Apple’s Science Fiction Dream

| Hidden Dimensions

“Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.”

-- Robert A. Heinlein

There is a cult SciFi theme that goes like this: a spirited group of technologists, engineers, scientists and others manage to build a fleet of spaceships, leave Earth, set up a colony on Mars, and make it self-sustaining. They set up a new, more modern government*. That got me thinking.  When I consider the Apple iPad, this device may be just the beginning of a similar dream for Apple: leaving the PC world forever behind.

 

Martian Colony

Concept for early Martian colony. Credit: NASA Ames

I have often had the feeling that Apple would just like to depart from the world of the PC: the decrepit, ugly desktop tower, the dusty mouse, the physical keyboard complete with cracker crumbs. Even the PC notebooks, blocky and ugly that most of them are, probably make stomachs turn at Apple. (Some Sony Vaio models excepted.)

Now that the iPad has been announced, I am even more certain that Apple's master plan is to leave the PC planet behind, disappearing like a Pale Blue Dot in the view screen. While stacks of ugly PCs pile up at Best Buy, showcasing Windows 7, Apple plans to take up residence on a different technical planet. Namely, beautiful slate-like computers of all sizes. With their virtual keyboards that are easily customizable, and no need for mice, these beautiful, thin displays will be joyfully carried around by Apple customers as if they're really living in that Martian colony.

More immediately, can you imagine walking down the aisle of a 787 (in a few years) on a flight from Denver to Dulles? Imagine nerdy businessmen in suits with a loosened tie toiling away with MS Word and Excel on an ugly black PC notebook while other passengers, seemingly from a different planet, work on essentially a 15 inch piece of glass and aluminum that looks like something right out of Star Trek. (That's assuming the iPad line swells to include new models, larger displays, and even Mac OS X models.)  Who wouldn't want to make that leap? What businessman, trapped by his corporate IT managers, wouldn't glance across the aisle, envious of other technical users who somehow seem to have left them dramatically behind? The jump would be not just from a PC to a Mac. Rather, it'll be from a PC to a whole new kind of technical life.

That's what we love about Apple.

Current technology has made it possible for Apple to recapture the spirit of its roots: set the pace and become clearly differentiated. That's something that Apple hasn't been able to achieve in recent times. Other tasks took precedence: first, simply surviving, then flourishing, then setting a firm technical foundation with Mac OS X, then expanding the product line. Oh, and along the way, getting some money in the bank.

How the Edge Was Lost

Back in the dark ages, around 1991, Apple had some pretty cool Macs while PC users were still mired in DOS. Apple was making good money. Meanwhile, on the PC side, just marrying a mouse with DOS was the big thing. However, over time, Microsoft was able to copy what Apple was doing with the WIMP interface (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing device).

That was due in part to poor IP protections and a strategic error made by John Sculley who opened the door, contractually, to a GUI for Microsoft back in the 1980s. That resulted in a lawsuit by Apple against Microsoft in 1988, one that Apple eventually lost. (The fascinating saga has been documented at Low End Mac.) Once that GUI door was opened, Microsoft was eventually able to mimic the Mac OS look and feel. Today, many non-technical users are not able to differentiate between Windows 7 and Snow Leopard, and that has to irk Apple.

T-minus Zero

Like the science fiction theme of making a clean break, politically and spatially, from the institutions of Earth, Apple would like nothing more than to, once again, make a solid leap forward with a new generation of iPads and other tablet devices. However, this time Apple will be protected by patents rather than mere copyrights. In addition, development will be fueled by custom, proprietary hardware, thanks to PA Semi, and leveraged from the modern underpinnings of Mac OS X so carefully crafted over the last decade.

iPad

Very soon, the regrettable consensus that Windows 7 is "just as good as a Mac" will evaporate into thin air as Apple launches dramatically forward at a pace the PC community cannot match -- constrained as they are by American businesses. The pathetic PCs, fans humming, will linger on for years, fueled by companies with not a lot of money and even less vision**. But Apple's customers, working in their offices and homes, will be using devices that look like they come from the latest science fiction movie.

