eXtensions - Wednesday 5 July 2017

eXtensions: the Wednesday File (12) - The Myth of the Desktop Class App

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Local News

The Bangkok Post reported this week that the Revenue Department here is to curb untaxed online sales and that any site with business online that does not have a presence here, will be subject to a witholding fee. A range of deductions is up to a maximum of 15%. The proposed law change may also include online advertising.

Apple has this well organized and online sales are carefully controlled with VAT (and any other duties) properly deducted. The buyer is sent a paper bill later detailing such fees. Amazon takes a different approach: when a purchase is made nowadays, as well as shipping fees, there is an amount deducted to cover things like VAT. I usually find that they take a bit too much and Amazon later reimburses me.

When I bought that keyboard from Orée last week, the FedEx delivery man presented me with a bill for VAT of 480 baht (there was no import duty or other surcharges). Of the three methods, I prefer the way Apple does this as there are no extras: you know what you pay at the time you order. Orée do not have a presence here, so Customs put the job on the shoulders of FedEx and some buyers might refuse, leaving them with a return (at best).

Wooden Keyboard
Orée keyboard in walnut

That iPhone and Related Persons

The last few days have seen a rush of articles focused on 10 years of the iPhone, although I prefer to date that from the January 2007 presentation rather than the device going on sale. That is partly because it arrived in Thailand so late. I am not totally sure why, but several rumours exist about the protracted negotiations. In the end True was appointed the sole distributor and part of the agreement was that they had to sell (or use up) a specific number each year, so all the staff had one.

Another part of the setup was that the iPhone had (and still has) a one-year guarantee and there is no Apple Care here. This is not the only country in which this happens of course. One problem that occurred to many users I know was that when things went wrong, the first thing staff checked was the moisture sensor: these turn red or pink if the device is in contact with water.

It was later pointed out by users in Texas that they lived in an area that was notoriously humid, so the sensor may indicate moisture when the device was never in contact with water. Apple lost that one and a scheme was set up for those who wanted to claim, but that never extended outside the USA and I have always wondered how many people had a legitimate claim denied for this reason in South-east Asia where, as anyone who lives here can confirm, humidity is often rather high.

Last week I discussed a couple of videos in which Scott Forestall appeared and chatted about development of the iPhone. Although Tim Cook had dismissed him, and there were rumours of his Prima Donna nature, this did not come up at all; and he never mentioned Apple executives apart from Steve Jobs. During the week excerpts of a book appeared online in which another Scott Forestall appeared.

I read the extract from Brian Merchant's, The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone, on The Verge and a couple of pictures emerged, including the hotly-disputed suggestion that Phil Schiller had insisted on a plastic keyboard. But when it comes to Forestall there are those for and those against: " . . . some found his ego and naked ambition distasteful - he was "very much in need of adulation," according to one peer, and called "a starfucker" by another - few dispute the caliber of his intellect and work ethic" . . . . (The Verge)

iPad Pro
iPhone 7 - Image courtesy of Apple

The iPad must be a toy

We also recently saw the reappearance of the idea that the iPad isn't really a computer because it doesn't do desktop class apps. I have been leaving my Mac at home for the last 3 weeks, just using the iPad Pro, and I just do the work I need. I covered this when the iPad Pro first arrived here and so did many others. Most of the early criticism of course came from those who had not used an iPad Pro, as well as from Microsoft and its afficianados who can only imagine a tablet with a full operating system, with keyboard and mouse.

It is interesting, therefore, that a report by DigiTimes based on information coming from Pegatron tells us that "orders for Microsoft's Surface devices have been smaller than expected" (Patently Apple) and that demand "has been seriously undermined by other first-tier vendors' similar devices". I wonder which devices this could refer to.

The Microsoft approach reminds me of the criticism of the MacBook Pro Touch Bar from those who haven't used it. It is also reminiscent of some of the classic comments from many supposedly in the know, such as Microsoft's (then) CEO Ballmer who dismissed it out of hand. How's that going: or Nokia, or Blackberry?

