Singing in the Rain

When the MacBook Air came out last year with its super-sexy new design and blazing fast SSD, I knew I was in trouble. It’s hard for me to resist the siren call of a new Apple product, but it’s even harder when the thing looks and performs as well as that li’l guy. I was even looking to upgrade my Mac Mini, and saw that as the perfect opportunity to dive into something portable. Since that day, I’ve had to fight off the urge to buy one nearly every single day.

Then I realize that I have an amazing iPad 2, and I the conversation with myself ends. I don’t need a laptop, I already have an incredible machine. Sure, there are shortcomings, and there are certain incompatibilities here and there that make it difficult and/or frustrating, but by and large the experience is incredible, and very freeing. I have something with me at all times that I can use for *gasp* serious work (almost every blog post I’ve ever written has been with the help of an iPad, and all of my Grad school papers come from this tiny beast) as well as having fun and playing games. Truth be told, this is the best computer I’ve ever owned, and the reason is baked into the OS.

What a glorious feeling!

A while back, I went to the Apple store to ask some questions to the friendly folks there about the MacBook Air, to see if I should choose that over the Mac Mini. I came away with this realization: if you already have an iPad, skip the MacBook Air, and if you already have a MacBook Air, skip the iPad. They’re pretty close in form and function, anyway (despite one being a “laptop” and one being a tablet). The reason I say that is because of the use-case. People buy a MacBook Air because they need a computer that is:

  1. Portable
  2. Fast
  3. Long-lasting
  4. Simple
  5. With a full keyboard

The MacBook Air is that machine, among other things. So is the iPad, however, and I’ve found that the pseudo-multitasking of the iPad is far more preferable to me when I’m working because I know that the apps won’t crash, won’t interfere with anything else, and won’t start to bog down. The’re lean, simple, and engage me physically, why I need when I’m writing. The MacBook Air is essentially redundant…except that it runs the full MacOS, instead of iOS. This seems great, until you start trying to manage multiple media libraries, apps, save files, etc. Then it gets to be more of a pain to work with MacOS than an iOS device. But wait…the new version of MacOS, Lion, looks and behaves a LOT like iOS, doesn’t it? I mean…Apple expressly talked about the similarities in their “Back to the Mac” event. So then there’s this:

Most people had dismissed that rumor due to the compatibility issues that would be introduced with such a transition. Another major issue is that while ARM processors are more power efficient, they presently offer significantly lower performance than their Intel counterparts.

Sure, an ARM-based A5 wouldn’t make sense running MacOS…but what about iOS? Let’s even blow it up a bit and look further down the road a year or two. Let’s focus on a time in the not-too-distant future when iOS and MacOS start to merge, when the distinctions between the various Apple OSs start to become blurry. Then, ARM chips would make sense. They sip power, and (currently) iOS sings on those chips. It’s built for exactly that type of chipset. The two work in perfect synergy, and you can bet that Apple is spending a lot of time making sure that, when it’s time to make that jump, that they’ve gotten the whole machine tuned and tweaked so the transition is beautiful. If you look at it that way, it makes a whole lot more sense to be using ARM-based chips for your supermodel MacBook Air, while the MacBook Pros would still run Intel chips due to their more “Pro” nature. I’m willing to be dollars to donuts that most people are going to start shifting away from MacOS “Classic” and will absolutely love the new look and feel of Lion. Who knows, maybe the Mac OS “Classic” look and feel will persist, while everything else will run some new version of iOS that is fully scalable across any hardware, much like HP is planning to do with their new version of WebOS.

There’s also this little nugget:

Although not mentioned in the most recent rumor, one of the largest features may be over-the-air updates that would finally make iOS independent of a computer for all but backup and local media syncing.

So…like a “real” computer? Can you see it? Can you see how the walls are disintegrating? The distinction between a “mobile” OS and a “desktop” OS is not as clear now, and I think the lines will continue to blur.
And this, too:

Talk of Apple using Nuance voice commands in iOS was already supported recently by code mentions in Lion. Most also presume that Apple’s cloud music service may play an integral role in the new mobile software.

So we can infer here that iOS and Lion are very closely related (doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out, Apple said so), but that they share code is telling of Apple’s long-term strategy, and the strategies of several major players out there (Google, Microsoft, natch).

The jump from what we see in our hands and on our laps and desks and what we will be seeing over the next few years will be immense, and will change what every single person recognizes as a computer.

Mind the gap.

