Apple’s Little Monster

I used to post about techno-gear fairly frequently, but I’ve tailed off, largely because since I began to work at Apple it would be easy to accuse me of homerism.

Today, as I was preparing to leave work, I got a message from the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas, asking for a friend about the Mac Studio Cube. That was how I learned about the new hardware my company announced today. Maybe I should have watched that presentation. At any rate, do not waste your time coming to me for any inside information.

The word “cube” immediately conjured images of the original Mac Cube, one of which sits, in its metal-wrapped-in-polycarbonate elegance on a shelf in the Muddled HQ compound.

The new Cube not as pretty, even if it is more recycled (100% of rare earth metals are recycled), but that’s not what got my attention. This little computer is a fuckin’ beast.

Not that long ago, Apple bailed on Intel and started making their own chips. The first generation of the M1 processor was a ground-breaker. Fast and incredibly power-efficient. The reason turns out to be pretty simple: a lot of power and speed is lost to the places the disparate chips in your computer talk to each other. The answer: put everything on one chip. Processor cores, memory, GPU, I/O, and all the rest. The result is much faster computers that use a lot less power.

Apple has rapidly expanded the line of processors—literally. The name “M1 Max” is not just an empty marketing name, the chip is literally the biggest single chip that can be made in quantity with current technology. To extend this idea any further, you either have to improve the silicon die technology to make bigger chips (which obviously everyone is doing), or you have to incur the cost of having separate chips talking to each other.

But what if you built your chip so that you should just sorta… glue it to another one? Today we heard about the M1 Ultra, a gigantic chip that is literally two times maximum. And the connection between the chips is so efficient that the scaling is almost linear.

It has been a long time since I followed the chip-fabrication press; back around 1986 they were still talking about optical computing (using lasers for logic gates to get to extremely high clock rates), and gallium arsenide was still the next big thing. Remember gallium arsenide? Of course you don’t. It was not the next big thing.

Which means while I have an interest in this stuff, I have no idea whatsoever whether anyone at Intel or AMD did a spit-take when Apple announced the M1 Ultra today. Probably not, unless it was the speed at which Apple brought the idea to market.

I wonder, honestly, if Intel is even able to compete here. System-on-a-Chip (SoC) constrains versatility; if your chip has to work in many places, it can’t optimize for any.

But I raise my glass tonight to the silicon people at Apple. They are punching the rest of the industry in the face right now. Maybe I’m a homer, but what they have done speaks for itself.


Apple Special Event

Apparently there is a special event of some sort here in Cupertino on September 12. A big announcement. I work at Apple but let me tell you now — I have no idea whatsoever what the event is all about. If I cared enough, I suppose I could look back through history and see when iPhone announcements have been made in the past. But honestly I don’t care enough to check. I’ll find out the same way y’all will.

Do the bookies in Las Vegas do an over/under for use of the word “incredible” in an Apple show? They should. There’s a lot of incredible shit going down. And if it is an iPhone announcement, you know that it will be Apple’s “best iPhone ever.” WELL I SHOULD HOPE SO.

What I will be watching for is a look at the new subterranean theater. Like the rest of the new Apple campus, it was built with a “fuck the shareholders, let’s make it… um… incredible” ethic. As a shareholder, I’m on board. I like that the new facility cost bazillions of dollars extra because everything had to be just exactly right. It is an expression of what we aspire to as a company. Getting it exactly right. We don’t always succeed, but

To be honest, I also like that I will not be a guinea pig in the new building while they find out if all those computer simulations of natural air flow through the main building actually reflect reality. They took some risks on that building, to be sure.

No matter how special this event actually turns out to be, it will be the first Apple show in the new place. It will be the first in a theater designed from the ground up to be a place to announce products, including an area to allow the invited guests to interact with those products after the presentation. There really is nothing else like it, and I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse.


