How iPhone 4s and iOS 5 Reveal the Mac of the Future

How iPhone 4s and iOS 5 Reveal the Mac of the Future

Planted in your shiny new iPhone 4s and in the iOS 5 are the seeds of tomorrow’s Mac of the future, and indeed the future of all computers. You can find them if you know where to look. (And I’ll tell you where below.)

It’s not supposed to be this way. In the Microsoft world, at least, new technology starts at the top and “trickles down” from bigger and more powerful computers over time to mobile devices and eventually cell phones. If you’re focused on the machines, this makes sense, as larger computers are more capable of handling powerful new features.

But if you’re focused on the user, as Apple is, this approach doesn’t make sense. Apple has developed what I believe is a unique strategy: introduce new interfaces and new ways to interact with computers and the Internet on the smallest devices first, then scale them up over time, eventually ending up as desktop features.

This started with the iPhone.

In 2007, both Microsoft and Apple introduced the foundation of tomorrow’s computers — interfaces that featured multi-touch, physics and gestures (MPG).

Microsoft introduced MPG on big computers because the machine could handle it. Apple introduced MPG on tiny computers because the user could handle it.

Not just the interface, the iPhone ushered in the App Store idea and other innovations that would start on the phone, move up the food chain to tablets and eventually the desktop. OS X Lion, for example, has a touch-like interface, multi-touch gestures and other elements first introduced on the iPhone. The next major generation of iMacs, of course, will be touch screen devices either optionally or exclusively.

This is a brilliant strategy, and I’ll tell you why: People have lower expectations on phones, and are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of mobility.

One controversial aspect of the all-screen cell phone — well, it used to be controversial — is the idea of using an on-screen keyboard instead of a physical one. Had Apple introduced this first on, say, a MacBook, and had replaced the lower half of the clamshell with a software-based touch-screen virtual keyboard, nobody would have bought it. Apple would have been criticized, and the idea of screen-based keyboards would have been set back by a decade.

Instead, Apple did it on the smallest computer — the iPhone. The proposition was that, yes, the keyboard is harder to type on. But in exchange for that sacrifice, we’ll give you a much bigger screen than older generations of phones, without the bulkiness of slide-out keyboard phones.

There was some grumbling, but eventually we all accepted the idea of typing on screens. When on-screen keyboards showed up on iPads, the complaints were fewer.

Apple mainstreamed on-screen touch keyboards by introducing them on phones first.

Still, nobody likes the idea of using only on-screen keyboards on tablets, clamshell laptops and desktops. In fact, that appears to be the main objection to the idea of big-screen touch-based desktop computing.

What’s missing from this analysis is that the touch-screen keyboards of tomorrow will be supplemented by other technologies that both improve the experience of using the touch keyboards, and also reducing the need to type.

In fact, it will be possible to do all your work without typing at all.

Here’s what’s truly exciting: These supplemental technologies were introduced in the iPhone 4s, and also in the iOS 5. Now that they exist, Apple will make them increasingly sophisticated until they become part of the core interfaces for the iMac of the future.

The technologies are: 1) better keyboards; 2) artificial intelligence; and 3) haptics.

1. Better keyboards

Physical keyboards are great. The problem is that they are untethered from Moore’s Law — they don’t get better over time. In fact, the best keyboard every sold, according to many, became available in the 1980s — the IBM Model M keyboard. I personally like the Apple-style flat-key keyboards. But even these represent only a minor improvement on the old-style keyboards.

In fact, physical keyboards are the only element of desktop computers that don’t really improve anymore.

But on the iOS and other platforms that have on-screen keyboards, the keyboards can improve constantly because they’re software.

You see minor improvements to the keyboard experience in the iPhone 4s and iOS 5.

For example, you’ll find a new feature called Shortcuts, which enables you to add your own custom auto-correct words and phrases.

Just find the Keyboard setting under General in Settings. Add your word or phrase, and also the code that triggers it. For example, you could tell the phone that when you type “thnx” to suggest: “Thanks for everything! Talk to you soon.”

