Beyond The Digital Hub
January 19th, 2001

In his keynote speech at last week's MACWORLD Expo, Steve Jobs showed us that the computer does have relevance in the future. By way of contrast, mainstream tech pundits have been busily decrying the death of the PC for the last six to nine months. They approach the subject with a giddiness not seen outside a slumber party of 12 year old school girls talking about who is cuter, the guy from The Backstreet Boys or his little brother busily making a mint with his own insipid solo efforts.

I think their bleetings are kind of funny, to be honest. I would love to round up all the nimrods who are saying this and line 'em up so I can point at them and laugh. Certainly a change in the way we use computers is in the process of occurring, but, personally, I believe that some form of desktop computer will be central to our computing lives for some time to come.

That's part of what Steve Jobs was talking about. The Digital Hub as he described it would be the central repository for all of our data as well as the central point of control for all of our other digital gadgets. That makes a lot of sense to me, but it touches on something that I hope is even bigger than Brother Steve let on. I have mentioned it before, but I shan't let that stop me from mentioning it again.

Before I get into it, however, let's look at where we are seeing change now. Most obvious is the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). For instance, the Palm. It fits in your palm, you carry your data, you can play some games, and you can play a few MP3s on one... You can use a Palm to figure out where you are on the planet (GPS), or to make a telephone call. I even saw one reporter at MACWORLD SF using a Palm VII and a portable keyboard as his entire word processing/reporting center. Rock on. That's pretty darned incredible when you think about it. Handhelds are certainly getting more powerful, and the talented developers of the world are constantly figuring out more cool things we can do with them.

Then there are MP3 players. Some of these units do more than just hold and play your MP3 files. There are at least two models that will, or soon will, allow you to use the player itself as a portable hard drive. The HipZip from Iomega allows you to put data files onto the PocketZip (formerly the Click! drive) disks the device uses and transfer them to your computer. The Nomad from Creative Labs currently uses a 6 GB hard drive, and the folks at Creative Labs tell me that once they move on to larger hard drives, they will also include the ability to use the device to store data files. That's a portable hard drive and MP3-player-in-one to you and me. Let's throw in a near-cliché word at this and call it "convergence."

It is likely that as time marches on, we will see similar convergence happening with other devices like cameras, PCS phones, and even handheld gaming devices. This is fine and dandy for all your portable needs, but there is more to computing than being portable. For instance, how many of us want to keep all of our data in a portable device. Do you want to have all your work, all your poetry, your entire Web site, and all your apps in a portable device that is just as easy to steal as it is to carry? Scary thought, eh?

I personally want to be able to access all my data that sits on my home computer from anywhere in the world. In other words, I want to take my desktop with me wherever I go, but I want it to sit at home safe and sound while I just tap into it. That's freedom. I don't want to carry all my MP3s with me, I want to stream them to my handheld PDA. I don't want to sync up my Palm to my Mac, I want to tap into my address book and calendar with my PDA. I don't want to copy this Word file I am working on from my laptop to my desktop, I want to open up Word on my home system from Starbucks and write to my home drive.

This isn't wacky stuff here either. We are already very close to having this already. For instance, Windows 2000 Professional has some of this ability now. When you are working on a LAN, you can download a copy of your desktop to whatever system you are logging onto. It takes a while, and you run the risk of leaving it behind if you don't take the right precautions, but it is a step in the right direction. Microsoft's .Net plan is also a twisted version of this vision, except that you are logging into *their* servers, *their* hard drives, and *their* applications. Better yet, you will get the privilege of renting these things from MS and never owning them. Dandy, eh?

Fortunately, Apple has already taken a bigger step in that same direction, but they did it right. The NetBoot feature built into Mac OS X Server (but not Mac OS X Public Beta to my knowledge) is just this kind of concept, but set up for a corporate market. You start up your dumb iMac like a terminal (no hard drive, just a CPU and some RAM) and run your system directly from a central server. This is an old Unix concept taken to delicious Aqua GUI goodness. Whatever terminal/iMac you log in from, you have your desktop courtesy of the server.

Extend that out to the day when we have enough broadband capacity to do the same thing from anywhere in the world across the Internet. Now extend that out to a time when all that broadband capacity is available wirelessly. Now you have a home computer that acts as your central server, your central desktop. Take a wireless PDA-like device, a projected screen or an LPD screen that you unroll to whatever size you prefer, make it a Mac OS X NetBoot-capable, and I am in productivity heaven.

Isn't that the muse that has driven Steve Jobs for all of his computing profession? He has always talked about making Insanely Great Stuff that allow us to do cool things. Technology that makes it easy for us to create and be creative. Steve Jobs is about empowering the individual to do cool things (as long as we use the tools he designed in the way he wants us too, but that is a subject for another column), and the Digital Hub is just the beginning of that. At least, I hope it is just the beginning.

We have been dealing with a desktop paradigm for so long, we often take it for granted. Since no one has really come up with a different paradigm for operating a computer that works (that I am aware of*), it's easy to forget that things could seriously change. In this case, I think that the more things change, the more they will stay the same. It will just get better.

Other computer companies can chase the Digital Convergence in the form of making portable devices that do more. Some can try and capitalize on the MP3 revolution. I think Apple will be sitting in the right place with the right technology and the right vision to truly take the computer where we want it to go.