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This week widget mania sweeps the nation, Jason goes to an Apple Store to buy a Solo Loop, and Tim Cook ponders Apple’s work-from-home culture.
By Jason Snell
September 28, 2020 9:00 AM PT
People who came to Apple in the 21st century don’t understand just how different 1990s Apple was. Imagine an Apple that openly shared concept designs from out of its product-design lab. Consider an Apple that would hand over pre-production models of new Macs to journalists so far in advance that they hadn’t even been given a final name!
Those were things end-stage 90s Apple did, in the fleeting moments before it bought NeXT, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and everything changed.
In many ways, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh is the perfect product to describe 90s Apple. It was a concept car that escaped into the real world, a high-priced, limited edition (fewer than 20,000 made!) computer that originally cost $9,000. That’s $14,000 in 2020 dollars. (For the record, at that time you could buy a top-of-the-line Power Mac 9500 for less than $4,500.)
Most people working on the product knew it should never have shipped, and tried to do everything in their power to kill it. But Apple CEO Gil Amelio, desperate to leave his mark on the legendary company he led, insisted that the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh be released.
And yet, this product that was arguably an exemplar of the worst of Apple’s mid-1990s excess was also a representative of Apple’s future, just a little bit early. It was an all-in-one computer that leveraged laptop technology. It had an aggressive design, including some novel uses of aluminum. Enthusiastic young Apple designer Jonathan Ive would extoll its virtues in a promotional video.
Yes, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh was ridiculous. But at the same time, it was a preview of Apple’s decade of resurgence.
Concept in the building
In late 1996, many months before the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh would be released, I saw one for the first time. It was unboxed and assembled in the MacUser lab, just around the corner from my cubicle in our cramped new offices in downtown San Francisco.
Apple had loaned us a preproduction model to use, write about, photograph, and put on the cover of the magazine. They were still hesitant to commit to a name for the thing, too, and though it was code-named Spartacus, everyone called it “the twentieth anniversary Mac” and apparently that name stuck.
I think a lot of people assume the Twentieth Anniversary Mac was released for the 20th anniversary of the Mac, which seems logical, but it’s not true. The Mac was nearly 13 years old when the Twentieth Anniversary Mac was released. It was meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of Apple in April of 1976. By the time it shipped, it was about a week before Apple’s 21st anniversary.
The computer itself looked like nothing I’d ever seen before, at least in something styled as a desktop computer. With a flat screen rather than a bulky tube monitor and a keyboard with integrated trackpad, it was basically assembled from laptop parts, though its motherboard was from a Power Mac 6400.
If you didn’t like how the trackpad sat below the keyboard, laptop style, you could slide it out of the wrist rest and place it to the left or right of the keyboard. Apple even included a leather-clad piece you could slide in to fill the space vacated by the trackpad. (Yes, the wrist rest was leather. The Twentieth Anniversary Mac was the loungiest Mac of all time.)
The Twentieth Anniversary Mac’s other notable characteristic was its sound system. It was outfitted with two Bose speakers, and a subwoofer was meant to be placed on the floor nearby. The computer’s power supply ran through the subwoofer and then up to the computer itself, which could lead to audible buzzing in some models.
And then there was the CD drive, which was integrated right on the front of the computer. The door flipped open, and you could mount a disc upright, which was unusual for computers at the time.
From today’s vantage point, it’s clear what the concept behind this Mac was. It was an era in which laptops were increasing in popularity and driving some interesting innovations in computer tech, and this was a computer that used laptop features to build a new kind of desktop. At the same time, computers were increasingly being viewed as entertainment systems unto themselves, so the CD drive, Bose speakers, and bright LCD screen promised to make the Twentieth Anniversary Mac a home entertainment hub too.
This was clearly an idea that had been gestating at Apple for a long time. In a 1995 issue of Macworld, there’s a photo of a very upright desktop computer that looks kind of like the back of an airline seat. Another photo shows a small Mac tower with a flat-screen display mounted on the top. A 1996 issue of Macworld shows another concept that’s awfully close to Spartacus itself, an all-in-one computer with a pair of vertical planes—one for the computer and one for the LCD screen right above it.
What’s more unbelievable, that Apple would show the evolution of its conceptual designs in the press year after year, or that one of those concepts would eventually break outside of the lab and be sold as a real product?
The future, a bit too early
Here’s the thing, though: They weren’t wrong. Okay, maybe they were wrong about the leather armrests and the upright CD-ROM drive and the buzzing subwoofer. But when Steve Jobs returned to Apple mere months after this product was down the hall from my cubicle, he presumably saw all of the design work Jonathan Ive was doing on projects like the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, and it caught his attention. As we all know, that partnership began bearing fruit quickly: The Twentieth Anniversary Mac was released in 1997 and the iMac was released in 1998.