This can save you a lot of typing.

Although new to the iPhone, this capability is not all that exciting or ground-breaking. However, it shows one very important aspect of on-screen keyboards: Constantly improving auto-correct can greatly reduce the amount of typing you do.

In the future, auto-correct will become both more “auto” and also more “correct.” Eventually, you’ll have to actually type only a fraction of what is written. Auto-correct will do the rest.

On the iPad, the iOS 5 offers a new keyboard trick: The keyboard can split in two,  so that when typing in landscape mode, you can hold the iPad with two hands while typing with your thumbs.

Software keyboards on desktops will be radically flexible, configurable and customizable, which will make most people actually prefer the on-screen variety.

2. Artificial intelligence

As millions of users are discovering this weekend, Siri artificial intelligence spares you a lot of screen touching. Instead of typing a text, you just say something like: “Text my wife and tell her I’ll be late.” Instead of replying to email, just talk. Instead of writing a long note, just dictate it. Instead of typing a long URL to find, say, my online bio, just say: “Open Elgan dot com.”

If you can imagine an advanced version of Siri, working on a full-powered desktop, you can see how you’d never really have to type anything if you don’t want to.

3. Haptics

The main reason people don’t like on-screen keyboards is that they can’t feel the keys.

Physical keyboards use your sense of touch to learn where the keys are, and also provide feedback on whether or not the keys were pressed.

Surprisingly, on-screen keyboards can do this, too, using haptics.

Of course, all phones have haptics. When you turn the ringer off, your phone will buzz instead of ring. And that’s the most rudimentary kind of haptic feedback.

However, anyone who’s played “Call of Duty” on Microsoft Xbox 360 knows that an enormous amount of hyper-realistic feedback can be achieved through haptics. Xbox controllers enable you experience all manner of violence, from air strikes to bullets to grenades. It’s all quite convincing.

The haptic touch interfaces of the future will buzz and vibrate depending on where you touch. They’ll re-wire your brain and enable you to “touch type” with confidence. You’ll “feel” the edges of the keys, and other interface elements. They’ll “click” when you type.

Apple introduced improved haptics into iPhone 4s and iOS 5, albeit in a typically rudimentary way.

iOS 5 offers custom haptic alerts that can be associated with individual people. So when your sound is turned off, vibrations will not only tell you that you’re getting a call or text, but also exactly who is contacting you.

To use the iOS 5’s custom haptics feature, Select “Accessibility” in the General option of Settings. Turn “Custom Vibrations” on.

Then, go to Contacts, choose a contact and touch Edit.

Tap on the word “Default” next to “Vibration.” You’ll be given the option to choose one of the canned patterns, which include “Alert,” “Heartbeat,” “Rapid,” “S.O.S.” (actually the morse code) and “Symphony,” which vibrates the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

The coolest part is a “Custom” option. By choosing that, you’ll be given a fun interface for tapping out your own vibration patterns. When you tap, ripples fly out like on the surface of a pond.

Note that one limitation of this feature is that it won’t tell you if you’ve got a text or a call, only who is trying to contact you.

Over time, all these bare-bones technologies — better keyboards, artificial intelligence and haptics — will become ever more sophisticated as the whole iOS 5-style interface moves all the way up the Apple food chain to the iMac.

Within five years, your Mac will be a giant iPhone, set at a drafting-table angle. You’ll be able to use a physical keyboard if you want to, but you probably won’t.

And the reason is that typing itself will become simultaneously improved for screens, and also less necessary. The seeds planted in the iPhone 4s and iOS 5 will grow into mighty trees, enabling a futuristic computing experience with less pointing, clicking and typing and more touching, swiping and talking.

Image, courtesy of Tuvie.

  • Mailer King

    Great post Mike – thanks for putting this together.

