Nick Carr has this interesting theory that Google and Apple can work together to rule the universe. Google builds the back-end “cloud” piece, which is the cloud supercomputer. Apple builds the hip click gotta-have-it devices that talk to that cloud supercomputer. Carr sees many advantages for this model:
1. It will be cheap. Carr says $199 for the machine, and all the software and data storage is free, supported by ad revenue.
2. It will be energy efficient. Very little power is needed on the PC, and the power of the cloud supercomputer can be efficiently managed through centralization.
3. It will be low maintenance. This is the promise of cloud computing reflected in paradigms like SaaS that radically lower maintenance. Nothing local but a browser.
4. It will be flexible. You never have to backup, sync, or copy data again. It’s all in the cloud. Backups are automatic. You see the same data from any machine anywhere. You can give out links to share the data in place.
Nick says the fireworks from this will start in a matter of months, not years.
It’s a beautiful vision, really. I’ve had similar thoughts myself, so I found myself daydreaming about sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Paris, smoking a Gauloise, sipping a Vins Nouveau, all while surfing the web and doing all my computer activity on an Uber Cool Apple PowerTechieThingey that was hooked to the Google Cloud Supercomputer and could run for a month on a single charge. And then the bubble burst and I was back to reality.
Aside from the fact that I don’t smoke, there are a number of problems with the vision. First, 100% everywhere all the time WiFi connectivity remains problematic. The hot spots are fragmented, some are free, some charge, and the big municipal projects to equip whole cities with WiFi seem to have stalled. This is not to say that it isn’t coming. There is tremendous interest. One of the most common “off-topic” search terms leading people to this blog is people trying to figure out if they can live with just an iTouch and Skype or whether they really want an iPhone. But, it takes more than just Google and Apple to finish out that infrastructure, and it is not an especially fast process so far as I can see. Forget WiFi everywhere you might want to phone, just getting it in every coffee shop (not just Starbucks) is still not a done deal. The world is working this from both ends. We’re getting more connectivity daily, and we’re learning to run web apps disconnected, but this all takes time and is far from being resolved in mere months.
Can these two companies collaborate on a vision like this? As I write this, the GOOG has a market cap of $196 billion. AAPL is about $149B. A merger is possible, but do we see a merger of equals in the cards given the personalities involved? I don’t think so. So then these two have to somehow collaborate perfectly in a completely arms-length mode. I guess it’s possible, but neither has a great history of such statesmanship. Even the best intentioned partnerships are often quite rocky.
The next big issue is the Walled Garden issue. This is a Walled Garden vision we’re talking about here, where Google and Apple get together and own the world. Are they wonderful philosopher kings who will do no evil? Hmmm. Benevolent dictators. I say, “Hmmm,” again. Can we settle for open and highly receptive to customer feedback? I’m still at, “Hmmm”, when I look at Apple bricking iPhones and being a total control freak about everything. Is this the world you want to surrender total control to? Not me. I’ll buy the products because I have options. I can run Windows on the Mac if I want, and the World Wide Web is a big ole open prairie. Start walling me in and I have a problem.
What about Google? Are these guys really that innovative? I mean, they’ve been brilliant at search and cornering the online advertising market, but so much of the rest of it seems a careless afterthought. In many ways they are a lot like Microsoft in terms of innovation. What have they done for us lately? When was the last time they punctuated the equilibrium? Seems to me they’re largely working on a lot of “me-too” stuff they get through acquisition, they’re not real fast at rolling the stuff out, and they don’t really tie it all together nearly as seamlessly as the vision calls for. I mean, it took quite a while to get blog search inside the blog reader, and I recently read they’re only now able to hide columns in their spreadsheets. I mean, hello? We could hide columns in Visicalc. That’s pretty basic stuff, folks.
Let’s not forget the ever-present antibodies that suddenly spring up when it seems an infection will overwhelm. We’re all hardwired to become increasingly suspicious and unsupportive when too much power is concentrated in too few hands. It’s a normal survival instinct that has evolved to take a firm grasp on all of us. It’s healthy, and keeps innovators and the little people from getting squashed. Sometimes power is so great and so sudden that we live with it for a while because it surprised us. But inevitably, we want to throw that yoke off.
The real answer that so many have been saying, is that the Internet needs to stay open. Everything will not wind up inside a Google-Apple technology and product mashup. Everything will not reside inside Facebook. Every piece of software will not wind up in the clouds. But, in each case, the owners of the franchises will try mightily to tempt us, and they will make progress towards their visions. That’s great. Just remember to draw the line if they try to make things too pat and too closed.
Let’s also remember to understand how centralization works best. That’s when the entity being centralized has become commoditized. If there is no further value in differentiation, and if the commodity is sufficiently open as to be entirely fungible (nobody likes having someone corner the market on their commodities!), you get massive centralization driven around economies of scale. This is happening today in the world of cloud computing. It makes less and less sense to own a data center. MIPs and Gigabytes are commodities. They are fungible as I can run lots of different software on them. I just want them as cheaply as I can get them.
Search pretty well went that route. Google got enough better for long enough to capture a good enough share that nobody since does enough better to unseat them. It’s entirely open and fungible. I can buy the ads at reasonable prices and Google is egalitarian about what they search, or at least with respect to how most users like to see it (Spammers are less happy).
The Google-Apple vision assumes we’re ready to commoditize the personal computing experience. I have a big problem with that. We’re far from done innovating there. We’ve barely scratched the surface in fact. Wait until we see the same thing for 5 years, let alone 10 years, going on with every PC and then you’ll know it’s time to commoditize.