Saturday, May 1, 2010

Techno Future

Here is one guy's view of where the future lies for computers/info devices. The following is by SF writer Charles Stross writing on his blog Charlie's Diary:
Steve Jobs believes he's gambling Apple's future — the future of a corporation with a market cap well over US $200Bn — on an all-or-nothing push into a new market. HP have woken up and smelled the forest fire, two or three years late; Microsoft are mired in a tar pit, unable to grasp that the inferno heading towards them is going to burn down the entire ecosystem in which they exist. There is the smell of panic in the air, and here's why ...

We have known since the mid-1990s that the internet was the future of computing. With increasing bandwidth, data doesn't need to be trapped in the hard drives of our desktop computers: data and interaction can follow us out into the world we live in. Modem uptake drove dot-com 1.0; broadband uptake drove dot-com 2.0. Now everyone is anticipating what you might call dot-com 3.0, driven by a combination of 4G mobile telephony (LTE or WiMax, depending on which horse you back) and wifi everywhere. Wifi and 4G protocols will shortly be delivering 50-150mbps to whatever gizmo is in your pocket, over the air. (3G is already good for 6mbps, which is where broadband was around the turn of the millennium. And there are ISPs in Tokyo who are already selling home broadband delivered via WiMax. It's about as fast as my cable modem connection was in 2005.)

A lot has been said about how expensive it is to boost the speed of fibre networks. The USA has some of the worst domestic broadband in the developed world, because it's delivered over cables that were installed early — premature infrastructure may give your economy a leg up in the early years, but handicaps you down the line — but a shift to high-bandwidth wireless will make up the gap, assuming the frequencies are available (see also: shutting down analog TV and radio to make room). It's easier to lay a single fat fibre to a radio transciever station than it is to lay lots of thin fibres to everybody's front door, after all.

Anyway, here's Steve Jobs' strategic dilemma in a nutshell: the PC industry as we have known it for a third of a century is beginning to die.

PCs are becoming commodity items. The price of PCs and laptops is falling by about 50% per decade in real terms, despite performance simultaneously rising in real terms. The profit margin on a typical netbook or desktop PC is under 10%. Apple has so far survived this collapse in profitability by aiming at the premium end of the market — if they were an auto manufacturer, they'd be Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Jaguar rolled into one. But nevertheless, the underlying prices are dropping. Moreover, the PC revolution has saturated the market at any accessible price point. That is, anyone who needs and can afford a PC has now got one. Elsewhere, in the developing world, the market is still growing — but it's at the bottom end of the price pyramid, with margins squeezed down to nothing.

At the same time, wireless broadband is coming. As it does so, organizations and users will increasingly move their data out into the cloud (read: onto hordes of servers racked up high in anonymous data warehouses, owned and maintained by some large corporation like Google). Software will be delivered as a service to users wherever they are, via whatever device they're looking at — their phone, laptop, tablet, the TV, a direct brain implant, whatever. (Why is this? Well, it's what everyone believes — everyone in the industry, anyway. Because it offers a way to continue to make money, by selling software as a service, despite the cost of the hardware exponentially dropping towards zero. And, oh, it lets you outsource a lot of annoying shitty admin tasks like disk management, backup, anti-virus, and so on.)

My take on the iPhone OS, and the iPad, isn't just that they're the start of a whole new range of Apple computers that have a user interface as radically different from their predecessors as the original Macintosh was from previous command-line PCs. Rather, they're a hugely ambitious attempt to keep Apple relevant to the future of computing, once Moore's law tapers off and the personal computer industry craters and turns into a profitability wasteland.

The App Store and the iTunes Store have taught Steve Jobs that ownership of the sales channel is vital. Even if he's reduced to giving the machines away, as long as he can charge rent for access to data (or apps) he's got a business model. He can also maintain quality (whatever that is), exclude malware, and beat off rivals. A well-cultivated app store is actually a customer draw. It's also a powerful tool for promoting the operating system the apps run on. Operating system, hardware platform, and apps define an ecosystem.

Apple are trying desperately to force the growth of a new ecosystem — one that rivals the 26-year-old Macintosh environment — to maturity in five years flat. That's the time scale in which they expect the cloud computing revolution to flatten the existing PC industry. Unless they can turn themselves into an entirely different kind of corporation by 2015 Apple is doomed to the same irrelevance as the rest of the PC industry — interchangable suppliers of commodity equipment assembled on a shoestring budget with negligable profit.
That looks like a good estimate of the future. Nobody has a crystal ball, so this extrapolation is subject to the usual qualification "your mileage may vary".

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