  • Tookover89

    o god shut the fuck up about how apple is the future.. you have a phone that dominates one market… There gonna go down hill without  steve jobs.. NO MORE INOVATION what they have now is what they will stick with im so sick of this shit with apple apple apple god

  • Mike

    Thanks!!

  • smiulika

    I just found a test site, were you can test the iPhone 5:  http://site-review.info

  • Cruzitocruz2011

    Very interesting post really enjoyed reading it.

  • Thedude69

    Great post, discovering the iOS 5. Thank you

  • A Dagostino

    Didn’t Jobs say that he never wanted to see a touch screen Mac? If so you won’t be seeing it in the next 5 years.

  • ???????? ????

    Nice post. I usually find your work insightful. 

  • Mike

    He said nobody wants to use a vertical touch-screen, like those lame attempts among a few OEM PC vendors. And he was certainly right about that. 

  • oscarfeliciano

    Yup, and just last year.  He stated that Apple has done tons of user testing and found that it simply doesn’t work.  Touchscreen interfaces want to be horizontal, not vertical.  After a while, you just get very tired (physically) when using a vertical touchscreen interface.

  • prof_peabody

    Exactly. He very precisely said “vertical” which means he didn’t rule out non-vertical touch screen iMacs.  :)

  • douglascrets

    Really insightful. Apple focuses on the consumer in a way no other tech company has figured out. That’s strange to me, because it’s so obvious. It’s not about user marketing, it’s about a device’s accountability to the user, through design and engineering. 

  • jarledb

    Just a fyi: Siri is not really a service on the iPhone – its a service in the cloud. A service that will get incrementally better from the experience Apple will get from the use of it on the iPhone. 

    There is nothing stopping Apple implementing Siri in Lion whenever they want.

  • Derek Auth

    What a FASCINATING article. I totally agree with all the info here. In fact, I find myself obsessed with trying to predict and guess what’s coming down the road of tech…(specifically Apple) and how different things will be. It’s almost like I get quick glimpses of the future and it keeps me on the edge of my seat. Some people think I’m crazy for some of the tech predictions I make yet this article helps enforce certain ones…I guess we’ll see! Great article!

  • Pandora

    Mike…just a quick correction in the section about haptics: The “physical keyboard” doesn’t learn anything. We humans learn where the keys are and receive tactile feedback when pressing those keys.

    Other than that, it was yet another of your great artcles. Keep them coming!

    Pandora

  • Len Williams

    Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller have both publicly stated that touch-screens for the Mac were not going to be developed, because it tires the user. The larger the screen, the more reaching and effort involved, so I don’t see touch-screen tech being built into the Mac. Instead, the Magic Trackpad and voice control via Siri appear to be where Apple is heading–and I think this is the correct route to follow. While the Redmond boys have convinced HP, Acer and many other manufacturers that touchs-creens are the wave of the future, it seems another shortsighted rush to shoehorn new technology into their products rather than thinking what’s best for users. I foresee this as another “brown Zune” project. I have more than enough fingerprints on my 20″ and 30″ Cinema Displays without constantly needing to clean touch-screens every day.

    I completely agree that Siri will revolutionize the world–again–with Apple leading the way with the first true AI technology trickling up from the iPhone to the iPad, iPod and finally the Mac. Within 5 years it will become “obvious” that real speech vocal interface is what all manufacturers will be using–all claiming they’re NOT copying the Mac and all insisting that Apple was NOT the first to come up with this workable technology, just like all the smartphone and tablet manufacturers are doing today.

    Mike: I’m very proud to see your turnaround from an Apple critic to an unapologetic supporter and booster. I remember that not too long ago you were nearly always highly, sometimes acidly critical of Apple’s products and strategies. I’d love to hear the story of how this happened and what your personal road to discovery has been.

  • Howard Carter

    Thanks for a very well written article that even a computer illiterate, like me, can understand.

