Sunday, January 31, 2010

the digital ecosystem of the future

Ecosystem may be something of a misnomer, but it hits most of the right buttons, so it' a good way to begin.

In the future, nearly every electrical device will also be an electronic device, and nearly every electronic device will either implement voice control or (at a minimum) be connected to a network which provides that service for the space in which the device must operate. Voice control requires sophisticated signal processing. For an SoC with the power to handle voice control, the additional operations necessary to carry out the decoded voice commands will nearly always be trivial.

Say the command is "preheat the oven to 375 degrees". Once that command is received, parsed, and decoded, all that remains is to encode a relatively simple message and send it off to the oven. At a guess, this might represent 1/10,000 of the overall processing to carry out the voice command, certainly a very minor portion.

Devices that move around on their own will have more need for built in voice control than stationary devices located where there is likely to be a room-sized network to handle it for them, as in the kitchen. They might accomplish this by wirelessly piping their audio input to a central server and receiving back the decoded command, but they will need substantial onboard processing power anyway, for vision and other senses, so having them handle voice control for themselves will seem quite natural.

Voice control and machine vision are, by today's standards, very processor intensive. "Processor" here doesn't necessarily refer to a CPU, but given the trend to SoCs it might refer to a specialized core on a chip with other cores, at least one of which is general purpose. Ideally, those specialized cores could be temporarily repurposed as needed.

In terms of sheer processing power, an SoC with both machine vision and machine hearing would run rings around the CPUs in today's desktop computers. One implication of this is that such a chip could handle many of the tasks desktops currently handle, in its spare time. If you have several such SoCs distributed among several devices in a network, these tasks could be distributed among them, further lightening the burden.

That is based only on available processing capabilities and doesn't take interface issues into account. Perhaps, for some purposes, like writing or coding, you'd rather sit in front of a big screen and interact with it using a keyboard, and for other purposes you might prefer to use a touchscreen tablet. It also neglects the need for a central hub in the network, to act as a local server, as an always-on connection to a cloud service, and as a gateway to the internet as a whole. But, important as that component will be, it won't represent much of an investment, something on the order of the router/switch hubs of today, and you might forget that it's there.

Even the large screen and keyboard is likely to eventually become a thinish client, intended for use with a server, instead of a stand-alone machine(*), and the software it runs is likely to split into client and server components, partly because you won't want you're e-self to be too tightly associated with any particular machine, and partly because you'll want it represented by always-on, internet-connected agents running on the server and in the cloud. Most of the purposes for which we use computers today will either be relegated to the central server (and/or the cloud) or will be handled by one or another of the devices connected to the network, including the big screen in the living room.

*(Laptops are likely to continue to be stand-alone machines, since they will still need to work independently when no network connection is available.)

Most of the consumer's dollar will go to devices that move around on their own, with their hefty processing capabilities and ever-growing mechanical sophistication, performing an ever-growing repertoire of tasks.

Friday, January 29, 2010

sorry Steve, but there's one more big task remaining

Patrick Hunt writing in The Apple Blog, seems to be suggesting that it's time for Steve Jobs to move out of the limelight, let go of the CEO position, maybe stay on as chairman of the board of directors, but make more room for others to take on the leadership of Apple.

Frankly I think that's already been going on for years, with Jobs slipping very gradually into the background and pushing his vice presidents to take on more of the role as the public face of the company, and probably occasionally biting his tongue in management meetings to keep from dominating them.

I don't think the objective has been his retirement, but rather the freedom to concentrate outlandishly (for a CEO) on whatever projects move him, to get deep into the detail as though he were working under Jonathan Ive, or as a design consultant. It's what he loves to do, and he's damned good at it, even though he never trained as a designer.

Something else he's exceptionally good at is guiding Apple through big changes. They've been through several since his return, and emerged stronger from each, but there's one more big change remaining, the ultimate one.

I'm talking about the change from dealing exclusively in mainly passive information appliances to also dealing in machines that model, move about within, and act upon their environments, a.k.a. robots.

The reason I think Apple will eventually have to get into robotics is because, once such machines begin to become common and their utility popularly understood, that's where the vast majority of consumers's disposable income will be going, to buy machines that do physical things in addition to processing and presenting information.

I think there's a place for Apple in robotics because there's a big difference between a machine that does something in a crude way and one that accomplishes the same task in an elegant way. Apple knows elegance inside and out. They know how to create it and could figure out how to build a machine that embodied elegance in its behavior as well as its appearance.

The challenge, for Steve Jobs should he decide to accept it, would be to assemble the basic competencies within the company so that when the time came to "build a robot" they'd already be a long way along in understanding how to do so in a way that was consistent with Apple's values and aesthetics, such that the reaction would be "Heh, we already know a lot about this!" At that point, once Apple has a clear idea of how they can remain Apple while branching out into robotics, acquiring a company or two with some relevant intellectual property, practical experience, and market presence would make sense.

