June 9, 2011

∴ Resolving the Future

Apple's preview of OS X Lion, iOS 5, and the introduction of their iCloud service this week were a lens onto the future of personal computing. Like 2008's iOS App Store debut, and the Mac App Store that followed two years later, they resolved the broad strokes of Apple's long-term plans.

Clearly the two operating systems are drawing closer together. More precisely, OS X is morphing into iOS, even as iOS becomes more fully fleshed out and capable. Paperlabs has a succinct piece counting the Lion features lifted from iOS. Multi-touch gestures that let you operate your laptop or desktop with a flick of your fingers, rather than mouse or keyboard action. Full-screen apps, auto-save and resume to let you focus exclusively on the task at hand, and ensure your work is saved and available for immediate recall when you re-start your machine. Full FaceTime integration, and automatic OS updates. The system improves itself.

And while OS X runs on both laptop and desktop machines, Apple revealed that nearly three-quarters of their computer sales are laptops. Consumers are pointing the way, and the direction is mobile.

At the same time, iOS is making major inroads to becoming your everyday computing environment. Apple has eliminated the hated sync cable by adding WiFi sync and iCloud to the next version. The list of new and improved features runs to about two hundred items. Tabbed browsing, notification improvements, reminders based on date and time, or even location, are a few. These new and improved features allow you to stop returning to your "regular" computer when you need to get something done. Now you can accomplish more with the gadget in your hand.

iCloud will remove the need for you to understand and organize a file system. It'll put all of your data in reach of all of your devices, all the time. Everyone can stop worrying about where their stuff is, whether it's been recently saved and how to back it up.

How often have you come across a friend or family member who hasn't organized his or her files, or worse, has all of them saved to their desktop? iCloud eliminates that situation by moving all those files to a conveniently hidden place, on a server farm somewhere "in the cloud," where the only thing your friend need know about them is that they're safe.

These changes follow Apple's two App Stores, which have a similar "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" import. There's no longer any need to deal with installation disks or dialog boxes. Pick an application from the store, authorize payment with your Apple ID, and the software installs automatically.

I got to thinking about the people in my life who rely on me for computer support, and how much better the App Store experience would be for them. They can install new software for themselves! It automatically tells them when an update is available! And then I tried the process for myself, installing a copy of the superb Mars Edit, and I was sold. This is a better way for most people.

(I still like to see the blood, though. I'm a geek, one of those people who would rather spend a quiet day by myself setting up a storage array than attending a party. I've gotten away with creating a lot of computing capability out of spare parts over the years, but lately I've noticed something about my attitude. I just want stuff to work. I don't mind tinkering, hell, I still revel in it. But I want it to be when I choose, rather than out of necessity. It's a poor choice to give consumers: hack and get it cheap, or pay through the nose for convenience. Apple is offering a better way.)

The direction this is all headed will eliminate maintaining your computing devices, leaving only the use and enjoyment them. And devices, too, recede into the background as the application you're using fills the screen and accesses your data through iCloud. What's left is the task you're performing, whether it's editing a document or playing a game. The details of operating the device will no longer exist; the gadget becomes the task. First it's a GPS, now it's a weather map, next it's a blog editor, just like that.

Longer-term we can see Apple fully moving away from the familiar Mac platform. As Bob Cringely wrote this week, Apple will sacrifice the iconic Mac in order to command personal computing through their iDevices. What they usher in will be an era of ubiquitous computing. Not just mobile, but agile.

Agile computing is what you're doing when the devices you own simply mediate your interaction with your personal data (think songs, documents, medical records, tax returns, movies and books) as well as your publicly available interests (think everything you've ever seen online, bookmarked in a browser, or told someone "you've gotta see this"). Open your eyes and information surrounds you.

Integrated, ubiquitous computing. Agile computing. It's almost here!