May 03, 2010

WWDC 2010: the death of the Mac (or not)

It appears that Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) is about iPhoneOS 4.0 this year. The focus of the advertising, the sessions and the announcements all appear to be firmly focused on iPhone and iPad development, and there’s scarce mention of the Mac in amongst the copy. This in and of itself is fine - the focus of the last 2 years (2008-2009) was pretty clearly on Mac OS X “Snow Leopard”, so given the impending release of a major operating system release for the iPhone (and eventually iPad) I can understand why they’d be focusing on their new baby.

Photo of Moscone West at WWDC in 2008

But it’s raised a bit of an irate response from the more Mac-focused developers - “What about me?”. At first, I was incensed too - why would I want to pay close to $6000 AUD for tickets, flights, accommodation and food to go to a conference that’s taken the focus off my primary development platform? I get it, though - it makes sense. And yeah, I’d get some benefit from the iPhone OS sessions. However, I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t get $6000 worth of benefit this year, so I’m putting my hard earned money to one side for this year in the hopes that WWDC 2011 is a better fit for my needs. As are a number of other high profile Mac developers (who I was really looking forward to catching up with, you bastards!). But that’s OK - there are more iPhoneOS developers than there are Mac developers these days anyway so WWDC will still sell out and the planet will continue to turn.

The only part I don’t understand is taking the Apple Design Awards away from Mac developers, but then the iPhone OS-based ADAs this year are a locked down shadow of what the ADAs used to be, so I don’t think I’ll waste too many words on this except to say that outwardly it’s a pretty shitty move from Apple. My oft-unused rational brain says that 5 weeks for ADA submissions and selection for both platforms seems a little tight, but all of the WWDC material feels rushed and unfinished this year. It’s as good an excuse in my brain as any.

My opinion is that next year’s WWDC will have a greater focus on whatever future version of Mac OS X Apple are working on - let’s call it “Mac OS X 10.7” for the rest of this post, understanding that it might be called “Cecil”, or something far less interesting when it actually comes out. The design awards will have a Mac category again, and we’ll all get excited about what’s coming next.

You know what really grinds my gears?

So here’s the bit that’s annoying me: there is a vocal contingent of Cocoa developers who are saying loud and proud that the iPhone and iPad are the future of computing, and that developers should be shifting their business and efforts to these platforms (and subsequently away from the Mac). Just sit back and think about this for a minute - if you were forced to use just your iPhone or iPad to do everything you do now, could you do it?

I’m not Joe Average, but I certainly couldn’t.

There are plenty of things I can (and do) get away with on my iPhone 3GS - basic emailing, basic browsing, simple task management, etc. You’ll pry the damned thing from my cold, dead hands. But I can’t get real, honest-to-god work done on my iPhone without serious impact to my time and productivity (I also can’t use Xcode, so that’s going to stop me right there - but let’s ignore that for now).

It’s about style, baby

Before I begin: I’m purposely leaving games out of this argument - this is about replacing my desktop computer, and I don’t use my desktop computer for games.

The style of applications on the iPhone and iPad are usually simpler, cut-down versions of their desktop cousins - there’s only a few apps I can think of that have feature parity with their desktop counterparts. Tweetie and Twitteriffic are examples that come to mind (although arguably their desktop versions have been left to die for the past year). I’ve not used the iPad-based iWork suite yet - which I’d pinned high hopes on - but the reviews are pretty clear that these are not complete replacements for iWork on the desktop. I also don’t see a full replacement for iPhoto, GarageBand or any of Apple’s consumer apps. In fact, there’s very little in the way of rich content creation.

I expect that the larger screen and differing user interface on the iPad will go some of the way toward addressing this issue in time, but the iPhone is unlikely to offer as rich or productive an experience as a well developed, fully-featured desktop application. Prettier? Yeah, sure - maybe. More fun? Perhaps - there are some great iPhone apps out there. But genuine, get work done all day long every day apps? Not yet. Not by a long shot.

Innovation? Where?

One of the key arguments being used is that there appears to be a lack of innovation on the desktop lately. I’d argue there’s little real innovation occurring on either side of the fence.

That’s not saying that there aren’t some really cool apps being developed. Wrappers around oft-used sites that are infinitely more usable than the original site. Quick methods of letting your friends know how banal your existence is by using your location. Nifty ways to tune my guitar.

There have been some real interaction improvements based upon the touch-based user interface - “pull down to refresh” in Tweetie is one of them. But take the whole “I can use my fingers” thing off the table (and I’m genuinely interested in an answer to this question) - what exactly are these wonderful innovations being bandied about on the touch platforms? Touch itself? That’s been around for years in similar (albeit poorly implemented) forms. I do want to know, because I’m still seeing user interface conventions like tableviews and drawers from 2005, gussied up with some iPhone make-up.

You’re just a hater, silly old-time developer!

I assure you: I most definitely am not (a hater, or old - although I do have a few grey hairs in my beard that weren’t there last year). I love my iPhone. I’ll buy an iPad when they’re available here in Australia. I am, do and will continue to develop apps for the iPhone OS - it’s a marvellous, groundbreaking piece of technology.

I also agree with the basic sentiment being expressed - input other than physical keyboards and mice will eventually take over for standard interaction with our computers. I also think the iPad is a glimpse at something wonderful. But it’s a glimpse, not the whole picture. I’m also not surprised by the noise coming from the iPhone OS camp - it’s new, it’s shiny and there are (some) people making an absolutely killing off the sales of their apps. Some of those apps are actually genuine leaps forward in terms of using the new interaction models that Apple’s designed for the iPhone.

But in my opinion, it’s not the end of the desktop or the Mac.


I believe the Mac has a heck of a lot of life left in it. Will the fun end some day? Sure. Will it be brought about by iPhone OS - no, I genuinely believe it won’t. When there’s something better to replace everything we use our Macs for now, I’m sure Apple will retire the mantle. Until then, we’ll have divergent technologies with differing purposes.

Yep, I’m biased - I love developing for the Mac, so I’ll still be at it even when I have award winning, billion-dollar-a-year apps in the app store (heh).

Am I done? Not quite. “One last thing” as the saying goes:

My message to the “Mac is dead” crowd - have the foresight to preface your statements with “in my opinion”. It’s less inflammatory than stating your opinion as if it were fact, and you won’t feel quite so bad when it doesn’t happen. Wait, that wouldn’t draw attention to your iPhone apps, would it? #waitiseewhatyoudidthere

Now, go look at my Mac apps. Fin.