This issue marks the 800th weekly installment of TidBITS. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s almost unbelievable that we’re still publishing TidBITS after all these years, with so few changes to our basic approach. Perhaps that’s what happens when you mix a good idea with energy and a deep streak of stubbornness, not to mention support from many thousands of readers over the last 15 years. But the world has changed over these last 800 issues, and to commemorate this milestone, I want to look at three trends that will undoubtedly affect what we write over our next 100 issues.
The genesis for this article came while at Macworld Boston in July. I was struck by how small the show had become of the last few years, all while Apple sold three to four million Macs each year, along with 21 million iPods. Apple has more customers than ever before, but doesn’t seem to be able to share with the rest of us – no Macintosh developer, publication, conference, or user group that I know is growing in step with Apple, much as I’m sure we’d all like to. Why is this?
The Mac is an Appliance — Steve Jobs always envisioned the Mac as an appliance, but he was 25 years ahead of his time. Now, the Mac has more in common with your coffee maker than ever before. But the ultimate appliance is the iPod – you can plug things into the iPod, and you can wrap things around it (including many cars), but from a software standpoint, it’s essentially a closed system (yes, you can install Linux, but you won’t hear Apple say that). This "appliancification of the Mac," to coin a phrase, is the end-goal of usability and undoubtedly a good thing, since it means that nearly anyone – even a PC user – can use a Mac for basic tasks without special training, much as anyone who can drive a Honda can drive a Toyota or a Ford.
But turning what was once a complex system into a friendly box that hides almost all of its complexity under the hood has consequences for an industry that grew up around simplifying external complexities. Technical book and magazine publishers explained complicated topics for readers who lacked a basic grounding in using computers, but who understood that there was a better way. But as Macs have become easier to use, authors have struggled to find topics that meet the needs of those who like to learn by reading. How many people would buy Dishwashers for Dummies or subscribe to LaundryWorld? Clearly, publishers must focus on the non-obvious topics that interest who still want to do more, work faster, and think different.
The appliancification of the Mac affects software developers in a big way. Even though the Mac remains a general-purpose computer, new Mac users – particularly those buying the least expensive Macs – aren’t likely to think of buying additional products, just as few people buy enhancements for their washing machines or vacuum cleaners. Heck, I’ll bet at least some people at Apple would prefer a Mac that was entirely closed, like the iPod. Closing the Mac would increase ease-of-use and improve the user experience by reducing confusion from the mere existence of that pesky independent software, not to mention bugs or usage peculiarities caused by using software not from Apple. It’s not unthinkable that a new product line could provide what looked like a Mac but ran software only from Apple. In the meantime, strategies for developers struggling with appliancification include setting up partnerships that help them increase exposure to new groups of Mac users and thinking of ways to enhance the communications and entertainment capabilities of the Mac in ways that don’t make users learn anything new. Focusing on business software is also a good direction, since business users are more likely to want software that works in a particular fashion, rather than as a general solution.
User groups are feeling the effects of appliancification as well. After all, who attends a dishwasher user group? Most user groups are seeing memberships drop for this reason (the appliancification of the Mac, not too much dishwasher-related content), and they’re struggling with how to meet the needs of long-time members while evolving to become relevant to new Mac users. Honestly, I think it’s going to be a tough row to hoe, since it’s difficult to focus the efforts of a group on a topic, like the Mac, that most people take for granted these days. Perhaps user groups should try broadening out with Mac-related child care, Mac-enabled speed dating, or Mac-related exercise classes (just try bench-pressing a Power Mac G5!).
One last thought about Macs as appliances. The useful life span of a Mac has always been fairly long, but as Macs become more like appliances and as we’ve seen computers provide more CPU power than most people need, the average life span will likely increase. That’s bad for Apple, since people aren’t likely to buy Macs as often, and it’s bad for everyone else in the industry, since that point of purchase is probably the main chance to sell the customer additional software or hardware. It occurs to me that we may also see Apple starting to apply the iPod approach to Macs in the future, changing form factors and industrial design – imagine harvest gold and avocado colors to match your kitchen – to encourage new sales without changing the basic functionality in key ways.
Think Inside the Box — Over the years, Apple has significantly increased the out-of-the-box capabilities of the Macintosh with core Mac OS X programs like Safari, Mail, iChat, Spotlight, Dashboard, Address Book, iCal, Terminal, and more. By bundling the iLife suite – iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, iDVD, and GarageBand – with every new Mac, Apple has provided enough tools to keep even the most hyperactive Mac user busy forever. It makes sense, since Apple must compete with the ever-increasing capabilities of Microsoft Windows and with the software bundles that come with many PCs. Plus, it’s a consumer-friendly move; people prefer to buy an Apple-approved bundle of software all at once, rather than having to choose among a bewildering variety of options later. And it’s worth noting that Apple is doing a pretty good job with their bundled software – it’s seldom the most powerful or flexible, but it sets the standard. As Rich Siegel of Bare Bones Software commented when making TextWrangler free and thus setting the bar for text editors, "You must be this tall to play."
