I confess: My last post, about the Zonbu, was frivolous. The Zonbu will be lucky to be a footnote in the history of 21st century computing. Yes, it has the right model, more or less. What it doesn’t have is the muscle.
I know precisely what the future of personal computing looks like – and you do, too, if you’ve been paying attention. If you haven’t been paying attention, I’m going to lay it out for you now. (I’ve been waiting patiently for Robert X. Cringely to explain it – he’s a pro at this kind of thing – but since he appears to be asleep at the big switch, the task falls on me.) The future of personal computing was divulged by Mr. Eric Schmidt, the chief executive officer of Google, on March 23 of this year during an interview with Wired’s Fred Vogelstein. Vogelstein asked Schmidt why he had recently joined Apple’s board of directors, and Schmidt responded:
Google’s architectural model around broadband and services and so forth plays very well to the powerful devices and services Apple is doing. We’re a perfect back end to the problems that they’re trying to solve. And they have very good judgment on user interface and people. They don’t have this supercomputer I’m talking about, which is the data centers.
At this very moment, in a building somewhere in Silicon Valley, I guarantee you that a team of engineers from Google and Apple are designing a set of devices that, hooked up as terminals to Google’s “supercomputer,” will define how we use computers in the future. You can see various threads of this system today – in Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch, its dot-mac service, its iLife and iWork applications as well as in Google’s Apps suite and advertising system, not to mention its vast data-center network. What this team is doing right now is weaving all those threads together into what will be, for most of us, the fabric of cloud computing. (This is so big, you need at least two metaphors to describe it.)
Here’s how the partnership works. Apple is taking responsibility for “the user interface and people.” It’s designing the devices themselves, which will be typically elegant machines that run versions of OS X. While Apple puts together the front end of the integrated network-computing system, Google provides “the perfect back end” – the supercomputer that provides the bulk of the data-processing might and storage capacity for the devices. While the devices will come with big flash drives to ensure seamless computing despite the vagaries of network traffic, all data will be automatically backed up into Google’s data centers, and those centers will also serve up most of the applications that the devices run. The applications themselves will represent the joint efforts of Google and Apple – this, I’m sure, is the trickiest element of the partnership – and will be supplemented, of course, by myriad web-delivered software services created by other companies (many of which will, in due course, also run on Google’s supercomputer).
Let’s look at a few of the advantages that a Google-Apple Cloud Computer offers:
1. It will be cheap. The introductory machine, a small, general-purpose Apple-branded computer, will go on sale for $199 and in short order the price will fall to $99. There will be no monthly charge for all the applications you use or the data you store – Google will serve all of that up, along with advertisements, naturally, for free. Premium business accounts, without ads, will go for $50 a month, the same price that Google Apps currently goes for.
2. It will be highly energy-efficient. The Cloud Computer, outfitted with a low-power chip, a flash drive and a superefficient LED screen and lacking any optical drive (plug in a usb drive if you need one), will consume a small fraction of the power that a traditional PC burns through. The first model may well be marketed as “the Prius of PCs” and flaunted by celebrities. (Watch for an ad featuring George Clooney.)
3. It will be low-maintenance. With few moving parts and software served up from distant data centers, the machine will be highly reliable and basically immune to viruses and other nasties. Eventually, it will fail, of course. At which point you’ll trade it in for a new one (recycling included), which as soon as you plug it in will precisely replicate the former one. You’ll be about as concerned with “PC maintenance” as you are with refrigerator maintenance. Upgrades and patches? Forget about ‘em.
4. It will be flexible. Because your data and applications are stored centrally, you will automatically have full access to them whenever you buy a new Google-Apple device (maybe they’ll license the system to other manufacturers, too) or walk up to a public terminal. Forget about syncing, forget about thumb drives, forget about backups. You’ll never think about that stuff again. All your data is with you all the time.
Why do you think Google is spending billions of dollars a year building data centers? Why do you think Microsoft is madly trying to catch up, spending even more billions than Google? It’s not just search and ads. What’s at stake is control over personal computing itself – and Microsoft knows that, confronting the combined front-end and back-end skills of Google and Apple, it’s at a big disadvantage. It will likely lose this war.
So how how long before the first Google-Apple Cloud Computer appears? I would say it’s months, not years. And then the fireworks really begin.