Steve Jobs once said, before he returned to Apple, "If I were running Apple, I would milk the Macintosh for all it’s worth —- and get busy on the next great thing. The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago.” One shouldn't underestimate these declarations by the famous visionary, for time has proven that Mr. Jobs has had career long goals and visions that continue to become instantiated in various products. Apple has been preparing for the Next Big Thing for many years now. The iPhone can be thought of as preparation meeting opportunity, but now the trajectory is clear.

The iPad and its future siblings foretell The Great Escape. The first flight for the colony departs in late March. Many will be left behind.

_____________

* Of course, after twenty years of colonial growth, typical SciFi scenarios have the crumbling Earth governments jealous of the prosperous Martian colony. Earth tries to either tax the colony to death or declare the colonial government illegal. War ensues.

** Remember, the vast majority of PCs are still running Windows XP.

Author note: Astute readers will note that the proposed 2011 budget by the White House essentially terminates the manned return to moon program, the Constellation Project (Ares I and Orion). Those systems would have also paved the way to Mars. With regret, my long standing prediction that the next human to walk on the moon will do so on the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11, July 2069, now seems conservative. It'll take a new generation of men and women business people with vision, money and great engineering to start moving humans to lunar and Martian colonies -- something the U.S. government seems to always find expensive and inconvenient.

Even so, I liked the colony metaphor.

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19 Comments Leave Your Own

FlipFriddle

I posted here about this feeling too yesterday, but I can’t find it. This is the reason why the techno-literati are so annoyed by the iPad; the most advanced sci-fi looking computer wasn’t designed for them. Sour grapes has led to the nit-picks and complaints. Especially complaints about something that isn’t even for sale yet at that 99% of them have never even used.

futurelooker

I completely agree with your view. The next generation computer will be coming from the concept and vision of iPad. It is not the iPad as a product that matters but the vision and concept it brings together with the technology advancement that supports such a device. I have left windowXP machine and manual car for years. Human needs to accept or adapt changes and think out of box in order to have a big leap in progress. Those who are still living in the legacy OS era need to rethink why they are still using those device or technology today.

Lee Dronick

Science fiction? The Golden Apples of the Sun

Anyway John you are making some great points with this article. However, unless I am misunderstanding your statement, I don’t think that Apple will leave the PC world behind. We will still need Macs to design content and programs for iSpacePads.

Last evening I was at a Shakespeare reading of King Lear. Before the event began we were talking about not having enough room in our homes for our books. One of the fellows, about my age (pushing 60) brought out his Kindle and said that except for some rare collectables that he was getting rid of his books. I showed them the Shakespeare app on my iPhone and how I could use Safari to look up things about Shakespeare. Now I passed on the Kindle, because I wanted more than a one trick pony and was pretty certain that Apple could do one better.

“A million candles have burned themselves out, still I read on.”

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

The value of your product is not determined as much by features or patents or even price point as it is by the size of your network. As Apple separates itself from the crowd, the size of its network becomes constrained by the size of its user base. For the sake of argument, let’s say in 5 years that 5% of computer users get and use an iPad (or successor) as a primary device. The other 95% can buy a 64GB compact flash card for $30, and bring their entire music library plus Avatar and Up in the Air 2 with plenty of gigs to spare. They can walk up to 95% of devices ranging from car stereos to 200 inch AMOLED screens to a no-name Windows tablet PC that, coincidentally, displays Flash in the browser and play their content. Even the Linux and Android devices can play their content! Meanwhile, back on Martian colony iPad, space cadet Steve Jobs doesn’t want to soil his beloved iPad with a compact flash port or even wireless USB4 so that people can connect these storage devices. Rumor says that jailbroken iPads can connect to the devices, but apps cannot read from since the iPad has long ago not just hidden the file system, but jettisoned it altogether.