The iMac was, of course, also an all-in-one, an attempt to get back to the compact concept of the original Macintosh. While the Twentieth Anniversary Mac was hardly the “computer for the rest of us,” it was born of some of the same instincts that ended up producing the iMac. While it’s not widely known, one of the early concepts for the 1997 iMac was a flat-screen design that would’ve been even more reminiscent of the Twentieth Anniversary Mac. Steve Jobs decided that it was a little too early (and it would’ve been too expensive), and decided that the G3 iMac would only be built around a more traditional tube display. The flat-screen all-in-one wouldn’t return until the G4 iMac in 2002.
Like the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, the iMac has traditionally integrated more laptop-based technology than a higher-end computer would. Early on, one of the knocks on the iMac was that it was a desktop computer with the limited power of a laptop. But people like laptops, and many people can get work done on them just fine. By using laptop technology, Apple has been able to fit more computer around the displays that take up the most space in any iMac design.
The foot that holds the Twentieth Anniversary Mac upright is a custom piece of aluminum. While Jonathan Ive’s designs started a trend toward translucent multicolored plastic in the late 90s, his most lasting contribution to Apple’s design philosophy is the wholehearted embrace of aluminum. The design of the Twentieth Anniversary Mac required Apple to get that custom piece from a company that was expert in the manipulation of metal. Today, Apple may be the company with the most expertise in manipulating aluminum in the entire world.
So is the Twentieth Anniversary Mac a silly emblem of the excess of 1990s Apple? Yes, it is. But it was also a foreshadowing of the much better days to come.
I’ll be back next week with number 11.
By Dan Moren for Macworld
Services: they’re so hot right now.
Earlier this year, Apple beat its self-stated goal of doubling Services revenue in 2020 with time to spare, and the company has not only recently announced that it will be launching a new service, Apple Fitness+, but also finally elected to offer a competitively priced bundle of its many services to consumers.
With all of that said, there are some elements of Apple’s services that are still a bit lackluster, and more than a few of them are parts of the very systems on which the company and its users rely. In the same way that you might want to look to patching a foundation before worrying about painting the walls, there are a few places where Apple might want to shore up its fundamentals before launching into something new.
By Jason Snell
September 25, 2020 2:24 PM PT
Which reminds me that it’s been nearly five years since I started the Six Colors membership plan and nearly six years since I first decided to do it.
The gap of a year between those two events was entirely of my own making. When the time came to implement the membership system, I made it happen in about two days. The other 364-ish days were me fretting about asking people for money and deciding to push the decision off a while longer.
In the intervening five years, the Six Colors membership has evolved and grown and all of you have helped contribute to my (and Dan’s) ability to remain independent. Six Colors membership is at an all-time high.
If you’re also a Stratechery subscriber, you can read Ben Thompson’s insightful criticism of that New York Times story about Newton.…
This is a post limited to Six Colors members.
You know about the Macintosh, but do you know about the sequel? The Macintosh II was huge—literally. But its compact successors might be the pinnacle of late 80s/early 90s Apple design.
By Dan Moren
September 25, 2020 8:59 AM PT
Writing at Fast Company, Jared Newman adroitly points out that a central thread of Amazon’s product announcements this week is that they’re based on fear of crime:
The rapid-fire video presentation had a lot to take in, but through it all, there was one clear, recurring theme: Danger is everywhere; Amazon can make you safe again. Amazon’s vision for the smart home is an increasingly fearful one, in which intruders must be persistently fended off. Even previously innocent products like the Echo speaker now play a key role Amazon’s ever-expanding security push.
Personally, I’m still goggling a bit at the idea of a drone that flies around your house with a security camera. Having played many stealth action games in my life, these are the kinds of thing that you end up sneaking around to avoid, and it is wild to me that somebody—really, many somebodies—decided that this was a product worth making. I showed this to my wife and it earned an instant “nope”, a sentiment with which I—a self-acknowledged smart home tech enthusiast—wholeheartedly agree. This is just a bridge too far.
Meanwhile, there’s also a Ring car alarm which you can use to remotely sound a siren—because car sirens have definitely proven to be effective1 and not at all annoying. And a mailbox security sensor. And your Echo now listens for more things to warn you about. It seems like you’re going to be getting notifications every few seconds about something to worry about, and frankly, I already get that same effect from news alerts.
