Some time before the acquisition sayf NeXT returned Steve Jobs to Apple in 1996, he was asked to comment on the state of the company. He mentioned something about milking the Mac for all its worth until it was time to move on the next great thing. I can’t cite the article so many years later, but it’s buried in a search request somewhere.
Well, if Jobs hadn’t returned to Apple, it is quite likely the Mac — and the entire company — would have gone kaput. But through thick and thin, the Mac has remained a constant. During the latter part of the 1990s, the platform hung on with tape and string, because the core of the Mac OS had become older and buggier. Although the final versions, starting with Mac OS 9, were pretty decent and snappy overall, it wasn’t what you’d call a modern operating system.
When Apple went to Unix-based OS, built upon the guts of NeXTStep, it arrived several years late and was only slightly useful at first. It was slow, somewhat buggy, despite being based on an industrial-strength core, and was very underdeveloped. The printing system was barely functional until Apple adopted CUPS in 2002.
Now Mac OS X, which became OS X and is poised to become macOS this fall, proved to be far more difficult to perfect that many expected. I suspect many Mac users assumed they’d see it a year or two after the NeXT acquisition. The first attempt, code-named Rhapsody, was largely a somewhat Mac-like NeXT alternative, with no easy way for Mac developers to port their apps. Thus came Aqua, the eye-candy Mac theme, and Carbon, to simplify the porting process. It took nearly four years to arrive at the original Public Beta.
But the OS overhaul didn’t come into its own until 10.4 Tiger arrived in 2005. When Apple dumped the PowerPC and moved to Intel in 2006, a version of Tiger for the new CPU was ready to roll.
With macOS Sierra waiting in the wings — and developers are already playing with the very first beta — one might wonder where the Mac will go. Hardware updates are not showing up as frequently. A lot of that is due to the fact that Moore’s Law, the theory that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years, is hitting a wall. Intel and other processor makers are finding it more and more difficult to make them smaller, more power efficient, and more powerful. So there may come a time where simple processor refreshes will be few and far between.
Without major processor advancements to count on, other ways for Apple to make the Mac better would be to create a fancier case, maybe slimmer and lighter, and to add extra hardware features to make the computers more useful. So perhaps there will be a fingerprint sensor — which Apple could probably do now since it owns the technology. A move to OLED displays might provide richer colors, wider viewing angles, and the ability to actually use one in bright sunlight if you’re so inclined. SSDs are growing larger and cheaper, meaning that you will be able to buy a Mac with more storage for the same price, or less.
I realize that the Optimized Storage feature of Sierra will help do some spring cleaning of your Mac, freeing wasted space, thus letting you continue to use the smaller SSD. But it will arrive at the expense of having to buy extra iCloud Drive storage unless Apple becomes extremely generous.
Some suggest that Apple plans to move the Mac to ARM, a more powerful variation of existing A-series mobile chips. The iPad Pro is capable of real desktop performance, based on published benchmarks, although the fastest Macs still do far better. Parity may indeed be possible, but an Intel-based Mac can also run Windows with great performance via Boot Camp or a virtual machine. And what about tens of thousands of Intel-savvy apps out there? If Apple builds a hardware emulator for ARM — perhaps using Metal to make it more efficient — would that provide acceptable performance till developers port their apps? And how would it mange Intel virtual machines? Don’t forget how badly the PowerPC fared.
More to the point, is there any real advantage — beyond chip cost — to investing in another processor switch? Will there come a time where a future iPad, or a successor product, replaces all or most of the functions of the Mac in a new form factor?
I do not for a moment believe the Mac is forever, although at my age it might be for me. The personal computer of today is, more or less, quite similar to its 1986 counterpart — or 1984 if you want to go back to the first Mac — in the way you interact with it. You are still using a mouse and keyboard to run apps; a trackpad is simply an extension of the mouse concept. The basic user interface may be refined with more features, but at its core the lessons learned on the first Mac can be applied quite successfully to its 2016 counterpart.
Does the PC of the future abstract the user interface and deliver results via voice command? As Scotty said in a certain Star Trek movie, upon being confronted with the 1986 Mac with its mouse and keyboard, “how quaint!” Perhaps it won’t be long until we all feel the same.
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