Mac Musings

Looking Back at the Future from 1992

Dan Knight - 2006.01.03 - Tip Jar

This is our fourth visit to "Macintosh 2000", an article by Henry Bortman that appeared in the March 1992 issue of MacUser.

MacUser ran an article in that issue comparing past and then-current Macs. One comparison was the original Macintosh with the Quadra 900: 8 MHz 68000 vs. 25 MHz 68040, 128 KB RAM vs. 4 MB (expandable to 256 MB), no hard drive vs. several internal drive bays and an external SCSI bus, etc.

What would the Macintosh be like in another eight years. Following are Henry Bortman's speculations, followed by my comments nearly 14 years after his original article with Intel-based Macs just around the corner.

What will tomorrow's Macs be like? Well, for one thing, they won't be Macs. By the turn of the century, the Mac will be a museum piece. And so will the Mac operating system.

The Macintosh and the Mac OS have been through a lot of changes since 1992 - moving to the PowerPC, adopting industry standard components (IDE drives, PCI slots, AGP graphics, etc.), changed to a Unix-derived operating system, and now we're looking at a switch to Intel CPUs. Macs have changed a lot, but the hardware and OS still exist - and their market share is growing.

Sure, some Macs are museum pieces, but any Mac with at least 1 MB of RAM can still find some use today. Even Windows has survived the intervening years.

Not that there won't be some familiar leftovers. You'll still have icons on your computer screen, for those occasions when you insist on manipulating data manually. But voice commands will be more common. For graphics work, you'll have a pressure sensitive pen.

Voice commands may be fine in a private office, but when I experimented with it on a 660av several years ago, people in adjoining cubicles voiced their complaints. Voice technology seemed promising, and it's well developed, but it's likely to remain a niche input method until the computer can distinguish your voice from other voices and sounds.

As for pressure sensitive pens, they haven't made inroads outside of art departments. Palms do a good job with handwritten input, especially with Graffiti 2, and they have moved into the mainstream.

Networks will be pervasive, but wires will be antiques. Future Macs will communicate by radio waves, so you'll be connected wherever you go. Your computer will also function as a telephone, fax machine, pager, mailbox, and interactive cable-ready television. Vast quantities of useful information will be instantly available on The Net - a universal hookup to the world's libraries and databases.

Networking is pervasive, and wireless networking (WiFi) has made great strides, especially since the industry moved to 802.11g hardware with 54 Mbps bandwidth. Still, wired ethernet is a lot faster.

Infrared connectivity survives for beaming files between Palms and handheld game machines, but it's not really practical for computers due to line-of-site constraints. Bluetooth is quickly displacing infrared for short-range, low bandwidth connections.

Cellular modems have never made it big, and as WiFi networks grow to cover restaurants, neighborhoods, towns, and cities, there's less need for that technology.

Internet telephones have become "the next big thing" over the past year. Services such as Vonage allow phone calls at minimal to no cost. The addition of voice chat to instant messaging software (such as iChat) can reduce the number of phone calls you need to make. iChat now allows video chat and conferences, and the latest iMac includes a built-in webcam.

The computer as fax machine is a reality. Most modern "all-in-one" devices (printer plus scanner plus fax machine) allow you to fax from your computer, althought not all support the Mac. And modern modems allow users to fax directly from their computers.

The computer as pager? Pagers are essentially obsolete, replaced by cell phones, Blackberries, and PDAs.

The computer hasn't yet shown itself a strong contender to replace the television, although that day may be approaching. There are TV cards and external converters, AV inputs, and DVD players, but an old fashioned television does a much better job of displaying TV programs than the computer - and at a for more realistic price. Computers will continue to improve integration with TV, have made TiVo a reality, but will probably always be more expensive than simply buying a television.

Finally, score one for Bortman on predicting the widespread deployment of the Internet. It's not quite what anyone envisioned in 1992, but the Web has become so pervasive in the past decade that we look askance at people without email and businesses without websites.

