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Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

What do "Pro" users want?

November 16, 2016 — Carlos Fenollosa

My current machine is a 2013 i7 Macbook Air. It doesn't have the Pro label, however, It has two USB 3.0 ports, an SD slot and a Thunderbolt port. 12 hours of battery life. One of the best non-retina screens around. Judging by this week's snarky comments, it's more Pro than the 2016 Macbook Pro.

Me, I love this laptop. In fact, I love it so much that I bought it to replace an older MBA. I really hoped that Apple would keep selling the same model with a Retina screen and bumped specs.

But is it a Pro computer or not? Well, let me twist the language. I make my living with computers, so by definition it is. Let's put it another way around: I could have spent more money for a machine which has Pro in its name, but that wouldn't have improved my work output.

What is a Pro user?

So there's this big discussion on whether the Pro label means anything for Apple.

After reading dozens of reviews and blog posts, unsurprisingly, one discovers that different people have different needs. The bottom line is that a Pro user is someone who needs to get their work done and cannot tolerate much bullshit with their tools.

In my opinion, the new Macbook Pros are definitely a Pro machine, even with some valid criticisms. Apple product releases are usually followed by zesty discussions, but this time it's a bit different. It's not only angry Twitter users who are complaining; professional reviewers, engineers, and Pro users have also voiced their concerns.

I think we need to stop thinking that Apple is either stupid or malevolent. They are neither. As a public company, the metric by which their executives are evaluated is stock performance. Infuriating users for no reason only leads to decreasing sales, less benefits, and unhappy investors.

I have some theories on why Apple seems to care less about the Mac, and why many feel the need to complain.

Has the Pro market changed?

Let's be honest: for the last five years Apple probably had the best and most popular computer lineup and pricing in their history. All markets (entry, pro, portability, desktops) had fantastic machines which were totally safe to buy and recommend, at extremely affordable prices.

I've seen this myself. In Spain, as one of the poorest EU countries, Apple is not hugely popular. Macs and iPhones are super expensive, and many find it difficult to justify an Apple purchase on their <1000€ salary.

However, in the last three to five years, everybody seemed to buy a Mac, even friends of mine who swore they would never do it. They finally caved in, not because of my advice, but because their non-nerd friends recommend MBPs. And that makes sense. In a 2011 market saturated by ultraportables, Windows 8, and laptops which break every couple years, Macs were a great investment. You can even resell them after five years for 50% of their price, essentially renting them for half price.

So what happened? Right now, not only Pros are using the Macbook Pro. They're not a professional tool anymore, they're a consumer product. Apple collects usage analytics for their machines and, I suppose, makes informed decisions, like removing less used ports or not increasing storage on iPhones for a long time.

What if Apple is being fed overwhelmingly non-Pro user data for their Pro machines and, as a consequence, their decisions don't serve Pro users anymore, but rather the general public?

First, let's make a quick diversion to address the elephant in the room because, after all, I empathize with the critics.

Apple is Apple

Some assertions you can read on the Internet seem out of touch with a company which made the glaring mistake of building a machine without a floppy, released a lame mp3 player without wireless and less space than a Nomad, tried to revolutionize the world with a phone without a keyboard, and produced an oversized iPhone which is killing the laptop in the consumer market.

Apple always innovates. You can agree whether the direction is correct, but they do. They also copy, and they also steal, like every other company.

What makes them stand out is that they are bolder, dare I say, more courageous than others, to the point of having the courage to use the word courage to justify an unpopular technical decision.

They take more risks on their products. Yes, I think that the current audio jack transition could've been handled better, but they're the first "big brand" to always make such changes on their core products.

This brings us to my main gripe with the current controversy. I applaud their strategy of bringing iPhone ideas, both hardware and software, to the Mac. That is a fantastic policy. You can design a whole device around a touch screen and a secure enclave, then miniaturize it and stick it on a Macbook as a Touch Bar.

