Looking for disruption? It’s staring you in the face, bub

Over the last year, some Apple enthusiasts have been vocal in their demands for the next big disruption from Apple. In the same way that Apple completely changed the way music is distributed and purchased, turned the mobile phone industry on its head, and created a tablet that people will actually use, these folks want The Next Big Thing—something about TV, or mapping, or toasters, or … something.

The fact that no such earthshaking development has emerged from Cupertino to assuage those demands has prompted some to say that maybe Apple’s lost its edge, and that the company can’t create disruptive technology as it once did.

But I'd like to suggest that The Next Big Thing is already happening, right before our eyes. You can see it in OS X, iOS, and the devices that Apple is creating.

About you and your devices

The Next Big Thing is Apple comprehensively changing the way we interact with our devices and data. Let’s start with the devices; for this, we’ll require the assistance of a nearby four-year-old.

Reach out and touch someone: Even using a touch-sensitive trackpad, the Mac's user interface has one too many abstractions.

Sit that four-year-old down and place an iPad before them. Show them how to switch it on, press the Home button to get to the Home screen, and launch an app or two so they can get the gist of the touch interface. Then let them play with it for awhile. Check in with them in about an hour and you’ll find that they can make their way around the device pretty easily.

Take that same four-year-old and place them in front of your Mac. Start the thing up, explain what the mouse and keyboard are for, launch a couple of applications, and tell them to take over. After shoving the mouse around for a few seconds they will turn to you and, in whatever terms four-year-olds use these days (I believe “poo poo” is likely to figure into it) they will let you know that the idea of shoving a mouse around to, in turn, move a cursor across a screen is insane.

And they’re right. We, as Mac users, have been doing this for years and so, to us, it’s entirely natural. But try to forget what you know. In the real world, do you walk around with a retractable mechanical claw designed to manipulate objects around you? Of course not. Why would you, when you can simply touch what you need?

Same idea with technology. What’s more natural, pushing a Next Page button on a Kindle or swiping a page in iBooks? If your answer was the button, try again.

So, Apple is pushing us in the direction of gestures and touch with the idea of removing that level of abstraction where you need to move a physical object to then move a virtual one. It makes sense, given how we interact with things in our daily lives.

It’s about your stuff

You may recall a few years ago that Apple pushed the idea of a Digital Hub. This hub placed your Mac in the middle; off of it you’d hang other devices—an iPod for your music, a digital camera for importing pictures, a camcorder for movies, a scanner, a printer, hard drives, and on and on. But the Mac was the brains of the outfit.

That’s no longer the case. The Mac is now (or soon will be) just another device. And that’s because the Mac is, in this new scheme, broadly no more important than any other device you use to interact with your stuff. And Stuff is the key. Everything is now about your stuff. Your iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Mac, and web browsers are just different-sized windows to your stuff. And your devices talk to one another in order to ensure that your stuff is the same, regardless of which gadget you use at any given moment.

All your stuff: iCloud's syncing means not having to worry about where a file is.

Work on something on your Mac, it’s synced to iCloud. Pick up your iPad and continue that work, right from where you left off. Take a picture on your iPhone and it’s synced with your other devices, as well as your iCloud account.

If stuff rules the roost then concepts like “file structure” are far less important. You don’t care where your stuff is, you just want quick access to it. And that helps explain why Apple has eliminated file structure from iOS devices and is deemphasizing it in the Mac OS. The folder hierarchy has always been a construct to help us visualize how our files are organized, but it’s only a construct—it’s not real. So what’s to keep us from doing away with the abstraction and instead thinking of our stuff as simply “just available”?

Where we fit

All of this change is not going down terribly well with longtime Mac users. They like their mouse, trackpad, and keyboard; they’ve learned to think of their data as stored in nested folders; and they resent the iOSification of the Mac OS. Although Apple doesn’t currently prevent you from working with the Mac OS as you have in the past, the company has certainly made it more difficult to tweak things the way you once could. And my guess is that trend will continue.

But here’s the bitter pill: Longtime Mac users who think this way are not Apple’s future. We’re seeing that future unfold before our eyes and it strongly hints that those now coming to the Mac will have already had their first experience with Apple products using an iOS device. They’ll expect touch and gestures, they’ll feel comfortable with Launchpad’s interface and a simplified settings screen, and they won’t gripe that their documents are tied to specific applications.

I am one of those longtime Mac users and I understand some people’s reluctance to adopt Apple’s vision of the future. But I also understand a little something about progress and recall all too well our forebears, who objected mightily to the loss of the command line with their shouted protests that the GUI was just a gimmick.

Has Apple lost its ability to disrupt? Hardly. The company is well underway on perhaps its most challenging disruption of all—overturning its own legacy.

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