Back to Adobe Flash… And to paraphrase Sun… The network is the computer. There is a giant network of preexisting content, of producers large and small that the iPad just shuts itself off to in the name of Jobsian purity. You do not have to be a card carying member of the technarati to ask “how dumb is that?”. Economists would simply put it this way. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.

geoduck

I remember when the Mac came out many (myself included) disparaged it. I’d been using primitive DOS computers, Commodore PET and 64 systems and Apple IIs. “Real computers use a command line” was the refrain that our group repeated. Well, we were wrong. The WIMP environment has taken over, (but I do find it depressing that in 2010 I still have to do some Win XP and Win Server functions in the command line). However, I’ve been thinking for a few years that the WIMP paradigm was showing its age. It was time to take a new course. I think the iPad might be it.

I missed my chance to get an original Macintosh, I won’t miss out on the original iPad.

YodaMac

The value of your product is not determined as much by features or patents or even price point as it is by the size of your network.

Don’t forget that Apple is building some sort of giant server/network/storage facility of its own.

Why would I want to carry around a flash card (only 64GB!!?) at all when I could access my entire library “in the cloud” from anywhere thanks to my various mobile Macs.

And it’s not just accessing your content, but HOW you access it that matters.  You can keep your bloated Flash and no-name Windows tablets of frustration.

dbarnard1

I agree with the spirit of the piece, but have one nit to pick - you call for models running the Mac OS, but by your own logic that would be a step backwards. I envision an iPad OS that enables access to a file system and multitasking.

To Flashman: Why do you still need a mac? why not an iPad-inspired device that provides the screen real estate and UI required to do real design work? Heck, if they can come up with a version of Numbers for the iPad they can surely come up with a version of Xcode. To take the analogy a step further, we won’t get to Mars until we can stop thinking of the problem in terms of the Apollo program (recommended reading: Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars).

All this aside, I’d still like to have access to the command line, but that’s just because I’m a crotchety old fart. smile

Donald

“The value of your product is not determined as much by features or patents or even price point as it is by the size of your network.”

Apple made a similar decision regarding floppy disks. The size of its network didn’t seem to matter much through that transition. Apparently it saw what a lot of pundits who protested loudly did not. It was time to leave the floppy disk behind despite the legacy implications. Same for Flash. It’s time to move to something better. Cheers to Apple for having the guts to push things in the right direction!

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@YodaMac “network” in a generic sense, as in the number of people you can use some means to share data that both parties understand. Ah forget it. This is now solved by the North Carolina data center. How did I not anticipate that?!? Sorry for piping in with an Econ 101 perspective.

@Donald. The floppy example irks me because it’s flat-out dishonest revisionist history. When the iMac was introduced, I was helping a school figure out how to integrate them. Fortunately, we could buy a few third party USB floppy drives so that they could continue to access applications and data that were on floppies. The drives were pricey, $200ish or so, but we didn’t need one per station.

John Martellaro

I don’t see a 15- or 17-inch super iPad or iTablet with Mac OS X and a command line a step backwards.  It’s the physical format that Apple is driving for, that look and feel in the hands. Some don’t believe Apple will ever do this, but I think they will as the family of devices fleshes out and Apple seeks to move customers away from the MacBooks. This will take a few years though.
It’s just a feeling I have.

Donald

The floppy example irks me because it?s flat-out dishonest revisionist history.

The most important fact is that Apple saw that the floppy disk had to go and successfully prompted that transition despite the inconvenience to the so-called “network,” which it must have foreseen. Another important fact is that they were right.

FlipFriddle

Why do we care about Flash, when it seems like YouTube is actively trying to kill it right now? The “I can’t watch Hulu on iPad” arguement is also pointless as Hulu won’t be free by the end of the year, at which point no one will watch it.
Let’s all take a breath until the iPad comes out. BTW, if there are any of the Apple Haters around who want to buy an iPad just to destroy it, please buy it and send it to me and I can destroy it for you. I promise I’ll destroy it and not use it. Really.

Lee Dronick

To Flashman: Why do you still need a mac? why not an iPad-inspired device that provides the screen real estate and UI required to do real design work?