Among a number of commentators reacting to the recycled nonsense in tweets by Joshua Topolsky was Rene Ritchie whose "Giving iPad fire to mere mortals: On myopia and elitism in computing" makes a lot of sense: at least to people like me who use both and don't really notice the difference. The title is pretty forceful too. Rene put out a Tweet on this and I reacted with, "I read so much opinionated output on what can or cannot be done; then I look at kids, teens and my students doing the impossible."

On Tuesday morning, after advising a group of students about writing, one of them asked me about software for the iPad Pro. He had just bought one he said and took a new 10.5" iPad Pro out of his bag. This was the first one I had seen close up. I was not sure about his use of a transparent screen cover. Protection he said, but he also had the case with a stand, so the device was protected most of the time.

iPad Pro

I never use anything on the screen and showed him the 12.9" iPad Pro. The brightness and clarity were obvious. As to software, he is already using Notability and showed me some of his notes - text and diagrams - that sync to his Mac. I also suggested Affinity Photo and showed him how it worked. I think we have another buyer there. As the Apple Pencil had no charge I connected it to the Lightning port to the surprise of another student in his group - all Computer Engineers - and after a couple of minutes had enough of a charge to show them how it works with Affinity Photo, rather than using my fingers.

Also commenting on Rene Ritchie's article was John Martellaro who paid respect to the writer, but then debated the way some tend to express strong opinions: "the false notion that a strident opinion about computing platforms is born of a deep understanding". He also suggested that some writers may need a dose of humility, and that felt to me like an unnecessary, implied criticism of Rene Ritchie, who has been one of those at the forefront of Apple-flavoured tech journalism in recent years: one who does clearly see a path ahead, whether it be tablet or desktop.

I am using the iPad Pro for work right now instead of taking the MacBook Pro to the office each day I notice no strategic difference when I am working. One of the reasons I can just switch from Mac to iPad or even to iPhone is that so much of my data is in the cloud and synchronised between devices.

It is revealing therefore to learn that Microsoft, who seem to insist on the rightness of the desktop approach (but who have been hedging their bets since Satya Nadella took the helm with a move into iOS apps) are about to lay off thousands of staff. Boxed sets that Gates and Ballmer swore by are dead and there is to be a massive shift to cloud computing and business services (Business Times).

So much for desktop class corporations.

For many people the world has moved on, but for some it is still set in the concrete technology of the keyboard and mouse like the immovable buttons of the Blackberry and Nokia handsets when the iPhone was announced. There are (perhaps) four groups whose approach to touch computing is guided by their experience (or lack):

  • Those who hold to Microsoft's view that the tablet is a mobile extension of desktop computing and needs to have a full operating system, separate keyboard and a stylus;

  • People who work mainly on desktop (or notebook) computers, but use a tablet for specific and complementary tasks like reading or web-browsing;

  • Users who work with whatever is at hand; and

  • Those who do not recognise old and restricting parameters, like children, teens (and some old people) who have never (or rarely) used computers, who blink and ask, What problem? and who approach the device not with the question, What app should I use? Their question is, What do I want to do?

I would put myself in the third group: brought up on typewriters, but delighting in the relative freedom of MSDOS (back in the mid-1980s), then moving to the GUI of the Mac (I never used Windows). When I picked up an example of the first iPhone in January 2007 (I was able to try one the day after that famous Keynote) it was clear how far ahead of devices like the Palm PDA this was. It was like my first view of a 300 baud audio couple modem and the realisation that computers could be linked remotely. The iPad has just extended that freedom further and further, especially with the rich variety of apps that now exist.

There are some tasks I prefer on the Mac, such as preparing a presentation, but running it can be on anything to hand, from iPod Touch to iPad Pro. Not much else matters to me with the strength of writing and photography apps available. Again, there are some Mac apps that I do prefer, such as Macphun Intensify, Luminar or Tonality. A number of other desktop apps have their iOS equivalents, with some almost identical.

iOS 11

Following the articles with comments on the desktop/tablet differences (or not), the final word belongs to a clever piece of writing from Charles Arthur on Medium, "Benjamin Button moves from an iPad Pro running iOS 11 to a 13" MacBook Pro", in which he reverses the time-line and heads backwards from the modern tablet to the traditional computer: "here we have this new thing which we're meant to give up for the tablet that we've been used to for years." There are some interesting comparisons between the two types of device.

And the two types of user.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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