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  • Time for Apple to Reinvent the Personal Computer?

    January 4th, 2007

    You know it’s hard to realize that not a whole lot has changed in the way you interact with your Mac, or PC for that matter. Some years back, when I wrote my first book about Mac OS X, I remarked how the interface of the first Mac operating system resembled the new one so closely.

    Sure, a lot of the eye-candy has changed, the guts of the system are very different, and there are many more features. But the basic menu and desktop metaphor, the use of a keyboard and a mouse (or trackpad or trackball), and all the rest remain intact. In other words, if you took someone from 1984, transported them via a time machine to 2007, and sat them down before a new Mac, they might be astounded at first. But after a few minutes, they’d quickly get used to the lay of the land and they’d be able to launch applications and, with a little further effort, figure out most of the basics they need.

    This ought to be a positive development, right? After all, something that works well shouldn’t change all that much, except for normal refinements. That Windows seems to resemble the Mac OS fairly closely indicates that Microsoft understands this too. You may argue with me, but Apple even copies from Microsoft from time to time.

    At the same time, far too many people are confused by anything more than the basics of a modern personal computer operating system. You don’t think so? Well, after talking and visiting lots of people over the years, I feel pretty confident when I say that you can’t just blame the people. You have to blame the product too.

    Such basics as the Open and Save dialogs represent serious sources of confusion. I see people going to the desktop or Finder to locate a document, and double-click on it to launch it, even though the application they need is already running. You mention the Open dialog and they react with confusion. The Finder? What’s that, they’ll tell you.

    Before you challenge their intelligence, bear in mind that these people often have advanced degrees in one field or another, and are highly skilled at their professions. So what is there about a PC that renders them almost helpless?

    Well, it may just be that something needs to change, and that Apple might be one of the companies looking into how.

    I’m not about to suggest that Steve Jobs is going to toss out everything in Mac OS X and start over. But take a look at this sentence, which is mentioned in every single Apple press release: “Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s with the Apple II and reinvented the personal computer in the 1980s with the Macintosh.”

    Now look at what Apple says at its Web site now: “The first 30 years were just the beginning.”

    There does seem to be a connection, right? I mean, I don’t think Apple is dropping such a tantalizing hint just to get you to rush to San Francisco to attend the Macworld Expo. But they also know full well that millions of people will actually learn about Apple’s announcements online or in the print and broadcast media. Only a small number are lucky enough to actually see the keynote in person because of luck, proximity, or because they are registered as members of the media.

    So what is Apple planning for its next three decades? Will it begin to remedy the shortcomings of personal computers in some revolutionary fashion? Well, certainly not in Mac OS X Leopard, which is clearly just an incremental improvement, even though it may sport some pretty nifty features. Sure, you’ll learn about most of them next week, maybe all of them. But Apple isn’t tossing out the basics of the user interface, or anything close to it.

    What about the form factor of the computers themselves? Well, for example, the basic elements of the Mac note-book, such the lid, trackpad, and all the rest were formulated over a decade ago. There are tablet computers with touch screens on the Windows platform, but they don’t seem to have gone very far.

    In ditching the PowerPC and moving to Intel chips, Apple kept most of its basic computer designs intact. Today’s models don’t differ all that much from the 2005 variants. Now that Intel is inside every single model, will there be a major change on the outside? How so? Aside from tablets, smaller cases and all the rest, is there something Apple could do to make it all better, or at least more interesting?

    If I knew just where Apple might be going with all this, I’d probably be there myself, directly involved in the design process. But I’m a journalist, not a product designer or a programmer. However, I’m damned curious. That hint at Apple’s site is surely designed to fuel all this speculation, and maybe they’re just exaggerating. But they’ve got my attention.



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    6 Responses to “Time for Apple to Reinvent the Personal Computer?”

    1. woz says:

      Would it be very difficult to ditch the monitor and switch to “high res virtual glasses”? To actually hang back and see a virtual desktop? With a virtual keyboard floating in front of you? Image using Photoshop and just grabbing ‘tools’ like an airbruch with your hooked-up gloves and actually spraying on a PSD document. No need for the use of a mouse to point and click on icons. Just use your hands! I’d be fun and no more mouse arms or backpains from hanging over to get a better view from your monitor.

