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How Apple's walled garden dissuades added value

How was your Labor Day weekend? Did you break out the barbecue one last time? Relax with family and friends? Me? Oh, I learned an important lesson this passed Labor Day. I spent most of my weekend sitting in front of a 27-inch 5K iMac (opens in new tab) scratching my head and pulling my hair. It's a lesson I probably should have learned some time in the past, but sometimes my stubbornness gets the better of me. What lesson did I learn? I learned that Apple's walled garden is surrounded by a wall of thorns.

The goal

Some of you may have read some of our coverage of VR on macOS. We've written about Apple's push for developers to create VR applications for macOS High Sierra by providing an eGPU developers kit so that a desktop-class GPU can be used on Macs other than a Mac Pro to test their creations. Being impatient by nature, I didn't want to wait for the release of macOS High Sierra{.nofollow}. Nor did I want to wait for developers to release their macOS High Sierra apps when they may have already released them on Windows. I wanted to see how my 2014 5K iMac would fair running some of the already developed VR games and experiences now running Windows 10 via Boot Camp (opens in new tab) from macOS Sierra.

The merits of trying to go beyond the wall

Why would I want to use my Apple products beyond what they're intended for? The simple answer is for added value. If I can pay a premium for Apple's ecosphere and be able to use their products for other non-Apple approved projects, then that elevates the value of the products in my mind.

I can already hear some of you chiding me on the hardware limitations of Mac hardware and it doesn't fall on deaf ears. The decision to use laptop-grade CPUs, memory, and storage components in iMacs and Mac Pros never sat well with me, nor did the limitations placed on being able to personally upgrade components but I've understood why it's done. The tolerances for power draw, the aspect of designing beautiful hardware, the ability to control the user experience are all aspects to be lauded.

Apple products are well designed and well made. Staying within the boundaries of their garden is a fantastic experience for most users and the accessibility for non-technical users is unparalleled. We pay a premium for those qualities. You can argue, for or against, if the price we pay is worth it for those qualities but that's a matter of personal opinion.

I'm on the fence, frankly. On the one hand, I enjoy Continuity between Macs and iOS devices (opens in new tab). I enjoy the seamless integration of my iCloud drives. I enjoy the ability to FaceTime and iMessage other Apple users. These work together so well, that whenever I use my Windows PCs or Linux server, I experience a jarring reminder of what it means to have to actively think about using my computing devices. Apple makes the device become the experience rather than the experience become the device.

On the other hand, I am annoyed at what seems like arbitrarily imposed limitations when trying to use Apple products in general (and Macs in particular) beyond what Apple intended. This is especially irksome since the premium we pay doesn't translate into the ability to have added value with its products.

My white whale

My family loves VR. We are totally on board with the first-generation room-scale VR devices. We own both the Oculus Rift with Touch controllers and the HTC Vive. We also own two powerful Windows PCs to run those headsets so that my wife and I can game together. We know that one day, we'd want to make it a family affair but that would mean incurring the costs of not only two more VR headsets, but also the costs of two more expensive PCs to run them.

I was ruminating over these costs and as I sat at my desk, I looked at my fairly recent and top-of-the-line (at the time) 5K iMac and thought to myself that I may already have one of the needed components to complete this goal. So I set out to make it happen.

The idea was simple: I wanted to see how well I could run a non-graphically demanding VR game called Rec Room. I was to install Windows 10 on my 2014 5K iMac via Boot Camp. Since the HTC Vive can connect via mini display port to a PC, I would then simply connect the Vive to the Thunderbolt 2 port which is supposed to be able to function as mini display port as well. Once I set everything up, I was to try and see how capable the iMac was in VR for that game. Like I said. Simple.

Forget Virtual Reality. I was hit by Reality Reality.

Installing Windows via Boot Camp is a breeze. Fire up the Boot Camp assistant and away you go. It downloads all of the drivers you need during the preparation phase and in no time you have Windows running on your iMac.