Apple, Machine Learning, and Privacy

There’s a lot of noise about machine learning theses days, and the obviously-better deep-learning machines. You know, because it’s deep. Apple is generally considered to be disadvantaged in this tech derby. Why? Because deep learning requires masses of data from the users of the system, and Apple’s privacy policies prevent the company from harvesting that data.

I work for Apple, just so you know. But the narrative on the street comes down to this: Apple can’t compete with its rivals in the field of machine learning because it respects its users too much. For people who say Apple will shed its stand on privacy when it threatens profit for the company, here’s where I say, “Nuh-uh.” Apple proved its priority on privacy.

A second nuh-uh: ApplePay actively makes it impossible for Apple to know your purchase history. There’s good money in that information; Apple doesn’t want it. You think Google Wallet would ever do that? Don’t make me laugh. That’s why Google made it — so they could collect information about your purchasing habits and sell it. But in the world of artificial intelligence, respect for your customers is considered by pundits to be a negative.

But hold on there, Sparky! Getting back to the actual subject of this episode, my employer recently announced a massive implementation of wacky math shit that I think started at Stanford, that allows both aggregation of user data and protection of user privacy.

Apple recently lifted their kimono just a little bit to let the world know that they are players in this realm. Have been a long time. They want to you to know that while respecting user privacy is inconvenient, it’s an obstacle you can work around with enough intelligence and effort.

This is a message that is very tricky for Apple to sell. In their advertising, they sell, more than anything else, good feelings. They’re never going to say, “buy Apple because everyone else is out to exploit you,” — that makes technology scary and not the betterment of the human condition that Apple sells.

But to the tech press, and to organizations fighting for your privacy, Apple is becoming steadily more vocal. It feels a wee bit disingenuous; Apple wants those other mouths to spread the fear. But it’s a valid fear, and one that more people should be talking about.

From where I sit in my cubicle, completely removed from any strategic discussion, if you were to address Apple’s stand on privacy from a marketing standpoint, it would seem our favorite fruit-flavored gadget company is banking on one of two things: Than people will begin to put a dollar value on their privacy, or that the government will mandate stronger privacy protection and Apple will be ahead of the pack.

Ah, hahaha! The second of those is clearly ridiculous. The government long ago established itself as the enemy of privacy. But what about the first of those ideas? Will people pay an extra hundred bucks on a phone to not have their data harvested? Or will they shrug and say “If my phone doesn’t harvest that information, something else will.”

Honestly, I don’t think it’s likely that Apple will ever make a lot of money by standing up for privacy. It may even be a losing proposition, as HomeKit and ApplePay are slowed in their adaptation because they are encumbered by onerous privacy protection requirements. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Apple is already making piles of cash as the Guardians of Privacy. But I suspect not.

So why does Apple do it? I don’t know. I’m not part of those conversations. But I do know this: If you were to ask CEO Tim Cook that question, he’d look at you like you’d grown a second head and say, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Maybe I’m being a homer here, but I really believe Tim when he says stuff like that. Tim has told the shareholders to back off more than once, in defense of doing the right thing.

And as long as Tim is in charge of this company, “Because it’s the right thing to do” will float for me. So as long as Tim’s in charge, I know Apple will continue to respect the privacy of its customers. Maybe to you that’s not such a big deal, but it is to me. I won’t work for anyone I don’t respect.

The Usual End-Of-Year Apple Reminder

If anyone out there I know is thinking about buying Apple stuff — we make computers and whatnot — I can get folks a modest discount. I get a set amount of discounts to hand out each year, so if no one uses these discounts by Dec 31st, *poof*, they are gone.

Friends don’t let friends by Apple gizmos for full price.


A Staggering Number of 1’s and 0’s

The other day, Apple published an update to iOS, the software that runs iPhones, iPads, and iWhatnot. I updated my two devices last night; the download was about 1GB for each.

Not that long ago, a gigabyte was a lot of data. Even these days, a gigabyte here, a gigabyte there, pretty soon you’re talking about a crap-ton of information.

