Looking for Disruption? It’s here

Christopher Breen
10 February, 2013
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Over the past year, some Apple enthusiasts have called for the next big disruption from Apple. In the same way that Apple completely changed the way music is distributed and purchased, turned the mobile phone industry on its head, and created a tablet that people will actually use, these folks want The Next Big Thing—something about TV, or mapping, or toasters, or … something.

Since no such earthshaking development has emerged from Cupertino to assuage those demands, some are saying that maybe Apple’s lost its edge.

But I’d like to suggest that The Next Big Thing is already happening, right before our eyes. You can see it in OS X, iOS, and the devices Apple is creating.

About You and Your Devices

The Next Big Thing is Apple comprehensively changing the way we interact with our devices and data.

Sit a four-year-old down with an iPad. Show him or her how to switch it on, press the Home button to get the Home screen, and launch an app or two to introduce the touch interface. In about an hour, you’ll find that the tot can move around the device pretty easily.

Now place that four-year-old in front of your Mac. Start it up, explain what the mouse and keyboard are for, launch a couple of applications, and tell the child to take over. After a few seconds, he or she will turn to you and, in whatever terms four-year-olds use these days, say that the idea of shoving a mouse around to move a cursor on a screen is insane.

And that’s right. As Mac users, we find it entirely natural. But try to forget what you know. In the real world, do you walk around with a retractable mechanical claw designed to manipulate objects around you? Of course not—not when you can simply touch what you need. Same idea with technology. Apple is pushing us in the direction of gestures and touch with the idea of removing that level of abstraction where you need to move a physical object to then move a virtual one. And it makes sense.

It’s About Your Stuff

A few years ago, Apple pushed the idea of a Digital Hub. It placed your Mac in the middle; off of it you’d hang other devices —an iPod for your music, a digital camera for importing pictures, a camcorder for movies, a printer, hard drives, and so on. But the Mac was the brains of the outfit.

No longer. The Mac is now (or soon will be) just another device — because the Mac is, in this new scheme, broadly no more important than any other device you use to interact with your stuff. And stuff is the key. Your iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Mac, and web browsers are just different-size windows to your stuff. And your devices talk to one another to ensure that your stuff is the same, regardless of which gadget you use at any given moment.

If stuff rules the roost, then concepts like “file structure” are far less important. You don’t care where your stuff is, you just want quick access to it. And that helps explain why Apple has eliminated file structure from iOS devices and is de-emphasising it in the Mac OS. The folder hierarchy has always been a construct to help us visualise how our files are organised, but it’s only a construct. So what’s to keep us from doing away with the abstraction and instead thinking of our stuff as “just available”?

Where We Fit

Although Apple doesn’t currently prevent you from working with the Mac OS as you have in the past, the company has certainly made it more difficult to tweak things the way you once could. And my guess is, that trend will continue.

But longtime Mac users who think this way are not Apple’s future. Those now coming to the Mac likely have already had their first experience with Apple products using an iOS device. They’ll expect touch and gestures, feel comfortable with Launchpad’s interface and a simplified settings screen, and won’t gripe that their documents are tied to specific applications.

I understand some people’s reluctance to adopt Apple’s vision of the future. But I also understand something about progress and recall all too well our forebears who objected mightily to the loss of the command line.

Has Apple lost its ability to disrupt? Hardly. The company is well underway on perhaps its most challenging disruption of all — overturning its own legacy.

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