The “Big” in Big Tech Breeds Extremism

Tech companies hit a turning point this week and have actually started wielding power against far right groups aiming to incite violence. Most dramatically, Facebook and Twitter both permanently banned Donald Trump, and Parler, a “free speech” social network that minimizes moderation and has become a favorite among white supremacists, has been removed from Google’s and Apple’s app stores, and in an unprecedented move, Amazon will no longer let Parler run on Amazon’s AWS infrastructure in the cloud, forcing the entire service offline (as far as I know, Amazon has never banned a company of this size because of the company’s own lack of handling its users’ misconduct).

This has inevitably led to conversations about whether Big Tech has gone too far, and conversations about the role big tech companies should play in moderating what’s on their platforms.

I don’t want to get too in the weeds about whether tech companies made the right move; my longstanding opinion has been that these are their platforms and it’s up to them what they decide to let people do on them, and that I wish they prioritized the safety of their most vulnerable users. I will also acknowledge that as much as Parler had it coming, when you see the entire business get pulled offline in just a couple of days because of a few external companies, it’s only natural to have the panicked realization that these big companies could just as easily do this to your business if they really wanted to. As much as conservatives have been pretending to be oppressed by tech companies (and that’s a whole post unto itself, but I can guarantee you that “anti-conservative bias” is 100% bullshit), it really is true that for most of the tech companies you interact with, they could pull the plug on your account if they wanted, and you would have little to no recourse.

I do agree that it’s complicated for owners of big platforms hosting user-generated content to effectively come up with a set of policies that govern what people can talk about on these sites. These are hard questions because a huge chunk of the world’s communication happens on networks like Facebook and Twitter. If Facebook and Twitter get really strict about what you can say and do on these networks, they could be stifling much of the communication that occurs on the internet in general.

These will never stop being hard questions, but there is one straightforward way we can make these questions less necessary to even ask: take the “Big” out of “Big Tech”.

It’s the Scale, Stupid

Put simply: our society and institutions are not equipped to correctly handle the existence of massive tech companies that have literally billions of users.

Social networks aren’t a super new development; they’ve existed in one form or another since before the internet, and while there has always been some concern for fringe groups online, none of these groups or networks had previously posed an existential threat to democracy in the US.

But that changed when companies that run social networks hit real scale. And when I say “real scale,” I’m talking tens of millions, hundreds of millions, and even billions of users.

Facebook isn’t just a community; it’s a community of communities that is centrally managed by Facebook itself, where Facebook has an incredible amount of data about you. In the US there was a national debate for years about creating a new national ID card to replace state-issued IDs but there was this concern about centralizing control with the federal government. And yet, here Facebook stands as a central entity that tracks the identities of more people than the most populous countries on earth.

A network as large as Facebook is essentially a government. Facebook’s CEO has said as much on the record. But unlike most democratic governments around the world, Facebook’s policies don’t get determined by its users or people its users choose to represent them; Facebook is free to make these decisions unilaterally, and its users don’t have much recourse. “If you don’t like it, leave” is a tough sell when the network has pretty much every online user in the world on it.

Automatic radicalization at scale

On massive social sites like Facebook, you don’t need to find new communities; new communities will find you. Facebook will analyze your profile and activity and recommend new groups to join. On the surface, that sounds perfectly innocent; Facebook helps you find new groups you might like. But in a world where Facebook is home to all of these non-publicly visible extremist groups, that’s super dangerous, because now Facebook is doing the heavy lifting of recruitment for these groups. Facebook knows what those group members are like, so it can identify other people that might be sympathetic to these extremist causes and just casually recommend the hidden group to them. And just like that, Facebook just unwittingly became a tool to radicalize people at scale. Whoops.

It’s not a problem unique to Facebook; I just keep referring to them because it’s easier to point to a concrete example. It also isn’t just a problem unique to social networks. YouTube’s got a similar issue where if you follow recommendations on certain innocuous videos for long enough you go down a rabbit hole that often leads to increasingly extremist videos.

Critically, these tools to radicalize people through recommendations are only possible because companies like Facebook and YouTube have absolutely enormous numbers of users.

Facebook and YouTube are so big, when they make tweaks to their algorithms that promote content, it can destroy businesses and livelihoods. And individual bans can be useful (Twitter banned Milo Yiannopoulos a few years ago and he and his toxic fan base haven’t resurfaced meaningfully since), but individually banning people is at best a band-aid when your network overall is continuously producing new extremists.

Scale is hard

For years, there has been sizable public pressure on these companies to do more to moderate. Initially companies seemed to hope they could handle this kind of moderation automatically, but in practice that works poorly; algorithms are bad at understanding the full context behind the content of everything posted and can’t make accurate determinations.

So now Facebook’s moderation is powered by an army of humans that must toil away around the clock, slogging through deeply disturbing content and trying to make human decisions at the pace of a machine. It’s a mentally taxing job.

In reality, the viability of tech companies running networks of user-generated content at scale is a myth. Moderation is a nightmare, and these companies are barely even trying to pretend they can keep up with it, and they really only tread water with moderation by subjecting a team of people to terrible working conditions.

But big tech companies want you to ignore that and just continue to let them exist because they don’t want you to even fathom that it’s possible for the world to exist without companies with billions of users.

But that scale, and that scale alone, is the very core of this problem. If we stop having companies with billions of users, we suddenly stop worrying that there are companies that function as pseudo-governments. If we stop having companies with billions of users that are breathlessly handing out recommendations to get those users to join new communities that are trying to overthrow democracy, democracy can be safer.

The question, then, is how we might do that, and what a world that rejects scale might look like.

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Review: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat

I read Aubrey Gordon’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat a few weeks ago, and it was deeply healing for me. And if you are a fellow fat person considering reading this, it’s a great read, but this review really isn’t for you.

Instead, it’s for the more conventionally sized people who are both living in and helping shape a world that is culturally disgusted by fat people, and it’s a fantastic primer on institutionalized fatphobia with a relative emphasis on the US (since that’s where the author lives).

The book isn’t a book of personal anecdotes; it is instead focused on the ways that we systematically target and harm fat people. It is, however, sprinkled with a number of personal stories from the author’s own life where she was harassed by strangers, and in some cases she talks about sharing these experiences with her friends, only to be met with skepticism or utter disbelief.

But I can pretty well assure you that she’s not lying about her personal experiences, and I say that because I’ve had experiences similar to these. I’ve had total random strangers approach me on the street and offer up workout advice, or just yell an insult from a moving car as I’m walking to work.

And lest you think it’s just randos that do this kind of thing, one of my earliest memories of being reminded that my body is different dates back to second grade, when an older kid was making fun of me for being fat, and when I approached a guidance counselor about it, his response was “okay, and you think you’re skinny?”

Even good friends aren’t immune from this. Friends are tactful enough not to ever directly criticize me for being fat, but they will quite eagerly explain to me how much they don’t want to gain weight.

But I digress. This book isn’t about individual aggressions or microaggressions toward fat people, and this review isn’t about my experiences.

