The Chronicles Of Macintosh

The Lion, The Air, & The App Store

The Future Of The Mac & Computing

Image Copyright Apple Inc.

In October of last year Apple held their “Back To The Mac” event and made several announcements. Chief among them was a new MacBook Air, a preview of the next version of OS X, and a new App Store for the Mac. Though by the time you read this, the Verizon iPhone will have been announced and that will be the story on everyone’s lips, I got to wondering if we won’t look back at this October event and see it as far more pivotal than we first realized.

To explain why, we need to go back in time to when I bought my first iPhone in June of 2007. The first thing that struck me (as I’m sure you) was how much I liked the multi-touch interface. Before “The Demo” at Macworld Expo, even if Steve Jobs told me about it using his famed reality distortion field cranked to eleven, I’d have probably said something like “good luck with that, I’ll stick with my BlackBerry.” My experience with touch screens to that point was limited to ATMs, GPS, and wedding registries in the back of JCPenny. However, ten minutes with the iPhone and I thought, this is the future! Why do I need a mouse? Why do I need to input by proxy when you can interface this closely with the machine? I suspected then that they were going to build a bigger version of the iPhone and, next, they would bring multi-touch to the Mac. They had to.

Almost three years later, they launched the iPad. What I didn’t know then was that the iPad was the Chicken and the iPhone, the Egg. Apple actually began building the tablet first! With the iPad, Apple isn’t simply removing the traditional input devices for touch. The iPad, and by extension iOS, is Apple’s first step at changing the whole computer interface paradigm. Once again, I had a hunch that Apple would eventually bring these ideas to the Mac. In October 2010, they confirmed this with their preview of OS X Lion. With Launch Pad, Mission Control and full screen apps, Lion is taking the Mac in that direction, and they’re doing it without a Touch UI (for now). This is more than simply homogenizing the UI across the line. It’s clear that for the first time since the original Macintosh, Apple is working to radically redefine personal computing and the GUI.

To better illustrate this, let me propose the following experiment:

Take an adept Mac user from the mid 80’s (let’s say he’s been frozen “Han Solo style” in carbonite for the past 25 years), set him down in front of a brand new iMac running Snow Leopard, and have him perform a series of tasks including everyday tasks like; creating folders, creating and typing text documents, and deleting files by dragging and dropping them to the Trash. I’d wager this mythical Mac user would be able to perform these tasks using tools like TextEdit and the Finder without a lot of extra help or effort. Now hand him an iPad and ask him to do the same thing. Do you see what I mean? How does he create a folder? Where’s the Trash? The Desktop?

While you may think I’m being overly cute with this, it wasn’t until I thought about it in these terms that I could see, how stark the differences really are. Of course iOS is a still young, but so was the Mac our recently thawed user last used in the mid-80’s. Yes, iOS is used for mobile touch devices, but as Apple is showing us with Lion, it doesn’t have to be. The interface to iOS as it exists in these devices is really no less a radical departure from the Mac – or any desktop OS for that matter – than the original Macintosh.

While changing the Mac’s interface, Apple is also working on changing the Mac’s hardware. The MacBook Air running Lion later this year is Apple redefining what a Mac is. The first image that came to my mind looking at the 11-inch Air running Lion, was a more powerful iPad. Steve Jobs commented to the effect (paraphrasing) that if you want to see what future MacBook Pro will look like, look at an Air today. Certainly, the current Pro generation took a lot from the previous gen Air with both the unibody design and glass screen having made their debut in the Air.

Of course, the announcement that got everyone talking – and just opened a few days ago – is the Mac App Store. As we are beginning to see already, the Mac App Store is going to be a huge benefit to developers, particularly the smaller, indie, efforts and startups trying to get noticed. It will also be great for users, especially the “switchers” as Mike has said. The store has already driven down the price of some software, including Apple’s. The App Store means not having to deal with serial number issues like, “This serial number is for the upgrade version of {some title}, you need a serial number for the full version.” or the infamous, “This serial number has been activated on too many machines.” Heck, not having to see “Please enter the serial number” at all makes it worth buying from the App Store!

Certainly those are all great reasons for users and developers to have and use an App Store for the Mac but, what’s in this for Apple? Last time I looked, their top level domain ended in .com, not .org. In other words, Apple, Inc. isn’t a charity. They are not into altruism just for the sake of it. So, could there be another reason?

I can’t have a goofy title like ”The Lion, The Air, and The App Store” without some sort of prediction. What does this all mean? Where do I think the Mac is headed? Many look back at the year 2001 as the genesis for the change in fortunes that has turned Apple into one of the biggest companies in the last decade. If you could only pick one crucial year since the return of Jobs, 2001 would be as good as any. That year saw the release of OS X, the debut of the iPod, and the grand opening of Apple’s retail stores. I think 2010, specifically Apple’s “Back To The Mac” event, may prove to be equally as pivotal for the future of the Mac. Three announcements; Lion, the MacBook Air, and the App Store, could be used as a Mac weathervane that shows the direction Apple is blowing the Mac.

