Delightfully Contrarian

by Mark Wilson

Slate makes its money by being Your Source for Contrarian News. Indeed, Twitter came alive in October 2009 with contrarian Slate-style headlines like “Soccer: It’s Time to Let Players Use Their Hands.” Slate, to its contrarian credit, actually thought some of them were pretty good. Slate is so good at what it does that one of the fake headlines, “You’ve Got Fail: Why Electronic Mail Isn’t Here to Stay,” turned out to be the gist of an actual article from 2007.

Today, Slate’s technology writer, Farhad Manjoo, writes that Apple’s new mobile and desktop operating systems — iOS 6 and Mountain Lion, respectively — combined with the new Retina Display MacBook Pro, herald the end of computers as machines distinct from handheld devices like smartphones or tablets.

Probably not.

Manjoo’s thesis — that the developments from Monday’s WWDC keynote bode doom for the notebook computer — is a delightfully contrarian thing to say, but it’s probably not going to happen. I agree with him that the MacBook Air is the way to go for the foreseeable future. It’s more than adequately powered, reasonably priced, and super-portable. But I don’t agree, as the subheadline says, that “Apple’s new MacBook Pro is the greatest, and perhaps final, version of the personal computer.” (Then again, writers don’t usually pick the headlines for their stories, but at the end of the article, Manjoo says, “[T]hanks to Apple, laptops have never been more clearly destined for obsolescence.” So it’s probably not an exaggeration.)

For one thing, the new MacBook Pro is expensive. The 15-inch low-end machine with Retina Display costs $400 more than the comparable standard-display MacBook Pro. A souped-up MacBook Air now costs $300 less than the low-end MacBook Pro and it’s more portable, with longer battery life. So, in essence, we’re paying $700 more for … a retina display? (It’s got more of both system RAM and video RAM, also.) There are more portable notebooks out there; the 15-inch MacBook Pro doesn’t mean anything other than Apple is transitioning away from mechanical hard drives and optical drives in its MacBook Pro models. Rather than insist that every notebook will one day become an iPad, it’s more likely that every notebook will become a MacBook Air.

Apple is also taking its own steps to ensure that its laptops are not going to be obsolete. An iDevice’s file system is a black box into which no man may go. Applications save documents and preferences into fenced-off areas of the disk, and there’s no native file system browser. This is as much for security as it is for anything else: the phone companies don’t want to open the device’s file system for modification, where a knowledgable hacker might find a way either to get some free phone calls by modifying the phone software or do some damage to the cellular network. (Then again, this hasn’t stopped even more knowledgable hackers from cracking the iOS firmware, but at least those phones are out of warranty.)

Cynical as onlookers might be about Apple’s attempt to rein in the user’s experience, placing it more and more under Apple’s control (for example, in Mac OS 10.7, the Library folders are hidden by default), I seriously doubt there will come a day when Mac OS X becomes a similar black box. Preventing users from moving files around the file system would be bad for business,especially for Apple’s business clients, who are largely graphic-oriented users who need to move things around all the time.

So, the answer to the question “In three years’ time, what will be the difference between a $499 iPad and a $999 MacBook?” is, “A built-in keyboard, holes for peripherals, and a different operating system.” Perhaps as far as Grandma is concerned, there will be no difference; she doesn’t need to browse the file system. But for everyone else who plugs in USB devices, moves things around, and needs a big screen, yes there will be a difference. A look at Mountain Lion’s features shows not that iOS features like Message Center are replacing anything in iOS; they’re augmenting features in Mac OS. Message Center can run across all your devices now, for example. For a company interested in destroying its own desktop operating system, it seems to be sinking a lot more of its resources into adding features to its desktop operating system that integrate it into an Apple digital lifestyle system.

This integration makes business sense. Since the iPod, the Apple business model has been to hook the user on a single Apple product and then draw him into the Apple universe. Want an iPod? Sure, but iTunes works only on Mac OS (this has changed since). That iLife looks pretty nice — but it’s for Macs only. And so on. Apple products play nicely with each other because a user who wants a digital lifestyle that “just works” goes to the Apple Store and comes back with a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, an iPad, a Time Capsule, and an Apple TV. It’s true that Apple currently makes more money from its consumer electronics side than it does its computer side, but one draws in the other. Apple wouldn’t throw away a revenue stream as significant as the notebook computer division. (That’s more of an HP-style decision.)

So no, I don’t think the new Retina Display MacBook Pro heralds the end of the notebook. Nor do I think that adding iOS features to Mac OS means that the two will one day converge, annihilating Mac OS. An iPad is has its uses, and a notebook has its uses. Sometimes they’re the same uses, and sometimes they’re different. The different uses are different enough that trying to synthesize them into one device would result in a transporter accident of a product that no one would want. (See the Samsung Galaxy Note. Too big to be a phone. Too small to be a tablet. Just throw it out the airlock.)