The book uses these personal stories as a good jumping off point to better understanding the deeper issues, though, and it does dive into some of the excuses people give themselves for mistreating fat people and explores why they’re total bullshit (my favorite trope: when people decided to use concern for one’s health as an excuse for fat shaming).

But the issue of fatphobia goes more deeply, and in this book you will learn some of the ways it’s baked into our society. It discusses public spaces whose designs are hostile to fat bodies. It covers the massive industry behind dieting and explains that it’s not only almost completely ineffective, but in many cases actively harmful to our health. It covers the obstacles fat people face in getting healthcare. And it covers the fact that in the mainstream, making fun of fat people remains a completely acceptable practice, even a practice people will fervently defend when they’re called out about it.

I strongly recommend you give this a read, but as with any book that introduces you to issues of social prejudices, the world’s not going to get better by you reading this book. And even if you take the lessons from the book to heart and you examine your own behaviors to eliminate your own fatphobia, there’s still an entire world and culture that very much is happy to continue with it. And even if you take it a step further and take a strong stand against fatphobia, speaking out when you see it, it will remain an uphill battle, and you’re likely to just be depressed by the inertia you see when you tell someone they’re being fatphobic.

It’s a book that ends with some discussion of what a better world might look like, but it’s a book without a happy ending. There’s a good chance you’ll feel worse after you finish reading it. But reading this is a good first step.

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What’s to come in 2021 on icanthascheezburger

I made a bold goal that in 2021 I would post 100 blog posts throughout the year.

Given that I only posted 30 things in 2020, you might be wondering how I aim to more than triple my output on this blog.

Well, it starts off with fluffy posts like this one where I don’t post any actual content, but tease some other stuff I’ve been working on.

A taste of what’s to come:

  • A review of Aubrey Gordon’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat
  • A series of posts called My Sweet Setup, which will be a spiritual successor to my Favorite Things series where I talked about some of my favorite wares. This one will be more extensive than ever; I will go deeply into some of my specific tool choices, and will discuss most all of the hardware and software I use on a daily basis, as well as some other notable products. The goal here is not blatant consumerism, but rather to help people pick out tools that are great for the long haul.
  • I will finally write up a series of posts on The Case Against Scale. I think I have at least half a dozen short essays’ worth of material to discuss, most of which I dug up as I was preparing my Empex LA talk last year
  • I have two small tech projects that I absolutely want to finish in the next month or two, and I will write about both of them.
  • After I finish those tech projects I want to reflect on why I spent so much time procrastinating on these really small projects

Finally, I have a mind map built up containing a lot of thoughts I have gathered up about the current state of diversity, inclusion & belonging at tech companies today, and why none of what we’re doing is enough to address the actual concerns. I’m still on the fence about whether I want to post it, wavering between “literally the last thing we need is another cis white dude opining on the state of diversity in tech” and “I feel a mandate to share my thoughts on this specifically because cis white dudes in tech need to be stepping up”.

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Taking Inventory of 2020

oh, will this horrible year never end?

Obviously the year has sucked big time for the world, so I’m not really going to dive much into that. I entered 2020 hoping for things to look up; I was expecting to end 2019 on a high note, having just gotten engaged to the love of my life, but just days after I popped the question, I got the terrible news that my brother had passed away unexpectedly.

I don’t want to rag on the global events of 2020; it’s been done plenty by now, I’m sure, and it’s really remarkable just how many notable and globally traumatic events happened this year.

I’m not a fan of gratitude exercises as a general thing, because I mostly see them being used nowadays as a way privileged people try to come to terms with the fact that they are unfairly advantaged (not to mention these kind of threatening “you could have it much worse” undertones that you can read between the lines of expressions of gratitude).

I don’t want to dismiss the entire year as a loss, though, because there is more to it than that. But here are some highlights, both good and bad, for me personally from 2020:

  • As I was sending off my 2019 tax documents to my accountant in February, I cheekily told him it would be the last year I would be filing single. That… didn’t pan out. Still engaged, though, and currently I think there’s about a 50/50 chance that one afternoon we’re going to make an impromptu run to city hall and tie the knot.
  • I gave a talk at Empex LA, my second time speaking at the conference, and the talk was about something I’m deeply passionate about: the case against the existence of truly massive technology companies (or even just massive companies in general). After months of being mostly confined to home, it still strikes me as wild that that trip to LA happened this year.
  • After returning home from LA, I had a lovely Valentine’s Day dinner with my valentine at a great little restaurant called Mae in Portland. It was one of the last times we dined out together before the pandemic made dining out difficult.
  • We got into gardening! We weren’t amazing at it, but it was a nice thing to do outside and I was able to grow some delicious tomatoes. We also have a delicious raspberry bush, and we had some volunteer potatoes from the year prior.
  • I read a lot more this year than usual. I finished a few books that I had been meaning to finish for years.
  • I practically resurrected icanthascheezburger by actually posting to it this year!
  • I hit my year-mark at GitHub! I low-key was pretty sure that i was going to get found out as an impostor and get fired by the time I hit the year mark, but in fact they seem to like me, so I’m hoping they keep me around!
  • I joined a gym and was actually really starting to enjoy going! Then the pandemic hit so I froze my membership until the pandemic is behind us. Working remotely now, it’s actually really nice to have an excuse to leave the house on a daily basis for something that isn’t food-related.
  • Health overall was a major struggle for me in 2020. I’m thinking about it differently now than I did at the start of the year, and I experimented with a lot of new things. I actually took a sizable leave of absence from work just to focus on health by itself.
  • We had a little work done in the house that finished up just in time for lockdowns to begin!

I’m ready for 2021. I’m not really thinking much about new years’ resolutions; I’m always on the lookout for ways to make things better, and I don’t need a time of the year as a reason (though it is admittedly a great time to try out new habits if you want). I’ll be spending more of 2021 thinking about what I can do to make the world better. I’m probably going to give money to organizations that provide direct financial assistance to people who need it, because a lot of people are hurting. I will look for more independent creators to support. I would like to make a few things and share them with the world.

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I could have built a better Slack: a story about excellence

Salesforce announced this week that they’re looking to buy the work chat app Slack, and although I’m sure this will mint a lot of new millionaires and probably help Slack avoid the pressures they’ve been facing as a public company, I’m still not convinced that a golden age of great new Slack features is ahead of us.

Slack is one of those tools where either you and everyone you know uses it, or you’ve never heard of it in your life. If you do use Slack, you are likely working at a relatively modern tech company. If not, you are part of… the rest of the world.

In its early days I loved Slack. It managed to out-Hipchat Hipchat (and in fact eventually Atlassian threw in the towel and shut down Hipchat, basically letting Slack acquire it). It was whimsical, rolled out features at rapid pace, and they were incredible at taking feedback (you can literally just type /feedback I wish Slack did <this thing> from any chat window and the feedback will go straight to a Slack support person and you will get a response from a human).

But over the years, it’s become emblematic of all the things I hate about most modern software companies. But instead of one of my patented rants, my complaining will take the form of telling a story from an alternate universe where I had more money than sense and built my own Slack competitor.