The drivers

The first red flag I ignored (or refused to acknowledge) came nearly immediately when I found out that although I'm running full-fledged Windows 10 on my iMac, it wasn't really full-fledged when it came to the hardware drivers.

On a Windows PC, you can download drivers for various chipsets and components from the manufacturers website and install those drivers. Knowing that I had an AMD Radeon M295X, I went to AMD's website and downloaded its latest drivers for its 200 series hardware running on Windows. The drivers that were installed during the Boot Camp installation were quite old and needed updating. Unfortunately, The latest drivers for 200 series GPUs do not include the AMD M295X.

I managed to find an updated but older driver for the M295X from AMD's website and though not as new as the latest releases, it would have to do. This comes to my first point on the walled garden. The specialized hardware in Apple products severely limits a user on functionality. Since there would be so few people needing this specific hardware running under Windows, you are at the mercy of the manufacturer to provide updates. With fewer instances of usage, there are fewer updates since it is not a priority.

The first attempt

Once I installed my more up to date GPU driver, I began to ready the Mac PC with software needed to get the HTC Vive connected. I installed Steam and Steam VR. With that, I connected one USB 2 cable to the back of the iMac. I connected a thunderbolt 2 cable between the Thunderbolt 2 port on the iMac and the mini display port on the HTC Vive breakout box. I was ready to rock and roll.

I fired up Steam and Steam VR and waited for the HTC Vive to come alive. Nothing. I had an error message that claimed that the HMD (Head Mounted Display) was not connected and to check my cabling. I did. Still nothing.

I dug a little deeper and found that Windows did in fact detect the Vive as per the information provided by the Device Manager. A good sign, I thought. I could also see that the USB controller detected the USB connection to the Vive. Another good sign. I fiddled with the display properties. I changed settings from direct mode access to non-direct mode. I deleted the profile for the multi-linked display of the 5K iMac screen (the 5K iMac is actually made of of two panels that can be made to appear as a single display). I moved the display orientations from side to side to one over the other. I rebooted, replugged, and reiterated. Always nothing.

The second attempt

Perhaps my updating to the latest AMD drivers caused some sort of incompatible configuration. I foraged online for others trying to do the same setup and read about a single person being able to get this running. I removed the graphics drivers and reinstalled the original Boot Camp provided AMD drivers. I got the same error message. Again I rebooted, replugged, and reiterated. Still nothing.

There was literally no reason that I could fathom as to why the Vive would not come to life. The power LED was illuminated. The USB was detected. The display was also detected. I must have missed something I thought.

The cables

On my Windows PC, I use the HDMI connection on the back of my GPU to connect the HTC Vive as opposed to the mini display port. Perhaps this was my problem. I hopped into my car and drove off to the local electronics shop. I bought a mini display port to HDMI adapter for the iMac. Drove back home, plugged in the adapter. Plugged in the HDMI cable from the Vive to the HDMI port on the adapter. Fired up Steam VR. Nothing.

This comes to my second point regarding the walled garden. Cables and ports may or may not work as expected. Did a have the right cables? Did I need a Thunderbolt 2 cable? Or did I need a mini display port cable? Since they look identical did it matter? Did I need a mini display port to HDMI cable? Or a Thunderbolt 2 to HDMI cable as those also look identical. Again, did it even matter? All I knew for certain was that when venturing beyond the walled garden, prepare for frustration.

The Headset

I suppose I should have learned by now to cut my losses but I instead decided to make one more change. I decided to try to connect my Oculus Rift to the Mac PC to see if that somehow would make a difference. To cut to the chase, it did not make a difference, but not for the same reasons.

Although I could physically connect the VR headset to the iMac without issue, the problem came when trying to install the Oculus specific software. It detected that my GPU was below the minimum specifications to adequately run VR. The irony is that I knew that already before I started off on this wild goose chase.

