“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be." -- Marcel Pagnol
Apple, since its inception, has always had computers that appealed to scientists and engineers, thanks to their ease of use, technical elegance, and, since 2001, UNIX. In turn, Apple embraced that market as a sign of Apple's dedication and professionalism in supporting their endeavors. Recently, Apple dropped its Web page that focuses on the use of Apple products in science. I shall atempt to shed some light on this event.
Specifically,http://www.apple.com/science was dropped at the end of 2012. It is no more.
Having been involved in the predecessor of that site, apple.com/scitech, with several other distinguished Apple colleagues, it's personally painful to see this development. Even so, I'll do my best to analyze what's going on.
The banner of apple.com/science of old.
There was, of course, a time when Apple didn't have an iPod or iPad or iPhone. During the PC era, Apple fought vigorously against Microsoft and its PC partners. To achieve traction, Apple sought to leverage its appeal to the kinds of users who appreciated the very best tool available to be pressed into serious personal, computational work.
When Mac OS X launched in March of 2001, Apple had a leg up on the competition, namely, beautiful industrial design, modern technologies, and the security and technical appeal of UNIX. It made sense to court governments, aerospace, business, science and engineering. In the end, it was too late. Microsoft and its partners had won the PC war, and nothing was ever going to boost Apple beyond single digit market share.
There's something to be said for celebrating your own products
even if specific sales are not dominant. Credit: Apple.
The iDevice Phenomenon
A look at where Apple's revenue comes from these days shows that most of it comes from iPhones and iPads.
As always, follow the money. (Credit: Business Insider.) Oct 2012.
While the iPad may appeal to various technical segments, it appeals in a different fashion. Tinkering with Perl, X11, and C compilers is a desktop PC legacy that, actually, is quite nicely handled by Linux. We are in the Post-PC era now, and Apple's core markets for the Mac have shifted accordingly. In fact, you can see a list of formal core markets that Apple is now interested at the very bottom of this page: http://www.apple.com/mac/: Business, Creative Pro, Education and Students.
Instead of catering to a specific market segment, like chemistry or physics, Apple is focused on creating elegant computers that can be pressed into service in broad market segments, like education and professional creativity. Some may consider that an easy way out, and some may consider that just plain contemporary business smarts.
Finally, Apple remains very mindful of companies that catered to needy, fussy scientists and engineers with UNIX workstations -- and largely failed. Sun (bought by Oracle), HP and IBM have had tough times doing that. SGI, a shadow of its former self, is basically a holding company because of certain government contracts. Apple never wanted to travel down that fruitless path.
A fascinating glimpse of apple.com/science from 2004. R.I.P.
One of the downsides of all this is corporate respect granted by influential customers, the exploration of technical opportunities, and corporate leadership.
Companies that use some of their earnings, like IBM and Google, to explore the frontiers of technology are in a better position to predict and exploit the next technical revolution, whether it be quantum computing, robots, smart glasses or artificial intelligence.
To do that, a modern corporation has to subject itself to scrutiny by the leaders in these fields, and, in turn participate in technical exploration and exchange. (That can be annoying for non-technical executives.) One way to achieve that is by participating in professional conferences, something that Apple no longer does.
One can argue that focusing to extremes on the fashionable products that are easy to sell to consumers without a broad technical infrastructure is like having a golden goose, but not caring for its food, shelter and protection from predators. The money is only as good as the health of the goose. And a golden goose can get sick or be stolen.
Corporate, technical expertise and leadership, orthogonal to the quest for cash, is forever.
Over the years, Apple has systematically divorced itself from products and software that either held it back or don't fit in with its vision of the future. Or were just plain too hard to do well. We've seen the axing of the Xserve and workgroup servers, Xserve/RAID, X11, Java, the withdrawal of support for MacResearch.org. NFS support has been problematic. OS X Server has morphed from a serious IT management tool into a toy for home and small business users.
I discussed this trend in "OS X Lion: Apple’s Continuing UNIX Dilemma," back in 2011 when the signs were becoming clear.
Apple is what it is, a company that drives relentlessly into the future. And so we can probably expect to see a few more events that will annoy the technical gurus. These are just guesses, but considering Apple's history, there will probably be more disappointments in that special, geeky, UNIX-y way.
- Elimination of the Terminal app. We might want to brace ourselves for this in, perhaps, OS X 10.10. Of course, those who really need one can procure one somewhere else.
- Movement away from Virtualization. In the Post-PC era, there may come a time when Apple sees the gains to be made by low power ARM processors in MacBooks outweighing the loss of virtualization hardware. I would expect virtualization to remain on desktop Macs with access to wall power. And there would be commensurate recognition of developer needs.
- Merging of iOS and OS X, so-called iOS-ification. UNIX is no longer an important selling point to scientists and engineers. Instead, it's simply an infrastructure item that allows Apple to pursue the consumer and post-PC era. Purists who need UNIX for business and engineering have plenty of alternatives based on Linux.
We also worry about how this thinking will affect the design of the new Mac Pro that Apple promised us.
From 2012: Apple explicitly celebrated: Medicine, Genomics, Chemistry, etc. at apple.com/science.
Denial, Then Acceptance
This is not to say, and this is very important to note, that all kinds of technical professionals will no longer find Macs of all kinds appealing and productive. Nothing is ever just black and white that way.
Students, professors, engineers, scientists, creative professionals, businessmen and many government entities will prefer to use Macs in preference to crappy PCs (and what seems to be a stumble for Windows 8) for their important work. Small things that Apple does for the sake of moving forward in their typical fashion may annoy us, but those actions won't keep us from appreciating what Apple is trying to do. So far, we've always found solutions, either inside or outside of Apple, and enthusiasm remains high.
Personally, I think it's sad to see explicit support for and the celebration of Apple products for science and engineering on Apple's Website just disappear. I think it's shortsighted and isn't the kind of thing we expect from such an accomplished technical corporation.
In the end, history will tell the story of whether this corporate philosophy allowed Apple to break with the past and surge forward to long-lived success or whether Apple failed to attend to important corporate responsibilities, infrastructure, and forced exposure to humankind's most advanced technical thinking.
In the meantime, Macs are the best UNIX-based computers on the planet, and millions of users will keep right on using them for all that they do, including science and research. We remain in this middle ground, in the present, trying to make sense of it all, and the future slowly comes into focus. It's the best we can do.