Having said that, us pros are generally conservative: we don't update our OS until versions X.1 or X.2, we need all our tools to be compatible, and we don't usually buy first-gen products, unless we self-justify our new toy as a "way to test our app experience on users who have this product".

The Great Criticism Of The 2016 Macbook Pro is mainly fueled by customers who wanted something harder, better, faster, stronger (and cheaper) and instead they got a novel consumer machine with few visible Pro improvements over the previous one and some prominent drawbacks.

Critical Pros are disappointed because they think Apple no longer cares about them. They feel they have no future using products from this company they've long invested in. Right now, there is no clear competitor to the Mac, but if it were, I'm sure many people would vote with their wallets to the other guy.

These critics aren't your typical Ballmers bashing the iPhone out of spite. They are concerned, loyal customers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars in Apple's products.

What's worse, Apple doesn't seem to understand the backlash, as shown by recent executive statements. Feeling misunderstood just infuriates people more, and there are few things as powerful as people frustrated and disappointed with the figures and institutions they respect.

Experiment, but not on my lawn

If I could ask Apple for just one thing, it would be to restrict their courage to the consumer market.

'Member the jokes about the 2008 Macbook Air? Only one port, no DVD drive?

The truth is, nobody cared because that machine was clearly not for them; it was an experiment, which if I may say so, turned out to be one of the most successful ever. Eight years later, many laptops aspire to be a Macbook Air, and the current entry Apple machine, the Macbook "One", is only an iteration on that design.

Nowadays, Apple calls the Retina MBA we had been waiting for a "Macbook Pro". That machine has a 15W CPU, only two ports—one of which is needed for charging—, good enough internals, and a great battery for light browsing which suffers on high CPU usage.

But when Apple rebrands this Air as a Pro, real pros get furious, because that machine clearly isn't for them. And this time, to add more fuel to the fire, the consumer segment gets furious too, since it's too expensive, to be exact, $400 too expensive.

By making the conscious decision of positioning this as a Pro machine both in branding and price point, Apple is sending the message that they really do consider this a Pro machine.

One unexpected outcome of this crisis

Regardless, there is one real, tangible risk for Apple.

When looking at the raw numbers, what Apple sees is this: 70% of their revenue comes from iOS devices. Thus, they prioritize around 70% of company resources to that segment. This makes sense.

Unless.

Unless there is an external factor which drives iPhone sales: the availability of iPhone software, which is not controlled by Apple. This software is developed by external Pros. On Macs.

The explosion of the iOS App Store has not been a coincidence. It's the combination of many factors, one of which is a high number of developers and geeks using a Mac daily, thanks to its awesomeness and recent low prices. How many of us got into iPhone development just because Xcode was right there in our OS?

Similarly to how difficult it is to find COBOL developers because barely anyone learns it anymore, if most developers, whichever their day job is, start switching from a Mac to a PC, the interest for iOS development will dwindle quickly.

In summary, the success of the iPhone is directly linked to developer satisfaction with the Mac.

This line of reasoning is not unprecedented. In the 90s, almost all developers were using the Microsoft platform until Linux and OSX appeared. Nowadays, Microsoft is suffering heavily for their past technical decisions. Their mobile platform crashed not because the phones were bad, but because they had no software available.

Right now, Apple is safe, and Pro users will keep using Macs not only thanks to Jobs' successful walled garden strategy, but also because they are the best tools for the job.

While Pro users may not be trend-setters, they win in the long term. Linux won in the server. Apple won the smartphone race because it had already won the developer race. They made awesome laptops and those of us who were using Linux just went ahead and bought a Mac.

Apple thinks future developers will code on iPads. Maybe that's right 10 years from now. The question is, can they save this 10-year gap between current developers and future ones?

The perfect Pro machine

This Macbook Pro is a great machine and, with USB-C ports, is future proof.

Dongles and keyboards are a scapegoat. Criticisms are valid, but I feel they are unjustly directed to this specific machine instead of Apple's strategy in general. Or, at least, the tiny part that us consumers see.

