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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In Like a Lion

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One of the most powerful developments in recent years has been the creation of “cloud computing.” Folks familiar with the technology know that it’s essentially doing for your computer what email services like Gmail and Yahoo! have done for your communication–they’ve taken your messages, contacts, and other personal information and stored it on secure servers across the nation to make it easily retrievable in the case of an emergency or hardware failure. Instead of relying on a single storage point (your home PC, for example) to store all of your communication, Google, Yahoo, and dozens of other websites offer to handle of those tasks in exchange for showing you advertising or using some non-identifiable information to craft better algorithms.

For most people, the immediate benefit of these systems was apparent. Access your mail anywhere, store contacts somewhere that won’t be affected in the case of a system crash or loss of a single device (like a phone), and integrate these services with your web browsing. Easy, and powerful. The systems that provided these services long ago have evolved significantly, now allowing entire operating systems to essentially run through your broadband connection, piping only the data necessary for input and allowing massive supercomputers to handle all of the processing.

That all sounds fine and good, but what does it mean for you?

Cloud computing, so named because of its pseudo-omnipresence, changes the role of computers significantly. They no longer exist as a single point of storage for all your information. Instead, the computer is more of a gateway, a portal to your data that is stored in massive servers. One analogy I can draw is that of a dry cleaner. With the old model of computing, it was as though you were standing at the front of a dry cleaning factory trying to look for a specific shirt. You might not even know where the shirt was located, but you’d still have to find it yourself. With the advent of search, that process was trimmed a bit- you tell someone else what to look for and where to look, and they find the shirt.

Now, with cloud computing, we see that yet another layer of interaction is slowly melting away. We’re doing away with the fetching entirely. You don’t even really need to know where you’ve stored your data, you just need to run a search, and you can pull down results from the stuff you have stored locally on your computer as well as the files floating up with the sun and moon. We are no longer limited by how much space is on our devices, how much storage we can buy. The only limiting factor is the infrastructure that connects all these devices together. Some people have asked me, almost accusingly, “Well what happens if the network goes down? What then, huh?”

If the entire United States suddenly experiences a simultaneous and catastrophic shutdown of all of its network infrastructure, we will have much bigger things to worry about than listening to our music or accessing the documents on our cloud folder. That’s akin to asking what would happen if all paper in the United States suddenly caught fire. I don’t want to hypothesize about the events or circumstances that would need to exist in order to facilitate such a terrible reality, but, assuming it was both spontaneous and total, I doubt anyone would be worried about their fourth grade diary.

Digression. Apologies.

In recent news, we’ve heard rumblings of Apple’s new iOS 5 being cloud-based, a total overhaul of the OS. I can’t even begin to fathom what that means. The OS seems just fine as it is, but the cloud is where it’s at these days, and that darn data center that’s been occupying so many of my thoughts and predictions seems like the perfect use of all those massive petaflops (or whatever they use to measure data centers of that magnitude). It all seems to be coming together now.

What we will start to see is more unity across Apple’s various OS products. Remember back in 2005, when Steve was asked what kind of OS the iPhone was running? Does anyone remember his response? Let’s recap, shall we?

Jobs admitted that Apple is a new player in the cell phone business, saying “We’re newcomers. People have forgotten more than we know about this.” Jobs noted that the operating system to run the iPhone — Mac OS X itself — has been in develop for more than a decade (its roots like in NeXT’s Nextstep operating system). Mossberg suggested that the iPhone doesn’t have the entire operating system on it, but Jobs protested.

“Yes it does. The entire OS is gigabytes, but it’s data. We don’t need desktop patterns, sound files. If you take out the data, the OS isn’t that huge. It’s got real OS X, real Safari, real desktop e-mail. And we can take Safari and put a different user interface on it, to work with the multitouch screen. And if you don’t own a browser, you can’t do that,” said Jobs.

This shift is not overnight, and it is not a new direction for Mac OS. Once Apple began work on the iPad, they started planning for this shift, possibly even before that. I seem to remember some folks discussing the origins of the iPhone, how it was actually rooted in an experimental side project that Steve Jobs somehow got a look at and recognized as brilliant, and that said side project was actually more akin to the iPad than the iPhone. At any rate, it looks to me as though Apple has been planning this shift for years, possibly even the better part of a decade. I believe that Apple designed iOS with unification in mind all along, seeing a desire to create a powerful OS for new mobile devices that hadn’t even been developed yet. It seems fairly obvious when you look at their last “Back to the Mac” event, and even more glaringly obvious when you see something like this coming out of Gizmodo.

Adobe demonstrated Photoshop for iPad yesterday. Not a sub-product like Photoshop Express, but the real Photoshop, with a new skin. Sure, it doesn’t have some of the advanced print and web publishing oriented features of the desktop behemoth. But it has everything you need, from layers compositing—including a 3D mode to show people how they work—to what appeared to be non-destructive adjust layers, levels, color controls, and all the features I use every day in the desktop Photoshop. From the little we have seen, the application was fast and smooth.

I believe Apple has succeeded in ushering in a new age already; I can’t wait to see them throw the doors wide open to a future we’ve only dreamed of.