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The Hybrid Tablet Temptation

design, hardware By January 5, 2014 Tags: , 22 Comments


In no small part, the iPad’s success comes from its uncompromising Do Less To Do More philosophy. Now a reasonably mature product, can the iPad expand its uses without falling into the hybrid PC/tablet trap?

When the iPad came out, almost four years ago, it was immediately misunderstood by industry insiders – and joyously embraced by normal humans. Just Google iPad naysayer for a few nuggets of iPad negativism. Even Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, couldn’t avoid the derivative trap: He saw the new object as a mere evolution of an existing one and shrugged off the iPad as a bigger phone. Schmidt should have known better, he had been an Apple director in the days when Jobs believed the two companies were “natural allies”.

I was no wiser. I got my first iPad on launch day and was immediately disappointed. My new tablet wouldn’t let me do the what I did on my MacBook Air – or my tiny EeePC running Windows Xp (not Vista!). For example, writing a Monday Note on an iPad was a practical impossibility – and still is.

I fully accept the personal nature of this view and, further, I don’t buy the media consumption vs. productivity dichotomy Microsoft and its shills (Gartner et al.) tried to foist on us. If by productivity we mean work, work product, earning one’s living, tablets in general and the iPad in particular have more than made the case for their being productivity tools as well as education and entertainment devices.

Still, preparing a mixed media document, even a moderately complex one, irresistibly throws most users back to a conventional PC or laptop. With multiple windows and folders, the PC lets us accumulate text, web pages, spreadsheets and graphics to be distilled, cut and pasted into the intended document.

Microsoft now comes to the rescue. Their hybrid Surface PC/Tablet lets you “consume” media, play games in purely tablet mode – and switch to the comfortable laptop facilities offered by Windows 8. The iPad constricts you to ersatz folders, preventing you to put your document’s building blocks in one place? No problem, the Surface device features a conventional desktop User Interface, familiar folders, comfy Office apps as well as a “modern” tile-based Touch UI. The best of both worlds, skillfully promoted in TV ads promising work and fun rolled into one device.

What’s not to like?

John Kirk, a self-described “recovering attorney”, whose tightly argued and fun columns are always worth reading, has answers. In a post on Tablets Metaphysics – unfortunately behind a paywall – he focuses on the Aristotelian differences between tablets and laptops. Having paid my due$$ to the Techpinions site, I will quote Kirk’s summation [emphasis mine]:

Touch is ACCIDENTAL to a Notebook computer. It’s plastic surgery. It may enhance the usefulness of a Notebook but it doesn’t change the essence of what a Notebook computer is. A keyboard is ACCIDENTAL to a Tablet. It’s plastic surgery. It may enhance the usefulness of a Tablet, but it doesn’t change the essence of what a Tablet is. Further — and this is key — a touch input metaphor and a pixel input metaphor must be wholly different and wholly incompatible with one another. It’s not just that they do not comfortably co-exist within one form factor. It’s also that they do not comfortably co-exist within our minds eye.

In plain words, it’s no accident that tablets and notebooks are distinctly different from one another. On the contrary, their differences — their incompatibilities — are the essence of what makes them what they are.

Microsoft, deeply set in the culture of backwards compatibility that served it so well for so long did the usual thing, it added a tablet layer on top of Windows 7. The result didn’t take the market by storm and appears to have caused the exit of Steve Sinofsky, the Windows czar now happily ensconced at Harvard Business School and a Board Partner with the Andreessen Horowitz venture firm. Many think the $900M Surface RT write-off also contributed to Ballmer’s August 2013 resignation.

Now equipped with hindsight, Apple’s decision to stick to a “pure” tablet looks more inspired than lucky. If we remember that a tablet project preceded the iPhone, only to be set aside for a while, Apple’s “stubborn minimalism”, its refusal to hybridize the iPad might be seen as the result of long experimentation – with more than a dash of Steve Jobs (and Scott Forstall) inflexibility.

Apple’s bet can be summed up thus: MacBooks and iPads have their respective best use cases, they both reap high customer satisfaction scores. Why ruin a good game?

