It is a warm mid-Summer weekend. Instead of relaxing and enjoying the outdoors, the fresh air, the company of friends, the ferocious northern mosquitoes and all the joys that the season brings, I am in my home office, cursing the new Apple operating system.
Being a sucker for whatever is new, I have much too hastily installed it on my home computers, as soon as it became available early this week. I have spent some time reading pertinent newsgroups and web sites, and noted that some of my concerns are shared by other long time users — but of course we may well belong to a vocal minority. Ultimately, as usual, the market will be the supreme and unappealable judge of the success of this product. Me, I do not like it.
There are a number of reasons why I find it clumsier, more cluttered, less intuitive and even less efficient and productivity-oriented than its predecessor.
More fundamentally, I do not think I approve of the direction that the company seems to have taken with its operating systems, ostensibly trying to unify the environment that users experience on cellular phones, portable devices like the iPad, notebook and desktop computers. I can sort of see what they may be trying to do, and can understand how it may benefit them, but I do not think it will best serve me (and possibly many other users like myself), in the long run.
So, is it time to give a chance to the competition ? Should I think of some other brand or computing solution, when the time comes to make my next buy ?
Apple and me: a love-hate relationship
It was Summer 2002, and I was about to move to Alberta from San Diego, when I purchased my first Apple computer. It was a Power Mac, which was going to replace my home desktop PC. Following that first purchase, I became a devoted user of Apple hardware and software, acquiring over the years a relatively large number of desktop and portable computers, both for my personal use and for work, including for students and postdocs, as well as all sorts of additional Apple gadgets (such as the iPhone and the iPad) which I would likely not have opted to purchase, had I not been a converted Apple user by the time they appeared on the market.
For the most part I have been happy with all of these products, but they are not without their drawbacks, like everything else.
Now, what prompted my decision to switch to Apple in 2002, after being an early adopted (1993) and reasonably satisfied user of desktop and portable PCs running Linux ? After all, I had never been particularly fond of Apple products; they had consistently given me the impression of being aesthetically pleasing more than functional, and in any case their hefty price tag had always rendered them essentially unaffordable to me.
But in 2002, I could not escape the conclusion that Linux simply was not cutting it anymore. Without re-iterating what I expounded in an old post, the main reason was that Linux did not guarantee the required interoperability with widely adopted commercial software. Apple’s (at the time) new operating system, namely Mac OSX, seemed to offer the “best of both worlds”, i.e., a UNIX-based environment with a practical and functional graphical user interface, granting access to basically all of the major commercial applications that would not run under Linux.
Truth be told, Mac OSX has delivered, as far as that part goes. It has made my life much easier than it would have been if I had stuck to Linux. But this was possibly not the greatest benefit of adopting it.
Not just computers
Over the past five years, I, like many others, have come to depend on the use of portable gadgets which, in 2002, were not even on my radar screen — in fact, I was a late adopter of cellular phones (never used one until 2006 and never owned one until 2009). It is a simple fact that, like many others, these days I do much of my everyday computing (electronic mail, web browsing, “social” activities and even listening to music) on devices that fit in my pockets or inside a cardboard folder. As a result, being able to manage my electronic mail on my cell phone (almost) as easily as on my desktop or notebook computers, transfer files and more generally synchronizing information seamlessly between the various portable gadgets and my computers, is no longer just a “perk” — it has become a must.
That clearly confers Apple an advantage over competitors, since their products are built from the ground up with the aim of rendering communication and exchange of content among them straightforward. That, to me, is now the greatest perk of going with Apple for my computing needs. It is, to be sure, a perk that does not come for free. It is one for which I am paying decent money, because Apple products are significantly more expensive (zealots’ statements to the contrary notwithstanding). My estimate is that I have been paying at least twice as much for my computing gizmos as I would have paid if I had stuck with the Linux environment, since my decision of switching to Apple. Of course, it is something of which I was aware, and I still regard all the extra money as well spent, given the measurable save of time and increased productivity .