The Name

I call this app Ruckus. It’s adorable and whimsical and the name is more synonymous with chat than “Slack”. I’d have to get into some sort of trademark fight with the networking equipment company baked Ruckus but it’d be worth it.

The App

Ruckus is built on Apple platforms exclusively (at least at first), and its desktop app is written as a pure native Mac app. It might seem a bit strange that the first “feature” of my hypothetical app is not really a feature at all, but just its technology stack, but being a native Mac app informs its design, both in terms of how the app looks, but more importantly, how nicely it works and what it’s capable of doing. The very best apps on my Mac are made specifically for the Mac and for the Mac only, built by people who love the Mac. There are also iPhone and iPad apps, also made by people who love each of those platforms. You can sense the love when you’re using the apps.

It works like you expect a Mac app to work. It follows all of the conventions of a Mac app. You double-click a channel in the sidebar and boom, a separate window will open with just that channel on it, because that’s how Mac apps are meant to behave. If someone sends a PDF file in a chat (or just about any file type your Mac can open), you can select it and hit the space bar to invoke Quick Look. Threads can be viewed in popover menus that can easily be dragged out into their own windows. Drag and drop works perfectly, and you can copy and paste things easily into the app and it just works (again, it’s amazing that I’m selling something this basic as a feature, but Slack doesn’t do this well, and it doesn’t do it well because it’s not a real Mac app).

When you want to share something from the app you use the system share menu because the OS put share menus in for a reason and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

The app is snappy because it’s an app, not a single-site Chrome browser pretending to be an app on your computer, and the difference is easy to see. Not only is the app just plain fast objectively, but it feels fast to do anything on it because using the app is like using any standard Mac app, and everything just fits in beautifully.

Ruckus integrates nicely with other apps on your system. It can connect with your to-do list app whether it be OmniFocus or Things, allowing tasks to contain links back to the specific channel/chat item that prompted you to add the task, giving you useful context. The app is fully scriptable and has a CLI available so that you can build workflows with other apps like Alfred or whatever else you might see the need to automate.

Being native apps for their platforms makes Ruckus’s apps truly great; they’re full of the little details that fill you with delight.

The Service

You can use Ruckus as an internal company or group chat app, and that’s cool, but Ruckus as a service works the way the internet works. Anyone can set up a Ruckus server, and you have an account on that server. Your Ruckus account basically just looks like an email address (@[email protected]) and you can communicate with any other account(s) on any other Ruckus server(s). Do you need to communicate with a handful of people at another company? No problem, you can just invite those people to the channels you care about, and you can directly DM with one another. No stupid guest accounts or single-channel guest accounts; you’re just users who can talk to one another (just like how email works). Unlike email, when you’re signed into a Ruckus server, the other users on the same server are easy to discover and communicate with.

Your Ruckus server can be configured anywhere between free-for-all and tightly locked down, so it’s suitable for a buttoned-down business that needs explicit control over who is talking in which channels, and it’s equally suitable for informal communities.

And of course, although Ruckus’s open nature makes it easy to use the same Ruckus account to participate in more than one community, you can still use Ruckus with many accounts. Maybe you have some obscure interests you prefer to keep under a more anonymous persona. Maybe you prefer to just have a separate account for each community you’re part of. It’s entirely up to you.

Privacy

Ruckus servers primarily are meant to work as relays, passing messages along to individual members in group chats, channels, and 1–1 direct messages. Group chats and 1–1 direct messages are end-to-end encrypted; only members of a conversation are able to know the contents of messages that are in it. If a group conversation later adds a member, only then does that member exchange keys with the others, so members of the groups can rest assured that the new member doesn’t get to see prior messages. Similarly, when a member leaves the group, everyone else rotates keys, ensuring that the former member of the group no longer can see messages in that room even if they want to.

Chat history is searchable, but you are only searching history that is present for your own account on your own machine (if you have more than one computer or device, this history can be synced via iCloud or similar, and that can also be encrypted so that if someone accesses your iCloud backup, they can’t see your history).

Channels can be either public or private, but their encryption and storage characteristics are a bit more relaxed so that members can always search the full history of a channel.

A handful of businesses might be a little more formal and require that even 1–1 conversations are retained in a manner accessible by the company, and Ruckus supports that. In these instances, all DMs and group chats will have a special extra member, a bot whose purpose is to record the conversation. It’s important to Ruckus that if this kind of data is recorded, we’re transparent about it.

Multimedia

Ruckus starts off as a text-based communication service because initially, we want to master that before we take on new talents. But at some point we do master it, and eventually we dive into video and audio calls, as well as screen-sharing capabilities.

In truth, while the core Ruckus team is working on mastering the core experience, there is a secret team working on real-time video and audio communication to build something that is truly rock-solid to integrate into Ruckus. And indeed, when you use Ruckus to have a video chat, there’s just something uncanny about how much better it feels to use. The interface feels faster. Things are low-latency and high quality, and even when the connection isn’t perfect Ruckus makes the best of it. Tools for screen sharing are lightweight and frictionless to use, and it’s almost nicer to conduct a remote presentation with screen sharing just because the tools are so incredibly nice.

And although things are tightly integrated, the video/audio/screen share app is its own separate thing. We don’t want Ruckus being too bloated; we want it focused on the chat part, and we want the multimedia app to focus just on that.

Platform

Ruckus doesn’t aim to be a platform just for the sake of becoming a platform behemoth, but it places heavy value on extensibility. Lots of extra features can be added to Ruckus in the form of platform applications and workflows. You can have polls, bots that help you with anything from on boarding to incident management to telling jokes, things that add custom UI to chat, to full-blown chat ops support.

The Business

Ruckus took the road less traveled by. We don’t pursue growth at all costs. We started off on Apple platforms and are staying that way for the foreseeable future, even though there are a lot of people with deep pockets that would love to see a Windows or web version of Ruckus. But even so, we don’t go for it; our hearts aren’t in it.

Ruckus has two main components: an app, and a server. Ruckus works like the open web where anyone can run a Ruckus server (and you are free to run one; Ruckus is 100% open-source), but most of our customers opt for our managed cloud version; it’s simplest that way, you get features first, and the cost is good at just a couple bucks per user per month. Businesses that want to really value privacy may choose to run their own Ruckus servers on premises, but might contract with Ruckus (the business) for support contracts.

Communities and other nonprofits can run their own Ruckus servers for just the cost of their infrastructure. Though they aren’t paying customers, they are valuable as users, not because we earn money directly from their eyeballs, but because Ruckus is a tool that people with good taste choose, and we are confident that when people get to know Ruckus from their communities, they’ll want to bring it to the workplace, where they are more likely to pay.


Alas, it’s time to come back to the reality, where work chat apps are web apps written by companies who want their chat app to be more of a platform not because it should be, but because they figure that’s a good way to achieve market dominance.

It’s really easy to look at all of these massive software companies producing inferior products and be filled with despair (I say right after filing my sixth or seventh bug report with trillion dollar company Apple about the new Messages app for Big Sur). And in some aspects the despair is apt (after all, if I want to iMessage with people I only have one choice, and that’s to use Apple’s app).