Critics might add: Why sell one device when we can sell two? Apple would rather “force” us to buy two devices in order to maximize revenue. On this, Tim Cook often reminds Wall Street of Apple’s preference for self-cannibalization, for letting its new and less expensive products displace existing ones. Indeed, the iPad keeps cannibalizing laptops, PCs and Macs alike.

All this leaves one question unanswered: Is that it? Will the iPad fundamentals stay the way they have been from day one? Are we going to be thrown back to our notebooks when composing the moderately complex mixed-media documents I earlier referred to? Or will the iPad hardware/software combination become more adept at such uses?

To start, we can eliminate a mixed-mode iOS/Mac device. Flip a switch, it’s an iPad, flip it again, add a keyboard/touchpad and you have a Mac. No contraption allowed. We know where to turn to for that.

Next, a new iOS version allows multiple windows to appear on the iPad screen; folders are no longer separately attached to each app as they are today but lets us store documents from multiple apps in one place. Add a blinking cursor for text and you have… a Mac, or something too close to a Mac but still different. Precisely the reason why that won’t work.

(This might pose the question of an A7 or A8 processor replacing the Intel chip inside a MacBook Air. It can be done – a “mere matter of software” – but how much would it cut from the manufacturing cost? $30 to $50 perhaps. Nice but not game-changing, a question for another Monday Note.)

More modest, evolutionary changes might still be welcome. Earlier this year, Counternotions proposed a slotted clipboard as An interim solution for iOS ‘multitasking‘:

[…] until Apple has a more general solution to multitasking and inter-app navigation, the four-slot clipboard with a visible UI should be announced at WWDC. I believe it would buy Ive another year for a more comprehensive architectural solution, as he’ll likely need it.

This year’s WWDC came and went with the strongest iOS update so far, but no general nor interim solution to the multitasking and inter-app navigation discussed in the post. (Besides  the Counternotions blog, this erudite and enigmatic author also edits and can be followed on Twitter as @Kontra.)

A version of the above suggestion could be conceptualized as a floating dropbox to be invoked when needed, hovering above the document worked on. This would not require the recreation of a PC-like windows and desktop UI. Needed components could be extracted from the floating store, dragged and dropped on the work in process.

We’ll have to wait and see if and how Apple evolves the iPad without falling into the hybrid trap.

On even more speculative ground, a recent iPad Air intro video offered a quick glimpse of the Pencil stylus by Fifty-Three, the creators of the well-regarded Paper iPad app. So far, styli haven’t done well on the iPad. Apple only stocks children-oriented devices from Disney and Marvel. Nothing else, in spite of the abundance of such devices offered on Amazon. Perhaps we’ll someday see Apple grant Bill Gates his wish, as recounted by Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson:

“I’ve been predicting a tablet with a stylus for many years,” he told me. “I will eventually turn out to be right or be dead.”

Someday, we might see an iPad, larger or not, Pro or not, featuring a screen with more degrees of pressure sensitivity. After seeing David Hockney’s work on iPads at San Francisco’s de Young museum, my hopes are high.



Android vs. Apple. Market Share vs. Profit Share, Part 255

hardware By June 9, 2013 Tags: , 20 Comments


Conventional wisdom and badly reconstructed history can lead to seemingly comfortable but in reality fragile conclusions. Prepare to be confused. 

Ever since the Android platform emerged as the only real competitor to Apple’s iOS devices, we’ve been treated to a debate which I’ll oversimplify: If Apple makes all the money but Android gets all the volume, who will win? A cursory survey of tech journals and blogs would lead one to believe that the case is closed: Market Share trumps Profit Share. It always does.

So Apple should call it a day? I’m skeptical. Not about the conclusion — Market Share isn’t exactly a dark horse — but about the arguments that are trotted out. False memories of Apple’s past have become a template for its future. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article ends thus [and, sorry, you need a subscription to see the entire article]:

“Unfortunately, Apple has seen this movie before. A generation ago, it also had a top product whose market share was undercut by cheap, inferior rivals. It hopes the iPhone’s story isn’t a sequel to the Mac’s.”

