Hello, I'm a Mac. — And I'm an iPhone.

Is the iPhone really threatening the Mac?

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11 Jun, 2010

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I will repeat the following until I am hoarse: it is contagion that determines the fate of a theory in social science, not its validity.
(Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in The Black Swan — The Impact of the Highly Improbable)

 

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I open with this quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, taken from his greatly thought-provoking book (which I’m finishing), because I think it can apply to many other contexts.

I’ve been noticing a similar trend in certain tech punditry on the Web, regardless of the subject of debate. Since I deal with Apple and the Mac, my observations are limited to this portion of the debate.

The title of this post is inspired by the infamous incipit of one of Apple’s most successful advertising campaigns: Get a Mac, with actors John Hodgman and Justin Long impersonating a PC and a Mac. Every ad opened with the greeting: “Hello, I’m a Mac” — “And I’m a PC”, stating differences and conflicts in an informal and playful way. My putting ‘iPhone’ instead of ‘PC’ is provocative, because it seems that according to some self-styled ‘experts’, these two Apple platforms are progressively becoming two entities fighting each other — and that by now the days of the Mac are numbered.

Their reasons:

  1. Since 2007 (when the iPhone was introduced), it is clear that Apple’s major innovative efforts have been dedicated to the Touch platform and the iPhone OS (now iOS), while both Mac hardware and Mac OS X development have generally suffered from a certain neglect;
  2. The WWDC keynote was entirely about the Touch platform: in the statistical data Jobs exposed; in terms of hardware, with the introduction of the iPhone 4; and finally from a software development standpoint. No mention of the Mac, not even a brief mention of the freshly released Safari 5, which provides some very interesting new features.

Every so often some other tangential argument turns out, but the gist of it revolves around the two points just mentioned. According to these slightly millenarian pundits, the end of the Mac is near, Steve Jobs doesn’t care about the Mac anymore, he’s just in love with his iGadgets, what are we going to do?, where will it end?, and so on.

Let’s take a deep breath and switch on some common sense.

It’s all botany — A simple comparison comes to mind: the Touch platform is a young, promising, and profitable plant. It has to be taken care of and watched closely, to make it more and more robust and thriving. Thus, in my opinion, it seems quite reasonable to give it the most innovative drive at the moment. The Macintosh is a grown tree, more than 25 years old — it doesn’t need daily care and cotton-wool protection anymore, and it’s definitely capable of sustaining itself. Apple (Jobs), like with digital music with the iPod and the iTunes Store a few years ago, had the right intuition: Apple must keep pace with the times and current needs. Perpetuating a monolithic culture that may have been effective twenty years ago is inconceivable. The example of a company that has not made any progress in terms of internal culture and has essentially remained the same as it was in the 1990s is right before our eyes — Microsoft.

Think of any manufacturer of electronic devices, and you will see that its catalogue includes several lines of products: TVs, monitors, computers, hi-fi stereo systems, mobile phones, DVD/Blu-ray drives, MP3 players, etc. Why, then, when Apple does basically the same, creating a new platform/product line, and giving it maximum impetus to be successful, then it must necessarily mean Apple has to kill another? There is no replacement but addition, or even integration if you like.

Today, the personal computer is in a phase of marked transformation and reappraisal. Some people do not realise it, and some don’t want to admit it. Today it’s important that technology and computers offer customised solutions towards great portability, focussing on the user’s personal sphere, providing ease of use — especially for content consumption and management of said personal sphere — that appeals also and especially to the most technically impaired. There is, in short, a strong need for differentiation and granularity. In my opinion, Apple’s winning move is to have sensed this need and to have created devices to fulfil it. The Touch platform aims to provide more refined technological solutions. Until not long ago the idea of the personal computer was that of a device you could ‘do everything’ with: 3D modelling, professional audio/video, many high-end sophisticated tasks, but also simpler ones, like writing a document or an email, playing games, watching a movie, listening to music, etc.

With the iPhone, iPod touch and now the iPad, Apple is doing nothing but offering dedicated devices, which are not meant to replace a computer in every way, but can carry out all the tasks they were designed for in ways that are easier, more practical, intuitive and elegant. Refined, fine-grained, function-driven devices. Jobs’ mission has always been to put a computer in the hands of everyone (a Mac for the rest of us), and he’s succeeding, even if it’s with a device that’s not strictly a Mac. But then we are in 2010, not 1984. It’s a legitimate adjustment.

