The future of the Mac: What will the next 30 years bring us?

Does the Mac have staying power to last another 30 years or are its best years behind it?

With the Mac's 30th anniversary now receding into our rear view mirrors, I've begun to wonder about the future of the Macintosh. Will we be celebrating Mac's 60th anniversary in 2044? Or will the Mac just be a footnote in the annals of technology history? And what do you think the future of the Mac might look like?

At the time the Mac debuted in 1984, the personal computer industry was at a crossroads. Apple had struck gold with the Apple II, becoming the most popular computer of its era. But already when the Mac hit the market, the Apple II's glory days were gone. Apple had fierce competition in the form of IBM's own PC.

Thirty years on, the landscape of the computer market looks very different. Macs have taken a larger chunk of the PC market than they have in years, but they're still the minority. Having said that, personal computer sales in general continue to dive as more and more consumers and businesses alike find more uses for iPads and other tablet devices.

The Post PC era

Steve Jobs famously predicted the "Post PC era" after the advent of the iPad. "PCs are going to be like trucks," he said. They'll still be around, Jobs opined, but not everyone will need one.

It's a great analogy. I don't own a truck but I'm very content to borrow my parents' Toyota Tacoma when it's time to do spring cleaning or buy new furniture.

And the downward trend in PC (and more recently, Mac) sales suggest that Jobs was on the right track. Is this a long term trend, though, or a simple fad, like the netbook craze of a few years ago?

I think it's safe to call it a trend at this point. Many people prefer to have tablets for their computing needs rather than a full-fledged laptop or desktop computer. Apple and other tablet makers have improved processing power and capabilities to expand the usability of these devices, too.

But that doesn't mean the Mac - or the PC - is headed for the dustbin. I suspect they'll level out eventually, since businesses and consumers alike still need computers to do what they do.

Continuing Jobs' truck analogy, what's the best-selling vehicle in America for the last three decades? The Ford F-150, a pickup truck.

PCs fall but Macs ascend

Mac sales may be falling along with PC sales, but the actual percentage of Mac sales against PC sales has steadily increased over the years - in fact, Mac sales have outpaced the PC market for most of the last seven years, which has resulted in the Mac slowly but inexorably increasing its market share against Windows. Admittedly, it's still the minority, and will be for a long time, but things have improved.

Bottom line is that people continue to buy Macs, and lots of them. Macs still have a strong seat at the table when it comes to the traditional content creation markets where they've always done well - graphic design, publishing, video editing, music. Many small business have turned to Macs to help defer IT costs in the belief that Macs are more reliable or less reliant on staff-based tech support than PCs.

One of the biggest market segments for Apple is in the home, however, as people have turned to Macs after years of dealing with PC malware, mediocre updates from Microsoft and just general disappointment with their purchases. About half of the people walking in to buy Macs at the Apple Store are new customers, according to Apple - people who either owned a PC before or haven't owned any kind of computer before.

Equilibrium with mobile devices

Accepting for a moment that tablets and other mobile devices are here to stay for many people's general computing needs, I wonder what the landscape of the Macintosh is bound to look like. Is the Mac relegated to "truck"s status as Jobs opined?

I don't think so, and here's why. Tablets are great for a lot of things, but they don't replace computers. For any kind of long-form data entry, whether you're working on a spreadsheet or database or writing a report for work or school, you really need a good keyboard and text entry system.

Some people can fake it with a keyboard case for the iPad, and that's fine. But it's an edge case. Typing in text or numbers using a Bluetooth keyboard on a tablet is an awkward experience, because before too long, you have to reach for the screen anyway, to activate on-screen controls or to do editing. And that means marking up the glass you're looking through with fingerprints and breaking the plane you've set your hands in, changing them from a horizontal to vertical orientation.

Or trying switching between different applications on a mobile device like an iPad. It's an awkward experience. If you're writing a paper that requires you to research information online, you'll go mad switching between Safari and your word processor or text editor, especially if you're citing references and using copy and paste. It's ugly.

Not only that, but computers still dramatically outperform tablets, which are optimized for battery life more than they are for performance. The gap has narrowed since the first iPad hit the streets in 2010, but computers still have the edge.

Looking down the road

Apple senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi said that Apple was making the change from the "big cat" nomenclature of OS X to something that would last Apple the next ten years - place names (Mavericks is named after a surfing spot in Northern California not too far away from Apple's headquarters).

Federighi's "next ten years" comment was probably just a lyrical conceit, but it's comforting to think that somewhere in Cupertino, he has a 10 year plan for OS X. I'd love to see what it looks like. I don't pretend to have any insider knowledge here, but I'd love to imagine it.

I admit that I was a bit concerned when it seemed like OS X and iOS were moving together. I've even read alarmist analyst comments about a forthcoming "iAnyhwere" OS that will blur the line between Mac and iOS device entirely.

I think that's nonsense and bunk. iOS and OS X will coexist for some time to come, and the line will blur where it makes sense - in a Maps app for Mavericks that enables you to easy transfer directions to your iPhone, for example, or in seamless exchange of data through iCloud for calendar, contacts and even iWork documents.

OS X will remain its own, distinct entity because inherent to Apple's design philosophy is that form follows function, and OS X is designed to answer a very different set of consumer and business needs than iOS.

The future of the Mac itself

The Mac is still undergoing a transition from old technology to new technology. The iMac, Mac mini and standard MacBook Pro all employ conventional hard disk drives, for example, while the rest of the Mac line has moved along to solid state.

But solid state drives (SSDs) don't have the same sort of density or cost per megabyte that hard drives do, which has left Apple in the position of having to rely more on cloud-based document sharing to help fill in the blanks. I can't even buy an iPod touch with the same storage capacity as my three-year-old iPod classic, for example.

But the writing is on the wall - Apple's moving away from conventional hard drive storage and has almost completely worked itself away from optical drives (the standard MacBook Pro - still available but unchanged since 2012) is the last model with an internal SuperDrive). That will continue as higher density flash storage becomes available and as consumers find alternatives to hard drives and CDs/DVDs.

I'm no expert on display technology, but I've been reading up on organic light emitting transistor (OLET) and seems really promising. Maybe we'll see something like that emerge for laptops and iMacs in the not too distant future. And it seems like we're inevitably headed towards 4K and "Retina Display"-class resolution, too.

I don't think we're going to see any short-term revolutionary changes to the Mac platform. After 30 years, Apple's taking an incremental approach, promising developers yearly updates to the operating system to help the Mac keep pace with both consumer expectations and developer needs.

Ultimately the Mac will have to change with the times, just as Apple has made it do a number of times in its life - from System 6 to 7, later to OS X, from PowerPC to Intel architectures.

One thing I know for sure - in 30 years' time, I'm willing to bet that the Mac will be recognizable to anyone who's using it today, just as the first Macs are to modern Mac users. And I'm sure we'll view much of the Mavericks interface with the same sort of quaint nostalgia and anthropological detachment we do today when we look at how the first Mac Finder and apps looked back in 1984, marveling at how Apple, developers and users were able to do so much with such limited resources.

What are your hopes and dreams for the Mac in the next 30 years? Share your thoughts in the comments - I'd love to know.

Peter Cohen