You can argue the point that it was Oculus and not Apple the stopped from completing the installation. However, and coming up to my third point, the fact of the matter is that Apple hardware is far too weak for the prices we pay. The usage of mobile hardware really inhibits you from getting that added value beyond the walled garden. There is no reason why a three grand iMac should not have a desktop class GPU architecture let alone the rest of the iMacs components. Although desktop class GPUs are coming, it will only be for the iMac Pro (opens in new tab) and you should read my thoughts on the AMD Vega GPU architecture.

Other things

I won't lie and say I gave up after switching to the Oculus Rift. I'll spare you the details but suffice it to say that it never manifested into anything other than disappointment.

Conclusions

I'm not going to say that going through this experience led me down to some dark path where I now think Apple sucks and that walled gardens are evil. In fact, as far as my work, my daily communications, my time management, and my entertainment, I simply love the ecosystem Apple has created. Having a walled garden has is merits. Usability and accessibility are greatly increased. Perhaps the walled garden is even necessary to ensure the proliferation of various technologies to get mass adoption as quickly as possible for critical mass for said technology to become successful. Perhaps this is what VR needs. I'm not certain I'm convinced on the last aspect but I can say that I'd very much prefer a walled garden that allows for added value than the walled garden that does not allow for it as we have it now. Not only is going beyond the wall frowned upon, it's darn near hostile. Surrounded by a wall of thorns indeed.

Do you have any comments on your experiences with the Apple Ecosphere? Let us know.

