Mac Forever?

By  |  Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 10:30 pm

“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed…PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around. They’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by one out of x people…this transformation is going to make some people uneasy.“–Steve Jobs, at the Wall Street Journal’s D8 conference last week

“Flash was created during the PC era…”–Steve Jobs, in “Thoughts on Flash”

“Maybe next year we will focus primarily on the Mac. Just the normal cycle of things. No hidden meaning here.”–Steve Jobs, reassuring a developer who was concerned about the iPhone-centric WWDC 2010

I went into yesterday’s Steve Jobs keynote at Apple’s WWDC event knowing that Macs would not be in the center ring of this particular circus. But I thought that they might get some attention during the first part of Jobs’ presentation, in which he cites impressive-sounding numbers relating to a variety of Apple product lines.  After all, recent Mac sales figures are…well, impressive.

In two hours of presenting, though, Jobs barely mentioned traditional computing devices. Okay, he did point out that the conference would host sessions devoted to Macs–and he asked those in the audience who had laptops to place them on the floor to prove they weren’t using MiFis that might muck up his Wi-Fi demos. But that was about it.

Yes, traditional portable and desktop computers remain a huge and growing business for Apple; no, iOS-based machines aren’t in any position to render the Mac irrelevant any time soon. And chances are high that Apple will hold one or more Mac-centric events before 2010 is out. But sitting in the WWDC audience yesterday, it wasn’t hard to envision a future Apple that (A) didn’t sell Macs and (B) was at least as successful as Apple circa 2010.

That’s a new feeling. For all of the iPod’s significance, it remained a Mac (and PC) peripheral, not an heir apparent. The iPhone and iPad, however, are devices meant to replace the types of computers we’ve used for the past few decades. That’s not speculation: Jobs is already talking about the PC era in the past tense and predicting that PCs will be outnumbered by new-wave devices. He’s getting ready for the post-Mac era.

(Me, I don’t expect devices we think of as “PCs” to vanish from the scene in the next decade or two–but I do think that they’ll come to look and work a lot more like iPads than they do like a conventional Mac or Windows box.)

All of this made me think of the last Apple platform shift. I’m not counting the Mac’s 68000/PowerPC/Intel jumps and the move from Mac OS to OS X.  The last truly epic shift happened a really long time ago–because it was the move from the Apple II (introduced in 1977) to the Macintosh (1984). (Come to think of it, it was also the first truly epic shift–the Apple I, Apple III, and Lisa were all blips.)

The Mac was announced in January of 1984. In April of the same year, Apple announced a new version of the II, at an event called “Apple II Forever.” The phrase became a rallying cry, not to mention a pretty silly song:

Even at the time, the idea of “Apple II Forever” had a defensive tinge and carried an implied acknowledgment that the platform, like all others, didn’t have an infinite shelf life. But the Mac and the II managed to coexist rather successfully for years. Here’s the Computer Chronicles show devoting an episode to new II variants in 1988:

The Apple II finally went away in late 1993–almost a decade after the beginning of the end.

Now, I’m not saying that the parallels here are even sort of close. The Apple II of 1984-1993 was based on archaic technology; thinking back, it’s kind of amazing it lasted as long as it did. Today’s Macs–and, for that matter, today’s best Windows PCs–are still getting better, albeit at a vastly slower pace than the iPhone. (Having been out over a few weeks, the iPad is just getting started.) And the list of things a Mac can do well that the iPad and iPhone can’t do at all is long.

But for the Mac, like the Apple II in 1984, the beginning of the end is here. Any guesses about how long this epic shift will take?

(Photo credit: Adam Jackson/Flickr)


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13 Comments For This Post

  1. Jason Anderson Says:

    He’s using “PC” in the sense of personal computer. Macs and Windows machines alike, as opposed to Tablets. Not in the Windows PC sense. He’s not saying anything bad about Windows. He’s saying desktop/laptop computers with full OS’ will eventually become niche and that everyone will be carrying tablets most of the time in the future. i.e. full computers will be like trucks, utility computers for people who need them, and tablets will be the normal “go anywhere fast” computers that people will use for most of their daily tasks.

  2. Simon Says:

    I think the speed of this shift will surprise us. Today’s Apple is focused and unsentimental. Before long, when it’s counting for 5% of Apple profits, Mac won’t be getting much love at all.
    Windows, I suspect, will kick around longer than Mac for the simple reason that Microsoft don’t want a world without it.
    A good indicator will be how long it takes Apple to drop the already irrelevant Classic and Shuffle lines from the iPod range.

  3. swenlin Says:

    What will happen is anyone’s guess, but I do think it’s telling that all these Apple mobile solutions are desktop dependent – each one is tethered to a full blown computer for syncing. Keeping desktops as part of the product ecosystem is just another way Apple can make money off of their users.

    Now, granted, that doesn’t mean that you have to buy a Mac, but so long as Apple offers a compelling alternative to the PC and you’re already enjoying your Apple iPhone or Pad or Pod, there’s a good chance that you’ll buy an Apple desktop too.

  4. Harry McCracken Says:

    @jason: Yep, I know, and didn’t mean to suggest that Jobs was knocking Windows. Neither was I.

    (I’m one of the few tech writers I know who stubbornly insists that Macs are PCs–I started doing this when I edited a magazine called “PC World”–and usually, though not always, refers to “Windows PCs” when talking about ones that run a Microsoft OS.)


  5. Abigail Says:

    I think the title shoule be Mac forever! I am a Mac user, I like browsing a lot of news everyday cause I want to seek for some useful apps for my mac coumper, sharing some apps in my computer which play important role in my mac life.
    Google Earth: everyone knows goooooogle, the 3D map gets better and better…

    Winx HD video converter for MAC -An easy-to-use video converter, both SD and HD videos are available.

