The Mac Lives!

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, the report of the death of the Mac is an exaggeration.

True, at last week’s WWDC, there was an almost complete absence of anything Mac-related. Steve Jobs omitted any mention of Macs or Mac OS X at his Keynote. The Design Awards were limited to iOS apps. There was no hint anywhere of a forthcoming Mac OS X 10.7.

This led to a flurry of media speculation that the Mac as we know it is “dead.” According to this view, Mac OS X will be replaced by iOS in the near future. The most prominent example of this speculation is Dan Lyons’ Newsweek column. A Mac360 article contained a similar message. [To be fair, Dan Lyons didn’t exactly claim an OS replacement would happen; his claim was more that the iPad would “displace” the Mac. Still, I consider this to be all in the same ballpark.] 

In the short run

In my opinion, these articles are off base. Way off base. The odds that the traditional Mac OS X will be replaced by a variation of iOS any time soon is near zero. Why? Because doing so simply makes no sense.

For one thing, the iOS is a touch-screen based OS. There is no mouse or trackpad. The probability that Apple will throw all of its mice and trackpads into the dumpster and that we will instead be swiping our fingers across Cinema Displays (or other Mac screens) is too low to calculate.

Similarly, the idea that Apple would essentially shut down the entire web-based Mac software distribution system and force all Mac software to be submitted to the App Store is beyond belief. Users and developers would revolt before accepting this.

There’s also the matter of professional use of the Mac — from Mac OS X Server to Final Cut Pro. I doubt that any of these people would welcome a shift to iOS for their Macs.

Even if Apple gave serious consideration to switching from Mac OS X to iOS, it would have difficulty succeeding. There are too many Mac programs that depend on mouse/trackpad input. Left-click, right-click, single-click, double-click — they’d all have to be remapped to touchscreen tapping and swiping. You would also lose the precise control of a mouse-based cursor — something that cannot be easily matched by your index finger directly on the screen. If you have ever tried to reposition the cursor in an editable text document on an iPhone, you know what I mean. Beyond input methods, such a change would require that all current Mac software be substantially rewritten. Is Apple willing to impose this hassle on its developer community — with no upside to convince developers that it is worth the effort? Does Apple expect Microsoft to completely rewrite Office for iOS? Is Adobe interested in doing Creative Suite 6 for iOS? I say no. Even if these companies made the effort, could they succeed? Probably not — at least not at present. You need only compare the inferior iPad versions of iWork applications to their Mac-based siblings to see why. If that’s the best that Apple can do, how can we expect third-parties to do better?

In the long run

iOS is a close relative of Mac OS X. They both share the same underlying structure of Library files, frameworks, and a UNIX core. As such, converting Mac OS X to a form of iOS is not as impossible a task as it may at first appear. Further, a Mac hardware version of iOS need not be an exact duplicate of the current iOS. There could be an option for mouse and trackpad input. The OS could allow for adding software beyond the App Store. Initially, there could even be a dual-mode where you could shift between the two OS versions (much like you could shift to the Classic OS in the early days of Mac OS X). So, yes, a switch from Mac OS X to iOS is feasible.

Such a shift might well be attractive to Apple. It would unify and simplify Apple’s OS platforms, reducing the amount of work needed to keep them updated. It would also extend Apple’s tight control over iOS to the Mac. Steve would welcome that, I am sure.

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. In fact, I am confident that it is not going to happen. At least not in the near future.

As for the long-term (ten years or so), who can say? But who can say anything about where we will be ten years from now? Four years ago the iPhone did not even exist. There is no point in even attempting to speculate that far in advance.

[Steve Jobs recently reconfirmed Apple’s commitment to the Mac. When asked about Dan Lyons’ article, he replied: “Completely wrong. Just wait.” While Steve’s comment is worth noting, I take all of his remarks about the future of Apple with a heavy dose of salt. On numerous occasions, he has asserted that Apple will not be doing something right up until the moment that they do it — at which point Steve explains that Apple is doing an 180 degree turn because they finally figured out how to do (whatever just got reversed) “right.”]

In the medium run

All of that said, the emergence of iOS represents a profound change in the direction Apple is heading. This is especially so as it applies to the role of the iPad.

The iPad is not a total substitute for a laptop computer. It is not intended to be. Rather (as I have discussed previously), it is a different category of device, one that is better than a laptop in certain situations. I experienced this in a big way on my recent trip to Yosemite National Park. I left my MacBook Pro at home, taking only my iPad. The iPad superbly handled nearly everything I asked it to do. I used Maps for navigating. I uploaded several PDFs about Yosemite to GoodReader; this turned out to be much more convenient than carrying around a stack of paper. I used Safari to search for information about our trip, as needed. I uploaded each day’s photos from my camera to the iPad. When I wanted to connect to with the outside world, I could check my email and Twitter feed. To keep up with the news, I checked the New York Times or launched the NPR app to listen to All Things Considered. I even played a game on occasion. I could do this all with a super-light-weight device that only needed one recharge for the entire trip. Did I miss not having my MacBook with me? Absolutely not. The iPad was better than having my MacBook for this trip.

On the other hand, if I planned to get serious work done (such as working on a TMO article), I would have wanted my MacBook. The iPad still has too many limitations. But that is my point. These are not one-or-the-other alternatives. There’s room for both.

An analogy that fits well here is the microwave oven. When microwaves first arrived, manufacturers attempted to market them as a complete alternative to the traditional oven. Cookbooks showed how you could cook virtually anything in a microwave — from steaks to cakes. The sell didn’t work. People quickly discovered that microwaves could not do it all — at least not well. Traditional ovens never disappeared. Yet, microwaves became a huge success — because it did many things better than a traditional oven. Today, nearly every home has both a traditional and a microwave oven.

That’s how I see the evolution of the iPad. Over the next few years, more and more people will decide they want both a Mac and an iPad. If so, this would be great news for Apple — as they get to sell two devices to each customer instead of just one. Along the way, the iPad will keeping improving — making it an easier and easier call to take an iPad rather than a MacBook on a trip. For some people, the iPad may prove to be all they need. But MacBooks (not to mention iMacs and Mac Pros) are not going to go away entirely.

Bottom line

Steve Jobs claims that this year’s emphasis on the iPhone at WWDC is “just the normal cycle of things.” I don’t think so. We are at the beginning of a new cycle — with a greater and greater emphasis on iOS in the years ahead. We will not be seeing a 50-50 split of Apple’s time and resources between the two OS versions.

From a financial point of view, this certainly makes sense. Mac OS X sells only to Mac owners — who are still a small minority of all computer users and likely to remain so. The iOS, via iPods, iPhones, and iPads, potentially sells to everyone — whether they use PCs or Macs. Mobile computing is also currently where the buzz is. Every time Apple announces anything iOS-related, it makes front-page news. Not so with the Mac anymore. Apple’s future profits lay much more with iOS than Mac OS X.

Despite this, don’t expect Mac OS X to go away. It will remain on Apple’s laptop and desktop Macs for many years to come. I fully expect Mac OS X 10.7 to be featured at WWDC next year — along with iOS 5.