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Are You Ready to Give Up Your Mac?

More and more of the speculation I’ve read of late talks about extensive proposed changes to the Mac OS. There is that Apple patent filing that would add a touch interface, activated, evidently, by the direction in which the screen is tilted. So if you hold it flat, as determined by the accelerometer, you will be able to use the display in the same fashion as an iPhone and an iPad.

I suppose it’s a convenient method to get the best of both worlds, though I question the utility of using a 27-inch Mac in this fashion. It may make sense on a basic MacBook, but as screen sizes increase, I would tend to think a more traditional user interface, based on keyboard and mouse (or trackpad or trackball) would be preferred.

But maybe that’s just me. For others, a desktop version of the iPad may strike them as an awesome concept.

In any case, it’s important to realize that Apple files those patents largely to protect intellectual property. Sure, some of those inventions might make their way into actual shipping products, such as the Magic Trackpad. Others no doubt represent products and services still in the test labs, with no guarantee they’ll ever see the light of day.

But Apple has little choice. If they don’t protect their innovations, other companies might get there first, thus forcing Apple to pay royalties or settle lawsuits. Even then, things happen. Remember when Creative Labs got $100 million to settle claims growing out of iPod technology? Was that an Apple misstep or just a symptom of the complicated nature of intellectual property and patents, where even minor changes might be granted patent protection.

At the same time, it’s clear to me that Apple is looking carefully at the future of personal computing and how you will want to interact with your Mac or PC in the years to come.

Certainly the stellar success of the iPad shows that a lot of people are ready to embrace different user interfaces. In passing, the concept of the iPad is not so new. Early prototypes can be traced back to the 1970s, and the 1980’s TV show, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” featured a pad-based computer system that was used by the starship’s crew to enter data. Of course, you never really saw much of the actual user interface, but basic concepts can inspire incredible inventions over time.

Maybe an actual realization of a “pad” or slate computer couldn’t happen until 2010, with the arrival of the iPad. Certainly, PC companies had struggled and failed to devise credible tablet devices for a decade with little commercial success. The realization of that technology was always a year away, but it never arrived until Apple found a way.

Of course, when something innovative arrives, there are always bottom feeders who will try to live long and prosper with their own cheap knock-offs. As rumors of an Apple tablet arose late in 2009, and prior to the iPad’s introduction early this year, other PC companies brought out alleged prototypes of their own answers to the expected new gadget. Most of those products never grew beyond the demonstration stage.

Now that the iPad is a reality, loads of imitations, some using the “Pad” moniker, are arriving. How well they’ll do against the iPad is anyone’s guess. Clearly the odds are against them. Apple got there ahead of the curve, before credible competitors could be built. The imitations, as with the iPod killers of yore, will arrive with features that Apple’s gadgets don’t have. Or won’t have for a while.

The difference is that Apple doesn’t play the feature-itis game. As many tech commentators have observed, Apple tends to take baby steps in each system or hardware update. The original version may lack critical features, but over time, they’ll receive them.

You can’t, for example, understand how far the iPhone 4 has come if you don’t look at the original version and the first release of Apple’s mobile OS. In 2007, there was no App Store, and the only way to access third-party software came through a Web-based interface. There was no cut, copy or paste feature, and forget about multitasking.

But if you’ve been exposed to iOS 4 — and I realize multitasking doesn’t work on the earliest iPhones — you can see the vast number of changes Apple has made within a three year timeframe. This despite the fact that the basic user interface is largely unchanged. Unlike Microsoft, Apple doesn’t change things just for the sake of change, and you don’t need to endure a learning curve when you upgrade.

On the long haul, the natural evolution of the iPad and iOS are sure to cause a revolution in the personal computer universe. Already some are combining iPad and Mac sales figures to show just how much impact Apple really has in the marketplace.

I’ll repeat my prediction, made a few months back: By 2015, most of you will rely on an iPad or its successors for most computing-related tasks. Only a small number of high-end content creators will continue to depend on the old fashioned personal computer and input devices. I may be all wrong, but I expect that you can take that prediction to the bank.