote server, it still ends up in memory and/or cached to disk, depending on the situation. Because AV Foundation is built to be asynchronous, there is no reason why this data cannot be provided to an app as and when it is downloaded.

Better SVG image support

Apple needs better support for SVGs throughout the OS such as more accurate rendering in QuickLook and the ability to see thumbnails. 

We'd especially like to see an easy way to use SVGs within a user interface, which could make the aforementioned Dark Mode a little more painless to implement.

Third-party codecs in AV Foundation

Now that AV Foundation has matured and inherited many of the more advanced features of QuickTime, it's time for Apple to fix the biggest omission: third-party codecs. It would be even better if there were ways for developers to also override functionality such as streaming and caching with custom behaviors.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Jun 11 2016 to Apple, Analysis
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5 Ways Apple Could Improve iOS 9

Next week is WWDC, where Apple will likely unveil a new version of iOS. Here’s what we’d like to see.

Improved text selection

I deliberately avoid using iOS devices in situations where I need to frequently copy and paste text because it’s extremely tedious.

Here’s an exercise to try: take a paragraph of text and try to select only one or two sentences inside it. After you select a certain quantity of text, iOS tries to help you by automatically selecting the entire paragraph. Selecting exactly the desired amount of text then becomes a battle between you and the operating system. A lot of times I just select the entire paragraph, paste it and then cut it down to what I need because it’s easier and quicker, but it’s still a step I wouldn’t have to do on the desktop.

It is also especially difficult to select the text of a link because if you tap on it, iOS assumes you either want to visit the link or copy its URL.

Proper multitasking

One big problem with iOS is that it does not have true multitasking. Some functions, such as audio playback, can take place in the background but most of the time when you switch to another app the previous app will either pause or terminate.

What this means in practice is that if an app takes a long time to do something, you cannot check email or do something else while it is processing or it will probably pause and then restart when you switch back. Consequently I spend a lot more time staring at progress bars on iOS than I do on OS X.

Dark mode

Dark mode would show system UI elements with a darker skin to stop the display appearing too bright or lighting up a dark room.

This could cause complications for third-party apps so I think it should be possible for apps to see which mode the user has selected and decide in what circumstances to honor it.

Don’t autocorrect proper grammar

I have no problem with iOS autocorrecting misspelled words but it sometimes corrects valid grammar and spelling into something that is incorrect, such as automatically correcting “were” to “we’re”.

Polish

There are rumors that iOS 9 will not have significant new features and will instead be a Snow Leopard-style polish and bug fix release. I’m less in favor of this for iOS than OS X because I find iOS 8 significantly more stable than iOS 7 and the aforementioned feature requests are problems that genuinely slow me down and turn me off the platform.

However, anything Apple can do to improve the speed of the OS is appreciated, especially on older devices.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Jun 4 2015 to Analysis, Apple, Software
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6 Ways Apple Could Improve OS X 10.11

With WWDC around the corner and a likely unveiling of a new version of OS X, here’s six improvements we’d like to see.

Finder tags

When Apple introduced OS X 10.9 they included Finder tags which allowed you to tag a file with additional metadata.

However, this is not particularly useful because the tags appear as color dots instead of text and they are very small and overlap each other. It also means you can no longer color code the entire filename, making it easy to miss color-coded files.

So my proposal is for two types of tags: color tags and text tags. Color tags affect the background color of the file in the list and can be easily spotted when scrolling. You can only assign one color to a file.

Text tags do not affect the background color of the file, even when colored, but appear in a bubble next to the filename. So you can tag it “VFX” and “Delivery" for example and anyone can see at a glance that it is a VFX deliverable. Any tags that can’t fit in can be expanded by clicking an ellipsis icon next to the filename.

Airplay video streaming

It should be possible to stream video from a Mac video player like QuickTime or CinePlay to an Apple TV. This is something that can already be done in iOS but still hasn’t made it to the Mac.

There are some solutions to this but they are very hacky and developers would benefit from an officially-sanctioned method.

Files in use

One of the most annoying things about OS X is how it frequently refuses to perform an action like moving a file or emptying the trash because the file is in use, even when you can’t figure out what’s using it and haven’t opened that file in months. This bug has existed for a very long time.

I have a theory that it may be related to QuickLook scanning the file to update its icon but I haven’t been able to exactly pinpoint it.

There are some workarounds such as copying a file instead of moving it or securely emptying the trash.

