Back to the Mac

What can we expect from Apple on October 20th? I have no better idea than anyone. But I can hope!

Educated Guesswork

What everyone expects based on the teaser picture is Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”. I’m hoping the teaser image reflects some kind of emphasis on 3d, e.g. the Collada support that appears to have been pulled from 10.6. I expect to hear something about the new Final Cut Studio (Motion 5 in particular) — especially since Jobs actually had to deal with rumors of its demise earlier in the year, a new iLife, and — less likely — a significant new iWork. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see an insignificant new iWork, but I’m talking automatic indexing for Pages and serious new functionality for Numbers.)

Aside: it’s funny how “sudden” 10.7 seems given the emphasis on all things iOS over the previous twelve months. A lot of people assumed nothing much was happening on the Mac front because WWDC was all about iOS (indeed some rumor sites have claimed that Apple’s engineering folks have all been pulled off Mac OS X development). I thought at the time that it was all about message management: Apple was carefully orchestrating the release of strategic new products and wasn’t going to confuse people with anything off message.

iWeb: not just the worst iLife App, but the ugliest icon
iWeb: not just the worst iLife App, but the ugliest icon

Rumor has it that iWeb has been completely rewritten and iDVD is gone (it’s been in maintenance mode for a while now). I’d like to see iMovie and Numbers get some serious love. A new iWeb that didn’t suck would be a revelation as that space is still wide open (of the programs in that space, there isn’t a single one I consider useful for pretty much anything). My guess is that the focus of the new iWeb (if there is one) will be MobileMe integration and producing Mobile Safari -friendly pages (something iWeb right now is very, very bad at).

XCode 4 has been in beta for a long time and could get released or have some kind of release date announcement. We might even see some kind of major tool announcement (e.g. some kind of new functionality that will be part of XCode 4 but wasn’t in the semi-public beta).

On the hardware side the consensus is that we’ll see a Macbook Air replacement.

Wishful Thinking

OS Integration

On the OS/software side, I’d love Apple to surprise us with multitouch screen and App Store support for Mac OS X (so you can run iOS apps as Dashboard widgets, say) and Apple TV (which would turn Apple TV into a serious gaming console). This would also hint at the future reintegration of iOS and Mac OS X (indeed I expect and hope to see Mac OS X become “classic” under iOS, but I imagine that’s a few years down the track).

Fix Fracking iTunes

As much as I wish for it, iTunes was just revved, so any hope for serious improvements in the near future will be in vain.

Wireless Sync For Frack’s Sake. Every iOS device ever made has built-in wireless networking and we still have to plug the damn things in to sync them. Seriously?

DRM Craziness. It was one thing when most of us had one computer and one iOS device, but just figuring out which Mac can sync to which iPod / iPhone / iPad or whether I can safely upgrade one of my devices is getting to be difficult for me, and I’m a freaking developer.

I imagine that the way all this stuff works (or doesn’t) must be infuriating for the kinds of people who own buttloads of Macs and iOS devices (like… I don’t know… iOS developers?). Why doesn’t it get fixed?

E.g. when I plug my iPhone 4 into my Macbook Pro or my Mac Pro (and I know it’s synced to one of them) I get the same warning about needing to backup before I can upgrade. WTF? I’d really like to see Apple completely rethink the “rules” by which iTunes operates along the lines of “it’s the job of iTunes and not DRM to stop people pirating shizzle” so that you can sync to any PC and let the PC device whether it can play a track or not.

But then, if syncing were wireless I wouldn’t even need to think about this crap, right?

Organizational Craziness. Until iTunes became a movie store the typical iTunes collection didn’t dominate your storage requirements. These days it’s entirely possible that your iTunes folder is most of the stuff on your hard disk, and that most of your iTunes folder is video. If you want to do something as simple as copy all the music on your desktop to your laptop you’ll need to figure out the inner structure of the iTunes folder (OK it’s not that complicated, but still). Even so, iTunes is just really stupidly organized these days. E.g. by default if you have multiple logins for a Mac, one person can’t play another’s music. And why is your iTunes folder in your music folder when it’s essentially got all kinds of stuff in it?

