My Mechanical Keyboard
I'm in the middle of a slow breakup with Apple. It has been painful but, to be honest, the split has been in the works for a few years now. Some people here know that I have been a bit of an Apple obsessive for the last decade plus. I have purchased just about every iPhone, iPad, iPod, iMac and iDontknowwhat. Apple Watch. Apple chargers. Apple Apps. Our house is littered with old Apple products, something that drives my wife Margo absolutely insane.
MARGO: "I found another iPad under a pile of clothes."
ME: "Oh, hey, I remember -- that's the iPad 2. That was the first one with a camera on it. Interesting story about the iPad 2 ..."
It's more than that, though. I read about Apple stuff all the time. I keep up with Apple rumors. I once was interviewed by Jason Snell of Macworld for something or other, and I think I asked him more questions than he asked me.
So, yeah, we've been through a lot together, Apple and me. I've given them bajillions of dollars. They've given me well-packaged boxes and a couple of life-changing devices and dozens of incrementally better versions of those two life-changing devices. It was swell, Isabel, swell.
But lately, the magic has started to fade. I would say it began changing a couple of years ago when I noticed that Apple software stinks. I’m not a tech writer so I don’t know that these products really stink; I'm sure they are all technological marvels beyond my feeble mind. But they sure did stink for me. One day, I noticed that that I will go to almost any extreme to NOT use Apple software. At one point, I had tried like 20 different mail applications on my iPhone and 20 more on my Mac just to avoid the horror show that is Apple Mail. This is not an exaggeration.
And basically, I don't use ANY Mac software if I can avoid it. The Apple calendar has kicked me in the teeth on numerous occasions. Apple Maps got my lost. Pages was a nighmare, but not as much a nightmare as Numbers. And don't even get me started on iTunes.
It was fine -- I would use the Apple hardware and then use Google or Microsoft or some other companies software. It was fine. But it was disconcerting. I loved Apple. Why did I loathe using Apple software?
Then I started noticing something about those incremental improvements: With each improvement, Apple also insisted on taking something away. The most famous of these examples is the removal of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 this year. People have different feelings about it, but it ticks me off to no end. I get that we are entering a wireless world. I get that headphone wires are an outdated thing, something only old fogeys like me who yell at clouds care about. And I get that progress comes and you either go along or get left behind.
But why did they have to get rid of the headphone jack? Why? I have 58,394,127 different headphones and earphones around this house because I keep losing them, because my kids keep getting new ones, because headphones and earphones multiply when no one is looking.
Now Apple is telling me: Those are all useless.
And why? To make the phone 1/10000000000000th of an inch thinner? Was the iPhone 6 not thin enough? Sure, they will give me a dongle to connect my old headphones (and sell me 100 more when I continuously lose them) but it just seems needlessly hostile. And now Apple is getting ready to sell these airpods at an outrageous price even though they are wirelessly designed to do EXACTLY WHAT MY HEADPHONES AND EARPHONES DO RIGHT NOW.
So, yeah, not too happy with Apple on that.
It's more than that. Where are the new ideas? No, it's unfair to ask any company to keep coming up with breakthrough after breakthrough -- I mean, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, that was a pretty fantastic run. But other companies are trying cool things with virtual reality and augmented reality and 3D stuff and new ways to connect to each other. Whither Apple? The Apple of today reminds me of the scene in “Hudsucker Proxy” where Norville Barnes, after inventing the hula hoop, is asked if he’s running out of ideas. “Not at all,” he said. “Why just this week I came up with several new sweet ideas. A larger model hula hoop for the portly. A battery option for the lazy and handicapped. A model with more sand for the hard-of-hearing. Yes, I’m earning my keep.”
But there’s something else, something more subtle, something personal, something that took me a long time to figure out that finally made me break with Apple. And I will admit right up front that it might make absolutely no sense to you (like the rest of this piece).
Here goes: Apple has ruined the wonderful art of typing for me.
There. I said it. It has taken me a long time to get to this realization. But there it is.
Apple keyboards a few years ago were wondrous new things. They were smooth, sleek, and the keys all seemed to move exactly according to the typist's command like one of those player-pianos. I am a very fast typist, it’s probably my best quality, but on an Apple keyboards on the iMac or the Macbook Pro I was Usain Bolt, I was Chuck Yeager breaking sound barriers, I was flying.
True story: I was once on a plane typing, this is a few years back, and the guy next to me kept looking over. Bad trait of mine: I really really really really despise when people look over my shoulder as I write. I can't help it; that just drives me crazy. So I turned to the guy and I must have had that look on my face because the guy said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't looking at what you were writing. I was just amazed watching how fast you type."
Man, I could fly through those things. I wrote four books and 10 million bloggy words on Mac keyboards.
