Why the Mac you know has no future

Apple's Mac is about to head toward an assisted living community in the desert -- and then its final resting place in the cloud.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Video: WWDC 2018: Does Apple still care about macOS?

Yesterday, I watched the WWDC 2018 keynote with anticipation.

WWDC is ultimately a developer event, not a consumer one, so you have to look at it from the view of someone who writes software for Apple's OS platforms.

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I am not a software developer. I am by profession a systems integration expert and an infrastructure-oriented guy. Still, as a lover of technology, I was keenly interested in new advancements in iOS.

Apple's big fix for iOS

With iOS 12, there is enough for me to ponder, but I still walked away with the feeling that it was very much a release focused on qualitative rather than feature improvements.

Read also: Will your Mac run macOS 10.14 Mojave?

This is not going to be the big re-write everyone wants, rather this is aimed at being the 'big fix,' which is fine because iOS 12 needs to be that big fix very badly.

But I was also keen on new hardware announcements. I was hoping that there would be new iPad Pros -- because that is the device I have come to use the most next to my desktop PC for work.

It's not that my current iPad Pro 12.9" is particularly old, but iOS's 11.x resource utilization has taken a toll on it, and it doesn't feel as snappy as it used to be. My iPad needs more RAM and more CPU horsepower.

And, yes, I'm potentially interested in new iPhones. Even though I love my iPhone X, it's on the upgrade program as a lease, so at some point in the next six months, I will have to turn it in for another model.

While I was disappointed there were no new pieces of iOS hardware, I know with reasonable certainty there will be new products to look at come September.

My VISA card and savings account have been given at least a temporary reprieve.

No new Macs at WWDC 2018

The big reveal at WWDC 2018 was not so much what was shown, but what wasn't.

To dispell any rumors, Apple came right out and said that they had no plans whatsoever to converge iOS and macOS into a single platform.

It is instead engaged in a multi-year effort to provide iOS API support on macOS so that iPhone and iPad apps can be more easily ported to the Mac.

It sounds similar to convergence, but it really isn't. True convergence would mean full touchscreen API support and multi-modality, which macOS doesn't have today. It would also mean support for ARM processors on macOS, which doesn't seem to be a near-future option either.

We did not get any new Macs at WWDC 2018. That breaks David Gewirtz's heart. Sorry, dude.

This is going to be the new normal for Mac users. I hate to say that I told you so, but I told you so.

I'm not going to go into the reasons for why I think Mac is a dying platform. I've done that already ad nauseam.

Heck, all traditional personal computers in a consumer setting, even ones that run on Windows, are dying platforms. And that is because people -- and I'm talking about consumers here, not businesses -- can now do much more now with smartphones and tablets and IoT devices than ever before.

The Mac's twilight years are here

The Mac is definitely in need of assisted living and hospice services. It is in its twilight years now.

There will be several iterative macOS releases over the next few years. That much is certain. But the feature improvements you are going to see will be much more along the lines of "Dark Mode" and Stacks (which, by the way, exists already with feature parity in Windows 10) than major architectural and UX changes.

The Mac is heading for its retirement into the desert. First, we will get Mojave. I guess we get Sun City and Scottsdale next. At least it's not Boynton or Vero.

Don't worry, Mac. It's a dry heat.

Read also: Apple definitively confirms iOS and MacOS will not merge (CNET)

It is now patently obvious that Apple is not undertaking the equivalent of a Windows 10 project -- where the fundamental DNA that makes up the end-user pieces of the OS is being completely re-written and legacy components are being discarded bit by bit through a continuous release agile development process.

In Microsoft's case, it just plain had to be done; there are API and other code underpinnings that are literally decades old that Windows needed cleaning up. The Windows 8 and Windows 10 API modernization projects were absolutely essential for moving their products into a cloud-based future.

The entire Surface family of touchscreen PCs would have been impossible to create without this modernization effort.

If Mac had a user base that was similar in size to what Microsoft has, it would have been an essential project for Apple to undertake in order breathe life back into the platform.

But Mac doesn't have Windows' vast user base in consumer and business; it's a boutique business by comparison, albeit a valuable boutique business, which generates about $26 billion in revenue a year -- around 12 percent of its net revenue.

A boutique business

But a boutique business for who? Well, for that increasingly dwindling subset of content creators who absolutely must use a Mac to get work done -- edge-case folks like David Gewirtz and folks who write software for iOS.

But even when you look at software development for iOS, owning a Mac is not really a hard requirement anymore. You need access to a Mac running XCode to produce the object code, but it isn't necessary to use it as your primary development environment for most types of apps.

