A lot has changed in 30 years, and yet even in as fast-moving a field as technology, Apple and the Mac are still here. A time traveler from 1984, fresh from Steve Jobs's introduction of the original Mac, would probably be able to point at one of today's iMacs and identify it as the logical evolution of the original.
"Every company that made computers when we started the Mac, they're all gone," said Philip Schiller, Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, in an interview on Apple's Cupertino campus Thursday. "We're the only one left. We're still doing it, and growing faster than the rest of the PC industry because of that willingness to reinvent ourselves over and over."
The Mac's path over the last 30 years has hardly been a straight one. Under the surface, the operating system that runs it is completely different from the original, thanks to Apple's acquisition of Next (and, oh yeah, Steve Jobs) in 1996. It debuted as a desktop computer, and now more than two-thirds of all Macs are laptops.
"There were so many things of value in the original Mac that it is still recognizable," Schiller said. The teams at Apple that have built and re-built the Mac over the years have had the option to toss away anything that didn't work--and yet so much of the original Mac concept succeeded that 30 years later, the Mac remains undeniably the Mac.
Bud Tribble, now Apple's Vice President of Software Technology, was a member of the original Macintosh development team, giving him a unique perspective on both the Apple of 1984 and the 2014 model.
"An incredible amount of thought and creativity went into the original Mac metaphor," Tribble said. "So there are some extremely strong threads of DNA that have lasted for 30 years. The sign of the strength of them and the underlying principles behind them--that the Mac should be easily approachable and learnable by just looking at it, that it should bend to the will of the person and not bend the person's will to the technology--those underlying threads also apply to our other products."
Energized by the iPhone
Today's Apple is not just defined by the Mac. In the past decade first the iPod and now the iPhone and iPad have risen to become Apple's highest-profile and fastest-growing products. As is inevitable with anything related to Apple, that has led to speculation that the Mac is on its way out, or increasingly irrelevant to Apple's business. But talk to Schiller, Tribble, and Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi, and you will hear a very different story.
"The thing that has turbocharged the Mac has been the advent of the iPhone and the iPad," Tribble said. According to Tribble, having Apple's hardware and software teams work on the company's new mobile products has dramatically reinvigorated Mac development. "That cross-pollination of ideas, the fact that the [Mac and iOS] teams are the same team, has propelled the Mac further than I had hoped for."
"The experience we're trying to create for people, that hasn't changed," Schiller said. "The cool thing we're in the middle of right now is, we exist in both spaces. And I think, if you look at what we've done with multitouch gestures on the Mac trackpad, how to make that work in an environment like the personal computer while we're also exploring those experiences on everything from the iPod touch to the iPad ... it's so cool."
Of course, the success of the iPhone and iPad has also led to speculation that the Mac is on a collision course with iOS, one that will inevitably merge the two into one single Apple interface for all its devices. The appointment of Federighi as the leader of all of Apple's software efforts could have been seen as a sign of that merger, but Federighi himself is adamant that the Mac will always be true to itself.
"The reason OS X has a different interface than iOS isn't because one came after the other or because this one's old and this one's new," Federighi said. Instead, it's because using a mouse and keyboard just isn't the same as tapping with your finger. "This device," Federighi said, pointing at a MacBook Air screen, "has been honed over 30 years to be optimal" for keyboards and mice. Schiller and Federighi both made clear that Apple believes that competitors who try to attach a touchscreen onto a PC or a clamshell keyboard onto a tablet are barking up the wrong tree.
"It's obvious and easy enough to slap a touchscreen on a piece of hardware, but is that a good experience?" Federighi said. "We believe, no."
"We don't waste time thinking, 'But it should be one [interface!]' How do you make these [operating systems] merge together?' What a waste of energy that would be," Schiller said. But he added that the company definitely tries to smooth out bumps in the road that make it difficult for its customers to switch between a Mac and an iOS device. For example, making sure its messaging and calendaring apps have the same name on both OS X and iOS.
"To say [OS X and iOS] should be the same, independent of their purpose? Let's just converge, for the sake of convergence? [It's] absolutely a non-goal," Federighi said. "You don't want to say the Mac became less good at being a Mac because someone tried to turn it into iOS. At the same time, you don't want to feel like iOS was designed by [one] company and Mac was designed by [a different] company, and they're different for reasons of lack of common vision. We have a common sense of aesthetics, a common set of principles that drive us, and we're building the best products we can for their unique purposes. So you'll see them be the same where that makes sense, and you'll see them be different in those things that are critical to their essence."
One piece of the puzzle
What's clear when you talk to Apple's executives is that the company believes that people don't have to choose between a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone. Instead, Apple believes that every one of its products has particular strengths for particular tasks, and that people should be able to switch among them with ease. This is why the Mac is still relevant, 30 years on--because sometimes a device with a keyboard and a trackpad is the best tool for the job.
"It's not an either/or," Schiller said. "It's a world where you're going to have a phone, a tablet, a computer, you don't have to choose. And so what's more important is how you seamlessly move between them all ... it's not like this is a laptop person and that's a tablet person. It doesn't have to be that way."
When I walked into Apple's offices for my conversation with the three executives, they noticed that I had brought a phone, tablet, and laptop, and had ultimately selected my MacBook Air as my tool of choice for the interview. (To write about the 30th anniversary of the Mac on an iPad would have felt like a betrayal.)
"You had a bunch of tools," Federighi said, pointing at my bag. "And you pulled out the one that felt right for the job that you were doing. It wasn't because it had more computing power ... you pulled it out because it was the most natural device to accomplish a task." Sometimes you want a large display, with many different windows open, and sometimes you just want to lay back on the couch or are standing at the bus stop. "There's a natural form factor that drives the optimal experience for each of those things. And I think what we are focused on is delivering the tailored, optimal experience for those kinds of ways that you work, without trying to take a one-size-fits-all solution to it."
Where next, Mac?
Ten years ago I interviewed Steve Jobs on the occasion of the Mac's 20th anniversary and I asked him about the Mac's long-term future as an important part of what Apple was doing. The iPod had been selling like crazy and everyone was starting to wonder if Apple was going to leave the Mac behind.
So I asked Jobs if the Mac was still going to be an important part of Apple's future. His response was, "Of course!" He was kind enough not to just say "duh!"
Ten years on, it was worth revisiting the question even though I had a very good idea what the answer would be. When Schiller, Federighi, and Tribble talk about the Mac, they're referring to an important part of Apple's strategy. In fact, as Schiller pointed out, in some ways the success of the iPhone and iPad takes some of the pressure off and "gives us the freedom to go even further on the Mac." Now the Mac doesn't have to be all things to all people.
"There is a super important role [for the Mac] that will always be," Schiller said. "We don't see an end to that role. There's a role for the Mac as far as our eye can see. A role in conjunction with smartphones and tablets, that allows you to make the choice of what you want to use. Our view is, the Mac keeps going forever, because the differences it brings are really valuable."