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Will the 2015 Mac be a Mac?

Unlike many tech companies, Apple has a long-range vision. Maybe you didn’t see how the iPod would develop, the ongoing improvements in the iPhone or the path from Mac OS X 10.0 to 10.6, but there’s little doubt Apple had broad concepts about the direction of these products from Day One.

I wasn’t surprised when I learned that there was a program to develop a version of Mac OS X for Intel processors years before Steve Jobs announced the switchover at a WWDC. Sure it had only been rumored for quite some time, but a responsible company would always keep the options open, and Jobs was quoted as saying just that when questioned about the future of the PowerPC.

Of course, the tech press generally doesn’t have a concept of long-range goals, although one recent article outlined the substantial but incremental changes you see in each generation of an Apple product. But you don’t see the end game until you take a look at the entire picture after several years have passed. Then a smile comes to your lips.

With the iPad, it’s clear the first version is mostly a consumption device, despite the fact that Apple is releasing a special version of iWork for their new mobile gadget. Most of the people who buy them will be reading books, magazines and newspapers, checking their favorite sites and perhaps managing email. There will be plenty of game playing as well, not to mention listening to music and watching videos.

I’m also certain that public acceptance and the way the product is used will help fine tune Apple’s end game. So features will be added based on the reaction of the newly-minted iPad users. If iWork doesn’t sell so well and other productivity apps don’t appear in reasonable numbers, using an iPad to actually create something may not be a significant part of the picture.

But to get a sense of Apple’s real direction, it makes sense to look at the original 1984 Macintosh. It may have seemed underpowered in its time and internal expansion wasn’t in the picture. Worse, there wasn’t a lot of Mac software to be had.

In a sense, that first Mac may be regarded in the same fashion as the first iPhone. Any additions you’d make came in the form of accessory products and software options were limited. Remember that the App Store was still a year away.

One thing was certain way back when, and that was the ongoing complaint that Macs were just toys and not real computers. Real computers had text-based operating systems, and easy methods for hobbyists to take them apart and fiddle with them extensively to create customized systems. It took years and loads of changes before Macs were taken seriously and graphical operating systems became the norm.

Of course, Bill Gates and Microsoft realized the potential, which is why they stole the fundamentals of the Mac OS and slapped it onto regular PCs. But quite some time passed before Windows was stable enough to actually turn those PCs into productivity tools. Even today, in fact, lots of Windows users just barely cope with the known eccentricities and complexities.

But others complain that the Macs don’t allow for enough flexibility. Expansion is limited to a few choices provided by Apple and anything else requires extensive reworking of the product in ways that might just cause trouble. Today’s Mac is still regarded as more appliance-like than anything that comes from Redmond, WA.

With the iPhone, the obvious consumer orientation once again became a bone of contention. Businesses had the BlackBerry after all. Then Apple added Microsoft Exchange support and remote wiping, plus greater levels of security. Over time, more and more businesses came to believe the time was ripe to bring iPhones aboard. You’ll notice, as the result, that the concept of multi-touch has been duplicated in other smartphones, and this is a big part of the logic behind Apple’s lawsuit against HTC, with the increasing Google threat ever-present.

The iPad is clearly the first member of a growing family of 21st century computing appliances from Apple. As with the original Mac, you are tied in to the factory hardware configurations, and whatever third-party accessories become available. But the ability to use an external keyboard clearly means that there is a larger potential to use an iPad in place of a Mac in many situations. The 9.7-inch screen, while small by today’s standards, is actually larger than the display on the original compact Macs, PowerBooks and loads of other note-books, and much in line with today’s netbooks. It may be small, but not too small to get actual work done.

Assuming the iPad is successful — and nobody knows for sure right now — future generations will not just restore alleged missing features, such as a Web cam, but may take more cues from traditional computers. In 2015, do you really think lots of people will be carting their Mac note-books around when traveling?. Or will they just take out their latest and greatest iPads? Are we seeing the real future of personal computing? I think so.