Brilliant Hardware in the Valley of the Software Slump

Brilliant Hardware in the Valley of the Software Slump

Something strange is happening in the world of software: It’s slowly getting worse. Not all software, but a lot of it. It’s becoming more sluggish, less responsive, and subtly less reliable than it was a few years ago. In some ways this is hyperbole. Objectively, we’ve never been able to do so much, so easily with our smartphones and laptops and tablets. We’ve never pushed more data between more places more readily. But while the insidious “worseness” I mention falls only in part on the engineering side of things, it falls harder on the more subjective, craft side of things, making it all the more worrisome. Why should we care about this? Because the majority of our waking hours take place within the confines of applications. A truth recently amplified by the COVID pandemic. And I believe software used by millions (if not billions) has a moral duty to elevate the emotional and intellectual qualities of its users. That elevation begins with craft. In the same way that physical architecture can affect a mind, so too can software. Slower, less reliable software is like Penn Station: Sure, you can catch a transfer from one train to another but the dreary lowness of the place, the lack of sunlight or sensible wayfinding will make you feel like a rat, truculent and worthless, and worse: You’ll acclimate to that feeling and accept it as a norm.1 This sense of a decline in software craft has been building for years, but it wasn’t until Apple released the iPad Magic Keyboard that I felt the pain of this hardware-software gap so acutely. So let’s start with that pairing: A superb keyboard coupled to budding but still-faulty software and work our way out to broader lands. A Typing Ballet Make no bones about it, an iPad Pro is an enchanting object. It’s a slab too thin and light to be so powerful with so much battery life. And the iPad Magic Keyboard highlights this brilliantly. By floating the device on a bed of magnets and plush felt, and inviting you to pull the iPad off its stand as needed, the Magic Keyboard somehow enables and rewards both stand-alone and paired use of the device. Overall: An engineering marvel. The clickty-clack keyboard element of the Magic Keyboard is also great. I’m using it with an 11″ 2018 iPad Pro and though it can feel a bit cramped, the mechanics are satisfying, the sound quietly pleasing, and the key travel excellent all considering. The latest MacBook Pro keyboards (2020) are a degree nicer, (in fact: possibly the nicest keyboard to ever grace a laptop) but not by much. The Magic Keyboard is a bit heavy, and a bit weird to open, but aside from those niggles the quite wonderish accessory has but one glaring problem (and it’s the same problem we’ve been hemming and hawing over for years now, the same problem brought up every few months as if it were news): The software. Fluency Sometimes, if I’m in Reader Mode in Safari and three-finger-touchpad-swipe to switch apps for a second and come back, the viewport has jumped to the top of the document. If I’m typing a tweet in Twitter’s app and hop back and forth between apps the cursor is gone, poof, lost until I tap again in the tweetbox. Not every time, but often. Which is worse than every time. It’s exasperating and speaks to low-level, foundational issues of iPadOS,  » Read More

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