Saving the Planet with a Mac

There are popular products in Apple’s lineup of consumer products. But the resurgence of the Mac suggests that Apple realizes that scientists won’t be doing research that changes the world on an iPad.

Mac Pro (a computational giant) and Pro Display XDR.  Image credit: Apple.

To explore the critical contribution of the Mac, we have to look at the iPad’s history.

The iPad has experienced continuous change from its inception. It started out as a large display iPhone and shared an identical iOS. As a result, it shared the same limitations.

Over the years the iPad has undergone changes designed to cater to a broader, creative audience. Multi-tasking, the Files app, and the Apple pencil punctuated the enhancements. These changes were critical because sales slumped after a few early years of growth. Plus, iPhone displays were getting bigger and bigger meaning that many people, forced to choose only one, opted for a big iPhone.

Continuing this evolution, we now have USB-C, external file access, mouse support, rethought cut-and-paste and an iPad-centric iPadOS.

Tools to Change the World

While the evolutionary changes to the iPad are important and will ensure the popularity of the platform, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it will outright replace the Mac, especially for very complex scientific work.

In the past, I’ve been heavily involved with Apple sales to scientists. I’ve also interviewed many scientists on my podcast, Background Mode, and one of the re-occurring comments from guests is that they favor Macs for their research. It’s not so much that scientific work is done by specialized apps, though there are many. Rather it’s the combined access to the terminal and the UNIX core combined with a rich suite of publishing tools.

A promise from WWDC 2019, session 701.

This UNIX access often takes the form of ssh’ing to a remote supercomputer. [The iPad has ssh apps, but you can’t access the UNIX internals of the iPad in order to install UNIX software.] This interaction between the remote Linux-based supercomputer and the client BSD UNIX on the Mac combined with the Mac’s publishing tools is crucial. As a result, if you go to a scientific conference, such as the AAS, you’ll see MacBook Pros on the scientist’s lap. Or a smattering of Linux notebooks. Not an iPad.

Mac Reborn

In 2018, the Mac was reborn. High Sierra and Mojave brought us a modern file system. The new Mac mini was released. We finally got a new MacBook Air. The 2017 iMac Pro is still a formidable machine. The MacBook Pro was refreshed at WWDC 2018 and then again just before WWDC 2019. There are rumors of new MacBooks and new 16-inch MacBook Pro. And now we have the glorious 2019 Mac Pro rumored to be released in September.

At one time, when Apple was largely a single product company with the Mac, the company catered to scientists with a strong UNIX message. There was even an page. No more. Consumerism has had a grip on Apple, and sales have soared. And that’s okay.

But what I think this resurgence of the Mac suggests is that Apple is aware of the multitude of scientific challenges that face us today. While the iPad can be used for many productive purposes, it’s not ready to be the go-to instrument for the scientist. It’s not ready for the Think Different-class, world-saving work. And so, for the first time in long time, there is a rich selection of modern, secure Macs (T2 chip) to select from for everyone involved.

Whether the surfeit of new Macs was intentional by Apple, it’s hard to say. But it couldn’t come at a better time.

5 thoughts on “Saving the Planet with a Mac

  • Hi John,

    Another really good article. As someone who works in a University HPC center, I completely agree with your points about scientists who have used Macs in the past and their reasons for doing so.

    However, where I’ll respectfully disagree with you is on whether or not the Mac resurgence we are actually seeing (I agree with you that it is happening) has anything to do with Apple wanting to help out the scientific community in any way, shape, or form. I think most scientists who still use Macs do so despite Apple, not because of them.

    If you look at the web pages Apple has put up for the new Mac Pro you will not find any mention of anything relating to science. It’s pretty much all about video pros. The Pro XDR monitor is very clearly not targeted toward scientists. More critically, Apple doesn’t provide an option for those who basically want the equivalent of the 5K display from the iMac in a standalone monitor (something scientists would want), whether that’s to hook up to a Mac Pro or a 15″ MacBook Pro.

    And while you might find a smattering of references towards science on the iMac Pro or MacBook Pro web pages, you’ll find next to nothing.

    As you yourself have pointed out, Catalina won’t come with any of the scripting languages that scientists depend on included anymore. Granted, we can still install them, but just like other things that scientists depend (X11), they’re no longer there by default.

    And as we’ve discussed previously (and you point out yet again in your article), the fact that Apple has not resurrected the page speaks volumes.

    If the current US Presidential Administration doesn’t prompt Apple to care about and proactively support scientists, nothing will in my opinion. And so I suspect that many scientists will continue to use Macs for the same reason I do … not because they’re clearly the best choice, but because the other choices suck much worse. While that may seem like a distinction without a difference at first glance, there actually is a big difference between choosing a product because I love it versus choosing that same product because I hate the alternatives.

    Old UNIX Guy

  • John:

    Well said, and an apt description of my professional world.

    While it might be true that a scientist cannot save the planet with an iPad Pro alone, they can do an amazing amount of good with it to help keep it alive and well. As with any skillset, practice breeds proficiency. An evolving platform doesn’t hurt. My iPad Pro the first device I pick up in the morning, gets heavy use throughout the day, and is last device I put down before I sleep.

    Regarding my personal use case, I seldom need to bring my MBP down from my hotel room at conferences, and will use and even run conferences off of my iPad Pro, including updating presentations, teleconferencing, scheduling etc. Where the MBP earns its keep at a conference is if I need to download and analyse data on the fly, which does happen, particularly at working conferences where we’re setting evidence-based policy or setting new research priorities.

    As for other core research-related activities, whether proposal writing, project monitoring and evaluation, report submissions, data analysis, manuscript preparation and the like – all of which are team-based activities involving Macs and PCS, there is still no viable substitute or rival for the Mac.

  • Change the world? We are destroying it!
    Apple should release more headless Macs, including low, middle and high products, from Mac mini to Mac Pro, and also a new mini tower. CPU may last seven years (then you cannot install new macOS releases but displays last more than 20 years. Fight programmed obsolescence, protect the environment and fight climate change and global warming.
    Wireless charging is a waste of energy. Wired whatever is much better than wireless whenever possible for anything, including also keyboards and mice. Batteries are obnoxious to the environment, besides much less convenient (for instance, less responsive) and a pain to recharge routinely.
    Note to admins: dots above since otherwise it shows all a a single paragraph using Safari on Mac.

  • Of course to be fair a tool as powerful as the Mac Pro is just, I’d argue even more, likely to be used to design the next iteration of The Bomb as to save the world. As likely to be used to design the next bio-weapon as to cure a disease. As likely to find new ways of extracting petrochemical resources as to move the world to a carbon free future.

    As Werner von Braun said: Science is like a knife. Give it to a surgeon or a murderer and each will use it differently.

    1. Not “as likely” at all, IMO. There are a thousand surgeons for every murderer. A preponderance of science is performed for the near and long term benefit of humans and their knowledge of the universe, and not nearly as much dedicated (or redirected) to destructive intent. For every Fort Dietrich or Raytheon or Rockwell-Collins there are a hundred universities and corporations working on solutions to mankind’s problems. For every chip guiding an armed drone, there are 100,000 powering personal computers and phones. For every Mach 3 fighter there are 1000s of commercial airliners.

      The peril the world faces is due to a plethora of emotionally and intellectually defective politicians playing on tribal and primitive fears, not a few scientific wrong turns. We should probably be working harder on that issue, as it’s always the human factor, not the science.

      Of course there is the irony of von Braun’s statement on his own personal level, given the death and destruction his rockets caused in WWII. If it bothered him I don’t remember seeing him address it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.