I have returned my 2018 MacBook Pro. I have owned almost every generation of laptop that Apple has released since about 1992. This is the first one I ever thought was a stinker.
For me the decisive problems with the machine were the Touch Bar and the track pad. These problems caused me to feel that I was constantly fighting with the hardware interface — that the MacBook Pro was constantly misreading or frustrating my intentions.
The touch bar has multiple serious problems.
1. The buttons on the touch bar are much too easily triggered. I've found that I often move my left hand to the left side of the keyboard and let it rest or hover there while I use the trackpad. With a real keyboard, this never caused a problem. With the 2018 MacBook Pro, again and again I've accidentally made contact with the esc "key", which of course isn't a key at all but a touch sensitive spot on the Touch Bar that is labeled "esc". More than once this happened while I was filling out an important dialog with a cancel button — and I found myself canceling out of something that I did not intend to cancel out of. When I first got the MacBook Pro ten days ago, it took me a day to figure out why I was hearing a dull bonk bonk bonk bonk noise again and again: my left ring-finger was lightly touching the esc key in some context where esc doesn’t do anything except provoke a bonk. I had similar problems with some of the other touch bar virtual buttons. The keys on a good keyboard provide some resistance that helps you keep from pressing them accidentally. The buttons on the touch bar do not. The problem here isn’t implementation. The touch bar is plain and simple a bad idea.
2. Because the touch bar is constantly changing, you never know what's in it, which means you can’t really use it without taking your eyes off the display and looking at the touch bar. That’s just dumb. I’m not a huge fan of touch screens, but they make more sense than the touch bar.
3. Perhaps I could learn to live with the touch bar if it had some strong benefits, but it does not. The touch bar is wholly unnecessary, otiose, superfluous, supererogatory, and pointless. Does not make anything possible that isn't possible on my 2015 MacBook Pro. As Michael Hyatt says in his excellent review of the 2018 MacBook Pro, the touch bar is “a solution in search of a problem.”
Maybe the touch bar could work in a way that would make users wonder how they ever lived without it. But I doubt it, and in any case, it ain't there yet, not even close. Search the reviews online. Even reviewers who are enthusiastic about the machine's hardware specs are luke-warm about the touch bar. If there’s a review out there that says “the touch bar is awesome and it’s going to revolutionize laptop design!” I haven’t found it.
It's way too big. It's twice the size of the trackpad on my 2015 MacBook Pro and I cannot understand why. A developer friend suggested that they're trying to make it easier for users to use "gestures". Maybe, but I used gestures extensively on my 2015 MacBook Pro for three years and never had a problem with its less-large trackpad. And the 2018 MacBook Pro’s expanded acreage causes a problem: it's difficult for me to rest my hands on the "free space" in front of the keyboard without touching the trackpad. The MacBook Pro's big trackpad is not as good as the trackpad on my Dell XPS 15 at distinguishing between a casual ball-of-the-thumb touch and a deliberate touch or tap.
The only reason I can think of to have the trackpad this big is so that it can be used for a bit of occasional "drawing", for example, to make a signature. I wonder if Apple's interest in both the touch bar and the huge trackpad is part of its desire to avoid making laptops with touchscreens. And that I imagine is motivated by a desire to protect the iPad. I think this is a foolish idea that will fail in the long run. The 2-in-1 PCs are have their problems, but I'd describe them as growing pains. Ultimately, the idea of working with a single device that runs a single OS but has the ability to be either a desktop machine or a portable machine seems to me destined to prevail. The touch bar is a novelty, not a true innovation. Apple is fighting a rear-guard action, just as it has for a long time in the web apps vs desktop apps fight (which Apple is destined to lose).
I mention this mainly because the 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pros were notorious for the problems with their keyboards. I will admit that I prefer the keyboard on my Dell XPS 15 or my 2015 MacBook Pro. But compared to the problems with the touch bar and the track pad, the weakness of the keyboard is a minor issue.
I did notice one thing about the 2018 MacBook Pro keyboard that I never quite put my finger on (so to speak): It seemed to me that the physical keys were touch sensitive, that is, that the keyboard sensed that I was simply touching a key even without pressing it. I think this was the reason that I sometimes found that my ability to tap on the track pad, say, to trigger an on-screen button wasn't working. I got the sense that touching a key was somehow preventing the trackpad from sending its signal. The net effect of the whole thing was that I felt that the 2018 MacBook Pro was demanding that I sit up straight, raise my hands off the keyboard half an inch and not make a move until I was ready to do so carefully and responsibly. To hell with that.
But I did not return this machine because of the keyboard.
Ports and Power
1. The magsafe connector used in the previous generation of MacBook Pros was a brilliant idea—truly one of the best ideas in the history of laptops. Why in Heaven's name did Apple abandon it? My friend wondered if it wasn’t a cost issue. I’d pay $50 extra to have the MagSafe feature.
2. The elimination of any normal USB ports is also hard to explain.
3. It annoys me that there's no SD card slot on this machine.
The retina display is nice, but not a whole lot nicer than the retina display on my 2015 MBP and not as nice as the 4K display on my Dell XPS 15.