The dominance of the Macintosh box as the source of Mac software primarily affects third-party Macintosh developers, who have been squeezed into ever-smaller niches (not to mention apartments). Although the very large companies producing Mac software are still around – witness Adobe, Microsoft, and Quark – there has been a significant drop in the number and Mac-specificity of mid-sized developers. Many of the names from the past: Connectix, Casady & Greene, and CE Software, to name a few, have been purchased, gone under, or refactored (Startly Technologies came from a group of CE Software employees acquiring CE’s assets and taking the company private). At the same time, we’ve seen a profusion of new, smaller Macintosh development houses with amusing names like Circus Ponies Software, Rogue Amoeba Software, BeLight Software, the Omni Group, and untold others.
Practically speaking, I think it’s important for Mac developers to retain a healthy awareness of their place in the Mac world. All exist at the whim of Apple, and if your product becomes too popular, Apple very well may appropriate the idea, as has happened with technologies like Web browsing and email, not to mention products like Konfabulator and Watson. Attracting customers from new Macintosh buyers will become increasingly difficult for Mac developers, since most lack the curiosity or desire to do more than Apple provides, and they’re less likely to read Macintosh-related publications that might alert them to new possibilities. The new product areas that are likely to do well are those that work within the communications and entertainment spheres, but which avoid competing with Apple’s programs, significantly enhance Apple’s programs, or provide a professional feature set that meets the needs of those for whom Apple’s programs fall short.
Assume the Internet — It often feels pointless to state the obvious, but in this case, it’s worthwhile. The Internet has changed everything, making it possible for individuals to become publishers or software developers, and for groups of like-minded people to spring up without ever meeting in person. That’s all good, unless your organization still relies on a pre-Internet business model that’s going the way of disco music and 80s hairstyles. But it also means that we’ll see more small developers and publishers who exploit the way the Internet can make the very small look bigger and work together synergistically to provide solutions that would previously have been the purview of much larger organizations. Our entire Take Control model revolves around this philosophy – we work with independent authors and editors to create books and with eSellerate to sell them. If we didn’t have the Internet skills we do, we could probably outsource our Web site entirely as well.
On the downside for everyone who sells Mac-related products, the fact that most Mac users are paying $20 to $50 per month for Internet access eliminates $240 to $600 per year that might previously have been spent on Macintosh software, books, and peripherals, or sent directly to worthy causes like TidBITS. Even people who are interested in finding and using additional products will look more closely at free and less expensive options for this reason, forcing developers to lower prices to remain competitive for the available discretionary spending. Those lower price points in turn make it more difficult for companies to grow beyond a certain size.
The other compelling fact about the Internet is that it’s where the tinkerers now hang out. A programmer with a good idea is more likely to create a Web-based application or service that can be available to everyone (and then be acquired by Google or Yahoo), rather than make something accessible only to Mac users. And the involved users, the ones who used to play with ResEdit and hack startup screens, are now reading weblogs to learn about the latest site that hacks Google Maps or Flickr, listening to podcasts, or evangelizing Web standards and copyright reform. These people may use Macs, and they may squawk when Macs aren’t supported, but the Mac itself has merely become a conduit to what’s new and interesting, rather than being itself the focus.
The aspects of the Mac community most harmed by the Internet are, of course, user groups and conferences. They were so large and so vibrant in the pre-Internet days because they offered essentially what the Internet does now – information and social networking. Particularly for people who are more comfortable with communicating electronically and who may have less free time due to work and family, the concept of driving to a monthly meeting or flying to a conference seems inefficient and foreign. Society today is becoming increasingly fractured and insular as well, a trend I’m certain we’ll regret at some point unless all of us make an effort to interact with others in person on occasion. For many in the past, user groups fit the bill, but maintaining them is real work, and as I noted before, they’ll need to evolve to survive and thrive.
The World Has Changed, News at 11 — Nothing I’ve said here is particularly controversial, I think, and each of the individual facts may be relatively obvious. And yet, I wanted to set it all down here because it can be difficult for those of us who have spent much of our adult lives participating in the Macintosh community to wrap our minds around how completely our world has changed. More practically, since large numbers of TidBITS readers still make their livings in the Macintosh industry, it’s important for us to look at where we’re all headed and make sure both that it’s where we want to go and that we’re prepared when we arrive.