What makes a Mac?

For all those complaining about the lack of Mac-related announcements during the keynote, Merlin Mann on the MacBreak Weekly Keynote Rap nails something the Macalope’s been thinking about the iPhone:

Dude, it’s a computer. It’s a Mac in my hand.

Is a Mac anything that runs the Mac OS? It was in the middle part of the 1990s.


UPDATE: Merlin recants and Daring Fireball clarifies – all this and more in the comments! Come on it, the water’s fine!

  • adb:

    Intriguing thought.

    It will be interesting to see if Mac developers are allowed to make applications for the iPhone. Then it really would be a Mac in one’s hand.

    I wonder if there will be just one core iPhone model, or if they will make different models with different capabilities.

  • Something interesting Gruber brought up:

    “[…] the core operating system at the core of Mac OS X, the computer OS used in Macs, and “OS X”, the embedded OS on the iPhone. […] do not be confused: Mac OS X and OS X are not the same thing, although they are most certainly siblings. The days of lazily referring to “Mac OS X” as “OS X” are now over. ”

    To that extent, i would say that it’s NOT “a mac in my hand” really….. it may run OS X, but it certainly is not running Mac OS X. if it were, maybe we’d call it the MacPhone (a la “MacBook”)

    this could get confusing. 😛

  • Carl Jonard:

    Ah, but as John Gruber has so tantalizingly pointed out, “ Mac OS X and OS X are not the same thing.”

  • Carl Jonard:


  • In 20 years of Mac usage I got very lazy about Mac = Operating System = Hardware = Company… It was a careless conflation but definitely a hard habit to get rid of.

    This time out? I think it’s Mr. J. who should have been more careful with his words. Calling this device’s potentially closed OS “OS X” to a room full of Mac fans brings with it certain expectations he’s smart enough to be aware of (and to have avoided, IMHO).

    Since that podcast? Meh. To me it’s a lovely “iPod Phone” for now. Still beautiful, still desirable, but maybe not so much an actual Mac in my hand. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m leaving the speculation business for now. 🙂

  • The Macalope thinks Gruber’s right but you might be selling it somewhat short as a Mac in your hand, Merlin.

    If you were the type of Mac user who only used Apple apps, you might well call it a Mac in your hand.

    OK, fine, the whole thing is a silly argument. But it IS a Friday before a three-day weekend.

  • Norman:

    In one of the MacBreak video podcasts with Leo Laporte and Andy Ihnakto, Andy referred to something called “pocket Darwin” as a known variant (however, when I used Google to search for it, I found next to nothing) on the Darwin underpinnings of OS X specifically designed for embedded systems. It’s also become apparent that the processor inside the iPhone is an ARM CPU, making this the 3rd CPU platform that OS X can be run on.

  • Merlin,

    I also have been using Macs for 20 years. I completely agree that the iPhone is not a Macintosh computer. It will do some of the things we ask a computer to do, but not all. It certainly will not accomodate a writer’s needs, or allow more than a tweak here and there to individual database entries. You could, I suppose, diddle with an imported spreadsheet on it. You wouldn’t build one with it, though. There is no way it will ever be comfortable for reading more than snippets of text.

    Like most things Apple produces, it will do what it does exceptionally well. It is at the mercy of the environment for much of its functionality. Absent a clear signal, it is merely an iPod.

    It is a phone, not a computer. It is one hell of a phone. I will have one soon after their debut. But it is a phone and not a computer nevertheless.

    I can be serious here. It’s not my blog.

  • Heh. I dunno if I _recant_ exactly — I do sincerely think there’s a Mac *in there* someplace. It’s just that any device without user-choosable apps is hard for me to see as a “Mac.” AFAIC, it’s more like an Atari with “Combat” hot-glued into the slot. Or something.

    But like I say, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens; my crystal ball for these things always sucks.

