Is the Mac back or on its way out?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018
by Cameron Shelley

Apple recently held a big event in which it updated a number of its non-iPhone products, namely the MacBook Air, the Mac Mini, and the iPad Pro. 

For the first two, this update is the first in several years.  As Will Oremus points out in his take on the event, this fact cannot help but suggest that these devices are on their way out:

But for the Macs, it feels less like a golden age than the golden years.

Instead of selling "computers", a là the 1990s, Apple has apparently set its sights on the iPad as the machine of the future.  In a few years, we will all interact solely with a 12" magic mirror carried around in pockets or backpacks.  (And talking to our virtual assistants, which is another matter.)

What is driving this change in "computer" form?  I would suggest that the decreasing centrality of the "desk" in our lives has something to do with it. 

In earlier times, stationary desks were key to interacting with computers.  The boxy personal computers of the 1980s and onward had nowhere else to live, the presence of awkward "portables" such as the Osborne notwithstanding. 

The advent of the laptop "clamshell" did make computers more mobile.  Of course, these machines were often rather limited in their capabilities compared to their desktop siblings.  As a result, serious computing still required access to a desk and desktop.

Today, mobile machines are often powerful enough for everyday use for many people.  In addition, the appearance of fast, ubiquitous, wireless Internet access has lessened the need for people to locate themselves at a fixed point with a tabletop and an ethernet port in the wall behind.  As a result, the desk has become less central to many people's computing requirements. 

A walk through campus tends to confirm this.  Sure, students still sit behind big monitors arranged in regular rows in computer labs.  Yet, chairs, couches, and stools in coffee bars are full of students doing their work, connected to the world by invisible and flexible tendrils of WiFi.  And, more chairs, couches, and stools seem to appear all the time. 

Desks are hardly an endangered species.  Yet, as they decline in popularity with people who use computers to work, etc., the form of computer adapted to the desk, that is, the desktop PC and the clamshell portable, decline as well.

Apple's response has been to develop its tablet offerings.  We have hardly seen the ultimate form of this category of device but the company is undoubtedly right to be putting fewer eggs in the desktop computer basket.