Reading the Apple Tea Leaves

June 28th, 2010

I read an interesting article from the Daring Fireball’s John Gruber in a recent issue of Macworld that, better than most any other opinion piece, appears to accurately nail Apple’s long range goals.

In that article, Gruber pointed out that each Apple hardware or software update appears, at best, to be a minor change from a previous model, but when you examine the overall impact over a period of several years, you’ll find that they have actually delivered huge changes.

Take the original iPhone, and examine the one released on June 24 of this year — which sold some 1.7 million copies as of Saturday — and you’ll see a world of difference, even though there’s that strong family resemblance. Indeed, the iOS desktop with its tiny Dock has come to resemble the iPad design, which, in turn, mimics the look of the latest Mac OS X desktop.

But Apple didn’t get from there to here in gigantic leaps, although I grant that the iPhone is itself a major product initiative that few expected to succeed. At the core, it shows that Steve Jobs and crew have long-range goals in mind and it often takes several years to get a sense of their intended direction.

This doesn’t mean that the iPhone, iPad or Mac lineup for, say, 2015 — not to mention the various OS revisions — are fully architected right now. But there is certainly a vision as to where Apple wants to be, even if many of the specifics have yet to be finalized.

Contrast that to most PC makers who can only think in terms of this and the next quarter, and whatever new parts their component suppliers will have ready, assuming there’s no new Windows release in the hopper.

Unfortunately, the journalist community is so wedded to our 24/7 news cycle that they can’t see the forest from the trees, and thus they fail to see what directions Apple might take even if they do drop broad hints from time to time.

You know, for example, that when Apple said they wouldn’t build a cheap Mac because they didn’t want to sell junk, they fully intended to deliver a more elegant solution. Yes, there are generic PCs that make the latest Mac mini seem mighty expensive, but that package is superb and a tremendous value for the money. It took several years before they got around to redesigning the case in any significant way, even though the critics kept harping on the treacherous memory upgrade process that required finesse with putty knives and similar implements.

Yes, in retrospect maybe you could rightly say that Apple should have had today’s Mac mini out in 2006, when they first moved to Intel processors. Maybe there should have been a cut and paste feature in the very first iPhone, and why did Apple wait three years to craft a limited multitasking system into the iOS when competitors had it years ago?

One reason for Apple to take extra time is just to get things right, another concept that competitors fail to understand. Yes, I realize Apple still screws up, but not as often as other companies.

I suppose you can also see why many remain frustrated with Apple’s apparent leisurely approach to updating their products, almost as if they add only as little as they can get away with while still calling it a new version. Of course, iPhone 4 is very much changed from the 3GS, owning to the availability of much better parts for almost the same money (actually slightly higher according to current teardowns).

And, yes, I realize there’s that niggling antenna issue that appears to impact those of you who use your left hand to hold your handset. Although I’m principally a southpaw, I mastered the mouse with my right hand, and use either for phones. There’s also a published report that originated with our frequent show guest, commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, that Apple is readying a fast software update to fix some of the reception issues. Steve Jobs has also offered a pithy “Stay Tuned” response to one iPhone owner who expressed concerns about the problem. So there you go.

On the long haul, knowing that Apple’s transition into the future will be gradual, you can still look at the things they’ve done to glean at least portions the game plan, not to mention that fascinating hobby of dissecting statements from Jobs himself about various and sundry topics.

Although the iPad impresses many as a grown-up iPod touch, it is already selling roughly the same number of copies as a regular Mac. More to the point, Jobs has told you the company’s direction. The day of the PC is ending, and we won’t need as many of those trucks in the future, not when we can buy a sleek compact car — the iPad.

There may indeed be more integration between the iOS and the regular version of Mac OS X, although touch doesn’t make so much sense when you have to reach out to a big screen to make things happen.

On the long haul, I am ever more convinced about my predictions of the future of personal computing. Come 2015, most consumers will own an iPad or similar device, and the traditional personal computer, with mouse and keyboard, will be largely the province of businesses and individual content creators. Yes, you may connect a keyboard to your mobile device, but not very often. It’s not such a travel-friendly concept.

But you won’t see how these things will come to be until you take the long view and explore the lessons of history.

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3 Responses to “Reading the Apple Tea Leaves”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gene Steinberg, breizh2008. breizh2008 said: RT @macnightowl: Here's my latest Tech Night Owl commentary: : Reading the Apple Tea Leaves […]

  2. DaveD says:

    It was the growth of the Internet that pushed a lot more PC sales and saved Apple. Apple seized that glowing opportunity to ride the Internet wave with iMacs, iBooks with wireless access, iPods with iTunes, iPhones and iPads. It is all about the big “i” with Apple. The huge sales of iPhones (netbooks, android phones) indicate that we want to access the ‘net on the go. The PCs at home will become a PC hub at home.

  3. Louis Wheeler says:

    Many people, tech pundits included, are wedded to the status quo anti and they cannot see where Apple is headed. The combination of trends which produced Microsoft’s dominance are over. The Wintel PC is a stagnant market and we are headed toward a new paradigm. Apple will re-invent the computer, but it hasn’t quite done it yet. The full ramifications won’t hit home for several years.

    Gene, you did a good job of exploring the situation. The iPhone and iPad are the future, but they are a weak reed to build a platform on until Apple creates devices to support them.

    The impetus for the new paradigm is technology: the computer-on-a-chip is starting to come into its own. This will change everything, but it is currently used to serve the old paradigm.

    The A4 processor in the iPad makes it an excellent data consumption device, but this, alone, is not what Apple thinks a computer should be. The iPad is designed to help non technical people access a computer. Polls say that, even in the US, 27% of us do not use a computer. Apple is out to drastically change that figure. For the new paradigm to succeed, it must work flawlessly. The effort necessary to achieve that is enormous, so Apple must act incrementally and surreptitiously.

    Apple seems to be planning for a future where most of the computer in your home or office is out of sight. It should be acting as your servant on a dozen different fronts which are currently unserviced. Your computer will become a Local Area Network of a dozen specialized devices.

    The new paradigm will result from frogdesign as much as anything. Form follows function, but function is modified by technology. The old microprocessor technology forced the components into a single box; now the computer can spread out. The PC started out as a DOS front end for a mainframe computer. It used the same form factor when it became a stand alone desktop. That form factor is now obsolete, but the technology had to become possible to replace it. The iPad was designed back in 1985 by frogdesign, but it wasn’t technically possible back then.

    Many more designs are possible now, but they need to be implemented. This requires much thought and effort. Apple is unlikely to forecast where it is going. If Apple reveals its vision of the future too soon, then others can half-heartedly copy it. So, Apple must not make a fuss as it undercuts the existing paradigm.

    Many people will be caught off guard as most of their assumptions are turned upside down. The IT personnel in Enterprise markets will become increasingly passé. They are the dinosaurs of a bygone age — the repercussions of hard-to-use computers.

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