(I emailed the WSJ writer asking three simple, clarifying questions. No answer, but that’s standard practice, as witheringly described by Philip Elmer-DeWitt at the end of this post.)

I was there “a generation ago”. In 1981, when IBM introduced the IBM PC, I was starting Apple France. Big Blue had made startling changes to its old ways, boldly calling its new machine The Personal Computer (we thought the “The” was ours). In an even bolder move, IBM loosened its tie and its dress code, and tried (successfully) to speak to the “common man” by using a Charlie Chaplin imitator as a mascot:

An interesting choice, particularly when juxtaposed with the real Chaplin’s cine-commentary on “labor-saving devices”:

The original PC from IBM’s Boca Raton group was a faithful homage to the Apple ][, right down to the cassette interface. But it wasn’t a cheap imitation. There was one important difference:  Where the Apple ][ used a 8-bit 6502 processor, IBM splurged on the much-more-powerful 16-bit Intel chip.

Almost overnight, the pages of InfoWorld, previously replete with salivating reviews of Apple products, were filled with IBM PC articles. The new machine got a major boost with the launch of Lotus 1-2-3, a multi-function spreadsheet that became the gold standard for office applications, especially on desktops that sported hard disks and large color screens. Against the Apple ][, the IBM PC was a superior product — and deftly marketed.

For the next few years, the Apple ][ family stumbled. The Apple ///, beset by early hardware failures, didn’t answer the 16-bit question. It wasn’t the modernization of the Apple ][ that the company had promised. The Apple II GS was even worse, not compatible enough with the Apple ][ and not powerful enough to attract developers, particularly Bill Gates who saw no potential for Microsoft applications.

That brings us to 1984. The Macintosh changed the game, right?

Hardly. At its coming out party, the Mac was two years behind schedule. I recall the “Mac’s Last Slip” jibes at company meetings. No one would deny the obvious potential, the elegance, the innovative user interface, the clean square pixels on the bit-mapped screen, the fonts, the LaserWriter connection… But the Mac didn’t support external hard drives until 1986, and it would be another year before internal disks, additional modularity, and a great Trinitron color monitor were added.

By that time, IBM had had the market to itself for half a decade, and its PC creation had morphed into the Wintel clone industry.

Contrary to the revisionist WSJ story, the “generation ago” Mac never had a market share to undercut. Apple’s flagship product — innovative, elegant, a generation ahead – was a dreamer’s machine. Down-to-earth market wisdom said the Mac was perfect for Stanford undergrads, but not serious enough for real business use. The common view was application developers wouldn’t be able to afford the investment in time and hardware. Starved of competitive software, the Macintosh was doomed to irrelevance and, ultimately, failure.

It almost happened, especially after Apple’s desperate attempt to prop up platform share numbers by licensing Mac clones, a move that resulted in a brutal drop in Apple’s margins. Market share vs. Profit Share…

The Mac was saved by Gil Amelio’s unintentionally self-sacrificing decision to hand the Apple reins back to Steve Jobs. What followed was the most amazing turnaround our industry has ever seen, and it started with two controversial moves: Jobs rescinded the Mac OS license, and he made a deal with the Microsoft Devil. He convinced Gates’ company to “invest” $150M in non-voting Apple shares and develop new Mac versions of the Explorer browser and Office apps (although, in reality, the agreement was part of a settlement of an older IP dispute).

We know the rest of the story, including a meme-adverse fact: For close to seven years, the Mac has consistently gained market share at the expense of PC clones.

Since the advent of another flagship product, the iPhone this time, the riches-to-rags Mac meme has led to predictions of a similar fate: Death by drowning in a sea of “cheap” Android clones. Apple’s high price ($650 per iPhone on average) gives too much low-end room for competitors. The price will be undercut, there will be a decline in unit share that, in turn, will lead to lower profits, lower developer interest, lower ability to invest in future products. The road to irrelevance is paved with high margins and low market share.

