The future of Apple computing isn’t all led by Apple

There’s a great video up on Macworld’s site of a conversation between four highly knowledgeable Mac pundits about the “future of the Mac.” The participants were Daringfireball’s John Gruber and Tidbits’ Adam Engst along with Jason Snell and Dan Moren from Macworld. The discussion was interesting and worth the 48 minutes or so of my time, but I was struck by one kind of shocking oversight or blind spot demonstrated by all four panelists. In looking to the future of the Mac, there was hardly any mention of any products, services or software besides Apple’s. I think Dropbox may have been the only non-Apple company mentioned in a forward-looking way.

That’s a real shame because while Apple has led the personal computing revolution for pretty much the last decade, whether it be via Mac OS X, the iMac, the MacBook, the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad etc, there have been plenty of important developments from others and plenty of misfires from Apple. And Apple is far too smart to ignore what others are doing well. The future of the Mac will most likely involve a fruitful and innovative mash-up of the best ideas both from within and without Apple.

Start, at the top, with Google. Clearly the future of the Mac is going to be more cloud-based. Apple has built a huge and mysterious server farm in North Carolina, principal purpose TBA. The newest MacBook Airs are also clearly intended to be more cloud-connected. But Apple is not a pioneer in cloud services — the opposite in fact. There’s no Apple cloud video or music services yet and its MobileMe offering is so overpriced and lacking as to be a joke to even many of the Mac faithful like me.

I’ve been a paying MobileMe subscriber for many, many years. In the beginning, I used web hosting, web-based email, web bookmarks list, syncing of data across multiple Macs and even paid for extra space to use for cloud backup and file sharing. In the past few years, though, competitors have surpassed MobileMe in nearly every area and I find the only thing I really need it for anymore is automatic syncing of my Mac address book. Gmail is the best web mail, Firefox syncs my bookmarks, Dropbox and Mozy do cloud-based file storage and backup and Bluehost and WordPress do my web sites. If Google improved its Contacts service, which needs a HUGE amount of improvement, I might not rely on MobileMe for anything anymore at all.

A second area of focus for future computing developments will come from cloud-based entertainment. For a while, Apple seemed to be almost purposely ignoring the potential. The second-gen Apple TV finally seems to be a recognition that streaming video is the best option for many scenarios but Netflix, Amazon, Xbox, Tivo and others have been here for a while. Streaming music from Spotify, Rhapsody, Napster and others also beats iTunes in some ways. I love the model popularized by services like Amazon’s Kindle and its online video store, where the company maintains all your content in the cloud for download to your various devices whenever and where ever you want. And it’s galactically simpler than maintaining an iTunes server in your home. Don’t even get me started on the mess Apple made of our various iTunes libraries with the iTunes Plus upgrade program. Blech!

In the Amazon model, if I want to read a new book on my Kindle on the train to work, I buy it and download it there. Later in bed, I have my iPad and I download it there. A few weeks later, I need to quote a passage at work so I fire up the Kindle for Mac program and access it there. I wish iTunes worked the same way for all the zillions of dollars I have spent on movies, TV shows, music and, now, apps.

Finally, not all hardware innovation arises out of Cupertino’s labs. As I blogged about yesterday, I think the new Motorola Atrix 4G smartphone is the first step towards a promising converged computing future. The Atrix has a speedy dual core processor, up to 48 GB of storage and fourth-generation mobile connectivity (I know, I know, AT&T’s 4th gen network is kind of bogus, but roll with me). Its HDMI port is capable of outputting high-definition video. A notebook shell dock turns the Atrix into a laptop and a media dock and wireless remote connect it to a TV.

(Update 2/3/11 – oops, Motorola seems to be way overpricing the laptop dock)

Once upon a time, laptops were so underpowered and expensive relative to desktop computers, few people could really function with just a laptop. But Moore’s law and all that has brought us such ultra-powerful laptops that it’s now the norm. Personally, I rely on my 13″ MacBook Pro Mac PowerBook as my sole machine (with external storage and the fantabulous Apple LED Cinema Display as my dock at home). In a few more years, with super-powered smart phones, proliferating docking options and cloud-based storage and services, the Atrix model will predominate. Peter Rojas’s great proposal to standardize docking interfaces also makes a lot of sense in this future.

And just as a final aside on the Macworld panel, I think the future of desktop computing will not be the iOS “every app in full screen” model, which the panel seemed to think was a real possibility. Lots of research has been done showing people are more productive using larger screens and multiple screens to keep more of their work in front of their eyes. Right now, I have MarsEdit open to write this post, two browser windows for finding links and background material and a Skitch window for grabbing screenshots. If I had to hit control-tab or something every time I wanted to remember what i had just read or to see the web page I needed to reference in this blog post, I think I’d go batty.

I found it a little condescending the way the panel seemed to assume the most important or most common user of the future would be the your-65-year-old-mom type. In fact, if anything, I think younger generations are more comfortable with all things computer-y, even the wild and crazy practices of having multiple windows open on-screen and having files stored in a “documents” folder.

NB This essay was inspired in part by that kitschy, trashy 1990s television show Time Trax. You remember, the one with the future cop who traveled back to 1993 with a super-computer-powered credit card.

Your thoughts, arguments and corrections, as always, welcomed in the comments.

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