Hi, folks. I’m sad this week because Michael Hawley died of cancer at 58. He was a key figure at MIT’s Media Lab, a world-class pianist, an amazing conference impresario, collaborator on Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech, and a terrific person. What a crappy year this is.
The Plain View
Rather than going the Zoom route, Tim Cook began Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference this week as kind of a human ghost light. He spoke from the stage of an empty Steve Jobs Theater, his back turned toward the empty rows of seats where an exuberant crowd might once have greeted him. Other executives then spoke from other eerily depopulated areas of Apple’s shiny $5 billion headquarters: the theater lobby, the fitness center, the walkway around the futuristic ring of the main structure, and a research lab “at an undisclosed location.” The presentation had the feel of those witty airplane safety videos where the flight attendants are whisked to exotic locations to demonstrate seat belts and oxygen masks. Once you got past how sad it was that those locations were lacking the buzz of a busy workplace, you could appreciate Apple’s subtle acknowledgement of our shared plight.
The keynote focused on the Macintosh, specifically its new operating system, called Big Sur, and the news—leaked before the event, like all recent major developments at the company—that Apple was bailing out of its long collaboration with Intel and would begin making its own chips to power a new generation of Macs. Those “Apple Silicon” chips will be the same as the ones that drive Apple’s iOS mobile devices. (The transition will take place over two years, something for buyers to take note of when considering when to replace their current machines.) All of this is a continuation of a trend over the past decade where behaviors from Apple’s center of gravity—the wildly successful mobile franchise—move to its legacy desktop products.
The most striking news was tucked into the presentation around 102 minutes in, as the show was nearing its end. After explaining how current Mac applications will run on the new chips, Apple’s VP of tools and frameworks, Andreas Wendker, mentioned almost as an afterthought that new Macs with Apple-designed chips would be able to run iPhone and iPad apps natively. Without modifications.
This was a bombshell. He quickly ran through a few examples of apps written for iPhone or iMac that Apple was running on prototypes of the next-gen Macs, including a game, a guitar tutorial, and a meditation app. When running on one of the upcoming Apple Silicon Macs, all of those, to use a term Apple loves, simply worked.
Not many developers bother to write their applications specifically for the Macintosh computer. But there are hundreds of thousands of iOS apps that can potentially make those new Macs much more valuable. It will be a no-brainer for developers to submit these to the Mac App Store so desktop and notebook users can dive deep into the “there’s an app for that” world. The only apps that can’t be instantly moved to Mac are ones that access hardware found only on mobile devices, like gyroscopes and other sensors. (Developers can use an existing technology called Catalyst to do some work to port those apps to the desktop environment.)
To me, this portends another change. For years, Apple has been firmly maintaining one hard distinction between iOS and MacOS—multitouch technology on the display. “From the ergonomic standpoint, we have studied this pretty extensively, and we believe that on a desktop scenario, where you have a fixed keyboard, having to reach up to do touch interfaces is uncomfortable,” Apple’s senior VP of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, told me in 2015 when I was writing about the iMac. A year later, when Apple introduced the touch bar on the Macbook Pro, he also made it clear that, while Apple wanted to add iPhone powers like Siri or voice dictation to its computers, its notebook displays would be hands-off. “It’s certainly not on the horizon right now,” he said. Officially, Apple still holds this position.
But after watching this year’s WWDC keynote, I now feel in my bones that Apple will eventually introduce touchscreens to at least some of its notebooks, despite its insistence to this day that this move is not in the cards. Let me enumerate why: First, with the introduction of the same silicon infrastructure of its iOS devices, Macs will be touch-tech ready. Second, the aforementioned migration of iOS apps to the Mac. Third, with its iPad Pro, Apple is already promoting the idea of lifting your fingers from a keyboard to swipe and pinch a display. When snug in its keyboard cradle, the iPad feels very much like an actual laptop—and you have on-screen touch control. Finally, competitors are already doing it, and many users love it.
If Apple does introduce multitouch technology to its notebooks, it won’t be the first time the company turns around and does something it vowed it wouldn’t do. Remember when Apple said no one wanted phones that were bigger than your palm? The explanation for the 180 will be one Apple always loves to invoke for such reversals: We figured out how to do it right.
The only question is: Will it be safe to attend the Steve Jobs Theater when that day comes? I pray that the answer is yes.
In October 2015, while writing for Backchannel (then a Medium publication), I got a rare look at the Input Design Lab where Apple develops its new Macintosh models. As part of that story, Phil Schiller gave me his Grand Unified View of Apple devices:
Schiller, in fact, has a grand philosophical theory of the Apple product line that puts all products on a continuum. Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line. “They are all computers,” he says. “Each one is offering computers something unique and each is made with a simple form that is pretty eternal. The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that. The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook. Like, Why do I need a notebook? I can add a keyboard! I can do all these things! The job of the notebook is to make it so you never need a desktop, right? It’s been doing this for a decade. So that leaves the poor desktop at the end of the line, What’s its job?”
Good question. And the answer?
“Its job is to challenge what we think a computer can do and do things that no computer has ever done before, be more and more powerful and capable so that we need a desktop because of its capabilities,” says Schiller. “Because if all it’s doing is competing with the notebook and being thinner and lighter, then it doesn’t need to be.”
Ask Me One Thing
Phil (not Schiller!) asks, “Why is the internet not considered a public utility?”
Great question, Phil. It seems obvious, especially during a pandemic, that the internet is now as indispensable as utilities like electricity, water, and telephony. Oh wait, it is telephony. But that’s not the way the legal system views it. That was made clear during the court battles involving net neutrality, when the Federal Communications Commission, under the Obama administration, tried to guarantee that the major internet providers could not favor certain services. Ultimately, net neutrality lost, and under the current executive and legislative regimes, there seems little appetite to revive the idea. When you boil this down, it seems to me there’s one force that has worked hard to prevent the internet from being recognized as a vital utility that requires an assurance of ubiquity, a level playing field, and protection from commercial interests: the lobbying power of those same big interests. Yes, libertarian think tanks and legal mouthpieces present elaborate justifications as to why the internet is not and should not be considered a public utility. Some aren’t even sponsored by internet providers or telecoms. God knows that I don’t have the legal or technical abilities to argue the case in court or the Senate. Still, I think the answer to your question can be summarized in a word: greed. Oh, and maybe corruption.