Google, Apple and the future of personal computing

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.

31 thoughts on “Google, Apple and the future of personal computing

  1. finerobe

    Can’t you just see this. The sum total of knowledge is reduce to a storage device the size of a dime and everybody in the world has access to it. And then some AH accidently loses it throught the hole in his pocket.

    At least the Eygptians had clay tablets that were indestructible.

  2. Thomas

    I’d just like to agree with everything Filip said. (A managed Windows SBS server in a datacentre is pretty much a company-in-a-box. I’d rather have that than Google Apps.)

  3. Filip Verhaeghe

    Here is more food for thought, open for debate.

    It seems like the iPhone is frequently quoted as the device we want to experience our software on. But the iPhone is designed to run a PC-grade operating system (OS X). Why have a full OS, that takes lots of resources, when all you need is a browser. To switch easily between your call and your calendar? That seems like enormous overkill. I’m sure Jobs has something else in mind. Also, the iPhone has a good browser built in. If we are moving to a centralized model, then why care about the SDK to the iPhone OS? Don’t these contradictions show that we simply changing the shape of the PC and the way we experience them, rather than moving to a centralized model?

    Something similar is Intel’s future 80 core processor. The way I understand it, these cores sleep when idle. So essentially, this is computing on demand in my living room. Great for multimedia editing. Do you believe I would care about “utilisation” when an idle core is simply not consuming energy, and an 80-core processor costs the same as a current standard PC processor? Why would I want to rent external computing services as a consumer? Utilitisation doesn’t matter ;-). And isn’t it likely that for the same reasons, “utilisation” will become irrelevant at a corporate level?

    As the number of devices that have the power of a PC grow at home, we are all at risk of becoming part-time system administrators. Fortunately, some self-tuning solutions already exists and more are coming to the market. Just look at what the Home Server is designed to do. The power of the PC is more and more used to manage the PC’s. As a result, the old pain of the PC might going away in the future. At the same time, ulta-low voltage processors consume less energy, and multi-cores are shutting down dynamically. So energy consumption will certainly fall below the pain point as well. Again, domestic computers are leading the way but these solutions are allready finding their way back to small businesses.

    Now that all of my data is in the cloud with zero upload, always available anywhere, it will be interesting to see how applications evolve. They’ll need to be a lot more flexible that they have been in the past. Some real innovations are needed here. Simply putting a less version of the same application in a browser is not going to be enough. I want it to know about and work with my home server whereever I am.


  4. Kendall Brookfeld

    A big hole in this is Apple’s long-standing overpriced closed-box mentality:

    “It will be cheap.”

    When’s the last time Apple shipped anything cheap (in the low price sense of the word)? Its entire line is overpriced and a modest iPod Nano is $149-199. Even if the purchase price is subsidized by advertising or a monthly fee — and don’t forget that iPods and iPhones are subsidized by iTunes and phone bills — a $99 price point is hard to believe.

    “It will be flexible.”

    How flexible or universal will it be if Apple stays true to form: the software and content only run on Apple devices; Apple limits or prevents third-party application development while selling many apps itself; and there are platform lock-in problems?

    Platform lock-in with Apple or Google is a big question, but at least Google is more committed to open standards and free services than Apple is, and this may be a much bigger source of friction than any clash of company cultures. Their collaboration may be due as much to marketing as substance: two of the sexiest companies in the world gain a lot of attention by working together, but it doesn’t mean the collaboration will necessarily go well.

  5. Realtosh

    @ Kendall Brookfeld

    [I]“When’s the last time Apple shipped anything cheap (in the low price sense of the word)?”[/I]

    Compare the $399 iPhone to the inferior $99 Motorola Q phone. Most people given the choice between the iPhone and the Q phone at the same price would almost certainly pick the iPhone in nearly all cases. Now compare the lower subscription plan rates that Apple negotiated with AT&T for the iPhone with a Verizon plan with the Q phone over a 2-year contract period. Did you realize that the iPhone actually costs LESS over a 2-year period than the Q phone. Keep in mind that the Q phone is nothing special compared to the iPhone in any measure: build quality, specs, memory, included apps, interface, design, touch screen. One ought to be disgusted that one is paying many hundreds of dollars more for the much inferior G phone (in the low price sense of the word).

    The cheapest price I’ve paid for a computer (in the low price sense of the word) was the Mac mini at $499. When I tried to buy comparable Dells, I ended up buying $750-$850 Dells after all upgrades to get the Dells up to spec to be able to live on our small network, things like NIC cards, Windows XP Pro, Anti-virus software, etc. These Dell prices are all BEFORE adding any software suites and other useful software titles.

    All the Macs I’ve purchased have come with great best-of-class software included for FREE. Usually the most I have had to spend for most systems is iWork, which includes Pages (the combo of Word and Publisher I’ve ever seen), Keynote, which runs circles around Power Point, and Numbers, which at version 1.0 does most things most people need from Excel spreadsheets in a visually expressive way, all 3 for just $79. (in the low price sense of the word) The rest of the software is FREE (in the low price sense of the word) including the iLife suite [iPhoto, iMovie, iWeb, iDVD, Garage Band], iTunes, Safari browser, Mail, Dashboard widgets, Front Row and Apple remote, iChat video catting, iCal, Address Book, DVD Player, and many others including Xcode development environment, Apache web server, etc.