Look, I’m not immune to these concerns about safety. As a new homeowner, I bought a couple of Eufy wireless security cameras for my house, not least of all because we haven’t moved in yet, and I wanted to keep an eye on the place. But I also don’t feel the need to turn my house into a fortress. Amazon, however, seems to be of the opinion that your house, car, and property all need 24/7 protection because crime is everywhere.
Moreover, Amazon is also making a big point of networking its devices together—and not just your devices. Amazon Sidewalk, which is enabled on new Amazon Echo devices and Ring cameras and will also be offered to owners of existing devices, connects these smart devices throughout your neighborhood. Which proponents might argue creates a sort of digital “Neighborhood Watch” situation—but that’s a type of organization that is certainly not without deep-rooted problems in issues like racial discrimination.2
And while I hesitate to throw out statistics, the latest crime numbers from the FBI (which covers 2018—the 2019 numbers are still pending) suggest that burglaries are way down in the last decade. Whether there’s an effect from the fact that society is just generally more surveilled—i.e. not only the growth of smart home tech, but also the fact that we’re all carrying smart communications devices with cameras these days—is nothing more than supposition on my part, but it is an interesting consideration when put up against this sales pitch on Amazon’s part.3
Frankly, though, the biggest question for me about selling a home security drone at this particular moment in time is: who the heck is leaving their house enough that they need this?
But, hey, fear sells, and Amazon surely knows that. That said, one thing that I don’t think gets enough attention here is the fine line between surveillance and safety: sure, these products might protect you from people physically entering your homes…but you’re also inviting in even more devices that can watch and track you. So, in the net, are you really actually any safer?
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
By Jason Snell
September 24, 2020 2:59 PM PT
I bought an Apple Watch band today, which isn’t news. I’ve done it many times in the past. Today it was a new Apple Watch Solo Loop, after I discovered that a color I was interested in (Deep Navy) wasn’t available for weeks via delivery—but was available for in-store pickup at my local Apple Store the next day.
But I haven’t been to my local Apple Store, or the shopping center it’s located in, since February.
So today I went, and while the center was pretty quiet, there were people all around, all following the center’s mask policy. I walked down to the Apple Store and there was a socially-distanced line being managed by multiple Apple employees. It was really more like three lines—so far as I can tell, one to get into the store, one to wait for a pick-up, and an initial line you wait in until they’re ready to put you in one of the other lines.
I waited in the first line for all of a minute, at which point an Apple employee scanned my Apple Wallet bar code and pointed me to a waiting spot outside the doors of the store. After another couple of minutes, another employee emerged with my box and I was on my way.
While I was waiting, I looked into the store and it seemed busy — for a new definition of busy. So far as I could tell, every person in the store was being accompanied by an Apple employee. It was the emptiest I’ve ever seen the store, but in today’s context it was a lot of people sharing an indoor space together. I’m not really planning on going inside the Apple Store anytime soon, but it’s good to know that I don’t have to rely on shipping if I want to make an Apple Store order.
I’m hearing from my sources in Apple Retail that rolling out these bands when few people can go into stores to try them on for size has really backfired. There are a lot of returns. And however much waste Apple is saving by not including a power adapter in the box, it’s being counteracted at least a bit by all the waste that comes from people getting a band, opening the package, finding that it doesn’t fit, and returning the band.
I’m also baffled that Apple didn’t do what John Gruber did and provide a reference that converts the dots on the standard Sport Band to a size for the Solo Loop. For a lot of people, that would’ve saved a lot of heartache.
In any event, I used Gruber’s post to choose my size. The problem is, I use two different notches on my Sport Band! One’s a bit too loose and makes the heart-rate monitor complain; one can be a bit too tight from time to time. I decided to err on the side of tightness, especially since everything I’ve read about the band suggests that people tend to order them too loose, not too tight.
So is the Deep Navy Solo Loop Size 6 the right size for me? Probably, though it’s a little bit tight—but again, I think I’m right to err on the side of tightness rather than having my watch flop around on my wrist thanks to a loose band. And putting the watch on and off by stretching the band like so much taffy is going to take some getting used to. We’ll see how this new band style wears over time, and if it ends up in my drawer with the other watch bands I’ve accumulated over the years, or if it stays on my wrist.
Welcome to iMovie Complaints Corner.
Homescreen customization, favorite iOS 14 features and bugs, the devices on which we work, and vintage tech we coveted.
By Jason Snell
September 23, 2020 3:01 PM PT
One of the big features of iOS 14 is the addition of home screen widgets. Combine this with a bunch of new widget apps such as Widgetsmith, designed with lots of options to add decoration or information to an iPhone, and iPhone users now have the ability to radically customize their home screens.
