What would a Mac computer/iPad device look like in 5 years? Will there be a distinct difference? If you look at the latest Apple designs they all have the same thing in common, everything surrounding the screen is disappearing. Since the iPod, Apple has been synonymous with making things thin, and that design philosophy has continued through their entire product line till this day. The iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Macbook Air, even the new Macbook Pro Retina laptops and iMacs are incredibly thin. Eventually there will come a point to when there will be nothing left to shrink, then what?
Most people tend to think these devices are made in a vacuum, without any forethought on what the ultimate "goal" is for the future of the device or company in general. While that may be true for some companies that are flailing and throwing products at the wall to see what sticks I don't believe Apple under Steve Jobs or Tim Cook was or is ran that way. Not only do I believe Apple has a road map for their future products and services but I'm sure they have semi-functional prototypes of these products as well. There are always tweaks and last minute engineering and cost decisions made before a product is released but the overall intention of the device remains. Sometimes there are ideas that can't effectively be made into a consumer product until specific technologies mature or are cost effective enough to include. People expecting "revolutionary" designs and products every year have no idea what it takes to bring a product to market. I'm going to try to put together what's on Apple's vision board for 2017 using facts and some speculation (and a hint of wishful thinking).
In my opinion Apple's "goal" is to make the technology disappear, only leaving a portal (screen) into your digital life, workstation, and entertainment. That's been Jobs goal with technology from the beginning. And the iPad was probably his closes thing to accomplishing that. In 5 years there may not be any real distinctions between an iMac (desktop), a Macbook (laptop) or iPad/iPhone (mobile device). They all will just be different screen sizes depending on the use case. Why couldn't your television have all/most of the functionality of your computer? The latest iMac Apple announced at it's press conference in October (pictured above) is only 5mm thick along its edges, looking more and more like a 27 inch iPad (without touch...for now), or maybe a 27 inch television. Again, converging everything into essentially one product in different sizes for specific uses, but how?
A rumor hit the web last week that Apple may be considering eventually ditching Intel's powerful but power draining microprocessors in their Macs (desktops/laptops) for the power sipping, efficient and less powerful) ARM mobile processors used in their iPads and iPhones. Initially it sounds like a ridiculous premise but in the next few years ARM chips could be powerful enough to run most of the software people use on a daily basis. This could be the beginning of solving what has started to become the elephant in the room, when will OSX and iOS merge into a unified operating system. Having all of their products running on the same chip architecture will make the transition a lot smoother but I wouldn't expect it to happen overnight. If the rumors are true, which I tend to believe they are at least considering it at this point, I would bet the first product to see the switch would be the Macbook Air line. It's their entry level mobile Mac and their most popular. It's also, while not a low power device, definitely not the machine "power users" look to when they want to run processor intensive software (Photoshop, Avid, Pro-tools, Final Cut, etc.). Seeing how rabid developers are making software for iOS and how sophisticated the software is becoming every year, the transition won't be nearly as hard as it is for Microsoft and their Surface RT tablets right now. How long before we see a Macbook Air whose screen detaches from the keyboard and becomes an iPad?
How would a hybrid OSX/iOS operating system look? In the last two versions of OSX, Apple has shown signs of the inevitable merging of the two operating systems. In Lion and even more so in Mountain Lion, Apple has started to bring features and applications that originated on iOS into the desktop OS. Features like Notification Center, iMessage, Reminders, note pad, Launch Pad, system-wide sharing, power nap, Airplay, and the sandboxing of applications all originate from iOS. In the short-term these are small features that integrate their mobile devices better with the desktop OS but it could just be the start of what might be a full merger by the time OSXI releases or maybe OSX(i). The million (billion) dollar question is how do you bring together a fully featured desktop OS with a light-weight, limited, app oriented mobile OS? If I had the answer to that question I'd probably be working at Apple or Microsoft right now but Apple seems to be laying the ground work for what at least will be a semi-unified OS in the next few years.