How much? Today I spent a full ten minutes doing research for this blog episode, hoping to come up with some sort of estimate for the number of iGadgets updated over the last couple of days. I found one fairly recent article that said there were 400 million iOS devices in the wild, but that report was published before Apple sold two million iPhones in China — in a single weekend.

I’m going to throw the number 500 million out there, because it’s nice and round and makes the math easier. We have to figure in the percentage of iDevices that are sitting in drawers gathering dust; those will not likely be updated the moment a new iOS version is available. What percentage is this? It’s really hard to tell. Apple loves to point out, however, that even taking into account the huge market share they enjoy, the amount of Web traffic generated by their devices is even higher, suggesting a significantly higher usage rate than their Android cousins. I will make the logical leap that higher usage rate implies higher demand for updates to the new iOS.

So, let’s say that half of all iOS owners upgraded their gear in the last two days. Apple considers it a HUGE competitive advantage that they can provide infrastructure to update all iOS devices. Android providers simply don’t have that (Google has might, but Android updates go through the telephone companies, so the telcos can limit features and add nefarious supplements). As a result, soon 80% of all iOS users will be on the latest version. Nirvana for software developers.

But let’s think about that infrastructure. Over the last two days, by my wild-ass estimates, Apple delivered 250 million gigabytes of data to their iOS customers. 250 petabytes, on top of the regular daily traffic. I’ve been told by unreliable sources that after the Great iTunes Christmas Crush of ’09 (or was it ’10? Thanksgiving?) work was done to allow server capacity to be reallocated in anticipation of massive crunch times. If the network performance in my office is an indicator, that happened this week.

Side thought: is it possible to store more bits of data than there are particles in the universe? Not in binary, I suspect. Side side thought: I learned on a British educational TV show in roughly 1981 that the universe holds something like 1083 particles, but what with all the dark matter and so forth coming down the pike since, it wouldn’t surprise me if the estimate had moved up to 1084 particles by now. Of course, the definition of “particle” itself can be squirrelly, translated from the 1980’s, and I may just remember wrong. ANYWAY, the iOS update was only on the order of 1017 bits. Chump change when scaled against the entire universe.

But down here on planet Earth, that’s a lot of ones, and roughly the same number of zeroes, each where it belongs.


Wore My Black Turtleneck Today

It was my quiet way of marking the passing of a great man.

Ask yourself this: at the company where you work, would they offer grief counseling if your former CEO died? You’ve probably read plenty about Steve Jobs’ accomplishments in the last 24. I hesitate to add to that, but I think a lot of pundits and journalists are missing the mark on what made Steve great.

Steve didn’t invent personal computers. He didn’t invent the Graphical User Interface. He didn’t invent smart phones or tablet computers or mp3 players. His genius was making all those things useful. He’s been called a visionary, and I’m not going to argue that, but his vision was “If this stuff was intuitive to use, it would be a hell of a lot better. And I can fix that.” Macintosh was “the computer for the rest of us.” It was the first personal computer with a GUI, with point-and-click and drag-and-drop, the first computer that made an effort to make tasks you accomplish with technology more similar to things you do in the physical world.

He stole that idea (with permission) from Xerox. Xerox had, to paraphrase some pundit whose name I can’t recall, spent huge amounts of money to see the future. Then they gave Steve a tour of their facility, and he went and made their ideas useful. Steve himself has regrets about that fateful day; he was so blown away by the GUI that he didn’t appreciate the network and the new approach to programming Xerox had developed.

Xerox gave Steve Jobs a peek at the future of computing, and he was just the guy to take that glimpse and revolutionize the way humans and machines interacted, and just the guy to bend a successful company to his vision.

Almost immediately after the Mac was introduced, Steve was wedged out of Apple. The two events were probably related; to say that Steve was brutal on the development team would be an understatement (“Insanely Great” was his mantra; his unwillingness to compromise on the little details his curse), and he was neglecting the very successful Apple II. But the Apple II was the past. Computing the way it used to be done. Mac was a world-changer. Steve knew that. The board of directors wasn’t so sure.