  • Watts:

    My suspicion based on a “clarifying comment” or two from Jobs about the closed system (he said something like “this doesn’t mean we won’t sell applications for it, just that you won’t be able to put anything on it”) is that the iPhone ecosystem is going to be something akin to the T-Mobile Sidekick. The Sidekick gets dinged a lot for being a “closed system” and compared to Palm or Windows Mobile devices, it is: you _can’t_ just put whatever you want on it, you can only download what T-Mobile offers.

    But this begs the question of what it is T-Mobile _does_ offer. 100 games, including a few fairly big names (Pac-Man, Tetris, Arkanoid, Boulder Dash, Mahjongg, etc.), and 29 “productivity tools” including a workable spreadsheet program, task tracking and a surprisingly full-featured SSH client. As a matter of principle I’d like to be able to slap whatever I wanted to on my Sidekick II, sure; in _practice,_ though, most of the things it doesn’t do that I’d like a “breakthrough internet communications device” to do are hardware limitations in its design, not software.

    Really, how “Mac-like” the iPhone turns out to be will be dependent on how many and what kind of applications Apple makes available in the “iPhone Store” (or whatever). It’s not going to be a pocket replacement for my MacBook — I don’t envision slapping TextMate and NetNewsWire on it. But I don’t really envision a mad desire to do so, either.

  • Richard:

    I haven’t known Gruber to be wrong before, but this is maybe the first time.

    Mac, Schmac, it’s the software, stupid. OS X on a Mac, OS X on an iPhone, it’s all the same OS X… but different.

    If the iPhone is closed, it still doesn’t change what runs it, which is OS X.

  • I agree that the iPhone is a computer in your hand. (I’d say it’s actually a tablet: a screen-controlled computer focused on particular uses.)

    I also agree it ain’t a Mac.

  • Jody Chen:

    Ah, but everyone’s been so dazzled by the device itself that no one’s asked the question: WHAT VERSION OF OS X IS IT RUNNING?

    Is it running Leopard? Is this an indication of what Leopard’s interface will be capable of? I find it hard to believe that Apple has not thought of other, much more expansive uses for a multi-touch interface than a display the size of a cellphone’s. The implications are staggering. Mac Tablet anyone? It’s inevitable with multi-touch. Apple has not just “reinvented the phone”, they’ve reinvented the way we interact with computers. As far as I’m concerned, this is the end of the plastic rodent with which we’re all familiar. The mouse is dead, long live the finger.

    If Leopard’s new interface is based on multi-touch, then it would explain why Jobs uttered NOT ONE SYLLABLE about new Macs, new displays, or about Leopard. Multi-touch is the most intuitive computer interface in existence, and it could account for the “secret features” that Jobs mentioned in the WWDC preview. Refer to the Multi-Touch Interaction Research website, (http://cs.nyu.edu/%7Ejhan/ftirtouch/) whose most recent update is a note which says, “Yes, we saw the keynote too! We have some very, very exciting updates coming soon- stay tuned!” Multi-touch is the complete fulfillment of the desktop metaphor.

    Intriguing indeed. Which raises some more questions. Why didn’t Jobs say anything about Leopard? At all?

    I firmly believe that Leopard’s new interface is based on multi-touch, and that Apple is deliberately waiting for Microsoft to launch their expensive media blitz introducing Windows Vista, AND THEN SHOW THEM UP BY FLAUNTING LEOPARD. Why should consumers buy a last century OS, or worse, buy a PC that only runs a last century OS? I think that the consumer version of Vista is going to suffer the same fate as the Zune. Imagine Microsoft’s ad campaign touting the most advanced version of Windows EVAR, then shortly afterward Apple rolling out an OS that just makes it look sick.

    Think about the chill Redmond would experience, but worse, the PC makers tied to Microsoft, especially Dell, which doesn’t the have fall-back position of an HP, which also manufacures peripherals. Apple could deal a knockout blow to other manufacturers with a multi-touch interface. I believe that the iPhone is merely the tip of the iceberg, and that Apple’s “Welcome to 2007” announcement wasn’t hyperbole.

