The big news at this year's MacWorld Expo wasn't the long-awaited iPhone, though that product announcement has generated the most buzz, and has cost shareholders at RIM, makers of Blackberry handheld devices, a good deal of money already. Yes the iPhone is a spectacular gadget, and sure to do a good turn for Cingular starting this summer (Apple and Cingular have struck an exclusive deal to pair Cingular's voice/data service with the iPhone). But the big news, the signal that a sea change occurred yesterday of which the iPhone is only a part, was the sort of thing that only an Apple fanboy/girl would pick up on immediately.
Apple Computer is no more. Say hello to Apple, Inc. - a cosmetic change, it would seem, a function of different manufacturing and marketing priorities perhaps. Companies change their names all the time, to fool Wall Street into thinking management is moving boldly, or to resuscitate a brand name grown stale. Apple shook long-time Mac lovers last year by naming its new laptops 'MacBooks', putting an end to the venerable PowerBook product line, and the iWhatever prefix was another recent savvy brand-name maneuver from Jobs and Co. Names change, it's no big deal.
So what does this one mean?
It means the era of the personal computer is coming to an end.
A phone is a dumb computer
The iPhone is probably the most misleadingly-named Apple product ever (unless, duped by the 'Macintosh' brand name, you once tried to bake a pie using four pounds of Apple computers - in which case please, please seek help). Its main draw would seem, on the surface, to be its telephony features - it's a full-featured GSM cell phone with integrated camera and a gorgeous button-free interface, and though you probably wouldn't pay $500 for that, it ain't bad. It's also basically a click-wheel-free iPod; if the iPhone were just an iPod phone, as many pundits predicted (and not a few consumers clamored for), it'd be a great product, but nothing fundamentally new. Maybe such an item would make a splash as a consumer product, but such things already exist - I got a crappy little Napster-music/camera/phone device from Samsung for $50 with my Cingular contract the other day.
But the iPhone is something else entirely, something that consumers haven't exactly been asking for, the first tangible articulation of the philosophy behind Apple's name change.
The iPhone is an OSX handheld computer with telephone and iPod functionality built in. (If you're an Apple buff: the iPhone is the Newton done right.)
Think about that for a second. Mac OSX - now in its fifth major version, with a sixth version, Leopard, due for release later this year - is the most elegant, and in terms of one-click access to programming tools and extensions the most powerful, consumer operating system ever made. OSX rests on a rock-solid UNIX core (BSD, ancient and bulletproof), meaning it's configurable and easily scriptable by power users, but it makes use of the loveliest and most expandable Apple user interface thus far, which brings in the styleheads and welcomes new users; it's virus-free (one up, or one hundred up, on Windows) and supplemented by an array of ingenious free and cheap third-party applications from programmers who actually care about average end-user experience (one up on Linux for home users, that OS's indispensability to sysadmins and other assorted tech types notwithstanding). In short: it's better and more secure than Windows and easier than Linux in every way, and until now there's been no hint that it would get onto a handheld.
But Apple's engineers are promising a version of OSX that fits in your hand, tailored to the buttonless interface of the iPhone, which will integrate existing Internet messaging and organization/information apps (iCal, email, Safari, etc.) with top-of-the-line phone functionality (visual voicemail! And it's about time, frankly). There was no talk from Jobs about developer tools, but you can rest assured that third-party development for the iPhone will start up in short order, likely using toolkits simplifications or subsets of existing developer resources. That is the killer app for the iPhone - its secret identity as an extensible Mac computer. And that's why Apple dropped the word 'computer' from its name - because a few years from now you'll take 'computing' power for granted in your electronics. Or your kids will.
A computer is not a place
In AOL's instant messaging program there's an 'away' mode - meaning you're not 'in' the program at that moment, either doing something else with your machine or physically away from the computer. SMS messaging blurs that line - messages aren't precisely synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous (received when they're checked), and the etiquette surrounding texting can seem archaic to those accustomed to older politeness-metrics. Before the rise of ubiquitous cable/DSL modems you were either 'online' ('Mom you can't make a phone call, I'm on the Internet!') or off; now we think of an Internet connection as an aspect of the machine, as a resource the PC needs to do its work. The notion of being 'on the computer' is shifting out of the vocabularies of tech-savvy Americans; if you're doing work or playing games or watching TV, you're quite likely in front of one screen or another, so the language of computer tasks has gotten more specific, and the centrality of the screen itself is becoming downplayed.
The upshot of this linguistic shift, and the attendant conceptual shifts, is that we're moving away from thinking of the computer as a place; more and more it's simply a tool. You're editing a video - oh, desktop or laptop? You're listening to your mp3 collection - while jogging? You're updating your blog from your cell phone, or you're ordering from Amazon while riding the subway, and so forth. And somewhere in all those activities a computer is involved, a programmable box for manipulating data, but it's almost invisible; the iPod is more like a CD player than a PC in most people's minds, even though technologically that outlook is daft.
