Over the decades, personal computers have made enormous gains in speeds. But in the short term, not much has happened. On the other hand, the maintenance burdens on customers just kept increasing. That's why customers have moved briskly to the tablet. In a sense, the PC industry failed its original vision, and customers moved on. Now what?
What could we do with a Mac that's a thousand times faster than Macs today? We may never get a chance to find out. The vision of a very, very fast personal computer that can do the things we've always dreamed about is fading fast.
The reason the dream is fading is that while it takes hundreds of people to design a Mac and hundreds of people to develop and maintain OS X, the market economics dictate that only a relatively few people in a group can make a living selling Mac software.
The Mac App Store has made the problem worse. There was a time when we weren't too unhappy to pay several hundred dollars for the considerable capabiities of the MS Office suite. Nowadays, if an app in the M.A.S. costs more than US$10, we blink. There's no money to be made by the exploitation of the hardware, only exploitation of the customer.
On the other side of the coin, our Macs are increasingly complex yet enduringly stupid. For example, there's no glimmer of an AI agent in OS X than can monitor the S.M.A.R.T. status of the internal drive. As a result, in the year 2013, what generally happens is that a customer hears the internal drive start to make noises, and soon after that, 2,000 family photos are lost forever. (Unless an automated backup system was in use.)
In general, the burden of PCs & Macs became too large. Operating systems with 50 million lines of code did a lot of graphics and system management, but not much in the way of interacting with the customer -- except through cryptic error messages, system logs and mysterious failures. The dream of our PCs having an intelligent conversation with us about anything vanished, replaced by the headaches of corrupted disk directories and malware.
And so, modern customers said to themselves, "We're tired of viruses. We're tired of the care and feeding of rotating magnetic platters. We're tired of corrupted directories. We're tired of lost files, noisy fans, lost software licences, misbehaving printer drivers, antivirus updates and endless housekeeping chores."
And what we've received in return is a tablet with a fraction of the power our desktops have. iPads are fabulous, but it's like turning back the speed clock 10 years.
What Might Have Been?
If, say, Apple had followed the most authentic dream of personal computing and if our copyright system hadn't gone berserk, things might have been different in an alternate timeline. Here are some examples I can think of with a 500 teraflop scale computer that has the corresponding software. Software, of course, that major PC makers could have developed, but never did.
1. Today, we have to wait for someone else to turn our favorite books into movies. Much of the time, the work is unsatisfactory.
Good morning. I'd like you to work on a movie. Take "The Song of Scarabaeus" by Sara Creasy, the Kindle edition that you already have, and convert it to a movie for me. Three hours max. Use the standard starship interior templates. Use the standard planetary terrain templates. Use the author's description of the lead characters, Edie and Finn. If you have any questions about anything else, just ask. Can you have that ready by tomorrow?"
2. Today, we do manual Google searches and hope that what we're looking for comes up on the first page. We can do better.
Good morning. My sister-in-law is having a health issue with X. I'd like you to scan the Internet, look at all the major medical research journals posted online. Say, the top 5,000. Download the genome I have for her on file and analyze the most definitive findings and tell me what's being said about the best treatments for X."
3. Today, we depend on primitive firewalls and malware detection software to work, blindly, without context, to protect our computers. What if our AI agents in our Macs could carry on a conversation with us? What if that AI agent had a visible human form? Why is it that only the video games, for example, Xbox games, that are full of violence and death get to have the best renderings, visual representations of humans? By that I mean that these games have immersive action, realistic scenes, and character dialog. But my Mac? It just stares at me stupidly with a static desktop. What if my Mac had a name and an active personality?
Good morning Cynthia. What's happening these days?" - Cynthia: "Last night, there were five denial of service attacks. I blocked them. You got 112 spam emails, defined by my current blacklist, but one was from a developer you wrote to on Monday, so I figured you'd want to see that. Your Flash drive wasn't performing very well, so I rearranges some bad blocks. Oh, and you have a dentist appointment at 2 pm today. Don't forget."
4. Education is area where we could really use some computer assistance. AI agents that can teach specific things in an interactive way are always being worked on in university settings, but economics and special interests seem to have kept a major AI effort away from home schooling.
Good morning Cynthia. My son Paul is home from school today. It's a snow day. He's been having problems with factoring polynomials. Can you work with him on that? And when you're done, as an incentive, maybe you can work out some fun games to play. But no first person shooting today, okay? And make sure that patent for his genome gets filed."
Cynthia, in an attractive but modest human teacher form, goes on to interact with Paul, as a holographic representation, writing equatons in the air, demonstrating first and then watching Paul work on simple examples. Later, she'll report his progress.
All of these examples require special effort by a corporation, not individuals.To carry the argument to humorous extremes, no developer living in his mom's basement, charging $5 for a Mac app, is going to achieve this level of software development. We're stuck. But is this kind of effort and vision that Apple should be about?
Steve Jobs thought so. Check out his own vision of how we should be using the power of a computer to interact with the human, not just sit there and do Visicalc number crunching. The video is worth watching from the start, but if you wish, jump ahead to the 11m45s mark where Mr. Jobs notes that ""Visicalc runs fast enough." What's next? His vision for using the hardware horsepower of the computer to serve the user is spot on.
All this may never come to pass however. We're too focused on our tablets now. The Post-PC area is in full swing. There's no more money, no more growth, no more opportunity there unless a company like Apple renews the original vision. Our tablets are devices of limited CPU and graphics power. It may take another 10 to 20 years before our tablets are able to do the things I've fantasized about above. If ever.
That's why the Mac Pro must continue as Apple's commitment and inroad to this enduring vision.
Right now, the fad in mobility is to exploit the user for economic gain, like Facebook Home, instead of exploiting home hardware and software for the user's gain. Perhaps, someday soon, the vision of Mr. Jobs can prevail again at Apple.
Oh, what we could all do with a Mac that's a thousand times faster.
Song of Scarabaeus, © copyright 2010, Sara Creasy.