Apple OS X Lion is here, and with it the usual round of pro- and anti-Apple discussions, analyses and predictions.
Take a step back, though, and Lion could be something more than just another update of a rather venerable operating system. It could be the beginning of the end for the PC.
Everything we think about when we think about PCs is filtered through the interface we use to make it work. Yet the ideal interface doesn't exist. By definition, an interface is something that connects two things — you and your work, the plug and the socket, the government and the citizen — but doesn't itself do anything strictly necessary. Ideally, it gets out of the way and lets things happen. It shouldn't be intrusive, it shouldn't even be noticeable. In the end, we shouldn't need to perceive it at all
But computers, clumsy beasts that they are, are all about the interface. That used to be switches and lights, paper tape punches and printers THAT SHOUTED IN UPPER CASE; later came interactivity with video screens and 80x25 characters in sixteen colours, and Qwerty keyboards that knew about lower case letters.
None of these resemble reality in any way. They are compromises, increasingly refined to be sure, between what we want to do and what the computer can manage. Some, like the keyboard, are so familiar we forget what they are: in the case of Qwerty, a layout designed not through logic or consideration of humans, but to stop keys sticking in ancient mechanical typewriters.
And then, as the technology got better, something wonderful started to happen. Xerox PARC came up with a display that began to resemble a real workplace, a desktop with documents. Apple took that idea and made it mass-market; later, so did everyone else. But the mouse remains a symbol of the personal computer's basic inadequacy: using it is like poking everything you work with, with a stick. Hence scroll bars, drop down menus, pick boxes and the like. These are not personal computers doing stuff for humans, these are humans doing things for the personal computer.
Apple's Lion is perhaps the real beginning of the end for PCs, in the sense of a computer that rudely, personally, puts its demands ahead of ours. Scroll bars? They're not natural and have no counterpart in the real world. We normally just touch a document directly and move it around with our fingers — a tablet way of working that seems more natural and is now part of Lion. There's still that mouse or touchpad — working with large vertical screen needs compromises ‐ but the interface is one that can start to work when there's nothing but a display of some sort. When the computer itself, in other words, has gone away.
Combine that sort of move with, say, projectors built into walls and the sort of optics that let them throw an legible image anywhere; motion sensors that know where fingers and hands are; a connection into the cloud; documents you never need to explicitly save because they're just there, always... where, in this picture, is the PC?
Gone. For those of us who've lived through thirty years of tending the damn things and still find ourselves emptying disks, waiting for anti-virus software, losing work because an update forced a reset while our backs were turned, and generally being slave rather than master, that day cannot come soon enough.
Lion may come to be seen as the first real sign of the PC's demise. If so, remember the launch date. In the future, it'll be a global holiday.