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Convergence Is Inevitable (An Open Letter To Apple)

The cnet interview that was published following Apple's Mac event yesterday quotes Jony Ive as saying Apple decided against touchscreens for the Mac “many, many” years ago. I hope this is just Jobsian rhetoric and not a sign of true stubornness. It completely misses the big picture: In 2016 I do not want to charge, carry, and maintain two devices just because there are two important interaction models, each of which is better suited to some tasks and circumstnaces than the other.

In many respects this is reminiscent of how it felt in 2005 and 2006 to carry a cell phone and an iPod everywhere you go. Of course there are important differences. Neither the iPod nor any existing cell phone was a platform supporting a massive ecosystem of software. Nevertheless, the big picture is nearly identical: a powerful sense that a single device should be able to do all of the jobs that currently require more than one device.

This doesn't mean that such a device should necessarily support both interaction models all of the time. Solving the design challenge of creating a device that adapts itself to our needs at the moment in an elegant fashion through seemlessly integrated hardware and software is exactly what Apple has always excelled at. This design challenge is not insurmountable.

Insiting that we purchase, charge, maintain, and carry two similarly sized devices because we want different interaction models for different tasks and circumstances is not a good solution to this design problem. At best, it is an intermediate solution while a truly elegant solution to the underlying problem is developed.

I sincerely hope Apple is hard at work designing a solution to this problem as compelling as the iPhone was in 2007 and the technology just isn't ready yet. Jony Ive does go on to say that Touch Bar is just the beginning of an interesting new direction without elaborating on where that road leads. If they are working on something, there are plenty of reasons why it might not be ready:

  • A-series chips don't have quite enough performance to replace a MacBook Pro yet.
  • Haptic technology isn't good enough to even consider replacing the mechanical keyboard with a multitouch surface yet.
  • Battery life would not be good enough when powering two large displays yet.
  • A magnetic docking hinge connecting the primary display to a haptic mulitouch control surface / keyboard that also allows them to be disconnected with one screen functioning as a tablet still seems pretty magical (especially the data connection that would be necessary between them when connected).
  • Converging the software interaction models elegantly is an enormous design and enginering task that takes time to get right. It requires an entirely new degree of software adaptivity - not just screen formats, but also interaction modes - and perhaps a new kind of Universal app as well. It may even require a new UI framework to replace or supercede AppKit.

Apple's failure to announce a solution to this problem right now is not terribly concerning on its own. But presenting the new MacBook Pro and Touch Bar as a truly revolutionary announcment, cast in a historical light, coming at the end of an extremley long dry spell falls flat. Touch Bar looks really nice and these are the certainly best MacBook Pros ever. It may even be the first step on the path to an eventual solution. But this announcement does not live up to the rhetoric or to 4 years of R&D from a company that can afford to spend whatever is required to design the best product possible.

It leaves many thinking "That's it? Really? After 4 years?". We begin to get the sense that Apple might actually believe their rhetoric and truly believe convergence is not desirable.

(In their defense, it's easy to see why Apple views this as revolutionary, after all, how often have Macs received a new input device? But the marketing message must be suited to the moment and in that respect it misses the boat.)

Steve would probably be able to get away with this kind of rhetoric. Nobody really believed Steve when he used rhetoric like this becuase he had a long track record of saying things that were true "for now" while simultaneously working to solve the problems that prevented an elegant solution. He also had a famously flexible mind, never rigidly adhering to decisions made "many, many years ago" and constantly reevaluating ideas in light of technological advances. Apple's current leadership does not have a track record of doing this without Steve at the helm and therefore receive much less benefit of the doubt than Steve would.

Is it just rhetoric or are they truly wedded to decisions made “many, many” years ago? It's really hard to tell right now. One begins to wonder if Apple's hardware-driven business model is creating a mindset that makes it hard to see the merit in a single future product that replaces two current products. I don't actualy think this is the case but it is certainly possible - most companies eventually develop blind spots around change that has potential to threaten top-line revenue or gross margins.

There is more. Apple doesn't exist in isolation. Right now it appears like Apple is also missing the big picture in terms of innovative solutions for digital creativity. Surface Studio has the potential to be a true game changer for creatives (at least for those who can stomach using Windows) while Tocuh Bar is in the context of the present moment a modest incremental innovation. The "drafting table" metaphor has been an obvious direction for a long time and the technology now exists to make it real and relatively affordable. What digital artist doesn't dream of a large canvas to directly interact and create with? Maybe Apple has something truly innovative in the pipeline that just isn't ready yet, but maybe not, and if they do nobody outside of Apple knows.

Everywhere I turn creative people are excited about Microsoft's announcements and mostly disappointed about Apple's. This is not good news for Apple. It remains to be seen whether this is a brief anomaly or marks the beginning of a trend. Either way, it is a significant warning sign for Apple's future.

The foundation of Apple's brand is making tools for the creative markets. They made the first Mac a success. They kept the company alive in the late 90's. They infused popular culture with their love of Apple, making Apple the first technology choice for most consumers. Steve understood this very deeply. It is not obvious that Apple's current leadership understands it in the same way.

The creative market is a niche business but one with enormous importance to Apple's brand. If Apple is unwilling to invest in powerful, pro-level tools and be willing to reconsider whether maybe creative people actually do want to use direct manipulation (aka multitouch - here again, convergence is inevitable) on a very large display they will eventually lose the creative market. I can't think of many things that would cause more damage to Apple's brand over the long term than this. Creative people have a significant influence over the technology choices consumers make.

The sense that Apple doesn't have a clear vision for the future of digital creativity and productivity is beginning to spread. For whose work and passion rely on the tools Apple makes, it feels a lot like a lover whose eyes have wandered elsewhere while they continue to profess loyalty to your face. It is important to address this one way or another before it gains too much traction.

The best way to do that is obviously to introduce a new product that makes a compelling vision clear. Were it not for the tone of yesterday's event I might hope to see something interesting in the spring. Given the tone of the event I think we're at least a couple years away from seeing anything that might be in the labs.

Hoping this vision exists and Apple lets the public see it before the frustration in the creative community gets too intense and an exodus begins is becoming more than a little bit uncomfortable. Our patience with Apple is not unlimited. Sooner or later silence will be accepted as lack of something worth saying. For some, that time has already arrived. I hope Apple's "best pipeline ever" includes something truly remarkable and it is ready before I reach that point.

Until then, this is a sad moment for those of us who love Apple. I have never missed Steve as much as I do right now. He would know what to do.