I can't figure out what I think about the true-tone feature. As a photographer, I don't much like the idea that my computer is monkeying around with the display of colors in my photos. But there's a basic problem here with color on an electronic display that is hard to avoid. It's one of the reasons I am so fond of black and white. Nevertheless, TrueTone is optional, and I’m usually okay with any feature that I can disable (assuming I didn’t pay a great deal extra to get it).
The 2018 MacBook Pro offered one advantage that I appreciated more in theory than in practice. It has a higher maximum resolution than the 2015 MacBook Pro. This means more content. When both machines are set to maximum resolution, the 2018 machine gives me more "room" for a debugger on the right side of the screen than the 2015 machine does. But there's no free lunch. The 2018 MacBook Pro provides higher resolution in pretty much the same size physical display. So higher resolution means everything gets smaller. If you're not following me here, let me use this analogy. Image that the two computers's displays were simply equal sized pieces of cardboard that I was going to use to make signs. Say the 2015 MacBook Pro allowed me to write twelve big words on the cardboard. The 2018 MacBook Pro allows me to write fifteen words — but I have to fit them on a cardboard the same size. That's more content, but obviously, the letters are going to have to be a little smaller to fit more of them into the same size sign.
The right way to get more content on screen and still be able to view it at a comfortable size, is to put the laptop down and move to my 27" iMac.
But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln....
But other than that, is there anything that I like about the 2018 MacBook Pro? Well, compared to what?
Compared to my 2015 MacBook Pro, yes, exactly one thing: touch ID. This works great and it is convenient. Otherwise, not so much. The under-the-hood specs of this new MBP are either similar to my old one (same storage capabity, same RAM, very similar display) or better in ways that frankly don't mean a great deal to me (processor speed). The new machine is a little thinner and lighter. That's nice, but I wouldn't pay $2500 for it. Other than touch ID, the only practical advantage the 2018 MacBook Pro has over my 2015 MacBook Pro is that it's newer.
How about a different comparison: the specs on my Dell XPS 15 are superior in most respects to this MacBook Pro: better keyboard, better display (and a touch-screen to boot!), more flash storage. And the XPS 15 cost a lot less. (I paid a little over $1000 for the 4K XPS 15 with a 1 TB SSD! Granted it was a restock item, but the original price wasn't twice what I paid.) As hardware, the latest Dell laptops are simply superior to the latest Apple laptops.
The problem with the Dell machine? It's running Windows 10. I am reasonably comfortable with Windows 10 and actually like some things about it. I have a real religion so I don't look to technology or politics to find meaning in my life, which is perhaps a snarky way of saying, I have zero brand loyalty and would switch to a different system this afternoon if it were to my advantage. I can’t quite imagine myself giving up on Apple completely and switching to Windows, but five years ago I couldn’t imagine abandoning Google completely, but I did it, and I have lived a happier life without Google for over a year now. I’m pretty disappointed in Apple at the moment and it may be time for another change.
About five years ago, FileMaker, Inc., debuted a new technology they dubbed "WebDirect". WebDirect is a sort of translation technology: it takes a database file that normally expects to be opened in FileMaker Pro and converts it into a web page that can be opened and used in a web browser. It's one thing to translate the look of a FileMaker layout into a web page that looks like a FileMaker database layout. What's really remarkable about WebDirect is that it translates (almost) everything else, as well. You can edit records, click buttons, run scripts. You can print reports, and generate, store and even edit pdfs. You can insert photos. A WebDirect-deployed app can make a phone call or send a text message. It can even open a web page for you — inside a web page!
It took a couple of versions for WebDirect to grow up. But as of FileMaker version 15 (released in 2016), we at Rucksack Technology decided to go all-in on WebDirect. As with every technology, there are pros and cons. But we believe the pros outweigh the cons, at least for our users. Accordingly for almost the last two years, all of our development work has been done with the expectation that our users would be working in web browsers. In September 2018, we decided to deploy exclusively to WebDirect.
Easier access for users
The biggest advantage WebDirect offers is convenience for our users. "Convenience" is a weak word for what really is a major advantage. Need to get to a WebDirect app? No need to download and install and keep updated a local copy of FileMaker Pro Advanced. You need only what you need to access your Gmail or Amazon accounts: a URL and an account. You can access your apps from anywhere.
And web deployment more fully realizes the promise of hosted apps by allowing feature upgrades to be handled entirely on the server side of the equation, without requiring any effort from users at all. When FileMaker introduces a great new feature to its platform, I don't have to demand that my users upgrade to a new version of FileMaker Pro to take advantage of it: I can take care of this on the server.
The "connect from anywhere" angle also eliminates the FileMaker platform's biggest weakness: its lack of a native mobile app for Android devices. Android users can't run FileMaker Go (the counterpart to FileMaker Pro on iOS devices) but Android devices can run a WebDirect-designed app in a browser just as well as an iPhone or iPad can.