    The worst part about it for MSFT? I think Bill Gates is smarter than I am; if I can envision it, odds are that he saw it when the iPhone was introduced, but he still has no choice but to launch Vista. He’s tied to the tracks with Vista chains and he hears the rumble of the oncoming Leopard-logoed locomotive.

  • mark:

    As I’ve commented on other sites since the Keynote about those people who are complaining that Apple didn’t say anything about the Mac, the iPhone multi-touch interface running on OS X clearly points to it running on OS X on other contexts in the future, such as the Mac and even the next gen iPod. Jody is absolutely on target. This interface is going to be a big part of the Mac future.

    For example, look at what was shown for Time Machine. Imagine if you could touch it, swipe it, pinch it. Look at Cover Flow in iTunes. Don’t you want to touch it?

    Apple’s current Final Cut promo runs through 3/27 (a Tuesday). I’m thinkng there might be some new hardware coming out that day. Hopefully, it will be joined by the launch of Leopard.

  • Dave:

    I would also agree that multi touch is the future of Apple. They are going to do a lot more with it than just a cellphone.

    My computer is the original 15″ “iLamp ” flat panel iMac, and it occurs to me how good the iLamp screen design would be for a touch-screen interface- you can pull the screen six inches closer to you, and down to within 2 inches of your desk top. For an interface you might only be using part of the time, it is absolutely perfect.

  • Rodney Saenz:

    A mac is a mac is a mac is a mac, right? I’m just curious as to what the end will ultimately be for apple’s consumer apps. In the last 6 years, Apple’s gone from a nearly all-CPU based company (Newton notwithstanding), to a DAP manufacturer/music retailer/video distributor/cell phone manufacturer. Who knows where Apple’s future lies?

    and… Carl Jonard?! THE Carl Jonard? The “LSU, Orville Redenbacher body-double” Carl Jonard?!

    What’ve you been up to, man?!

  • John Muir:

    Jody, don’t worry, you were most definitely not alone. 😉

    To tackle the main point: I think Steve fired a shot across the Mac web’s bows as much as Microsoft’s when he gave a Macworld speech with essentially zero Mac content AND changed the name of the company to remove Computer. It was easy for those of us not too busy salivating over the iPhone’s insane greatness to read this as the fulfillment of many a pundit’s lame old dream: Apple are to sideline the Mac and capitalise on the iPod ideal. But taking a moment to look at the two hardware announcements made in the keynote brings us to the conclusion that Apple still released two computers and that both work better with Macs than Windows. In fact the Core Animation (one of Leaopard’s killer features long term, trust me!) on show in Apple TV is Mac like the argument over the device is simply just how much of a cut down Intel Mini it happens to be. While the iPhone… well this is where we come to Jody’s excellent point:

    Leopard’s absence from the keynote was not an act of cowardice or disinterest on Jobs part. I reckon he and Apple are excited by all the special sauce that we’re soon to see in Leopard. It’s the first Universal release of OS X for both Mac processors. It’s the followup to Tiger on Intel’s remarkable success at meeting a smooth transition. And it’s the riposte to Vista – the first consumer Redmond OS since OS X’s introducttion! That adds up to a bloody marvellous opportunity to do the same to the desktop that Apple have just done to the mobile phone. And that is where I agree with Jody’s insight.

    But I beg to differ on the Dell slaying portion of the prophecy! Although a revolutionary Leopard would be welcomed in the biggest possible way by the Mac userbase and bring over an even faster stream of switchers, it’s not going to kill off Microsoft’s OEM racket. It will be a contributing factor to Windows’ eventual demise, especially if MS are as cackhanded at answering it as they have been the super-critical security threat and indeed the iPod. But to put it bluntly: all MS have to do to rake in billions for at least another decade is print Windows 2000 / XP / Vista / NT5.X licences and Office. The vast majority of people either just don’t give a shit about their computing experience or think they can’t afford / really haven’t heard of Macs. Outside the US this is an almost perfectly ubiquitous problem, especially in the developing world where all the growth is. I heard on the BBC recently that there are over a hundred million Windows installs in Africa for instance! Where are the Macs there? This is how MS and their OEM cronies ensure their survival. Pile it high and sell it cheap, and don’t answer questions about all the bugs and crappiness. “That’s just what using a computer is like.”