But thought exercises like Ruckus are a lot of fun and they fill me with hope and optimism, because a product like Ruckus absolutely could be built, and it could be built by a much smaller team than however many employees Slack has.

There are a handful of products in my life where I can tell that the people who made those products were obsessed with excellence in the details, even if the product is something that might not get you that excited. I want to live in a world where everything I use was made by people like that.

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What Am I Even Doing Here?

For a few years here icanthascheezburger was pretty light on new posts. From June 2015 to June 2020 I made a whopping eleven posts. I’m really happy that I got more talkative on here this year. Maybe it was the pandemic-induced quarantining leaving me with more time to think, maybe it was a subconscious desire to find some use for the $10k computer I bought in late 2019, or maybe it’s just an excuse to make my keyboards clack in my office.

But as I look at the eclectic mix of what I’m posting here and a lack of indication that I get really much of any readership (and I don’t for one second believe that the dozens of gigabytes of traffic a month Cloudflare tells me this site gets is traffic from genuine readers) I find myself asking “who am I writing for?” or even more generally, “What am I even doing on here?”

“What am I even doing here?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if I asked myself that same question back in 2015 and decided nothing I was writing was really worth sharing. It’s not that I stopped writing; if you look in my journal during this period I wrote quite a few posts. The world somehow survived without my posts. And the world wasn’t begging for me to write again this year; something just possessed me to do it, so I went for it.

I have been reflecting little bit about icanthascheezburger’s raison d’être.

I write when I feel like I have something to say, and I only post something when I like what I have written (and there are plenty of drafts that didn’t make the cut, and even a few mind maps that I didn’t feel like making into drafts). I’m not picking what to write based on analytics and page views, or even direct engagement like comments. I’m not just breathlessly writing up listicles filled with affiliate product links (though I do sometimes write about products I love and I post links to those products that are free of tracking or affiliate links). I just write when the mood strikes me. The word has ironically become a cliche due to the proliferation of influencer marketing, but when you’re reading on here you’re getting authenticity. My posts on here are some of my most deeply honest writing.

There’s no common theme to the stuff I write except for the fact that it’s about stuff that I’m into. About 85% of my posts can be generally categorized as “tech”, though there are definitely several distinct sub-genres in there. I like to think that when I post about issues like racism or social justice that I’m helping to broaden the horizons of regular readers here (if any) who are generally here for the nerdy stuff.

Part of this blog for me is an act of resistance against the direction that written articles on the web seem to be taking. As I keep seeing the world get dominated more by proprietary media distribution platforms on the web, icanthascheezburger proudly and stubbornly doesn’t change. I have it wired up to my Twitter (and Mastodon) account so new posts are announced on there, but this is an independently run site, through and through. It’s running on WordPress and it’s primarily meant to be consumed on a full-text RSS feed (though I reluctantly added an email newsletter option to get with the times). I don’t need to make a living from this site, so there are no ads. I used to have Google Analytics on here but I removed it.

But I think most importantly, I write these posts for me. I write because it feels good to create something. It feels good to have a thought I want to get out there, and refine the idea and keep chipping away at it and editing it until I think it’ll read really smoothly. I challenge myself to write something better when I know I’m eventually going to publish it out to the web for the world to see, yet conversely I can rest easy remembering that the internet is a vast place and I can be comfortable in my obscurity, knowing that I am probably not going to wake up the next morning to angry readers. I don’t put much effort into promoting icanthascheezburger, so I don’t know if my small readership is a sign that my writing is lousy, or that I don’t promote it, or that the subject matter lacks wide enough appeal. I’m okay to just keep honing the craft of writing, and even if my posts are about something very specific or obscure, that’s just yet another sign that this is the genuine article; you can rest assured I’m writing about something because I care about it, certainly not because I think that’s a thing a lot of people will find interest in.

And that’s what keeps me going. I’m not going to feel bad that my writing on here is a weird mix. Maybe you came for the Moonlander review but then you got to discover how great Alfred is. Maybe you know me AFK and I mentioned that i blog and you, the good acquaintance that you are, decided to check it out to get a further glimpse into my mind.

And that’s why in 2021, I plan to publish 100 posts to icanthascheezburger. You’ll be getting a few more posts out of me in 2020, but in 2021 I am hoping to commit to a relatively aggressive pace of about two posts a week. It should be fun, and I hope that in the end there is a body of work that I can be proud of.

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One Small Step For Apple

Craig Federighi looking wistfully at a Mac laptop in a darkened room
On Tuesday, Apple held a relatively quiet virtual event at 10am Pacific, during which they kicked off a massive transition for the Mac, the likes of which we haven’t seen since early 2006: you can now buy a Mac with an entirely new processor architecture of Apple’s design.

The History

Apple isn’t new to processor architecture transitions for the Mac. In 2005, when Steve Jobs announced at WWDC that Apple would be switching from the PowerPC archictecture to x86 chips made by Intel, the Mac was in a position of weakness. Relatively few companies made computers with PowerPC processors. Apple sourced chips from Motorola and IBM, but neither company was particularly good at making better processors for laptops, which were becoming increasingly important (long time Mac fans no doubt remember years of disappointing rumors that a G5 PowerBook could be coming as soon as “next Tuesday” only for said laptop never to surface).

When Apple switched to Intel’s Core Duo chips in 2006, it created a massive leap forward in performance and power efficiency for all of Apple’s computers. Suddenly Apple’s hardware was on equal footing with the rest of the PC market, and Apple laptops began selling like gangbusters. At my college help desk where I worked part time, Apple laptops quickly became the majority brand of laptop among incoming students (no doubt fueled by a great deal where Apple used to offer a free iPod with purchase of Mac computer in their back to school sale). Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign with John Hodgman and Justin Long helped tell consumers the story of the Mac’s selling points, like the fact that Macs can run Microsoft Office, the Mac’s reliability and ease of use, and even that if you needed to use some specific Windows app from time to time, you could install Windows on your Mac either via virtualization software or by dual booting your Mac.

Since Apple has been using the same x86 chips as everyone else all this time, Macs haven’t really fallen behind in terms of performance compared to their Windows PC counterparts, but instead, Intel has been disappointing the entire PC market. They’ve gone from having a tick-tock cycle of new processes and refinements, to having extra “tock” generations while they worked out their next-gen processes for making chips, to the point where there isn’t much advancement in CPU speeds to speak of.

Meanwhile, after acquiring PA Semi in April 2008, Apple started developing their own custom chips using ARM architecture. Their first one was the A4 that initially went into the first iPad, then the iPhone 4 later that year. Since then, Apple’s developed an astounding lead in chip development, with double-digit percentage increases in year-over-year performance every year. Their mobile chips are so good that in recent years, the latest iPhone can outperform just about every Mac in single-core performance.

Simply put: Apple has squeezed amazing performance out of tiny mobile chips that consume minimal power, and they’ve grown antsy to take that capability and apply it to the Mac.

What was announced

Apple announced a new MacBook Air, a 13" entry level MacBook Pro, and also a Mac Mini.

