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Apple: No Macintosh Forks. However The iPad… – jj
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Apple: No Macintosh Forks. However The iPad…

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Jean-Louis Gassée

by Jean-Louis Gassée

In last week’s Monday Note, I imagined an ineluctable future where Apple’s home-grown Axx processors would replace Intels’s x86 CPU chips. In my mind — not to be confused with reality — this would create two “forks”, two breaks in the Mac product line. Macs running on the x86 version of macOS would have to coexist with other Macs running on the Axx version.

At the Mac Pro level, the fork would be permanent, not only because the required chip must be a power consumption monster, but also because replacing the 28-core Intel chip wouldn’t make economic sense. Sales of the comparatively low-volume Mac Pro are measured in tens of thousands versus the hundreds of millions of iOS devices.

The other “rolling fork” would occur because Axx adoption in the Mac line couldn’t be instantaneous. x86 Macs could only disappear in a progressive fashion, probably starting at the low end.

I’ve had second thoughts about this x86 replacement scenario.

The saying goes that a good attorney should be able to argue either side of a case with equal vigor. Today, I’ll contend that moving the macOs to an Axx processor is a fantasy, it’s too complicated and will never happen, at least no time soon. Mac users are wedded to x86 processors for the foreseeable future.

For one thing, the introduction of an Axx Mac, with its forced coexistence of two versions of macOS and its applications, conflicts (“competes” may be a better word) with the recently unveiled Catalyst program that’s aimed at bringing iPad apps to the Mac. Over the last decade, Apple app developers have shifted their focus from the tens of millions of macOS desktops and laptops to the hundreds of millions of iOS devices. Catalyst wants to cure that imbalance, to restore some app momentum for the unchanged Mac.

In parallel, we have the very real effort to evolve the iPad into a full-fledged laptop alternative with an existing, not putative, forking of iOS into two distinct versions: The “historic” iOS for iPhones, and a new iPadOS that, all of a sudden, removes many of the old iPad limitations.

The iPadOS puts Apple’s infamous derision of the “toaster-fridge” in an amusing light as old no-noes are now proudly promoted. Imagine an iPad with external physical devices, hard drives, SD cards; multiple windows for the same app; the Safari app Finally™ graduates to a full desktop feature set that fools websites into believing they’re serving a Mac; the Files app becomes a bona fide storage server that can connect to all kinds of services other than iCloud — Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, to say nothing of external drives and SD cards…

The detailed and colorful iPadOS preview (also in list form) is impressive; it attests to Apple’s determination to make the iPad a no-holds-barred, yesterday’s spartan-restrictions-be-damned personal computing device. It’s also a bit overwhelming. See for example the new list of keyboard shortcuts:

Of course, keyboard shortcuts on the Mac are considerably more numerous — there are more than 100 — but we expect that sort of exhaustive menu from our legacy work machines. In reaching a form of adulthood, the iPad has now strayed far from its simple, easily internalized beginnings.

Tim Cook memorably called the iPad “the clearest expression of our vision for the future of personal computing”. Perhaps now we’re getting a better picture of what that vision has always been, especially if we forage inside the machine. That’s what well-known Apple developer Steve Troughton-Smith did, and he found support for pointing devices deep inside iPadOS’ Assistive Devices settings.

Intrigued by the discovery, I went to Palo Alto’s Fry’s store (now sepulchral with its many empty shelves, killed by Amazon) and bought a Microsoft 3600 Bluetooth mouse (no Magic Mouse and its belly-up charging for me). I used Tom’s Hardware instructions to pair it with my iPad Pro running a beta version of iPadOS. The mouse paired right away, the setup instructions worked, and I now see a strange blob, the current iPadOS rendition of a mouse cursor:

It’s a strange look for Apple, and may or may not stay that way — this is a beta release, after all. It doesn’t quite work as a classic mouse, which gets us to the laptop replacement question, one that I’ll courageously dodge as follows: For a long time now, some iPad users have argued that their tablets perfectly serve their work and fun needs. Others have no less firmly argued that Mac ergonomics, including a good keyboard and trackpad, are their preferred tools. I can only see the temperature rise as some will love the new iPad features while others point to the increased complexity and not-quite-complete feature set.

Controversy aside, another question emerges: By letting PC-like features emanate from the bowels of iPadOS, has Apple decided that the more PC-like iPads ought to openly compete with the Mac? Owing to Catalyst, Macs will get more — and more interesting — apps from the iOS world. And iPads present and future will have a dual personality: As “pure” tablets that provide an enriched touch interface, and as laptop-like alternatives, especially if keyboards and pointing devices keep maturing.

After arguing the two sides of the “to Axx or not to Axx” case, I think a simpler Mac evolution — no forks, stay the course with x86 processors — is the likely future.

Speaking of forks, yes, there clearly is one in the iOS world. In contrast to last week’s putative dual hardware and OS Mac transition, the fork I’m speaking of is a software-only divergence: As iPadOS lets iPads gain more use cases, especially in the realm of productivity, iPhones and their immensely larger number of devices will stay in the mainstream of iOS development. Undoubtedly, there will be unanticipated complications in some iPad uses, but the scheme feels more natural than last week’s convoluted formula.

— JLG@mondaynote.com

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