Something was wanting, though. It's hard to explain -- and for a long time I did not understand it at all. I found myself restless when typing. I changed fonts often, always looking for that perfect one (in my Google history there are probably 100 different versions of the search string "Find best font for typing"). I changed writing programs all the time, trying everything from the most basic text editor to a Zen writing program where you type over a faded nature scene and listen to New Age music.
Well, I tried different music when writing too, tried various sounds -- for a while, I had this program that made typewriter sounds when I pressed the key, and I kind of liked that.
I couldn’t put my finger on it (ha ha! pun!) but something was missing. I was typing fast but the whole experience was just a little bit … sterile? Flat? Flavorless?
I have no idea how you are reading this right now. You might be nodding your head and saying, “Yeah, I’ve felt that too.” Or you might be going, “This guy has finally lost his mind.” Either way, I felt it. Let's call it "typing wanderlust." It's probably a rare disease.
And I would never have been able to label it except, a couple of years ago, Apple released the Macbook. I bought one immediately. It seemed like the answer to my dreams -- it’s a cardboard thin computer that weighs a total of two pounds and has a gorgeous screen. Gadget reviewers were continuously calling it “sexy” which is weird, but I get where they were going. It is a beautiful device and even though it weighs almost nothing, it is perfectly balanced.*
*Geeky observation: If you lay it flat on a table and lift up the top, it opens. I have yet to find another computer that does that.
There was just one quirk about the Macbook -- in order to make it THAT thin and THAT light, they had to invent a whole new kind of keyboard. They call the technology "butterfly mechanism" (I think) and it sounds great when narrated by Apple's Jonathan Ive, though let's be realistic, Jonathan Ive could make the Batman v Superman script sound like Shakespeare.
Beyond the pretty words, the point of it all is that when you hit a letter, it hardly travels at all. It is one step removed from typing on a flat screen. It is the direction Apple has been going for a long time.
Still, I loved that little Macbook. I took it with me around the world. It felt so light in my bag. It was so easy to use in tight spaces. And the typing on it was … well, who cares, right? That screen! Yes, it’s true, I seemed to make quite a few more typing mistakes than normal. Yes, it’s true, sometimes my fingers hurt at the end of a day of long typing. Yes, it’s true, that my feelings of typing wanderlust only grew.
This week, Apple announced its new Macbook Pro -- it’s a whole lot like the old Macbook Pro except it is (of course) thinner, lighter and a little bit sleeker. Also it has something they’re calling a “touch bar”-- a thin strip on the computer that is like a little touch screen which changes depending on the program you’re using -- which seems very cool until you realize that most laptops these days have giant touchscreen bars they call "the screen."
Anyway, I felt my old Apple juices flowing, and I thought about selling off some of the anniversary gift jewelry I bought for my wife through the years so I could preorder -- then I saw something. I saw that in order to make it thinner and lighter they took the Macbook keyboard and basically put it in the Macbook Pro.
And that’s when it snapped into focus for me
I HATE APPLE’S KEYBOARDS.
Yes! I hate that they make no sound when you type. I hate that you don’t TYPE the key, you just PRESS it. I hate that they’ve been making the keys flatter and flatter until typing has lost all of its motion and force and spirit. I hate that typing has lost some of its violence -- writers used to BANG on typewriter keys, and in the early days of computers we all used to BANG on computer keys. It was forceful. It was dynamic. I remember in my earliest days typing on something called the telebubble; it was heavy, and it was awkward, and it had a screen the size of an early Sandy Koufax baseball card, and you would type words and then wait for minutes at a time while the telebubble caught up. But you KNEW you were typing on the telebubble. You were practically WRESTLING with that thing. When it broke, you'd call the office and speak to a tech guy who would tell you "Whack it on the side, maybe that will fix it."
I hate that Apple has been taking us into a touchpad world where the act of writing is silent and tranquil and passive.
All for what? A little bit thinner? A little bit lighter?
It was just after this epiphany that I went out and bought a mechanical keyboard. It’s the Logitech Orion Red something or other -- no idea -- and I bought it at a Best Buy after typing a bunch of words on the model and finding myself feeling free. Brought it home. Looks like this.*
*Yes that's my new Block C Cleveland cap -- which I love -- and to the left there you see a Cubs patch that my friend Steven Hirschtick sent to me from Thailand.
I cannot begin to tell you how much this keyboard has changed my whole outlook on writing and life and everything. I know it's stupid but I feel different writing now. This keyboard makes real noise -- more of a clacking than a typing sound but satisfying just the same -- and I had forgotten how much I love the noise. The keys move under my fingers and they require a good thump, which I love too. OK, no, it's not exactly like going outside and splitting wood. But there's a different feel.
And now, I look at the shiny flat keys and thin body glistening touch bar of the Macbook Pro - and I don't want that life anymore. It was fun with Apple. Somewhere along the way, we just started wanting different things.