Some thoughts about yesterday’s Back to the Mac announcement
While it wasn't a super-exciting announcement, there were quite a few interesting things revealed during Apple's Back to the Mac event yesterday morning. One thing that's getting lots of press is the next generation of MacBook Air. I have always admired the Air, but could never justify purchasing one since it was quite expensive for what you got. Sure, it was sexy, sleek, and thin, but the hardware specs were kind of weak. Since I'm not made of money, I wouldn't have been able to afford getting a MacBook Air as a supplement to a MacBook or MacBook Pro. So I admired it from afar, and for a while the iPad completely wiped the MacBook Air off my wishlist, but with the new 11" and 13" versions out, plus the announcement of iLife '11 and OS X Lion, the Air is back on my radar. 🙂
Steve Jobs said that multi-touch wouldn't be added to Macs via a touchscreen. It's too awkward to use touch on a vertical surface, and works much better on horizontal surfaces like touchpads and the Magic Mouse. I agree with this. When I used convertible Tablet PCs, I would flip them around to slate mode whenever I wanted to interact with the touchscreen (or active digitizer) for an extended period of time. The hinges on my convertible TPCs weren't sturdy enough to hold the screen steady when touching or inking on them, and it did feel unnatural to interact with a touchscreen this way. (I never really liked writing on chalkboards or whiteboards, either, so YMMV. 🙂 ) Message received: no touchscreen Mac notebooks. But then I got to thinking a convertible MacBook Air would be an awesome way of getting around this problem. You'd get a full-featured OS X notebook in an iPad-esque form factor when it's in slate mode. Flip the screen around to notebook mode for times you need a keyboard, or just want to work in "notebook mode". It would be awesome to use desktop-level apps like Photoshop, iPhoto, or iMovie in slate mode. We already know from the iPhone and iPad that people are used to using more complex photo, drawing, and music apps via touchscreen, so it would be a natural transition. I know it's the Tablet PC enthusiast in me talking, but I don't think it's a completely wacky idea for a Mac product. 🙂
More realistically, I don't think it's taking a big leap to predict we'll be seeing touchscreen Mac devices. They'll just likely be in a slate form factor, a la iOS devices. With OS X Lion getting more multi-touch support, and iLife apps adopting better full-screen modes, it seems that touchscreen Macs that act a lot like iOS devices are inevitable. For most users who want the ease of use of the iPad 95% of the time, but still need desktop-level apps for the other 5%, a "hybrid" Mac device would be ideal. If Apple doesn't want to do a convertible notebook, you can still connect BT keyboards or keyboard docks, and use external monitors, like a lot of people already do with their MacBooks.
I also don't think it's a big leap to say OS X could likely merge completely with iOS to become one OS for mobile and desktop devices. Instead of a dual-boot solution where a device is running something like Windows 7 and Android, future Macs and iPhones/iPads could just run an optimized OS X that adapts to the situation, depending on what the user is doing, what apps are being used, etc. Engineers much smarter than I am can work out the details on how to do this. 🙂 There might not need to be so much switching between mobile and desktop performance profiles if most future Macs end up being mobile devices anyway. There will still be a need for desktop machines like the iMac and Mac Pro, but even the iMac could get a touchscreen makeover in the future.
I know a lot of people scoff at the idea that the iPad is what future computing devices are going to look like, but after seeing all of the iOS features that are going back into OS X Lion, I think the path is clear, not only for "desktop" machines that will be as easy to use as an iPad, but also for a desktop OS truly built for touch.