These computers look basically indistinguishable from their Intel-based predecessors; the differences are inside the computer, and you shouldn’t let the looks fool you: they are substantial.

It’s no surprise that they started with their consumer machines; those are the simplest to transition.

Apple’s first Mac-specific system on a chip, the M1, is very similar to the iPhone 12’s A14 SOC. It follows the iPhone’s lead of having a mixture of high-performance and energy-efficient cores (four of each). All memory is on the SOC, and it’s a single pool of memory shared between the CPUs and the GPUs, using what Apple has dubbed a “unified memory architecture”. If you’re old enough to remember when the term “integrated graphics” meant “lousy graphics,” this might sound alarming, but in modern times this gives us efficiencies. Without a discrete graphics card with its own bank of memory, there’s no need to copy data from main memory to the GPU’s memory for the GPU to manipulate or read it. In addition, Apple’s GPU cores perform quite well and very efficiently, thanks to Apple’s years of experience pushing pixels to Retina displays on tiny phones.

The SOC also offers Apple’s Neural Engine, which is optimized for machine learning workloads, which are becoming increasingly common in iOS apps, and with accelerated hardware support on the Mac, we can expect Apple to start pushing on Core ML and other developer tools that aim to make it simple to incorporate machine learning into an app. That’s really quite something; machine learning has gone from cutting edge stuff that only a few companies had access to, to becoming a commodity that even small developers can use, like my Sudoku app which uses AI to give me hints on solving puzzles. Mac app developers such as Pixelmator have taken note and are no doubt excited to have even more ML capability available to their apps.

To the layperson, all you need to know is that Apple silicon Macs are substantially faster and can offer better battery life too. Apple is advertising battery life of “up to” 18 hours for the new Air, which I suspect is nowhere close to realistic, but I would also not be surprised if someone could get close to a full 8 hour day of realistic work on one of these machines before reaching for the plug.

Oh, and the MacBook Air has managed to achieve another milestone that would make Steve Jobs proud: It contains no fans and so it will operate completely silently. The MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is air-cooled, which makes sense, as pro users are expected to demand sustained high performance, which generates some heat.

What about the Pro machines?

These machines are very much consumer grade. Notably, none of them offer more than 16 gigabytes of memory, and they appear to be limited to 2 terabytes of SSD storage. Those are regressions from the Intel computers they replace (the Intel 13" MacBook Pro supports up to 32 gigs of memory, and the Intel Mac Mini allowed for up to 64 gigs). That memory limitation makes machines like these a nonstarter for a pro user like myself. In fact, if you bought one of each of the new Apple Silicon Macs, the machines combined would have less memory than my Mac Pro (also you’d spend a few grand less 😩).

These current memory and SSD limits are probably just limits of these early SOCs, and Apple is no doubt working on some higher end ones that put even the highest-end Intel machines to shame.

But overall, it looks like Apple’s making its lower end Macs in a very similar way to how it’s making its iPhones: by packing almost everything onto a single SOC.

But what is Apple going to do on pro machines? Just last year Apple finally answered high-end pro users’ prayers by releasing the Mac Pro, a highly modular and expandable system that embodies none of these principles. Just about everything on the Mac Pro is modular and expandable, and Apple is forward thinking enough that they knew Apple Silicon Macs were coming when they designed this Mac Pro. I see a few distinct possibilities:

  • The Mac Pro remains almost totally modular. There will be an Apple-designed M processor that serves as CPU and will also have things like I/O, the Secure Enclave, and the Neural Engine, but memory and GPU will be on slots external to the SOC. The SOC might retain some integrated high-speed memory also used as L2 or L3 cache. I can also imagine a scenario where the SOC ships with onboard memory but there are slots for people who want more (Apple laptops were often configured like this)
  • the Mac Pro will contain an M SOC, and this SOC will also include a decent integrated GPU for users who are fine with a base configured GPU. This GPU would share memory with the CPU, and the RAM is all on slots so if you install 1.5 TB of RAM, your built in GPUs can use all of that. You can retain the option to install discrete graphics cards into MPX modules and they would have their own memory
  • The Mac Pro has discrete graphics cards you install would actually not have memory of their own; everything would use a unified memory architecture. In this scenario Apple probably would be making its own video cards. This might even require faster communication speeds between the MPX module with the video chip and the bank of memory on the machine.

Another thing I wonder: if Apple is indeed going to have consumer systems with totally integrated SOCs and pro systems that offer modularity, will that modularity be exclusive to the Mac Pro? Or will it go into other systems too? I’m pretty certain even the pro laptops will have everything on the SOC, but will we see a new generation of iMacs and iMacs Pro with expandable RAM or even room for an upgrade card or two?

Seeing Apple put this level of attention into the Mac really excites me. As resistant as I am to identify myself by the products I use, being a Mac user is admittedly core to my nerd identity.

In the early 2010s, when the iPhone was exploding in growth and Intel wasn’t putting out many new processors, Apple let the Mac languish a bit. But as iPhone has matured, and its growth has slowed, Apple has been able to put renewed focus on the Mac, and in the process they are reminding us that they, too, are die-hard Mac users just like we are, and as they build the Macs of tomorrow, they are making the Macs of their dreams. And now, with Apple’s industry-leading penchant for making fast and efficient chips, we’re fast approaching a world where if you want the fastest computer possible, it’s going to be a Mac and only a Mac.

I’ve never been more excited for the Mac’s future.

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Walk the Planck

If you know me you know my collection of clicky keyboards has been steadily growing since I bought my first one in April of 2012 (a Das Keyboard, if you were wondering). In recent years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for a specific subgenre of keyboards: keyboards that are 40–50% the keys of a full-sized keyboard that are ortholinear. One of the most popular of these keyboards is the Planck, an absolutely adorable little grid keyboard with a 4×12 arrangement of keys.

When I’m recommending a mechanical keyboard for a friend who is relatively new to the game, I don’t want to throw someone into the deep end with a keyboard that also comes with such a dramatic learning curve; typically I aim to provide a soft landing in the mechanical keyboard world with a pretty standard looking full-size or tenkeyless keyboard that is laid out pretty much like a keyboard your computer might come with. That way, I give them a fair shake at getting to love the much better feel of the mechanical key switches without a ton of frustration at having to re-learn how to type.

But lately I’ve been inclined to push people more toward something like the Planck as their first clicky keyboard.

Just look at it:

planck

It’s cute! It’s just 47 or 48 keys (depending on whether you opt for a double-wide spacebar). That’s super approachable, especially compared to something like the Ergodox, which is full of these clusters of keys of different sizes:

source: ergodox EZ

When you first lay your hands on a Planck you’re going to quickly feel like you have a grip on the keyboard; in the top three rows every single key is can be reached by moving a finger no more than one position from home row. And instead of being overwhelmed, you’re actually likely to be asking “Hey, where are all the keys? Don’t I need more?”

And you don’t! The Planck’s clever firmware makes fantastic use of limited keys by making each key do more. Modifier keys like Shift and CTRL can be dual-purpose; for instance, when I tap my CTRL key quickly, it’s treated as an Escape key, but when I hold it, it’s a Ctrl key.

