Thoughts on “Back to the Mac”

Apple’s announcements on Wednesday set off a new wave of positive press, although some developers have expressed caution or even disdain at the news of a Mac App Store. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the Mac App Store, Lion, and the new MacBook Air.

First, I have to admit that I was mostly wrong in my analysis of what Lion’s killer feature would be—at least if the killer feature is the Mac App Store. I took Steve Jobs at his word when he said there would be no Mac App Store. While Apple describes the new MacBook Air as the Mac meeting the iPad, it’s clear that Apple’s definition of convergence is not in software creation but in monetizing software distribution. This will be a good thing for many independent developers, as they will be able to make software and have Apple’s marketing behind their products. Mac OS X users will have an easy and safe way to find new software to use.

One has to wonder, however, whether a Mac App Store spells the death of truly creative third-party software, and even more so, cross platform software. Already, Apple has decided not to ship Flash with new Macs, and it will no longer be distributing new versions of Java. While Mac users can simply download the Flash plug-in, we still don’t know whether Oracle will create a Java package for Macs. Even if it does, users likely will have to download the package. In other words, Apple wants Mac users to recognize that Flash and Java are not part of a “normal” Mac experience. The Java loss is particularly vexing, as it’s hard to understand how Apple expects to make further inroads into the enterprise market without strong Java support.

While creating a Mac App Store and letting users have a Mac application launcher experience similar to the iPad is interesting, it’s also clear Apple doesn’t have any big ideas for Mac OS X that don’t revolve around iOS convergence. That convergence, however, is going to take longer than I thought. Take, for example, the new MacBook Air. Apple says the product is the “first of a new generation of notebooks” but really, it’s the same technology Apple has used for several years. I love the MacBook Air and always will, just as I loved the 12? PowerBook, the PowerBook 2400c, and the PowerBook Duo. I like tiny laptops. Apple waited 15 months to refresh the Air line, and at the top end ($1799), you now get twice the RAM, twice the storage space, a better video card, a higher resolution screen, two USB ports, and an SD card slot. Not bad. Of course, it’s the same processor from 15 months ago, and internally, there’s no room for even further expansion of RAM and SSD space. In other words: there’s nothing new, and as long as Apple wants to keep the height of the machine under three quarters of an inch, there won’t be any new technologies for the foreseeable future. The product is nice, but there’s nothing to indicate it represents a “first of a new generation of notebooks.”

The 11? model is a little bit different: Apple’s created an extremely powerful machine for its size and includes a full-size keyboard. While I would prefer to own an 11? notebook, the front end of the top case (the keyboard casing) stops about two inches short of where it does on all the 13? models. For me, this means my palms jut into the casing whenever I type, rather than resting on top of it. The Core 2 Duo U9400 and U9600 processors in the 11? model are the fast low voltage processors Intel makes that could fit in the 11?, and they’ve been out for quite a while. In other words, it’s old technology without a roadmap for updates.

In the end, you have to admit that having a Mac App Store is going to be exciting for both Mac users and developers. Apple is at the forefront of the future of software distribution, and one wonders what the giants like Microsoft and Adobe plan to do. While they likely won’t be in the App Store, it’s going to become increasingly clear that physical distribution is on its way out, and they, too, will need a plan. Other than the App Store, though, you may also have to admit that Apple’s idea of “Back to the Mac” is marginally incremental updates at best. “Revolutionary” and “magical” are words reserved only for the iOS camp.

Tagged as: iPad, mac

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