Forget the iPhone: Let’s Return to the Mac!

January 31st, 2007

Listen, despite the fact that my personal needs don’t really include an iPhone, I can well understand that it’s going to be a freaking awesome product for many of you. Whether you want a so-called “smartphone,” or just a cool gadget to show your friends, it comes across as a compelling package.

At the same time, it won’t be out till June, although some rumor sites are suggesting it might arrive earlier. After all, doesn’t Apple beat its deadlines more often than it meets them? Well, that depends, I suppose, on whether the public deadline and the private deadline are one and the same, and I’m not so sure about that.

Besides, if you promise to deliver something within a given time-frame, but know you can do it twice as fast, you end up gaining a lot of goodwill.

For now, though, let’s put this cool appliance aside and not concern ourselves about the fine details or lack thereof and get back to something more compelling. You see, although it’s forgotten from time to time, Apple builds personal computers too. Sure, maybe they don’t sell near as many Macs as iPods, but they make a lot more profit on the former, so it’s not something they’re going to abandon anytime soon.

So what can I say about Macs that you haven’t read about before? Well, the design. Back when Apple first announced its plans to switch to Intel processors, I’m sure a lot of you expected brand new form factors to accompany that transition. Instead, you got Macs that looked pretty much like the models they replaced, at least from the outside. And only power users worry about what’s inside, unless it’s time to upgrade or fix something.

Indeed, some tech writers felt the same, and when Apple didn’t go there, they might have felt cheated. Or perhaps they believed that Apple really had new cases under development, but wanted to get the nuts and bolts of the Intel migration out of the way first. In addition, having a Mac look the same has the psychological advantage of demonstrating that it’s still a Mac even though there are new processors inside. It also saves a few dollars on development costs.

So now that the work is done, isn’t it time to toss out the aging designs and start anew? The question is: Where will Apple go, if anywhere? Consider the iPod. Although the iPod shuffle is daringly different from the original, the present iPod nano harkens back to the iPod mini that the first nano replaced. The full-size iPod doesn’t look altogether different from the one that debuted five years ago.

So where’s the incentive to change anything? Besides, does it really make that much of a difference? For a desktop computer, you’re looking at the screen anyway and not the Mac, unless it’s an iMac of course.

Besides, having a signature look and feel makes Apple’s products distinctive. You don’t find much of that in the PC industry as a whole. For example, an insurance salesperson dropped by my office the other day suggesting that I really needed lots and lots of life insurance. Does he know something I don’t? But I don’t want to seem morbid about such things.

In any case, to prepare his quote, he unstrapped his case, and pulled out an anonymous-looking PC laptop. I don’t recall if it was a Dell or an HP. It was one or the other, but, aside from the logo, the drab dark gray case was devoid of any distinguishing features. After all, the typical PC is a commodity product, by and large, and it doesn’t really matter who makes it. They all get their parts from the same parts bin, and everything appears to be interchangeable. Obviously, an AlienWare, a power user’s and gaming machine builder now under the auspices of Dell, has a unique look. But not too many other PC boxes qualify in that regard.

Side by side, you don’t have to look at the screen to separate the Mac from the PC, so where’s the incentive for Apple to change? Oh yes, didn’t Dell hire some more designers to spruce up the looks of their products? Well, maybe, but there’s no evidence that their PC boxes and note-books will be that much more exciting than prior generations.

This isn’t to say that Apple has the ultimate form factors and that things can’t be changed. Consider the keyboard on the 17-inch MacBook Pro, which seems a small rowboat adrift in a large river. You wonder if there couldn’t be something to fill the open spaces, maybe some multimedia buttons, although that works against Apple’s veneer of simple elegance. Maybe a numeric keypad? Or maybe just leave well enough alone.

In fact, the prospects for major change don’t seem terribly high. The Apple TV and new AirPort Extreme base station resemble half-height Mac minis. In other words, Apple is simply adapting its new products to fit into existing design motifs.

The Mac Pro was only updated last summer, so it doesn’t seem to make sense that it would change an awful lot, and updates to the Mac note-books and the Mac mini came more recently.

Now I suppose it’s possible that those incredibly powerful new Intel chips, due out in the second half of the year, could be installed in Macs with revolutionary designs. That might be fitting.

Or maybe not.

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3 Responses to “Forget the iPhone: Let’s Return to the Mac!”

  1. Roberto says:

    I remember the Cult of Mac blog quoted some industry insider about exciting form factors coming out of Apple once people are comfortable with the transition (“If I were you, I wouldn’t buy the current design Mac notebooks,” the person said, or words to that effect). It made sense to me: Like most people I thought the reason Apple stuck to the pre-Intel design was to keep up an appearance of continuity and not freak people out. It’s been more than a year now, so we might just see amazing new products coming out in the near future.

    Personally, I’d like to see a moderately-upgradable Mac Mini Pro that can take up to 4GB of non-server RAM, uses desktop optical and hard disk drives (with space for one more) and dedicated graphics. A MacBook Pro Mini would be very nice too, thanks. Bringing back the modular concept of G3 Powerbooks would also be a more elegant solution than having USB or Firewire tethered devices all over the place (ejectable secondary hard disks, for example).

    For the Mac Pro, I’d like to see hard disk drawers that you can pull out from the outside so that you can easily swap and organise hard disks according to project (I keep one video editing project on a dedicated hard disk each time). An Apple RAID box would be a handy companion, too. And matte, rubberised black a-la the old NeXT Cubes. Mmm.

  2. Dana Sutton says:

    Yes, maintaining continuity so as not to freak people out was one consideration. Maintaining a stylistic link from the Mac Pro to the cinema monitor may have been another.

    At the very least, the “cheesegrater” look of the MacPro could be changed. Surely that’s a lot more ventilation than is needed. A solid front with no more venting than is necessary would be more handsome. But my major concern for the Mac Pro doesn’t concern looks, but rather weight. My Mac Pro seems even heavier than my G-5, and has about hit the limit of what’s comfortable (and safe) for many users to carry. For a lot of us, a smaller and lighter case would be a real boon (even with all its expansion capabilities, there’s a lot of empty space in the present one, surely it could be miniaturized a bit).

    But I hope Apple takes a very long time in changing the look of the iMac. It’s so perfectly beautiful that as far as I’m concerned they should never change it.

  3. Graham Fluet says:

    “But I hope Apple takes a very long time in changing the look of the iMac. It’s so perfectly beautiful that as far as I’m concerned they should never change it.”
    Until you see what they are proposing, Which, if is different fom the current iMac, should look RRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLYYYYYY cool!

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