How would we do without the Mac? — The Touch platform is not self-sufficient. One day it probably will be. But in the short and medium term we still need the Mac to develop for iOS. Sure, Apple could release a version of Xcode for Windows and stop manufacturing Macs. But, as my friend Lucio Bragagnolo rightly pointed out, we are talking of the same Apple which prevents Flash from running on all the iDevices, which creates its own advertising agency, which requires developers to follow its rules for software development, which reserves the right to approve any application you write for said iDevices, that same Apple which clearly wants full control of its platform should just drop the Mac and rely on Windows for iTunes [and Xcode]?

As I said, Apple wants a refined computing experience, both for end users/consumers — who may find among all Apple products those most closely meeting their needs and lifestyle — and for iOS and Mac developers, who won’t have to look elsewhere for programming and developing tools for these platforms.

Don’t forget usability — As I said above, the Touch platform is not self-sufficient and can’t (yet) replace a traditional computer. It’s not only a matter of processor horsepower, hardware configuration and feature set, but also of pure usability issues. For the sake of argument, suppose for a moment that Apple drops Mac OS X and starts putting iOS and touch technology everywhere. Imagine a new Mac without a mouse or trackpad and with a touchscreen monitor taking care of all the input. Implementing the touch technology of the iPhone/iPad on a big flat panel monitor is utter nonsense in terms of usability, and Apple knows this. Many fantasise about the amazing gestural interface seen in the notorious Minority Report and wish they could have such a setup at home. I find it extremely uncomfortable, and couldn’t stand waving my arms on a monitor for more than 15 minutes. No wonder that in the movie they put Tom Cruise to do all that waving. You need that stamina.

(Let’s leave that usability nonsense to HP. I tried the HP TouchSmart in two different stores: perhaps it was the Windows setup of those demo units, but the responsiveness to touch was poor. There was this screensaver playing, an aquarium, and the idea is you tap the water near the goldfish, there’s splash and ripples, and the fish react by running away — much like Koi Pond for the iPhone. What actually happens is you touch the screen and 2–3 seconds later, when you’ve already removed your finger, you see the splash, the ripples and the fish moving away — so much for ‘touch’).

Besides being silly for the reason cited (arm fatigue), add the precision of the pointer. The Touch interface is not suitable for any precision work, where a mouse is better — no, wait, a graphics tablet and pen input are better. The precision of the Touch interface is rough. Of course, if you really want, you can achieve the precision of a mouse, but you must multiply the necessary gestures. This means an unnecessarily added cognitive load and an unnerving delay in the execution of the task.

An implementation of multi-touch technology at the operating system level can’t be separated from the hardware on which the operating system runs. It must be a hardware device that is comfortable to hold and operate. Surely not a 24-inch monitor in a fixed placement on the desk. For highly professional and specialised tasks requiring large traditional monitors, I believe that a Mac, Mac OS X and a mouse, are still the most rational solution, which is why I think the Mac is far from being doomed.

The economics angle — The Mac is still a source of considerable revenue, it practically sells itself, and Apple is experiencing unprecedented per-quarter sales figures in its entire history. Halting Mac production would be madness. Many have interpreted the latest financial data a little too short-sightedly, in my opinion. They saw that sales of the iPhone represents 40% of the revenue and the Mac represents ‘only’ 28% and took this as a telltale sign that the Mac has lost importance for Apple. But they forget the undoubted specific gravity of that 28%, and they’re missing the essential perspective that sales of Macs continue to grow over the years despite the purported lack of interest from Apple’s part. And they forget they’re comparing traditional computers with smartphones: it’s much easier to sell smartphones, and in a household you’ll probably find more iPhones/iPod touches/iPads than Macs.

Conclusion — That said, the Mac one day will disappear, but it’ll happen only because a good replacement will be ready to take over, or because Macs will be transformed into something else, something even better and even more invisibly integrated in our lifestyles. In the meantime let’s enjoy the innovations Apple is introducing, such as the Retina Display on the iPhone 4, and think about the implications of extending that kind of innovation to other Apple devices…

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