The current software development trend is to be multi-platform so that you have as many device targets as possible to consume your software. If you are a small shop, that's the smart way to do things and the most efficient use of developer resources.

Modern development environments such as Microsoft's Visual Studio allow you to work from a single unified codebase, and from there, deploy to Windows (on any architecture), Android, the Web, iOS, and, yes, the Mac.

Microsoft is all about being the home for your code if its $7.5 billion acquisition of GitHub means anything to anyone.

Developers use GitHub today as the repository of repositories to download, compile, and test their code using their own systems. But when it is ported to Azure, they will be able to do it all in the cloud much faster without pulling and pushing code over the internet.

While Microsoft doesn't currently have a solution in Azure to directly output application code for iOS and Mac, this is not something that would be difficult for it to implement, especially if it did this in partnership with Apple.

In fact, third parties such as MacStadium and MacinCloud already do this. As a one-man development shop, you don't need to actually own a Mac for the purposes of compiling the code. You just need access to one, or an on-demand cluster of them as shared resources.

Indeed, if you're one of the big game development shops producing a popular 3D title for multiple platforms, you're probably going to want a whole bunch in-house. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

Apple is shifting its priorities

I'm under no illusion that there won't be more Macs in the offering. You can pretty much guarantee there will be new Macs, but I think that Apple is now shifting its priorities.

To paraphrase a famous old man that lived in the desert: These are not the Macs you -- as a Gewirtz-style edge case and power user -- are looking for.

It's not unreasonable to assume there will be further consolidation of the line, and the company is going to focus on getting by with the least amount of SKUs to address the widest base of users.

We will probably see the MacBook line whittled down to just the Pro, the iMacs reduced to two models, and the elimination of the Mini.

And given Apple's enthusiasm for eGPUs, I think its a given that this is the way the company sees being able to scale performance for Macs going forward. Need more compute for that 3D visualization or model running on your MacBook or iMac? Add an eGPU. Or two. Or three. Or eight.

By the way, I wrote about this seven years ago as a fanciful prediction of the future.

I don't think it's a guarantee we are going to see a new Mac Pro if developers and content creators can get better bang for the buck with more modular system designs, especially if you combine this with cloud-based resources that can be provisioned on demand and paid for when they are really needed.

What about ARM?

I have no doubt that Apple has a Marklar-style project, which has the objective of creating a next-generation computing platform using that architecture.

It is investing a lot of resources in producing new A-series semiconductor designs, no doubt with the ARM Cortex-A76 architecture that has performance rivaling true desktop PCs and Macs.

So, yes, Apple is creating new computers. But I don't think these will be Macs. And it won't be iPads. Not as we recognize them now. They will be something else.

At this point, the fundamental software architecture of Mac and iOS is approaching 30 years old, if you count everything that came out of NeXT in the late 1980s as part of modern Mac and iOS device DNA. So, everything needs a re-write and replacement.

Apple does not have the problem Microsoft faces with trying to bring legacy users into the future with a hybrid OS like Windows 10, which incorporates both new and old technology in order to maintain compatibility with application code in very wide use that is very old and to provide functionality for new features and modernized applications.

For Microsoft this is a difficult tightrope to walk on: To find that balance that is acceptable to everyone. Ditching legacy baggage is extremely difficult for it, and it is probably its No. 1 challenge going forward.

Entirely new platforms are coming

Because Apple isn't Microsoft, it can afford to throw babies out with the bathwater, which would be a very Apple -- even Jobsian -- thing to do. So, rather than re-writes of OSes, I believe it intends to create entirely new platforms that have little or no ties to the past.

What types of platforms are systems are we talking about?

We are talking about platforms that use modern systems architectures, such as ARM, rather than Intel, which has decades of power-consuming cruft included for backward compatibility, something that such a future platform would not need.

These will be built from the ground up to be secure with fault domains built into the hardware and the operating system working together -- rather than have security features bolted on in order to address threats from everywhere and everyone.

Most importantly, they will have user experiences that are not just the desktop and icon paradigm, which we have been used to for 30-plus years, but also new experiences such as augmented and virtual reality, holographic interfaces with computer vision, machine learning, and voice control.

Read also: How to download the macOS Mojave beta (TechRepublic)

They will have sensors that are not just on our bodies using wearables like Apple Watch, but also all over the home, in our vehicles, and in public spaces that will anticipate our needs and inform us at all times.

In essence -- to paraphrase Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella -- everything we interact with in our world will be our "computer."

These won't be Macs. They won't be iOS devices. They will be something else. It's not entirely apparent as to what these are, but I believe we are at a transition point where these plans will become much more self-evident in the next 18 months or so.

Is the Mac now entering its twilight years? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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