Webstock: An interview with the Daring Fireball

By Mark Webster

Daring Fireball's John Gruber. Photo / Supplied
Daring Fireball's John Gruber. Photo / Supplied

For someone who owns and runs one of the most perceptively critical blogs in the IT sphere, John Gruber is mild-mannered and affable in person.

Gruber is well known for his Daring Fireball blog, published from Philadelphia, which not only elucidates on societal and tech themes, but that also dares to criticise anything that deserves it. "I know what I think, and I write from that."

John uses instinct, experience and common sense to inform his posts from the various sources at his disposal.

The fact that Gruber's background gives him a very clear view of the IT industry makes him a blogger to be taken seriously. He used to work in the industry and did the blog as a sideline.

His ideal job, pre-web, would have been working a regular columnist. While studying computer science, he started writing for the college newspaper, and ended up editing it.

"My brain works in 1000-2000 word chunks. I've always been an avid reader ... just sort of 'making my own' suits my personality."

John started Daring Fireball, commentating on the tech industry, in 2002 but has been living off it since 2006 as his full time income. He's doing what he loves: "I feel lucky every day."

"It was very deliberate that Daring Fireball wasn't defined as a Mac site or an Apple site, and this was fortuitous."

As John is not afraid to criticise Apple either, despite a fascination with the Cupertino, California firm.

On Apple: "I've always been drawn to their computers but again - and I can only speak from my own personality; it just makes sense this way: I feel that people who don't get it, who aren't huge fans of Apple stuff, see people as 'Apple fans', but I just see it as 'fans of a certain kind of attention to detail'. And Apple is the company that most suits their tastes. And it's always been like that since I was young, pre Macintosh. The Apple IIs were the best computers out there - they made the best startup sound when you turned them on; even their keyboard seemed to have the best clickiness to it."

"But really until the iPhone, writing about Apple, it was effectively 'the Mac company'."

On the Macworld Live video and podcast, John, along with Jason Snell and Dan Moren from Macworld and Adam Engst (TidBITS and Take Control) talked about the constraints of iDevices being directly related to the simplicity that users are finding so attractive.

There's a difference between the iOS system iDevices use and systems on Macs, even though there are visual similarities. And there are differences on Macs themselves, for that matter. A difference between 'normal' system-use and that of pro Mac users.

But with the massive proliferation of iOS devices, it seems almost inevitable that iOS will impact and inform future versions of the Mac OS.

"I think it's very, very hard to foresee. And I feel like, if I can't foresee it, I don't know who can. But I'm not even really sure how much Apple has a long term plan for this. And I feel that's one reason they've been so successful.

"There really are almost two eras for Apple Incorporated. It's almost like a work of fiction how neat the storyline is. When Steve Jobs came back and they took out the entire executive them and replaced it with Jobs and his team, it was really a reboot of the entire company, although it was a reboot that took a couple of years to gather steam because there was so much work to be done.

"I don't think Apple ever had a five year plan for the iPod [for example]. I think they have a plan where they definitely know what they want to do a year from now, and a pretty good idea what they want to have out in two years, but they're not tied to anything."

And not much past that ... nothing that stops Apple being flexible.

"But along with that, I think they have an engineering culture of building things to last. And I think that dates back to 1988 when they [Steve Jobs and his engineers] founded NEXT. The way that they built these software frameworks - it's kind of astounding, the thought that went into it."

[NEXT was a computer platform that Steve Jobs founded when he left Apple. It was ultimately unsuccessful, but the UNIX-based operating system still underpins Mac OS X.]

John sees the results of that NEXT work even in the iOS SDK. "This is kind of amazing in devices pushing the current state of the art. That scaffolding was built to last. [Apple] might go very slowly in certain ways, but it's better to have nothing at all if they can't do it right."

But where's the Mac computer going to go? "In five years time there's probably going to be something we'll recognise as a Mac, but in ten years? I don't know."

John thinks that, as the iPad and iOS strengthens, Macs may become even more like consumer devices and the professional segment of Apple devices will shrink.

"As more and more people find they can do everything on iPads, Macs will become more something for Pros. Is everyone who uses a MacBook Pro a pro? No. It's just basically a faster Mac. And certainly pros do use them, partly for that reason." He thinks the Mac may gradually be relegated to a sort of pro machine, becoming more like the camera industry. "The unit share of professional SLRs is minuscule compared to point-and-shoot devices, but none of those camera companies are moving away from DSLRs" because they need them to drive development.

"And besides, Apple needs to sell computers to make iApps on, right?" (Although John thinks it's also possible that eventually a future iPad could be used for developing apps.)

Gruber reckons Apple's stores are honest representations of the company. "You walk into an Apple Store and what they show you first is what the company truly thinks is important to the company. They make two types of Macs - desktops and portables - and they make iDevices and iPods. And if you really want a pro tower, well, it's over there. You may spend time in an Apple Store without even noticing it."

"As a company itself, Apple is very easy to understand. They're really not a complex company. Whereas Nokia doesn't make any sense - still pumping money into Symbian when it's already announced that MeeGo is the way of the future."

John thinks Apple's ethos is more "It's better to have two or three great people working on something than ten pretty good people.

And what's not to like about Apple? "I think they take the culture of secrecy too far. I think their policy of not talking about future products makes very good business sense, both for competitive reasons and for perception reasons. If you don't promise things in advance, then it's never late. (Although Apple messed this up recently by announcing a white iPhone it still hasn't been able to release dues to imperfections with the white case.)

"But I think Apple takes it too far in other regards - in the way that employees aren't really allowed to even talk about stuff that is out there. Nobody in the company blogs, for example. Not about future products, but why can't somebody, for example, blog about Apple Mail? Tips, 'did you know', scripts etc. How to use Mail better. Because I can't see any reason why not."

Google does this very well, for example, notes John.

John Gruber talks at Webstock tomorrow at 4pm about the kind of art that user interface design means today, mostly from the perspective of Apple's platforms.

I can guarantee it will be fascinating.

Mark Webster is reporting from Webstock, Wellington's annual web conference.

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