(iOS 14 isn’t quite the whole story here—users were previously able to use Shortcuts to create app-launching apps with custom names and icons, but the new ability to hide pages on the home screen makes those icons truly disappear.)
The result, starting immediately upon iOS 14’s release, has been a viral avalanche of home-screen customization tips, driven mostly by young people on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
So now comes the backlash—people complaining about other people having fun doing things to their iPhones.
I’d like to say I’m surprised, but this is the most predictable thing ever. People were jerks about Memojis, and Animojis, and emojis in general! Sticker shamers exist. People who hate flashy iPhone cases. Why wouldn’t people be jerks about this thing, too?
Some people can’t step outside their own point of view and imagine why someone else might want to do something they don’t. And some of those people react by denigrating the people who are having fun.
What’s worse, I’d imagine that many of these assassins of joy are old enough to remember when they enthusiastically customized their own devices!
The Mac has a long history of customization. When I became a Mac user in the early 90s, it was de rigueur to give your Mac hard drive a name and a custom icon. Ideally, you had a custom wallpaper pattern or image, too. Apps like SoundMaster let you set custom sounds for various actions. The list went on and on. Your Mac felt like home—and like no one else’s.1
What’s more surprising is that Apple was so slow in bringing real customization to the iPhone home screen.2 If adding widgets to iOS 14 has caused enormous burst of creativity, it’s only because all that desire had built up over years and years with very little outlet.
This is not a surprise. This is not the effect of young whippersnappers raised on social media wanting to do goofy things with their phones. Users of computer platforms have wanted to customize and personalize for decades.
David Smith, the developer of Widgetsmith, has watched his app rocket to the top of the App Store charts as a part of this trend. I’m sure his road map for new features has changed dramatically since discovering what people wanted to use it for.
Apple should be getting the message, loud and clear. The company realized a while back that new emojis and animoji characters and memoji designs and the like can help convince people to update the operating system on their devices. Surely it’s clear that iPhone users desperately want more tools to customize their home screens. If more customization features aren’t shooting up Apple’s priority list for iOS 15 (or before), something’s really wrong.
So party on, home screen designers. Don’t let the curmudgeons bring you down. You’re just the latest in a proud line of people who have wanted to do the natural thing and make their technology more personal.
By Jason Snell
September 23, 2020 2:01 PM PT
Last Wednesday I updated my Apple Watch Series 5 to watchOS 7. And immediately the device’s battery life dropped precipitously.
I’d estimate that in the 11 months since I bought the Series 5, I’d failed to get to the end of the day with battery remaining maybe one time. But every one of the three days after I upgraded to watchOS 7 ended in an early-to-mid-evening demand for Battery Reserve mode from a depleted device.
After complaining about it on Twitter, I received a bunch of suggestions about what to do, most of which I’d categorize as the tech version of folk medicine. Turn off hand washing, or sacrifice a chicken, or stop using sleep tracking (which I hadn’t started using!), or draw a chalk circle around the Apple Watch and hope the spirits went away.
Lots of ideas, but nothing definitive. And then a signal came through the noise—from several people, the suggestion that unpairing the Apple Watch from my iPhone and then re-pairing might solve the issue. Some people reported this solving a similar problem last year, and others said it worked for them this year.
Unpairing and re-pairing is a pain. You have to remove your watch from the list of devices in the Watch app—fortunately, you don’t need to remove the cellular plan from the device and go through that hassle—and then wait as it wipes itself and reboots. Then you have to add it back as if it’s a newly-bought device, and restore it from the backup the Watch app made before un-pairing. It can take quite a while.
But I gave it a go, and you know what? This particular flavor of folk medicine completely worked for me. My Apple Watch is back to normal battery life, running watchOS 7.
I don’t know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes—I suspect that some sort of data sync between the iPhone and the Apple Watch is failing, and retrying, and failing, endlessly. Apple needs to look into it. This doesn’t seem like it’s an isolated issue, but I have no idea how widespread it is. Apple wants its users to stay up to date in terms of device operating systems; a bug like this will do a great job of dissuading a lot of users from ever upgrading again.
By Jason Snell for Macworld
Six years in, the Apple Watch is at a bit of a crossroads. After a few years of explosive growth in terms of improving the hardware, Apple seems to have hit a bit of a lull. Last year’s Apple Watch Series 5 only added a single major feature, the always-on display, but it was a huge milestone.
This year’s Series 6, though? It’s clear that even Apple knew how incremental this update was. An oxygen sensor is good, but since it’s not approved as a medical device, Apple’s implementation feels a little bit weak. A brighter always-on screen? Great, but the very definition of incremental. You know an update is feeling a little bit lackluster when Apple throws in a bunch of new colors to stir some excitement.