Photographers want an SD slot. Developers want more RAM for their VMs. Students want lower prices. Mobile professionals want an integrated LTE chip. Roadies want more battery life. Here's my wish, different than everybody else's: I want the current Macbook Air with a Retina screen and 20 hours of battery life (10 when the CPU is peaking)

Everybody seems to be either postulating why this is not a Pro machine or criticizing the critics. And they are all right.

Unfortunately, unless given infinite resources, the perfect machine will not exist. I think the critics know that, even if many are projecting their rage on this specific machine.

A letter to Santa

Pro customers, myself included, are afraid that Apple is going to stab them on the back in a few years, and Apple is not doing anything substantial to reduce these fears.

In computing, too, perception is as important as cold, hard facts.

Macs are a great UNIX machine for developers, have a fantastic screen for multimedia Pros, get amazing build quality value for budget constrained self-employed engineers, work awesomely with audio setups thanks to almost inaudible fans, triple-A software is available, and you can even install Windows.

We have to admit that us Pros are mostly happily locked in the Apple ecosystem. When we look for alternatives, in many cases, we only see crap. And that's why we are afraid. Is it our own fault? Of course, we are all responsible for our own decisions. Does this mean we have no right to complain?

Apple, if you're listening, please do:

  1. Remember that you sell phones because there's people developing apps for them.
  2. Ask your own engineers which kind of machine they'd like to develop on. Keep making gorgeous Starbucks ornaments if you wish, but clearly split the product lines and the marketing message so all consumers feel included.
  3. Many iOS apps are developed outside the US and the current price point for your machines is too high for the rest of the world. I know we pay for taxes, but even when accounting for that, a bag of chips, an apartment, or a bike doesn't cost the same in Manhattan than in Barcelona.
  4. Keep making great hardware and innovating, but please, experiment with your consumer line, not your Pro line.
  5. Send an ACK to let us Pros recover our trust in you. Unfortunately, at this point, statements are not enough.

Thank you for reading.

Tags: hardware, apple

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Back to hardware, next step: Pi-Top

January 29, 2015 — Carlos Fenollosa

One of the things I always regretted from college is that our hardware hands-on experience was pretty meager. We designed a lot of digital circuits but never got to build one, not even on a breadboard.

A great perk of taking a sabbatical year is that you can learn whatever the hell you want. Like, for example, complementing your college degree with those topics you used to love but couldn't experiment with enough. Money + free time + engineering curiosity = win.

I used to build computers from components long ago, but that was too much of a hassle, plus you had to keep up to date with new technologies which essentialy made everything incompatible with last years'. So it may not be the best of the ideas to go back to that.

I found an interesting crowdfunding campaign: Pi-Top, a laptop you build yourself. It's basically a bit of electronics + 3D printing + the power of a Raspberry Pi + some robotic modules (HATs). An excellent way to dive into electronics without hurting oneself too much.

The 2010s are every engineer's dream. Hardware is cheap and nicely packaged into higher level components, there are plenty of sensors, wireless is everywhere, batteries can last forever on low-power chips, and there is plenty of documentation on the Internet. In a couple years, 3D printers will be cheap enough to buy one for home; meanwhile, there are 3D printing hubs that you can reach to print any design.

It's a fantastic time to buy breadboard, some chips, and build simple circuits, like a clock, some light control with sensors, wireless remotes, etc. And those can finally have real life applications. Just a few years ago, without ubiquitous wireless, homemade circuits were just a novelty. Nowadays you can build yourself a sweet home automation system for a few bucks if you know how.

I can't wait for my Pi-Top to arrive.

Tags: hardware

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Creating an OS from scratch

September 29, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

I am a Computer Engineer major, so I took some classes in college on how to build operating systems. For many reasons, I don't remember most of it, but it is a world which has always excited me.

There has been a recent post on HN which points to a very simple and detailed tutorial on how to write an OS from scratch and it has really inspired me, so I decided to create a Github repo to publish the code at the same pace that I learn to write it.

It is not for everyone; rather, for CS/CE majors who were overwhelmed by college but always were curious about what happens from the moment you turn on your machine up until when an application loads.

