Greetings, fellow charter members of The Post-PC Generation! God, can you even remember what it was like back in the pre-Post-PC days? I came across a photo of myself from olden times and I was sitting in front of something with a screen and a keyboard and a mouse. I was wearing these ridiculous bellbottom dungarees and a Swatch watch and crazy-stupid-big sideburns. I couldn’t even believe it was me!

Yeah, I’m still kind of struggling with this whole concept, and Apple’s only made things worse in the two years since it introduced the iPad and gave us all a new buzzphrase. During the media event for the new iPad, Tim Cook referred to the iPhone and the iPod touch as “post-PC devices”.

I look at the iPhone to the right of my keyboard. I fail to recognise it as anything other than a phone. Didn’t phones predate computers by, like, a long stretch?

I remember seeing plenty of old movies in which Jimmy Stewart and William Powell are using telephones. I can’t remember a single one in which Myrna Loy or Fred Astaire try to Tweet anything.

Slow-roast revolution

Whatever we want to call it we’re definitely in some sort of slow-roast revolution. I can tell because over the past six months, I’ve let go of my last shreds of desire for an 11in MacBook Air.

You may recall the little passion play I went through last year. I had a review unit for a month or two and the first time I travelled with a full-featured MacBook in the magazine pocket of my smallest satchel instead of in a special bag filled with accessories, I fell deeply in lust. I might have pulled the trigger and bought one, if not for the fact that I’d upgraded my MacBook Pro just a few months earlier.

Two things have happened since then. First, iOS app developers have become much bolder. On Day One, they were writing apps that treated the iPad as a content consumption device. By the time the iPad 2 was released, they thought of it as a machine that could handle many functions of a ‘real’ computer, during those specific instances when it’s just not worth hauling around a full-sized notebook.

Today, more and more developers are confident that the iPad is indeed a real computer, and are expressing that confidence by making desktop-class iOS apps – with Apple leading the way, of course. The new iPad edition of iPhoto isn’t just competitive with the desktop version, the tactile nature of the iPad makes it superior to most of the available consumer-grade image editors for Mac OS and Windows.

The second thing was the arrival of the third-gen iPad. Dammit, this is a sweet display. I expected that the Big Win of the Retina display would be crisper text and sharper graphics. Naw. It turns out that the 2,048 x 1,536 screen opens up the iPad to new functions that it couldn’t really handle very well. VNC sits at the top of that list. VNC was a bit clumsy on the iPad 1 and 2. On the new iPad, it’s damned-near perfect. The iPad’s display exceeds the resolution of your MacBook back home, and the LTE mobile broadband dramatically reduces the range of situations under which you won’t have a decent internet connection.

No, I no longer wish I had an 11in Air. What I have here – a third-generation iPad and an Apple Wireless Keyboard – is better. I have better-than-good native iOS apps to handle almost all of my mobile needs. When only a desktop app will do, I have VNC, and/or the wonderful OnLive Desktop service that allows me to run Microsoft Office on a virtualised Windows 7 server.

My MacBook is still the go-to machine when speed and convenience are required. At 10 megabits per second or faster, VNC works well enough for live typing and editing, but, yeah, it’s not As Good As Being There. And in most hotels, you’re lucky if the in-room internet doesn’t require you to drop a phone handset into an acoustic coupler and then insert some coins.

(Side-notes to Apple: if you were serious when you said that the iPad is a serious computer, you need to beef up the iPad’s keyboard support. The arrow keys should map to screen up/screen down in every scrolling text; I should be able to rotate between running apps by hitting Cmd-Tab, as I can in Mac OS; Pages should let me apply boldface and italics via keyboard shortcuts, and it shouldn’t ‘help’ me extend selected text the way it does when I’m selecting via touch. Email me and we’ll discuss.)

All of this has got me wondering about the fate of ultrabook-class computers. The 11in Air offers a sub-optimal Mac OS experience. As much as I liked it, I always wished for a larger, more readable screen. In some circumstances, the presence of full-screen app modes in Lion were the machine’s saving grace. If I’ve noticed this shortcoming, you can bet Apple has, too. I bet that the 11in Air will be the first MacBook to get a Retina upgrade.

Still, it feels like we’re seeing something we almost never see: confusion in the Apple message. With iLife, iWork and hundreds of other desktop-grade apps available for the iPad, Apple is clearly saying that the iPad is a great choice for ultra-mobile computing.

One table away, however, it also has an ultra-mobile Mac that looks a lot like the iPad and isn’t all that much heavier. But it costs twice the price, it runs for three-quarters to half as long on battery, the screen is harder to read, and it only runs one class of apps. 

I don’t see doom for the 11in MacBook. But I do think whatever Apple does to this Mac will tell us a lot about how the company wishes to define computing in general, and Mac OS specifically, for the next five years.


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