“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.
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.
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.
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.