The world of personal computing is about to make a huge evolutionary leap, with Apple paving the way for a business model in which desktop, and laptop computers start to resemble mobile devices like iPhones and iPads, and the cloud (a bunch of Internet servers) becomes the center of the action, letting you fetch your data from any device.
That’s the takeaway from Monday’s Apple event in San Francisco, where Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that the model we’ve been using, where a home computer serves as a hub for your digital life, just doesn’t work anymore, now that everyone is using smartphones, tablet computers, notebooks, and desktop machines.
“Keeping all these devices in sync is driving us crazy,” Jobs said. To fix the problem, Jobs said Apple will “demote the PC and the Mac,” and “move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.”
In the new world according to Apple, the glue holding everything together will be iCloud, which will automatically keep all of your devices in sync. Add a new contact, or create a new event on your calendar, and same thing—it gets pushed to all your devices. Create a new document in Pages, Apple’s word-processing program, and it automatically gets stored up on iCloud, and is pushed down to any of your other devices that run Pages.
Another cool feature involves photos. Snap a picture with your iPhone, and almost immediately it shows up on your iPad and your Apple TV box. That’s because something called Photo Stream zips the photo up to iCloud, then pushes it to your other devices, all automatically.
Same goes for music. Buy a song on the iTunes music store, and it is available on all your devices.
Better yet, a new feature called iTunes Match will scan your music collection, find what songs you have that you ripped from CDs, and put copies of those songs into your iCloud account. Apple will charge $25 a year for iTunes Match.
A pessimist will say you’re paying 25 bucks to get copies of songs you’ve already paid for; an optimist will say you’re paying 25 bucks for a wonderful service that makes your life a lot easier and better. The fact is, the fee is probably what Apple had to do in order to get approval from music labels for this service.
To be sure, Apple has been doing a form of cloud computing with its MobileMe service. Problem is, MobileMe has never really worked right. Worse, it cost $99 per year. But today Apple said that MobileMe is now gone, replaced by iCloud, which will be free and will work on Windows PCs as well as Apple’s Mac computers.
Today’s demo made iCloud look a lot easier to use than MobileMe. Time will tell if everything “just works,” Apple claims it will. Apple says it will launch iCloud in the fall, when iOS 5 comes out.
As for the devices themselves, the line between mobile devices (phones and tablets) and “personal computers” (desktops and laptops) is beginning to blur, such that, soon enough, all of these machines will look and feel like each other and will all work in pretty much the same way.
The first thing Apple showed Monday was a new operating system for iMac and MacBook computers, called OS X Lion, that looks and feel a lot like the operating system on an iPhone or iPad. The next-generation Mac operating system employs multi-touch gestures, just like an iPhone, but instead of dragging your fingers on the glass, you’ll be dragging them on a trackpad. You can pinch your fingers to zoom in or out, flick your finger to flip through Web pages.
And, just as with a smartphone, with the new Mac operating system you’ll be buying more of your applications from an online app store—operated by Apple, of course. One big advantage is that instead of getting a DVD and running through an installation process, you just click a button and the software zips down from the Internet onto your machine.
In fact, the Lion operating system itself will only be available as a download from Apple’s app store, at a price of $30. (That’s way cheaper than past OS upgrades which cost $130—a sign, I think, that Apple really really really wants to encourage people to buy into the new model.)
Apple also showed off iOS 5, a new version of the operating system that runs on iPhones and iPads and will ship this fall. The new operating system has some slick features, like better notifications and built-in Twitter support, plus something called Newsstand for buying newspapers and magazines. Also, from now on iPhones and iPads won’t need to be connected to a computer in order to get software updates or content. Instead, you’ll be able to just zip things over the air to your mobile device.
Down the road I would not be surprised if Apple finds a way to merge iOS and OS X into a single unified operating system.
A year ago, in fact, I wrote a piece called “R.I.P., Macintosh,” predicting that Apple would build its future on mobile devices and the mobile business model.
It seemed inevitable that Apple would do this because even though the company has a great business with its iMacs and MacBooks—they’ve been outgrowing the industry for years—the growth in Apple’s Mac business unit is dwarfed by the growth of its mobile business, which has been booming, growing from several hundred million dollars per year in 2007 to more than $20 billion last year.
This in fact has been Apple’s key strength as a company and Steve Jobs’ biggest strength as a CEO. Unlike Microsoft, which circled the wagons around its Windows-Office franchise on desktop computers, Apple has been willing to ditch the old stuff and jump into the new world in order to get a jump on everyone else.
Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are also pursuing this model, though Apple arguably has a head start in the market, thanks to its popular iTunes music store, which has 225 million accounts already set up with credit card numbers and one-click purchasing, and to the MobileMe online service, which, though flawed, has been around for several years, giving Apple the chance to learn how to make cloud computing easy for ordinary people to understand. At the close of today’s event Jobs said the company has built three huge data centers to power its cloud efforts—a sign of just how seriously Apple is taking this opportunity.
Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.