Touch and Feel: What Works on the iPad Will Be Even Better on the Mac

Last Updated Jul 7, 2010 6:45 PM EDT

Even if you're not an iOS user, you'll soon be using iOS apps if you have a Macintosh on your desk.

Apple (AAPL) has just revealed a beta version of its new MobileMe calendar, and the new version is a spitting image of iCal on the iPad. If ever there was a telling iteration, this is it.

That's because the inspiration is more than visual. It's a marked change in interaction design: Apple's designers have made the Web version operate almost identically to the touchscreen version, meaning there are very few "buttons" as we know them, and almost all the space feels click-able, just as on the iPad. Though Apple hasn't announced any broader plans to revamp other MobileMe or desktop apps besides iDisk, many Mac developers I've interviewed have reported borrowing features from their own iOS apps in revising their desktop versions, and it's probable that Apple is doing the same.

If you're scoffing -- who cares about iCal? -- then it's because the subtlety of the shift belies its importance. Desktop computers rely primarily on metaphors; the mouse is a metaphor for the cursor on the screen; the "files" you see aren't actually files, obviously, but just locations inside directories on the hard drive.

Much of what confuses inexpert computer users results from these metaphors. Teaching your mother to burn a CD is difficult not because she doesn't understand that CDs contain data -- that's a very literal concept. It's because you have to "drag" a bunch of "files" to a "disk image" of the CD before the computer can actually create anything. If you're not privy to the metaphors of the OS, all that sounds like nonsense.

The iPad and iPhone are widely appealing not just because they're powerful, but because -- unlike the Blackberry or, mostly, the Android OS -- they almost completely eschew non-literal usage scenarios like contextual menus or multi-purpose buttons. The result is simplicity. What MobileMe is endeavoring to do is make Web apps as literal as they are on the iOS.

The reinvention of MobileMe is a nod to two distinct phenomena that seem to be occurring at Apple. The first is that, as some developers have told me, software designers both inside and outside of Apple are coming to realize that many of the people that now have iOS devices have never used a Mac before, and are relying on iOS experience as their only paradigm. Apple has a significant opportunity to up-sell those customers to the Mac -- if they can get the desktop experience to feel as intuitive as the experience they love on the handheld device.

But it's more than just up-selling. Apple has said that it is now a "mobile device company," and my colleague Erik Sherman has even gone so far as to argue that Apple will eventually stop making the Macintosh altogether. He argues that this is because iPhones and iPads are more profitable, but that's hard to know without knowing Apple's costs. What's more likely is that the two will merge for the sake of continuity. As more people have two, three or four computing devices, it's only sensible that they operate by similar means.

Of course, this wouldn't be possible if Apple were working alone. Even though it rivals Google's (GOOG) Android, the two are, in a sense, co-conspirators in making the Web more touch-friendly. (Note that Google now has two versions of its mobile sites: mobile and "touch".)

What happens on the Web has incredible leverage on the desktop. And as the Web becomes more touch-oriented, it gives OS makers the prerogative to start building their own software in the same touch-y spirit. That's good for Apple, because it will decrease the amount of friction between the iPhone and Mac experiences; knowing how to use one will inform use of the other, and that's good for sales. But it's also good for consumers, who may finally be freed of analogical words and actions that make computers feel unduly complex.