Bloat and Crap. And then there’s the whole “why is it so freaking slow?” issue. Back before iTunes was iTunes (I believe it was called SoundJam) I wrote an MP3 player (QuickMP3) that could import a music library tens, maybe hundreds, of times faster than iTunes. How? Simply by assuming a file that looked like an audio file was an audio file. My program would assume “foo.mp3” was in fact an mp3 until it tried to play it. 99.9% (or more) of the time this just worked, and the rest of the time it simply resulted in the track being skipped (and removed from the playlist) “just in time”. (iTunes can get tripped up by an MP3 that has become corrupt since it was imported, so it’s not like it doesn’t still need to check at playback anyway.) iTunes makes you wait while it checks each damn track, and audio and video tracks are big and complicated, so it’s slow. There are plenty of boneheaded design decisions in iTunes along these lines and they need to be fixed.

Easy, Stupid Stuff. Recent versions of iTunes are able to go into full-screen visualizer mode with a single keystroke (great) but it takes two to get out of it.

While we’re at it — the new icon really does suck.

3d

Collada Logo

Wouldn’t it be nice if Apple revealed a serious 3d app that would put it back in the 3d landscape. This could either be third-party (e.g. Autodesk reveals 3D Studio Max 2011 running on Mac OS X) or open-source (e.g. Apple releases a fork of Blender with a real Cocoa UI). Given the level of attention Apple’s job ads get, it’s almost inconceivable that it could simply pull a major 3d app out of its ass today without having made a lot of ripples (but it did buy some serious 3d hardware outfits a few years back didn’t it?).

Apple could possibly just buy its way into this market (after all, high-end 3d is one of the biggest segments for the kind of computer Apple makes its money in, and if it wants to keep selling high-end computers it might want to take this into consideration). Autodesk’s market cap is currently around $7B, but it looks a bit overpriced to me (but what do I know?) simply based on its P/E. Maxon is owned by some kind of huge German conglomerate (which might make it both cheaper and easier to acquire than a publicly listed company like Autodesk). But here’s something to think about: Newtek is big in both video and (fadingly so) in 3d, has a highly portable 3D code base, and a market cap of ~$55M. I would guess that Pixologic (zBrush) and Luxology are both possibilities too. Maybe SideFX (Houdini) too.

If Apple is to acquire a 3d vendor it will need to be privately held and, preferably, small. Apple could already have closed a deal on one of the smaller companies mentioned and simply have it under wraps, whereas if it tried to buy Autodesk we’d probably all know about it. A big company like Autodesk is simply too nasty for Apple to buy — it could possibly buy Maya or Softimage from Autodesk though.

Imagine if Final Cut Studio 5 were to include Modo or Lightwave Core, or one of these products became a $195 product for Mac users.

Input

Sony's impossible to parody "Unique Remote" for its GoogleTV Product.
Sony's impossible to parody "Unique Remote" for its GoogleTV Product.

As a modest aside, I’d really like to see a single-piece bluetooth keyboard and trackpad for around $100. Bonus points if it works with iOS devices in the obvious way. But then the existing glass trackpads could do this job too. (And note how that would dovetail nicely with running iOS Apps under OS X (it would be damn useful for iOS developers using the simulators too).

You know what would be really cool? Stick an accelerometer in the Magic Trackpad (or this new thing) and allow it to be a game controller for AppleTVs running iOS games.

Radical Macbook Pro Redesign

I’d like to see Apple release MacBook Pro’s with no internal optical drive, and switch to SD media / USB sticks for software distribution. Multitouch and/or stylus support would be great (indeed, wouldn’t it be neat to get a hybrid tablet now given the direction Apple is heading with the iPad?) but perhaps too much to hope for. (Especially since it might divert developer attention away from iOS.) Given that Apple kind of has too many laptop lines right now, the Macbook Pro 13″ and Macbook Air could merge, while the Macbook Pro 15″ fills the empty space left by removing the optical drive with battery and the Macbook Pro 17″ keeps its optical drive.

Mac Pro Lite / Headless iMac / xMac (Again. Sigh.)