Never mind two differences. First, the iPhone never lacked apps, 750,000 of them at last count. And never mind that it is immensely profitable, that Apple is embarrassingly flush with more cash than all its high-tech colleagues combined. The pundits won’t accept evidence as an answer. Market Share will trump Profit Share. Why let facts cloud a good argument?

One is tempted to point to the race to the bottom that PC clone makers have experienced over the past decade. HP enjoys the largest Market Share of all PC makers, but it also “enjoys” less than 4% operating profit for its efforts. Meanwhile, Apple’s margin is in the 25% range for its Mac line. That may not be as enjoyable as the 60% margin for the iPhone, but it’s a solid business, particularly when you consider that the clone makers, HP and Dell foremost, are angling to get out of the business altogether. (See an earlier MN: Post-PC: Wall Street Likes the View.)

Returning to the iOS vs Android debate, I will state an opinion – not to be confused with a prediction, let alone The Truth: I think the vertical simplicity of Apple’s business will tilt the field in its favor as the complicated Android world devolves into anarchy. Apple vs Google isn’t Apple vs Microsoft/Intel/IBM.

Let’s back up a bit. Google’s 2005 acquisition of Android was a visionary move. (Some say Google’s vision was sharpened by Eric Schmidt’s presence on Apple’s Board as the company worked on the future iPhone. Jobs was furious about Google’s decision and summarily asked Schmidt to leave.) Android’s unprecedented growth — more than 50% share of the smartphone market in the US, and even more worldwide – is a testament to the “open” approach. Google gives away the Open Source Android OS; processors are another kind of “open”, custom-designed under ARM licenses open to all payers.

But Android is a “cushion shot”, it’s an indirect way for Google to make money. Android is a Trojan horse that infects smartphones so it can install services that collect the user data that feeds Google’s true business: advertising.

Now, Google faces several problems. Android’s openness leads to incompatibilities between devices, a problem for developers that didn’t happen under Microsoft’s rule in the PC era. Worse (for Google), the many diverging versions of Android (a.k.a. forks) — especially those created in China — carry no Google services. They harvest no data and so they bring no advertising revenue potential back to Google.

This is clearly a concern for Google, so much so that the company now offers “pure” Android smartphones by Samsung (for $650) and HTC (for $599) on its Google Play site.

On the other hand, Android 2013 is a mature, stable OS. It isn’t Windows ’95, which was nothing more than a shell bolted on top of DOS. While the Mac’s system software wasn’t fully developed when it first came out, many saw it as superior — or potentially superior — to Microsoft’s OS. Android is a tougher competitor than Windows was at the same age.

Then there is Google’s subsidiary Motorola Mobility and the relationship with Samsung, the most powerful Android handset maker. As discussed last week, Motorola’s stated intention is to push Android phone prices well below the $650 (unsubsidized) level. Is Samsung in a position to wag the Android dog? And if so, how will they react to Motorola’s moves?

Let’s not forget “the small matter of execution”, one that might prove more important than lofty “strategic” considerations. And, to further complicate predictions, we have the herd’s tendency to assume Company X will make all the mistakes while its competitors will play a perfect game.

Confused? Then I have accomplished one of my goals, to show how unhelpful the old bromides are when trying to guess what will happen next.

PS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct you recently discovered articles by John Kirk, who calls himself a recovering attorney and indeed writes tightly reasoned posts on Techpinions. I’ll whet your appetite with two quotes. One from Does The Rise Of Android’s Market Share Mean The End of Apple’s Profits? [emphasis mine]:

Steve Jobs wanted, and Apple wants, market share. But they want the RIGHT market share. Apple wants customers who are willing to pay for their products. And Apple wants customers who are good for their platform. In other words, Apple wants market share in their target demographic. Based on the fact that Apple is taking in 72% of the mobile phone profits with only 8% or 9% of the market share, it sure sounds like they’ve aquired the right market share to me.

Does the rise of Android’s market share mean the end of Apple’s profits? Hardly. You can argue as loudly as you like that developers and profit share must necessarily follow market share. But the facts will shout you down.

