Can Apple Still Dent the Universe?

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Apple made a “dent in the universe” with its 1984 Super Bowl ad for the upcoming Macintosh.

At least that was Steve Jobs’ intention, according to the opening scene of The Pirates of Silicon Valley.

Whether all this universe denting was just Jobs’ reality distortion field or an actual change in human culture depends on your corporate loyalties, or lack thereof.

Any debate over the cultural impact of the Macintosh really boils down to how much of the graphical user interface revolution was determined or influenced by Apple, and how much of it would have happened regardless.

Because there’s no question that the shift from command-line computing to WIMP computing (windows, icons, menus and pointing-devices) radically changed the world, leading, for example, to the web, which is the dominant WIMP interface to the formerly command-line Internet.

WIMP computing also enabled powerful new tools for software programming, design (of everything), animation and a bazillion other things.

WIMP computing, and to some extent the Macintosh itself, really did make a dent in the universe, but not in the way most people imagine. 

How the Macintosh Dented the Universe 

The Macintosh didn’t represent the invention of the WIMP computer. Apple itself had shipped the LISA years earlier and Xerox shipped the Xerox Star before that. Other companies had shipped WIMP computers, all of which were of course built on inventions developed at Stanford Research Institute, Xerox PARC and elsewhere.

Tech fans had been hearing about, reading about and even buying WIMP computers for years before the Macintosh shipped in 1984.

When you watch Steve Jobs introducing the Macintosh on stage at Macworld in 1984, you hear the crowd going nuts at the demonstration of smooth font rendering, high-resolution graphics, sounds beyond beeps and buzzes, a robotic-sounding speech engine and other features that today look rudimentary and primitive. (Jobs even gets a rise from the crowd by flashing a 3.5-inch diskette, which Jobs calls “the disk of the 80s.”)

So how it is that this tiny computer, with its 128 kilobytes of RAM, was to dent the universe, exactly?

The reason the Macintosh had such an impact, was that it was a WIMP computer that made no compromises with the past. It abandoned any notion of backward compatibility. It was the first pure WIMP computer — a true computing appliance designed to be affordable, portable, appealing, simple to use and mouse-centric.

The Macintosh felt thrilling to use compared with competitors of the time (much like the iPad did when it shipped in 2010). Actually trying a Macintosh made you realized that you had to have one, or something like it.

At the time, graphical computing was controversial — command-line loyalists believed pretty pictures and rendered fonts were a waste of RAM and slowed performance.

Here’s the most important fact that has been forgotten: When Apple’s 1984 commercial aired, there was no significant demand for WIMP computers. But Apple created a device so pure to the genre, and communicated its benefits with such clarity and excitement, that Apple created that demand. And by creating demand, they created the market.

Apple didn’t create the WIMP idea, but they created the WIMP market. And that’s how they dented the universe.

And, for that matter, the same can be said for the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

In every single case, these products had prior competition, and embodied inventions that were already floating around out there.

But Apple dented the universe with these products by making them pure representations of the future, with no compromises with the past, and in doing so created products that made you feel the need to have them, or something like them.

Apple didn’t invent the media player, the multi-touch phone, or the touch tablets, but Apple did create the markets for all those products.

Is Apple Still a Universe-Denting Company? 

Pundits debate whether the true Apple died with Steve Jobs, or whether Apple is still Apple even without its visionary founder.

In other words, can Apple still dent the universe? And by that I mean can Apple still create markets like it did with the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad?

This is the test, really. Because the world needs another dent.

The world needs a desktop multi-touch computer from Apple that affects the world like the Macintosh did in the 80s.

The mobile world has already converted to multi-touch, and now even the number of touch tablets has surpassed half the unit sales of PCs. This is a shocking fact when you remember that the touch tablet market didn’t exist three years ago when Apple created that market. Now it’s half as large as the PC market.

As was the case with the PC market in 1984, the desktop touch market has many options, and none of them are stimulating widespread demand. A smattering of all-in-one desktop PCs offer touch. Some laptops do. A variety of tables and other “furniture” devices support touch on the desktop.

All of them have one foot in the future of desktop touch screens, and the other foot firmly rooted in WIMP computing. They go both ways, and are really optimized for WIMP computing with a hesitant option to go multi-touch if you want to. They sit at the wrong angles. They’re the wrong size. There’s no ecosystem of touch-only application software.

Windows 8 is a perfect example of this industry hesitation to go all the way. The Metro UI is there if you’re using touch, or want to use a touch interface with your mouse. But if you want the old UI, that’s there too.

As a result of the limp, halting entry by the industry into the multi-touch desktop future, there is no significant demand for desktop touch computers — just as there was no significant demand for WIMP computers in 1983.

The test for Apple that will demonstrate whether the company can still dent universes is whether Apple ships a Macintosh for the new era — a no-compromises, pure multi-touch desktop tablet, with no option to WIMP out and so appealing and marketed so powerfully that they create widespread demand for the product and, in doing so, create the market.

As a columnist, I couldn’t describe to you exactly what this big-screen desktop iPad would be like any more than I could have exactly described the Macintosh in every detail well before those details were announced.

