The Once and Future Macintosh

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” — Albert Einstein


It’s really clear now: the Macintosh is going to evolve quickly. The term “Mac” has been eradicated from the Mac OS X lexicon, the mouse is on the way out, and 75 percent of Macs sold are notebooks. Where does the beloved Mac evolve from here?

We know a lot more about the future of the Mac today than we did before the WWDC 2011 keynote. We were reminded that Mac sales are climbing at a significant rate compared to PCs. We were reminded that 75 percent of Apple’s Mac sales are notebooks. We were shown how Lion is the first modern OS that can dispense with scroll bars and the mouse.

Classic iMacThe desktop Mac & mouse - moving from mainstream to backwater

Going to Extremes - Not

The first thing to consider is that Lion introduces a lot of iOS ideas and makes the Mac easier to use. But it doesn’t change the way we must interact with the Mac, only the preferred method for the vast majority of users. Those who want to use Lion, but continue to live on the command line and the UNIX shells can still do so. Those who need the fine motor control of a 1200 dpi mouse for intricate design and art will still be able to use a Magic mouse. Those users who want access to the file system will still have it, both with Lion and the fabulous Path Finder from Cocoatech. So it’s not a question of absolutes; it’s a question of what Apple will showcase, develop and refine. That’s important to reflect on.

Lion on MacBook

OS X Lion

The movement to the cloud, while not for everyone will dictate where Apple puts its energies. Not many people enjoy being home IT managers, wrestling with updates, managing backups, and fighting off malware. So it’s reasonable to surmise that Apple’s iCloud initiative is designed to eliminate that fuss for most users. That would suggest that the days of the desktop Mac, for the majority of users, will come to a close. Big displays will still be with us, driven by notebooks and Thunderbolt, but Apple is definitely moving to an era where the desktop PC or Mac is no longer a management noose around the average user’s neck.

Does this mean that developers, advanced users, writers, scientists and technologists won’t be able to continue working as they have been in Lion? Of course not. There will still be local storage. Dropbox will continue to develop and be useful. Many organizations will decline to use Apple’s iCloud. The desktop Mac will continue to be a UNIX-based workhorse for many. The difference is that while Apple lived and died by the desktop UNIX workstation ten years ago, in the future, most Apple customers will be focused on a different kind of computer experience.

The mouse, now used by almost every Mac user at some time or another will be rarely used. For most users, life will become simpler. Many Apple customers may find that an iPhone and an iPad is all they need. And Apple’s desktop displays, driven by MacBooks, will be driven by the touch pad. Even the remaining few desktops that Apple sells will come, optionally at first, but then by default, with the Magic Trackpad instead of a mouse. (But you’ll still be able to buy mice.)

By now, you see where I’m going. The desktop Mac will evolve into a desktop display and computing system, supported by the iCloud, for most of Apple’s customers. But those with technical savvy, the “pickup truck drivers” in the parlance of Mr. Jobs will still be around. Local storage, if you want it, will remain. You’ll visit an architect friend’s house and see things seldom seen by average users. You’ll see scientists working with X11 and NFS mounted drives at the local university. And so on. The mainstream simply becomes the exception.

Desktops are no longer where the money is, that’s not the modern trend in mobility, and that’s not where Apple will focus its efforts for the next five years.

The Evolution of the Mac

Now that Apple has decided to put powerful CPUs in the iMac line, I expect the Mac Pro to be the first to be discontinued, maybe later this year. It will go the way of the Xserve. There’s just no Big Money in 41 pound cheese graters.

Mac lineup


Anyone see an odd man out?

Next, in a few years, I expect that Apple will move to always have the strongest CPUs in the Mac mini (sans optical drive, SSD driven) so that the company can eventually eliminate the iMac. They’re very cool, but a bit hard to handle and work with when repairs are needed. On the other hand, stand alone displays will get even bigger and thiner, but for those who just have to have a desktop computer with lots of CPU power and local storage, the Mac mini will be the preferred (only) solution. It might not even be called a Macintosh anymore to emphasize that true Macs are exclusively mobile.

I suspect that in five years, many Apple customers will have a fairly large, very high quality display driven by a Mac mini or a MacBook. Others may find that an iPad and iPhone are all they need. While some users will steadfastly keep their data local, most Apple customers will live on MacBooks, iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches — and their successors — in the cloud. OS X probably won’t go away until Apple decides whether iOS can (or should) carry the complete load for the most advanced users, developers and content creators. That’s too far out to predict.

The desktop Mac isn’t doomed. It’s merely doomed to become a very small part of the Apple universe in the near future. MacBook sales will continue to soar and with them, OS X. Eventually, however, the classic Macintosh and OS X will fade away as iOS and the cloud evolve in unexpected ways and our computing paradigm changes. That much we know that we cannot know.

Along the way, if the classic PC and Microsoft become relics of the past, Mr. Jobs won’t mind.