It’s day one of the future… again.
As I write this, Apple just finished day one of their 2017 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). And day one always means the Keynote. In its simplest interpretation, the Keynote is is a vehicle for showing the latest, greatest and soon-to-come hardware and software from Apple. But as most tech industry pundits will tell you, it’s also where Apple telegraphs its opinions on the direction of personal technology markets. While this most recent Keynote seemed unremarkable on the surface, it signaled some massive shifts in opinion as to where Apple sees markets heading. Here’s my interpretation of what I think they were saying.
Apple is ready to kill the MacOS
This won’t happen this year, or the next. But it is happening. Watch the demonstration of iOS 11 on the iPad Pro. Despite Apple’s claims for the past two years that the iPad pro was a laptop replacement, yesterday’s demonstration was the first hint that their vision may actually be viable. To that end, two major hurdles were overcome. The first was drastically improved windowing/multitasking. The second was a user-manageable file system.
Previously, if you wanted to add a photo stored on your device to the body of an email, you would need to traverse a complicated export and transfer data function that took no less than four or five taps and a number of screen transitions and modal dialogue boxes. With iOS 11, you should be able to drag between visible windows just as you can currently on any desktop OS.
The Files app, basically an “appified” version of the Finder from MacOS, lets users see, move, duplicate and delete their files manually. Previously, this required connection to a desktop or laptop computer running iTunes. Further, files were generally sandboxed within each application. If you created a sound file with one application, you couldn’t easily open that data within a complementary application on the device without, again, performing a convoluted export-and-open maneuver that would result in duplicated data.
Theoretically, as apps are updated, users would be able to open files created with any app directly from Files and start working. The larger question is what happens then to the Save behaviors in iOS? The lack of direct file management enabled the “no-menu-bar-never-hit-save” UX design inherent in the iPad now. We will have to see if this paradigm is still viable. I am guessing not.
Combine those two important additions with the less important but highly visual addition of a MacOS style application dock and it clearly highlights a trend of slowly introducing desktop OS functionality into the iOS line. There were a number of other “killer” features added to iOS, but those two updates mark a significant shift in how Apple is positioning the future of the platform.
The new Macintosh updates
The truth is, the Macintosh line represents about 10% of Apple’s annual revenues...and that share is shrinking. To say that, strategically speaking, Apple has paid less and less attention to the Mac lineup is being kind. And yesterday’s updates, despite giving Tim Cook a bit of cover for his next analyst call, did little to dramatically improve that perception.
The MacBook Pro updates are nice, however they displayed nothing truly innovative or revolutionary. The new machines introduced last year’s processors, with the same 16GB RAM limit, no significant improvement in battery life, and slightly bumped under-spec’d graphics processors. Despite Apple’s claims of massive speed increases, the truth is those percentages really only applied to the lower models in the tier. The laptops still cannot be used for VR consumption, let alone development, and will remain brutally slow to render any complicated video compositing. The external graphics card breakout box is a nice albeit kludgy solution to that issue, but that means it’s only fully useful when tethered. Hardly a true portable workstation.
The new iMacs were also nicely bumped in terms of power, but still lack any real compelling innovation story. As for the new iMac Pro, it seems built to placate Wall Street analysts who have been questioning Apple’s lack of vision at the high end. There’s no question the power is impressive. But the issues with the current Mac Pro (which has not been updated since 2013) centered around its lack of incremental upgradability, i.e. lack of removable graphics card, remain. It’s hard to blame Apple though for lack of focus on this segment. The $5,000 starting price means that the machine represents a sliver of the user base. It’s yet to be seen how the ‘real’ Mac Pro update expected for 2018 will improve this issue. Personally, I’d rather pay $4,000 for a RAM and GPU loaded screenless desktop and attach it to an 8k monitor. That, to me, would qualify as a professional setup. But even if Apple creates the most powerful professional desktop workstation possible, the Macintosh will still be on death watch.
The trigger has been pulled
The only real question is, how long will the market outrun the bullet? Steve Jobs once said that general purpose computers would become the pickup trucks of the industry. They’re specialized tools for doing proverbial heavy lifting—not the inevitable and necessary center of every home as we were sold in the 90’s era vision of computing. And that’s true. In the long run, in a world increasingly made up of cloud services, real-time streaming content and AR-fueled world-as-interface, the entire category of desktop and laptop computers is an anachronism. There is little question that, for now, the more locked-down, service fueled iOS is better suited as a platform to drive revenue in an always-connected, real time fee-for-services environment.
What should be even more interesting is whether Apple can maintain their current level of dominance as we enter the next wave of our connected future—where hardware and devices as we know them becomes superfluous. But further speculation on that topic will have to wait for another day.
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