    On the other hand the Dells came with a bunch of useless demo software, which blew up a number of days after the first use. Office Ultimate cost anywhere from $679 vs. $79 for iWork + all the FREE software on a Mac. Windows Vista Ultimate costs $399 vs $129 for MacOS X Leopard due this Friday, which will run circles around Vista for less than 1/3 of price (in the low price sense of the word). Plus all of those demo software titles on Dell all cost money, in spite of them being less capable, less intuitive and less pleasing to use then their FREE Mac alternatives (FREE in the low price sense of the word).

    “Its entire line is overpriced and a modest iPod Nano is $149-199. Even if the purchase price is subsidized by advertising or a monthly fee”

    Sometimes a few dollars more for a great product is actually cheaper then a few dollars less for a mediocre product. Have you bothered to compare the prices of iPods with Zunes? Same or similar prices for products that are very different in terms of usability, ease of use, design, usefulness, etc.

    “don’t forget that iPods and iPhones are subsidized by iTunes and phone bills”

    Actually the opposite is true.

    1) iPods are more profitable than FREE iTunes software and razor-thin profit margins at iTunes Music Store.

    2) As shown above the lower monthly plans actually make the total cost of using an iPhone lower than many/most ultra-cheap Windows Mobile and Blackberry devices on Verizon or non-iPhone AT&T plans. (total cost in the low price sense of the word)

    “the software only run[s] on Apple devices”

    FREE software meant to stimulate the sales of Macs… So you want your cake and eat it too. So Apple should just create great software and just give it away FREE. You must also download FREE music files illegally because paying artists for their work is too heavy on your wallet.

    “Apple limits or prevents third-party application development while selling many apps itself”

    Apple created the amazing Final Cut professional video-editing software, only after Adobe refused to update their Premiere video product. When Apple’s Final Cut software product came out, it was so good everyone in the business started using it. Adobe then discontinued Premiere and blamed Apple and Final Cut, but had already stopped upgrading Premiere, even though Apple was begging them to update the Mac version for a couple of years previously. Apple went out and purchased Final Cut and it’s engineering team, only after Adobe refused to update the Mac version of the product. Usage of the superior Final Cut was so great and the pricing, even at $999, was so much lower than previous high-end video products that Avid, the maker of high-end video-editing work stations actually had to drop their prices by thousands of dollars to compete with the Apple software and computers.

    After Microsoft stopped updating Internet Explorer for Mac, Apple created the Safari web browser. Then Microsoft blamed Safari when announcing the discontinuation of Explorer on Mac, even though Microsoft had not done any development on it for years.

    Do Adobe and Microsoft think we are that stupid?

    Apple went on to purchase numerous professional software titles that had previously sold for multiple $1,000’s, often $4,000-$6,000+ After cleaning them up, Apple put them out at $999. Over time, a number of these software titles were joined together in suites or $999 – $1,499, many thousands less than any one of these programs individually had sold for previously for a whole suite of them.

    Imagine Apple actually lowering prices (in the low price sense of the word) for software, both at the low-end for consumers and the high-end for professionals.

    “more committed to open standards and free services than Apple is”

    Apple has implemented the following open standards in their hardware and software: Ethernet, Firewire, USB, OpenGL, X11, IDE, SATA drives, WC3 web standards, official UNIX implementation, mp3, AAC=mp4, H.264, Darwin-open source version of Mac OS X core, CalDAV, WebDAV, RSS, wiki, Jabber XMPP, SSL/TLS, SMTP, POP, and IMAP, Apache 2 web server, Ruby on Rails, Tomcat 5, WebObjects, 64-bit Java VM, SSIs, PHP, Perl, Apache modules, custom CGIs, JavaServer Pages, JavaScript, OpenSSL, L2TP/IPSec and PPTP VPN, 802.11n, 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, bonjour zero conf, etc. etc.

    I guess there is so much about Apple that you didn’t know or just wanted to misrepresent. I made the courtesy of providing you with some facts. I hope this helps clear up some misconceptions.

  6. Tom Foremski

    Makes total sense, except for the fact that Schmidt/GOOG messed up the Apple relationship.

    Back in mid-2005 I was writing about the “Walkabout Wiki” a $200 tablet sized device.

    It would let me record messages, or events photo, video or audio. The Walkabout Wiki would naturally, have a built in Skype-like phone service, broadband, and bluetooth. It would have open source Office-like applications, which would be a mixture of client side and server side – but I shouldn’t really know or care. All I need to know is that I have access to my applications, to a degree, even if an Internet connection is not available.

    When a Walkabout Wiki walks into a hotspot, or hops a bluetooth connection, things sync up and I don’t need to know. Everything is always backed up and I can roll things back to any point in time on my device.

    And it would be very robust, you can play frisbee with it, let your dog bring it back and send it spinning back out again, and it still keeps working, dog slobber and all…

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