AV Foundation: Don’t treat remote files as second-class citizens

There are some very powerful tools in Apple’s AV Foundation media framework. Unfortunately many of the functions for scanning media files and extracting information are limited only to files that exist on the user’s local hard drive. This can limit the options you have for dealing with files on a remote web or FTP server.

There is no real reason for this because even though the data originates on a remote server, it still ends up in memory and/or cached to disk, depending on the situation. Because AV Foundation is built to be asynchronous, there is no reason why this data cannot be provided to an app as and when it is downloaded.

OpenGL ES / Metal

OpenGL ES is a cut-down version of OpenGL that is intended for mobile devices. Metal is a low-level iOS API by Apple intended to improve performance of graphical apps.

Because neither of these are supported on OS X, it means porting graphical apps between platforms requires a lot of work. With some parts of OpenGL ES it’s easy because all you have to do is slightly modify the name of a function, but in other cases it’s trickier because there are no direct equivalents for certain commands.

Polish

One rumor making the rounds is that Apple will forego major new features in favor of polishing and optimizing its codebase.

I feel that Apple’s software quality has slipped in the past five years and the annual release cycle means that Apple is often introducing new features (and therefore new bugs) before it has finished fixing the bugs introduced in the previous version.

The last time Apple did this was for OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and I have spoken to many people who consider it to be the best release of OS X. In fact, more of our customers are on 10.6 than 10.7 or 10.8.

I would therefore be willing to sacrifice all of the above feature requests in favor of a massive codebase polish from top to bottom.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Jun 3 2015 to DR News, Analysis, Apple
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Apple adds MXF support to QuickTime applications

Yesterday Apple released Pro Video Formats 2.0 (an apparently renamed version of Pro Apps Codecs), which is a set of professional codecs to coincide with the FCPX 10.1.4 update with MXF integration.

The release notes imply this only adds MXF support to FCPX, Motion and Compressor, however it is actually much broader than this. It adds MXF reading to any application on the system that uses the QuickTime APIs.

You can test this by taking an MXF file on your system (such as from an Avid_MediaFiles folder), right-clicking and choosing to open in QuickTime Player 7. This will work in any app that uses the QuickTime 7 APIs and does not require the latest version of OS X.

There are however some limitations:

  • You cannot QuickLook MXFs
  • You cannot encode to an MXF container
  • The files do not open in QuickTime Player X or any app that uses AV Foundation (this includes CinePlay)
  • You cannot edit metadata (QT Player forces you to save to a .MOV)
  • Some metadata was appearing garbled for me

We would also recommend users do not use MXFs with any of our apps that make changes to movie files. So Edit Detector will work fine but QT Edit will not.

This update will appear for anyone with Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5 or Compressor 4 installed on your system. If you don't have these apps and still want the MXF functionality, I recommend buying Compressor from the App Store for $50.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Dec 3 2014 to Apple, Software, QuickTime
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6 Things Apple Should Improve in OS X 10.10

WWDC is tomorrow, where Apple is likely to announce a new version of OS X. Here's what we'd like to see.

1. AV Foundation improvements

There are so many improvements needed for AV Foundation that it merits an article of its own, but a few would be expanded codec support, easier extensibility, LOTS of bug fixes and the ability to stream Airplay video without ugly hacks.

2. Mac App Store improvements

Apple should allow app developers to request exemptions from sandboxing rules. We feel that the strict rules hurt the user experience and even removed one of our apps as a result of this.

Other areas for improvement would be the ability to hide third-party updates and not requiring a password for free updates (this can get tedious if you have multiple accounts).

3. Files in use

OS X frequently marks files in use when they aren't, which can cause issues copying or deleting files and also when emptying the Trash.

I have a theory that this may be caused by QuickLook trying to generate icon previews for these files but it's difficult to pinpoint.

This bug is especially frustrating when using network drives as OS X frequently creates temp files that can only be deleted after unmounting and remounting the drive.

4. Make full screen work on the current display only - don't let it blank out every other monitor

Full screen functionality was improved significantly in Mavericks with the "Displays have separate Spaces" option in the Mission Control section of System Preferences, but many people had to switch it off and revert to the old system due to compatibility issues (mine were with FCP 7).

When switching back to the old way of doing things on a shared Space, OS X blanks out all monitors even if there is nothing displaying on them.

I think the solution to this problem is a blacklist where users can specify apps that should only use the current Space on another monitor without disabling it for compatible apps.