    I will be upgrading to a 4s asap. Interestingly, (Albeit I am a big fan of Apple -I insisted when I launched incognito mosquito repellent, that all of our computers had to be Macs.) if it wasn’t for Steve Jobs passing away, I probably would not have read this or some of the other articles with so much detail, so I guess I am a born-again Apple user. I am now quite motivated to learn a lot more about this amazing technology that I use everyday!

    I will be upgrading to a 4s asap and I’m looking forward to using some of your suggestions.

  • stressball

    Len, have you seen this 10/GUI video? :)

    http://vimeo.com/6712657

  • Gig

    Definitely not a “vertical” touchscreen. I was thinking more in the lines of a virtual “touchscreen” keyboard that works also as an oversized trackpad. Imagine what you could do with that real estate for iMacs

  • CRodBlogs

    Steve Jobs also once said Apple will never enter the cellphone market. The rest, as we say, is history.
    Any apple fan knows the stuff written here already. No new knowledge gained. Nicely written though.

  • CRodBlogs

    I’m coming after you, Mike, if none of this comes true…. j/k….. Nicely written though.

  • kappesante

    air. new keyboards (and maybe new software keyboards) will be made with air bubbles to have a tactical feedback.

  • Alon

    This is Bullshit! MicroSoft is doing the same with windows mobile and windows 8… 

  • who-raar

    I hope you were paid to write that. For I can see no other reason to tell people a fraction of what they already know.

  • ifuckyourmind

    Mac OS X will go away over time and iOS6 or 7 will then be the universal OS for all Apple machines.

  • J

    A physical keyboard is highly overrated. Without other clues like sound and vibration my iPad keyboard is execllent to type on and in some ways even better than a physical one because it has context and can be used all over the world without hardware customization.
    It’s even better now because it can split and shift so it can be used on an iPad without the need to let it rest on some surface. Do that with a ‘real’ keyboard!
    I liked the iPhone keyboard from day one, and saw its as Apples main breakthrough, it types as good as the tiny fumbling keys on other phones (because you have to compare it with that and not with a full featured computer keyboard) and is virtual. As you should know all breakthroughs in computer land have virtual written somewhere.
    The iPad keyboard as it is now is more than good enough to type blogs books and anything else you can think of.
    If you don’t understand that you maybe have to try it sometime.
    The point is that your brain is the best virtual instrument and generates it’s own feedback so a virtual keyboard becomes more real and usable. There’s no need for additional feedback that is more of a hindrance than of help – I disable keyboard clicks because of that – in fact iOS virtual keyboard is almost perfect the way it is now.

    J.

  • Cat4Change

    If you want to feel how Lion is supposed to be used, hook up a monitor in Portrait mode.  Then the benefits of full screen mode become clear, and it all the sudden feels right.  It was not designed for Landscape mode.  Pity you can’t flip an iMac on end, and what to do with a Mac Book.  I can’t wait until they release the next round of designs…

  • Sam Parmenter

    Touch screens just don’t work well enough to remove the mouse and keyboard. The ipad and iphone have the best touch technology and you would still not be able to ditch the mouse on a computer if that was embedded into a monitor.

    There is a damn good reason that we have the mouse. It is very accurate, fast and doesn’t get in the way. How would you type?, projected keyboard or still physical?

    Look at anyone working on a computer that can use shortcuts on their keyboard and they will use the mouse very little. Why? Because its so much quicker and easier and everything is in the one place. You cannot do delicate work on a touch screen and its much slower than having a mouse and keyboard. I would hate to have to type away and then bring my arm up to the screen every time I wanted to do anything.

  • Thepiccmaster

    OS X /= iOS. OS X has lacked touch screen support because the systems are unrelated regardless of what many think. Microsoft integrated this technology years ago. Auto correct is also nothing new, but good try. I am not trying to say the iPad/iPhone/MacBook is bad or anything. My argument is your primary contention that Apple has some sort of trickle up strategy is beyond ridiculous.