And, of course, there are the layers. So, while you’ll notice there is now row of number keys, they’re actually right there, in the top row, on a different layer. You hold the key to the right of the spacebar to access this layer:

Layout of planck layer

When you factor in how easy it is to reach each key, you’ll find it actually feels quicker pressing 2 keys to press a number than it would have felt to reach up 2 rows to get to that number row. And because the keys are in a perfect grid, your fingers will love how easy and unambiguous it is which key is which! How often do you hesitate for a split second while you try to guess by feel whether you’re hitting the 2 or the 3 key in a staggered layout? With a grid, it’s never in question!

Your Planck will typically come pre-configured with a standard layout that works quite nicely, but you aren’t forced to live with that. The Planck is a fully programmable keyboard. That means its layout can be changed at the firmware level (which also means you don’t need to install special software or hacks on your computer to customize your keyboard’s layout, and you can plug your keyboard into any computer and it works just as you expect). This is my base layer’s layout (I’m a sucker for arrow keys in an inverted-T layout):

My Planck's base layer layout

The Learning Curve

My first keyboard in this category was a Preonic, which is like a Planck but with an extra row of number keys on top. I thought the extra row would make for a smoother transition, but eventually I realized the layers were plenty powerful and the extra row was an unnecessary crutch, and I rarely am using my Preonic anymore.

As a programmer, I’ve found that if I try to dive face first into a new type of keyboard at work, I will get frustrated really quickly. Instead, I spend time becoming proficient in more conversational typing first. I’ll type text conversations with people on it, or write up some blog posts with mostly prose and not a ton of special characters. Then, when I become proficient, I’ll try to gradually introduce more typing that involves the other characters.

If you choose a Planck EZ, they offer a graphical online layout configurator that also has a training mode, allowing you to see your layout in real time as you are holding different layer keys. I haven’t tried this yet myself (it was added after I was already pretty good with the keyboard) but I really like the idea of this.

And speaking of layout configuration, as you are learning the keyboard’s layout, I encourage you to make layout changes early and often! If you keep mistaking one key for a different one, why not just change the layout so that it matches your expectations? Are you finding that you keep hitting the Enter key in inopportune situations? Move it somewhere else or put it behind a layer to avoid accidentally sending a message prematurely!

Customizing

If you haven’t already gotten the hint, Plancks love being customized! After all, the whole keyboard design is open-source from the start, so it was made to be tinkered with; it’s not a black box you’re expected to enjoy as-is. Two popular Planck versions (Drop.com’s and the Planck EZ) have circuit boards where you don’t have to solder the key switches on, meaning you can try out different kinds of key switches to your heart’s content.

Since it’s such a small keyboard, you only have to buy 48 switches to have a full keyboard’s worth, making it cheap to try new kinds out! For the same reason, Plancks also make a great kit (the drop.com version is a kit, for instance). Even if you buy a version that needs soldering, soldering a Planck together is not nearly the undertaking that a full-sized keyboard is).

And, of course, you get to enter the world of customizable key caps! Most custom keycap sets offer a variant to make them compatible with the Planck (look for the “ortho” key set). For the most part it’s not too hard to just take some existing key caps from an existing keyboard and put them on your Planck, but for the bottom row you’ll have to get a little creative since most standard keyboards’ bottom rows don’t have 11–12 single width key caps.

A keyboard that is truly yours

Philosophically the Planck warms my heart. The Planck is a community-designed keyboard, and it is open to its core. When you buy one, you aren’t buying from a big, faceless corporation; you are buying from a cottage industry of small keyboard makers. Hell, you don’t even have to buy one from someone else if you don’t want to; you could build one yourself by hand and hand wire it if you wanted.

The keyboard will give you years of service, but it’s also a simple enough product that it is highly repairable. If an individual key switch stops working, you can replace just that switch. If a component on the circuit board fails, you could replace just that, or have a friend with some know-how replace it. It’s a refreshing departure from so many of today’s electronics.

And most importantly, you aren’t stuck choosing an inferior product just to get something built with these values; the Planck is objectively a better keyboard because of its openness, not in spite of it.

A keyboard for all

The Planck’s birth may have been among some passionate keyboard enthusiasts, but I firmly believe that it’s a keyboard suitable for the mass market. As friendly as the keyboard is to being customized and endlessly tinkered with, it’ll serve you just as well if you set it up just the way you like it and never change anything again.

The keyboard is a very intimate part of the computer. It is the most tactile part of it, and it’s the part of the computer you use when you want to precisely express your thoughts. It’s a peripheral that’s essential to people who work at a computer for a living, and if you’re like most computer users you’re just using the one that came with your computer without giving it a second thought. Believe me, it’s worth exploring better options, and a great keyboard is a solid quality of life improvement!

Reflections on the election this week

This has been a deeply stressful and mentally draining week in the icanthascheezburger household. For us, an election like this is consequential. Being queer we had the great fortune of witnessing a vast expansion of our recognition of equal rights, but these are precarious and are already getting whittled away. In a sense, these elections are a referendum about how the country feels about us existing.

While I woke up to hearing that AP finally called a Biden victory, that was indeed a great relief, but I still don’t feel genuine joy over it. Joe Biden was able to mobilize a record number of votes for him, true, and we overcame blatant attempts at voter suppression, and yet Trump also made massive gains in voters this year. Voters have seen the direct result of Trump’s unique blend of incompetence, corruption, and a team of deeply evil people, and many decided “yep, I’d like four more years of that.”

Let me be clear here. This is a president who is a pathological liar (and that list only goes up to June 2019). He made fun of Obama for frequently golfing, but plays more golf in office than any other president, and he does it at the taxpayers’ expense. His campaign had a cozy relationship with foreign governments looking to interfere with the election, and he was impeached over it, but his party (the party that was deeply concerned with President Clinton merely lying about a sexual encounter with a woman in the ’90s and impeached him over it). With Mitch McConnell’s help he has filled the courts with extremist and inexperienced judges, aided by McConnell blocking Obama from hundreds of judge appointments and leaving vacancies.

And perhaps our biggest moral failing as a country (in recent history, at least): Trump signed off on a plan masterminded by Stephen Miller to separate immigrant families at the border (families who, by the way, are often legally entering the country to seek asylum), as a means of deterring them from coming here. There are hundreds of children right now that are to this day separated from their parents.

And if you forgive all of those things, Trump completely dropped the ball when it came to COVID. When he privately knew it was serious, he dismissed it in public as a hoax. Instead of taking a lead, he left it up to the states. He consistently took action way too late on everything and continuously kept making the wrong calls. He even caught COVID himself, and now as the US is leading the world in COVID cases and deaths (by far), he wants to let the virus run rampant so that we can build “herd immunity”.

