My Thoughts on the new macOS Sierra (2016/09/23)

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What's in a name?

The new version is named 'macOS Sierra', and the first thing you may notice is the shift in style from previous versions of the software's name. Foregone is the once familiar OS X branding that has accompanied the various cat-named releases since version 10.0 was released over 15 years ago. Dropping the X marked the end of an era, and as the names transition from cats to iconic American mountainous landmarks, a new one begins.

Mac OS 9.2.2 was the last Mac operating system before Apple rebranded to 'OS X' in 2001. With the rebranding came a fundamentally new operating system.

The name was changed to also fit closer with their 'watchOS', 'tvOS' and 'iOS' stylizations. It seems appropriate given how strongly tied macOS Sierra is with other Apple products. Universal copy and paste gives you a unified clipboard between your phone and your computer. Browsing a recipe app on your phone and want to bring the steps to a bigger screen? Just copy them on your phone and paste them onto a Pages document on your laptop. And if you are wearing your Apple Watch, you wouldn't have to bother entering your password to unlock your laptop to do it - Auto unlock triggers when your Apple Watch is within Bluetooth range. The inter-device features don't end there either - for some time now iMessage has been available on OS X but Sierra brings it a step further with the ability to dial and answer phone calls on your Mac.

Seamless is the word Apple sometimes uses when describing these features. The ability to continue working efficiently despite interruptions. And what better way is there to do two things at once than to ask someone else to do it for you? Siri hears your call, and has arrived to the desktop in macOS Sierra. As well as sporting the same features as the mobile version such as calendar event booking, navigation, and hands-free usage among other features, Siri can also execute file searches with filters such as containing folder, creation date, email recipient, location and other metadata, connect to internet services and interface with iCloud.

iCloud itself plays a much bigger role. Optimized Storage is a new feature that automatically uploads rarely used files to iCloud to free up space on your main storage drive. It also automatically deletes duplicate files, old logs and cached information. With higher resolution cameras and better quality music, the average file size getting bigger all the time and especially with the relatively small solid state drives in new MacBooks, these features may help curb some storage issues, as well as provide an effective backup solution.

Critical Analysis

From here on is my analysis and personal opinion on the new features. Know that I'm neither a fanboy or hater of Apple - I try to take each new release in stride and form my opinion on it independently from my views on other releases or hardware.

As far as inter-device continuity goes, without an Apple Watch or iPhone, most new features in macOS Sierra will have little to no use to you. In the same way that you may not ever use iMessage or Facetime without these devices, Universal Copy and Paste and Auto Unlock (among others) remain as perpetually dormant features in this release.

Regarding usefulness of these features, while the occasions where I've wished for a feature such as universal copy and paste are rare, I suppose that once it appears it may be hard to remember what life was like without it. I indeed felt the same way about mobile Multitasking; when it first appeared in iOS 4, it was a feature I never knew I wanted/needed - until I went back to my old iPod that didn't support it.

With the introduction of Siri, inevitably the "ever watching, ever listening" paradigm surrounding new so-called 'smart' devices these days now falls upon Apple computers. That said, if you are running a version of Mac OS X newer than 10.7, your computer already has the capability to record your voice and send it to Apple: the Dictation service. If you trust Apple, then you may be able to sleep at night assuming that the microphone does not listen when Dictation is off or inactive. If Siri can be called up through voice in a similar fashion to "Okay Google" or "Hey Alexa", it may not be so easy to be sure that Apple is only listening when you want it to.

Siri takes on a shapeless and abstract visual form in macOS Sierra

But perhaps even more controversial is the Optimized Storage. With solid state drives increasing in storages and coming down in price every month, it seems strange that Apple pushes a feature that manages your storage space. Optimized Storage is not a solution to a problem we ever had - it's a solution to a problem that is imposed by non-upgradable hardware. The storage you get in new Macbooks is not easily upgradable and is underwhelming by 2016 standards. With the base Macbook model shipping with 256 GB of flash storage, a year of moderate use may leave you thirsty for disk space.

Why isn't an automatic cloud based drive cleaner the best option? Firstly it authorizes an external service with access to every single one of your files. Again, depending on how much you trust Apple, you may be able to assume that if you turn that service off your files are not accessed but even if you read the gazillion page T&C you can never truly be sure. Beyond the privacy issues, this feature relies on a stable and unlimited internet connection. Some people still have data caps and having dozens of GBs cleared from your hard drive means that you've uploaded those dozens of GBs to the cloud. On my previous internet connection I was charged 5 cents per MB if I used over 15GB for the month. A one-hour long 720p movie is around 1GB, which would bring an overage charge of $50. And if you travel a lot, you may lose access to files when on the go, until you find an internet connection to re-download them to a local machine.

With iCloud Upload, if a file disappears from your local hard drive at least you have a copy of it somewhere. But Storage Optimization also comes with an auto delete function. So now you've not only authorized an external service access to your files, but also authorized that service permanent deletion power as well.

My overall verdict on macOS Sierra is this: The new features bring us closer to the future. We can talk to our computers, unlock them by simply existing nearby (with the purchase of requisite hardware), and everything 'just works'. But for everything to 'just work', data needs to be collected and processed somewhere. Sometimes you know it's happening, like when you talk to Siri. Sometimes you don't have to worry that it's happening because it's working for you, like automatically uploading files from your disk to clear space. But it may also happen without you knowing at all.

It all comes down to trust.

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