Monthly Archives: August 2011

The End of a Nerdy Era

The idea sort of crept up on me, and I spent a good month going back and forth. Finally, today, I have ordered the necessary software and am preparing for the inevitable: I am turning my 8-Core Mac Pro rig into a Windows box, and switching my day-to-day computing tasks entirely to the Windows environment.

This was not an easy decision to make. I’ve been a Mac guy since I was a very small child, and to this day a select group of friends for which I’m their go-to fix-it guy jokingly refer to me as The Mac Whisperer. I stuck with the platform entirely through the bad old days of the 90s, triumphed in Steve Jobs’ return, and yet still kept my old Apple IIGS (my first computer) alive and intact through emulation. (The actual machine is still in my parents’ basement.)

Though Apple has done a number of things to piss me off lately, I’m still a firm believer in most of their products, and I’ll continue to buy a lot of them. However, it’s become clear to me in the last few months that the Mac, as I know it, may not be around for much longer. Despite strong sales, I am convinced that the Mac line is headed for decline, and perhaps even discontinuation. This all becomes very clear when you take a step back and acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths.

1. 90% of the public is not smart enough to use a full PC and never will be. (But tablets are perfect.)

I’ve been helping people with their computers since I was 10 years old. In that time, computers have evolved a lot, but the average user has not. Files get saved everywhere and lost. Hard drives fill up undetected. Spyware and crapware get installed willy-nilly. People’s computers grind to a halt due to poor maintenance and they either take them in for service or replace them. These people do not know what they’re doing.

And honestly, they don’t need to. Nowadays, whether at work or at home, people require literally 3 apps: a web browser, iTunes and Microsoft Office. That’s it. Occasionally they dip their toes into light creative apps like Apple’s iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband, but that’s pretty much it. The vast majority of computing is done in those 3 apps, and for most people, it’s all they’ll ever need. And these days, all of those tasks can be done more casually with an iPad. With the advent of cloud storage (which is pretty neat — now a house fire won’t wipe out decades of family photos, or your music collection), there’s no longer even a need to buy a hard drive. Which is good, because most people still don’t know the difference between a hard drive and RAM.

Tablets aren’t QUITE there yet, but they’re moving fast, and in 2 years they will completely replace the need for a PC for this 90%. The final hurdle for the tablet and phone is that they need to connect more easily to peripherals: an external display, a keyboard (doable now, but kind of a pain), a game controller, a printer, and a or scanner. And that’s it.

2. The Mac has stagnated. (And so has the PC.)

I just installed Mac OS X Lion. It’s the second major OS release from Apple in 3 years. During that time we’ve seen iOS (and its Windows-esque clone, Android) become a dominant, epoch-making force, attracting the best developers and designers from both inside the major computing companies and from the world in general. In a VERY short amount of time, these portable devices have gone from toys to being as useful as an everyday computer. Mac OS, however, has stayed pretty much the same. The major new features have been restricted to under-the-hood retoolings and minor interface features cribbed from iOS. Lion is a nice little upgrade, but from the end user’s perspective, decidedly no big deal. I could say the same about Snow Leopard.

It’s not just the operating system. Microsoft Office has added virtually no new relevant features since its 2008 version. Toast Titanium, that stalwart of disc burning on the Mac, was rewritten and is now so buggy it’s unusable (but also added no new features). Garageband and iPhoto are pretty much the same from the last version, and the new iPad version of Garageband is WAY better than the desktop version. Shareware and freeware, once the bringer of new ideas, are now predominantly iOS-like apps or widgets for various web sites, or ports of games from other platforms. On the Windows side, better backwards compatibility means that things move even slower.

On the hardware side, we’ve squeezed more cores on a CPU, but the clock speed has barely budged in the last 5 years. My 8-core 2008 Mac Pro is, according to various benchmarks, about 90% of the speed of an 8-core 2011 Mac Pro. That never used to happen. I recently upgraded my video card (those have also barely changed in the last couple years), added more RAM and a USB 3.0 card, and I’m pretty much golden. Laptops have benefitted from recent redesigns that make the motherboard, RAM and CPU all draw less power and keep cooler, but increasingly, their power is hard to tell apart from that of a workstation. And since those have barely changed at all, it’s pretty easy to conclude that their power is about to stabilize as well.

PCs have now been around for 30 years, and people are running out of new tricks, and in some cases have painted themselves into design dead-ends. The PC has become settled technology, and innovation has moved to phones and tablets. As people become more reliant on those and less reliant on full computers, we will see fewer and fewer changes going forward.

3. Mac OS X and Windows 7 are now so similar that they’re interchangeable.

The Mac vs PC debate has been going on for a majority of my lifetime. In years past, there were a lot of differences to quibble about — the two were vastly different computing platforms. Today, aside from a few minor interface differences, the two are almost completely identical. They run on the same hardware, have largely the same (or similar) software, do almost entirely the same things. Mac defenders used to say that their platform was better for video, or better for desktop publishing, and they’d be right. Today? It really doesn’t matter at all.

Windows, on the other hand, still has support for things that Apple has refused to budge on (USB 3.0, Blu-ray), and oodles of niche technology that nobody ever ported to the Mac with any real success. As everyday computing tasks slowly transition to tablets and phones, these niche technologies and pro-level creative apps will be the only reason to use a full computer.

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Now, my immediate impetus to switch to Windows is due to the fact that a good portion of my work — video processing and Blu-ray — require niche technology and must be done in Windows. Up until this point, I’ve been using a combination of VMWare and dual-booting to bridge the gap between Mac and PC, but now that Final Cut Pro has been reduced to hobbyist software, there’s virtually no reason to keep using the Mac side of things (and switching my configuration to 100% Windows would save me loads of time). Adobe will let me switch my newly bought Creative Suite bundle to Windows if I call them, I’ll re-buy Microsoft Office, switch my e-mail client to Thunderbird, and I’m pretty much intact.

But at this point I can’t even recommend a Mac to everyday computer users. Apple has just reminded me (with Final Cut Pro) that they are more than willing to cut off a product line with a devoted fan base in order to go where the money — and the future — is. Steve Jobs himself has already said that the era of the PC is dwindling, and already Macs make up a small and shrinking part of Apple’s bottom line. Soon, the investments in the platform will stop, the product line will shrink, and then it will disappear. The fanboys will scream and cry, and then move on. And Apple will keep making money. It happened with the Apple II, it happened with Mac OS 9, it happened with Final Cut Studio. It’s happened with each successive generation of software that no longer works on years-old computers. Mac OS Lion, with its full-screen apps and Launchpad, has started the slow process of nudging Mac users towards iOS. At some point, they’ll become “one platform.” Given where the innovation is happening, the profits are being made, and where Apple has its distinction, which of the two platforms will that look like?

I give the Mac platform another 5 years.