In the past five months, Apple has dropped the word “Computer” from its name; settled its long-standing dispute with Beatles music publisher Apple Corps; introduced the Apple TV, a set-top box based on its iTunes technology; and announced that it is getting into the cell-phone business. Apple wants us to believe that it is no longer a computer company but, rather, a digital “lifestyle” company, building a set of high-tech experiences around a core of technologies and designs that are warmer, cleaner, easier to use, and more enjoyable than what its competitors in Seattle and Japan have to offer.
But peel off the skin and Apple emerges as a computer company that’s tried and true. Yes, Apple has the world’s largest online music store. Yes, Apple has more than 170 brick-and-mortar stores around the world, which sell a lot more than just laptops. But a deep commitment to computing is what holds this empire together.
Consider this, from Apple’s recent quarterly filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Apple is “the only participant in the personal computer industry that controls the design and development of the entire personal computer–from the hardware and operating system to sophisticated applications,” the company wrote. “This, along with its products’ innovative industrial designs, intuitive ease-of-use, built-in graphics, multimedia and networking capabilities, uniquely positions the Company to offer innovative integrated digital lifestyle solutions.” It all starts with computing.
Consider the Apple TV. This misnamed product is really just a little single-board computer with a 40-gigabyte hard drive running software that offers a user interface similar to that of iTunes and Front Row, which have been available on Apple’s desktops and laptops for a while. In other words, it’s a slightly repackaged Mac Mini–one that’s thinner and wider–with a slightly different selection of video outputs. Even the remote control is the same one that Apple sold me with my MacBook and iMac. (To learn a bit about how Apple designs its products, see “Different”.)
I am not the Apple TV’s target audience. This is a box for families that have wide-screen HDTV panels hanging on the walls of their family rooms. In my family we are much happier gathering around my wife’s desk and watching movies on the 20-inch iMac that we bought last year. In fact, the Apple TV won’t even work with our TV, a 15-year-old, 19-inch RCA; the Apple TV will only output HDMI, DVI, or component video, and our old TV wants composite video. I also noticed that the Apple TV gets quite warm even when it is doing nothing. Presumably, one reason for its thinness is better heat dissipation. (Apple has long had more problems with heat dissipation than other computer companies, because of Steve Jobs’s intense dislike of fan noise.)
It’s too early to say whether the Apple TV will be a success (if it does fail, it is sure to be quickly forgotten, given how good Apple is at burying mistakes). Nevertheless, in the past few years Apple has enjoyed a return to prominence within the computer industry–and not just because of its designs. In the world of servers and machine rooms, where ease of use and style are largely irrelevant, Apple has emerged as a company that delivers extraordinarily reliable, cost-effective computing hardware. Its rack-mounted Xserve server is showing up in major corporations and in supercomputing clusters. Organizations are even purchasing Apple’s Xserve RAID storage array and using it with non-Apple servers running Windows or Unix.
Unlike most of its hardware and software rivals, Apple has eagerly used open standards and open-source software to develop–ironically enough–a system that combines proprietary hardware with proprietary software. Apple’s iCal was one of the first widely available desktop calendar programs to adopt the iCalendar standard; Apple embraced iCalendar so early that many people mistakenly thought Apple had invented it. Instead of creating proprietary e-mail protocols to connect Apple Mail with the company’s paid online service, Apple adopted the industry-standard IMAP protocol. The Mac OS ships with the Apache Web server, the Postfix mail server, and the OpenLDAP directory server. All this borrowing is completely legal, and the result is that Apple is able to direct more of its R&D dollars to developing distinguishing technology, since it doesn’t have to spend as much on the “plumbing” of today’s information infrastructure. That directly benefits customers by lowering Apple’s cost of innovation. It also benefits Apple’s third-party developers by making Macintosh development not all that different from Linux development, which is generally regarded as a lot easier than developing software for Microsoft Windows.
Which brings us to Mac OS X version 10.5, or “Leopard,” one of the centerpieces of the “new Apple.” According to the company, Leopard will be unveiled “sometime this spring.” For now, only developers and perhaps a few lucky reviewers have played with it–and both are bound by the most blood-curdling of nondisclosure agreements not to reveal anything about it. But here’s what we can say about the OS, based on the company’s public announcements and on those products and services that will be part of it but are already in use.
Leopard is Apple’s sixth major OS X release in six years. Maintaining that pace is quite an accomplishment, especially considering that Microsoft didn’t release a significant upgrade to its operating system between the launch of Windows XP in 2001 and the release of Vista this year. This contrast reveals more about business strategy than about technical acumen: what Apple has done is move its loyal customers from a software purchase model to a software subscription model. Each of Apple’s new releases has offered significant improvements to part–but not all–of the Macintosh system, and each has cost $129.
That’s a lot of money for an incremental release, but the lack of license management means that payment is based largely on the honor system. (Compare that with Windows, where activation codes accompany every operating system CD-ROM.) This may lose some sales, but the result is that few Apple customers hate the company the way so many Windows customers hate Microsoft. Apple even sells a “Family Pack” version of its operating system, which lets diehard Mac fans spend an extra $70 for the legal right to install the OS on “up to five” computers in their homes. I bought one last year: it contained exactly the same DVDs that the single-user edition did. The difference is in the buyer’s heart.
