What is the Mac-trix?
This is your last chance. Take the blue pill, skip this month’s User Preference, and go on using your Macintosh. Think whatever you want to think.
Or take the red pill, stay in Wonderland, and I’ll show you just how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
Good. Let’s get started.
The world you see around you—the world of expensive personal computers sitting on desktops, doing all your computing tasks, acting as your sole window to the Internet—is going away. Soon.
Remember in my last column when I said computers in the future would probably be easier to use because they’d do fewer things than computers do today? It’s true. In spite of the ever-advancing march of faster processors and larger hard drives, there is a growing trend for low-cost, simple-to-use computers. Not only that, but they are becoming less and less upgradeable. They are no longer the “geek toys” of yesterday. Before you know it we will be in a world where computer owners would no more open their computer case than you would open your television case. The personal computer is morphing right before our eyes into a consumer electronics product.
Witness the iMac.
And that’s just the beginning. Others are doing it now, too. HP has just announced a product that plays games, does word-processing, sends e-mail, browses the Web, and more. But its owners will never open its case. Because it can’t be opened. There’s no floppy, no CD-ROM, no DVD-ROM. Most telling of all, HP isn’t calling this device a computer. They seem to prefer the term “Internet appliance.” And Compaq is doing similar with the “iPaq.” Even Dell is getting in on the act.
The future of computers as we know them: digital appliances. Nothing more, nothing less. Common as televisions, telephones, and toasters. Everyone will finally have one. Most of us will have several. They will be cheap. They will have style. But they won’t have the flexibility and expandability you are used to now. Consumer devices rarely do.
Already starting to wish you’d taken the blue pill?
Relax. All is not lost. When computers lose some of the capabilities we take for granted other devices will move in to pick up the slack. Where are these miracle devices to come from? They are already here. In your home. Right now. You have a television. You have a VCR. You probably have a video game console. You have a telephone. These devices are going to pick up the slack by morphing into Internet appliances in their own right.
Don’t believe it? The PlayStation2 is going to be on the market before you know it. Did you know that it will have an Ethernet port on it? The reason is obvious. Sony understands that gamers want to play with other people on the Internet. And the only serious way to do that is with high speed Internet access such as DSL and cable modems. Thus the Ethernet port.
If you think Sony will stop there, you’re dreaming. Multiplayer Internet gaming is fine, but they now have a box in your home that’s connected to the Internet. They can give you access to any kind of data they want. They’re not limited to games anymore. Want to see a Web site with gaming statistics? Want to see a site where you can buy Sony products? The PlayStation2 will take you there. Think it won’t? I think it most certainly will.
And the telephone? You might think that because Internet phone programs have been a flop so far that the telephone is safe from the transformation to Internet appliance. Not so. Who is it that’s providing all that DSL infrastructure, anyway? Why, it’s none other than your phone company. Think data and voice are two separate things and never the twain shall meet? Think again. DSL is perfectly capable of carrying voice. So is ISDN for that matter. It’s only a matter of time, my friend. A matter of time.
Quick: who are the largest ISPs in the United States next to AOL? You get a gold star if you knew that they are telephone companies or their subsidiaries. It probably won’t take long before cable companies catch up either. When they do, your television will never be the same.
So what are we left with? Consumer computers on the one hand, and on the other hand Internet appliances where our telephones, televisions, and game consoles used to be. All of these digital devices will no doubt be on our home network. That network will in turn be on the Internet. How long will it be before they’re all interoperating with one another? Not long. The Internet will spread across your home. The sharp mountain peak of your mighty computer will be eroded by time into a mere digital hill, spreading its computing complexity to the low-lying regions of your household appliances.
Here’s a pleasant thought: when you buy a home or rent an apartment, several rooms in it will already be pre-wired for high speed Internet access. Sound silly? Once upon a time they didn’t come “standard” with cable television either. Or even telephone jacks. But time marches on, doesn’t it?
Some techno-geeks have a hard time handling this vision of the future. They simply cannot cope with a world in which computers are easy but un-tinkerable. Sometimes, if pressed, they will admit that these developments do seem likely but they are quick to add that they regard them with utter disdain. Perhaps it’s because they’ve made a hobby or a career out of fiddling with complicated devices. Perhaps they’re afraid the world won’t need them anymore.
Whatever the reason for their disdain they should realize that there will always be a market for professional-grade computers. No doubt these will suit them better. More to the point, the world will still need savvy men and women with the technical moxie to use, maintain, and repair these heavy-duty workstations. There’s no getting around the fact, however, that the type of guy who prides himself on having built a dual-processor Linux box from spare parts for $1.79 will fade from the elite ranks of computer godhood into a mere anachronism.
That’s the trade-off necessary for getting everyone’s grandmother and Aunt Ethel to finally own and use a computer. I think it’s well worth it. Whether everyone agrees with me or not is moot. This trade-off is inevitable and in fact already happening.
What does all this have to do with Apple? Apple seems to be among those technology companies that “get it.” They understand the changes coming down the pike and in some areas are actually making the changes happen. In truth, few companies are totally blind to this future, it’s just that some are more capable than others of transforming their current products and services into ones that will thrive in this brave new world.
Furthermore, Apple is uniquely poised to clean up big in this digital Tomorrowland. They have great brand recognition among consumers and an impeccable sense of style. The fact that they are the last “vertically integrated” personal computer company also helps tremendously; since they control the hardware and the OS they can effect radical changes to the platform in a short period of time. Thus the transformation to the digital appliance age will be easier for them.
As if that’s not promising enough, step back and take a historical perspective for a moment. The Macintosh tried to be the personal computer “for the rest of us” some fifteen years ago. While Apple certainly built some of the most compelling computers in the industry since that time, the degree to which they actually succeeded in making the Macintosh a consumer device is questionable. The world simply wasn’t ready for that kind of thing back in 1984. The Macintosh was an idea fifteen years ahead of its time.
The world is ready now. The age of consumer computing devices is upon us, and Steve Jobs knows it. If Apple plays its cards right, as it seems to be doing so far, get ready to watch our favorite computer maker hit the mother-of-all grand slams early in the 21st century.
Ignorance may indeed be bliss, but now that you’ve seen the truth, you can’t go back. Even if you could would you really want to?