Even if, for some reason, you forgive all of that, Trump, with help from the Republican party that did nothing to stop him, decided to launch a full-scale attack on the voting process itself this summer. He loves hinting that if he loses the loss is not legitimate, but his win would be legitimate (hell, he was saying that back in 2016 and that should have stopped us from electing him in the first place). But he ramped up his attacks even more. Seeing that voting by mail would grow, his appointee to run USPS (a man with no experience with USPS, but who is, in fact, someone who owns stock in other shipping companies so he’s incentivized for USPS to lose) engaged in a blatant campaign to sabotage USPS during a pandemic, deliberately slowing down mail service and destroying essential sorting equipment. Trump spent the weeks leading up to Election Day saying he was going to use the courts to try to stop the counting on votes on Election night with the assumption he’d be ahead on Election night but once everything got counted, it’d be a Biden win.

This should have been a landslide. And now that votes are counted it’s clear this is a decisive popular and electoral vote victory, it shouldn’t have even been close.

But it was very close in important states for the electoral college victory, and that’s the America that people have to wake up to every morning. Queer and Latino people in Iowa wake up each morning surrounded by people who vote for people who don’t acknowledge their right to exist. The guy with the American flag decal on the back of his pickup truck with MAGA bumper stickers is driving around proudly, saying he’s for America but apparently not particularly interested in fundamental American values like, say, democracy.

Polling data this year was again skewed far more heavily toward Democrats than the actual electoral data showed. In 2016 we can chalk this up to a statistical anomaly or some modeling issues, but when it happens two elections in a row, we have to start asking tough questions to the people we rely on for polling data.

Democrats will be controlling the White House and the House, but it looks like a long shot that the Senate will have Democratic control (runoffs in GA will determine this). Having seen Mitch McConnell’s history of blatant obstructionism and cynical opportunism, there is no reason to think he won’t take every advantage of this possible, possibly preventing Biden from being able to enact any of his legislative agenda (or possibly get his appointees filled).

And of course, we are left with a Supreme Court that is heavily conservative now. Neil Gorsuch should not have Scalia’s old seat, but in 2016 McConnell refused to hold a vote to confirm Merrick Garland, citing that it was an election year. This year, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in an election year, McConnell invented some bullshit excuse as to why it was essential to hold a vote to confirm a replacement even though he said the opposite four years ago, and now the court is heavily skewed with extremely conservative justices. And I don’t entirely blame Trump for that; there are three other conservative justices on that court that other presidents elected, but without a majority in Congress we have no chance to restore balance. Republicans have been exploiting the letter of the law to maintain a lot of power in government despite not having had the support of the majority in the US since 2004. That’s a serious problem and it’s very difficult to fix.

And finally, although I’m relieved to not have to constantly worry about what stupid thing Trump will do or say next, and while I’m sure Biden will do a fine job as president, I am deeply skeptical of him and the Democratic party establishment.

It was progressives and the mobilization efforts of people of color that won Biden this election, and Biden has spent the last several days emphasizing what a good president he is going to be to the Republicans and how we need to be united. But this isn’t rooted in reality. Republicans aggressively united around Trump; the handful of news articles you read about Republicans who chose Biden are a statistical footnote; 93% of Republicans picked Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, I’m worried that communities that did the legwork to get Biden elected are going to be cast to the side now that he’s in office, and the policies and reforms they demand will get little more than lip service as Democrats keep focusing on centrist politics.

So yeah, as I wake up this morning, I will say it’s a victory. Incumbent presidents tend to get re-elected, and we overcame that. Trump got more votes than in 2016 and we overcame that too. The electoral college gives Republicans an advantage and we overcame that too. Trump made petty attempts to destroy valuable services like USPS and abused the courts this week with baseless legal claims to try to stop counts in places where he was ahead, and to keep counting in places where he was losing, and we overcame that.

But I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Trump is not the problem. It’s easy to put everything on him because he’s so crass, but alone, he’s just one random (maybe) rich asshole. He was as destructive as he was because he had a team of people that helped him. He has the backing of an entire political party, not just the elites, but its voters as well. And Trump will be gone from the White House soon, and he’ll be dead probably in a few years here, but all those people that enabled him and were enthusiastic toward him will still be around.

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The iPhone 12 belongs to the ages

The last phone I reviewed on here was the iPhone 5 back in 2012. I generally get a new phone each year, but I suppose I’m not religious about posting stuff on here.

Looking back at that review, I remarked primarily on two things: speed, and the transition from the 30-pin connector to Lightning. While it might have seemed silly at the time to spend 928 words on a port transition, Lightning has nonetheless been on every phone since and continues to ship on phones to this day (though there are rumors that its days are numbered). I guess it was time well spent!

I don’t plan to be reviewing every iPhone, but I do think it’s worth taking time to write up thoughts on the iPhones that are particularly distinctive. If I had been patient and bought the iPhone X in 2017 it probably would also have earned a review; it was Apple’s first major rethinking of what the front of the iPhone should look like and it will likely be used for even longer than the original vision that incorporated a home screen button.

The iPhone 12, overall, strikes me as a phone that is teeing Apple up for a new years-long era of design (and 5G).

The Phone

I bought a blue one with 256 gigs of space, on the Verizon network. One note: the blue is not nearly as bright as the marketing pictures would have you think; they’re photographing these in insanely well-lit environments.

Industrial Design

When you pick up the iPhone 12 in your hand, something strikes you about its fit and finish. It’s difficult to rank things on a scale of niceness, but I would have to guess that my iPhone is quite possibly the nicest thing I own. It’s not the most expensive thing I own (that is a recognition my house enjoys), but perhaps with the exception of my Mac Pro, the iPhone 12 is my nicest possession. When you hold it in your hands, it has just a perfect amount of heft to it so that you know it’s substantial. It was built to incredibly tight tolerances. It has just a few buttons, but they each feel a nice satisfying and firm “click” when you press them. It feels like a device that belongs to the ages.

Apple’s industrial design for phones has a few distinct eras:

  • The first three phones, during which Apple was still figuring out how to actually make mass market phones. The very first design was only used for a generation, followed by 2 generations of phones with this rounded plastic shell that was really kind of inelegant
  • The iPhones 4 through 5s (and original SE), which fell into line with the rest of Apple’s hardware design language, primarily incorporating glass and aluminum, and going to flat sides and back
  • The iPhones 6 through 11, when Apple started experimenting with more phone sizes. They made the sides rounded, possibly to make them feel slimmer or easier to hold the larger sized devices. Aluminum remains the primary metal, while going to stainless steel for the more high-end devices

And with the iPhone 12, we enter a fourth era, which looks a lot like a refined version of that second era. We’re returning to flat sides, and the chamfers of the iPhone 5 are instead gently rounded as the sides transition to the front and back. Apple has settled on using glass on the front and back, a trend they moved away from briefly in the third era in an attempt to reduce the amount of material that could shatter, but Apple’s gotten wiser about their glass and shattering is less of a concern that it used to be.

