Because of, and in Spite of, Cupertino

After Saturday’s piece, I stopped to think more about the state of the Mac, the state of Mac IT, and the state of Apple, generally. I am left with even more confusion than I had hoped.

First, let me be upfront: I am, to borrow a title from my friend Marcus Ransom, a consulting Apple engineer. I don’t work for Apple, but I work around Apple, sometimes hand-in-hand with Apple (often their local Retail stores who have been excellent partners for us and for our mutual clients.) We’re the parties responsible for the continued operation of these machines after they leave the factory, and until they are put out to pasture. In short, I’m the guy that makes sense of how these machines are used every day, and I’ve been doing it for fifteen years.

Second, let me be clear: I have been an Mac user since I was 5. I have used a Fat Mac, Mac Plus, Mac SE/30, Mac II, PowerMac 6100/60, PowerMac 8500/120, Blue & White G3, Lombard PowerBook G3, Titanium PowerBook G4, iMac G5 and then a series of MacBook Pros, from 2010 to 2014, and Mac minis from 2009 through 2014. My bona fides here are a lifetime of machines from Apple, and probably close to $20,000 in personal dollars, and in the last four years, probably closer to 400 machines for clients, representing more than half a million dollars.

The last five years have brought incredible leaps forward in the management and development of Macs. A lot of that work came behind the scenes from Cupertino, as Apple built technologies like FileVault 2, System Integrity Protection, the MDM Specification, better Active Directory plugins, and better user tools like Photos, and expanding services (which some don’t yet trust, understandably) like iCloud. You can couple that with good, reliable, affordable hardware, that carries good extensibility, even if good expandability is no longer on the table.

But, a lot of that work came out of the community, as tools like munki, autopkg, AutoPKGR, AutoDMG, and Deploy Studio have created an ecosystem out of the gaps and hooks left by Cupertino. Other providers like Jamf, Filewave and Lanrev have built their own ecosystems out of that space, as well. Those are the pieces that are holding together the Mac in the field, those are the implementation details that Apple lacks in their complete entirety.(1) Those are the pieces that make a Mac up to $500 cheaper to support over its life.

In many ways, Apple is succeeding because the community and the marketplace are driving them to success, and the community is doing it in spite of the obstacles that Apple is placing in its path, be those increased security requirements, or be those new, less effective hardware and core software opportunities. In many ways, the community exists because they love what Apple has done in their past, the hardware, the innovation, the entire package. I don’t expect that there will be a wholesale migration to Windows, or to Desktop Linux (as funny as that might be), I can see a community that’s less enthusiastic create less imaginative tools. Less useful tools. Less functional tools.

We are where we are because of Cupertino, no question. The Macs of my youth, of your youths, represented the pirate spirit we all champion now.

We are where we are in spite of Cupertino, also. The tools we are making ourselves, or buying in the marketplace, are every bit the equal – perhaps more – of the Mac itself.

For all of my career, I have been a Mac person because of personal affinity. That affinity remains. But realizing that we are now the engine of how the Mac works instead of Cupertino, that’s the biggest shock I’ve had in ages.

The bigger shock is that it’s been true for longer than I thought. But what’s that mean?

Reading The Tea Leaves

There’s a change to the management of Macs that is coming soon, if my reading of the tea leaves is correct, that makes community-based Mac management tools and workflows much, much harder to use. If you haven’t yet, stop and read Mike Lynn’s m(DM)acOS, which lays out a lot of the ground work for the reading we’re all doing. The push toward an MDM-only future has three problems that I can see:

1) Currently, Community-based MDMs are an implementation nightmare

Right now if you want to spin your own MDM, you’re in for a world of hurt, and Apple isn’t making that process easy for you. In some part, this may represent a push toward commercial solutions like Jamf Now, Airwatch, Meraki Systems Manager, which have had the MDM Spec for a number of years. That would be fine, but for the fact that we’re now attached to two separate organizations who aren’t responsible to us.

2) Apple is then the only Gatekeeper for management

In a world where the only install commands come from mdmclient commands, you’re stuck using an MDM of some kind, and that’s going to eat into that $534 savings that Apple will be so keen to advertise at CIO/CTO forums for the next few years. Couple that with Apple’s aggressive stance toward deprecation, and the cautious admin, or the one who needs customization, is faced with a difficult or impossible future.

3) Device Management still isn’t a solved problem for the Mac

There are a lot of things you can’t set with config profiles as it stands, and there are a lot of things that admins need to deploy that can’t come in that pathway. We’re hopeful that Apple is listening to our coversation, and will respond to our Radars, but that’s far from a given.

These three problems represent the biggest challenge for the community in a generation. While IT Admin Generations are much shorter than People Generations, this is the biggest step for us since the end of fat images. It’s actually a bigger challenge, because it may involve us leaving our LaunchDaemon-based solutions behind, in favor of mdmclient commands that don’t yet exist. We’re faced looking at the edge of the known world not knowing there’s a map of any kind at the horizon.

That is both wonderfully freeing, and terribly scary. We’re about to all be explorers again.

So, What Should Happen Next?

I am just one member of the Apple Consultants Network supporting 400+ Macs. There are organizations far more likely to get responses from Apple than I, and they’re actually far more capable to determine the effective future of management, because they have whole members of their team who can be tasked to think about it.

But, if this post happens to find itself at Infinite Loop, and you wanted my advice, this is what I’d ask for:

1) Bring Back the Admin Track at WWDC. If this is the goal, take the time to enframe the vision for those of us who will be tasked to implement it. Right now there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons to go MDM-only for the Mac. DEP is a good start, but it doesn’t represent the entire spectrum of management needs. Let’s do this together, discuss it together, and bring the engineers to meet the implementors. It will be critical to your success.

2) Build Your Path With Signposts. I am very grateful to those wise voices within the Apple ecosystem who have been leaving breadcrumbs along the path. Breadcrumbs aren’t enough. Build signs, and let us help show you the sections of the path where we’re walking in the grass because it’s more efficient.

3) Focus on Building Great Software and Hardware. I’m not going to retread Marco Arment’s “Functional High Ground” argument, because I didn’t totally agree then, or now, but I will say that the number of users who have pushed back against software changes for change’s sake has been substantial, and it’s leading to questions like “What is going on over there?!” from a lot of corners I never would have expected. I know so many Apple employees who just want to build amazing things, please help them find the way toward building things that we can all use and love, even if it means slowing your pace to get them right. I don’t think I’m the first person to say this, I won’t be the last, but this isn’t iterate or die season unless you’re iterating badly.

I’ve spent ten years building our practice to support the Mac, and the last four years to programmatically support the iPad and the iPhone. I am all-in on this, and I know so, so, so many other admins and consultants and technicians who are right there on the front lines with me. We just want to make this all work, and more importantly, work well, so that we’re not stumbling about in the dark.

I know this runs against the grain of Apple’s longterm goal of producing incredible products in secrecy, showing them only when the time is right. I understand that the stock market is a weird thing that makes disclosures subject to regulation. There must be a way to innovate around these restrictions and provide good guidance toward the future without speaking in vagueries and platitudes. Please help us see this. Thursday didn’t help.

(1) Please don’t bring up Profile Manager. I still have scars. It doesn’t count.

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