The other is from 4 Mobile Business Models, 4 Ways To Keep Score where he concludes:

And if you’re going to prophesy that market share alone gives Google data that will someday, somehow, be worth something to someone, then you need to go back and re-read how the “razor-and-blades” business model is scored.

What we desperately need in analyzing mobile computing is far more attention paid to profits and far less attention paid to prophets.



Carnival Barker Edition: Show me your iOS licensing certificate!

hardware By May 1, 2011 Tags: , , 108 Comments

Apple is doing it wrong, Apple is living on borrowed time! Apple will Fail Again!

This idea, this meme, isn’t new. For more than 30 years we’ve heard a number of versions of the “Apple is doomed” requiem.

December 12th 1980 — the day of Apple’s IPO, coincidentally — I’m in Geneva, signing my employment agreement with Apple. My mission: start Apple France. Back in Paris I meet a chorus of naysayers: You’re deranged. Look at the respectable companies you’ve worked for: HP, Data General, Exxon Office Systems. (They don’t know that I can’t wait to leave the latter.) And now you’re going to work for these California hippies? They don’t have CP/M; the Apple ][ has a 40-column screen and lacks standard 8” floppies…and Fortune Systems is coming up with a Wang emulator that will wipe Apple off the planet’s surface!

The latest Dies Irae comes from a trio of highly skilled artists: Henry Blodget of Wall Street and Business Insider fame; Fred Wilson, co-founder of the VC firm Union Square Ventures and an eloquent and insightful blogger (AVC blog); and Dan Lyons, the sharp and eerily hilarious author of the Fake Steve Jobs parody blog (currently on hiatus), now writing for the Daily Beast and Newsweek. (See here, here and here but a few examples of their refrain. Google will oblige with more.)

I’ll start by intoning their cantus firmus.

In 1984, Apple comes out with a superior personal computer, the Macintosh. And then they lost the market to an inferior genus: the IBM PC clone.


Ignoring universal advice — including Billl Gates’ — Apple arrogantly refused to license the Mac operating system, leaving the field to Microsoft’s technically inferior product. DOS and Windows clones proliferated and almost exterminated the Mac, relegating it to a minuscule, irrelevant market share.

With the iPhone — and out of the same deeply ingrained arrogance — Apple is making the same mistake. Apple won’t license its iOS software platform. As a result, Android-powered smartphones and tablets will do to the iPhone and the iPad what Windows did to the Mac.

The story ends with Andy Rubin at the wheel of the Android steamroller. Behind him we see Henry, Fred, and Dan throwing rose petals on themselves and singing I Told You So.

(I have personal reasons to like Android. Several of my Be associates moved on to Google where they were instrumental in the creation of the platform. I admire what the engineering team accomplished in a very short time. There’s little wonder that Nokia and RIM have lost their footing. One of my two smartphones is an Android device, from Motorola; I see everyday why the platform is so successful. And as an iPhone user, I’m glad Google is fueling Apple’s competitive fires.)


iPhone = Mac 2.0

hardware By January 2, 2011 Tags: , 63 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

There are two ways to interpret the equation above.

Doomsayers will sing the licensing blues. By refusing to license the operating system—iOS, in this case—the iPhone will drown in a sea of Android smartphones. We’ve seen it before: Apple is repeating the mistake that allowed Windows clones to scuttle the Mac.

Others, such as yours truly, see the iPhone—or, more properly, its pole position in the smartphone race—as a perfect illustration of lessons learned from the Mac’s struggle to find breathing room in the PC industry.

We know how the first reading of the equation continues. The Mac had immense promise, a much better personal computer than the 16-bit clone of the Apple ][ called the IBM PC. But Apple’s arrogance beleaguered the platform. Instead of following the Microsoft model—focusing on software and letting licensees create a prosperous ecosystem—Apple repeatedly nixed Mac clones and was marginalized, with the Mac market share sinking as low as 2%.

The iPhone is equally promising and, the argument goes, just as equally destined to a marginal role. Like the original Mac, the iPhone has inaugurated a new era, and will ultimately see others dominate the market.