Yes we need something and it doesn’t have to be what I am using now because I am willing to change and grow. Hell, I started out in the early ‘60s working in a small print shop setting movable type into a composing stick. Mostly we did business cards, letter heads and such, but it got me started.

aardman

When I bought my first AAPL stock 5 or 6 years ago, I bought it on blind faith that AAPL will follow a trajectory similar to Microsoft’s first 20 years when the stock price grew (on a split-adjusted basis) from 7 cents to about $40.  Yes, blind faith.  I just believed that Apple will find a way to marginalize Windows and take over Microsoft’s perch as the dominant firm in the tech industry.

Now Apple seems to be on the verge of going up the steep segment of the hockey stick and what’s driving it is mobile computing.  I thought in 2005 it would be by conquering the living room.  Far from it, it turns out to be the complete opposite— It’s by conquering the great (urban) outdoors.

My narrative nowadays for Apple’s success (and unbound riches for my retirement) involves Apple’s mobile devices becoming powerful enough that we won’t buy a separate desktop or laptop anymore. iPhoneOS and MacOS will merge in function.  Buggy whip makers didn’t die* because somebody came up with a better whip.  And Windows will not die because Apple came up with a better desktop OS.  Like buggy whips, Windows will die because the need for it will disappear.

*Okay, drastically diminish.

aardman

Oops, above post of mine, the asterisk was meant to be on “Windows will die”.

Nemo

Dear Bosco:  There aren’t any limits on Apple’s base for these new markets.  These are new days, with Apple being the first mover.  The iPhone is a success and has created a huge network of users and ecosystem of developers, which the iPad will leverage for its apps.  Those networks are far larger than any other network for any other smartphones.  And I don’t count those pseudo smartphones from Nokia as smartphones with that awful Symbian OS, and I doubt that Nokia does either.

And the field for tablet computers is completely open.  Microsoft’s efforts to do tablets have been an utter failure, except in a few vertical markets.  Apple, once again, being the first mover has right now the biggest and best network or the beginnings of such a network.

So the network effects, as they are at this point, are all in Apple’s favor.

James

I posted here about this feeling too yesterday, but I can?t find it. This is the reason why the techno-literati are so annoyed by the iPad; the most advanced sci-fi looking computer wasn?t designed for them. Sour grapes has led to the nit-picks and complaints. Especially complaints about something that isn?t even for sale yet at that 99% of them have never even used.

This is something that has been cracking me up as well, particularly when the comments are called ‘reviews’ of a product most of us have never seen or touched. I think that in a year or two, the entire landscape will look very different indeed, just as has occurred in the smart phone market. The sad thing is that Microsoft is finally fixing Windows just in time for that entire computing model to be usurped, by and large. wink I know Apple may never be number one in terms of numbers, but I love how they keep pulling the rug out.

vsp

Not to be undone by Apple, there would be a lot of copycat tablets from the Android and Windows platforms. These tablets will incorporate feature-rich add-ons and they will attempt to be netbooks, laptops, supercomputer and e-book readers all roll into one device. But their user interface will be crap and most of the features will be so badly implemented and which the real users are not interested at all. The manufacturers of these tablets will cut prices to the bare bone competing among themselves that within a few years the majority of them will land in the intensive care unit of the technology wards.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

But their user interface will be crap and most of the features will be so badly implemented and which the real users are not interested at all. The manufacturers of these tablets will cut prices to the bare bone competing among themselves that within a few years the majority of them will land in the intensive care unit of the technology wards.

This gets a giant CHILD, PLEASE. The Windows and Android side of the market will have a plethora of form factors from hundreds of companies large and small, and 80% of buyers in this segment will gravitate to one of those that is just right for them, instead of the one perfect form factor as anointed by Steve Jobs. I think Apple gets this and accepts its niche. Its fans on the other hand… The computer market to them is like this pretty girl that they’ve asked out 100 times and she always says no (usually laughing disparagingly) and they come back the next time, “but look at my shiny tablet” as if that’s going to make a difference. Apple does not have the temperament to be bigger than a 20% player in the computing market. Whereas Microsoft knows that things always come down to price, Apple gets arrogant about style. Case in point: Flash. All it does is motivate the rest of the market to not let Apple be belligerent with it. It never, ever wins anything for Apple except getting its fanboys whipped up in a frenzy around the pirate ship flag.

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