By the way, an article in the February 1992 issue of BYTE mentions email, Anarchie, FTP, and a few other things. The Internet existed, but the Web didn't exist when Bortman made his predictions.

You won't buy applications for your Mac either. You'll buy functional modules. You'll be able to assemble them as you do Lego building blocks, to perform precisely the tasks you require. You will train them by performing a task once and telling your Mac to remember how you did it. Of course, all documentation will be on-line, including interactive video tutorials.

Apple and Microsoft invested years and millions of dollars in this idea. OpenDoc never really cut it (but don't tell CyberDog lovers). Microsoft's OLE didn't fare much better. We still use the same of paradigm of documents being tied to programs.

Microsoft Office is probably the most successful family of programs to provide tight integration, allowing users to paste an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document - and use it live, just as if they were running it in Excel.

On the Mac side, I and many others have been spoiled by the program that dethroned Microsoft Works on our hardware. AppleWorks (formerly ClarisWorks) brought a new level of integration to word processing, spreadsheet, database, and graphics modules. In fact, ClarisWorks 1.0 was reviewed in the same issue of MacUser as Bortman's Mac 2000 article. A shame that Apple has allowed AppleWorks to atrophy.

For better or worse, software nowadays is usually dependent on online help, and printed manuals seem a thing of the past. As one who likes to sit down with a manual, a highlighter, and PostIt notes (for use as bookmarks), I don't see it as a step in the right direction. On the other hand, for those comfortable with online documentation, it means never misplacing your manual. (And it provides a natural market for third-party books, such as the ubiquitous Dummies series.)

Software is more integrated than it used to be, but not as modular as Bortman predicted. I don't foresee that changing on the desktop.

However, there is one huge exception: the browser. Growing from early programs that could simply display HTML properly and send email replies, browsers have grown into behemoths - and each browser grows in functionality with each additional plugin. They even have scripting languages that allow them to run programs.

Perhaps this isn't quite the way Bortman envisioned modular programming, but that's really what Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and other browsers have become. So with that and online documentation, score two more for Bortman.

You won't have to worry about document formats either. Format translators, when necessary, will automatically ensure that the information you need will be presented properly, regardless of how it was created.

Again, there were some solid attempts in this direction, but in the end the world has standardized on Microsoft's Word format for text documents and Excel format for spreadsheets. There is a move afoot to switch to open document standards, but the whole world (including Apple's own software) reads and writes Microsoft.

Adobe's PDF has become the format of choice for documents that have to look a certain way, and PDF is a native format in OS X. PDF files tend to be large, but the viewers come bundled with the operating system.

You'll still need to consider document formats, but far less often than in the past. I'll give Bortman one point here.

"Out of memory" errors will become a thing of the past. Base configurations will contain 128 megabytes of RAM. For additional storage, you'll use removable solid-state RAM cartridges, the size of credit cards, that will hold as much as a gigabyte of data each.

The typical Year 2000 Mac had 64 or 128 MB RAM, along with a 6-27 GB hard drive and a DVD player. At the start of 2006, Macs come with 512 MB RAM, 40 GB hard drives are small, and dual-layer 8x and 16x SuperDrives are the norm.

We haven't eliminated memory problems yet, although OS X does its best. There are still problems with "memory leaks" in certain programs, but virtual memory (VM) has eliminated most memory problems.

Hand-in-hand with improved VM is smarter memory management. OS X supports dynamic memory allocation and gives each program just the amount of memory it needs at the moment. As programs need more memory to open, modify, or create documents, the OS gives them additional memory.

But what about solid-state RAM cards? They exist, but they haven't caught on with mainstream computers. They are common in PDAs and digital cameras. Most laptops have PC Card slots, allowing them to accept the same RAM cards as the handhelds and some digicams, and almost everyone who does digital photography ends up with a USB card reader.

RAM cards may not be popular for moving data, but USB flash drives (a.k.a. thumb drives) certainly are. In recent years, they've become a common way to move files between computers, and today capacities have reached 8 GB.

