Will the iPhone Eventually Replace the Mac?

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“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed…PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around. They’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by one out of x people…this transformation is going to make some people uneasy.“–Steve Jobs, at the Wall Street Journal’s D8 conference last week

“Flash was created during the PC era…”–Steve Jobs, in “Thoughts on Flash”

“Maybe next year we will focus primarily on the Mac. Just the normal cycle of things. No hidden meaning here.”–Steve Jobs, reassuring a developer who was concerned about the iPhone-centric WWDC 2010

I went into yesterday’s Steve Jobs keynote at Apple’s WWDC event knowing that Macs would not be in the center ring of this particular circus. But I thought that they might get some attention during the first part of Jobs’ presentation, in which he cites impressive-sounding numbers relating to a variety of Apple product lines. After all, recent Mac sales figures are…well, impressive.

In two hours of presenting, though, Jobs barely mentioned traditional computing devices. Okay, he did point out that the conference would host sessions devoted to Macs–and he asked those in the audience who had laptops to place them on the floor to prove they weren’t using MiFis that might muck up his Wi-Fi demos. But that was about it.

Yes, traditional portable and desktop computers remain a huge and growing business for Apple; no, iOS-based machines aren’t in any position to render the Mac irrelevant any time soon. And chances are high that Apple will hold one or more Mac-centric events before 2010 is out. But sitting in the WWDC audience yesterday, it wasn’t hard to envision a future Apple that (A) didn’t sell Macs and (B) was at least as successful as Apple circa 2010.

That’s a new feeling. For all of the iPod’s significance, it remained a Mac (and PC) peripheral, not an heir apparent. The iPhone and iPad, however, are devices meant to replace the types of computers we’ve used for the past few decades. That’s not speculation: Jobs is already talking about the PC era in the past tense and predicting that PCs will be outnumbered by new-wave devices. He’s getting ready for the post-Mac era.

(Me, I don’t expect devices we think of as “PCs” to vanish from the scene in the next decade or two–but I do think that they’ll come to look and work a lot more like iPads than they do like a conventional Mac or Windows box.)

All of this made me think of the last Apple platform shift. I’m counting the Mac’s 68000/PowerPC/Intel jumps and the move from Mac OS to OS X. The last truly epic shift happened a really long time ago–because it was the move from the Apple II (introduced in 1977) to the Macintosh (1984). (Come to think of it, it was also the first truly epic shift–the Apple I, Apple III, and Lisa were all blips.)

The Mac was announced in January of 1984. In April of the same year, Apple announced a new version of the II, at an event called “Apple II Forever.” The phrase became a rallying cry, not to mention a pretty silly song:

Even at the time, the idea of “Apple II Forever” had a defensive tinge and carried an implied acknowledgment that the platform, like all others, didn’t have an infinite shelf life. But the Mac and the II managed to coexist rather successfully for years. Here’s the Computer Chronicles show devoting an episode to new II variants in 1988:

The Apple II finally went away in late 1993–almost a decade after the beginning of the end.

Now, I’m not saying that the parallels here are even sort of close. The Apple II of 1984-1993 was based on archaic technology; thinking back, it’s kind of amazing it lasted as long as it did. Today’s Macs–and, for that matter, today’s best Windows PCs–are still getting better, albeit at a vastly slower pace than the iPhone. (Having been out over a few weeks, the iPad is just getting started.) And the list of things a Mac can do well that the iPad and iPhone can’t do at all is long.

But for the Mac, like the Apple II in 1984, the beginning of the end is here. Any guesses about how long this epic shift will take?

This story, "Will the iPhone Eventually Replace the Mac?" was originally published by Technologizer.

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