Apple unveiled OS X Mavericks at WWDC on Monday. How promising does its future look?
My laptop is dying. It was never really alive in the first place, but its slow degradation over the last four years feels like a death all the same. Like watching a beloved pet age and slowly become hobbled, there seems to be no good reason other than the passage of time. When I first bought it, its screen was bright, its case shone glossily, and it could stream videos in four different windows without stuttering. Now, the daily chores of running a web browser, an email client, and a word-processing application strain it in the saddest of ways.
In the keynote presentation at its Worldwide Developer's Conference, Apple unveiled the newest version of OSX, nicknamed Mavericks. The name is an allusion to the northern California surf spot once notorious for occasional great white shark sightings and crushing surfers into the sharp and jagged rocks below its 20-foot swells. Aside from the incongruity of naming something as dull as an operating system after a place where surfers glide across the forgotten memories of the dead, Mavericks offers a new way of stalling against time.
Many of the most vaunted changes to the OS have been largely superficial.
Before it became a meaningless brand, OS X was simply the label given the tenth version of Apple's OS. The cat metaphor given to its biannual updates was a sign that it would serve as a foundation for longer than OS 7, 8, or 9 had, with each cat variant (e.g., Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard) taking the place of a decimal.
With Mavericks, Apple has reached the 10.9 phase and, by ordinal logic, should be ready to let OS X become OS 11. But a good brand is hard to find, and though its clear Apple has long since left the original spirit of X behind, the label stays and the ordinal logic goes. This is mostly a point of semantics, but it shows the irrationality of both trying to hold on to something more than 10 years old while at the same time wanting it to seem new.
Many of the most vaunted changes to the OS have been largely superficial. Lion's update to the Mail application allowed threaded messaging, a standard feature for Gmail for years, and offered a view option split in vertical columns. These were simple changes that didn't need to be tethered to an entire overhaul of the OS, and which had been available in hacked form for years already. The old Spaces paradigm was also narrowed from a rectangular matrix of different desktops to a linear one, while the once new notifications center seemed to counter the logic of appointing different self-contained work environments by aggregating all of a person's reminders and updates into one unified sidebar of chaos and distraction.
The list of updates in Maverick is both overlong and insubstantial, leading with features like tabbed browsing in Finder Windows, a Maps application, the ability to run applications in fullscreen mode when using external monitors, and a bevy of technical improvements in the name of memory, battery, and processor efficiency.
The improvements in this last area are becoming to feel more and more like life support, a kind of recuperative care for devices of yesteryear. Each subsequent OS update, then, has the dual quality of trying to move a step into the future while going back to improve the convolutions of last year's versions. This creates a strange sense of progress as barely perceptible in the most important ways and jarringly unnecessary in the most visible ones.
The story that underlies the now yearly updates to Apple's OS is the constant price point of its computers. MacBook Air's will always start at around $1,000, and MacBook Pros will always be a couple hundred dollars more expensive. The company has no business model built around refining and rereleasing the model of laptop I bought more than four years ago, passing on the progressive savings of lowered production cost to consumers while offering an increasingly stable and efficient OS for $400 or $500. Apple is not just in the laptop business, they're in the $1,000 laptop business and everything they design has to justify that fixed price point. My laptop has done everything I've ever asked of it—editing HD video, recording and composing music, running 3D games, etc.
What chokes my computer now is not the processing required to have three desktops running in a line or keeping the Mail client in a vertically split view, but simply running the web browser. Increasingly it is that dark portal into the world of consumption that has come to define the development of computing as a whole.
The epidemic popularity of iPad and iPhone has slowly made productivity a form of consumption. Reading through all of the links one finds on Twitter, watching all of the shows and movies dissected in morning-after editorials, and staying informed about the most scandalous news bait or the cleverest rags of Internet humor have become central to our computing needs.
It takes real work and focus to trudge through all those open tabs by the end of the day, and it takes double as much processing power to run and render 10 gaudy, Flash-bloated, design-drunk webpages. And you can begin to see the signs of strain and wear in the whirring fans, which run almost nonstop now, and the hot underside of the motherboard slowly boiling my belly through the underside of the computer casing.
Now that Apple has abandoned the formal order of its old naming system, it's clear the development of computer systems and interfaces is off the rails, and has been for years. We are going further out into territory where we are surrounded by more and more in our environment but have less and less to ourselves. We’re becoming pass-throughs rather than owners and makers. And my laptop is dying from the repetitive stress of constantly loading and discarding and loading and discarding the day's haul.
When my laptop dies for good, there won't be much choice left but to buy a new computer that contains an even more virulent strain of what it was that killed my old laphorse. Then the only fans to strain and howl in hot submission will be in my own head—making it almost a relief to see the computer go first.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.