Saturday, January 15, 2011

The future is in the Air

Google and Apple have similar ideas about the future: web-based, or "cloud computing."

For Google, that means applications (apps) in the cloud, and a hardware-agnostic infrastructure, emphasizing utility over aesthetics.

For Apple, it means constant connectivity, though less emphasis on working in the cloud. Rather, Apple is hoping that you'll always have an Internet connection, so that you can instantly, impulsively buy things from the iTunes Store (iTS) and the new Mac App Store (MAS).

Apps on the MAS are cheaper that similar versions sold in boxes and DVDs, and Apple allows you to pick and choose the apps, the same way that iTunes lets you choose your own singles instead of buying the whole album on CD. For example, if you don't want to spend $80 to buy the entire iLife '11 suite, you can purchase only GarageBand for $14.99 via the Mac App store, and download it straight to your computer.

Six years ago, Apple cornered the market on flash RAM by striking long-term deals with two key suppliers.  It looked like another Jobs vanity move at the time, as investors wondered, "C'mon! How many iPods can you possibly sell?" About 40 million. Since then, Apple has released flash-based iPods, iPhones, and iPads, and... the MacBook Air, a flash-based laptop.  Guess Jobs had a vision, after all.

There is no DVD or CD drive on a MacBook Air computer, just as there is no external storage (SD card slots) on iPhone, iPods, or iPads.  To get apps onto one of these devices, you must buy them from the iTunes Store. While you can currently install software from a disc onto a MacBook Air, it's a pain, requiring another Mac computer, or an external USB DVD drive, and who has one of those laying around?  Why would Apple make it so hard?  Because it's the future.

Jobs is clearly positioning Apple to be the leader in streaming software, such as the kind available on the Mac App Store.  Successful software makers' biggest problem has always been not piracy, but license abuse.  Customers buy one disc, then install it on several computers, usually in violation of the "one computer per disc" license (though some companies do allow multiple installs).

What better way to enforce the "one install per computer" rule than by making disc installation impossible?  That, dear readers, is where Apple is going. And you can be sure other computer makers will try to follow, as soon as they can figure out how.  My guess is that Google or Amazon, both of whom already have online software stores, will come to the rescue, offering their infrastructure and brand names to desperate hardware makers, in exchange for some hefty revenue splits, and possibly some Google or Amazon-branded hardware deals, much like the Amazon Kindle or Google's Nexus phones allowed them to compete (a little) against Apple's hardware domination.

Apple has already succeeded in this controlled installation model with it's iPhone/iPad/iPod line, by limiting software installation to what you can find on the iTunes Store (unless you Jailbreak the device, in which case there are more options).

So while the future is in the clouds, Steve Jobs sees it as a way to sell more hardware.  Google sees it as a way to sell more advertising.  Both could sell their infrastructure and storage services nicely.  Where does that leave HP, Lenovo, Dell, Asus, and even Microsoft?  Up in the air.