This is a resilient meme, one that gives rise to regular kommentariat pieces predicting trouble for Jobs and his company. Last October, a New York Times piece asked: Will Apple’s Culture Hurt the iPhone? Just last week, a Fortune columnist joined the herd and declared ‘2011 will be the year Android explodes’.

Unsurprisingly, others tore the “closed = marginalization” formula apart. The new smartphone world isn’t a replica of the PC industry, the analogy doesn’t apply. John Gruber argues here that the real race is in reducing the cost of monthly agreements: A “free” Android smartphone versus a $99 or $199 iPhone won’t make much of a difference if the monthly plan costs $80 to $100. Another observer, whose nom de plume is Kontra, thinks we’ll reach a different kind of duopoly where Android will get the volume and Apple will make all the money. See “The Unbearable Inevitability of Being Android, 1995”. And take a look at this great piece felicitously titled “Fragmandroid: Google’s mad dash to Microsoftdom”.

I have my own set of questions about the Mac’s “failure”.

First, shall we agree that Microsoft “open” model is the exception rather than the rule? How many other examples of the Microsoft platform licensing model, with its caveats, prohibitions, and insistence on fealty, do we see? Have we forgotten that Microsoft’s methods led to a conviction of being a monopolist?

Second, there is the Mac’s rebirth. Last year, its US market share approached 10%, with a 90% unit share in the $1k-and-greater segment. For the past five years, Mac unit sales have grown faster than the PC industry.

Even more important: profits. HP is the leading PC manufacturer, with quarterly revenues in the $10B range and 5% operating income. Apple makes only a third of HP’s PC dollar volume per quarter—but with an operating income in the 30% to 35% range. (More details in this May 2nd, 2010 Monday Note.) We’ll have numbers for the October-December quarter in a few days. We’re likely to see a continuation of the dual rise of Mac market share and profits. In the meantime, Apple, for its sins, has been punished with the highest market cap of all high-tech companies, close to $300B.

This could be a blueprint for the iPhone’s future: smaller market share, bigger profits.

Back to the equation and my own interpretation: Applying the lessons from the Mac’s troubled beginnings.

When the Mac came out, it showed immense promise. The execution wasn’t flawless and it suffered from several important shortcomings—the lack of a hard disk, next to nothing in the way of application software compared to the PC. Steve Jobs tried—and tried hard—to get Lotus, Microsoft, and Software Publishing (of PFS: fame) to write apps for the Mac. In a pre-introduction Sales Conference in Honolulu in 1983, we were treated to a mock Dating Game where Mitch Kapor, Bill Gates and Fred Gibbons pledged to date the Mac, to write applications for the new wonder-PC. Ironically, the only “date” that produced anything helpful was Gates with Excel and Word. This was in exchange for a UI licensing agreement that produced no end of trouble.

“Never again.” This must have been Steve Jobs’ motto when, in 1997, he finally assumed undisputed leadership of the company he had co-founded. From then on, Apple was going to control its own future.

Fast-forward to the iPhone: It has the polish the early Mac lacked, it has the support of Apple’s own retail network, it has rid itself of the carriers’ mucking around with handsets and content distribution and, thanks to the iTunes infrastructure, it has its App Store, giving it a huge lead in the breadth and depth of available applications. Not everything works flawlessly but it has been an amazingly well organized campaign that has taken the establishment by surprise.

The result? A fundamentally different situation: While the Mac struggled from day one, the iPhone immediately took the prize.

So, will Android ultimately win, just as Windows prevailed?

