The Car-Based Truck

A few weeks ago, Steve Troughton-Smith and Guilherme Rambo found a software update that contained the code for Apple’s upcoming iMac Pro. Confirming some earlier rumors, it appears that the iMac will have both an Intel processor, as previously announced, and an A10 — the Apple-designed processor powering the iPhone 7. Inevitably, someone will soon bring up the famous quote from Steve Jobs about how traditional desktop computing is a truck, and iOS devices are the cars that everyone will use from now on. In this case, it seems even more appropriate than most. 

In 1979, AMC introduced the Eagle. It was ungainly, slow, and ugly — yet was a popular car for most of its eight-year production run. Essentially, it was a compact car with four wheel drive and a 3” lift — ordinarily not enough to cover up the underlying flaws inevitable in a car built cheaply by a dying company. But the Eagle itself started a revolution in transportation — it was the first car-based truck.

I can guarantee nobody ever used their Eagle like this

I can guarantee nobody ever used their Eagle like this

Until the Eagle’s introduction, the only way to get a family car that could also handle heavy snows, dirt tracks, and withstand the rigors of even moderate abuse was a heavy, slow, noisy, and crude truck-based ‘wagon.’ Suddenly, it was possible to take your family car to the grocery store, and make it home even when the weather had turned completely sour. This was a revelation at a time when trucks (and their family-wagon derivatives) had barely advanced in the previous thirty years — one of the headlining features of the 1973 Chevrolet Suburban was a fourth door. By taking advantage of the advances that had happened in the car sector, the Eagle provided creature comforts with an acceptable compromise to its off-road abilities. 

A few years later, Jeep (then a sister brand to AMC) introduced the XJ Cherokee which — rather than being based on a previous car body — was purpose-built as a car-truck hybrid. It was built for over 30 years, selling more than 2.1 million units, and created an entire segment of the automotive market that hadn’t existed. Today, a plurality of vehicles sold are crossovers, the name that was coined to represent these blends of heavy-duty and approachable transportation. 

The iMac Pro, operating under this somewhat-tortured analogy, is the AMC Eagle. It’s the first Mac to be car-first, run by the A-series processor which then boots the legacy Intel hardware. For now, it will (like the Eagle) only provide a few benefits to security. Eventually, this will become the way all mainstream computers are built, providing the power of a truck with the ease of use and simplicity of maintenance of a car.  

This iMac, along the Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro, may not be a lasting design. Like the Eagle, they might turn out to be a mere hint of the future; with time, they’ll fade into history as the awkward predecessors of a new kind of computer. Like the automotive industry, the line between light-duty, everyday tools and powerful special-purpose machines will begin to blur. Today, you can buy an eighty-thousand-dollar Ford SuperDuty pickup truck with more features than the most luxurious cars from the’90s. Similarly, desktop computing will begin to take on some of the characteristics of mobile devices until it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.

We Asked For This

Each September, Apple releases a new version of iOS to a chorus of cheers from the average user, and a series of frustrated blog posts by the more technically-inclined. Every crash, sync failure, or edge case is held aloft as evidence of Apple's slow decline into irrelevancy. Jokes reference Marco Arment's (since-retracted) post on the increase in weird bugs in Apple's software. Screenshots abound of weird behavior. Sarcastic tweets are retweeted, quote tweeted, debated, and debunked. Flame wars spread across the internet, as people either argue that Apple and its products are in a decline akin to the Roman Empire after the sack of Rome or vehemently deny there's a problem like Neville Chamberlain in 1938.

Those who argue that there are far more shipped bugs in Apple's (or anyone else's) software aren't wrong. It's an inevitable result of the tremendous increases in what is possible on iOS over the past decade. 10 years ago, iPhone OS 1.1 had just arrived, bringing with it the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. Today, we're awaiting the launch of iOS 10.1, which will let the iPhone use a 3D map of the world to simulate the effect of a much bigger lens. With increased software complexity comes an increased potential for bugs, and makes each user's experience more unique. With no two people using their phone in exactly the same way, Apple's now building an OS for one billion different edge cases. It's inevitable that each one of that billion users will hit some untested, undocumented behavior that just doesn't work right.

It's not Apple's fault that iOS has gotten this elaborate, it's that we wanted it to be. From the very early days, we — the tech-y users, the developers, the fanboys — wanted more. Even features like copy and paste were added at the behest of users, leading slowly, inexorably to the intricacy found in iOS 10. Add to this the pressure caused by the millions of non-tech-obsessed folks who use iOS devices as their only computer, and it's a recipe not for disaster, but for imperfection. This isn't necessarily a problem, even, as iOS has become a full-fledged computing platform in its own right, with all the great and terrible things that label implies. So remember, the next time some widget acts wonky, or a notification behaves oddly — we asked for this.

The Apocalypse Came Last Week

And nobody noticed.

In OS X Lion, Apple introduced Gatekeeper, which prevented unsigned code from running on a Mac without explicit user approval. During the period between announcement and release, the typical barrage of thought-pieces and angry Tweets were published — most tended towards a cautious optimism that Apple had left users and developers enough headroom. Users could bypass all of the protections with a single click, while Developers could still choose to distribute software, signed or not, through whatever channel they chose.

A section of the 'Security & Privacy' settings on macOS Sierra

Last week, Apple quietly tightened up the default security settings. Previously, anybody could set their Mac to allow any software to run, regardless of how 'trusted' it was by Gatekeeper. With macOS Sierra's release later this year, the option to allow all software will disappear. The previously-worrisome 'locking down' of the Mac arrived — but in the years since 2012, Gatekeeper  has fallen out of view. The increasing availability of Developer ID signing certificates has made the gatekeepgate (catchy, I know) a moot point.