From the moment Apple delivered its one-two punch of a forthcoming Mac App Store and iOS-like Launchpad and Mission Control features in Mac OS X Lion, the blogosphere has been working overtime to predict what it all means. Back in October, I posted my own initial thoughts on the matter. While I expressed concern over the future of third-party utilities, my general outlook was to remain calm and wait-and-see.
I’ve had trouble waiting. Over the subsequent weeks, I found myself continuing to return to this topic. Where exactly is Apple heading with all of this? Does Apple really hope to transform the Mac into a giant iOS device? Would Apple actually risk making such a dramatic change? Would it throw overboard all of the third-party software that could not or would not run under an iOS variant of Mac OS X? Is Apple ultimately seeking the same level of control over third-party Mac software that it now exerts over iOS apps?
I don’t have certain answers. But I am ready to make some dramatic predictions. As with any predictions, they come with an associated level of confidence. In this case, while I believe these predictions represent the most likely future, my degree of confidence is not so great that I would be shocked if they turn out to be wrong.
My primary prediction is this: The Mac line-up will eventually split in a new way; there will be iOS-based Macs and traditional Mac OS X-based Macs. Further, the iOS-based Macs will wind up with the the lion’s share (wordplay intended) of the Mac market, far outselling traditional Macs.
What will these iOS-based Macs be like? For hardware, given Steve Jobs’ recent critique of vertically-oriented touchscreens, I suspect they will bear a greater resemblance to today’s MacBook Air than to the iPad. This would also help Apple to maintain a clear dividing line between the market for Macs vs. iPads. For software, however, these Macs will be very much an unambiguous iOS device. There will be apps specific to the Mac (just as the iPad can now run apps that won’t run on an iPhone), but these Macs will otherwise be a full-fledged member of the iOS team.
Before the naysayers start shouting, allow me to explain a bit further. To do so, I need to take a detour into the world of cameras and photography.
Point-and-shoot vs. SLR cameras
My very first camera (I got it when I was a kid) was a point-and-shoot camera. Suffice it to say that this category has been around for a long time. Still, as recently as the 1980s, if you were at all serious about taking pictures, you owned either a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera or a high-end fixed-lens camera. By “serious,” I don’t mean professional or hobbyist. I mean simply that you wanted a quality level beyond the basic Kodak-moment™. Low-end point-and-shoot cameras were not up to the task. Although my wife and I were casual photographers, we owned SLR cameras, each with a couple of lenses. This was common back then. Our cameras did have an Auto mode, but we learned to make use of f-stop and shutter speed controls. Professional photographers had more expensive better quality equipment, but we were all working with the same technology.
This is no longer the case. Over the years, the quality of point-and-shoot cameras has dramatically improved. As a result, especially with the maturation of digital cameras, point-and-shoot cameras are now the norm for all but professionals and the most dedicated amateurs. For many people, their smartphone is a good enough camera.
By and large, these simpler cameras don’t offer multiple lenses, large zoom ratios, superior low-light photography, or top-quality optics. But most people are willing to give up these advantages in exchange for a decent easy-to-use camera that fits in their pocket.
It’s not just a question of saving money. Top of the line point-and-shoot cameras can cost as much as $400. They may offer controls that go well beyond Auto mode (even if most people don’t use them) — allowing you to select ASA speed, exposure level, white balance, and such. Still, they are fundamentally a different animal from SLR cameras.
Most camera companies offer models in both categories, sometimes adding an intermediate category between the extremes. But it’s the point-and-shoot cameras that dominate the market.
Back to the Mac
Perhaps you can already see where I’m heading. I believe the point-and-shoot vs. SLR camera split is analogous to what will happen with Macs. Just as digital technology breathed new life into point-and-shoot cameras, iOS will lead the way to a new type of Mac.
There will be both “point-and-shoot” iOS-based Macs and “SLR” Mac OS X-based Macs. There is already a quasi-split of this sort, with the Pro Macs on one end and the MacBooks and iMacs on the other. But these all run the same software. And the not-so-secret truth is that most Mac owners don’t push the hardware limits of even the lowest-end Macs. Most Mac owners will never own Photoshop (or even Photoshop Elements). They will never launch Final Cut Pro (or even Final Cut Express). On their own, they will never discover that Terminal is on their drive; they have no interest in exploring the Library folders or otherwise dealing with the technical details of Mac OS X. They don’t want to master six different methods of installing, updating and uninstalling software. They don’t need the fastest CPU or the largest hard drive. They just want a simple-to-use goof-proof computer that can adequately handle their daily rather minimal tasks.
In other words, they want a point-and-shoot Mac — which is precisely what an iOS-based Mac would be.
Initially, you won’t have to choose between the two types of Macs. As the vast majority of the differences in the two systems will reside in software, Macs will ship with both types of OS installed. You’ll have the option to switch between them — similar to how you can now switch between Mac OS X and Windows. This means that the same hardware will be sold to run both OS versions.
Eventually, I expect this too will change. I expect Apple will customize their hardware to match the OS. The iOS-based Macs will ship with adequate but not top-of-the line internal hardware and minimal expandability options. They will offer some sort of touchscreen support. In contrast, the traditional Macs will look much like the Pro lines of Macs today. Eventually, when the split is complete, Apple will sell Macs that run only the iOS-based OS and others that run primarily the traditional Mac OS (probably with an option to switch to an iOS mode, if needed).
In the marketplace, sales of traditional Macs will start a steady decline. The less expensive, easier-to-use, iOS-based point-and-shoot Macs will emerge as the best-selling models. By far. This will be true despite the restrictions of an OS where all (or almost all) software must come from the Mac App Store and where end user access to the system software is practically non-existent. It will be a trade-off that most Mac users will be happy to make — just as they now do so with their iPhones and iPads.
How long before this transition takes place? I believe it has already started — with the MacBook Air, the Mac App Store and the forthcoming Mac OS X Lion. I expect the changes will really kick in with the arrival of the first full iOS-based variation of Mac OS X in a couple of years, probably as a component of Mac OS X 10.8. The hardware split of the Mac line should be complete within five years. The era of the point-and-shoot Mac will have arrived.