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Apple’s infrastructure problem

Posted: October 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Tech | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

While tech pundits have long been anticipating some form of cross-breeding between OS X and iOS, not until today have we seen any real evidence for such a trend. And while I, as a Mac user, am excited to see Apple returning to its roots in the Mac, I found myself more troubled by questions about what was revealed than giddy with anticipation.

Much of my trepidation comes from the software side of the equation. OS X 10.7, or Lion, provides an intriguing look into the future of desktop computing. But I can’t help from feeling, to a certain extent, like Apple is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Granted, the enhanced multitouch features of Lion like Launchpad and full-screen apps — shamelessly ganked from iOS — provide a new and compelling raison d’etre to products like the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad that had previously lacked one. Given the apparent lack of a niche for those two products at their respective launches, and knowing that Apple has a plan for just about everything, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect something like this to happen.

But like the original MacBook Air, Lion seems to be ahead of its time — and not in a good way.

The original Air was a radically slimmed down device that, at first glance, seemed highly attractive for the OS X-loving road warrior seeking an ultraportable. And there’s no denying that the Remote Disc software that Apple included with each Air was an ingenious workaround for the lack of an optical drive. The Air’s one problem? Wireless. 802.11a/b/g/n was by no means ubiquitous then, and still isn’t now: free public Wi-Fi remains something of a pipe dream (albeit less so now that the FCC has approved plans to go forward with “white space” wireless). Cellular data has stepped up to fill the gap somewhat, but network congestion and delays in nationwide 4G rollout have proven we’re still a long way from wireless broadband. (Not to mention the fact that the Air lacks a built-in cellular modem.) At a fundamental level, the Air seemed to have been designed with ubiquitous wireless connectivity in mind — a wonderful world, to be sure, but one that doesn’t yet exist. Its glaring paucity of physical I/O ports therefore left it lame in a networking sense compared to other notebooks and ultraportables in a world that hasn’t yet learned how to, as Verizon’s marketing division puts it, “rule the air.”

To be sure, Lion doesn’t remove any of the most common features of desktop computing, and so the “Lion-as-software’s-MacBook-Air” analogy doesn’t quite hold up one-to-one. But the underlying principle is the same: Apple is changing the user experience at a fundamental level before the requisite infrastructure is in place. With the original Air, this was ubiquitous wireless; with Lion, it is the ubiquity of multitouch applied to devices not in the mobile sphere. Apple arguably owns the majority mindshare when it comes to touch/multitouch devices, but the trick is convincing the consumer that touch/multitouch is equally as valid an interface on the desktop as it is on mobile devices, even when the specific software implementation is largely the same across differing physical platforms. In my mind, Apple hasn’t yet done that. They didn’t release any sales figures for the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad at today’s event, but I have to imagine those markets aren’t enormous at this point in time.

Furthermore, many of the design conventions of iOS — fullscreen apps (apps themselves!), app folders, iOS’ version of multitasking, etc. — were adopted precisely because Apple realized mobile devices are fundamentally different from non-mobile devices. To then come back around over three years later and proclaim that the mobile OS should inform practices on the desktop sounds like terrifically circular logic to me. Device and screen size, battery life, efficient data transmission and reception, memory limitations, heat issues — these things manifest themselves in a far different fashion on mobile devices than on the desktop. To take software features from a mobile device and transplant them wholesale into a desktop device doesn’t intuitively make sense. (On the other hand, I do think that Apple’s iPad-inspired use of specific hardware features — flash memory, instant-on, and long standby times — was a terrific update for the new MacBook Air, although it will still suffer from connectivity problems like its forebear due to its lack of built-in cellular data.)

Exactly how is the Launchpad a superior way to browse one’s applications, as opposed to a Dock-mounted springboard list item? Why bother with the iOS implementation of folders on the Launchpad at all, since we have far greater screen real estate on the desktop? What do fullscreen apps bring to the table that current windowed ones lack? The Mac App Store has potential to bring more user eyeballs to lesser-known software developers, to be sure, and a centralized place for all application updates would be most welcome. But will Apple enforce the same stringent app guidelines as on iOS devices? Granted, OS X devices have the advantage of sideloading that iOS devices do not (at least not without jailbreaking), so such guidelines would not be as devastating in OS X as they have been for some devs in iOS, but they would serve only to alienate potential developers for the Mac App Store platform.

None of this is to say that Apple hasn’t considered these issues or that they won’t in the future. But I can’t help feeling that Apple has failed to give a compelling reason for any of these much-lauded iOS features to make the jump to the desktop just yet.


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