    To kill Windows is to need a competitor with all the same strengths as well as fewer weaknesses. The only thing to come to mind is a Linux to rule them all, *somehow* (fantasy mode engaged) designed in a competent and elegant manner and likely ruled by an iron fist! Linux is headed nowhere on the desktop until a distro can emerge which is the essential antithesis to free as in speech programming and diverse / confused design. Unlikely? You bet! But one day maybe someone will manage it, and save the 90% of computing mankind from where they are now. For as much as I may be into Macs myself, I cannot see a single manfucturer with a taste for quality over quantity ever devouring the whole planet!

    PS: is it just me or is the Macalope doing Gruber a service by providing the comments section that Daring Fireball so prominently needs?

  • Jody Chen:

    John Muir,

    EXCELLENT points about the state of computing in the developing world. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the release of Leopard would cause Microsoft, Dell, et al to evaporate like vampires exposed to sunlight, but it could severely damage them. I believe that Leopard’s new interface is going to dramatically raise the bar, not only technologically, but in terms of the expectation of the average consumer. PC sales people are going to have a real interesting time: “Yeah, it’s cheap and all, but why can’t I just drag my files around with my finger, like the guy at the Apple Store showed me?”

    But here’s an interesting scenario: the iPhone, or an iPhone-like device, could well become the primary computer for the vast majority of people, and there are vastly more mobile phones than computers in use consumer use. Most of the world could care less about Windows or Macintosh, but they will certainly care about a mobile phone that does a lot of interesting stuff besides make calls. If it can handle their basic computing needs (email, IM, web) as well as be a communication device, Apple could easily add a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard and monitor connection to the iPhone dock, and voila, desktop computer. I see people taking their “computers” with them everywhere, especially if an Apple-Google collaboration could shift most of their digital life from the device to the web. They’d be connected to their files everywhere, then when the go home or back to the office, they’d just plug in to recharge while working with a full-sized keyboard and monitor.

    Apple has certainly reinvented the cellphone, and the way we view them. They absolutely have a chance at becoming the dominant personal computing platform on the planet; it’s now just a matter of dealing with the telecoms wherever they go.

  • John Muir:

    Indeed, the convergence device is the one with the most global prospect and I expect Microsoft are immeasurably more concerned with the iPhone than they are the hidden features of Leopard right now. I mean, why did they make the Zune in the first place? Answer: to challenge the “iPod gap” where Apple were and still of course are leading the way with digital audio players. You can bet your worldly assets that MS are frantic right now trying to come up with an answer to the iPhone and its starkly evident promise. It may indeed take a killer Linux to rid the desktop of Windows, but you’re quite right that the world could be (mostly) rid of desktops thanks to computers in the palm of our hands.

    I saw an intriguing report this week on the BBC’s Newsnight (it’s on their site they say) about how mobile phones are transforming Africa far more than PC’s. People are doing business based from just their own cellphone, thanks to money transfer technology being pioneered there and the low cost of entry. Ubiquitous computing is of course the future and it’s going to be playing out all over the world. Apple obviously have the design lead and vision to be a major player. The question I think may be who else is going to beat Microsoft?

    Google did what was necessary to get onto the iPhone alongside arch rival Yahoo, and that partnership there on stage was enough to convince me of how huge the announcement is seen at the highest level in the valley. I expect Google to be working hard on services for this device and every other successful convergence platform we can expect to market. The momentum may well be unstoppable.

  • TABP:

    Let me first brag about how long I’ve been using a Mac (since 1984, you figure it out) and add to the salient observations that without user programability it’s an appliance, not a computer. I’m no expert (though I play one at home), but cell phone networks are reluctant to allow third-party programs into their systems: it sounds as if Apple,Inc had to play hard-ball negotiations to bring Cingular around to allowing all the software features already available. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a MacPhone anytime soon. You can quote me, after all, I have nothing to lose.

