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Appliance Computing

I started this piece with the intention of discussing the new MacBook Pro lineup, but on deeper consideration I needed to zoom out.

See it is easy to look at the various reactions and mixed reviews for the new Mac Pro notebooks and say it’s coming from longtime users who don’t get the modern Apple. It’s easy because on one level it’s true.

Most of the complaints are coming from long time Mac users; people who used the platform before Apple was cool and professionals. The problem for them and many others is that the Mac and MacOS are not the drivers of Apple’s business; iOS is. The iPhone along with the App store is the thing that drives the company and keeps it’s coffers full. Mac sales have increased, but the overall PC market is shrinking and mobile growth simply outweighs it.

On the other hand these same longtime users have reason to complain. Only Apple makes Macs. The Mac is the only OS that developers can build iOS apps on. Apple has cultivated a large following of creative professionals to the point where it is the de facto hardware/software platform. So an underwhelming MacBook is an issue. But the thing is those laptops are just another aspect of a larger change in computing; one where the PC/Mac going forward is simply  an appliance.

The Dumb PC

The idea of the computer as an appliance is not new: Oracle, SONY, and others have all thought up ways of simplifying the computer for regular use. The big difference now is there are now platforms that make the idea a reality. The difference between an appliance computer and a Mac/PC is the appliance hides the natural complexities of a device.

Think about your phone or tablet.

For most users this means running Android or iOS. Now running those systems means certain aspects of the device (files, downloads, systems, diagnostics) is not always easily accessible to users. The design is based around simplifying the OS so users get to the thing they want to do. An appliance also sometimes limits what the device can do in order to improve the user experience. For example Apple limits multitasking on iOS devices because it is not meant to be like a Mac. The point of the appliance computer or device is to make computing easier by reducing the stress points and design around a specific set of user tasks.

The Appliance Age

The perfect example of an Appliance device is the smartphone. It is a single task device which form factor means it has a set of restrictions on how it can be used. Yes the phone can be modified but most modifications are done by niche users. The phone can do everything a user expects from a computer, but in a fairly locked down manner.

It has been the explosion of mobile devices that has spurred on this Appliance age. The lockdown nature of the phone has influenced the thinking around the future of traditional devices like desktops and laptops. As mobile devices replace the desktop and laptop as the place where most do their computing they also replace the idea of what a computer is and what it should do.

Or to put it simpler: Computer companies are making laptops and desktops into hammers which after a while you toss at keep until the handle falls off.

Computer companies see the shift in usage and are now moving it up to the personal computer because even there usage has changed.

Blame Netscape

So how did we get to this point? Well beyond mobile devices there is the browser. The web browser was the first real step away from user’s needing to have high computer literacy to use one. While mobile applications have flourished in the last decade, desktop software has peaked.

On Windows the most used and updated x86 software has trickled to a handful; and most of it involves browsers. The browser has become the most important bit of software you can download. It is the window by which most view their device and use it. And the thing about the browser is it exists everywhere; it is a nondenominational piece of technology. Browser technology is why Google built Chrome OS. It’s also why, despite of an app gap, Windows tablets and 2 in 1s are good enough for many. Because the side effect of the web browser’s growth was that software development and deployment moved of the device and onto first the web, then the cloud.

The Days of PC’s Past

So returning to the MacBook Pro. The Mac is not dead, but it ain’t the future. Neither is Windows or Linux. At least they aren’t entirely the future. They and the desktop will be part of a future driven by mobile and an ever shifting audience far removed from the command line.

In my opinion the future will see mobile become the majority platform for computing. Desktop oriented task and niche activities like gaming will become this other category handled by a small market of OEMs and platforms.

iOS, Android, and to some extent Windows Mobile will all be there with appliance offerings running on ARM (unless Intel returns to mobile chip making.). And yes desktop systems will continue to be simplified for an income set of users who want to simply use a device.

Welcome to the real Post PC age.