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Bonus episode! Jason and Myke interview Apple’s Tim Millet and Tom Boger about the new iPad Air and Apple silicon. Afterward, it’s time to fearlessly predict what will happen at Tuesday’s Apple media event in the only way Upgrade knows how—via a competitive draft.
Thank goodness there are second chances, because Apple’s first attempt to make a portable Macintosh was as inauspicious at it gets.
By Jason Snell
October 6, 2020 9:08 AM PT
It’s official: Apple presentation next Tuesday
Apple sent out invitations this morning to an event next week, at which the company will presumably announce new iPhones.
The invitation says, “Hi, Speed,” features a series of overlapping circles, and invites all of us (we’re all in this together!) to watch a “special Apple Event from Apple Park” at 10 a.m. Pacific on Tuesday, October 13.
Apple’s previous event was just Sept. 15, so these two events will be just four weeks apart. That’s unusual, but we live in unusual times. The emphasis on speed is interesting—Apple reluctantly debuted the A14 processor last month, but presumably will have more to say about it with the launch of the iPhone.
It also makes me wonder if there might be some additional Apple silicon announcements. Apple said new Macs running on Apple silicon would ship by the end of the year, but there’s nothing precluding the company from waiting all the way until December to introduce those.
As always, Apple will reveal all—or at least, all it’s willing to reveal—next Tuesday.
Update: Mark Gurman says 5G iPhones, but not Apple silicon Macs. Makes sense — “Hi, speed” probably refers to 5G cellular networking.
It’s all about what’s next at Apple this week, as we discuss the ramifications of some early A14 speed tests and ponder the challenges of succession planning at Apple. And what’s next for us is an interview with two Apple executives, so it’s time to get in your #askupgrade questions.
By Jason Snell
October 5, 2020 9:00 AM PT
20 Macs for 2020: #11 – Macintosh Portable
In the 1980s, using a computer was all about sitting at a desk. Mobility in computing meant putting your files on a disk and taking the disk to a different (but compatible) computer. When I was in college, I bought a big padded case that was designed to fit any classic Mac, so I could carry my computer home with me for holidays. The luxury! It made my 17-pound Mac SE a “portable” computer.
There were early portable computers available that ran all sorts of operating systems, but for the Mac, the padded carrying case was as portable as things got until the fall of 1989, when Apple introduced a Mac that was slightly more amenable to be moved from place to place than my Mac SE—the Macintosh Portable.
Enter the ‘luggable’
The Macintosh Portable was groundbreaking, while also being a colossal misfire. In many ways, it illustrated all the decisions that a company like Apple had to make in those days when it came to building a portable computer—and many of those decisions were simply the wrong ones.
If this seems like criticism that comes from the privileged position of being an observer three decades in the future, I’ll point out that in the Mac Portable’s launch cover story in Macworld, writer Bruce F. Webster summoned up the courage to write that the Mac Portable “certainly isn’t a failure.” Damned with the faintest of praise.
From an engineering standpoint, the Mac Portable is fascinating. Apple essentially jammed an entire Mac SE, including pretty much every port—yes, even the enormous floppy and SCSI ports—into a polycarbonate enclosure. There was also a lead-acid battery, a full-sized keyboard, a trackball, and a 640×400 active-matrix LCD screen.
As a result, the thing was enormous—15 inches by 15 inches, and four inches thick (tapering to two inches at the narrow end), and weighed 16 pounds. At the press launch event for the product, Apple was careful to refer to it as a portable, not as a laptop—because (truth in advertising) this thing was not going to sit on anyone’s lap. It was immediately dubbed a “luggable” in the press. It was more portable than my SE in its carrying case, but not by much. (It also cost $7,300, or more than $15,000 in today’s dollars!)
That lead-acid battery weighed a ton, but thanks to it and the power-management techniques Apple built into the Mac Portable—including the Mac’s first sleep mode—it got somewhere between six and twelve hours of battery life. (If you could load everything into RAM and keep the hard drive from spinning up, you could hit the high side of this total. Years later, when I used an early PowerBook, this trick was still the name of the game. Hard drives were battery killers.)
The screen was really quite good. Active-matrix LCDs were crisp and readable, basically the E Ink of their day. Most importantly, they refreshed the screen immediately, eliminating an unfortunate effect called “ghosting” that was found on cheaper passive-matrix LCDs. The ghosting effect created a little ghost image of your cursor that would follow the real cursor around the screen as you moved it. There was none of that on the Mac Portable.
Yes, the Portable’s display was black-and-white, but that was par for the course back then. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a backlight, so while you could travel with the Mac Portable, you could only use it in a well-lit room. (Later Apple offered a variant with a backlight, and a kit to add a backlight to older models, but it really ate into the computer’s battery life.)
The Mac Portable’s keyboard was also really good. It was modeled on the standard Mac keyboards of the period, and was truly desktop class, with clacky ALPS keyswitches offering a lot of key travel.
The keyboard configuration was remarkably open to the needs of its potential users, too. By default, the keyboard was placed to the left, with a trackball (used as the pointing device) to the right. But you could optionally flip the orientation, so a left-handed user could (after popping open a bunch of plastic latches, something you were advised to let your local Apple reseller do for you) place the trackball to the left and the keyboard to the right. Apple even sold a numeric keypad, designed to go in the space taken up by the trackball—so if you preferred a numpad and were willing to use an external mouse, you could set up your Mac Portable that way.
The Mac Portable is one of the most notable Macs ever because it was Apple’s first attempt to make a portable Mac, because it looks like no other Mac ever made, and because it was a complete failure.
Reading the coverage of the release of the first PowerBooks in 1991 makes it clear that after the smoke had cleared, nobody who took the Mac seriously thought the Mac Portable was anything but a flop. “If you weren’t around for the Mac Portable fiasco two years ago, Apple couldn’t afford to make the same half-baked mistake twice,” wrote MacUser editor in chief Jon Zilber.