  • Aaron

    Why do you say that’s beyond ridiculous? Have you used Terminal on a jailbroken phone? iOS is really a slimmed down version of OS X. Have you used Mac OS X Lion using a Magic Touchpad? The scrolling is just like using an iPad — the directions are even reversed in the Y axis by default. Heck, Lion even has a Launchpad that directly mimics the iPad home screen. Want more examples?

  • Aaron

    They are, kinda. The interface on Windows Phone 7 is being moved to Windows 8 (desktop). They are seeing the success Apple is having in this area and doing it themselves, which is great. Even for the Windows Phone 7, Microsoft directly dictated hardware requirements (like screen resolution, number of buttons, etc.) so their OS wouldn’t become fragmented like Android. 

    However, Microsoft IS trying to get their desktop-class operating system to run on tablets. There is the difference. While Apple got a slimmed-down version of OS X to run as iOS, Microsoft is trying to get tablets to run the full desktop OS on a tablet… or at least they were. I think they may be running into a lot of problems, hence the new version of Windows that runs on ARM processors.

    Microsoft tries very hard to give customers what they ask for. Apple gives customers what they believe they need. 

    When Henry Ford was asked why he made the car, he repled, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” 

  • Aaron

    They didn’t say that touch screens tire the user. They said that using a touch screen on a VERTICAL surface doesn’t work. You probably don’t have a touch screen on your monitor, but for a few moments, try touching your screen like an iPad. Tiring, isn’t it? Your wrist gets sore, your arm gets sore, etc.

    Think about it another way: Take your iMac/monitor, put it flat on your desk’s surface and use something to tilt it about 10 degrees up from flat. Move the monitor to the edge of your desk. Now try it as a touch screen. It works! 

    I believe the next generation iMac will be just like that. A huge touch screen, with a tapered edge (the edge that is closest to the user) that works like an iPad. By then, many more apps will be available and the software difference between an iPad and a Mac will be closer. (Hear that Microsoft and Adobe? Start porting your full versions of Office and Creative Suite to the iPad soon!)

    For those of us set in our ways, our new iPad/iMac hybrid will support mice, keyboards, etc., but the preferred input methods will be on-screen keyboard, speech recognition, and touch.

  • Aaron

    Agreed! I believe that’s what we will see eventually, if not soon! We have to read between the lines when Apple says things. 

  • heeloliver

    I think this is a bit silly. All this talk about iOS replacing OS X. iOS was built off of OS X. Not to replace it. Features, on the other hand, may be shared. The dock. iCloud. And others…..At least, I hope it stays like this.

  • dale2000

    The back end of iOS was based on OS X, but don’t make the false argument that the design philosophy for the user interface was also based on OS X.  That’s simply and obviously not true.

  • dale2000

    It’s just a matter of progress.  Don’t forget that mice weren’t always as accurate or reliable as they are now, either.  And there’s already an example of where mouse technology has evolved into something new: Apple’s magic touchpad — which itself is a half-step towards users  interacting directly touch screen.

    Now imagine a keyboard, touchpad and a fully touch-capable screen slanted like a drafting table.  Now you have the CHOICE to perform quick taps on the screen, or accurate drags with the touch pad (or, hell, a mouse for the “retro” feel).

    It’s coming.  It’s not a matter of acceptance.  That part’s over.  It’s how it progresses and evolves into the desktop that’s to be determined.

  • dale2000

    Jobs was a clever man, and I don’t think I’m going too far here when I say that perhaps he was clever enough to NOT say that touch screen will never come to Macs, just that they don’t work well with computers as they’re designed today.

    But who said computers have to be screens sitting, raised, perpendicular to the desks they’re sitting on?

  • Mike

    Come at me, bro. ; ) 

  • Marcos

    besides, personal computers came before ( big as the are Mac or Windows ) not after the iPhone as one can understand by reading the third paragraph…

  • Kevin’s Squirrel

    I don’t think you’re nuts.

  • heeloliver

    I wasn’t.

  • heeloliver

    Yes, please explain windows and the desktop.