After his departure Apple continued to refine and improve on his vision, and try with increasing futility to protect those inventions from imitators. To this day, Apple is ready to throw down a lawsuit at a moment’s notice, but the biggie, the one that got away, was the one against Microsoft for copying the windowed operating system. Losing that one almost killed Apple.

Then Steve came back. FiRST step: quit refining the OS and overhaul it. The competition was improving quickly. Next step: follow the power. The computing power, I mean, which was moving into smaller and smaller packages. I was pretty excited about Mac OS X, but I was dead stoked when I heard the phrase “A thousand songs in your pocket.” I bought one of those first iPods, and on airplanes and in bars people would ask me about it. The thing was, in a word, awesome. (“Insanely Great” has long been retired. The phrase is kind of like the Great Wall in China, I think – much more fun for people who don’t remember the cost.)

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the first digital music player, but when it came out, something fundamental changed. This was the first player that was useful, that carried enough music, that you could fill up almost thoughtlessly, that was simple to use, often without looking. All the details were right, the little things that others compromised on. That was Steve’s genius. Do it right. He had the unwavering belief that he knew what right was, even if no one else did. Do it right, and people will agree with you in retrospect. I cringed when Apple got into the phone business. Don’t they know what a cutthroat, small-margin business that is? They did it right, and I stand corrected (provisionally).

I think this is why I enjoy working at Apple so much. Most of you out there will never see the fruits of my labors (except perhaps as a microscopic price reduction in Apple products), but always I strive to put that little bit of extra rightness into everything I make. It’s noticed here. The spirit of Steve, his uncompromising attitude, is still alive.

God: Welcome, Steve. Did you enjoy the heavenly choir?
Steve: They were awesome! Really stirring. But…
God: But what?
Steve: What if everyone could hear their own music? I mean, not music they wrote, but music that was perfect for them, right at that moment.
God: That’s kind of what we do…
Steve: Let me handle this.


Vaya con iDios, Steve

One of the world’s most famous corporate icons resigned yesterday. I had my head deep in code when I started hearing the word ‘resigned’ buzzing around the office, but I had stuff to get done. It was my sweetie who actually gave me the news that Steve Jobs had resigned as CEO of Apple.

My first thought: I bet his badge still works. This was confirmed when I read his resignation letter; he will continue to be an Apple employee. The elevators in Infinite Loop 1 are not safe yet.

My second thought: A man who played a huge role in shaping what computing is these days is very sick. Sick enough that he has accepted that he will not be up to running Apple and smart enough to move aside gracefully and let the people who have been running the company continue to do so without uncertainty.

I hope he’s ok. That had to be a monumental decision, not just to let go of the reins but to accept that his own health might not improve. I hope Tim and Peter and the rest had a chance to sit and have a quiet beer with their boss one last time, a chance to think about all they’ve accomplished.

And Steve’s badge still works. He’ll be around.


Impressions of Lion

So just to be clear, even though I work for Apple I have no special access to the plans of the hardware and OS guys. If I did have access, I wouldn’t be able to post speculations like these. All this is the same guesswork you can do if you stop and look at your operating system as it evolves.

Last night I installed the latest Mac operating system (‘Lion’) on my work machine. We’ll see how that goes before I put it on anything more important. A couple of things struck me immediately, however, that I think may be indicators of where Apple is heading.

1) No scroll bars. Well, barely. There’s something scrollbar-like that appears when you move stuff around, but there’s a fundamental shift in the UI going on here. In the past you worked the thumb on the scrollbar to move the content in its window. When you worked the scroll wheel on your mouse, you were in your mind moving the scrollbar thumb. Now, in your head you grab the content of the window and move it around – which goes in the opposite direction as the scroller thumb. So the wheel on your mouse works ‘backwards’ in Lion; before you were moving the scroll thumb down, now you’re moving the content down, which moves the thumb up.