You can now get a bleeding edge, quad core iMac with a decent (but RAM-poor and down-clocked) GPU and a magnificent display that will be obsolete in 18 months simply because its GPU isn’t upgradeable (and frustrating right now because it could so easily have a better GPU with more RAM). The only option for anyone even a little serious about 3d is to pay twice as much for a Mac Pro. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were some kind of not-quite-so-huge-and-expensive Mac Pro option, e.g. a quad core non-Xeon machine with a box half-to-two-thirds the size of a Mac Pro that sold for $1200-1500. There’s plenty of room for Apple margin in there (and it’s not like you can’t pay that kind of money for a modestly awesome PC these days).

I guess the big question for Apple is whether it’s leaving money on the table with its current lineup. I guess their thinking runs like this: some hypothetical buyer wants a Mac to game on or do 3d, and either ends up buying an iMac (and cursing its GPU and having to upgrade in 18 months) or a Mac Pro (and pays Apple an extra $1000 more than he/she intended) or a Windows PC.

In the first case, Apple makes about as much money as it would have if it sold a hypothetical xMac. In the second case Apple makes more money (and the buyer likely ends up being very happy in the long run). And in the third Apple makes no money and perhaps loses a current or potential customer forever. This has to be weighed against the money Apple loses to cannibalized Mac Pro sales if an xMac were an option for the folks who currently buy Mac Pros because there is no cheaper option, even though they don’t need all the goodies the Mac Pro offers (overpriced server CPUs chief among them).

One possible option would be a bigger Mac Mini with a quad core CPU, 8GB RAM, an SSD and a decent (and upgradeable) GPU. It’s hard to imagine Apple couldn’t make serious margin on such a machine without cannibalizing Mac Pro sales (or perhaps even not caring if it did).

But it’s not going to happen.

Bottom Line

(Edit: I’ve added how I did in parentheses.)

  • iOS 4.2 and 10.6.5 will probably get mentioned/announced/released (yeah this is a Mac event but iOS 4.2 is bound to 10.6.5 for printing) (no)
  • 10.7 Announcement (“Spring 2011”) (“Summer 2011”)
  • Final Cut Studio 5 Announcement (“Early 2011” — NAB is in April, but perhaps earlier since Apple doesn’t care much about trade shows any more) (no)
  • New iLife with no iDVD and iWeb replacement (yes, iDVD and iWeb in maintenance mode)
  • New iWork but with disappointing feature set (no)
  • New Macbook Air (yes, two)
  • XCode 4 Announcement (“Available for download today”) (no)
  • Some speed bumps (no, unless you count the Macbooks Air)
  • Addendum: PCWorld’s wish list includes iChat support for FaceTime which I think is almost certain (yes)

And I did not predict the Mac App store. (I was fooled by Apple’s denial of earlier rumors, which turns out to have been a half-truth.)

Snow Leopard: Collada Support

While Snow Leopard isn’t being sold on its new features, it probably could be. Here’s an interesting snippet of Apple’s Snow Leopard pages that a post on Cheetah 3d’s forums put me onto:

Collada Digital Asset Exchange (.dae) files are a popular way to share 3D models and scenes between applications. Preview now displays these files with OpenGL-powered 3D graphics, so you can zoom and rotate around a 3D scene and play viewpoint animations. You can also print the scene or save it as an image or movie file. And you can use Quick Look to display them as well.

A quick Googling of “Snow Leopard Collada” reveals that this little announcement is creating quite a buzz, and not without reason.

What’s Collada? It’s a rich 3d file format that — like FBX and unlike 3DMF — doesn’t suck and — unlike FBX — isn’t proprietary and subject to bizarre incompatibility issues every time Autodesk squeezes out a new version of the SDK.

By “rich” I mean that it enables 3d programs to store almost any information they would store in their own proprietary formats. By “doesn’t suck” I mean that other programs are generally able to get that information out again.

If Apple’s support for Collada goes deeper than simply being able to render .dae files in Preview and QuickLook, e.g. allowing programmers to relatively easily load, retrieve data in usable form from, save, and render Collada files, it could lead to a renaissance of 3d on the Mac, and deliver the benefits that Quickdraw 3D promised and so spectacularly failed to deliver.