  • dale2000

    Ok, my apologies, then.  I have to say, then, that I think you missed the value of iOS to the consumer, which is that the user interface has become the standard of how people interact with touchscreen devices which, for now, is limited mostly to mobile devices.  Since many computers are also mobile devices (laptops), Apple is wisely positioning iOS features as part of all of their OS’s, as I am sure that they see touch-capability coming to all computing devices, not just those categorized as ‘mobile’.

  • dale2000

    I think you need to introduce the context in which you expect him to “explain windows and the desktop.”  Do you want him to address the fact that Windows had touch functions years ago or why Windows has survived as the most used operating system despite not adopting touch features more?  Or was it a different context that I haven’t been able to surmise from your brief, vague, and vaguely brief demand?  Don’t make a challenge and then lay the burden of interpreting the challenge on the person you challenged.

  • randall

    I don’t think it’s silly at all, and I am completely in love with this idea. Also, you won’t want to type on a physical keyboard because the more Apple forces these technologies into their smaller products, the more it’ll root itself into your brain, making it a subconscious preference over physical keys. Very nice article. 

  • Pjalm

    He was referring to windows in OS X not Windows the OS lol

  • HotGG

    Uh, I beg to differ – the best keyboard ever sold/made was the MacAlly iKey/iMedia Keyboard from about 10 or more years ago.

  • Oceanic815

    Apple will never introduce iMac’s with  touch screen. It’s not ergonomical to touch display, your hands will be tyred after 15-20 min. of work.  Touch screen in devices like ipad and surface only, because you can put hands on screen, to rest.

  • Sam Parmenter

    I just think that we have to be a little realistic about what is possible. We always knew that the mouse would become more accurate with time. A touch OS is not limited by technology in its use at the moment, merely in its actual use. I just can’t see how something that I don’t use that much as it is will be replaced by touch screens.

    I use the keyboard almost exclusively other than when I am just browsing. If I want to change program, its a shortcut, if I want to change tab in chrome, its usually from the keyboard. You have an almost unlimited set of commands from the keyboard right under your fingers rather than in a 27″ or whatever size monitor they may come in. 

    I just can’t see how the OS can go fully touch without going massively backwards with regards to usability and the speed of the user. There are plenty of things that touch interfaces are perfect for but full blown OS is not one. It works on phones and tablets because of their limited use beyond light tasks and their accepted limitations. A desktop replacement can’t have this issue.

  • dale2000

    Well, I don’t think anyone has made the claim that people will use only the touch functions of a computer, just that computers will be fully touch capable.  If your monitor was just over your keyboard on a similar angle, and you could reach for the mouse, find its location on the screen, move it from that relative position to wherever you want to click, wouldn’t you rather just press that same spot with your finger and get back to typing?

  • Gareth

    I have a touchscreen PC and the touchscreen element is just an impractical gimmick.  I love the touchscreen on my iPhone and my iPad and it makes complete sense on a handheld device, but it just doesn’t translate to a desktop device.  Apple’s Magic Trackpad provides the perfect solution and is one (of admittedly quite a few!) reasons why I will be replacing my PC with an iMac some time soon.

  • MacGoo

    Custom haptics?! Another hidden gem. Love this period after a release when all of these start popping up.

  • Connor Mulcahey

    Well they definitely won’t release an upright one but the “draft table angle” might be appropriate 

  • Connor Mulcahey

    Love that quote, it is similar to jobs saying “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”

  • Bobbie – OneScrappyMom

    Excellent artical! I think you hit it correct with Apple’s strategy. This is actually one of the things that make me love Apple the most. My first experience with them was an iPod and of course iTunes. I moved onto the iPhone shortly after, followed by the iPad then a MacBook (followed with an iPhone upgrade and an iPad upgrade). Although I didn’t NEED the upgrades because my previous devices worked just fine. Which is the second huge reason I love Apple. Having all my portability of my MacBook in my hands with my iPhone was a HUGE deal for me, especially seeings as blogging is my job!

  • heeloliver

    Hahaha yeah lol

About the author

Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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