5. Network drive / VPN improvements

It is clear that Apple is assuming most users are saving files to HFS+ formatted SSDs. This is apparent when mounting a drive over a VPN connection because Finder and many other Apple apps experience very poor performance.

In fact, I completely eschew Apple apps over a VPN and use Path Finder as a Finder replacement and AppCode as an Xcode substitute because those apps do not read or write to disk unnecessarily and handle these issues much better.

6. Bug fixes

Apple is announcing a new OS when arguably Mavericks still needs a lot of bug fixes. Some of the issues I am still experiencing in 10.9.3 are:

  • Hang when copying certain files to a network volume
  • Audio output randomly disappearing (speaker icon becomes greyed out), requiring a restart
  • Exposé sometimes fails, meaning it's difficult to exit it and switch back to an application, requiring a restart
  • Plugging in a monitor and closing the laptop lid sometimes makes it sleep randomly in the middle of me working. It also sleeps if I disconnect the charger.
  • Periodic freezes where the mouse moves but everything else is frozen.
  • Occasional apps that cannot be closed, which requires a hard reset because they stop OS X from shutting down
  • Other people have also reported issues in OpenCL apps with 10.9.3

With these issues in mind, I would be very happy if Apple institutes a Snow Leopard-style overhaul. Snow Leopard was so stable it took me a long time to upgrade and many of our customers are still using it.

I'm also hoping that Apple recently opening up the beta program to non-developers helps to address this, but if it doesn't I feel that Apple should not commit to a yearly upgrade schedule if they cannot guarantee quality.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Jun 1 2014 to Analysis, Apple, Software
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5 Features Apple Should Add in iOS 8

With WWDC and iOS 8 around the corner, we thought we'd offer up our wish list for future iOS features and bug fixes.

1. Documents app

The biggest problem with iOS is the limited file system, which can make working on files in different apps difficult.

Currently you can store movies and photos in a central place that is accessible by all apps with permission to access it. While this implementation has its flaws (e.g. apps can't delete files they've created), creating a similar storage area for documents would go some way toward improving the limitations when sharing files.

Much like Photos and Videos, these documents could be accessed and managed in a Documents (or Files) app.

2. Utility apps

Another problem with iOS is that it can be difficult to know what to do when someone emails you an unusual file format.

For example, customers often email me .log files when I'm on the move. These are exactly the same as text files, however iOS refuses to open them because they do not have a .txt extension.

Unlike OS X, you cannot force a file to open in another app, nor can you rename files, so I was stuck scouring the App Store for an app that would open them. The only app I found that would open them was a hex editor app but this was not a perfect solution because it was not designed for formatting and displaying large portions of text.

OS X has a lot of utility apps like TextEdit, Preview, Font Book, etc, but Apple seems to have delegated Mail as the only (limited) general-purpose file viewer. If Apple hopes to one day replace OS X with iOS they will need to address issues like this.

3. Better Copy & Paste

I have a lot of difficulty with copying and pasting. The primary issue I experience is that iOS tries to second-guess what I'm doing and it always gets it wrong.

For example, after you have selected a certain amount of text iOS assumes you want to select the entire paragraph, which may not be exactly what you want, but there's no way to select less.

So I find it easier to select more text than I need, paste it and then delete the parts I don't want.

4. Improved multitasking

While switching between apps is simple, the apps don't always retain their status when you switch back to them.

For example, an app that requires a network connection may have disconnected or you may have to wait for a web browser to reload the page again.

This doesn't happen every time but it occurs when iOS comes under pressure to free up memory. Now that iDevice CPUs are pretty fast I hope Apple can implement an OS X-style memory compression system to reduce occurrences.

I also hope the rumors of split-screen multitasking are true because it will help significantly with this issue.

5. Better Gmail support in Mail

I use the stock Mail app with Gmail because I have not found a third-party mail app that I like (suggestions are appreciated).

However, the Mail app seems to be frequently confused by conversations, with some messages correctly joined together and others shown as distinct messages. This can be annoying if I've deleted a conversation, only for all the deleted messages to reappear in my inbox when someone else replies. In some cases this requires me to re-delete 15 or so messages.

Another issue is that it seems to be impossible to actually delete messages. Deleted messages are archived with a special tag rather than actually being deleted. Additionally, sent messages don't show up in other apps or the Gmail web interface.

It's for reasons like the five listed above that I prefer to delegate particular tasks until I get back to a desktop computer. If the rumors are correct and Apple is creating an iPad Pro, simply adding a bigger screen won't be enough. In my opinion the changes most likely to endear it to professional usage would come from iOS itself.

