Apple's computer, incorporated

At first glance, it might have seemed that the Mac was invisible at Macworld Expo. During Steve Jobs’s keynote address, there was no announcement of new Mac hardware, no news about Leopard, no word about iLife or iWork—and to top it all off, Jobs announced that Computer was no longer part of Apple’s name.

This has led some pundits to conclude—wrongly—that Apple’s success in consumer electronics signifies some sort of decrease in its commitment to the Mac. Part of this stems from Apple’s recent history as a one-product company; between the eras of the Apple II and the iPod, the Mac was the only product keeping Apple afloat.

It’s time to spread the news that Apple is no longer a one-product company. The iPod, the iPhone, and the Apple TV are not products that Apple created at the expense of the Mac; it created them in addition to the Mac.

As for Apple’s name change, it’s worth noting that when most people hear the word computer , they think of machines running Mac OS X or Windows, with menu bars, windows, mice, and keyboards. Jobs alluded to this when he announced the change: “Today, we’ve added to the Mac and the iPod—we’ve added Apple TV and now iPhone,” he said. “And you know, the Mac is the only one that you really think of as a computer.”

But the Apple TV and the iPhone are computers. Not only that, the iPhone shares with the Mac a core Apple technology: OS X. Over the past six years, Apple has built Mac OS X into a terrific operating system for general-purpose computers. Now, Apple has taken OS X and adapted it in various ways to use as the heart and soul of specialized consumer gadgetry—computers that neither look nor act like computers as most people know them.

A steady evolution

Considering the scope of Apple’s success this decade and the company’s reputation for splashy announcements, its progress has been remarkable. Each successive release of Mac OS X has been largely incremental: evolutionary, not revolutionary. So, too, with the iPod’s progress from the original 2001 model to the ubiquitous music juggernaut it is today.

The iPhone, however, is not supposed to be merely a little bit better, brighter, smaller, or faster than what preceded it. It is intended to start a revolution. It’s hard to compare the iPhone to anything other than Apple’s original Macintosh in 1984. (Let’s not mention the “N” word—the one that rhymes with tootin’. )

The iPod is a computer-like gadget, while the iPhone is clearly a gadget-sized computer. It runs OS X, and its apps are written with Cocoa, the same framework that’s used for writing Mac programs.

The magic is in the software; it’s the part of the Mac that matters most. Given the choice between using a MacBook running Windows (via Boot Camp) and a hypothetical Sony Vaio running Mac OS X, almost every Mac user would choose the latter.

Sure, the iPhone and Apple TV hardware matters—but their user interfaces matter more. Whereas Apple’s competitors have dealt with increasing complexity by adding buttons (to both smart phones and remote controls), Apple has taken away most of the buttons, funneling all the interface complexity to the display.

Judged by what appears on screen, the iPhone bears only a superficial resemblance to a Mac. That’s not a complaint: you wouldn’t want to take an interface optimized for a 20-inch display and squish it onto a 3.5-inch screen (or vice versa). But what’s going on behind the scenes in the iPhone—and I suspect in the Apple TV as well—is stuff that’s based on the same technology that powers the Mac.

As a result, Steve Jobs’s confidence in announcing the iPhone wasn’t based simply on pride about the device he was holding in his hands. It was also a declaration about the future: This is just the first example of the sort of things we’re now able to make.

This isn’t a new direction for Apple. It’s the same path the company has been on all along. Cool new software powered by OS X, running on beautiful, well-designed hardware describes the iPhone and the Apple TV just as well as it does the Mac.

And so the irony is that the day Apple announced it was dropping Computer from its name may well be remembered as the day when it reasserted itself as the most visionary and innovative computer maker in the world.

[ John Gruber writes and publishes the Mac Web site Daring Fireball. ]

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