Miscellaneous Ramblings

Is the Mac Facing a 'Walled Garden' Future?

Charles Moore - 2010.07.19 - Tip Jar

The fanboys are restless these days.

I've been part of the Mac enthusiast community since the day of the dogcow, and save perhaps for an interval during the mid-90s when it seemed every media article about the company contained the phrase beleaguered Apple Computer, I've never seen so much apprehension and discontent.

Note that I said Mac enthusiast. If you're mainly an iPhone or iPad aficionado, things have never been better, notwithstanding an undercurrent of chafing about "walled garden" circumscriptions. But those of us who identify more with OS X and the Macintosh (rather than the iOS) can't help but be concerned. Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard has been out for going on a year, with just four bug fix updates, and it wasn't all that substantial an advance features-wise over OS X 10.5 Leopard, which dates back to 2007.

As for Mac hardware, there were just three upgrades announced during the first half of 2010, two (the MacBook Pro line and the Mac mini) via no-fanfare press releases - and the white MacBook refresh not even that. although the MacBook and MacBook Pro refreshes represented a substantial upgrades powerwise, and the unibody Mac Mini is a thorough redesign.

Adding insult to injury, virtually any and all mention of the Mac was purged from last month's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), and notwithstanding Steve Jobs subsequent admonishment "just wait", we've been waiting a long time and are not seeing a whole lot. Jobs appears to blow hot and cold on the Mac's future prospects.

Major Ironies

The irony, of course, is that Macs are selling better than ever, growing 35% year-over-year in May, according to NPD. They're just no longer the bedrock of Apple's business.

Fortune's Philip Elmer-DeWitt, in the fourth column in a series of previews of Apple's results for Q3 2010, notes that between a Steve Jobs' June keynote that ignored OS X followed by a media feeding frenzy in July that also had nothing to do with it, we might almost forget that Apple also makes a line of computers called Macintosh.

Elmer-DeWitt maintains that the Mac will be harder to ignore when Apple reports its Q3 earnings this week. he estimates that Mac notebook and desktop computer sales will have generated between $3.4 and $4.4 billion in the quarter, representing the company's second largest revenue stream (after iPhone sales).

Actually, two great ironies are in play, the other being that much of the fear and loathing among the Mac faithful has been catalyzed by Jobs himself - in particular the Jobsian locked-down closed platform doctrine applied to the iOS sector and concern that it could metastasize to the OS X orbit, a prospect those of us who cherish computing freedom recoil from.

Personally, I'm not much troubled by the slackened pace of OS X and Mac hardware development. I'm a bit of a stick-in-the-mud anyway, as evidenced by the fact that two of my three current production computers are 10-year-old Pismo PowerBooks (albeit significantly upgraded) running OS X 10.4 Tiger, and even my newest machine is a Late 2008 2.0 GHz Unibody aluminum MacBook. Snow Leopard is a very decent operating system, and I find it difficult to conceive how Apple could improve very much on its various Mac hardware form factors - especially the aluminum MacBook Pros.

Well, the MacBook Air is getting a bit stale.

Closed Platform OS X?

It's the potential for software lockdowns and closed platform Macs that worries me more looking ahead. It seems inevitable that the there will be increasing convergence between the OS X and iOS worlds, the operative conundrum being whether the Mac OS is destined for an App Store-like future.

For now, I'm content to wait, and indeed I expect my next hardware purchase will probably be a tablet, although I'm not yet positive that will let it will be an iPad. A machine Samsung is expected to release later this year with the processing power of a netbook PC and heavy focus on I/O connectivity will address most of the flexibility, versatility, and expandability shortcomings I perceive as afflicting the iPad, and if I've got to learn my way around a new OS anyway....

I'm thinking that an iPad or other tablet may well be able to serve as a satisfactory replacement for at least one of the old Pismos, although I remain to be convinced.

Switching to Linux

However, some heretofore Mac OS stalwarts are already jumping ship. For example, Silicon Valley journalist and longtime Mac user Dan Gillmor recently announced in a Salon essay entitled This Mac devotee is moving to Linux that he's switching to Linux running on a Lenovo ThinkPad. Gillmor notes that his new Lenovo ThinkPad X201 strikes an ideal balance between portability and power, is much lighter than his MacBook Pro, and has a much deeper feature set than the Mac.

Gillmor still thinks the Mac offers the best combination of hardware and software, but he takes vigorous exception to what he characterizes as Apple "pushing computer users as fast as it can toward a centrally controlled computing ecosystem where it makes all the decisions and takes a cut of every dollar spent," amounting to what, in his estimation, is direct repudiation of Apple's own history and betrayal of freedom of choice. He is concerned by the slowing pace of Mac OS development and apprehensive that Apple will migrate its command-and-control methods up the value chain to the Mac.

With Windows 7 also compromised by heavy-handed paternalism, Linux is left standing as a last bastion of computing freedom from topdown control by corporate vested interests - an OS ecosystem philosophically committed to the opposite of a "walled garden" and true freedom of choice.

If the Mac OS ever does become a locked-down closed system, I'll be looking at Linux too,. But for the immediate future, I'll keep my powder dry. Life on the Mac is still too good to seriously contemplate imminent defection.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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