Because both computers and smart mobile devices can save web page bookmarks to the device desktop, you can save your app's bookmark and then open it directly, the same way you open any other app you use.
We are persuaded that, especially with some of the special measures we are taking, our WebDirect-deployed apps are at least as secure as our FileMaker-Pro-deployed apps were and possibly even more secure. In the unlikely scenario where a user finds and exploits a security hole, a user with FileMaker Pro might (theoretically) be able to do some mischief. On the other hand, WebDirect accounts simply do not have the ability to modify the app structure.
More disciplined development
WebDirect still has some foibles: things it can do, but does not do as well or as reliably as FileMaker Pro. For example, the export setup dialog in WebDirect is small and awkward to navigate compared to the export setup dialog in FileMaker Pro. But serious limitations? The thing I personally miss most when I work in WebDirect is keyboard shortcuts. WebDirect does not support them. (Site-specific keyboard shortcuts are a problem for web development generally.) Now lack of support for keyboard shortcuts mainly affects power users. Most users are content to point and click. But yes, there are still problems to solve, especially in our older solutions. By "older", I mean "older than one or two years". Growing pains are inevitable, even healthy, but they're still pains.
Nevertheless, we believe that WebDirect's challenges are making us better, more careful developers. Over the last two years as we have worked almost entirely for WebDirect deployment, we have become more and more inclined to take a simpler, most disciplined approach to development, and producing more elegant, better applications.
It's still FileMaker!
Although you are not installing a local copy of FileMaker, you are still using 100% home-grown FileMaker technology. WebDirect user connections are licensed by FileMaker in a manner more or less identical to the licensing of the FileMaker Pro Advanced app that you have to download and install and maintain. Classic websites programmed in PHP using SQL backends to store data can lower per-connection costs dramatically, but development costs skyrocket. We know! That's what we used to do, twenty years ago. FileMaker WebDirect is not the right choice for a site that expects to have hundreds or thousands of anonymous users. But by using FileMaker Pro Advanced for development and deploying via WebDirect, we give our clients and licensees a pretty good deal. We develop secure, reliable, attractive and deeply functional apps for our clients and licensees with much greater agility than we could achieve in any other technology. Savings in development time = savings to our clients. And in the end, our clients get the drop-dead-simple convenience of web access to their systems.
Web access is the future — and the future is already here
The war between native apps and web apps has been going on for almost two decades now.
Apple has been a strong advocate for "native" apps — apps that you download, install and update — claiming with some justification that they can provide a richer user experience than web apps. Apple's subsidiary FileMaker has generally taken the same line. Google on the other hand has advocated for the web browser as a deployment platform. Apple is doing well as a company selling hardware, and I think Apple's operating systems (macOS and iOS) remain easier to use, better integrated and more problem-free than Microsoft Windows or Android.
But when we turn to apps, the landscape is quite different. In the contest between native apps and browser-based apps, Google won hands down. The decisive issue is not whether Microsoft Word or Pages provides a "richer user experience" than Google Docs. The decisive issue is whether Google Docs provides a user experience that is rich enough. And answer to that seems to be a resounding chorus of yesses. Ditto the contrast between many other web apps and native apps. More people use Gmail than use Apple Mail. More people use Google Sheets than Apple Numbers. I used to build web applications in a complex app called Dreamweaver; now my websites are built online. I edit my photos now in Adobe Lightroom CC online. If I weren't forced to use FileMaker Pro Advanced to do my development work, I would live in my browser, like most of my users.
People today expect to be able to do everything in their web browsers, wherever they are. We are working to make that possible for our users!
Important Rucksack news and announcements for the last days of July and the first ten days of August 2018.
THIS WEEK (July 30): WE WILL BE HARDER TO REACH THAN USUAL
William Porter will be out of the office a little more than usual on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday this week (July 30 and 31 and August 2). On those days he may not be his usual rapid-response self. Apologies in advance.
NEXT WEEK (August 6): NOT CLOSING EXACTLY, BUT GOING DARK FOR FOUR DAYS
The FileMaker Developers Conference 2018 will take place in the Dallas area August 6–9, 2018. This international gathering of database nerds is the biggest annual event in the world for FileMaker developers. During those four days, we will not technically be closing, but we do expect to be deeply absorbed and so we are "going dark" for a couple of days. Things will be back to normal around here August 10!
MID-AUGUST: WE'RE MOVING TO 17
As soon as the Developers Conference is over we will be moving all our clients to FileMaker 17. More information coming shortly.
FILEMAKER 17 CERTIFIED!
We don't toot our horn as much as our friends in marketing tells us we should. But we do want to mention that, in July, William Porter took the very challenging FileMaker 17 Certification examination and we are proud to say that (once again) he passed — one of the first developers in North Texas to earn this feather in his cap. With each new version, the FileMaker platform gets more capable and also more complex. Certification is a token that your favorite developer (well, we hope!) is staying ahead of the curve.
Of course, don't hesitate to email support@rucksack-technology (or write directly to William Porter) if you have any questions.