“If you keep chasing yesterday’s question, you’re gonna miss tomorrow’s answer. ” — Don Sabatini
Why are some users fretting about Apple’s plans for the Mac Pro? Why is there angst, in some circles, about iOS-ification? What forces are causing Apple to shift its consumer focus? Let’s dig into this and see what’s going on.
Once upon a time, companies built computers because there was money to be made by putting computational power into the hands of skilled individuals. In the Apple II days, people who bought them likely were already working with computers at work, and they revelled in the idea of having some computational fun at home. Heck, they could even write some BASIC code, mess with ViciCalc or play Pong.
As home computers became more powerful, they started to inherit the capabilities of the more serious computers we used at work. The difference between a PowerMac G5 running Panther in 2003 and, say, a top end Sun workstation, running Solaris, was not so great.
The possibilites for the home, technical user became enormous. One could write thousands of lines of C code and compile in seconds. One could write a darn good aircraft carrier landing simulator. One could edit video. One could build a 3D model of a molecule and explore its chemistry.
While this was all great fun, and the opportunities sold a lot of Macs (and PCs), the basic structure of the computer limited its marketability. The geek factor of such a computer was still more than many people could deal with. They’d mess around, and many got into trouble. On the other hand, expert users, from their workplace, knew how to keep themselves out of trouble, in terms of malware, as the household transitioned from dial-up to broadband.
When this enormous geek power was thrown against an entrenched Windows market, it thrilled the scientists and engineers, but failed, in general, to catapult the Mac into a major position. The Mac never exceeded single digit marketshare.
What technical users liked about the early Macs was its UNIX underpinnings. The GUI was great, and greatly facilitated exploration and operation, but didn’t get in the way. Apple helped promote this by showcasing the idea that you could have X11 in one window, a terminal in another, Microsoft’s Windows in another and the Finder to round it all out.
Such a system in the hands of an expert user could lead to surprising synergies. Scripts could make the Mac jump through hoops. Clever code could marshall enormous UNIX resources. One could do creative play, explore, build, munge, and revel in trial and error. The Mac was so fast at this point that one could try things never before possible. Who knew what synergy would arise? Oh, such power. Heady stuff.
iOS-ification. Even Hollywood believes. (Image Credit: FOX Broadcasting)
Without going into great detail, several forces converged to change all that. Broadband and the public Internet changed the game. Suddenly, personal computing wasn’t about computing. It was about commerce. The iPod brought us a thousand songs in our pocket. Web commerce hatched Amazon. The iPhone brought us mobile apps.
So Apple had to ask itself some interesting questions
- What notions are holding us back?
- What is the potential market?
- What technologies (and issues) in OS X are keeping us from exploiting the consumer market?
Mac OS X is based on BSD UNIX, and UNIX, despite its strengths, constant security audits, good control over user privileges, still needs a little help when it comes to dealing with the severity of threats from all over the Internet. That’s why we have a host of new features like ASLR, digital signatures, sandboxing, and so on to help this OS, born in an innocent era, cope with the constant onslaught of threats.
Doing all that has allowed Apple to provide desirable consumer services. iTunes, the App Store, the Mac App store, and the iBookstore bring in substantial revenue. Apple has 400 million consumer credit cards on file. Apple’s ecosystem promises great looking hardware, easy of use, security, and a boatload of cool products and services, like iCloud. Advances in computational speed and graphics are, naturally, applied to the consumer experience, not esoteric computation for computation’s sake.
What’s happening in those minds? Abstraction level of the iPad is enormous.
Image Credit: Apple
The Source of Concern
Personal computers are used more and more by the masses as consumer oriented devices. We play music on them, watch video, buy books (for reading on an iPad), explore websites that have news or stories of interest. The community watering hole of the Internet has shifted from computation and personal technology to commerce, communication and expression.
Naturally, the focus on the design of OS X has shifted accordingly. The amazing success of the iPad is a guidepost. It tells Apple what the customer wants. Meanwhile, Apple’s under the hood feedback system tells Apple what customers are doing with their Macs. As a result, Apple product managers have a good feeling about problems customers face and what changes need to be made to help them out. Old metaphors like how documents are saved are unable to protect average users from lost work, so changes were introduced. The result has been what we call iOS-ification, the merger of OS X and iOS in many respects.
This bowing at the altar of the consumer has many people who grew up with the Mac, born 28 years ago, concerned.
A Sense of Loss
Ted Landau’s terrific article,”The Splintering of OS X,” explored, for the sake of discussion, some of these issues. How can an OS meet the needs of both the explorers, the experts, the developers, the university researcher and the consumer market? How can we preserve the sense of control, surprise, exploration, OS-level creative activities and preserve the fun, ease of use, security and consumerization of the Mac? The extensive discussion after that article explored this nuance.
It was argued by some that little is to be gained by dwelling the computational past that we grew up with. They think Apple should move forward at a relentless pace and believe that OS X and iOS will merge. It is argued by others that very experienced technical users (and developers) would like to preserve the raw power surfaced to the customer in, say, Snow Leopard, perhaps the pinnacle of the personal UNIX OS.
I was impressed by that body of knowledge the readers created.
By way of compromise, some readers felt that no matter how much iOS-ification there is, experts will always be able to dig in under the hood and access the kinds of computational and OS resources that allows them to have their way with the Mac. Others saw the hand writing on the wall and proposed that the Mac Pro, once a symbol of Apple’s commitment to computational computing, is a dying animal. It will likely be replaced by something of the same name, but with a different commercial focus. Some, in my own experience, realize that to pursue what they may need in academia, they may have to turn to high-end Linux workstations (or even clusters).
Mac Pro, R.I.P. To be gloriously reborn in 2013
Personally, I don’t think that Apple will splinter the OS. One reader suggested a mechanism whereby an admin password might be able to unlock and unleash some previous capabilities. That’s tempting and in keeping with the current model. For example, Apple hasn’t removed the terminal app from Lion, but it’s most assuredly not in the Dock, out of the box. So my take is that Apple will leave expert usage to the experts and march on with the consumer market.
For the small percentage of users, nowadays, who really need to preserve their computational legacy, sense of control, sense of OS exploration and creative, technical play, many options remain. I mentioned some in “6 Ways to Outsmart Apple’s iOS-ification.”
When Apple’s CEO Tim Cook started his WWDC 2012 keynote presentation, he highlighted some stories about how customers are benefiting from the power of Apple technology. The key takeaway from these stories bears directly on this issue and is worth emphasizing.
Ever higher levels of OS and framework abstraction provide increasingly higher levels of technology, solutions and customer benefits. This is how Apple moves relentlessly forward.”
In other words, those decades of computational development have now produced an enormously higher level of computer utilization thanks to layers of abstraction. This has led to geofences, GPS assistace for the blind, scientific visualization on the iPad and Siri just to name just a few.
As for me, knowing that I have resources, that there are some very smart developers and technologists out there, knowing that there will always be apps outside the Mac App Store unbridled by the sandbox, that other smart people will tunnel into any sufficiently complex OS and provide us with endless geek fun, I’m ready to move on. I’m not going to worry about iOS-ification anymore. Instead, I look forward to what we can achieve with our Macs and iPads.
We’ve lost a little but gained a lot. It’s time to stop fretting about iOS-fication and move forward smartly, see where it can lead.