I have been dreaming computers for too long it seem. There are few new developments of late that truly impress me or that have me excited. The problem is that is all of the same from before, just faster, thinner and smaller.
The last time I was truly impressed was the original Macbook Air. Here was a design that I thought, this is truly 21st century. Hopefully the likes of Dell and HP will join the party and make laptops attractive and truly mobile. Sadly I was wrong. It is only now, after years that the Air has been in the market that the rest of the field is catching on. Meanwhile, it took Apple itself to refresh the original Macbook Air to once again take my breath away and remind me that this is the 21st century.
But it is not only the Macbook Air that gives us a glimpse of what computing should be. The whole idea of a tablet like the iPad just scream 21st century. It is probably what we all imagined the future of computing will look like. From the form factor to the touch interface, all that is missing is voice recognition and we have something the best science fiction writers would conjure up at the dawn of mainstream computing in the 80’s.
The real question is why is the rest of the computing industry struggling to beat Apple? The iPad is doing well. People are queuing to buy them. If you look closely at the underlying technology, and you ignore the hyperbole Apple spew about the fantastic engineering, than you will realise that the iPad is as generic as they come. There are no special Apple secret hardware engineering here. It is all components off the generic shelve, assembled and….packaged. This is the true Apple engineering secret! Apple knows how to package it, price it and most importantly, dial into our inner geek and get us to stand in line to buy it.
You want to beat Apple, you will have to learn how to package: 8 hours battery life, thousands of applications, thousands of movies, tv shows and music, thousands of books, full desktop browser, simple to use, build in camera, video calling, always connected, responsive screen, great touch interface, easy to develop for, low piracy… that is a tall order.
Hardware wise you can match Apple, and you have options. ARM based cpu’s is the obvious choice. They are powerful, scalable and customisable. They are built by a range of suppliers and you can either pick readymade chips or design your own. There is also Intel with Atom. While this is an option at the moment, it is not a good option. Current versions of Atom are to power hungry, which will negatively impact battery life. Intel is about to introduce their next generation Atom that will probably go a long way to fixing these and other short comings. For the rest of the components, you can pick the same suppliers as Apple. You might find though that at Apple’s volume and exclusive supply agreements that you will probably end up with the bread crumbs, but let’s say you can find it. Looking at the market there are already plenty of people doing exactly that. HP, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, RIM, Motorola, the list is endless, but why are they not beating Apple.
The real issue is Apple’s one massive advantage, iOS combining iTunes and the app store. In the words of Steve Jobs himself, “the iPod is all about software” and so is the iPad.
So let’s look at the options the rest of the industry has when it gets to the software side of things and why 2012 might be the year Apple might finally find itself with real competition.
Right now we have WebOS, Android 3.0, RIM and Windows 7.
WebOS, which HP acquired from Palm is a possibility. It does have some merit. The problem is it is HP only. This is not per se a problem; iOS is Apple exclusive as well. The problem for HP is that they are no Apple and I doubt that they could pull an Apple any day soon. So WebOS is probably a non-starter and will remain so.
Android 3.0 is Google’s big push for the tablet industry. It is a good platform. Android has done wonders in the phone industry in a short time. The problem with going from phones to tablets is that phones is limited computing at its best. Tablets represent something bigger and more productive. Looking at the response from first generation Android 3.0 devices, it appears that Google has more work to do. The biggest obstacle for Google is app store. It does not have a universal apps store that can rival that of Apple. Android fragmentation is something that has hampered their apps store and developers alike. They are also lacking the multimedia content that Apple has at their disposal. If rumours are too believed, Google is working on these aspects, but at this moment in time…
RIM is a bit of a wild card, but one can apply the same things we said about WebOS. They have the advantage of the existing phone partners that will subsidise the device, but unless they can offer something better than Apple, it is still a wannabe product and at the current price, not a good showing.
That brings us to Windows 7. It is a fantastic OS. It does come with a bunch of tablet friendly interfaces and API’s, but at its core, it is way too heavy a choice for a “pad” product. It is too bloated, does not come with a native touch orientated UI and most importantly, it has a too high resource requirement for itself, let alone anything else. It was designed for a tablet in the vision of Microsoft, not in the vision of Apple. Microsoft’s tablet works with a stylus as primary input device whereas Apple’s work with touch. Windows 7 does support touch, but not as the sole and primary input interface. It biggest flaw is that it does not have an application store with easy access to applications.
The other problem with Windows as a pad OS is that it relies on x86 technology, which means you are limited to Atom as a processor choice. Currently, that will mean a bulky product to cater for the cooling and sufficient battery life.
If you look at the current available Software solutions, it becomes very clear why iPad is flying of shelves and why the rest just cannot muster any reasonable showing.
So what is different in 2012 and why is that the dawn of true mobile computing. Two rather big things will come to passing in 2012.
On the software side of things, Windows 8 is being built at a breakneck pace. Windows 8 will natively support ARM processors. Windows 8 will support an application store and a new, easier application building tools derived from Windows Phone 7.
Microsoft has awoken to the “Apple tablet vision” and they are not tweaking to make it work with their software, they are rebuilding and ramping up to pick a fight.
Microsoft is finally emerging as a new re-energised company after 10+ years in the doghouse for its anti-trust ridden past. In a way they are the same company with the same goals, but they are executing it very differently. They have several things going for them already.
They have existing movie and music agreements in place from their Zune days. Windows is build with DRM tech build in. Something Android, or rather Linux does not have and which is a prerequisite for digital media content. They have proven that they can build a primary touch interface with Windows Phone 7. They have a big gaming service that scales to desktop Windows and phone Windows. They have existing ties to OEM’s. They pioneered generic OS’s. They learned a bunch of lessons from Windows Phone 7. I bet you right now that the Windows on tablets will be closer to the desktop version of Windows than the phone version.
Looking at what Windows 8 brings to the table, Microsoft might be the first company to cover all the bases and bring the fight to Apple on the software side. They are no Apple, but they have proven in the past that does not matter, they talk partners and generics better than anyone and with that comes economy of scale and price!
Windows 8 will also enable the merging of the mobile and desktop worlds which will be a catalyst of the dawn of 21st century computing and the catalyst of a battle that have been predicted and brewing for some time.
ARM is scaling their processors up via their mobile platform by ramping up the clock speed and core count in their cpu’s. Intel is shrinking their desktop chips down to meet ARM in the mobile space. The table is set for a battle but the stakes are much higher now. Stagnation in computer requirements for everyday computing and the availability of Windows on ARM will mean a battle on phones, tablets, netbooks and laptops and everyday desktops.
2012 might be the year predicted that Earth comes to an end. I would rather more safely predict as the year that we are finally going to see 21st century computing and more bizarrely a world still happy with Windows.