When will the iPad replace the Macbook?

Recently I read one of these predictive articles that industry pundits love to make. Usually they are the kind of article you can reread in five years and have a good laugh. The headline read iPad casts shadow on MacBook and of course I got sucked into reading it. The article took the point of view of walking into an Apple Store, talking to some of the employees, and getting the impression that the MacBook Air, and in fact maybe the whole MacBook line was doomed.

What is interesting to me is that it is obvious that Apple will feature the iPad over the MacBook in their stores. And clearly the future of mobile computing is in the iPad. I think the store employees are totally uninformed yet their opinion reflects that of the consumer and it would be ill advised to ignore it. But it is too early to call out the demise of the MacBook Air, the MacBook line or even the Mac OS. From the engineer's point of view several events need to occur before that could possibly begin to happen.

First the iPad, like the iPhone and iPod, is sync'd to a computer. For the future of computing to move to devices like the iPad that connection needs to be severed. Syncing to the cloud would work. Until these devices have enough memory of themselves to hold all of a person's photos, music and other data it will need to be sync'd to some kind of storage. And what about backup? An obvious direction for Apple would be to turn their Apple TV into a local-cloud. And have iPads sync'd wirelessly to this. Time Capsule backup of all the data completes the picture and give people a solution where their personal data is still in their possession. Of course for many the internet cloud will be enough and I suspect the future for most people will be to sync to both.

Aside from cutting the link a second event must come to pass to signal the beginning of the demise of the Mac OS. I bet many developers can guess this one. Software creation needs to move from the Mac OS platform to the iPhone OS. Right now there is no iPad without the Macintosh. It's just not possible. And if anything the recent restrictions Apple have added to the developer agreement guarantee that development will stay on the Mac's Xcode platform. Read Gruber's article here. But it is possible that one day we will see Xcode give way to something new on the iPad. Trust me, it is even likely. I have seen the industry move from platform to platform, and Apple move from Pascal to MPW to Xcode. With the developer agreement written the way it is, it looks like only Apple will be able to make a development environment for the iPad. So until they do that, the Mac cannot go away.

Thirdly, while the closed architecture of iPhone OS may be good for the end user, there will always be a need for someone to have access to unsigned code and data. And someone needs to have the rights to install certificates. At the very least the engineers creating the OS will need these abilities even if the users of the OS do not.

All the other things that must happen can be lumped into the category of technical progress. When we see faster, better, bigger versions of the iPad hardware; When the iPhone OS APIs have matured to the point of being able to replace the Macintosh OS APIs; Then we will see a changeover. This is far off at the moment. While a large number of the Mac OS and iPhone OS libraries are the same, as is the core OS, many of the iPhone OS specific APIs have been simpler than their cousins on the Mac OS. One example that comes to mind is color support. There are others.

My final comment is that even with technical issues addressed, another change in the market has to happen. There are heavily entrenched uses of the Macintosh. Video production and sound production, as well as photography and media production of all kinds including the web - all of these have to find a new home for themselves if the MacBook is to fade away. How quickly could that happen? Is COBOL dead yet? It is much more likely that instead of the demise of the MacBook or the Macintosh OS, we will see Apple promote a merger between the platforms.

Returning to the article that started me on this rant, the question remains about the MacBook Air. Well, that particular model may or may not survive, but I expect all portable computing to continue to get lighter and faster. So don't despair!

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