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“Pure simplicity”: Apple in the 2010s

In 1984 the Macintosh was introduced as a computer “For the rest of us.” It never really lived up to that potential. In 1989 Douglas Adams wrote an article for MacUser detailing his frustration with modern computing. Back then it was overly complex, riddled with software and hardware compatibility issues, too many cables, too many filetypes, too many applications. Understandably his expectation was that: “This is meant to be easy.” Adams urged that in the 1990s Apple should get back to its core design perception because “The future of computer power is pure simplicity.” Despite this we have seen operating systems become even more complex over the past two decades, and even further from Jef Raskin’s vision of a humane interface. In the 2010s we may finally be able to achieve the original concept of the home computer as an appliance, like a toaster or a telephone. And it is due to a recent change in consumer culture.

Western consumer culture since the end of World War II can be summed up in one (admittedly trite) phrase: go big or go home. If money was not an issue, we had to have the best in class of any product regardless of our needs or capabilities. Big Gulps, urban mountain bikes, Hummers, more megapixels, “More POWER!” — the bigger the better. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. But in the past few years a change has occurred: the rise of “good enough.”1

In the tech world this new era has been ushered in with the rise in popularity of the smartphone (with some minor support from the netbook). People have come to realize that they do not need the most powerful CPU in every computer device. Processor speeds are so fast now that most daily tasks (internet, email, etc.) are easily handled by CPUs from five years ago. Look at the iPhone. It has a slow processor and most of its apps handle only one or two functions. Consumers have started to accept this paradigm shift. The tech industry is beginning to follow. I think the next decade will see a clear bifurcation of the computer industry: personal computing and appliance computing. Personal computing will be “heavy” computer work in its traditional form, ie. photo and movie editing, media serving, heavy gaming etc. Appliance computing will handle the “light” tasks of internet and document browsing, email, media viewing etc. Ignored until now, the new market of appliance computing will flourish in the near to medium future.

Like all appliances, from coffee makers to fridges to ovens, there will be a spectrum of quality. Google will be on the cheap, ubiquitous end (the Walmart of the internet). Apple will be on the expensive, stylish end. I am not sure where Microsoft will be. They may avoid appliance computing all together, and remain solely in personal computing.

Ever since the beginning Apple has pushed for appliance computing. Not until the iPhone have they come close to their goal. Now I think they are on the right track. John Gruber’s comments about the rumoured Apple “Tablet” reflect my thoughts:

The original 1984 Mac didn’t abstract away the computer — it made the computer itself elegant, simple, and understandable. Very, very little was hidden from the typical user. … The iPhone OS offers a complete computing abstraction. Under the hood, it’s just as complex as Mac OS X. On the surface, though, it is even more simple and elegant than the original Mac. No technical complexity is exposed. Hierarchy is minimized. It relegates the file system to a developer-level technology rather than a user-level technology. (Did you know the file system on iPhones is case sensitive?)

The Apple Tablet could be the “internet appliance” sitting next to the toaster and the coffee maker in the kitchen. Though they are not the only company with this potential, Apple may be able to achieve it quicker using their experience with the iPhone.

Historically, Japanese manufacturers also have much experience in “good enough”. There have been single use devices (eg. email machines) galore here. If only the big Japanese companies could get out of their walled-garden mentality, they could use their experience to great effect in this new market.

Nevertheless, appliance computing has been somewhat of unrealized core competency for Apple. The last decade was great for Apple.2 The next decade could be even more wonderful if, as Douglas Adams recommended, Apple “designers get back to that future” of pure simplicity.

  1. What caused this sea change in consumer values? I suspect it began with the popularization of the environmental movement in the 1990s. “Recycle, Reduce and Reuse” restrained traditional conspicuous consumption and made consumers think more about their actual needs rather than unrealistic potential needs. Add in energy crises and faltering economies, and living within one’s means becomes admired rather than simply prudent.
  2. See the list of Apple Best of Decade plaudits compiled by Philip Elmer-DeWitt
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