(related article in another blog)

iPad + iWork apps + = sense

Frankly, I've been wondering what Apple was thinking with

Now, add the iPad and its three iWork apps to the mix, and suddenly starts to makes sense.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

the eye of the storm

This is the day between, between yesterday's quarterly financial report from Apple and tomorrow's special event.

In that it's a day of tense calm sandwiched between two days of intense excitement, it's rather like the eye of a storm, the very best kind of storm, a very nearly perfect storm.

As with great storms at sea, in this eye we find ourselves lifted high on a swell, able to see clearly the structure of the storm that surrounds us, but we must pass through the rest of it before we'll have a clear view of what lies beyond.

Savor the moment.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

T minus three days, and counting

This is the last of these countdown pieces I'll be posting, at least for this go-round. It's time to calm the anticipation and cultivate attentiveness, so as not to miss a single nuance of Steve Jobs's presentation on Wednesday (which I won't be able to see for another day or two after that), and patience enough to allow Apple's very upbeat event to take the back burner long enough to give President Obama's State of the Union Address our full attention. Were the country as a whole doing as well as Apple, we might anticipate an evening of mixed levity, as Obama addresses Congress, but, while there is progress to be reported, the prevalent mood is likely to be more somber, and to appear even more so in contrast with the Apple event earlier in the day.

This isn't Apple's fault. If anything they're leading the recovery.

Nor is the swarming buzz in anticipation of Wednesday's event their fault. As Joel Johnson, writing for Gizmodo, explains the buzz is a side-effect of Apple's refusal to show prototypes or to announce products before the company is ready to commit to their production and ongoing support. They may selectively leak information, real or false, to prevent a consensus from forming around descriptions that too closely resemble products they aren't yet ready to introduce, and to manage expectations which can leave people disappointed when the real products arrive, but the energy that whips up the buzz derives from their hard-earned reputation for delivering great products. People expect great things from Apple because that's what experience has taught them to expect, so they're naturally curious what's coming next.

Anticipation of Wednesday's announcements will also briefly take the back burner tomorrow, after the end of trading for the day at NASDAQ, as Apple executives report the company's financial results for the previous quarter, while trying not to give away any surprises they've been preparing for Wednesday. It's a dance they know well and perform deftly, so if they do drop any hints about upcoming products on Monday it will be especially noteworthy.

Personally, it will be a great relief to finally hear what Apple has in store in the way of touchscreen devices and how they will handle apps written for them. The iPhone OS is a great platform, and if it turns out that platform is being expanded to encompass larger devices, or subsumed into something that does, that will be wonderful news. If, on the other hand, these devices will run what is essentially Mac OS X plus UIKit, that too would be wonderful news, subtly different, but equally welcome. Either way they'll open up a grand new playground for user interaction, and therefore utility.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

John Cohn's Engineering Paradise

Here's something you don't see everyday. (via Gizmodo)

T minus four days, and counting

Having trouble keeping up with all the Apple tablet rumors? Let Gizmodo do it for you!

Not enough? Here's a few more...

The tablet could be the first Apple device to come with a Light Peak connector.

The tablet might serve as a head for Apple's headless Mac mini.

The tablet may come with twin back-facing cameras for 3D photos and video.

The tablet will not come with an OBD-II connector built in.

Friday, January 22, 2010

T minus five days, and counting

Approximately five days hence, Steve Jobs (almost certainly) will take the stage at the Yerba Buena Center to host what will (almost certainly) be the most significant product introduction for Apple since the 1984 release of the original Macintosh, surpassing even the introduction of the iPhone.  I say this not so much because I believe that Apple's tablet device, whatever they call it, will necessarily be more significant, for Apple or for the world, than the iPhone has proven to be, but because Apple's plans for such devices and their overall strategy have firmed considerably over the last three years and the tablet device won't arrive in a vacuum, but already integrated into the rest of Apple's product line and into the plans of quite a few other companies.

This will be the proverbial dropping of the other shoe, arriving as a resounding stamp, sending ripples outward in all directions.  The world will never be the same again.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

cynicism regarding IT summit

MacDailyNews offers a cynical view of this week's meeting between President Obama and executives of various IT companies, at which Peter Orszag, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, stated that the technology used by federal employees had fallen behind, that they typically have better computers at home than at work, and that this situation results in inefficient government operation, meaning that taxpayers aren't getting full value from their tax dollars.

Those participating included CEOs of Adobe, Craigslist, Facebook, Microsoft (cue eerie music and file photos of Steve Ballmer sticking out his tongue), and Note no mention of Apple, presumably because Steve Jobs wasn't present. It's very likely that someone else from Apple, perhaps even Phil Schiller, was in attendance, despite that Apple is less than two weeks away from one of its biggest product introductions ever. And even if not, you can bet that, as with CES, Apple was the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the company with the best answers to questions about how to make information technology really useful, including in the context of government, answers like the Mac mini with OS X Server (unlimited license) for $999. That's a lot of workgroup leverage for not very much money, something sure not to escape the notice of government buyers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

remember when you could buy a touchscreen if you wanted?