But this shift isn't complete. Meaning there's still a chance to change the world a little. Well, that's where Steve Jobs lives.
A computer is a component
Dropping 'Computer' from Apple's name is Jobs's way of ratifying this shift in consciousness, and stating unequivocally what products like iLife and the AppleTV and the iPod and the (unheralded but dazzling) plug-and-play Airport Express router have been hinting at for years: the computer as all-inclusive monolithic artifact is going away, and computer companies need to realize they're increasingly component manufacturers. The iPod instrumentalizes its operating system and internal version of iTunes, subsumes them in a broader design that seems to connect each button-push to a piece of music stored somewhere in the box. You press 'play' and you probably don't think of a hard drive spinning up, you think of a jukebox, or a Walkman. The iPod is a tiny computer but to the typical consumer it's just a music box. Yet the PC is inescapably itself: the big beige box on or under the desk, with a monitor attached. It is an end in itself - a destination. You still sit 'at the computer' and do tasks, and when it crashes, chances are you lose access to some information (because chances are you didn't back up your data recently, or sync it, or keep a redundant external hard drive, or…). The data is 'in there' somehow.
But between the AppleTV and the iPhone, we can see the outlines of a coherent vision for what comes after the personal computer, which isn't a new vision but which is a long leap closer to reality because of Steve Jobs and company: extensible modular devices, omnipresent networking, home data storage distributed invisibly among multiple machines. The box attached to your TV with the Apple logo; the phone in your hand; the Luxo Lamp-looking PC on your desk where you do your homework and make posters for parties; the device that senses when you wake up and plays music from your docked iPod; the control box for the lighting in your garage, with a broadband connection and a Web frontend - all these things are computers, one like the other, in different form factors and with different levels of complexity and extensibility. That's not new. What's new is that it's here and it's being aimed at Joe Consumer.
Is the iPhone too expensive? Sure it is, if you're on the market for a cell phone. And it's a little pricey if you want a box for listening to music. But imagine browsing the Web on a half-pound Macintosh computer while sitting in the park, and getting full-service phone features, plus a touchscreen iPod thrown in for free. The tasks are the main thing, are the value - the box is just a tool for accomplishing them. Steve Jobs doesn't want to sell you an expensive phone; he's selling a new way of thinking about computers that turns 'telephone' into a feature of your handheld instead of the other way around. It looks like a super-iPod and sounds like a super-phone, but the iPhone is really a Mac Nano.
And that raises a few more questions, exciting ones: how do you talk about Apple's 'PC market share' when your phone is a stripped-down PC? If Apple sells 10 million iPhones by 2008 (Jobs's goal, 1% cell phone market share), won't it really have sold 10 million handheld Apple computers? If you're calling your schoolmates in OSX, does that make you a Mac user?
Are you seeing the picture here? A computer is a component. Apple isn't in the component business. You buy a 'smartphone' - but you're basically being sold a Mac.
The end of the PC era (don't worry - it's not here yet)
Apple is never going to own 50% of the PC market share, or even 20%; if PC-shopping were a meritocracy the Macintosh and OSX would have the market sewn up (consider Microsoft's catastrophic development and release of the Vista operating system), but that's not the way the world works - ask the automakers, or the President, or whoever's responsible for the asinine college football ranking system. The change from 'Apple Computer, Inc.' to 'Apple, Inc.' (paging the Beatles!) doesn't mean Apple's turning into a gadget company, cranking out iPods and cell phones and forgetting the rabid userbase that relies on OSX, the Porsche of operating systems. It means Apple is betting the farm that, as time passes, there won't be any difference between a high-end gadget company and a computer company. The key traits of their products would be the same: extensibility, interoperability, transparent multimodal communications (if your instant messaging client handles AIM and Jabber and Google Talk and VoIP calls and Skype messages the same way, you're already there - now put those functions in a device the size of your wallet), ubiquitous network connectivity, and so forth. If you want a full-size keyboard, you buy one machine; wanna make phone calls from the same box that handles your email, buy another.
Look, this essay isn't particularly new in its limited prognostications; the fact is, this kind of rhetoric has been employed for literally decades. But with the announcement of the iPhone, we're now looking at hard business facts: Apple has just declared its intention to open up a new consumer market for low-end handheld computers. The iPod penetrated consumer consciousness to a staggering extent; now even the mp3 players that predated Apple's device are 'iPod competitors,' and the 'iPod killer' narrative was attached to Microsoft's Zune long before consumers had a chance to realize how unimpressive it is. (They've realized.) Now that awareness will go to work for Apple's computers in a new way: Apple can convince you to buy its new Junior Mac on the basis of its telephone functionality and iPod subsystem. The iPhone is the most impressive physical embodiment yet of Henry Jenkins's vision of 'convergence culture,' and it's not a proof of concept, it's a corporate product, set to release in June. The Bluetooth headset might not be street-ready yet (word is Jobs was showing a dummy at the keynote), and the iPhone team might spend the next six months making all kinds of changes to that adorable little gadget, but we've just seen a handheld computer, aimed at consumers, with a beautiful and elegant interface, a solid and familiar operating system, iPod's lauded music playback/storage/sync capabilities, and a major national phone service provider backing its telephony features.
