State of the iUnion Steve-note

(Yes, I’m rambling. I know it. Its occasionally how I get thoughts out. If you’re not ready to chase a few rabbits in this post, probably best you just move along somewhere else.)

No, this is not a political debate, not unless you’re ready to see me pit Apple v/s Google. In honor of Obama’s first State of the Union address, I’ve decided to spend the time blogging about Apple’s new iPad. Its not that I have any disrespect for our president, but I’d just rather talk about our iCEO’s new gadget.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to watch the live blogging of today’s launch due to an over abundance of meetings that sat squarely on top of my afternoon. Seriously, in the 3 years I’ve been in this job, I’ve not gotten to watch a single live blog of an Apple event. The last one I saw was the 2007 MacWorld Keynote and I had to cut that one short to go interview for my current job. Seriously, who keeps my schedule? Do they not know I have more important things to do? I’ve got to remember to write them a stern note tomorrow…

I did glimpse, occasionally, at what Engadget’s live blog as my iPhone did attend my meetings as a silent partner. Unfortunately the glimpses were rather fleeting, due to questions posed of me and really crappy AT&T service. Overall, Apple lived up to my expectations and failed miserably to fulfill my fantasies. Now, I could spend lots of time going over my thoughts on the device; something I had planned to do, but I think enough people already did that so that anything I could have said has already been said elsewhere. Instead, I think I’d rather spend my time talking about what the iPad means to a market in transition.

I’d like to start this discussion at something you can’t even see in the device… the processor. Apple created, courtesy of their purchase of P.A. Semi, created a variant of the Arm processor called the A4. At first glance, this seems to be an odd move, given the fairly recent move Apple made away from the PowerPC architecture to the Intel x86 architecture for its Macintosh line of personal computers. Why would a company that recently went from specialized to commodity hardware on its traditional products take the exact opposite path for its mobile devices? One of the big reasons for the switch in full featured devices was economies of scale as Intel could produce processors much cheaper than could IBM, increasing how much money Apple made on each computer it sold.

The answer here is intricately tied in with the use of the device. With something like a desktop computer, the processor must be sufficiently powerful for a given price point to be able to handle a wide range of applications and uses. Desktop and laptop computers are general purpose computing devices, which perform an almost unlimited set of tasks. With additional tasks comes additional complexity and thus, additional cost. Apple can’t create something as complex as a desktop processor because its focus is elsewhere, but with the acquisition of a boutique processor like P.A. Semi, they do have the ability to create a processor that meets their needs for devices like the iPad (and eventually the iPod Touch and iPhone as well, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

If you’ve watched the video of the iPad, you’ll notice exactly how smooth of a device this thing is. How is it that a device that is that thin, that much screen and that svelte able to pull off graphical goodies like that? How can it do full 740p video and 10 hours of it on a single charge?

As soon as I got back to my PC after my meetings (stupid Dell) and had a chance to review the digests of the launch, I tweeted to ArsTechnica writer Jon Stokes, a noted microarchitecture expert, that I was waiting expectantly for him to cover the dirty details of the A4. His response was that he was waiting to do that as well, if only anyone would actually give him any details. Despite that, there are a few things we can assume lead Apple to the decision to create their own processor variant.

First, because the iPhone and iPod Touch already used ARM processors, it was a no brainer to stay with the same architecture. By staying with the same instruction set, they could, with the right development tools, have existing iPhone apps work on the iPad with zero changes. The iPad starts out with a massive installed base of applications on day 1. No other tablet device currently on the market, save for Windows tablets (getting ahead of myself again), have an installed base like this. It is a huge advantage for the iPad.

Beyond that, using any other architecture would be too expensive to license the architecture and modify it to suit Apple’s needs. What are their needs? Small, powerful, cool (temperature wise) and cheap. ARM fits these like nothing else. By rolling their own, instead of outsourcing to a third party, they could create silicon that fit their device profile perfectly. There were fewer trade offs in the final product because Apple were not hampered by the cost considerations a third party would include in making a custom design.

