The Mac is back

Last month, Steve Jobs took to the stage, most likely for the final time this year, to launch a new version of iLife and new updates to the MacBook Air line. More importantly, he spent a lot of time talking about the product line as a whole, how the Mac and iOS platforms relate to each other and what the future of the Mac might look like with the next generation of OS X, now known as Lion. There’s been a lot of speculation as to what the ramifications of all this are. Here’s my take on what it all means.

The Mac is a business, not a hobby. In year dominated by iOS devices such as the iPhone 4, iPad and even Apple TV (which, it seems, is iOS based) some wondered about Apple’s commitment to the Mac. At WWDC, there was hardly a mention of OS X. At the All Things D conference, Steve Jobs referred to PCs as “trucks”; useful, but with limited appeal. Apple’s October event was a strong reminder that the Mac is very much a business not a hobby (a quick look at Apple’s numbers confirm that). While iOS devices do more and more each day, there are some things that are (and will be for the foreseeable future) done better by a personal computer.

Apple hardware isn’t converging. Apple’s done a very good job at keeping things true to themselves. While Apple talks about the new MacBook Airs as the result of a hookup between and iPad and a MacBook, Apple was very clear in keeping the devices optimized for their form. For example, while multi-touch is a key Apple differentiator on both iOS and Mac OS, Apple has implemented them very differently. Touch screens make sense for iOS. That’s what it was designed for. A touchscreen on a Mac would likely work as well as it does when it’s used on Windows 7. It’s not just that vertical touch screens tire the arm, it’s that OS X and its applications are not remotely optimized for that experience. This is a key area where Apple will likely lead its competitors by keeping the hardware focused, while at the same time, driving new UI experiences.

Apple platforms aren’t converging either. There’s been a lot of speculation about Apple’s latest app store news, an app store for the Mac OS. For some folks, this seems to be about platform convergence—an iOS layer for OS X. I don’t think that’s remotely likely to happen. OS X apps will be… OS X apps. Granted, there’s a new set of rules and requirements to be a part of the app store and apps will likely need to be modified to accommodate issues such as piracy, the installation (and de-installation) experience, and the like. Likewise, Apple isn’t going to close Mac OS to only use apps from the app store. There are too many scenarios where users will need that flexibility. Again, it’s all about keeping things true to the experience—and radically changing the personal-computing experience is not something that’s likely to happen anytime soon.

Expect more hardware designs similar to the MacBook Air. Steve Jobs couldn’t have been more clear. The MacBook Air has been a place where Apple starts to drive change. For example, it was the first Mac that didn’t have a user-replaceable battery when it was introduced. Expect to see more designs from Apple that lack an optical disk, that rely on flash storage (the 27” iMac already has a flash-disk option on some SKUs) and more emphasis on the concept of “open and closed” or “in use and not in use” as opposed to terms like sleep, suspend, resume or even on and off. Just the change in how the new MacBook deals with power management makes that device feel far more usable and closer to an appliance than any other personal computer I have ever used.

The bottom line? The Mac is back and in a big way. The app store will transform the Mac user—especially the new Mac users Apple keeps selling Macs to in its retail stores—into a much more application-savvy consumer. While new hardware designs will help make the Mac a much more appliance-like experience, don’t expect the hardware or software platform to converge anytime soon. It’s about a holistic experience that’s true to the context, and that’s one of the ways Apple makes its product lines about personal experiences with products, not bits or atoms.

[Michael Gartenberg is a longtime mobile- and technology-industry analyst currently working at Gartner. The opinions in this column, which appears monthly on Macworld.com, are his own.]

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