In early December, a report surfaced claiming that the supply of 7-inch touchscreen components had completely dried up.

Now, another report states that the same has happened to both LCD and OLED 10-inch touchscreens.

Conclusion? January 27th is going to be very interesting!

Look for Apple to clear away some unrelated announcements, like new processors for the Mac Pro line, before that date.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tegra 250 vs. PowerVR SGX Series5

It's good to have options, particularly when they're as good as both of these are.

NVIDIA's Tegra 2 is an ARM Cortex-A9 based platform, combining most of the complex components of a tablet computer or smartphone onto a single chip. Basically, for a phone, add a cellular radio chip and some memory and you're good to go. It's a good drop-in solution, perhaps the best there is for a range of products at present.

Imagination's PowerVR SGX Series5, on the other hand, is a design for a graphics core, not a physical product. It's meant to be combined with other cores and glue circuitry as part of custom chip designs.

Apple may have room for both in their product lines, but, of the two, the latter, Imagination's PowerVR design, is particularly well suited for use in a future iPhone, iPod touch, or small tablet device. Apple has the expertise in-house to combine cores from various sources into custom chip designs that do exactly what they need done. Doing so allows them maximum flexibility and control over the final product, a high priority for Apple. It also helps avoid wasted silicon real estate, which helps keep costs down.

As time goes on, I'm expecting to see more custom system-on-chip designs assembled from mix-and-match cores, particularly from Apple. This is the wave of the future, and Apple's already riding it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

second guessing Jim Dalrymple

In a post where he predicts two versions of the Apple tablet, one with cellular connectivity and one without, Jim Dalrymple says “There has been speculation that Apple would release a 10-inch model and a smaller model (maybe 7-inch), but that makes no sense to me.”

Since I'm already way out on a limb on this, I'm going to slip just a bit further out to speculate that Dalrymple says this because he's probably assuming that if there are two different sizes and only one gets cellular connectivity, it would be the larger one. I think that's a bad assumption, and that it makes far more sense for the smaller device to get cellular and the larger one Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and probably infrared, but no cellular.

Think about it, size and portability are inversely related, whereas portability and the need for cellular are directly related, and people are already accustomed to sacrificing screen area for portability, else we'd be using 24-inch laptops. But while a 7-inch screen should be fine on a hike or in a lecture hall, when sitting in your own living room you're going to want something larger, large enough to reasonably serve as an HD display.

Bruce Sterling waxing eloquent

This year's State of the World conversation with Bruce Sterling got off to a great start!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

backing off to the big picture

A little over two years ago, Steve Jobs described Apple as being in three businesses and a hobby. That was a broad-brush, hardware-centric description of what Apple was up to at the time. Even then there was more going on at Apple than fit under the umbrella of that description, and that's certainly become more the case since.

First consider the hardware lines...
1) Mac mini, MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, and Mac Pro
2) AirPort Express, AirPort Extreme, and Time Capsule
3) iPod shuffle, iPod nano, and iPod classic
4) Apple TV
5) iPod Touch and iPhone
...soon to be joined by a new family of tablet computers,

and the consumer (non-pro) software...
1) iLife and the apps included with Mac OS X, like Safari
2) iWork
3) Bento (from FileMaker, a subsidiary)

then consider the cloud services...
1) MobileMe (the predecessors of which were .Mac and iTools)
2) iTunes Store (now including the App Store)

Even this isn't a comprehensive view, as it neglects the pro apps, accessories, AppleCare, paid training, and on and on.

Apple isn't in just three businesses, but dozens, most of which produce at least modest revenue streams, and into the future, despite continuing focus on and healthy growth of hardware overall, the proportion of total revenue made up by non-hardware businesses is likely to grow.

I say this partly because the signs point to Apple putting increasing emphasis on the cloud, and partly because, aside from the iTunes Store which is about content and software delivery, they have yet to have a runaway hit there. MobileMe (like its predecessor .Mac) is successful in the sense that it produces a revenue stream, but the numbers pale in comparison with free services from Google, Yahoo!, and others, and pundits disagree as to whether it's worth the price to the consumer.

While the free services make their money from advertising and look for ways of differentiating premium versions, Apple has and will continue to focus on making theirs useful, easy to use, fast, secure, and elegant. While the others increasingly rely upon dedicated clients, particular browsers, or plug-ins, Apple's services, including the iTunes Store for content not requiring DRM, will be moving toward working with any platform that supports web standards.

Given Apple's penchant for excellent execution, sooner or later their cloud services are sure to stand out as being worth paying for while the vast majority of others won't be. And while those services will work with any platform supporting web standards, given Apple's penchant for integration, there will always be some advantage to using their hardware and software with them, making them even more compelling for those already using a Mac, iPhone, or Apple tablet.

This is a strategy that can only pay off in the long term, but one that will also surely do so.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Tablet

Coming soon, to a planet near you, details to be forthcoming in a few weeks.

John Gruber speaks for me.