Now, lets go ahead and dig into that Windows tablet and see why it will fail (and it will) and why the iPad will not fail (at least not for the same reasons). There were lots of discussions on if the iPad would run Mac OS X or iPhone OS. To me, it wasn’t even a discussion as there was no doubt it would run anything other than iPhone OS. Apple learned from Microsoft that slapping your desktop OS on a tablet is a guaranteed route for failure. Since Bill Gates decreed the year of the tablet back in 2002, Microsoft has been continually and repeatedly failing in the tablet space, simply because their OS is too complex for such a device.

People are complaining about the lack of multitasking in the iPad and it is a complaint of mine as well (oops, looks like I broke my promise and dropped in a complaint. sorry!) but understand that Apple doesn’t want multitasking, at least right now. Why if a small device like the Palm Pixie or any Android device can the iPhone OS not do it as well?

Of course it *can* do it, but Apple doesn’t want it to. When you allow multitasking on a device with such limited resources, you open yourself to a few criticisms:

  1. If you do it wrong, you’ll be grilled for it. Palm did a good job at and Android does it passably, but neither, despite their well known backers, have nothing on the mindshare that Apple has in the mobile space. If Apple did it and it wasn’t incredible, they would be crucified for it. Don’t believe me, then why did copy/paste not make the iPhone until version 3?
  2. The device is very resource constrained. Multitasking means more hardware horsepower. More hardware horsepower means more cost. More cost means either a higher selling price or lower margins. Apple already has some of the highest selling prices and highest margins in the industry, but no one wants to look (too) greedy.
  3. Focus. And this is so important, I’m going to continue it in a new paragraph…
Apple’s focus is not on a device. Its not even on a class of devices. In fact, I don’t even think of Apple as a computer manufacturer, software vendor or even a consumer electronics company. What Apple sells is an experience.  When you use an Apple device, you know it, from the way it fits in your hand to the input controls to the polish of the graphics. It nearly screams Apple to you. Adding multitouch actually detracts from focus because you can now distract yourself from the zooming transitions, the structured UI elements.

Its the same reason that the app store is such a pain for developers, because Apple imposes its unique sense of style, form and function on everyone, so the platform hangs together, even though thousands of people are all working on it at the same time. Apple says, if you want to build something unique, go play with Android and feel free to make their platform look like trash, and do so with our blessings.

But Apple knew it wouldn’t be taken seriously with a nearly 10" screen without being able to do more than play music and games. It needed more. It had a lot more pixels to play with, so something had to be done. Thankfully, it had a lot of code from its Mac platform that it could contribute to the iPad… iWork.

Unfortunately, desktop applications don’t work so well on a tablet form factor. (Yes, its time to Microsoft bash). This has been proven for years now, and Apple learned. While I won’t argue that the ways in which the user interacts with the iWork apps are a whole new way to interact with a device (they’re not), they are a whole new method for interacting with tablets. So Apple had the logic for office applications, it had the display hardware, but it needed a way to make these apps ‘killer’ for its device. They needed a new interaction paradigm for the device, and that’s exactly what Apple did.

So where are we? Does it seem like we’ve been around the world by now. We’ve got a low power processor, a new thought on OS interaction design and a device that is heavily web-based. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but I know another big company which is doing something really similar.

Google. If the iPad is likely to do anything beyond lining the pockets of Steve Jobs with another layer of cash, it will cripple Chrome OS in its infancy. Now, that probably seems harsh, but it does fit, especially when you consider that the launch even contained a reference to how bad notebooks were, which just happens to be the target for Chrome OS’s initial launch.

I think Apple is right on their conclusion about netbooks, that they’re solutions that are in search of a problem. Sadly, I feel the same way about the iPad, although if anyone can pull it off and make the device a winner, it would be Apple.

But this launch also has implications for the future of computing. The keyboard and mouse are not dead, nor do I think we’ll ever get to any kind of interface even remotely resembling the LCARS of Star Trek (nor should we), but our interaction paradigms are getting long in the tooth when compared to the power of the devices we carry in our pockets and especially those we use on our desks. At some point, we will have no choice but to ditch these input devices which have served us for so long. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck where we are and that’s a future I will not be thrilled to see become reality.
State of the iUnion Steve-note
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