    Skype: no more explaination needed, certaily you have used it lol

    Seashore: “Photoshop” your photos without buying Photoshop.

    Firefox- one of the best web browsers around in my opinion.

  6. Steve Ko Says:

    I don’t think the analogy quite fits. The Mac was an out-an-out replacement for the Apple ][. You did not need an Apple ][ to activate your new Mac. The Mac had a completely new software stack. You developed Mac software using a Mac. In other words the Mac was conceived of and introduced as an independent, self-sufficient platform. Not so with the iPad. The iPad is more like the Newton, but more successful. When the Newton came out, no one speculated about how long it would be before Apple dumped the Mac.

  7. ediedi Says:

    the whole argument that some type of device will replace another is flawed. the more technology evolves and becomes cheaper and more convenient, the more devices people will have: a smartphone for on the move, a tablet for relative mobility on the couch in the living room, a laptop for everything else, mobility between home/office, etc. I really think the trend is for device division and specialization, not convergence.

  8. Chip Says:

    If, as suggested, Macs become less important to the Apple financial bottom line, does that lessen their need to not license the OS?
    Microsoft may be doing a fine job of milking their Windows licensing, but it’s without any competition whatsoever.
    I think things would be quite dire for Microsoft if Apple ever decided to license OS X to OEMs.

  9. Paul Judd Says:

    Licensing out OSX to to other manufacturers is not about their bottom line, it more or less has to do with the fact that Apple is a hardware company and MS is not. Apple put themselves in the position of competing with themselves years ago and it was not very ideal to them – and Microsoft’s dominance right now doesn’t make that very ideal either. You cannot just copy the business method of a competitor that has such dominance like Microsoft any more than a local ISP can expect to kick Comcast to the curb. You just cannot win by going toe to toe on ground that MS has the advantage in. Apple yould be starting out from scratch if they did that.

    Remember, Microsoft did not gain incredibly high market share because of their licensing business – it was their association and peoples loyalty to IBM along with certain anti-competitive behaviors that did this.

  10. imacdvguy Says:

    I really think ediedi’s comments might be the closest to the truth. The history of the computer technology makes any guesses incredibly difficult. There just isn’t much to go on.

    If I had to guess, a plethora of devices such as tablets, notebooks, desktops, hand held devices, etcetera, will all co-exist and serve the needs of whoever needs them.

    But, we all like to look at the future and say, “This is, surely, what everyone will be using then.” But that is science fiction. Variety will probably become MORE important, as technology moves along, not LESS, like everyone seems to imagine.

  11. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    The Mac-is-obsolete argument is way overstated. It’s ridiculous, frankly.

    It’s like saying that once Apple shipped iMovie, they could stop doing Final Cut Pro. There are Final Cut Pro features that deliberately aren’t in iMovie and never will be. It’s a feature that they’re left out. And Final Cut Pro is the most popular pro video editor in the world. iMovie users may not use it, but they certainly watch movies that were made in it. At the last Oscars, 9 out of the 10 documentaries that were nominated were done in Final Cut Pro.

    So it’s great that you can run iMovie on iOS now, but more often than that, you will be watching movies on iOS that were made on a Mac with Final Cut Pro. You’ll read Web pages on iOS that were made on Macs, because that requires not only coding which is not allowed on iOS, but also access to the Unix subsystem which is not allowed on iOS. All of your iOS apps were made on a Mac, and even iOS itself. Pro graphics requires coding AppleScript workflows. Making an iTunes LP requires coding. Making an eBook requires coding.

    If you just look at audio you can see that both systems are required. iOS specifically doesn’t allow you to install custom drivers for audio interfaces, you have to use “class-compliant” interfaces that work with the system’s driver. That limits you to consumer audio, 16-bit 44.1kHz stereo. In a pro audio studio, you need multiple channels of 24-bit 96kHz or 192kHz audio, which not only requires custom drivers, it requires a FireWire connection, except in a handful of rare exceptions. Most of the music that is in your iPod app on iOS was made on a Mac.

    So what we are seeing is not iPad replacing the Mac, we’re seeing iPad replace the consumer use of the Mac. The Mac goes back to being a professional production system, as it was in the 1980’s. What makes iPad a big deal is Mac users are also going to have iPads. So what will happen is everyone will have an iPad, for all those universal tasks like surfing the Web or watching a movie, and some of us will also have Macs, for professional production work.

    A big deal was made about the lack of Mac focus at WWDC 2010, but that is also ridiculous. We’re halfway through Snow Leopard, 75% of the way through the Leopard era, and the main thing Mac developers are supposed to be doing is getting their apps to 64-bit Cocoa, which will make them fully Snow Leopard -capable and get them ready for the next system, which might be Mac OS 11. There’s not much to say about the Mac right now, but with iPad there’s a whole new platform for apps, so the iPad focus doesn’t mean anything except there’s more work to do on iPad than the Mac right now.

  12. Aaron Kulbe Says:

    The one thing I’m not seeing addressed in articles like this (and their subsequent conversations in the comments) is….

    If Mac is going away… where are you going to develop for iOS devices????

    There’s no XCode for iPod/iPhone/iPad.

    Personally, I think that coding is far to complex a task (at present) to be done on a device like the iPhone/iPad.

    Sure, you can use an SSH client, and do stuff on the command line, on *another* box… but that’s cumbersome, at best.

    I don’t think the Mac is going *anywhere* until this problem has been addressed.


    Aaron Kulbe

  13. Adam Jackson Says:

    Hi Harry. I just found this post. Thanks for using and crediting my photo.

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