  • The Dude:

    The “User Experience” or “Brand name” or “software entity” that is known as the “Macintosh” is ironically expressed in a single word: the “Finder”. Take away the Finder (and the Cocoa development libraries) then all you have remaining is yet another Unix box.

  • Of course it’s a Mac.

    What makes a Mac? Apple hardware running OS X. The iPhone is a Mac. Sure, it runs a different subset of OS X than you might be used to, with some components removed and other new parts in their place. But so does the Xserve.

  • Jody Chen and John Muir, I think you both have some very intriguing insights. I second the suggestion that the multi-touch interface (I’ll just cal it MTI from now on) will manifest itself in future Apple hardware and software. The slide from the keynote which depicts the “revolutionary interfaces” (mouse, click-wheel, MTI) in history keeps coming to memory. Undoubtedly Apple is devising ways to integrate this “revolutionary interface” into their Mac (maybe even iPod) lineup; just like they did with the mouse. Hell, Steve Jobs showed how the MTI shamelessly replaced the click-wheel (and stylus for that matter) in the iPhone.

    I see the mouse slowly becoming an anachronism (and probably also serendipitously becoming mostly associated with windows machines). The idea of Macs with MTI is a heady one, but seemingly inevitable; especially considering the MTI-tablet-looking-PC patents Apple filed for not to long ago. BTW, here are some videos showing off what MTI would look like on a larger screen (pretty nice):


    I think there should be a constructive discussion on how this new interface will change the Mac experience.

    How will it accommodate different applications, or games even? What new things can we do on our Mac with it or what difficult things will become easier or even common with it? How will it change the form factor of Macs? Will “laptops” still need to be flip-open book-shaped, or will we just carry around a screen? What would the difference be between a “tablet-Mac” and a MacBook/Pro with MTI be anyway? They’d pretty much be the same thing.

    Desktops would probably not need much change. It would just get to tiring to hold up our hands to the screen for that long. Maybe a dual-screen desktop (a la Nintendo DS) is in the works? a normal upright monitor with a Bluetooth MTI screen similar to a laptop touchpad which could also transform into a keyboard interface (or any other interface which could be displayed on it, for that matter).

    Such a Bluetooth MTI device to replace the keyboard and mouse could work seamlessly with iMacs and Mac Pro (I almost typed “PowerMac”) setups alike. It could be sold as a “kind of” pricy but very sexy peripheral. Seriously who wouldn’t want one of those for their computer? It could even be bundled with Leopard (which would probably be needed to support it, right?), who knows?

    Imagine the next iMac: no bulky hard drive box (like they already have), no bulky keyboard or mouse; just two screens. One set upright, the other resting horizontally and that’s it. Sounds like something from a sci-fi movie but it’s entirely possible that we could see these things this year.

  • rvr:

    i think this does open a whole new realm of possibility. it also leads to a lot of pie in the sky concepts, though. we’re not going to see the mti replace hardware keyboards and mouse input completely, not for a very long time, anyway. the lack of tactile feedback makes it very ineffective for typing, for example, and the cost will not be justified for a long time to come. the mouse will provide a more accurate pointer with pixel precision for a while, i think.

    if the mti is utilized in future versions of os x, i think we’ll see it start modestly, for doing certain kinds of things, and spread out as it becomes more advanced, as it’s limitations and benefits become more evident.

    things like iphoto may be ripe for mti integration, for example, but there are a lot of applications where it just doesn’t make sense. grabbing things and manipulating them is indeed very intuitive and powerful, but remember that in the physical world we use all kinds of specialized tools for work that requires fine control over detail. finger painting is fine, but artists learn how to use brushes and palette knives and pencils and chalk.

    regardless, it does create a new realm of possibility, and if anyone can figure out how to implement it in a logical way to improve the computing experience, it’s apple. anyone can come up with some goofy use for it that is either interesting for 10 minutes, or very frustrating from the start. the hard work is in making it both powerful, intuitive, and dead simple to use.

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