Filed Under Computers on August 19, 2011 at 5:03 pm
With the release of Lion there seems to be wide-spread fear, bordering on panic in some quarters, that it’s the start of the end of the Mac. The feeling seems to be that Steve is pushing us all towards iPads and iPhones, and that he’s going to leave all us power users in the lurch. Sine Apple watching is so much like Kremlinology, we can’t just ask Apple PR where they are headed, we have to infer and imply based on the past and the present. The doom-sayers are projecting a future where Apple dumb-down their desktops and laptops to the point that they have no more power than their iPhones and iPads. When I look at the same past and present, I see Apple moving towards a very different future, not one where Macs become iPad-like, but one where Apple unify the look, feel and design philosophy across all their computing products, but where no features are lost. The best analogy I can come up with is the computing experience aboard the Star Ship Enterprise (the D of course), Apple are not moving to ‘iPadify’ the Mac, they are moving to ‘Startrekify’ their entire line.
In the Star Trek universe, there are computers everywhere, and in many varied form factors, with many varied functions and capabilities. There is no one type of computer that has won that future, but many. The stations in engineering, the sick bay, or on the bridge are closely analogous to our current desktop computers like the iMac. Big screen, big horizontal input area, and a lot of capabilities. Then you have things that look a lot like laptops sitting on people’s desks, they still have some horizontal input surfaces, and they still have a reasonable amount of screen real-estate, but they’re much smaller and less intrusive than a full work station. The most obvious analogy is of course the omni-present little pads that you see in use all over the ship, these small portable touch-screen devices are clearly the iPads of the Star Trek world. Finally, you have the humble little tricorder, very port alb, but a very small screen and limited input possibilities, in my mind these are analogous to iPhones or iPod Touches, though the analogy is a little more stretched that the others I’ll admit. Of course the Star Trek universe didn’t stop inventing new form factors with the iPad, they have other cool things that we don’t have yet like interactive Walls and truly omnipresent present computers that you can just talk to, where ever you are inn the ship, or house.
What stands out to me is that the future is not about replacing form factors, but adding more and more untill we have filled every niche with a perfectly suited type of computer. This is why even now, the desktop is not dead. Since the introduction of desktop computing the Laptop, PDA, smart phone, and tablet computer have all come along, but none of them have replaced the Desktop, they’ve just added to our computing experience. If you believe that computing evolves by one form factor replacing those that went before, then this makes no sense, but if you look towards a Star Trek future it fits perfectly.
Right now I use two iMacs (one in work and one at home), a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and an iPad on a daily basis. If any of them were to snuff it in the morning I’d miss them terribly, and get to work replacing them! I don’t want to loose any of them, they all fill a niche for me, they all do some things better than each other, the don’t compete with each other, they compliment each other! I don’t want any form factor to win any race, what I want is for them all to work together seamlessly. I want the stuff I need to be where I want it to be when I want it, and without my having to plan ahead. I also want the look, feel, and design logic of the OSes running all these computers to be unified. I don’t want iOS on my desktop, but I do want Mac OS X and iOS to be singing off the same proverbial hymn sheet! I want to feel at home on them all. Think back to Star Trek, all those very different computing devices, all with different interfaces, and yet, all with a unified design! You can instantly look at any computing device in Star Trek The Next Generation and tell whether it is Federation or not, no matter what the function or form factor of that particular computer happen to be. I think this is the kind of future Apple is working towards.
Keeping this vision in our minds, lets have another look at what Apple have been up to recently. Firstly, iCloud is clearly about trying to give our data that sense of ubiquity that it has in the Start Trek universe. You never see Captain Picard having to try remember what computer it was he saved the crew roster on to, any of the many computing devices he uses has that information available, as if by magic! Whether or not iCloud succeeds in delivering that future or not is somewhat beside the point in this discussion, it’s clear what Apple is trying to achieve.
So lets look again at Lion. Is it a dumbing down of OS X, or a move towards creating a common aesthetic and design between iOS and OS X? If it was about dumbing down, then surely we should have lost some of the Mac’s power features? If we have, I’m having a hard time finding them! No matter how hard I look, the only slight loss of functionality I see is in Spaces, you can’t have grids anymore in Mission Control, but you could in Spaces. The grid was not meaninglessly sacrificed though, it was sacrificed to bring significant improvements to Exposé, to allow true full screen apps without a loss in multi-tasking, efficiency, and to make Spaces more accessible to users, almost none of whom actually used it before.
What I have seen in Lion is the addition of new power features, and some nice improvements to the old power-feature stalwarts. We now have full disk encryption as part of the OS, and Automator, Apple Script, the Finder, and even the Terminal all got updated. To me, the facts simply do not support the idea that Lion dumbed down OS X.
If, Lion is not about stripping functionality, then what is it about? To me, the answer is very clear, it’s about unifying the design and logic of iOS and the Mac. Why was the scrolling reversed? To make scrolling work the same across all Apple OSes! The move towards multitouch gestures is something Apple is doing in both of it’s OSes. The ability to truly full-screen apps has clearly been brought over from iOS, but it was brought over in a very Mac-like way. Multitasking on the Mac did not become as limited as it is on iOS, the full screen idea was brought over in a way that allowed the Mac to gain something people like from iOS, without losing any of the power of the Mac.
Why should we be scared of making it easier to switch between Apple products? Surely learning to use an iPad SHOULD help you feel at home on a Mac?!
The physical process of writing this article is actually an interesting peek into a Star Trek future. The inspiration struck me in bed, so I was in no mood to get up and power up my desktop just to jot it down, instead, I grabbed my iPad which was lying next to the bed, and quickly tapped out a rough outline of the article, then I put the iPad down and went to sleep. During a break in work I opened up that outline and padded it out a little on my desktop. Then I went home and finished and posted it from my iMac. I was able to use what ever device was the best fit at the time on each occasion, and my data was just magically there for me to work on. Today only some apps work like this, but in the future we should expect all apps to work like this. EverNote has been giving us a sneak-preview of the future for a few years now!
When I look at the evidence, I don’t see Apple steering a course towards an iOS-only hell, I see Apple having their sights firmly set on a Star Trek future, one with a multitude of types of computers to fill every niche perfectly, where this plethora of computers all share a common esthetic and logic, and where you have seamlessly ubiquitous access to your data on all of them.
I don’t see Lion as a harbinger of doom, but as a glimpse of a very exciting future!