Mac OS 10.5 will work hand in hand with Apple’s fancy online service, .Mac. Priced at $99.95 a year, .Mac gives you an @mac.com e-mail address and a gigabyte of storage accessible through the .Mac Web interface or through Apple’s mail application. There is also iDisk, which lets you store files on Apple’s servers and share them between computers. On your desktop, iDisk looks like just another disk drive, but you can also access it through the .Mac website. You can even mount the drive from a Windows computer using a Windows program that Apple provides. The .Mac service also offers one-click Web publishing, which works with any Web-design application but works especially well with Apple’s easy-to-use iWeb designer. It’s even easy to create password-protected Web pages for family, friends, or business associates.
The power of .Mac–largely ignored by other reviewers–is that it brings to Apple users the same kinds of services that most Windows users get from their corporate IT departments. Think of .Mac as a big Microsoft Exchange Server that automatically synchronizes e-mail, bookmarks, website usernames and passwords, and other kinds of configurations to work with all your Macintosh computers. This is a huge benefit for anyone who has both a Mac laptop and a desktop, but it’s also super-handy for people who read their e-mail both on their Macs and remotely, via the Web. And all your .Mac mail and files are cached on your computer, not on a server as with Google’s Gmail, so they’re available when you don’t have Internet connectivity.
With Mac OS 10.5, Apple will dramatically improve the services that .Mac provides to Apple users. For example, iCal will support group scheduling, with calendars that can be viewed by multiple users. And you will be able to synchronize notes, to-do lists, items in the dock, and all application preferences across multiple computers.
On the desktop, Leopard’s centerpiece will be Time Machine, a breakthrough application that will back up your Mac to a high-capacity external drive and then allow you to cruise through these backups chronologically. Jun Rekimoto of Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo pioneered this approach back in the 1990s, calling it “time-machine computing.” But whereas Sony largely ignored Rekimoto’s work, Apple has taken the idea mainstream.
Being able to browse and restore files from a backup is nothing new–programs like Retrospect and even Microsoft Backup have been doing this for years. The real difference is that Time Machine will be integrated with the Mac’s new operating system: you can browse your backups simply by clicking an icon from the Finder. I suspect that Time Machine will frequently be used to recover files that would just be too much bother to restore with other systems. Finally, because Time Machine is an operating service, other programs can use it directly. For example, you can go back in time and see how particular entries in your address book have changed, or find photos that were accidentally deleted from your iPhoto database.
For the initial backup, I believe that Time Machine will take roughly 10 minutes for each gigabyte of data on your system; for the typical desktop or laptop, you should probably budget 20 hours. Afterwards, you can set the system to perform an incremental backup on a regular basis–say, at 4:00 every morning. I imagine that you’ll be able to use this in conjunction with the alarm clock that’s built into every Mac, so that your computer automatically turns itself on every morning and backs itself up before you awake.
Another area in which Apple has apparently invested time and money is the Mac’s parental-controls feature. Since I’m the father of a 10-year-old girl, this is something that immediately caught my eye.
There will be a little additional apple-polishing in the 10.5 release. Apple will further improve the compatibility of its operating system with both Microsoft products and emerging standards. Apple’s bare-bones TextEdit will now save text as HTML or in the Microsoft Word 97, 2003 XML, RTF, or Word 2007 formats. Apple’s mail program will have a better handle on what to do when mail servers are not available online. And if you type a query into Apple’s unified “help” system, it will now search through the menus of the program you’re using to find an answer. Since the help function is built directly into the operating system, it will even work with old programs like Microsoft Word.
There are some things I would hope Leopard includes by the time it ships. Users will certainly be able to set up the operating system’s firewall to filter incoming data transmissions. But will they be able to put restrictions on outgoing ones, too? If not, the Mac’s firewall won’t be able to prevent spyware that’s running on your computer from reporting on your actions. True, there is currently precious little spyware written for the Mac. But there is some, and it would be good to have some extra protection built into the operating system: as Macs become more popular, the amount of spyware is sure to increase.
I am no Mac bigot: I have a PC running Windows XP on my desk at home, and I use servers running FreeBSD and Linux every day. But the only things I use that PC for are Quicken Home and Business and a scanner that’s incompatible with my Mac. When I visit my friends who are still using PCs, all too often I find myself spending half an hour “fixing” their machines so that they don’t find them so tremendously frustrating.
I used to tell my friends, “Get a Mac.” These days I don’t bother. Given iTunes, Apple TV, and the new iPhone, I suspect that my friends will be able to use more and more of Apple’s technology from their PCs as time goes on. But they’ll still miss out on the totally unified Mac experience–one as firmly rooted in the ideal of the easy-to-use desktop machine as it ever was.
Simson Garfinkel researches computer forensics at the Harvard Center for Research on Computation and Society.
More design articles: Take an inside look at the making of the Ocean, a new phone from a company called Helio (see “Soul of a New Machine”). Take a decidedly non-inside look at how Apple approaches design (see “Different”). Get insights on the state of Web design from print-design legend Roger Black (see “Help Me Redesign the Web”), and find out what Bill Moggridge, a cofounder of Ideo and designer of the GRiD Compass, thinks makes good design (see Q&A). Take a glimpse at the pieces of technology that the prominent industrial designers featured in these articles say have influenced the way they think about their work (see “Objects of Desire”). Finally, hear from Technology Review’s Editor in Chief, Jason Pontin, on the well-designed technologies that are “beautiful machines” in this video.