    2. rjschwarz says:

      I’d like to see: An Apple Family Server. A small server with a lots of harddrive space to store iTunes libraries and time machine backups (to save space on the laptops and iMacs and such). It would hopefully connect wirelessly and be akin to the AirPort Express in the ease of use and connecting. Just a box plugged into the wall, keyboard and monitor free. No PCI slots or anything fancy but it does need a lot of harddrive space and may end up being the hub of all peripheral activities so it should probably have some ports.

      It can be accessed using a GUI version of rlogin for administration. Otherwise it is simply accessed by iTunes and Time Machine automatically. It wouldn’t need the fastest processors or tons of ram.

      That’s what I’d like to see, depending upon the price-point of course.

    3. MichaelT says:

      I wonder whether the interface for Time Machine is a harbinger of things to come. It is somewhat three-dimensional based, with a bit of fourth dimension (time) thrown in. I don’t know how efficient it is, but time will tell, and updates will make it better.

      I don’t think the virtual 3-D is the way to go, woz. I just don’t think it would be an improvement to usability at this time.

    4. Andrew says:

      A family server is already widely available, most of them based on an embedded Linux and able to share seamlessly to Macs and Windows.

      I have a SimpleShare 250GB device that I paid less than $200 for, it connects through Ethernet. There are wireless models commonly available for about $50 more. These things really just plug and play, so while Apple could easily package it nicer, the simplicity is already there in the generics.

    5. brad says:

      Without really thinking about, I had a Family Server model in mind when I set up my home Mac network. I was instinctively thinking ‘media server,’ undoubtedly because the idea has spread so widely. It turned out to be a very dopey approach, simply because in practice, it didn’t work very well.

      Our ‘media server’ is a 20″ iMac in our living room. It is our digital TV, DVD recorder/player, stereo, iPhoto slideshow viewer, etc. As a ‘media server’ it was half good. It did the ‘media’ part very well. As a ‘server’ it was very awkward.

      For example, I initially put photos on the ‘media server.’ While this meant we had photos in the living room, it also meant that no one organized them or backed them up or took any kind of ownership of them at all. The same thing happened with music. I copied some of my music to the living room. I added new music to the living room, but not to my own Mac. My partner mixed more songs in. Before we knew it, we had a mishmash of semi-duplicated songs that no one owned. Whether it was music or photos, media became fragmented across the network. It was a mess.

      It wasn’t until I stopped thinking ‘media server’ and started thinking ‘peer2peer’ that it really worked at all. iTunes has built-in sharing. iPhoto has built-in sharing. Duh! I was approaching everything backwards. More often than not, media flows down to the living room, not up to a desktop. So it’s not a media server, it’s just a Mac in the living room. Everything can be shared everywhere. I keep my music and photos on my own Mac and my partner does the same. Want to watch them in the living room? Watch them in the living room. Email GoogleVideo movie links and video podcasts to the living room. Pause the TV and get background info from Wikipedia wideget. File share TV shows – or the live TV signal – around the house if you can think of a good reason to want to. But it’s not a ‘server’ at all. It’s just a Mac.

    6. Dana Sutton says:

      Gene seems to be talking primarily about interface, you guys are talking about use. I don’t think the present interface with pc’s is going to change very much, because the guys who invented the GUI basically got it right the first time. Probably the most noticeable difference in a computer ten years from now is that flash memory technology will make the hard disk obsolete (this technology will be more reliable, cut down on energy consumption and heat, and facilitate smaller CPU’s, it will be a godsend for laptops).

      As for use, any consideration of the future of the pc has to take into acccount the realities of domestic architecture. I have different areas of my house I use for different purposes, and I don’t think I’d care to work on a spreadsheat while sitting on the couch in the den, or to watch a rerun of “Kill Bill Vol. 1” while at the desk in my study. So the concepts of “computer” and “entertainment center” are going to continue to be different. Either I have two devices, or I need a single (wireless) device, a big domestic octopus which can do different things for me in different areas of my house. It can function as a work pc in my study, and as some kind of combo entertainment library/TiVo/etc. etc. in my den. And it might as well manage my house as well (heat/a.c./lights/auto yard irrigation, etc.).

      This bit about house architecture is what bothers me a little about Steve’s vision of the Mac as an all-around pc and entertainment center. That’s fine for folks who live in college dorms and small studio apts. In the absence of a “domestic octopus” The Rest Of Us still need different, purpose-dedicated devices for work and play.

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