The Lion

For starters, Apple is changing the UI. For years, desktop UI’s (Mac or otherwise) have relied on visible scroll bars, overlapping windows, the desktop metaphor, menus and menu bars, modal open/save dialog boxes, and a transparent hierarchal file system. It wasn’t until Apple, in an effort to build a new tablet using a touch UI, constrained by computing resources and physical size, really created something new. From the dawn of the first personal computer that counted, the Apple I (or II if you prefer), computers used character based systems and command line interfaces (CLI). The original Mac was a move to a bit mapped system that introduced the world-outside of Palo Alto to the Graphical interface. Mostly, the Mac was meant to be an easy to use alternative to complicated CLIs, notably the prevailing operating system of the day, MS-DOS (or PC-DOS if you bought IBM). The iPad is the first real successful attempt to move away from the traditional GUI to a new one. With iOS, Apple is really trying to “fix” what is still inherently complicated with computers. To use a car analogy, it’s like moving from a stick shift to an automatic. With an automatic, you lose the efficiency and flexibility of the stick shift. While car enthusiasts wouldn’t consider an automatic in a high-end performance car, for most people doing everyday general driving, the automatic transmission is a godsend.

A friend of mine was talking about some help he had to provide for someone else. He made the statement that people should know this stuff. They just need to tinker around with their computer. “That’s how you learn” he said. He’s right of course. I’m a tinkerer and enjoy learning and using the computer. I’m often telling my wife or others in my circle to just “play” around, try this or that too, but that’s not most people. Most people I know in my family don’t use the computer until they absolutely have some need for it. These are the people who don’t want to know how to drive a stick. They want an automatic. They just want to go. That’s why for so many, the iPad and iPhone have become like a godsend. Even in its limited state at this point, it’s all the computer they need. I see this with my wife as she types long screeds with her thumbs on her iPhone, or enters recipes on her iPad. When I tell her that it would be far easier and faster to type it up on one of our Macs, she just says “thanks, but I’m fine using this.” I think with Lion, Apple is starting the work of creating a new computer interface that is much simpler than we’ve had to this point.

The Air

I think PCs are going to be like trucks – Steve Jobs at D8

That statement, like so many others, is probably more accurate and prescient than I’d like it to be. I, for one, have no urge to give up my “Truck”. However, it’s clear what direction Apple is headed. They’ve spent more money designing and developing little things, than they’ve spent on developing big Mac Pro-like desktops. The new MacBook Air is the next step in the process of creating a smaller, simpler Mac. Above I said that, with the iPad, Apple is moving away from the traditional computer, not just the interface. I think with the iPad and the new Air, Apple is working to create this new kind of computer. I believe the Air is the first in a line of what may change into mini mobile computers that will make up most of Apple’s line. Certainly Apple is hedging its bet that more people will not only buy notebooks, but especially small notebooks, than desktop machines. Another way to take the quote above is, the desktop’s days are numbered.

The App Store

The App Store will undoubtedly be a success. That’s an easy prediction to make, because Apple will make sure it is. Already it has reached the 1 million download mark in just its first 24 hours. At some point, the Mac App Store will become the only place to load applications on the Mac of the future, commercial or otherwise. In other words, just as with the iPad and iPhone, if it’s executable, it’ll come from the App Store. Why? Well, the first reason is pragmatic. Ask yourself, why would Apple invest all this time, money, and energy into a curated App Store as a half-measure? I may have missed it, but I haven’t heard Jobs refer to the Mac App Store as a “hobby.” No, this is about control of the future. Control of what goes onto our machines. Control of the entire user experience. This leads into what I think is the ultimate goal for Apple: The App Store serves as an anchor or starting point to bridge the gap between the closed walled garden world of iOS and the open world of OS X. Don’t misunderstand, Apple isn’t going to lock the doors tomorrow. Regardless, though, it will happen.

The End

I would have loved to see them introduce a new $999 Mini Tower with USB 3.0 and real PCI expansion slots alongside a new OS X cat with a  “Power Finder” option that borrows the best ideas from third party Finder replacement apps like Path Finder. Instead, they introduced an App Store, Lion with iPadish screens alongside a $999 11-inch MacBook Air with two USB 2.0 ports and a headphone jack.

I believe Apple sees the future Mac as a smaller (though not necessarily less powerful) mobile machine running a far less flexible operating system (think automatic) with an interface which abstracts away much of the “computerese” we know today. And they’ll do this within a “walled garden” and experience they control. Obviously, it appears the Mac of the future will look a lot closer to the iPad of today, then the other way around.

I believe last October’s event was the beginning of what will end with a new two-headed super machine that’ll run both iOS and OS X apps. This new machine will run some hybrid of iOS and OS X for an operating system. It’ll be highly mobile, but “desktop” powerful. You will only be able to feed it software from the App Store, and whatever other means Apple sanctions, but you won’t care because it’ll do so much, and be so cool, that you’ll want three of them.


  1. Eric,
    I enjoyed reading your piece and I can’t agree more! I’m looking forward to the “automatic” Mac, and I may even buy three!

  2. Wow! You have given me a lot to think about and I think you are right on with your predictions. I am looking forward to seeing them appear in the future. Thank you for your timely informative article.