As the June 6 WWDC nears, rumors are starting to quietly spread. One mentioned that international journalists are being “quietly” invited to the Keynote, and that this indicates that “something big” may be announced. Many believe that it’s Apple’s new cloud-based music subscription service. This doesn’t make sense to me, however. After all, the service would likely not be world-wide; instead–like most Apple media deals–it would probably start in the U.S. and then spread from there. So, if I may go for a long shot here, I have a feeling that the “something big” may be something else. Something that I have not heard rumored for this keynote.
One significant point about OS X Lion is how much it borrows from the iOS. The swiping-grid app screen, the new and understated scrolling, the full-screen “windowless” apps. All of these elements, built for a multi-touch OS, make a fair amount of sense on a laptop, which is equipped with a trackpad–but what about the desktop Macs? Sure, Apple might start bundling the “Magic Trackpad” with desktop Macs. However, they might also be planning to go one step further.
About nine months ago, an Apple patent application was uncovered, one which addressed a very significant drawback concerning multitouch and desktop computers. The patent idea was a special “flex base” design, which would allow the user to draw the screen from a standing position to something close to the top of the user’s desk, angling upward:
At the time, it wasn’t considered a likely thing to be released anytime soon; nobody knew about Lion, and Lion’s iOS underpinnings weren’t revealed until a few months later, when most people had forgotten about the patent. (After a targeted Google search, it appears a few people had not–though many seemed to look down on the idea.) I hadn’t thought about it myself–until I read the “something big” rumors a few days ago.
I find this idea more likely now for a few reasons. First, the mouse-controlled GUI is clearly on its way out; multi-touch is the next evolution in this regard. We’ve seen it slowly build on laptops with Apple’s increasingly larger and gesture-based trackpads, then with the Magic Trackpad, and in parallel with the iPhone and iPad.
Now, save for the oversized trackpad, Desktop computers don’t lend themselves to multi-touch. The screens are too far away from the user, and too high up. Just try holding your hands up to your screen for more than a few seconds and imagine doing that for hours. Clearly it wouldn’t work.
But bring the screen down so it’s closer to being a surface, and the game changes significantly. Look at this video from 2006 (YouTube version here), when Jeff Han gave a demo of multitouch at TED. Note the position of his screen, the angle relative to the user. Looks a lot like the flex-base Mac show in the upper-left corner of the patent image above, doesn’t it?
Now think about Mac OS X Lion, with its iOS features, and think about how awkward it might be on desktops–until you think of it being part of a flex-based 27-inch multitouch screen. Now, that would be something.
Add in the fact that Apple, in Lion, is adding small touches like the ability to re-size windows from any edge–before now, it has only been from the lower-right corner, and has been since the Mac OS came out in the 80’s. Why add that in Lion? It’s not a part of the iOS. But in the context of a multitouch desktop OS, it makes perfect sense. That’s something a person would probably feel is more natural when using their fingers. Even the Mission Control feature in Lion would be a lot more meaningful in multitouch than the current window-switching paradigm.
This could even eventually be a lead-in to completely re-designed laptops which could be like a larger version of an iPad–maybe a dual-screen laptop without a physical keyboard, or perhaps something completely new that makes more sense with a touch screen. Keep in mind that Jobs has never been shy about making big changes which redefine how we think about computers in general use. It would also be a body blow to Windows, which still does not have a multi-touch friendly OS, and might take years to develop its mobile platform into something that integrates well into the mainstream OS. Apple going multitouch across the board would set it ahead of the crowd just when Windows 7 is beginning to make that platform respectable again.
Like I said, this is a long-shot. However, it would qualify as “something big,” and would fit perfectly with Lion’s new orientation. I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t come, but having thought of it, I wouldn’t be too surprised if it does come, either.
In any case, I was relatively uninspired by Lion before this, and didn’t expect much from the WWDC. Maybe now I am expecting way too much. But I am eager to find out.