Apple’s regression from the desktop
I consider myself nowadays to be desktop OS (operating system) agnostic. I’ve used numerous operating systems and I enjoy trying them all out. I like some more than others of course. I recently tried re-installing the latest Mac OS X version 10.8 (Mountain Lion) on a Mac Mini; an experience that was less than awful for an Apple product. Initially, the Mac Mini was installed with Mountain Lion but didn’t come with an installation DVD or USB stick. I can live with that. I soon discover that the only way to obtain the installer for a USB stick is to buy the actual upgrade from the App Store which I find preposterous as the Mini currently has it installed. Why should I have to repurchase something I already have?
A Google search led me to one option of re-installing Mountain Lion only to obtain an InstallESD.dmg file, writing the image directly to a USB flash drive and install Mountain Lion by booting off said USB flash drive to re-install Mountain Lion onto a new SSD. I thought this was an extremely backward approach for a company who thrives off of a clean, seamless user experience. After going through the process successfully, it really hit me that Apple’s goal is no longer the desktop, but to stretch iOS onto the desktop. They’ve clearly made inroads with Mountain Lion but I’m uncertain if this change is for the better or the worse.
How could merging features across mobile devices on desktops be bad? On the surface, it seems that extending features from one platform to another would be beneficial to both. Features such as notification and messaging can be heavily utilized on both phones and desktop computers. Apple has heavily integrated both messaging and notification (facebook and twitter namely) into Mountain Lion from iOS. These features make perfect sense for the desktop; but not everything that works for mobile works well for the desktop and vice versa – namely the user experience on the desktop isn’t as clear or intuitive as on a mobile device when it comes to mobile features.
My sentiments are by no means new or groundbreaking, but rather a concern. Lack of respect for the desktop and it’s mobile device counterparts can be a distraction. Having a notification pull-down menu in iOS is fantastic; in Mac OS X it’s a little cumbersome to use. Why? Beats me. Maybe I haven’t customized it enough to like it. I like notification on the phone but on my desktop I want to really use it and like it but I find it strangely appended like an afterthought. Yes, it’s great to have a notification center on the desktop, but accessing it is just not straightforward like it is touching my phone. Granted the ability to touch the screen sets mobile devices apart from non-mobile but I expect that to change sometime soon. It’s clear that the benefit of integration outweighs the distraction, but the learning curve and experience tend to suffer.
But perhaps this is the next major hurdle to overcome – the user interface and experience on all devices both mobile and non-mobile. Hardware advances such as gorilla glass, the retina display and the quad-core low powered ARM CPUs have proven that computers can be compact, lightweight and relatively powerful. Software or operating systems, on the other hand, must make some leaps in usability hurdles that didn’t exist five years ago. It’s a daunting task the more I think about it. The computer itself has dramatically changed and is integrated into numerous facets of daily life but our interaction has not changed in parallel. Maybe it’s user experience inertia – the desire to keep the experience as familiar as before regardless of the how useless the previous way is now.
Right now, operating systems are undergoing a major overhaul in the user interface with the intent of changing the user experience for both phones and tablets or mobile devices. The “intent” of course, is really an implied perspective of the environment and how you can/should work about in said environment. Windows 8 is a perfect example of this paradigm shift as is Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. Mountain Lion remains largely the same as it’s predecessor but adds integral mobile features from iOS (the iPhone and iPad). Windows 8 took a dramatic shift with it’s new Start Screen and yet, left the old desktop available like a warm blanket for the masses so that we could revert back to our comfortable, old desktop. It’s clear that we’re in a transition phase so naturally there will be extensive growing pains. We’ve all had to “suffer” through changes because in years past there was a plethora of technical barriers. Today, it seems the barriers are gone and all that’s left is what our imagination can conjure.
It appears that Apple is trying to merge iOS into OSX so that iOS becomes the true successor but from my perspective, Apple is blending both mobile and desktop environments together in what I believe is a “silent hope” for the loss of the desktop altogether. From a strategic point of view, a mobile OS fits Apple better today from the older classic desktop model.
Apple’s desktop products such as the Mac Mini, the Mac Pro and to some extent the iMac seem to lag in updates in comparison to their mobile cousins like the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone. These mobile devices are clearly receiving more attention from Apple than the desktop oriented products. From both a financial and technical perspective, Apple’s iOS strategy makes a lot of sense for Apple; the desktop products have thinner margins and require so much maintenance and have compatibility issues where as the mobile devices have better margins and a much tighter OS environment that is under their complete control for both users and 3rd party software vendors through the AppStore. Apple favoring the iPhone, iPad and iPod is no surprise. What Apple does with the Mac Pro, iMac and Mac Mini will be more interesting to see. Perhaps “Think Different” will be changed to “Think Mobile”. Maybe? Maybe not.
Regardless of my conservative-old-timer-heels-dug-in stance towards the mobile environment colliding head on with the desktop, I realize the inevitability of it all. The next five to ten years will be very interesting to see just how we as humans will interact with computers. Maybe I’m ranting like an old man who fears change, or maybe just the growing pains of the process. It could be that I’m becoming set in my ways and I hope that’s not the case. Ironically enough, I do like the new Windows 8 Start Screen. I think it’s a solid step forward. In general I do look forward to better ways of working and interacting with computers both mobile and non-mobile alike. But as I look at my Windows 8 start screen and watch the live tiles update and then glance at my iPhone and pull down the notifications, I can’t help but remember a quote from Issac Asimov: “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”