I’ve been asking for four years who would be first to ship the future of computing, a real desktop tablet: Apple, Microsoft or Google?
The WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointing devices) interface you’re using right now was invented during the Nixon administration. It’s old.
With the incredible success of the iPad, the world is definitely ready for the next evolutionary leap into the future, which will of course be desktop touch tablets. Google and Microsoft have already revealed how they’ll make their transitions. Yet Apple has revealed nothing. Will tomorrow be the day?
Today, next-generation interfaces — with multi-touch, physics and gestures (MPG) — are available only on mobile devices. Apple started it with the iPhone in 2007. Today, MPG has become the universal standard for mobile devices, from the uber-popular iPad, to Android phones and tablets to BlackBerry and HP-slash-Palm-slash-WebOS gadgets (coming soon).
All the main OS companies face a monumental challenge: How to you transition what is now considered a mobile user interface onto the desktop to run full-powered desktop applications?
The challenge is magnified by the following:
- Many users don’t know they want desktop tablet computing. When confronted with the idea, many claim to oppose it. People hate change, and radical change is always rejected at first.
- Companies are selling the current generation of operating system — and the hardware, peripherals and third-party applications that go with them. Announcing too aggressively could take the wind out of current sales.
- The most likely next-generation systems should probably run both current MPG mobile apps, plus current WIMP applications designed to be used with mice and keyboards. How do you design such a system in a way that doesn’t end up being a big clunky mess?
So what’s a tech giant to do?
Google and Microsoft have both revealed their plans for transitioning to desktop tablets without explicitly announcing them.
Google announced in May a new version of Android that “runs everywhere.” Code-named “Ice Cream Sandwich,” the next generation of Android will work seamlessly on devices of any screen size. The new Android will support USB peripherals and very powerful processors. Google doesn’t make Android devices, of course, and relies on partners to design and build them. I asked Google’s director of engineering for Android whether there is anything preventing hardware makers from making, say, 41-inch screen-size desktop Android tablets, and he told me with a smile: “No, there isn’t.”
Microsoft revealed their plans for the big transition this week in a “demo” video of the upcoming Windows 8. It turns out that Microsoft will use the exact same strategy to move people from WIMP to MPG that it did to move users from DOS to WIMP back in the early 1990s. The next version of Windows will actually run the desktop tablet, touch-optimized “shell” by default. The surprising (even shocking) bit: Even people using WIMP computers with mice and keyboards will get the touch interface! So their strategy is to lead with form, and make function optional. It’s a bold strategy, and in my opinion, quite a brilliant one.
We can expect Google’s next-generation systems hitting by the end of the year, and Microsoft’s next year.
Apple, meanwhile, has revealed nothing. Will they do so tomorrow at the hotly anticipated WWDC? Expectations are that Apple will unveil Mac OS X Lion, iOS 5 and iCloud. Interestingly, these are the core components of desktop tablet computing.
We already know that Lion is designed to prepare users for desktop tablet computing. In fact, Apple’s teaser page for Lion sports the tag line: “The power of Mac OS X. The magic of iPad.”
The OS will include some new and sophisticated touch gestures — right now the expectation is that those will be executed on the Magic Trackpads or MacBooks’ Multi-Touch trackpads. But it’s obvious that all these gestures will be moved to on-screen direct touch when Apple is ready. Lion will also offer easy expansion of windows to full-screen mode, which is a common feature of all known MPG interfaces, including iPad, Android Ice Cream Sandwich and Windows 8. iPad’s auto-correct will appear in Lion. The Mac scroll-bar will be replaced by the iPad scroll-bar, which appears only when needed.
A range of possibilities exists regarding Apple’s announcements tomorrow about the future of desktop tablet computing. At the boring, disappointing end of the spectrum would be the revelation of nothing. “Oh, and one more thing: Nothing!” But at the other end of the spectrum, the possibility exists that Apple will actually announce a desktop tablet Mac.
No, really! It could happen.
The reason I hold out hope for a desktop tablet Mac announcement tomorrow is threefold:
- Apple both enjoys and is actually capable of surprising people.
- Apple was and is miles ahead on touch tablets — destroying the industry by being clearly best and first — and will want to repeat that performance with desktop tablets.
- Apple could be ready. Lion-based desktops will already have most of the features require of a desktop touch tablet. They’re all-in-one systems already. The OS has the gestures, the app store, the full-screen mode and all the rest. Apple would need only to add a touch-capacitive screen to the iMac, and lay it down at a drafting-table angle on the desktop. Oh, and it would need the iOS interface, which would be the most challenging problem.
The most likely event will be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Like Google and Microsoft, Apple may reveal the future without announcing it. Regardless of what Apple does or does not announce tomorrow, 2012 is shaping up to be the Year of the Desktop Tablet.
Given Apple’s lead in the development of all elements of MPG computing — gestures, interfaces, hardware design, app functionality and others — it seems unlikely that the company will allow itself to be beat to market by the likes of Google and Microsoft. Apple is so close to the future of computing, you can almost touch it.
(Image courtesy of Michael Powers.)