The message is simple and clear: iPhone does some of what a personal computer does, and its successor machines will do even more, but it's not a PC. It's something else, not unprecedented but a good distance past anything that might be compared to it in form and function. From the perspective of the consumers who bought millions and millions of Apple's iPods, the iPhone is a box that checks email, browses the Web, plays music, and squawks like a cell phone. To call it a 'computer' is, increasingly, to make a category mistake. The thing that sits on your desk is a 'computer' because we don't have a better word for it. Call it a PC. It'll long have a place in your home, doing tasks too computation-intensive for your phone, too variable for your TV, too textual for your stereo, too non-food-related for your 21st century automated microwave oven. But as a class of object - the artifact we call a computer - its days are numbered. What's now your PC will someday soon be part of a suite of networked devices in your home; it'll be powerful, moreso than today's PC's, but it'll be different, and some of its features will be gone entirely, except among retro-minded users. (Start with the traditional QWERTY keyboard, a weird technological artifact of the typewriter era.) And its functions will be dispersed among a half-dozen or more devices around the house and office and subway station and public plaza. The PC is just one tool for interacting with certain kinds of data - some of which are better suited to other hardware interfaces entirely. Apple isn't the first company to recognize this, but it's putting out the message to its corporate kin and the enormous undifferentiated mass of American consumers in a big way.
In other words, as a friend pointed out this morning, the iPhone doesn't just fire a shot across the bow of RIM and other smartphone makers, along with Microsoft and Dell and HP and other companies involved in making handheld computers. The iPhone takes aim at another big company in another (related) field: Sony. Apple has already gone one up on the Walkman and devices like it; now it wants Sony's name, its reputation for consumer-electronics leadership, its position as semi-official symbol of an entire class of product, and semi-official ambassador to an entire class of shopper. Can't capture the market share? No problem. Make a new market.
Think different - for real this time
For decades other companies have happily copied Apple's innovations; that's not news. In a few months or years someone will come out with a device that inelegantly copies much of the phone/music functionality of the iPhone for half the price; that's not news. The iPhone is only a product. Apple's shift from self-identification as a computer company to the public acknowledgement that it is and indeed has been something else, on the other hand, is a much bigger deal. It's the corporate face of a shift in consciousness about electronics. (Did you know the CEO of Nokia doesn't allow his employees to refer to Nokia as a phone company? That's writing a conceptual check their products can't cash, of course, but his head is in the right place. He was laughed at for this habit when it reached the press; he can laugh today - while his engineers pull out their hair trying to catch up to the iPhone.)
Am I sorry to see the name change? In a way I am. My first computer was an Apple IIgs, back in the mid-80's, and I'll always associate the company with its early central role in the personal computing revolution (the outcome of which - Microsoft hegemony in office suites and operating systems - neatly tops the list of anti-meritocratic evidence above). I fervently hope that Apple sticks with OSX development and continues to support Mac users for a long time to come. But ultimately this nostalgia has little to do with any product, with an assemblage of parts. It's about the passage of a way of thinking.
When the improvisatory rock band Phish broke up in 2004, guitarist Trey Anastasio pointed out in interviews that fans who demanded at every concert that the band try something new, that the musicians follow their musical or organizational impulses no matter how seemingly counterintuitive (trusting that the audience would be right there with them), were being somewhat hypocritical or myopic in criticizing the group's decision to call it quits. After all, he reasoned, the seeds of the decision were to be found in the band's radically democratic organization and empathetic practice/performance ethic. The (friendly, mutual) breakup was, in other words, the natural endpoint of the free-spirited ideology that had drawn fans in the first place.
Apple's famous marketing catchphrase, 'Think Different,' isn't just a slogan; it's a key to understanding the way it sees itself in relation to other companies and customers. Macintosh: different from the PC. OSX: different from the old MacOS, and from Windows. iPod: different from any other mp3 player (at first). iPod Shuffle: different from the way you listened to music before. iTunes Store: different from the way you buy music. And now Apple, Inc.: different from other computer companies. It's time to take Steve Jobs at his word. That means recognizing what a big deal this year's MacWorld keynote really was: not just because Apple announced one 'insanely great' product, but because - in a small way, maybe, but decisively - on January 9, 2007, the world of consumer electronics, which is say the world in which we live a little more every day, changed.
Starting with a name, not a phone.