Update: For a well-reasoned rebuttal to at least my views on design, check out Leigh’s counter-post once you’re done reading here.
I’ve been alluding to this for a few months now, but let me repeat: The Mac is poised for innovation over the next few years on a scale that we haven’t experienced since the initial move to OS X in the previous decade. After five years of focusing on new categories like the iPod and the iPhone while gradually improving its Mac product line, the company has now freed up the resources to strengthen its core and highest-revenue business: Macs. And at the same time, new technologies are emerging to take the Mac to the next level. To read why, click through.
The Future of the iPod and iPhone Are Incremental Improvements
When Apple released the first iPod in October 2001, the company’s future was very much in doubt. Despite years of cool Mac designs and the roll-out of Mac OS X, Apple’s market share was worse than ever, and the PowerPC roadmap was already starting to show signs of trouble. Initially seen as a desperate, niche product, the iPod went on to save Apple, establishing it as a media powerhouse. But Apple didn’t sleep on its success, immediately beginning work on what became the iPhone, and in the process creating a new platform for its portable media devices. With the iPhone 3G just more than a week from release, this platform is stable and just starting to take off. Multi-touch works great, the processor is plenty fast, and storage is getting cheaper and cheaper. Most of the complaints that remain about the iPhone and iPod touch are software related. Apple can easily get another two years out of both devices doing little more than increasing capacity and developing new software. They need maintenance, not innovation. At most, an iPhone nano or touch nano might come, but these devices won’t require nearly the development effort that the original iPhone did.
Implication: Apple’s best hardware and software teams have time to work on Mac stuff. Really interesting Mac stuff.
The Architecture of Computing is Changing Dramatically
As you might have noticed, the era of the megahertz myth died a long, long time ago. Four years ago, the fastest chip that Intel made for desktop computers ran at 3.8 Ghz (Never quite got to 4 Ghz.). Today? The high end is just 3.2 Ghz. While, I would gladly take a Core 2 Extreme over a Pentium 4 any day of the week, it’s clear that the way to greater performance these days is not through clock speed but in more efficient use of lots of processors. Intel has led the way with its Core Duo and Quad lines of chips, but things are about to get really weird. First of all, NVIDIA, the graphics chip leader, now claims that the CPU has become irrelevant, and future performance advances will come through optimizing the GPU. Intel, for its part, is introducing Larrabee, an integrated graphics platform that can natively execute CPU x86 code. That means that when note rendering 3-D graphics, it can also add a few dozen processing cores to pump up performance in all regards. Even more amazingly, Intel will, in late 2009 or early 2010, introduce the Sandy Bridge platform, which is expected to integrate Larrabee onto a single die with Core 4 (or whatever Intel calls them) processors, leading to lightning-fast performance.
While that might all sound like electrical engineering inside baseball, it’s actually revolutionary. The move to hybrid CPU/GPUs is a computing architecture change bigger than any we’ve witnessed since Floating Point Units became standard on-die equipment instead of a nice-to-have add-on. Once hardware truly becomes standard, software becomes optimized for it. In this case, software will become optimized for incredibly high-bandwidth applications that barely function on today’s gear. And Apple has already made it clear in the release notes for OS X Snow Leopard that it will be ready for the advent of GPUs that act like an extension of the main processor before they even ship:
- Fully 64-Bit – If you’re going to be tossing around extremely data-intensive applications, you need a ton of RAM available. Snow Leopard will.
- Grand Central – Having two, four, eight, or, as Intel says Larabee will offer, THOUSANDS of processing cores is nice, but having an OS smart enough to efficiently use all of them is even better. That’s what Snow Leopard’s Grand Central technologies are designed for. It’s a taskmaster, routing jobs to multiple processors and cores in the most optimal way. Better, it allows application developers to do the same.
- OpenCL – Open Computing Language is designed to allow developers to take advantage of all that untapped GPU power to pump up application performance, so even graphics architectures that can’t natively execute x86 code like Larrabee can pump up general processing tasks.
Then, there’s also all kinds of cool new tech, from WiMax and LTE to USB 3.0, eSATA, aGPS, and SSD. It’s time to showcase some great ideas that are ready for prime-time.
Implication: Powerful new hardware coupled with an operating system that’s prepped for it. Start your engines!
The Entire Mac Line is Due For a Face Lift
There is much to be said for a genuinely classic design. Lovers of the ThinkPad still get misty thinking about how today’s models look like ones from 16 years ago. I, and most Mac people, are not like that. We cherish each Mac as a unique icon of its era, and then we move on to the next era. But that’s been hard to do over the last few years. Apple’s computer designs are pretty much where they were three years ago, before the move to Intel processors happened. Today’s 17″ MacBook Pro looks virtually identical to the 17″ Powerbook introduced in January of 2003. Seriously. The main difference between the last generation of iBooks and today’s MacBooks are its latch mechanism and the keyboard. The Mac Pro is literally identical to the original Power Mac G5. The iMac has seen the greatest change, and that was just to put an aluminum finish on an existing design. The MacBook Air is really different, but it isn’t a core product, nor does it signal a new design direction for the rest of the line. Heck, the MacBook that’s available in black is downright revolutionary in this light.
All of which is to say, it’s time for Apple to make a new statement with the design of its computers. The time couldn’t be better. All the kinks and problems that came along with the move to Intel chips have been worked out. People know that Macs are still Macs, and they’re all safe to use, so the designs can get more wild and divergent again. I can’t wait until they take that leap.
Implication: Jonathan Ive, I hope you’re really turning up the heat on the design of the next generation of Macs!
The iPod and the iPhone Have Put the Mac Back in the Spotlight
For years, most experts were skeptical of Apple’s so-called “Halo Effect.” That is to say, the idea that just by hooking people on iTunes and iPods, Apple could convince people to trade in their PCs for Macs. It took a long time, but it’s now clear that this theory was correct (though the switch to Intel chips made a huge difference, too). According to research firm Net Applications, 8 percent of all computers on the Internet now in use are Macs. That’s up 32 percent in just 14 months. In sales of new computers, Apple is doing even better. As of May, NPD estimates Apple sells almost 14 percent of all new personal computers in the U.S., which is the kind of market share the company hasn’t seen since the early 1990s. Apple is actually gaining on the PC guys.
Implication: We’ve got the demand; Apple needs to make with the supply.
Sing it with me: We want new Macs!
The public is ready for Apple to really tear it up with a killer line of new computers. The iPod and iPhone lines don’t need as much attention as they have for the last seven years. Incredible new hardware and emerging standards will push the limits of what we thought Macs could do. The existing designs have been around for what seems like forever. The company’s computer market share is way up. For all these reasons and more, Macs are about to get really interesting really soon. And it’s about time — innovation in new markets is fun, but innovation at the core of the company is even better.