During the “Back to the Mac” event two weeks ago, Steve Jobs made a particularly witty remark as he unveiled the MacBook Air, one that made the audience chuckle in laughter:
“We asked ourselves, what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up? Well, this is the result, we think it’s the future of notebooks.”
There is always a strategic intent with the things that Apple says at product launches, especially when they come from Steve Jobs. This is because Apple cares deeply about the perception of its products. By intimating that the Air is the future, and that it blends the best of the MacBook Pro and iPad, Apple is signaling a lot. There is no doubt that this first phase in “hooking up” between the MacBook and iPad foretells a deeply converged future on many levels.
iOS and OS X Aren’t Hooking Up
Often when people visualize the convergence of the iPad and MacBook lines, they wonder whether a unified operating system will take over, which somehow blends the best of both the touch and “mouse” metaphors.
This is unrealistic and silly. Though iOS is OS X’s little cousin—both use different APIs and layers, but reside on top of UNIX—merging them makes little sense from an end-user perspective. iOS and OS X serve different use-cases, applications, and markets, and the touch metaphor on a MacBook simply wouldn’t serve a user well in the majority of cases. And running multiple browser tabs and multitasking between 8 open applications requires a much more immersive experience than iOS may ever provide.
But despite the fundamental difference in how we interact with a MacBook and iPad, Jobs made sure to deeply blend how we view the two products at the marketing level, by touting attributes like the Air’s ability to turn on instantly, and last 30 days without a charge.
Why the Hardware is Rapidly Intersecting
One reason why Steve Jobs wants us to think about the MacBook Air as an extension of the iPad, is because there is a hardware convergence happening under the hood. The MacBook Air benchmarks were the most telling sign that this is occurring. Apple was able to double the system performance of the MacBook Air, despite using the same 3 year-old CPU technology from Intel—Intel Core 2 Duo processors running at pokey speeds.
Though profound this isn’t surprising—the Air uses flash instead of spinning disks, and SSD technology dramatically cuts data transfer bottlenecks for applications that are I/O (Input/Output) constrained. And guess what? Most simple computing tasks are memory and IO-constrained. This fact helps the flash-based Air operate on par with Apple’s high end MacBook Pro line, except under taxing CPU-intensive scenarios such as video rendering.
So let’s get this straight: Apple is using several year old technology, and the Air’s system performance screams. This is nothing short of incredible proof that after a certain threshold, CPU advancements are only adding incremental benefit to 90% of what the user cares about today.
Instead, performance is more dependent on graphics processing than ever. This is why Apple designed the Lion OS to heavily focus on OpenCL, which leverages parallel constructs within the GPU to extend its utility to non-graphics tasks. And a big reason why Apple didn’t go with Intel’s newer CPU line is they lack support for OpenCL, and Apple is probably designing new applications like iLife 11 to take advantage of OpenCL’s power.
The fact that Apple’s sexiest new Notebook didn’t go with Intel’s latest technology is damning for Intel and is the best signal yet of how innovation in PCs is getting blown away by what’s happening in the mobile ecosystem. Right now, benchmarks show that the fastest ARM-based smartphone CPUs are only about 25% as fast as the Core 2 Duo that Apple is using in the MacBook Air. But this delta will compress fast.
In about 2-3 years we will be seeing integrated chipsets make their way up the food chain, and potentially fit in notebook-class form factors. Multicore ARM solutions, based on ARM-15, will make this a reality in about 2 cycles of Moore’s Law.
Skeptics will say “no way — never, not with the need for Flash”. I agree that Flash is probably here to stay on desktops. But all the pressure on Adobe to make Flash better is, ever so slowly, improving how rendering and compositing are done in hardware. And even in the midst of their darkest public battle last Spring, Apple and Adobe were cooperating in getting Flash acceleration to work on desktop Macs. In the future, it’s conceivable that Flash could be the only remaining bottleneck that prevents Apple from using an embedded SoC in a MacBook Air. But hardware acceleration for Flash is approaching which can solve this dilemma.
All of this rapid advancement in what’s under the hood has huge ramifications for the future of the MacBook Air and iPad. Anyone want a MacBook Air that is several pounds, Runs OS X, lasts for 30 hours, has a detachable keyboard, and then converts to an iPad running iOS once the screen is removed?
I am not saying that Apple is going to make this device, nor that it’s even in their best interest to pursue one-size-fits-all form factors. But there is no denying that the hardware is converging, and the “Back to the Mac” theme of Apple’s latest event deeply intimated this.
The Mac Store’s Incredible Network Effect
The remaining puzzle piece in the intersection of the MacBook and iPad is all about the applications—both end-user discovery & distribution and developer support. The iOS storefront was the genius behind the iPhone becoming a low friction distribution warehouse for content.
In much the same way, the Mac Store is Apple’s umbrella strategy to encourage developers of long-tail content to have an easy landing pad on the Mac, developers who are already building apps on top of iOS.
Interestingly, the Mac Store allows Apple to do the reverse of what Microsoft is doing with Windows Phone 7: whereas Microsoft can leverage .NET familiarity to encourage the desktop dev community to write apps for WM7, Apple will use its iOS franchise to kick-start a vibrant ecosystem of Mac developers.
But there’s also something more magical that this network-effect provides for Apple: by specifying that developers use Apple’s tools, namely Xcode and LLVM, Apple gains a layer of control in how this hardware convergence plays out.
How so? Apple can have developers simply flip a recompile switch and upload universal versions of apps to the Mac App Store, which work on both ARM and x86. In this way, Apple is setting up a distribution mechanism to host and install code which will allow them to transition hardware seamlessly.
This is the ultimate in streamlined distribution, since a developer can focus on one unified environment based around Cocoa Touch and Objective-C, along with a set of UI / UX constraints. Apple then abstracts all this from the user, independent of the hardware.
Apple Hates Control and Loves Optionality
If it’s not completely clear yet, Apple is setting the stage to be processor and component agnostic. This not only allows them the above-mentioned architecture-neutrality, but also affords them incredible pricing power, and ensures they can tap into consistent component supply, which will be a critical challenge as they lock up an even bigger slice of the supply chain.
Apple can build an A4-variant themselves, or they can partner up with one of many vendors. If Intel starts innovating again, that’s an easy choice for Apple. If nVidia, with its graphics pedigree, emerges as a winner in combining GPUs with ARM-based CPUs, Apple can partner more deeply or buy the company. Or Apple might decide to stick with x86, but use GPU/CPU technology from AMD.
It’s all about optionality. And Apple is building that into its long-term strategy, by combining its rapidly expanding footprint in mobile hardware / software with its iOS developer mind-share to rev its Mac franchise into much higher gear.
Wow Hooking Up Feels Amazing – When’s Our Next Date?
I believe it’s pretty clear: Apple wants to use OS X, running on an incredibly battery efficient MacBook Air-like form factor, as a bottoms-up strategy to attract loyal iOS fans over to the Mac franchise. After all, there are around 150M users of iOS worldwide. Apple knows that iOS is a secret weapon to bring both consumers and corporate users to higher end Mac products. And the marketing around the Back to the Mac event is just a precursor for Apple’s underlying strategy in mixing these two worlds.
Behind-the-scenes, Steve Jobs is setting up all the pieces for Apple to converge these product lines. But it’s all about optionality for Apple. When and how they choose to get there is up to them. And my guess is Steve Jobs is going to do so in a way that continues to make the Apple experience a superior one for you, its loyal customer.
Contributor Steve Cheney is an entrepreneur and formerly an engineer & programmer specializing in web and mobile technologies.