But if it’s to be universe-denting, the device would have to be a pure creature of the future without legacy baggage from the past.

The question is, will they? Can they?

Can Apple still dent the universe?

Related
  • 1Jayan

    I completely agree. If apple are to go forward, they must advance both software (ios) and hardware (macs, iPad) in order to create a bigger ‘dent’ in the universe

  • bdkennedy

    Sometimes you contribute what you can to the world and then there’s nothing else you can do. Ford gave us the assembly line which is still in use over 100 years later. Cars still have 4 wheels and run on gasoline.

  • iQtr88

    I think it’s still in Apple’s DNA, I hope they won’t stop :)

  • stefn

    Apple’s mission was never technical in nature; it’s a technology company chained to a social purpose: to make the best computers for the rest of us. It’s more a nonprofit than a for profit. Quality addressing quantity. High tech tied to high touch. A publishing consultant once summarized it well: Do a good book and charge enough to do another good book. Apple does it this old fashioned way: it earns it. Unlike Google or Amazon, Apple hopes to bank enough to hold its place in the future, unbeholden to Wall Street grifters, and that’s why they hate Apple; it reminds them that they are how sad and sick they are today.

  • ac1dra1n

    Touch screen desktops will never penetrate the market. Nor will touch screen laptops. They’re too awkward. With that type of computing, the user has to extended their whole arm and keep it there for extended periods of time. Hence why it’s too awkward. I don’t always agree with Apple(Android isn’t that bad) but I believe that Schiller(I think he said this) was right that touch screen desktops are never going to work.

  • Koban4max

    having devices being upgraded little does contribute anything for society. Having refresh devices less than a year will not benefit for apple or society. Having new minor design like 4 inches screen for iphone 5 does not help society much. Where are the legendary inventors when we need them?

  • FilthyMacNasty

    Let’s face it, were it not for Apple, there would be very little in the way of change over the last decade from all the other manufacturers. Does anyone seriously look to any other company to put a dent in the way things get done?

    The tech industry is a “me too” affair, with a relative handful of MBAs and venture capital firms making the bulk of the profits, and Wall Street guiding the headlines. Were it not for Apple, the whole industry would be content to sell the same crappy devices until the well dried up, then copy someone else who appears to be making money with whatever they’re selling.

    The next dent may take a generation, or it might come this year; we have no way of knowing. But it’s safe to say it won’t come from any of Apple’s competitors. If one were going to bet money on who the innovator of the Next Big Thing will be, it would be foolish to bet against Apple.

  • hanhothi

    I think it’s still in Apple’s DNA, I hope they won’t stop :)

    Jobs may have died, but the true genius behind Apple is still alive and kicking. Sir Jony has been the pioneer behind the successful products that Job’s marketed.

    Come on Jony, time to wow the world with another major innovation. No more incremental, minor upgrades, you need to stop resting on your laurels. An iWatch maybe? You can do WAY better than I’m Watch, and better than Pebble or the others on the market.

  • eyemahsource

    The next dent in the universe will be stereo-optical glasses and they will not be the Google version.

    They will look like narrow reading glasses and not be any thicker or any bulkier.

    This will be accomplished with Nikon’s development of “nano-fresnel” lenses. This an etched or possibly printed “shark tooth” topology. this replaces thick plastic round glass with rectangular flat glass or plastic which is no thicker than the OLED screen contacting it directly.

    These are worn as current narrow reading glasses are worn and have the same appearance. There are three modes. First, for immersive view, centered on the eyes. Second, for hybrid view, just slide them down to look over the top of the frame, positioned for the user just as the car dashboard. You look over the frame as through the car windshield. You would be forced to concede that if this is unworkable, then driving your car is unworkable. Third the frames can be pushed up high and one can look under them at a close work surface below the glasses.

    Individual prescriptions are accommodated in the the “nano-fresnel” overlay of the OLED screens. The frames are magnetic allowing simple and optional attachment of prescription lenses above and/or below the narrow screen area in the center of the field of view. The nano-fresnel printing allows very precise, individual correction of vision currently impossible in conventionally ground lenses.

    Navigation is through control of the cursor position by infrared laser eye-tracking. Blink-to-click, double blink to right-click. Field of view is expanded by moving one’s head very slightly side to side or up and down. This is OS wide navigation, not just gaming (but awesome gaming/simulation none-the-less).

    Ironically, OS X again ascends to dominance over iOS of necessity. Obviously touch control of 2 stereo displays, each about 1 1/2″ diagonal and 1/2″ in front of each eye, is an impossibility.

    This platform is capable of obsoleting the phone, tablet, laptop, desktop and home theater all in one device, providing optimum hands-free mobility, not to mention increasing the quality of the experience while saving the consumer a great deal of money through the elimination of redundancy.

    Since I mentioned both iOS and OS X, it is no secret who I believe is best qualified to execute this vision and who have demonstrated the courage to cannibalize existing products.

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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Posted in Apple, Mac, Opinions, Steve Jobs, Top stories |