There has been quite a bit of speculation this past year that flash memory will eventually replace hard drives, but hard drive cost and capacity still give it a significant advantage over solid state memory. Flash has displaced hard drives on the low-end of the capacity scale, but at 8 GB and beyond, hard drives have the cost advantage.

We've had some storage breakthroughs that Bortman didn't anticipate in the Mac 2000 article. Floppies are pretty much obsolete, but CD-RW is standard on almost every computer. Zip drives have come and gone, and rewritable DVDs are the leading edge for high-capacity file archives.

Bortman did see higher capacity transportable media ahead, he just predicted the wrong medium.

You'll be able to have your Mac at your desk if you need to, but you'll be more likely to carry it in your shirt pocket. Some models will hang on the wall of your conference room, where the white board lives today. Pen-based models will replace the artist's easel or the draftsman's desktop.

Maybe Bortman read too much science fiction. ;-)

It was the 1984 novel, The Mote in God's Eye, that introduced the idea of a handheld computer. From the early 1980s onward, the computer industry has been working to invent a viable handheld - and it's getting closer all the time.

For Mac users, the smallest OS X computers are the 12" 'Books and the Mac mini. Neither is anywhere close to pocketable, but they are remarkably portable.

But the real innovation is in the handheld market. Apple's Newton was a limited success, which Apple chose to sacrifice in favor of continued corporate existence. Between Microsoft's Pocket PC, which is immediately familiar to Windows users, and Palm, the handheld niche has grown into a significant market. (Mac users will tend to find Palms easier to adapt to, since the Palm OS was strongly inspired by the classic Mac OS.)

I don't think we're likely to see a handheld or shirt pocket Macintosh soon, if ever. Mac OS X is a big, powerful operating system, and creating a handheld that would run OS X would mean some pretty expensive hardware. If Apple wants a presence, they should license the Palm OS (or buy Palm, as some have suggested), create a much better version of Palm Desktop for the Mac, and sell it at a very competitive price. I don't expect Apple to do that.

Your computer display will be a full-color flat-panel LCD with a resolution of 150 dpi (dots per inch) or greater. Images will have the clarity of high-definition television. Printing will become a special-purpose activity; most information will be transferred electronically.

The market caught up with this. You can buy cheap 15" LCDs for under US$200, good 17-19" ones for US$200-400, and ones as big as 30" if you have the need and budget. I don't think we've hit 150 dpi yet, but we're at about 120 dpi on some displays.

Printing may never become a special-purpose activity. Despite the ongoing put for a paperless office, it simply hasn't happened and isn't likely to. Hard copy is too important to abandon, but most of us are using less paper than we used to.

We have already reached the point where most information is transferred electronically. I get my news and mail electronically for the most part. Sure, I read magazines, but most of what's in print I've already seen on the Internet.

The Internet and World Wide Web have turned us into a highly wired society, probably much more so than anyone would have predicted in 1992. But Bortman definitely scores points for flat panel displays and electronic data transfer.

And price? You'll be able to get a device with this "basic" capability for less than $1,000, allowing, of course, for inflation adjustments - but you'll have to pay a bit more for the Holodeck option.

The last comment shows Bortman has at least one foot in the realm of science fiction. And wouldn't we all love a Holodeck at the end of a long day at work? Computer, take me to Aruba.

Today Apple has a $1,000 laptop (the 12" iBook) and a US$500 desktop computer, the Mac mini. And who knows what we'll see unveiled at Macworld Expo next week.

Summary

Bortman hit the nail on the head fairly often - and some of his misses were close (solid state RAM cards vs. CD-RW and "thumb" drives). Each reading of his article reminds me how much things have changed while the Mac OS remains easy to use and grows in power.

We've come a long ways since 1992. CPUs are about 100x faster. Hard drives are measured in GB rather than MB. Broadband Internet is common. Palms are cheap.

About the only big change Bortman didn't anticipate was Apple becoming a major player in the digital music market with the iPod and iTunes Music Store. Even in 2000 we couldn't have anticipated that.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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