Opinion: I’m ok with this overall, but there are times when there is no indication that you can scroll. There are also cases where there’s no indication that the corner of a window can be dragged to resize the window. I’m not comfortable with designs that presuppose you know stuff.

2) Bold prediction: the magic mouse is Apple’s last major mouse. It’s a mouse/touchpad hybrid, bringing people closer to the touchpad replacement. The company that brought the mouse to the consumer will also be the first to take it away. Interestingly, the company that only put one button on its mouse will be hanging its hat on a very complicated set of finger gestures and combinations. They can do a hell of a lot, and they’re intuitive, if you already know them. (I just accidentally discovered the gesture for switching tabs in my browser — only, shit! It’s not switching tabs, it’s like using the back arrow. And there’s a bug! I almost lost this entire episode!)

Opinion: with the iPad and whatnot, multiple-finger user interfaces are here. I should have applied for a patent fifteen-plus years ago when I thought about making touch screen interfaces with actual knobs to turn and stuff like that. If I’d had this blog back then it would have shown up in the Get-Poor-Quick pages. But I didn’t, and now that invention belongs to other people. Because they built it, and I only talked about it.

My New Cube

Welp, it’s official, I’m a salaried employee of Apple. It’s not that big a change from being a contractor; I’ll be doing the same work as before.

While I was traveling my department moved to a new building, so when I got to my new cube for the first time, this is what I saw:


And yes, I do get a discount on stuff, and yes, they assume I’ll be buying for friends and family as well. So if you need a Mac system or an iPod (no iPads at this time), let me know.


Apple’s Latest Security Update

Mention Viruses to a Mac user and the response will often be… well, smug. Many Mac users believe that viruses and other malicious software are a Windows problem. Apple hasn’t done much to discourage that notion, not even to warn users when real threats are afoot.

Recently someone launched a bit of malware targeted directly at Macs. The program would lurk on Web sites (I think that’s where it came from, anyway), and flash up a message “Your computer is infected with a virus! Download our software to clean it up!” The software to install had a noble, protective-sounding name. People followed the instructions, and infected their own machines. Before long a couple similar threats appeared, including a much worse one that required less participation by the owner of the computer.

Now, it could be argued that only an idiot would fall for something like this. I occasionally see alerts that my windows computer is infected and I must download something to fix it — even though I’m on a mac. You don’t have to be around the Internet very long to learn not to trust strangers. Unfortunately, there are a lot of idiots, and even more newbies who have not learned that hard lesson.

A couple of days ago at work I got an email addressed to all Apple employees telling them not to fall for “Scareware”. The evil had been circulating for a month or more before Apple even alerted its own employees about the threat. Yesterday Apple released a security update that removes this particular family of bad guys and takes some measures to make similar attacks more difficult in the first place.

But there’s one thing no virus protection can do: prevent the user from giving permission to dangerous software to run on their system. Once the user says the software is OK, that’s it. Mac users’ feeling of immunity from harm could make them more gullible; they’ve never given much thought to how they would react when confronted by an urgent message like the ones in this latest outbreak.

So, fellow Mac users: Don’t be stupid! Almost as important: Put that smug attitude away. Your day is coming, sooner than you think.

First Day of Work

I went to bed last night almost-employed, knowing that my start date would be soon. This morning I was awakened by the phone ringing, and learned that today was my first day. I got my act together, shoveled down a bowl of cereal, brushed my teeth and off I went.

I am now an Apple employee. Well, a contract employee working at Apple. I have my own cubicle, a phone (hooked up tomorrow), a laptop and big monitor, and a badge that gets me into buildings I couldn’t get into before. I’ll be putting together tools to help their Finance department to finance stuff more easily. On the side I’ll throw the WebKit team some code now and then.

I am told that tomorrow afternoon I may regret not having a nerf gun.