The second bit: “retrieve data in usable form from” is the tricky part, since Collada is a very hairy format, which means that an ideal implementation would support all the hairiness, but allow you to access raw data in a lowest-common denominator way — e.g. load in complex NURBS objects and then acquire them as meshes at a specified detail level. One thing Apple might do is pick which bits of Collada to support thoroughly and — if they pick well — effectively create a compatible subset of Collada which different software developers can depend on and treat as the defacto standard (kind of the way Photoshop 4.0’s file format is a defacto standard for interoperable Photoshop documents).

Apple’s support for Collada could also help give Collada the momentum it needs to gain stronger support in the 3d world. Right now, a lot of programs have so-so Collada support and superb FBX support (in large part because Autodesk makes supporting FBX pretty easy). But Collada is richer and less proprietary than FBX. In a sense, Collada is analogous to QuickTime in that it can serve as both a format for storing raw and working content as well as delivering optimized end-user content.

Supporting Collada at OS level could be a great “judo” move on Apple’s part. It would allow the Photoshop wannabes to easily offer Photoshop-like 3D support (easily embed 3d objects in layered documents, and provide texture-painting capabilities), and encourage everyone on the Mac — or interoperating with people using Macs — to support a single rich 3d file format. It creates an ecology where indie developers can create “do one thing and one thing well” 3d tools on the Mac that doesn’t really exist on any platform right now.

We’ll see.

LuxRender

Screenshot of LuxRender in Action
Screenshot of LuxRender in Action

So, remember how I was saying that the one feature Blender doesn’t have is good motion blur? Turns out that there’s an Unbiased Renderer that works with Blender (it’s free and open source too, of course) and it produces amazing results (albeit slowly). It’s called LuxRender, and it’s a fork of the PBRT (Physics-Based Rendering Technology) project, which is essentially a rendering engine put together to test new theories about physically accurate rendering (i.e. stuff that ends up in SIGGRAPH papers).

Correction: it turns out that Blender has very good vector motion blur support and one should never use Blender’s frame-averaging system unless one is a masochist. (One of the problems with Blender is that often a crappy feature remain prominently in place while a newer, superior alternative feature remains hidden. This is the case both with motion blur and the rigging.)

There’s an old joke in computer graphics called The Law Of Constant Rendering Time which holds that it always takes a day to render an image, regardless of the speed of the computer. The basic idea is that we’ve been “improving” our lighting models at exactly the rate necessary to cancel out improvements in processor speed. The latest incarnation of this is unbiased rendering, which tries to actually model the way light works (versus taking various shortcuts which produce biased renders — i.e. renders which do not converge on a “correct” render no matter how much computation you throw at them. Radiosity and raytracing are both biased under this definition).

Anyway, this research has spawned a whole new generation of rendering engines, all markedly slower than we’ve grown used to, and with the peculiar property of producing noisy images that slowly get better (and you can spend as much time as you like rendering them — you’re never “done”). LuxRender is free, but there are several commercial options including Maxwell Render, Indigo, and Fryrender. I don’t know how fast Maxwell Render is (there’s no question it’s good), but its priced in the “if you need to ask, you can’t afford it” ballpark. All in all, the whole PBRT crowd reminds me of the “charge what the market will bear, tripled” gold-rush mentality of SGI era. (Well, Indigo is fairly cheap.)

I’ve been playing around with LuxRender this evening. It’s definitely an awesome tool for creating the occasional “hero” render, although both the rendering time and the extra difficulty setting up a scene make it difficult to use casually. (It doesn’t have normal “lamps” — all light sources are physically modeled objects that glow or transmit light… so a light bulb is a glowing filament — and you need to make special materials independently of Blender.)

The other fascinating aspect of LuxRender is that by default it’s kind of like “the works” in an old school renderer — you get everything — caustics, sub-surface scattering, refraction, internal reflection, and even chromatic aberration and depth of field “for free”. And, unlike with old school renderers, these aren’t set up with tricks and fudges where you finess the parameters to get the right result. You pick the materials and lights correctly and it pretty much does what it ought to. So, in a sense, this approach reduces the work done by the artist at the cost of more CPU time — it’s just that CPUs aren’t quite fast enough yet.

caustics
A simple scene showing off the frost glass, shiny metal, and glass presets. This is the result (original at 800x600) after about five minutes on my Macbook Pro.

But it does look like the future of rendering.