While Apple seems to be slowly pulling the perverbial band-aid of merging OS's, Microsoft ripped it right off with the introduction of Windows 8. The promise of one OS (in theory) working across all devices without any (read: some) compromises. It's too early to declare which strategy worked best, Apple seems to not only want to merge their OS's but rethink how we use computers in general. iCloud is our first evidence of this. Apple's attempt to ditch the antiquated file management system created in the 1980's. The file management system was a pivotal step in personal computing but is still a hindrance for the average computer user. Ever take a look at your mom's desktop and see a thousand shortcuts, files and folders scattered across it like a poster board? Apple is attempting to fix this by moving everything to the cloud and using smart API's to allow programs to grab and display only the data it needs or can use. Of course long time computer users and geeks are pulling their hair out already fearing Apple will dumb-down and restrict more capable users options. The fears aren't without merit but so far Apple has made it an option and not a requirement in Mountain Lion as they work out the kinks and expand iCloud's capabilities. Currently there are only a handful of programs that use 'documents in the cloud', mainly Apple's first-party productivity apps (Pages, Keynote, Numbers), notepad, and a few other 3rd party apps available on the App store. It's too early to tell if this siloed style of file management will work for novice and pros alike but the roadmap is being layed. Apple has shown that it's willing to turn it's back on the more pro areas of their business or technology they feel only serves a small market. The Mac Pro is nearly on it's death bed, they've killed the floppy drive, Firewire, and now no longer offer any product that contains a DVD/CD drive except for the Mac Pro . Not to mention many in the professional video editing world felt slighted when they updated to Final Cut Pro X, stripping away some of the features professional editors used in previous versions. Granted something like a fully functioning file management system is much more essential to the everyday user and most people would probably agree that it could stand to be improved upon so we'll have to wait and see how "documents in the cloud" is fully implemented.
If all the devices are turning into flat, touch screens how will we use them? Will the keyboard and mouse finally go the way of the floppy drive? In 5 years? Probably not. Though touch and voice input will become the dominate ways we communicate with our devices, voice isn't always practical to use in every scenario. (Think in public or in a cubicle) This phenomenon is already being experienced with more and more people using Siri, Apple's digital personal assistant.
Siri may be somewhat of a novelty now, mostly used for doing some of the more mundane task like setting alarms, scheduling reminders and appointments as well as voice dictation. But I believe in the next few years, Siri will play a very important rule in Apple's future. From supplanting the traditional search engine and becoming an answer engine, to integrating commerce while being a convenience in our lives. As blogger Kontra explains in this brilliant post on the future possibilities of Siri and how this complicated hypothetical task could be accomplished with Siri with the ability to have access to 3rd party apps:
"Transfer money to purchase two tickets, move receipt to Passbook, alert in own calendar, email wife, and update shared calendar, then text baby sitter to book her, and remind me later."
"By parsing a “natural language” request lexically into structural subject-predicate-object parts semantically, Siri can not only finddocuments and facts (like Google) but also execute stated or implied actions with granted authority. The ability to form deep semantic lookups, integrate information from multiple sources, devices and 3rd party apps, perform rules arbitration and execute transactions on behalf of the user elevates Siri from a schoolmarmish librarian (à la Google Search) into an indispensable butler, with privileges."
If this is the level of sophistication we can expect from our digital assistant in the next few years, it would change the way we use our mobile devices, home computers and (Apple) television. Which isn't as far fetched as it may seem giving Siri's current level of understanding of context already.
Apple seems to be cautiously adding functionality to Siri, which is barely a year old, while everyday adding the number of people that can use it. It's a delicate balance of keeping the network fully functioning while consistently adding additional services and users. Apple will have to work out Siri's kinks and make it more reliable before it becomes something we depend on much more than setting alarms and reminders. Maybe that's what they're spending some of this $3 Billion on.