My own guess is we’ll get to today’s version of the Mac vs. Windows wars, only faster and better. Faster meaning the iPhone skipped over the Mac’s early struggles. Better means profits. While Android clones proliferate and race to the bottom, iOS devices are likely to retain a substantial share of consumer dollars. Today, Apple reaps close to half of all smartphone profits, (see this Asymco post). That dominance probably won’t last, but in a sea of Android clones, Apple is likely to remain the most profitable smartphone maker. And this is without considering the other devices the iOS platform will power: tablets, iPods, Apple TV…


Apple’s Next Macintosh OS

software By October 31, 2010 Tags: , , 64 Comments

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Operating systems don’t age well. Some have better genes than others or they have more competent caretakers, but sooner or later they are stricken by a cancer of bug fixes upon bug fixes, upgrades upon upgrades. I know, I lived inside two OS sausage factories, Apple and Be, and was closely associated with a third, PalmSource. I can recall the smell.
The main cause of OS cancer is backwards compatibility, the need to stay compatible with existing application software. OS designers are caught between yesterday and tomorrow. Customers want the benefit of the future, new features, hardware and software, but without having to jettison their investment in the past, in their applications.

OS architects dream of a pure rebirth, a pristine architecture born of their hard won knowledge without having to accommodate the sins of their fathers. But, in the morning—and in the market—the dream vanishes and backwards compatibility wins.

Enter the iPhone.

The iPhone OS, iOS, is a Macintosh OS X derivative…but without having to support Macintosh applications. Pared down to run on a smaller hardware platform, cleaned up to be more secure and tuned for a Touch UI, iOS is the dream without the ugly past. Tens of millions of iPhones, hundreds of thousands of applications, and billions of downloads later, this is a new morning without the hangover.

And now we have the iPad, another iOS device. (I’ll omit the newer Apple TV for the time being.) 8.5 million iPads were shipped by September, a mere six months after its introduction. The installed base will reach 14 to 15 million units by the end of this year.
To paraphrase the always modest Apple PR boilerplate phrase (“Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s …”) the iPad re-ignited the marginal tablet category.

After more than 30 years of stalled attempts, the tablet genre has finally gelled. We see a flurry of tablet announcements from Asus, HP, Samsung, Dell, Archos, and many others, using Windows 7, WebOS, and Android. Surprisingly, we have yet to hear a pundit declare 2011 ‘The Year of The Tablet’. It’ll come.

On the other hand… Apple held a Back to the Mac event at its Cupertino HQ last week. As the name implies, Apple wants to make it clear that it’s still committed to personal computers. (You can see the full keynote here…but that’s 90 minutes. A tongue-in-cheek, adjective-laden 104 second montage gets to the essence here.) The iPhone may generate half of Apple’s revenue, but the event reminded us that Macintosh desktops and laptops are a $20B/yr business—a business that’s growing faster than the rest of the PC industry. Apple made a point of showing how the iPad, after taking its genes from the Mac, was feeding DNA back to its progenitor by way of the Touch UI that will appear in the release dubbed “Lion”, OS X 10.7.

During the Back to the Mac presentation, two prayers of mine were answered: A Macintosh App Store and a smaller laptop. The App Store has received the expected “walled garden” critique, but having seen how difficult it is for small Mac software developers to get retail shelf space or to make money selling their wares on line, I like the idea. A few days ago, I downloaded a neat little utility to silence the startup sound on my new 11” MacBook Air. How much did the developer make? Zero, it’s freeware; the programmer didn’t want to spend the time and money to set up a commercial site. How much would I have paid for it from a Mac App Store? Less than $5, more than 99 cents.

As for the 11” MacBook Air, Walt Mossberg, WSJ’s tech guru, penned an insightful review that’s neatly summed up in its title: “MacBook Air Has the Feel Of an iPad In a Laptop”.

So: A clean, fresh iOS; we’re not abandoning the Mac…What are we to make of these competing messages? My theory:

  • Today’s PC operating systems have advanced cancer
  • Personal computers as we know them are here to stay
  • Apple will move to something like an iOS Macintosh

Easier said than done. Steve Jobs remembers well the trouble Apple had getting apps for the first Macintosh, the painful failures of Lotus Jazz, the lame Mac software from Software Publishing Corp., creator of the best-selling PFS: series for the Apple ][. Ironically, some of the best software came from Microsoft—the word frenemy hadn’t been coined yet but retroactively fits. So, just like the iPhone App Store made the iPhone, the Macintosh needs a marketplace, an agora in preparation for the transition.

