There has been some ... interesting news from the tech sector this week.
Firstly, the Apple vs. Adobe vendetta gets even nastier, with a public letter from Steve Jobs explaining why Adobe's Flash multimedia format will not ever be allowed into the garden of pure ideology that is the iPhone/iPad fork of OSX.
Secondly, Hewlett-Packard are buying Palm, apparently for Palm's WebOS — with rumours of plans to deploy a range of WebOS tablets to rival the iPad — at the same time, they're killing their forthcoming Windows 7 slate, just as Microsoft are killing the Courier tablet project.
Finally, gizmodo (not, perhaps, an unbiased source in this regard given current events) have a fun essay discussing Apple's Worldwide Loyalty Team, the internal unit tasked with hunting down and stopping leaks.
It's probably no exaggeration to say that Apple's draconian security policies are among the tightest of any company operating purely in the private sector, with a focus on secrecy that rivals that of military contractors. But even so, the control freak obsessiveness which Steve Jobs is bringing to bear on the iPad — and the desperate flailing around evident among Apple's competitors — bears some examination. What's going on?
I've got a theory, and it's this: Steve Jobs believes he's gambling Apple's future — the future of a corporation with a market cap well over US $200Bn — on an all-or-nothing push into a new market. HP have woken up and smelled the forest fire, two or three years late; Microsoft are mired in a tar pit, unable to grasp that the inferno heading towards them is going to burn down the entire ecosystem in which they exist. There is the smell of panic in the air, and here's why ...
We have known since the mid-1990s that the internet was the future of computing. With increasing bandwidth, data doesn't need to be trapped in the hard drives of our desktop computers: data and interaction can follow us out into the world we live in. Modem uptake drove dot-com 1.0; broadband uptake drove dot-com 2.0. Now everyone is anticipating what you might call dot-com 3.0, driven by a combination of 4G mobile telephony (LTE or WiMax, depending on which horse you back) and wifi everywhere. Wifi and 4G protocols will shortly be delivering 50-150mbps to whatever gizmo is in your pocket, over the air. (3G is already good for 6mbps, which is where broadband was around the turn of the millennium. And there are ISPs in Tokyo who are already selling home broadband delivered via WiMax. It's about as fast as my cable modem connection was in 2005.)
A lot has been said about how expensive it is to boost the speed of fibre networks. The USA has some of the worst domestic broadband in the developed world, because it's delivered over cables that were installed early — premature infrastructure may give your economy a leg up in the early years, but handicaps you down the line — but a shift to high-bandwidth wireless will make up the gap, assuming the frequencies are available (see also: shutting down analog TV and radio to make room). It's easier to lay a single fat fibre to a radio transciever station than it is to lay lots of thin fibres to everybody's front door, after all.
Anyway, here's Steve Jobs' strategic dilemma in a nutshell: the PC industry as we have known it for a third of a century is beginning to die.
PCs are becoming commodity items. The price of PCs and laptops is falling by about 50% per decade in real terms, despite performance simultaneously rising in real terms. The profit margin on a typical netbook or desktop PC is under 10%. Apple has so far survived this collapse in profitability by aiming at the premium end of the market — if they were an auto manufacturer, they'd be Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Jaguar rolled into one. But nevertheless, the underlying prices are dropping. Moreover, the PC revolution has saturated the market at any accessible price point. That is, anyone who needs and can afford a PC has now got one. Elsewhere, in the developing world, the market is still growing — but it's at the bottom end of the price pyramid, with margins squeezed down to nothing.
At the same time, wireless broadband is coming. As it does so, organizations and users will increasingly move their data out into the cloud (read: onto hordes of servers racked up high in anonymous data warehouses, owned and maintained by some large corporation like Google). Software will be delivered as a service to users wherever they are, via whatever device they're looking at — their phone, laptop, tablet, the TV, a direct brain implant, whatever. (Why is this? Well, it's what everyone believes — everyone in the industry, anyway. Because it offers a way to continue to make money, by selling software as a service, despite the cost of the hardware exponentially dropping towards zero. And, oh, it lets you outsource a lot of annoying shitty admin tasks like disk management, backup, anti-virus, and so on.)
My take on the iPhone OS, and the iPad, isn't just that they're the start of a whole new range of Apple computers that have a user interface as radically different from their predecessors as the original Macintosh was from previous command-line PCs. Rather, they're a hugely ambitious attempt to keep Apple relevant to the future of computing, once Moore's law tapers off and the personal computer industry craters and turns into a profitability wasteland.
