If iPads are the new PCs, why make Macs?

In a recent market survey, Canalys claimed that Apple was number 1 when it comes to worldwide shipments of personal computers in the fourth quarter of 2012 with a share of of 20%. This figure includes shipments of iPads – a device many people don’t count as a personal computer.

Let’s turn the ‘is the iPad a personal computer’ question around and ask ‘If tablets are our personal computers, what are Macs for?’ If there’s a useful new definition of Macs and OS X, Apple will continue to improve both in the coming years.

At the moment people use Macs to organise and to create. Organisation in this case covers the personal, family and work aspects of our lives. iPads, iOS and iCloud are designed to support these sort of tasks.

It seems that the organisational aspects of our lives will soon be better supported using iOS and Android devices (and perhaps the mobile aspects of Windows 8). This leaves Macs and OS X as tools to support creative endeavours only: music composition, graphic design, illustration, photo manipulation, software development and media production and post production. A definition similar to the markets that supported Apple in the 90s.

As I mentioned in my post on how has Apple defined itself over the last 18 years, they might very well change the part of their definition that describes the Mac. Currently they say:

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software.

Perhaps they’ll break up that sentence by function:

Apple helps people organise using iLife, iWork and iCloud. Apple makes Macs, OS X and professional software: the best content creation tools in the world.

This would be a logical consequence of Steve Jobs’ ‘car vs. truck’ distinction. When interviewed on stage in 2010 as part of the D8: All Things Digital conference he likened Macs and PCs to trucks and tablets such the iPad to cars:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms. Cars became more popular as cities rose, and things like power steering and automatic transmission became popular … PCs are going to be like trucks – They are still going to be around…they are going to be one out of x people. This transformation is going to make some people uneasy…because the PC has taken us a long ways. It’s brilliant. We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen, it’s uncomfortable.

He went on to say that technology improvements will make it easier to create complex content on tablets:

The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

Expanding on his metaphor would be that the 90% who have cars only need to transport large amounts of stuff or travel rough country rarely are perfectly well served by cars. That is, iOS and other personal devices will soon be able to support 95% of all content creation tasks even if people using them only need the features rarely.

However there are a couple of times when having a truck is useful: if your job requires that kind of power, or you need to transport a large amount of goods that your car can’t handle.

Perhaps the future of Macs is as multifunction add-ons to iPads and iPhones. The equivalent of a 12-wheel trailer plus an extra engine and gearbox to support it. To drive Steve’s idea into the ground, some iPads could become more like long-haul truck cabs than cars.

There is a precedent for this kind of product from over 20 years ago. Back in 1992, the Macintosh Duo system provided an advanced desktop dock for use with a specialised Powerbook Mac:

duo-example duo-example-2

Images from Apple Collection

Back then it was hard to create a full-colour portable Mac at a reasonable price. PowerBook Duos could only display 16 shades of grey at a resolution of 640 by 400. The Duo Dock added

  • a co-processor,
  • a SCSI connector for hard drives,
  • ethernet,
  • keyboard and mouse ports,
  • a display connector for connection to a variety of displays,
  • an extra hard drive
  • and two slots for expansion cards (a video capture card is used as an example in the brochure at Apple Collection).

What features who pro users want to add to an iPad today to make it powerful enough to edit video, make music and develop applications on? How about a Mac that provides

  • multiple Intel multicore processors,
  • a thunderbolt connector for hard drives,
  • ethernet,
  • keyboard and mouse ports,
  • another thunderbolt connector for connection to a variety of displays,
  • extra storage
  • and slots for expansion cards.

Today’s iMac can fulfil all but the last of these requirements.

The question is whether there would be any advantage to combining an iPad and Mac into a single device. This would be reminiscent of the new Surface from Microsoft. It can run both traditional desktop software as well as tablet apps. The difference would be that when the iPad is on its own, it would only run iOS software. The Mac would also run only OS X. When connected they could then act as accessories to each other – an extra retina touchscreen for the Mac, a fully-featured dock for the iPad, switching roles depending on the task.

The kind of user interface to allow is kind of co-operation between iOS and OS X is the kind of thing I imagine Jony Ive would relish.

Whether Apple would be interested in doing this would depend on whether the engineering resource to keep Macs as distinct products given the increasing power of tablet technology. For now all we have is Apple CEO Tim Cook’s reassurance that fans of Mac Pros are going to love a new product that Apple will be launching later this year.

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1 comment
  1. Whatever Steve Jobs stood for, one comment he made resonates for me:

    “The Computer is a Bicycle For Our Minds” – an iMac may be a car, the Mac Pro a lorry, but the iPad/iPhone is his bicycle.

    The freedom, the simple efficiency and the elegant interface are wonderful.

    However, it’s a bit of a bitch when doing the weekly shop or moving house. Yes, iOS, help me think, help me organise, but we all have to do work – do the heavy lifting – and quite frankly the iPad sucks at that.

    OTOH, the iWatch concept – just like my iPhone doesn’t do much phoning, an iWatch doesn’t do a cleverer version of telling the time, but it may tell me I’m not active enough whilst editing, it may tell me I’ve got an email from someone important enough to check right now, it may tell me I’ve left my phone in the car, it may tell London Transport that I checked in at Paddington, it may tell me my iPhone will run out of power soon and I need to charge it. I may even wear a watch on both hands.

    But I don’t want to edit on it.

    We want a ‘society’ of iHelpers. Backup. Multi-functionality. What are Macs for? For doing all the things you can’t do on a watch or phone or tablet. Analysis, bigger picture, optimisation, adapting filtration… But the nurse says I must rest now.

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