The Macintosh at 50

Apple's Macintosh has been one of the defining features of the past quarter century. How about the next?

Over the past 25 years, the ideas behind the original Macintosh have become industry standard. Any 2009 computer user could sit down at an original Macintosh and use it to write and format a letter; the same can't be said of a PC from 1984.

A:\> is no longer an interface, it's an emoticon. Someone grinning in a clown hat. Meanwhile, the Mac ideals of simplicity, elegance, intuition and clarity have won the day.

But it isn't all purity of vision — today's Macs have absorbed things such as command lines, feature bloat and even run a version of Unix under the hood. The hardware has become functionally identical to that of PCs. What the Mac at 50 will look like — if the idea of individual computers is even still current — will be what most computers will look like. We asked around the office and the internet to find out what people thought.

David Meyer, senior reporter, ZDNet UK: "The Mac at age 50 will be like most personal computers in 2034 — no longer recognisable as such. It will use displays that are embedded into walls or various other surfaces. There will be a separate keyboard associated with each of these displays, but the identifiable 'Mac' itself will probably be a handheld device — not unlike the iPhone in form — that the user carries around and associates with whichever display is closest if they need a larger display than that on the handset. Either that, or it will be embedded in the user's brain."

Andrew Donoghue, via Facebook: "In 25 years, I reckon, the Apple Mac will be a cross between a computer and food blender — like the Delorean in Back to the Future and, instead of a battery (they will have been banned), you simply toss your leftover sandwiches in blender/organic energy converter sticking out the back and, hey presto, another three hours in the matrix."

Karen Friar, community and news editor, ZDNet UK: "The Mac will be a paperback-size device with a folding QwertyY keyboard that wraps around it. It will be rugged enough to just drop in the bottom of a carrier bag. A projector will allow you to use any wall or surface as a display screen. You can hook up a full-size keyboard or display screen at home or in cafés/other public areas.

"You'll also be able to use any household display device (TV, etc) wirelessly. It still won't work easily with Microsoft documents."

Paul Ockenden, via Facebook: "I think, in 25 years' time, style will have triumphed so much over substance that Macs won't actually be able to do productive work. Apple's long-held ambition to create pure high-class tech-ornaments will have come to full fruition. And, despite the complete lack of functionality, people will still love them."

Charles McLellan, reviews editor, ZDNet UK: "Since the personal computer era began in the 1970s, the focus has shifted to ever more portable and more connected client devices — desktop, notebook, smartphone — with data storage and processing increasingly happening off-client, in the 'cloud'. This trend towards client convenience and cloud functionality will surely continue. So, although today's 25-year-old iMac is still recognisably a desktop computer, it's highly unlikely that the 50-year-old Mac — if such a thing still exists — will be a box (however elegant) that sits on your desk, with a keyboard and mouse attached.

"But what will the Mac of 2034 look like? Apple has always been about elegance and usability, and will surely be among the first to allow us to wear our computers lightly. Processors will continue...

...to provide more number-crunching capability while drawing less and less power. Meanwhile, battery technology will advance, making currently exotic recharging methods (converting solar or mechanical energy, for example) feasible. Foldable displays (already beginning to appear) will mature, and some elements of display technology may even become integrated with the human optical system. Audio input and output is likely to have a 'cyborg' option, too.

"In short, we will carry the 2034 Mac about our person: a system/battery unit built into a belt or suchlike, a foldable screen in the pocket, the audio subsystem as an implant. High-speed mobile connectivity will of course be seamless. The last bastion of old-style computing? Probably the Qwerty keyboard: when you get to your desk, you'll probably still reach for one of those to write anything longer than an email."

William Gallagher, via Facebook: "I think there will also be a move to simplify the Mac OS: there are inconsistencies that, I think, confuse new users greatly. In that sense, PCs are much more uniform; you always know where you are with a blue screen and DOS error messages on them."

Alison Ricketts, via Facebook: "The first projector-based screen that actually works — iPod keyboard — projected on wall monitor — I'd buy one."

LJRich, via Twitter: "The 50-year Mac will be fully circular, with a built-in USB latte dispenser. It will boot on room-entry and smell faintly of jasmine."

GlennW, via Twitter: "By 50, it will be an actual apple."

Rupert Goodwins, editor, ZDNet UK: "It's wrong to do a straight-line extrapolation, so let's do it anyway. Assuming that the same rate of growth continues for the next 25 years as has for the last, we'll end up with a Macintosh with 32 terabytes of RAM; 12 petabytes of disk; a one teratransistor, 4k core processor; and OS C. By comparison, the human brain has around 100 giganeurons and between 10 and 40 terabytes of storage, depending on how you make up the numbers.

"Does that mean the Mac will have become intelligent? Probably not — although there are plenty of people who already imbue their iPhone with self-awareness. There's too much architecturally different about the human brain to make that assumption from the raw figures. But what Apple may be first to adopt is the sort of genuinely useful, almost-intelligent design that such firepower will enable. Multilingual speech IO with simultaneous translation, a voracious appetite for data from sensors, cameras and the networks to use to make suggestions, warnings and decisions about what you're doing, should be doing or might like to do.

"Will there be an actual Macintosh that sits on your desk or in your pocket? If networking continues to increase along the same lines, probably not. You'll be renting cloud time from a smart infrastructure that's spread around the world, and Apple will be selling you a preconfigured chunk of service and capability. It might even come with a small ID token, a little Apple logo that identifies you as much to other people as to the system.

"So, as GlennW on Twitter says, the Macintosh at 50 may be no more or less than an actual apple. I'll bite to that."

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