In six years, the Apple Watch has done incredibly well. Greeted by a skeptical industry, it’s defined and dominated the smartwatch category, become the most popular watch in the world, and driven growth in Apple’s red-hot wearables category.
So let’s consider year seven. Where does the Apple Watch go from here?
Has Apple set off an iPhone home screen aesthetics revolution with iOS 14? We talk about our favorite widgets, Widgetsmith’s journey to the top of the App Store charts, home-screen customization, and what this might mean for Apple’s iOS feature priorities. Also, Myke evaluates new watchOS faces, Jason seeks home remedies to fix his terrible Apple Watch battery life, and we both speculate about whether Apple might sneak a Touch ID sensor into the iPhone 12 after all.
By Jason Snell
September 21, 2020 9:00 AM PT
The original Macintosh was a squat, cute beige box with a little black-and-white screen and tiny keyboard. For a couple of decades, It was immortalized in the icon, designed by Susan Kare, that appeared when you turned on any Mac.
Almost nobody remembers the sequel. But there was one, a computer called the Macintosh II. It was unveiled three years after the original Mac, and it was a traditional PC in a whole lot of ways the original Mac wasn’t. Instead of a cute, compact, and closed single box, it was an enormous slab of a computer that you could open up and stick expansion cards into. You had to attach an external monitor—a color monitor, even.
(Although color support came to the Mac early in its lifespan, the Mac was very clearly a system designed for monochrome. If you used a color Mac in the late 80s or early 90s, the appearance of color anywhere tended to come as a shock. Color effects in classic Mac OS felt like they were painted over the original, black-and-white interface. Though color kept seeping in over the years, it wasn’t until the Aqua interface of Mac OS X that it felt like an essential part of the interface.)
The Mac II was huge—nearly 19 inches wide, 14.5 inches deep, and 5.5 inches high, weighing in at 24 pounds. And so, in 1989, Apple unveiled a much smaller box (shaving off seven inches of width and more than ten pounds) that still had room for internal expansion and supported external monitors. It was the Mac IIcx. In the fall of that year I started working at my college newspaper, and the paper’s IIcx was the Mac that everyone coveted. Three of us would lay out pages in Aldus PageMaker on Mac SEs outfitted with external full-page portrait displays. It was slow going, and unless you were zoomed in all the way, you couldn’t even read the text of your articles—it was just lines of gray rectangles, in order to speed up the graphics.
But the fourth editor, the lucky one who had managed to commandeer the Mac IIcx, got to navigate a two-page display powered by that magical little gray box. You could read the text without zooming in incredibly far. It was also the only Mac hooked up to our printer, so if you wanted to print your page for proofing, you had to load your PageMaker file onto a floppy disk, walk it over to the Mac IIcx1, insert it, and then print. (Within six months I had convinced the paper’s business manager to buy a bunch of adapters and some software so we could put every Mac in the office on a LocalTalk network. Then we could share files and print from any Mac in the office. And play NetTrek, too, sure.)
In time, we got more Mac II’s in the office. A Mac IIfx, the same enormous slab as the original Mac II, made its appearance. A curvy Mac IIsi with a color monitor arrived my senior year. But I never lost my love for that Mac IIcx design.
A few years later, I was working at MacUser, and the company was selling off excess equipment to employees at dramatic discounts. Since I switched to a PowerBook, my parents had been using my Mac SE to do the books for their business in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet I had set up for them. (It’s basically the only thing my father ever did on a computer in his entire life. He knew exactly which cells to click on and what to input there.) But something had gone wrong with the SE—it was spontaneously rebooting at random intervals, which is bad if you haven’t saved your spreadsheet.
And sitting there on the conference room table was a Mac IIci, that same adorable little boxy computer I had fallen in love with in 1989. I spent some ridiculously small sum of money on it—$50 maybe, including monitor?—and set it up for my parents. Until they sold the house, retired, and moved into a motorhome, it served them well—word processing for my mother and Excel for my father.
The IIcx/IIci design stuck around for a long time. It was so well balanced that you could stick it up on its side to save some desk space, or lay it flat and pop a small monitor on top of it. The final iteration of the design, the Quadra 700, actually displayed its name and Apple logo with the assumption that you’d use it as a tiny upright tower rather than laying it flat.
In the Power Mac era, Mac desktops devolved into larger towers or flatter “pizza box” style designs. But I’ll always consider the Mac IIcx and IIci as the pinnacle of early Mac desktop design.
I’ll be back next week with number 12.
- This is what “sneakernet” means, folks. Using shoe leather to move files from point A to point B. ↩