Pity the poor PC: that powerful workhorse under our desks is being neglected while smartphones and tablets get all our attention. It’s not surprising: portable, touchscreen devices are simply more fun to use. And they’re designed for entertainment, communication and sharing – the things we like to do, rather than the boring work stuff.
To compound the misery of the humble computer, smartphones and tablets have become infinitely capable thanks to an explosion of apps. Computers have run applications for years – but they’ve tended to be expensive, complex and, well, just a little bit dull.
So it should come as no surprise that Apple has decided to incorporate a whole range of iPad features into its next version of the Mac operating system, called Lion, which is due in the summer of 2011. The last system upgrade, Snow Leopard, was all about under-the-bonnet improvements that made the system zing: Lion is about redefining the user experience with multi-touch and lickable, app-like full-screen modes. It’s about applying smartphone sizzle to more processor-intensive creative tasks.
It’s interesting to contrast this to Microsoft’s approach of trying to stuff its power-hungry Windows 7 operating system onto a tablet and throw in a few touchscreen features. It doesn’t take a genius to realise why we haven’t seen any iPad-rivalling Windows tablets yet. And it’s unlikely we ever will, unless they use the slick new Windows Phone 7 operating system which, like Apple’s iOS, is actually designed and simplified for touchscreens.
Apple’s decision to avoid touchscreen Macs in favour of trackpads – even for desktops – may seem counter-intuitive, but it makes a lot of sense. It’s not just the smudge factor – using vertical touchscreens for a prolonged period is painful (which is one of the reasons the iPad will never be a great device to work on, even with a Bluetooth keyboard).
But large trackpads allow you to comfortably operate a computer with gestures. They offer more possibilities for natural control than a mouse. Which goes to show that Mac OS X Lion isn’t simply a ruse to capitalise on the iPad/iPhone halo effect. It’s an important step in evolving the archaic system of Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers – or ‘WIMP’ as we used to call it in the 80s. Back then, WIMP was a glorious escape from command-line hell. Nowadays it’s simply the de facto standard for computing – a functional way to organise and edit files. Functional, but dull.
With Lion, Apple aims to move beyond a standard window-and-mouse interface produce a joyful user experience that complements the company’s seductive hardware. This tactic will win little favour with the hardcore geeks who value function over eye-candy: but for the rest of us, it might just rekindle our love for the computer.
[by Tom Dunmore]