Apple gave us plenty to play with in 2010: most notably the iPad, the iPhone 4 and the new MacBook Air. But get ready, because in 2011, Apple will switch from giving to taking.
In his ongoing pursuit of Zen-like simplicity, Steve Jobs looks set to take away two key features of the Mac platform in 2011: optical drives and scroll bars. The impact is likely to be eye-watering for diehard Mac users, but we’ll probably come to see the wisdom of Jobs, eventually.
The demise of the optical drive has been a long time in coming. First, the iTunes Store eliminated the need for audio CDs. Then, Apple eschewed Blu-Ray in favor of HD downloads on iTunes. The next nail in the coffin was the launch of the disc-free MacBook Air, with its Software Reinstall USB key replacing the venerable DVD. Apple dubbed the new Air “The next generation of MacBooks,” so you can expect the rest of the MacBook line to follow its lead over time. And the final death-blow is the Mac App Store, which is likely to consign software install discs to the trashcan of history.
But it’s the scrapping of the scroll bar that is likely to prompt the most ire from loyal Mac users. Jobs gave us a heads-up on its imminent demise in his sneak preview of Mac OS X 10.7, “Lion,” in October. Although he didn’t specifically say that scroll bars were being axed, they were conspicuously absent in his Lion demos.
Scroll bars have been a part of the Mac since the very beginning. It is hard to imagine a Mac, or indeed any PC without them. But the truth is, with the introduction of scroll wheels (1995), multitouch trackpads (2007), the Magic Mouse (2009) and the Magic Trackpad (2010), scroll bars have become redundant for most users. I can’t even remember the last time I clicked on one.
There is, of course, still a lot to love about scroll bars. They provide a visual cue to how much is hidden below the fold – and this is useful information even if you don’t ever click on them. On an iPhone, where screen real-estate is at a premium, its easy to understand Apple’s decision to abandon scroll bars, but on larger Mac screens, this surely isn’t a problem. So what does Steve Jobs have against those glossy blue strips of scrolling joy?
Abandoning the scroll bar will be the biggest change ever to the Mac user interface – bigger even than the switch to Aqua in Mac OS X. And a change of this magnitude inevitably leaves some users behind – at least for a while. Users like my mom, who took a long time to master using the scroll bar, will be resistant to adopting a new method of scrolling. Apple have doubtless spent a lot of time in the usability labs testing the Lion interface, and they presumably know this, so why are they doing it?
The answer to this question lies at the heart of Apple’s success over the past few years.
Henry Ford once said “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Instead, he sold them the first modern automobile. The lesson here is that innovation does not come from asking customers what they want. Customers typically lack vision and are initially resistant to change. Take the ATM machine, for example – it bombed in research. Bank customers said that they’d never risk conducting a cash withdrawal on the sidewalk.
And so it is with my mom and the scroll bar. The only way to get users like my mom to switch to multi-touch is to remove the alternative. Faced with no alternative, she’ll be forced to learn how to use multi-touch scrolling, and she’ll quickly discover that it’s actually faster and easier than the old scroll bar method. Like today’s ATM users, who would never think to go inside the bank to withdraw cash, a change that once seemed impossible has now become everyday.
It is this ruthless drive for change that has made Apple a leader in the technology industry. While their competitors seek to give their customers what they want, Apple gives them what they need. Some may rail against this paternalistic “Apple knows best” approach, but it’s hard to knock their results. So in 2011, as Apple wrenches optical drives and scroll bars from our clinging grasp, we may protest, but by 2012, we’ll probably feel better for it.