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Time for Apple to Reinvent the Personal Computer?

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.