End of the story ? Well, not quite. For one thing, the need of making software that will be working in the same way and even look similar on desktop computers, cell phones and iPad, a need motivated by what I wrote above, may be slowly turning the asset into a liability, as the “lowest common denominator” may not afford the best possible experience on any of the various devices. But, OK, no, I am not thinking of ditching Apple just because they have removed Spaces or Exposé in favour of that imbecilic and intelligence-insulting Mission Control bullshit (I know, I sound really pissed but no, I am not — not at all). There is something more dignified (albeit possibly neither profound nor correct) that I can say about this issue.
The Google approach
OK, it is not really the “Google” approach, I am calling it such because Google is the one place familiar to me that allows me to implement it.
The idea of the Network Computer is fifteen years old, the problem was that, as correctly stated in the Wikipedia entry, it was ahead of its time. When it was first proposed by Larry Ellison, the internet was not nearly as well developed as it is now. But now it may well be a different story.
The idea is simple: as internet connectivity becomes something as easily available as cellular phone reception, and as a growing fraction of our personal computing is done not just on one desktop computer at home, but rather on several devices (at home, work and on the road), one can immediately imagine a new personal computing paradigm, whereby applications and files no longer physically reside in the hard drive of the desktop or notebook computer, or of any other single device, but rather on an online repository accessible through a simple web browser.
This is, in fact, very much the way in which many manage electronic mail already. Instead of running a local e-mail client on a desktop computer (which is what would have been done fifteen years ago), one simply opens a web browser. And, instead of storing mail messages locally (which would be fine if one used a single computer, but these days quickly results in mailboxes becoming spread among several computers and portable devices — a royal mess), all messages can be tidily and efficiently kept in a single remote server, making it possible to retrieve them from anywhere, on whichever computer one happens to be working at the time. It makes perfect sense as a procedure, and it is relatively straightforward to see how it could be extended to every application, not just electronic mail.
Take, for instance, Google’s office suite. I can easily see myself using its word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software.
The advantage to me would be that I would have just one copy of all of my documents (presumably I shall still save a backup copy locally but, it is not an essential issue anymore), saving me the hassle of synchronizing different copies among different computers, a procedure that remains clumsy and error prone even using Apple software. All of my files, including music as well as personal information, would be therefore stored remotely . Obviously, cell phones and other devices could retrieve the relevant information in the same way.
At that point, all that for which I would be using my desktop or notebook computer (or even cell phone or iPad-like device), is run a web browser — operating system and any application written specifically for it, to be run locally, would be essentially irrelevant. I could therefore buy relatively inexpensive computer hardware (or cell phones), run Linux on it, save a considerable amount of money, and likely rationalize my computing.
So… am I doing it now ?
I do not know if I am ready now to make such a significant change. I have played a bit with Google docs, and I am not sure if I regard it yet as a valid replacement for the corresponding Apple software. Perhaps I shall go through one more cycle of Apple hardware, but I would be willing to bet money that, ten years from now, the above describes how personal computing will be done. In many respects, it will be a vindication of Ellison’s visionary idea. I am sure that this scenario worries computer makers like Apple, or software giant Microsoft. I am also sure that a company like Microsoft is working as we speak on the implementation of its own internet-based “computing dock”, similar to Google’s. Apple is in a much riskier position, because they are fundamentally a hardware company. The could not do without revenues from their expensive, beautiful toys.
 By the same token, I think it can be plausibly stated that much of the trouble that Canadian cell phone maker Research in Motion (RIM) is currently experiencing, namely the loss of market share of its portable devices which were once so popular, stems precisely from the fact that interfacing them to other computing resources is not equally straightforward. For example, I do believe that the Blackberry Playbook is in many respects superior to the Apple iPad, particularly when it comes to sheer hardware performance. Unfortunately for RIM, that is largely a moot point. The lack of equally or comparably valid software, makes the choice of the iPad almost a no-brainer for many of us.
 This might conceivably raise some concerns over privacy. How comfortable are we knowing that all of our information is in the hands of Google or anyone else ? My tendency is not to regard this as a serious issue, though. Most of us are already comfortable with the notion of entrusting Google (or, whomever) with our electronic mail, which is as private and sensitive as it gets.