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The Living Room Takeover

A tiny black monolith of wonder.A long time ago, in a convention hall not so very far away, Apple introduced a product intended to revolutionize the living room viewing experience. It was one of the neatest things that most people had seen happen to the TV in a while, and there were a lot of people who were impressed by what it was capable of. It was loaded with all sorts of storage (a lot for the time, at least), and offered a novel way to get your media from your computer onto your TV. The sad thing is, it didn’t really take off the way other Apple products did. People liked it well enough, and it sold decently, but it wasn’t the hot ticket item that people were scrambling to pick up. That honor generally belongs to the iPhone, and now, iPad. It was a little too pricey for what it offered, and most people probably felt like the Apple TV was a sideline player.

Fast forward to September 2010, and we see a renewed focus to Apple’s efforts; their so-called “hobby” suddenly has a brand-new face, has lost a ton of weight, and can do basically the same stuff without all the baggage. More, actually. Some people still asked “Why?” but for $99, it was hard to argue against it. Those people (myself included), just went ahead and picked one up to find out what all the fuss was about.

I can tell you right off the bat that I love my Apple TV, but not for the reasons one might expect. I don’t love it because it makes watching movies really enjoyable (it does) or because my family can see all the new pictures I just imported from my camera on the TV, or because I can stream that awesome YouTube video I’m watching right to the TV seamlessly. All those things are great, sure, but what really got me excited is what the little black box represents.

Some folks have already jury-rigged a console experience into the iPad/iPhone/Apple TV. Even before that, however, before the 2nd generation Apple TV rolled out, there were reports that it would run some version of iOS. Ultimately, iOS under the hood really only exists in order to open the door to apps. With apps come developers, innovation (and, depending on the level of the APIs, usually some griping), and new software ecosystems. With iOS under the hood, we will eventually enjoy apps that talk to each other seamlessly, network invisibly, and build off of each other in synergy. That’s what got me excited.

John Gruber has a great take on the whole thing:

I think I see what Apple is trying to do with the App Store, and the potential upside for the company is tremendous. They’re carving out a new territory between the game consoles (tight control over content and experience) and computers (large number of titles, open to development from anyone). Think of the iPhone and iPad as app consoles. (Consider too, the possibility of an all-new iPhone OS-based Apple TV. TV apps! Using iPhones and iPads as controllers.)

So, basically what I just said.

The key here is that Apple would be competing against veritable giants in this space, companies that have years and years of experience creating behemoth machines that are designed for lifespans that fill the better part of a decade.  These consoles are powerful, multi-role devices that have also taken on increasing cultural significance as gaming moves more and more into mainstream culture.  Contrast that to Apple’s predictable and consistent release cycle, which, on the one hand, allows them to react quickly to shifts in the marketplace but, on the other hand, sometimes leaves customers feeling alienated.

While I tend to side more with the stability and development cycle that is characteristic of current-gen consoles, Apple’s move into this space may also spur more innovation and force the current trifecta (Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft) to think of things that Apple hasn’t.  Sony’s current offerings (PS3, PSP) are great, but lack synergy.  If there’s anything that Apple can nail, it’s synergy, and those big three will have to work hard to integrate their home consoles with other services and devices if they want to offer the consumer some more value.  Developers’ successes in the phone space have translated smoothly from the mobile  to living room space (see Angry Birds and Dungeon Hunter), and Apple sees itself uniquely positioned to make use of that transition.

Think about it: if a developer crafts a successful, top-selling title for iOS, Apple wants to make sure that the player who wants to enjoy that same experience in their living room with three of their friends can do just that.  Apple doesn’t want that developer transitioning to another platform.  Apple doesn’t want people spending their money on other people’s hardware, either.  Why buy the PS4 or XBox 720, four controllers, and whatever other magic peripherals they have for the primary purpose of playing games when instead a person can purchase an Apple TV and iOS devices for the whole family, and be simultaneously purchasing a game console and input devices?  Let’s take it a step further.  Ever heard of OnLive?  Ever seen their game console?  Does that seem familiar to you?  OnLive’s servers stream games from the cloud to your TV.  You can play super high-quality games over a broadband connection.  Apple just built a mammoth data center, purportedly for iTunes and MobileMe.  Let’s think a little further, here.  Apple is also focused more on social now than they ever were, and it also wouldn’t seem too far-fetched to use Apple’s newly-introduced Game Center to pull all their iOS users together into a platform not unlike PSN or XBox Live.  Add to that all the success that more casual titles have seen, and it seems elementary that Apple would take steps in this direction.

I don’t know what gaming in Apple’s ecosystem will look or feel like, but I have a strong suspicion that the war for the living room is just heating up.