6 Comments
  • Your experience doesn't appear to be an experience of the "walled garden" and I think you are over using that term. The Walled Garden refers to developers not having access to any and all resources to create any and all apps they want, regardless if they are beneficial or not. The developers are quite literally stopped entirely from doing this if they want to be in the App Store. The walled garden never referred to using incompatible hardware that was never advertised to work with it. Boot camp was never advertised to be perfectly compatible like this and neither were the VR systems advised that they work with Mac in boot camp. And Apple may not have made it easy to create certain VR systems, but people before WWDC 2017 were welcome to try, VR makers were just of the idea that Mac hardware was of a level of performance that met their needs. It doesn't mean that Apple prevented anyone from creating a system that works on Apple hardware. If Apple wants to be in this space they need up their system specs and they showed that in WWDC 2017 but at no point was Apple going to developers and saying "absolutely not we will block all attempts at creating VR on this platform." Calling it a Walled Garden gives this article an emotional weight that is unearned for the situation you reported on. It's like saying it's Tesla's fault for not creating a way you could put a gas engine into their cars aftermarket.
  • Amen. This collection of blah-blah is beneath iMore.
  • The article is on point. It is a walled garden and it is difficult to use the device to its fullest potential because Apple does not accommodate most things beyond what they've thought about (or do) themselves. Example: It took almost two years since Photos was released before you could get a 1080p vide by simply dragging out and dropping onto your desktop. Until then, the app transcoded it to 720p without prompt or notification. There are hundreds of details like this scattered throughout iOS and MacOS which can frustrate users. No support for DLNA, Miracast, Wireless Display, or WiFi Direct means that you have to buy extra hardware to work with devices a Windows Laptop "just works" with - out of the box. ^• So much for being green and conserving energy, right? This is the linchpin of Apples business model. They wall off their ecosystem to encourage (or force) you to buy more Apple devices - which only work well with Apple devices. It's the ultimate form of vendor lock-in. There are obvious benefits to this, but you people always ignore the sacrifices and frustrations... Responding in an emotional, SJW, "woe is us" fashion doesn't really change the facts. If you use all Apple devices, this is mostly ignorable and you're likely to be the type of fan that emotionally reacts to it. If you only use a GUI, it's even less of a factor. If you use a heterogeneous computing environment, like many of the rest of us, this is very noticeable and often frustrating. macOS/iOS are amazing, but the flexibility of Windows 10 and Android - and Linux, to a slightly lesser extent - is a killer feature that they don't even come close to matching. It's the single biggest reason to avoid an Apple device - the fear that you will need to use a non-Apple device, and the frustration that brings in such an environment (destroying workflows and often necessitating the need to replace more Apple devices, which runs up long-term cost projections). The Apple accessories are also quite expensive compared to equally capable, and often more powerful, alternatives that work with off-brand devices and systems I use all three OSes daily. Real life is different from the "stories" many people would rather read on a fan site. This is why I opted for a PS4 over an XB1. The PS4 supports remote play on Windows and macOS. The Xbox only supports this on Windows. Openness is a legit point of criticism towards Apple, and it should be a consideration when buying a new device. People buy Apple devices because they work well together. Where is the fault in buying - instead - Windows or Android because they work WAY better with a larger ecosystem of cheaper (yet still just as good) devices? I see none. Please elaborate if you disagree.
  • iOS is a walled garden, I agree with this. MacOS is not. I merely object to the terminology used. Your arguments are why you feel MacOS is not as flexible and you have to buy extra hardware that Windows supports. That's fine, That's not a walled garden though. 1) Just because an OS supports something doesn't mean it supports it well
    2) Just because an OS needs additional hardware to support something doesn't mean it's blocked from you.
    3) Just because a platform requires effort to do something doesn't mean it's a walled garden. By this same logic, Linux is a walled garden because it's not as commonly known by the average user and you have to go to effort to find the right hardware and learn it. The "Walled Garden" metaphor is apt for iOS because users are directly prevented from installing any app from anywhere in the world, for the trade off of knowing that all apps you get will be reviewed by Apple before you install them so that they use APIs that put users at the least risk (not no risk, but least risk). There's a specific well defined line you must cross to go in or out of that Walled Garden. The examples you provide are regarding support of existing technologies. No computer support system supports "everything". I agree you need to make choices as to what you are willing to deal with, I don't consider the xbox situation a "walled garden", but I would consider it an attempt at vendor lock in. I use all three OSes regularly as well, and Windows is my primary work OS. I agree that openness is a concern and that consumers need to know what they are getting and make choices based on their needs. Again, I only object to the terminology used because if you start calling everything a walled garden, then nothing is a walled garden. Also Walled Garden is a loaded term when sometimes it's simply a conscious decision to not offer support. How many people really need Miracast support? I bet I can find a list several thousand times longer of people who need an easily configurable phone that has a high level level of security and hardware support from it's parent company than the people who need Miracast support. If you personally need Miracast, it's great that windows has it for you, I'm serious. The fact that Mac chose to concentrate elsewhere is not a "walled garden", it's knowing most of their customers don't need that.
  • Also. Re: VR. Mac hardware was a problem due to Apples designs. They use notebook components in desktop systems and had absolutely awful graphics card choices, among other things. Also, the price of a high end Mac is like twice an entry PC gaming rig (3-4x if you self-build) which can do VR without issue. The costs developing for macs was simply not worth it given how few Mac users actually buy machines that high end. Majority of Apples sales are at the lower end/base SKUs of their product range (based on what I see people buying - anecdotal).
  • @ n8ter#AC: "Also, the price of a high end Mac is like twice an entry PC gaming rig (3-4x if you self-build) which can do VR without issue." This is another Mac is too expensive for blah blah blah complaint. If you have the money for a Mac, you don't complain. You don't even have to think about the cost.
    Only the cheap complain about Mac prices. If you don't have the money for a Mac, just live and be happy with the white box PC you built yourself. It's like people who complain about the $100,000+ price of a Tesla when they can buy $30,000 gas cars that can go faster and are far more modifiable and upgradable to have even more horsepower, new engines, etc. Yes, Macs are not going to do everything and are not going to address the high end like PCs can - even with the new Mac Pros. But they are not designed to make high end people happy. They are designed for the vast majority of people and people who are discerning about their computer experience. The author should have realized before even trying the Oculus ruled out Macs for compatibility before complaining about his frustration.