Apple and the Changing Personal Computing Landscape

Oct 18 10

Apple and the Changing Personal Computing Landscape

Paul Weinstein

Shortly after the iPad was released, I started wondering about the future of Apple’s laptop line. Specifically, I was wondering if the MacBook Air would be discontinued in an effort to consolidate Apple’s overall mobile lineup1. After the laptop updates in April, it seemed more likely to me that the Air, while technologically sophisticated, was becoming the odd-man-out. More so, given that consumers have the option to purchase a “traditional” mobile computing device such as the MacBook or the more “on-the-go” iPhone or iPad for under $10002.

Now comes a rumor that Apple’s media event this week will include an updated MacBook Air. This rumored update includes a 11.6 inch screen and use of the same solid state storage in the iPad to help make the Air more price competitive. One rumor that I don’t believe has been linked directly to the Air, but has been out there for a few months is that Apple is working on bring touchscreens to the Mac. A MacBook Air with solid state storage, multitouch abilities and long battery life becomes an interesting hybrid mobile device. Not quite a tablet, but not quite a laptop3.

In other words, the Air becomes the bridge between the iPad (and iOS) and the MacBook Pros (and OS X), leaving the $1000 white MacBook the odd man out.

Now Apple wouldn’t make the same mistake as Microsoft. They won’t just slap a touchscreen on a Mac and call it done. A touchscreen, more over a mutlitouch screen, changes the user experience and the operating system will need to adjust accordingly. Yes, OS X already has multitouch features, but those features are more or less limited to gestures assigned as shortcuts to a specific action, similar to keyboard shortcuts.

OS X is still a mouse driven graphical interface. This of course brings us to the obvious part of the upcoming “Back to the Mac” media event this week4; Apple will be making public their vision for the next version of OS X5.

What will they announce? More multitouch support would seem to be a strong possibility6. But in what form? Moving OS X away from the mouse all together? Or maybe simply adding in compatibility for iOS (or just iOS apps) to run as an instance in OS X?

All of this leaves me in a quandary. I know I need a new personal computer and that machine will most likely will be a Mac Pro. But having a personal mobile device with a larger screen size than my iPhone would be nice. Should that device be a second generation iPad, which will come
sometime early next year, or a revamped MacBook Air?

The Mac Pro can be the heavy lifting workstation (software development environment, virtual machine host) and the iPad/Air a thin client for everything else (email, web sufring, news reader). It’s trivial to setup a Mac for remote access. So the Pro can also be accessed “remotely” (from on the road or on the couch) when desired.

Of course if I’m thinking about a Mac Pro, where part of my time using it is remotely, a simple question might be, why sink the money on a Mac Pro and large desktop monitor when I could move to an Xserve and set it up with decent bandwidth at the data center next to my web server? Sure I would still need a local machine to sync my
iPhone (and possible iPad) with, as well as serve media on the home network. But my Mac Mini already does that quite well, and it’s a five year old PowerPC G4. If and when Apple drops PowerPC support for iTunes I could easily swap it out with a new (or used) Intel based Mini.

Given the multiple purposes I use a computer for, my next computing setup isn’t exactly obvious to me at the moment. Then again, given the current transition and diversification of personal computing devices as a whole, it seems that any solution I choose will incorporate a combination of different devices. The question seems to be, which combination is best suited to my various uses for the next few years?

1  Consider in the desktop space Apple only has the Mini, iMac and Mac Pro. This has been the case for quite awhile as the overall market has shifted from desktops to laptops. With the iPad and “cloud computing” the market is again shifting, this time away from laptops to netbooks, tablets and smartphones. In fact, Apple has already consolidated its laptop line a bit, merging the larger screen MacBook options with the MacBook Pro line.
2  Of course the same logic suggests that Apple will drop the iPod Classic at some point in the near future since the focus has moved away from click-wheel portable music players.
3  Basically, a netbook or Apple’s take on a netbook. But Apple definitely won’t call it a netbook,
just as they don’t call the iPad a tablet.
4  Obvious because the media invite includes a lion as part of the design and Apple use jungle cats as “codenames” for their various OS X releases; Cheetah (10.0), Puma (10.1), Jaguar (10.2), Panther (10.3), Tiger (10.4), Leopard (10.5) and Snow Leopard (10.6). (Some code, right? Just goes to show that product “codenames” in the tech industry are more marketing than
anything else.)
5  I suppose there is chance that “Lion” (10.7) is done and ready to ship. But it also seems possible that Apple will simply be announcing their plans now, get the new hardware out the door now for the holidays and release the update next year, around their developer conference in the summer, giving
developers a chance to incorporate the new OS features into their own software products.
6  The other likely possibility being that given Apple’s North Carolina data center is nearing completion, they will announce an updated/revamped online service built into OS X.