Posted by Jon Chappell on May 31 2014 to Analysis, Apple, Software
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OS X 10.9 network hanging bug

When copying certain files to a network volume on OS X 10.9, Finder (or indeed Path Finder) will copy the first 12 KB and then beachball for minutes before eventually completing the transfer.

Our testing has indicated that this seems to occur when overwriting files from a local disk to the network volume and seems to only occur with .app application bundles. We believe this may be something to do with resource forks because it is rare for files other than applications to have them and network volumes do not support them. It does not occur on file transfers between the same network drive or from one network drive to another.

It's a nasty bug because it not only causes Finder to hang for minutes but can also affect all other applications using files on that volume. It has even a couple of times completely prevented any network or internet access at all for the duration of the file transfer.

We've reported this to Apple and are waiting on a fix. In the meantime, the easiest way is to either delete the destination file and then copy it or compress the .app bundle, copy it and then decompress.

Posted by Jon Chappell on May 28 2014 to Apple, Bugs of the Week, Software
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7 reasons to upgrade from Snow Leopard

Today Adobe announced it's dropping support for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. While Adobe says it only affects a small number of customers, there is still a sizable number of users running the older OS, with some surveys suggesting as much as 19% usage.

Here are 7 reasons why you should upgrade from Snow Leopard to a newer version of OS X.

It's less secure

Apple is no longer fixing OS X bugs and some browser manufacturers no longer offer 10.6 support, leaving your system vulnerable.

Many new applications won't work with it

Not just Adobe, many other apps no longer support 10.6, including all Apple and Avid applications and many hardware products and cameras. Some upcoming new products from us will require newer OS versions to take advantage of more recent technologies.

It's slower

With every new OS release there is normally a speed boost from more efficient code execution, as well as new performance-enhancing technologies like AV Foundation, timer coalescing and compressed memory.

You're missing out on new features / technologies

Useful new technologies for pro users since 10.6 include AV Foundation, compressed memory, tabbed Finder windows, file tags, Airdrop, Notification Center and Airplay Mirroring. This is in addition to the aforementioned performance-enhancing technologies.

Developers are making sacrifices for older OSes

While we don't shy away from embracing features from newer OSes if they have a clear benefit to users, maintaining two codebases for a small subset of users is complex and takes time away from feature development.

Upgrades are cheap

10.9 is free and 10.8 is $20 on the Apple Store.

You can make it look and behave exactly like Snow Leopard

Lion introduced several controversial features like reverse scrolling and an inability to Save As. Luckily some of those decisions were reversed in later versions and others are completely customizable. We have a guide to making newer versions behave more like Snow Leopard here.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Mar 6 2014 to Analysis, Apple, Software
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Apple limits availability of non-Retina MacBook Pros

Today Apple aimed to reaffirm their commitment to professional users with more details on the new Mac Pro. While some have correctly pointed out that the starting price for the new version is higher than the old model, this seems entirely reasonable to me given the significant leap in specifications. I was also relieved that it is reasonably upgradeable, minus the graphics card, although Mac users have never had a wide variety of cards to choose from anyway.

However, at the same time Apple took away some professional options. The Retina MacBook Pro was updated with more screen size options and improved specifications, however it has almost entirely replaced the older non-Retina model.

There are very specific reasons why some pros would choose a non-Retina model: matte display, greater availability of ports and upgradeable interior. The only option Apple is offering is a 13" version, which seems strange because I would have assumed that the type of user who chooses the non-Retina model would aim for the largest screen size possible. This would suggest that Apple is not aiming this laptop at spec-sensitive professionals at all, but instead users who are looking for a cheap option. However, it's only slightly cheaper than the 13" Retina so I'm really not sure what their target market is (if you can figure it out, let me know in the comments).

My 2011 MacBook Pro recently got destroyed so I was in the market for a new one. I considered a Retina laptop but in the end I opted for a 15" non-Retina MacBook Pro that was barely faster than my 2011 model. I could grudgingly cope with the glossy display and reduced ports but the lack of upgradeability was the deal-breaker for me. While it is good that Apple has reduced the prices of the Retina model, you'd be a fool not to max it out at the time of purchase. As I've said before on this blog, Apple is charging a premium price for a throwaway computer and they really need to factor that into the initial selling price.

Posted by Jon Chappell on Oct 22 2013 to Apple, Analysis, Hardware
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