I split each "lesson" into one-concept increments, so it can be easy to follow for people like me who don't have a lot of time and brain power to learn at a University pace. This is a work in progress, again, I publish code while I learn and extract it from the original document and other internet resources, so expect it to be updated regularly!

Tags: software, hardware

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Hacking your keyboard

September 23, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

Some years ago I started reading on mechanical keyboards, and bought an AEKII.

Unfortunately, despite the positive reviews, I didn't like the keys at all. The sound was damp, and the key feeling was horrible. Honestly, I was expecting something similar to a Model M, and this was really a different story.

I decided to open it and take a look inside, and with the help of some people I managed to hack the sound of its keyswitches, the complicated (white) Alps. I wrote a guide and uploaded it to Github.

A few days ago I received some feedback with more ideas, and I decided to update the guide. It's amazing how you write some guide on Github that probably nobody will ever read, and some years after you can still receive comments and improve on the sound of your keyboard.

Right now I am still undecided if I go again with the AEKII with its new clicky, buckling spring like sound, or keep using the tiny Filco 67-key which allows the mouse to be much closer to your right hand when you're typing. Boy, the AEKII is huge.

Besides the hardware modifications, in the guide you will also find some scripts and ideas that you can use to redefine your keyboard, type faster, and suffer less RSI. If you're still using the vanilla Caps Lock key, please read both articles.

Tags: hardware

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Redefining your keyboard

June 11, 2012 — Carlos Fenollosa

I live in Spain, so most of the computers I work on have a Spanish keyboard layout. We really need it for the accents, ñ, ç and other language-related keys.

However, when it comes to programming, the Spanish layout seems... designed by Spaniards. Well, not actually. It is designed for writers, not programmers, which makes sense because it follows old typewriter's layouts.

For example, colons need an additional shift key press, the slash is inconveniently located above the number seven, so you need to perform an exercise of finger gymnastics to press it, braces need AltGr, etc. It is very, very inefficient, and it also leads to hand strains and finger pain after a few hours of work.

After some time considering it, I asked for a US keyboard, and voilà, programming is a lot easier now. For me, the major improvement is the location of the slash, widely used in UNIX, but also braces and the pipe. Sure, it takes some time getting used to it, but after about a month of daily use one can perfectly type with, at least, their original typing speed— if not even more—with the included benefit of less finger movement.

Accents can be typed anyway, either by pressing Alt-Letter or mapping them to any other combination. In any case, when I need to type a long text in any language other than English, I just press my layout-change key and use the Spanish keyboard again.

Windows, Linux and Macs allow you to change keyboard layouts on the fly by just pressing a key. With a couple of Google searches you should be able to learn how to do it, it's real easy. However, there's more! I recently discovered another trick which might be useful for your work.

Don't you feel your fingers a little bit tired after working with screen, Emacs or any program which uses Ctrl? That's because the Control key is located down in the keyboard and you need to stretch your fingers to Ctrl-A and Ctrl-E. A hidden feature of all operating systems also allows you to move it up, to the home row of your keyboard. Would you mind checking if there's some key you don't use that often which might be suitable to replace Ctrl? Caps Lock, indeed!

Caps Lock is a huge key which has no practical use except for twelve-year-olds on Youtube, and it is placed so close to A and E that it would be a sin not to make it behave like Ctrl. Again, do a quick Google search, and learn how to remap it. It can be done with the GUI, no need to change configuration files. And, were you in need to use Caps Lock for some reason, you can always map Shift-CapsLock to its old behavior.

From now on, I encourage you to think about remapping keys that you don't use. Personally, I have the Windows key remapped to switch layouts, CapsLock as a Ctrl and the F1..F12 as desktop keys: move one desktop to the left, right, move windows to another desktop, lock screen, volume controls, etc. And, now that you're here, take some time to learn or assign keyboard shortcuts to common tasks, either in the console or in the GUI. You'll work much faster and, more importantly, your hands' health will improve.

Tags: hardware, tricks

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