By Jason Snell
March 31, 2020 8:55 AM PT
Where’s the party?
I was listening to last week’s episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast this morning and was struck by Marco Arment’s description of how it feels to be a Mac user when Apple rolls out major updates to the iPad, as happened this week. Marco said it was like being next door to a fun party, but you’re by yourself and nothing’s happening.
Now, it’s not true that nothing is happening on the Mac. In fact, the last few years have shown that Apple has re-committed itself to the Mac after a few years where it seems to have taken its eye off the ball. Just this week, the MacBook Air got an update that makes it unequivocally the best Mac for most people.
But I get what Marco’s talking about. The truth is, the iPad is still a platform that’s under construction. Nineteen years ago this week, Mac OS X 10.0 was released. The first decade of OS X was a busy time, as Apple tweaked the interface, added back missing features from the classic Mac OS, and pushed forward in a bunch of new directions. But over time, the changes got smaller—and late in the decade, the iPhone appeared and changed Apple’s priorities dramatically.
Now consider the last five years of the iPad. Apple has introduced the iPad Pro, upgraded it several times, added a keyboard and the Apple Pencil, brought those accessories to most of the other iPads in the product line, and most recently has added full cursor support and introduced a new keyboard/trackpad accessory for the iPad Pro. iPadOS has added a filesystem, support for external USB storage devices, and continues to tinker with multitasking.
Apple’s still in the progress of figuring out the iPad. These are heady, exciting times. The party is most definitely on the iPad now. But as any iPad user will tell you—and as any user of the Mac in the early days of OS X may remember—living in the party times also means living through a really bumpy ride. Things don’t work right, sometimes for years. You end up jury-rigging workarounds in order to do what you want. Living on the frontier is not for everyone.
Meanwhile, the appeal of the Mac is that it’s settled and familiar. While Apple is trying to push the Mac ahead in many areas, what it’s not doing is what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows, namely retrofit an old operating system and old apps into a new world that works as well on a touch tablet as when connected to a keyboard and mouse. Apple’s solving that problem from the opposite direction—using the iPad. The Mac, meanwhile, gets to remain the Mac.
I know it can seem scary to consider the Mac as a “legacy computing platform,” for lack of a better phrase, but I don’t think it needs to be that frightening. I don’t think the Mac is going anywhere anytime soon—it’ll be many years, if ever, until iPadOS can do everything the Mac is capable of. But more importantly, the Mac has value because it’s dependable, because if you learned it at any point in the last 30 years, you basically know how it works.
In an era where the meaning of computer is constantly shifting, the Mac is a fixed definition. The Mac is a personal computer. If Apple tried to change it too radically, it would ruin the aspect of the Mac that’s now the most important.
The Mac abides.