Speaking of MacUser, I need to mention the cover of its November 1989 issue, which introduced the Mac Portable. By the time I arrived at MacUser as an intern in the summer of 1993, this cover had become legendary—or to be more accurate, infamous. It features a woman in a red swimsuit and sunglasses, sitting on a floating pool chair, with a cordless phone to one ear, a drink and some documents on one arm of the chair, and a Mac Portable on the other.
The idea that you’d tenuously place an expensive laptop on a pool chair is no more hilariously wrong today than it was back then, though it certainly illustrated the point. But I am led to believe that many of the editors at MacUser, then led by publisher and editorial director Paul Somerson, felt that Somerson pushed sexist imagery on the cover of a computer magazine a bit too often. A brief survey of early-90s MacUser covers reveals at least two others that show the bodies (or body parts) of women in alluring poses. The Mac Portable cover is the least sexy of the lot, mostly because that poor woman looks like she may be about to tip over into the pool, taking her enormous laptop and its lead-acid battery with her.
(Macworld’s cover, in contrast, features two Mac Portables on a black table with a nondescript background. This contrast, while extreme, is not a bad example of the difference between the two U.S. Mac magazines in the early ’90s—one a fun group of rebels who sometimes made questionable decisions, the other a more restrained group of professionals. Whether you considered MacUser sophomoric or Macworld boring was a matter of taste. I was a MacUser subscriber and employee years before I worked at Macworld, so you know where I stood.)
Let’s try this again
Two years after the release of the Mac Portable, Apple finally got the laptop right with the introduction of the first PowerBooks. But while two of those first PowerBook models were the wave of the future, the third was a retread of the past.
In the early 1990s, everyone—including Apple—stood in awe of the electronics miniaturization prowess of Sony. Sony cameras packed shocking amounts of tech into tiny places. This was an era where Japanese dominance of electronics manufacturing was unquestioned, and so Apple had the idea of solving the Mac Portable problem by more or less handing the guts of the Mac Portable over to Sony and asking them to shrink it down to a more acceptable size.
The truth, as someone who worked at Apple during this period told me, is that the geniuses at Sony who built those cameras weren’t the ones assigned by the massive Sony bureaucracy to build a laptop for Apple. The PowerBook 100 was smaller and lighter than the other PowerBooks, but it was sadly underpowered. It used a clocked-up version of the same Motorola 68000 processor found in the Mac SE and Mac Portable at a time when Apple was introducing super-fast desktop Macs with processors a couple of generations ahead.
The PowerBook 100 also omitted the floppy disk drive completely, which made sense from a space- and weight-saving perspective. And the PowerBook 100’s size and weight did make it a cult machine for those who desired the ultimate in Mac portability. But as I wrote regarding the PowerBook Duo, this was an era when getting your files from point A to point B generally required a floppy disk. Having to tote an external floppy drive around with your laptop negated the point of having a thin and light laptop.
Product reviews called out the 100 as basically “a slimmed-down Mac Portable.” That wasn’t a compliment. Those other PowerBooks were notable in so many ways. The PowerBook 100 picked up their styling, but it was the goose among ducks: Based on a failure, redesigned in error, and doomed to always be found wanting.
That’s half my list! I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to start the top ten.
By Jason Snell
October 2, 2020 2:10 PM PT
The iOS 14 widgets I’m using now
I’ve had it on my agenda since iOS 14 was released to write about my favorite widgets, and I somehow haven’t gotten around to it. I imagine that as different apps ship new versions with new widget implementations, and as I gauge how I actually use homescreen widgets, my default configuration will drift a bit. But for now, here are the ones that I’ve been liking:
Fantastical offers numerous widget styles in all sizes, but my favorite is Up Next, which is a very simple text listing of what’s coming up on my agenda. Since installing this widget, I rarely need to actually switch to Fantastical on my iPad.
On my iPhone, I’m toying with the idea of using the large Up Next + Calendar widget to create a whole page on my iPhone home screen that’s devoted to my upcoming tasks.
I’m also impressed with Carrot Weather‘s collection of different widget options. You can chose among Snark, Forecast, Hourly, Daily, and Weather Map. The Forecast widget starts out as hourly, but in the evening flips into daily mode.
My only real request for Carrot is some alternate visualization options. I’d like the option to see the daily forecast with more emphasis on the ups and downs, which brings me to…
Here’s a little secret: All Widgets are created equal. Weather Line is an iPhone app that doesn’t even attempt to display properly on the iPad. But its widgets work perfectly! I installed Weather Line on my iPad so I could use the Daily Forecast widget, which shows a chart of the expected high temperatures for the next week. It’s the perfect visualization for me. (Weather Line was just updated with PurpleAir air quality support, too.)
Since then, I’ve also created a second Scriptable widget that talks to my local weather station and pulls down the current temperature, highs, lows, and temperature trends. That widget lives next to my air-quality widget on my iPad and they are stacked together on my iPhone.
In an era where Apple liked to show concepts from its design lab in public, one weird Mac prototype somehow became a real product, and was unveiled at the end of the worst Apple keynote in history.
By Jason Snell for Macworld
The people have spoken. Apps like Widgetsmith and Color Widgets sit at the top of the App Store charts. iOS 14 has provided users with the ability to customize the look of their devices like never before.
Apple’s not dumb. It has to be considering how it can take advantage of this trend. It’s got a bunch of options, and I have a few ideas.
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
20 Macs for 2020: #12 – Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh
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 was in the subwoofer and power then ran 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 original 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 Jason Snell
September 25, 2020 2:24 PM PT
Let’s hear it for indie Internet writers (and their supporters)
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.