And that to me is really what the iPhone 12 feels like. When Apple released the iPhone 4 there was this sense that the iPhone 4’s overall look and external design was the Platonic ideal of what an iPhone should be. It was flawed (the glass front and back were prone to shattering a ton) and there was demand for phones to start getting bigger. Apple inched in that direction with the iPhone 5 (which also removed the glass back) but when it became clear that Samsung was eating Apple’s lunch with their gargantuan phones, Apple radically changed the industrial design of the iPhone to make bigger phones. And finally, after years of iterating on that general look (and possibly lingering on it a couple years longer than they should have), it feels like Apple is coming home again to a design that is quintessentially classic iPhone, but scales all the way from a mini-sized phone to their biggest phone yet.

Display

The displays in this year’s standard iPhone model got nicer. They’re all OLED (last year, only the Pro models had this distinction), and on the 12, pixel density has been increased. The display looks beautiful.

5G

Another first of this phone that mirrors the iPhone model I last reviewed on here: it is the first to offer 5G support.

Despite rumors to the contrary, every (US-based, at least) iPhone has support for both sub–6GHz and mmWave 5G.

mmWave 5G is insanely fast (like, 2 gigabits per second speeds fast), but it uses very high frequencies to get these speeds, and it thus has very poor range (a closed door might cut off a 5G signal). For cities to be blanketed in mmWave 5G would require enormous investments on their part, buying an order of magnitude more equipment to get the same levels of coverage that would probably only work outdoors. mmWave 5G has its place and could be handy in dense areas like stadiums or crowded urban centers where there are lots of people using up bandwidth, but we’re far more likely to be using sub–6GHz 5G for most part in the near future.

Sub–6GHz 5G is an incremental improvement over LTE. I’ve struggled to actually hear any wireless providers provide actual speed numbers you might be able to expect, and early reviewers say that’s mostly because this 5G is often performing worse than LTE in the same location.

It’s also noteworthy that when LTE was first deployed, not that many people had LTE phones, and if you were one of the few to have one, you’d get incredible speeds of up to 100Mbps, and now that networks are saturated, real-world performance is more like 20–30 Mbps on a good day, and because sub–6GHz 5G is mostly piggybacking off of existing LTE signals to provide slight improvements, while 5G might be faster than LTE today, the speeds you’ll see on it are actually slower than when LTE was new to the scene.

And in reality, this sounds kind of dreary, but it’s not that bad. The speeds we get are really just fine, and although I can no longer get really great numbers running speed tests on my phone, as long as I have a decent signal I can generally do what I need to do. If anything, I think that it’d be nice for wireless providers to look to improve 4G and 5G signals in their existing footprint, and only really worry about mmWave in the most densely packed of areas.

MagSafe

As Apple is wont to do with their trademarks, they have resurrected the MagSafe brand, this time equipping iPhones with a magnetic back (prior art: they repurposed the iBook brand name with their e-book store).

This time, instead of being a clever little laptop connector that won’t send your expensive computer sailing into the air when you trip over the cord, MagSafe refers to an array of magnets embedded in the back of new iPhones, which you can use to connect magnetic charging pucks or other accessories like cases, Popsockets, or even wallets.

Apple loves tactical deployment of magnets in their devices, and this is a great use case. Qi chargers are great, but you have to have them positioned just so for your phone to charge, and it’s really easy for the phone to get jostled out of alignment, causing you to wake up with a dead phone.

I haven’t purchased any MagSafe accessories yet; I’m holding out for the perfect nightstand accessory, but I am excited about this concept and I look forward to seeing what kinds of MagSafe accessories come of this.

Environment

This year, Apple’s taken the opportunity to ship fewer things in the box with their devices. This year, the iPhone no longer ships with earpods or a wall charger, and the USB-A to Lightning cable has been replaced with a USB-C to Lightning cable.

The rationale is that most people already have a wall charger, and the amount of material that goes into putting one in every box is substantial. Also, by removing these standard accessories, the iPhone box shrinks and more iPhones can be packed onto airplanes to ship.

That’s all well and good, but the message got muddled by the switch from USB-A to USB-C for the included cable. It’s been awkward that Apple had been for years still shipping iPhones with a USB-A cable, given that none of Apple’s laptops even have a USB-A port, and rumor for years was that Apple was going to start shipping iPhones with a USB-C charger. And while premium models last year did get a USB-C charger, Apple decided to do away with chargers entirely, but people whose old cable was worn out found themselves either needing to buy a new cable too, or needing to buy a new USB-C charger.

The pro-environment message was further muddled by the fact that iPhones this year have an entirely new charging system available in MagSafe, which will surely tempt some people to buy new MagSafe charging accessories.

I suspect that overall this change results in a net savings of materials; I don’t think 100% of iPhone 12 buyers are also buying a USB-C charger or a MagSafe puck; a solid majority are probably going to stick with the charging equipment they have. And I’m sure the percentage of iPhone owners who will be buying some Lightning EarPods with their iPhone 12 is vanishingly small. But of course, Apple mostly comes out of this looking like they’re less altruistic about the environment, and more like they’re nickel and diming. Also worth keeping in mind: this change surely added a much needed reduction to the iPhone’s bill of materials, which increased quite a bit because of the now-standard OLED screen.

Should you buy it?

I didn’t write up a review of this phone in the typical sense of reviewing a phone, where I am trying to give you a recommendation as to whether you should buy it. Apple is solid at pushing out year over year updates; they aren’t likely to be pushing out a dud.

My buying advice: If you are in the market for a new phone, and you have the budget, buy one of the iPhones 12, and pick based on size, or opt for one of the pro models if you are serious about phone photography. If you are more price sensitive, it’s still a fantastic time to buy the new iPhone SE; it contains the very capable A13 chip and sells for half the cost of a 12; it’s an incredible value (and if you’re wearing a face mask, the SE has an advantage over the new phones in that it still has Touch ID).

If you update phones infrequently, this is a good year to make an upgrade. If you are still using an iPhone with a home button and you aren’t ready to make the switch, buy the SE instead; it just came out this year, it rocks a respectable A13 processor and decent camera, and it’s about half the price of an iPhone 12.

Parting thoughts

One of the things that I find most impressive about the iPhone as a piece of hardware is that not only is the iPhone an exquisite piece of kit, these are a truly mass market product.

This is a delicate dance Apple plays when designing its phones. This is the first year Apple switched to OLED screens for all of its phones. Until this year Apple was putting OLEDs in only the more expensive phones because even if they wanted the screens across the lineup, the manufacturing capacity to produce OLED screens that met Apple’s standards for color matching simply didn’t exist.

Apple is quite pragmatic in its industrial design choices; they don’t put out a phone with entirely new external look every year; they repurpose existing tooling to make phones of similar design and size, and they keep around tooling from older models to make budget models like the SE. Even when the iPhone X was released Apple didn’t change too many aspects of it; it still retains the overall shape and rounded edges of its predecessors.

Apple executes incredibly well at a lot of things, and lately there are a lot of things they struggle with. But the iPhone as a physical product stands out to me above all of Apple’s other products. Every year, almost like clockwork (and a little late this year because of COVID), Apple mass produces a new phone that manages to make impressive year-over-year speed and camera improvements over its predecessor, and without fail, the phones manage to be consistently high in physical quality. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; it is of course Apple’s largest source of revenue by a long shot, but the sheer consistency and reliability is something to marvel at.