Over 21 years ago, the first Mac appeared with the promise of become the first real computing appliance. Except for the keyboard and the mouse, it was self-contained and offered no expansion capability. Imagine a toaster oven that computes. In any case, it’s taken years for Apple to return to its original concept, and some are suggesting the new iMac G5 may be the closest yet to realizing the goal. Except, perhaps, for the iPod, which, lest we forget, is also a computer, with a microprocessor, storage device, and operating system and, yes, software. Sure, the software plays music and videos, but it’s still software.
Now before you raise your hands and shout that today’s Mac is still far too complicated to be a true appliance, consider how it’s used. In the old days, with a cult consisting of millions of loyal users, the act of customizing a Mac with system add-ons and visual effects was often more important than actually running applications to get something done.
This isn’t to say the days of “The Cult of Mac,” which, as you know, is the title of Leander Kahney’s popular book, has disappeared. But the focus is more and more on what you can do with your Mac, not on setting it up, and in that sense, we’re far closer to realizing Steve Jobs’ original dream. In fact, as the Mac becomes more and more popular among people who aren’t wrapped up in a community, the Mac is fast losing its niche status. It’s just a means to an end.
I got to thinking about how things had changed as I was talking with Adam Engst, of TidBITS fame, during an interview taped for this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE. The discussion covered how the Mac community has been altered over the years, how user groups and trade shows, for example, have become less significant, particularly to new Mac users who never concern themselves with such things. Is Macworld San Francisco doomed also, now that the Boston show is history? Today’s typical Mac user may never buy a magazine or book about the product and they derive much of their information from the Internet. In fact, a Mac site will seldom be consulted except, perhaps, to seek out troubleshooting information or just to get up to speed about a new product to help with a purchase decision. Then they return to Google or the site run by their local newspaper.
Does this mean that I’m predicting the death of Mac publications and user groups? Not so fast! What about Web sites that offer Mac content? Well, our visitor statistics continue to grow, but at the same time coverage has expanded way beyond the Mac itself to encompass a far wider range of subjects. That’s the reason why the weekly newsletter and the radio show have been renamed “Tech.” You can’t exactly use the word Mac when you’re talking about iPods and other matters.
It’s also true that the Mac has become a less significant factor in Apple’s existence, although it still provides the lion’s share of revenue. As we all know, unit sales have long since been dwarfed by the iPod. Much of Apple’s promotional efforts these days are confined to the iPod. In fact, when was the last time you saw a Mac TV commercial? All right, maybe an ad in a magazine, but not very often. At the same time, when Apple refreshed the iBook and Mac mini last summer, the announcement consisted of a simple press release and a few interviews with Apple executives. The last two iPod revisions were introduced with flashy presentations that included entertainment from big name musical acts.
Yes, there was a new Mac at the last Apple press reception, but the video-capable iPod, iTunes and the iMac’s remote control were the real stars of the show. The iMac was just another spoke in the wheel of a larger ecosystem. Today’s Apple no longer confines itself to computers and operating systems, but the tools you need to get things done. Apple makes the email software, the browser, digital lifestyle applications, and, for professional users, products that edit video and sound. In fact, except for the necessary peripherals, such as printers, scanners, cameras and external drives, you could spend your entire working day without touching third party products. Yes, I realize the Mac developer community doesn’t want to hear any of that. Oh yes, there is Microsoft Word of course, because Apple’s iWork remains a non-starter, but don’t assume it’s history. Wait for version 2.0 to see where it goes.
The Mac? What’s that. Oh, yes, the thing that I use to get online, organize my photos and music, or update the family checkbook. Wait a minute! What about watching last night’s episode of your favorite TV show? Well, that’s here too, at least in a limited way, but you can also do that on the iPod, and you can take a video cable and attach the iPod to your TV set.
The Mac is seldom the end of the process these days. It’s just the beginning, like the toaster oven you use to warm that TV dinner or a couple of bagels for breakfast.
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