Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

Something is wrong with computers

The world is changing faster than ever before, with the data we collect growing by the day and technology developing at a breakneck pace.

That’s the sort of boilerplate introduction that props us countless content farm articles and CEO-thought leader LinkedIn posts. Besides the inexorable and terrifying advance of climate change, there’s a lot to doubt in that kind of futurism.

In particular, computers. Hardware. Ignorant of their teleological duty to constantly improve, the computers that we interact with daily have either stalled or declined in the past five years.

Take for example the new MacBook Pro, Apple’s 16” top-of-the-line laptop. Three of its headline features - a scissor-mechanism keyboard, a physical Escape key, and inverted-T arrow keys, are not new. They existed in every MacBook Pro produced between 2006 and 2016.

So the main selling point of this new, $2,399 computer is that it fixes some of the unforced errors that Apple made in 2016. You’re paying to get the same sort of keyboard, the same escape key, the same arrow keys that you could buy in 2015. Apple fans would pay even more to get the MagSafe charger they had back then, too, or to not have the TouchBar at all.

But the problem runs deeper than that. By the numbers, the clock speed, storage capacity, and RAM specifications of MacBooks have stalled since 2013, six years ago. Here are the charts to prove it.

I’m using the venerable everymac.com for these statistics, and taking the highest-spec configuration.

RAM

RAM comes in new, faster varieties, but there has never been a MacBook with over 16 gigabytes of it.

20082010201220142016201824816

Storage

Like RAM, storage hasn’t budged in the past six years. In fact, it has never recovered to the peak of 750 gigabytes with the MacBookPro9,1 in 2012.

200820102012201420162018128256512

Clock speed

Mid-2017 still claims the peak clock speed of 3.5GHz.

200820102012201420162018123

What about cores?

Clock speed has stalled but processors have gained more cores, keeping Moore’s Law pedantically correct, and giving Apple the chance to show promising performance bar charts. But multi-core machines are arguably less than the sum of their parts: software development is still figuring out how to make the most of those cores and an huge amount of software is single-threaded. The computing speed recession has real-world ramifications: the programmer-friendly frameworks of fifteen years ago, written in anticipation of faster computers, never got those faster computers. Trendy languages now are winning on their speed or ability to do threading and multiprocessing. Programming languages that emphasized programmer-friendly ways of working are out of vogue.

Why is this happening?

I’m not a hardware scientist, so I can only venture a few guesses. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

I think we’re hitting physical limits in terms of what hardware can do. Multicore processors and the disastrous idea of hyper-threading kept speed technically increasing but thermodynamic and speed-of-light problems are starting to kick in.

Big computer companies are starting to look at the hardware business as a game for suckers. IBM led the way with a big, potentially mistaken pivot to services, one that involved them selling one of the most trusted brands in computing, ThinkPad. Now Apple is trying to do the same, to make more money on the App Store, streaming, or music than it does on hardware.

Everyone got confused about what phones mean for computers. A few years ago, I remember how strong the idea of ‘mobile-first’ stuck in the minds of tech founders. Everyone would be using phones for the vast majority of their screentime. Nobody was quite sure how this would square with work, which continues to be a big chunk of people’s computing time, but nevertheless, phones were the future. Impossibly hyped off of this realization, laptops started unsuccessfully absorbing phone-like traits: Windows computers got touchscreens that you tap in laptop mode and jiggle around on the weak display hinge, and MacBooks got the perplexing TouchBar.

Mac users are a captive audience. I’m typing this now on a MacBook Pro. It’s the same kind of computer most of my friends and all of my coworkers use. The same model that huge companies order by the hundreds. Switching costs are high and even the absurdity of the terrible keyboard isn’t enough to force people off the platform.


Everything’s getting better, and sometimes worse, all the time. Nothing stays the same, with a few exceptions.

November 15, 2019  @tmcw