Birds, Hands, and Bushes

Less than a week ago I was uncertain where I might be picking up enough work to pay rent. I wasn’t too worried, to be honest, but there was a lot of unknown. Monday I was contacted by my good friends at TEK Systems, a contract placement firm, wondering if I would be interested in a job at Apple. I responded with an enthusiastic affirmative. From all I’ve heard, Apple is a great place to work.

Karen and Brian at TEK Systems set up an interview for me on Tuesday. Brian met me outside the building, took care of introductions, and I met with the woman who could potentially become my manager. The job was interesting; doing rapid development of Web-based tools for Apple’s financial group. I kicked butt in that interview, and left feeling that I’d probably landed myself a job in the land of Jobs. I got home and kicked off my shoes and called my TEK pals and told them I thought it had gone well, and that if Apple offered the position TEK Systems could accept on my behalf.

Later that evening, I checked my email. There was a message there from a recruiter at Apple, saying that the WebKit group had seen this page and wondered if I’d be interested in a full-time position as a WebKit developer. Cool! I’d be doing what I’d already been doing only now getting paid for it.

If only one of the jobs had been at Apple, my decision would have been easy. I mean, what are the odds of getting interest from another group at the same company on the same day, anyway?

So then I had a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand I had hit it off really well with the boss in the first interview, on the other hand the second opportunity was doing something I feel passionate about in an environment where I could grow a lot more personally. I haven’t had anyone to review my code in a long time. I wrote back to the Apple recruiter that I would be interested and quickly contacted TEK Systems to tell them of the wrinkle.

Wednesday I spoke to one of the WebKit guys, who asked me a few programming questions but mainly just wanted to get a feel for whether he thought I would fit. I passed that hurdle, the next step was another more technical phone meeting with another member of the team, on Thursday. I told everyone involved that time was critical.

Somewhere in there — Wednesday evening, maybe? — the first Apple group formally said they wanted me to work for them, and they want to get started as soon as possible. (Although my potential future boss was totally cool about me talking to another part of Apple. She’s a believer, and will be happy for me no matter where I end up — as long as it’s at Apple.

Wednesday night I didn’t sleep much. I had an offer for a good job with some cool people. They wouldn’t wait forever for me to decide. “I could just take the job,” I thought. “I’ll have my foot in the door at Apple and the flexibility that contract employment allows. Plus, I can keep working on WebKit in my free time.” That last thought made up my mind. WebKit is where I want to be, but I’ll be plenty happy with either.

So, Thursday I cleared the second hurdle for getting a full-time WebKit job. After the technical phone interview the Apple recruiter called me and asked if I still wanted to move forward. “Yes,” I said, but told him that I had a standing offer elsewhere at Apple and I didn’t want to jerk them around too long. He understood, and thus there was Friday.

Friday. Wow. The interview process for a permanent job at Apple is not trivial. Eight meetings, two interviewers per meeting. Many of the sessions involved solving coding problems on a whiteboard, which can be stressful to say the least. Because the whole thing was put together on zero notice, there were no breaks between interviews. I sat in the conference room (other meetings were moved to accommodate this process), and they came at me two by two (although they were all very friendly about it).

How did I do? I’m not sure. There are certainly places I could have done better. My C++ skills are atrophied. But I’m pretty good at problem-solving and eventually I came up with good solutions to the problems they threw at me, which is the main thing they were testing me for. Ultimately, however, any programmer should be able to solve those problems. Did I distinguish myself enough from the pack to make them choose me?

The one meeting they couldn’t schedule on Friday was the one where all those people get together and decide wether to hire me. Monday morning, they tell me. Meanwhile I haven’t had direct contact with the other Manager who already offered me a job. She’s been waiting a few days now for my answer, and she needs someone in there quickly. How long will she wait? Hopefully at least until noon tomorrow.

Brief coda: TEK Systems has been great for me, and even though they don’t make any money if I take the full-time job they have been very supportive. I can strongly recommend the company, especially Karen Do, who is my primary contact there. She has been terrific.