The App Store and the iTunes Store have taught Steve Jobs that ownership of the sales channel is vital. Even if he's reduced to giving the machines away, as long as he can charge rent for access to data (or apps) he's got a business model. He can also maintain quality (whatever that is), exclude malware, and beat off rivals. A well-cultivated app store is actually a customer draw. It's also a powerful tool for promoting the operating system the apps run on. Operating system, hardware platform, and apps define an ecosystem.
Apple are trying desperately to force the growth of a new ecosystem — one that rivals the 26-year-old Macintosh environment — to maturity in five years flat. That's the time scale in which they expect the cloud computing revolution to flatten the existing PC industry. Unless they can turn themselves into an entirely different kind of corporation by 2015 Apple is doomed to the same irrelevance as the rest of the PC industry — interchangable suppliers of commodity equipment assembled on a shoestring budget with negligable profit.
Signs of the Macpocalypse abound. This year, for the first time, the Apple Design Awards at WWDC'10 are only open to iPhone and iPad apps. Mac apps need not apply; they don't contribute to Apple's new walled garden ecosystem.
Any threat to the growth of the app store software platform is going to be resisted, vigorously, at this stage. Steve Jobs undoubtedly believes what he (or an assistant) wrote in his thoughts on flash: "Flash is a cross platform development tool. It is not Adobe's goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps." And he really does not want cross-platform apps that might divert attention and energy away from his application ecosystem. The long term goal is to support the long-term migration of Apple from being a hardware company with a software arm into being a cloud computing company with a hardware subsidiary — almost like Google, if you squint at the Google Nexus One in the right light. The alternative is to join the PC industry in a long death spiral into irrelevance.
Let's peer five years into the future ...
LTE will be here. WiMax will be here. We will be seeing pocket 4G routers similar to the MiFi but featuring 50-100mbps internet connectivity. (Meanwhile, fibre-in-the-ground speeds will be mostly topped out at 50-100mbps, except where new construction in high-value areas has permitted the installation of gigabit and faster links.) Internet access will be increasingly mobile. Phone screens are okay, but a 7-8cm diagonal screen is too small for anyone aged over 40-45 to be comfortable squinting at: hence the market for larger pads/tablets.
The availability of 50+mbps data everywhere means that you don't need to keep your data on a local hard drive; it can live on a server elsewhere, streamed to your pad as you need it.
Apple is known to be investing heavily in data centres suitable for cloud hosting. There are persistent rumours that "iTunes 10" will be some kind of cloud service, slurping up your music and video library and streaming it out to whatever device you've registered with Apple. There's MobileMe for email, and iWork.com for office documents. There will be more — much more.
The iPad by 2015 will have evolved. There will be smaller models with 7"/18cm screens, and larger desktop models. Most importantly they'll be using newer processors, either a descendant of today's Atom CPU (remember, Apple's demand that developers only use Apple's compiler toolchain mean that Apple can shift the app store to a new CPU architecture quite easily) or Cortex A9 class ARM cores — dual core, 2GHz, and up, vastly faster than the current machine ... or vastly more energy-efficient at the same performance level. But where it will really shine — the value proposition that will keep punters forking over huge gobbets of steaming money, in the midst of a PC industry that's cratering — will be the external benefits of joining the Apple ecosystem.
If you're using an iPad in 2015, my bet is that you won't bother to have home broadband; you'll just have data on demand wherever you are. You won't bother yourself about backups, because your data is stored in Apple's cloud. You won't need to bother about software updates because all that stuff will simply happen automatically in the background, without any fuss: nor will worms or viruses or malware be allowed. You will, of course, pay a lot more for the experience than your netbook-toting hardcore microsofties — but you won't have to worry about your antivirus software breaking your computer, either. Because you won't have a "computer" in the current sense of the word. You'll just be surrounded by a swarm of devices that give you access to your data whenever and however you need it.
This is why there's a stench of panic hanging over silicon valley. this is why Apple have turned into paranoid security Nazis, why HP have just ditched Microsoft from a forthcoming major platform and splurged a billion-plus on buying up a near-failure; it's why everyone is terrified of Google:
The PC revolution is almost coming to an end, and everyone's trying to work out a strategy for surviving the aftermath.