96: The Mac beyond Steve

The 2018 WWDC keynote brought tons of interesting updates, big and small, to all of Apple’s major OS platforms. (Well, except tvOS. Poor tvOS.) It also was the seventh such keynote since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011. Often, after these events, people who are disappointed in the outcome muse about which of their wishes would have been fulfilled if he was still alive. It’s a particular brand of resigned pessimism, and it rarely does any good.

So don’t worry, I won’t be engaging in those counterfactuals. And I expect very few others will, largely because there is so little disappointment following this year’s keynote. Nearly everyone got something they wanted, from iOS automation to UIKit on the Mac to a more independent Watch. Instead, I’ll ask: what did we get only because of the composition of Apple’s leadership today? In other words, what 2018 OS features might not have survived Steve’s absolute veto power?

I think the best place to observe this is in macOS Mojave, designed under the leadership of Craig Federighi. The (literally) biggest statement Craig made this year was the ten-thousand-point “No.” in response to whether macOS and iOS will be merged. Others have countered “Haha, but all the Mac apps will be iOS ports using Marzipan!” These retorts ignore the significant changes being made to the most central Mac app of them all — the one that is always running — the Finder.

 You know I'm here, right? I can  hear  you.

You know I'm here, right? I can hear you.

Significant time in the onstage demo was given to Gallery view. It will be a great step forward, replacing the least useful (and likely least used) view in the Finder. Gallery view’s introduction immediately drew comments that “Cover Flow is back!” I understand why Cover Flow has been forgotten, but it’s not gone. In fact, it’s been in every version of the Finder from Leopard to High Sierra.

The question is: how and why did Cover Flow last this long? My theory is that it was protected by a double layer of nostalgia. Judging from his demos of it, Cover Flow was one of Steve Jobs' favorite features of the iPod era. And in turn, he loved it so much because of the nostalgic feeling of flipping through racks of vinyl LPs, marveling at their high-quality artwork. Letting it go — even to be replaced with a more modern interface incorporating editing and automation tools — is one more admission that those eras are gone forever.

Fortunately, Mojave's new features aren't all just cold-hearted progress. Once the first beta was seeded, Guilherme Rambo noticed that beyond light and dark modes in Mojave, there are now customizable accent colors. This bit of whimsy is very similar to an appearance option from Mac OS 8, and breaks the 17-year dominance of blue and graphite over the Mac's appearance. I feel like the enforced conformity of One True Appearance was a Jobs-ism; after all, High Tech, Gizmo, and the other wild window appearances set for Mac OS 8 were drastically scaled back immediately after his return to Apple. And while macOS will almost certainly never again allow the delightful insanity that Kaleidoscope schemes provided in the Classic era, this is another small area where letting go is welcome.

Ultimately, we can never know what might have been, but only what has come to pass. Even with privileged access to the inner workings of Craig Federighi's team at Apple, it would be impossible to pinpoint how these features came to be, and what hurdles — real or imagined — they overcame to come into existence. But one way or another we got them, and I see them as signs of a promising future for the Mac.