But a transition to what?

An evolution of the iPad? Certainly not something I saw at Il Fornaio, one of the local Valley watering holes. There, a very serious woman had her iPad standing on the official Apple keyboard dock, writing and, from time to time, raising her hand and touching something on the screen. As Jobs pointed out in the keynote above, it’s an ergonomic no-no.
Now, turn to the laptop. As one of my colleagues says: “It’s dark inside the box.” It’s what the machine does that matters, not what’s inside. Indeed. Imagine a port of OS X on an ARM, or A4, or AX processor, or even a Loongson CPU for that matter. If the right applications have been ported or adapted or, even better, created de novo for the platform —and made available through the App Store—would we object?

But, you’ll argue, “Aren’t these processors much less powerful than Intel’s?” Ask an iPad user: The machine feels swift and fluid, much more than a conventional PC.

Yes, there are no heavy-duty apps such as Photoshop or AutoCAD for the iPad. (AutoDesk publishes an AutoCAD companion app for the iPad and the iPhone.), but who knows? Adobe might be tempted to do for Photoshop what Apple has done for its OS: Scrap the past and build a modern Photoshop that’s written from the ground up.
Intel processors suffer the same type of cancer that afflicts operating systems. Their instruction sets and, therefore, their hardware, power consumption, and cost are beset by the tortuous need to stay compatible with existing code while offering an endless procession of new features. Intel has tried a fresh approach at least three times: the iPAX 32 in the early 80s, the Itanium (promptly renamed Itanic, a political compromise hammered out to keep HP’s PA architecture out of contention), and a brief fling with ARM called the XScale. Each time, the company (or the market) decided backwards compatibility was the way to go. Intel’s position is transparent: They believe that the might of their technology and manufacturing will bulldoze the cost and power consumption obstacles of the x86 architecture.

(We’ll note in passing that there is no Wintel in smartphones. For its Really Personal Computers, for its Windows Phone 7 devices, Microsoft is all ARM.)

Compare the bulldozer approach to what Apple did when it designed the A4, the “dark inside” of the iPad. Apple’s next Mac processor could be a multicore (or multi-chip) ARM derivative. And the company has proven time and again that it knows how to port software, and its support of the Open Source LLVM and Clang projects give it additional hardware independence. We all know the Apple Way: Integration. From bare metal to the flesh, from the processor to the Apple Store. Hardware, OS, applications, distribution… Apple knows how to control its own destiny.

Tomorrow’s MacBook Air might have even more of the “Feel of an iPad in a Laptop” that Walt Mossberg detected. The tablet and the laptop could run on the same “dark insides”, with the same software, and the same Touch UI interface. And, for a desktop machine, an iMac successor, we already have the Magic Trackpad for touch input.

(IMCO, the current Trackpad doesn’t feel magical enough: on the two devices I own, the touch input isn’t as reliable, pleasant and “second nature” as it is with existing mice or a laptop trackpads. I gave up after two weeks. I’m not the only one with that view, I’ve asked. And the local Apple Store doesn’t push appear eager to push the device either.)

All this doesn’t mean the x86-based Macs would disappear overnight: high-end Mac Pros, for example, might continue for a while as they do today for applications such as Logic Studio or Final Cut.

If this sounds farfetched, one question and an observation.

The question: Would you bet the longer term future of your $20B Mac business on an endless series of painfully debugged x86-based OS X incremental releases? Or would you rather find a way to move that franchise to a fresh hardware/software platform fully under your control?

The observation: Last week, the other Steve, Ballmer, was on stage at the Gartner Symposium. There, he was asked about Microsoft’s “biggest gamble”. Without missing a beat, as this forceful public speaker never does, he answered: “The next revision of Windows.” Not Windows Phone 7, not the Kinect game device, all near and dear to his heart, but Windows 8. (See here and here.)

He, too, is thinking about the future of the PC business.

PS: As I edited this note, I found this TechCrunch post dealing with the same iPad-Mac convergence.