DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN
10 January 2000
Sunrise on MacWorld
JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.
n the computer industry, one of the highlights of January is the annual MacWorld Expo in San Francisco. Filling the city's main convention center for four days of Mac-related fun, MacWorld is the place to go to see new toys, hear big announcements, and generally feel like being a Mac owner is still a fairly good thing. But even with the Steve Jobs circus in full swing, there remain some ominous clouds on the horizon for the world of Macs.
1999 was a pretty good year for Apple and Macintosh, with the iMac and its portable companion, the iBook, topping sales charts. The G3 desktop, and its successor, the G4, are wonderfully-crafted machines. MacOS 9 is stable, if a bit heavy, and Mac software is once again relatively easy to come by. Even IBM is in the Mac software picture, with its late '99 release of voice recognition software Via Voice for Macintosh. (I've been using Via Voice on my G3 for a couple of weeks now, and I must say that the software is good enough to show just how great it could have been. The recognition is outstanding, but the links to other programs -- and to the MacOS itself -- are fairly limited. It's frustrating to have to sit down and deal with the mouse and keyboard after using voice commands to dictate your document.)
Even as 1999 showed that Apple was no longer heading off a cliff, questions remain. Linux and the lesser-known BeOS have attracted the attention of new software developers looking to escape the clutches of Microsoft. Far fewer new developers have entered the Mac market. Cross-platform applications, even those produced by Mac-oriented software companies, typically come out for Windows well before they come out for the Mac. A glaring example of this is the new Quake III game: developed for several platforms simultaneously, the betas typically came out for the Mac before they came out for Windows, and the lead developer, John Carmack, made a point of saying how much he liked the direction Apple was headed with the MacOS. But when the product actually shipped last month, only the Windows version was sent to distributors before the holidays; Mac (and Linux) versions were delayed, and remain unavailable.
Apple has done a good job of building computers for regular folks to use, people for whom owning a computer was someone a threatening concept. The next generation Macintosh operating system -- MacOS X -- promises to add a remarkable level of stability and power to the mix, giving the MacOS underlying code that matches the elegance and ease of the user interface. Yet this will, even if executed perfectly, only help to bring Apple into the late 1990's. Where are the signs that Apple, and the Macintosh, will be able to step into the 2000's with more than translucent plastics to show for their efforts?
There was a point when Apple, in its Advanced Technology Group, clearly wanted to shape how the future of computing looked. Many people have seen the "Knowledge Navigator" video, in which a busy young executive, working from home, conversed with a software agent in a bowtie. The ATG came up with some fascinating technologies in the late 1980's/early 1990's... but Apple rarely exploited their expertise, and the ATG was eliminated a few years ago as a cost-cutting move.
Today, Apple is known primarily for its adventurous hardware design. By and large, this is fine; it certainly has kept Apple a viable company over the last few years. But, as any student of design will tell you, radical looks often become dated far faster than their producers expect. See-through blue & white plastic was cutting-edge in 1998; by 2002, it may well be as dated as the Disco Era's platform shoes and polyester pants. People who bought iMacs and G3s because they were Macintosh won't care. People who bought them because they looked cool will move on to something new as soon as their budgets allow.
Regardless of design paths, what really worries me about Apple's path is whether Apple has a sense of what comes next. Not just which color plastic to use, or what microprocessor, but what comes after the market for desktops and laptops is saturated? Prior to Jobs' return, Apple had several devices for sale and in development, from the Newton to a set-top box, that (for better or worse) showed that Apple was at least thinking about a post-desktop world. All of these are history at Apple, now.
The problem here is that, functionally, Apple and Microsoft are fairly similar. Both make proprietary operating system software with a decade or more of legacy cruft built right in. Even their next-generation operating systems have to retain enough legacy connections to make them palatable to existing users, but these legacy connections slow the software down. More troubling, many good developers have gone over to Linux and BeOS, where it's far less likely that a clever new application idea will be co-opted and built into the OS in a year. Everyone who develops Windows and Mac software also competes with Microsoft and Apple.
So when new movements arise in the industry, new paradigms emerge, both Apple and Microsoft are hurt. If anything, Apple is hurt more, since it has far less of a cushion of cash and users to fall back on. And the computer industry has been very good about coming up with new movements and new paradigms.
Maybe Apple will find a way out of this situation; I hope so. Steve Jobs is pretty clever. But the time has come to see if he has some tricks up its sleeve that involve something more than pretty blue and red coputer cases.
© Daily Mail & Guardian - 10 January 2000
* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.
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