Saturday, 5 June 2010

PCs are not trucks. They're gas stations.

I love listening to Steve Jobs. If that makes me a "fan-boy" then so be it.

Much of his genius is as a technology visionary, but there's more to it than that. There's his flair for PR as well, which is lazily referred to by hackneyed journalists as his "reality distortion field". In practice, this means that you need to take care to separate the candid visionary stuff from the carefully crafted spin.

Maybe that's why Kara Swisher was glowering so disturbingly throughout her moment of fame interviewing Steve Jobs at this week's All Things D conference. She didn't want to let Jobs get away with anything, like the time he said people didn't want to watch videos on MP3 players, only to release a video iPod 12 months later. Or the time he said that tablet computers were a gimmick for rich people, only to release the iPad a couple of years later. Steve Jobs's answers are always factually correct, but he can be the king of misdirection when he chooses.

In a wide ranging discussion this week, Kara, Walt and Steve touched on many fascinating topics. Jobs illustrated how he has mastered his temper, learned to take a breath and then deliver a devastating, targeted blow in response, as Gizmodo and Flurry now know to their cost. Goodness only knows what kind of retaliation is heading Google's way, but I wouldn't take Jobs's remark that "just because we are competing with somebody, doesn't mean we have to be rude," at face value. Sure he won't be rude, as he politely lobs a grenade at them.

But perhaps their most interesting topic of conversation was the future of the PC, and the potential for tablet devices, like the iPad, to replace it. Job's take on this was that the age of the PC is almost over, (and in this context, by "PC" he includes Macs too.) Jobs argues that for most users, they will increasingly be replaced by mobile devices like iPads and iPhones. PCs will still be around, but they'll be like trucks - only driven by those who really need that kind of heavy lifting.

The next day, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer, who was also at All Things D, was asked to comment on Jobs's prediction. He argued that Jobs's vision was a little self-serving, given that he had lost the battle over PCs, and was now heavily invested in mobile devices. Ballmer was equally self-serving, however, when he went on to define any digital device that does not fit into one's pocket as a PC.

Having used an iPad for several weeks, I am now convinced that it could replace the PC in many contexts, but there is still something about Jobs's prediction that doesn't ring true - at least not yet. If a new generation of computer users are going to forsake PCs and Macs in favor of iPad's, what are they going to do the first time they switch on their new iPad and find it is insisting on being connected to iTunes before you can start using it?

This is not a facetious question. It is hard to see how an iPad can replace a PC when it has so many dependancies upon PCs. Photos can be viewed on an iPad, but must be managed on iPhoto. Music can be played on an iPad, but smart playlists can only be created on a PC. Videos and songs can be purchased on an iPad, but can only be backed up on transferred to an iPod or iPhone via a PC.

You might say that these are just small details that can be addressed over time, but they are indicative of an underlying approach to the iPad OS, modeled as it is on the iPhone OS, which makes the assumption that it is a companion to a PC, not a replacement. Far from becoming trucks, this positions PCs as gas stations that are essentially for filling up iPads that are out and about on the roads.

Next week, at Apple's WWDC conference, Jobs looks set to unveil a major overhaul of their cloud-based MobileMe service, which is rumored to be moving to a fremium model. Doubtless services for iPad, including a new MobileMe iPad app, will be at heart of the new offering. And MobileMe me looks like the most promising solution to remove iPad's dependence on the PC over time. But it will be a while before Apple can be rid of that pesky "Connect to iTunes" launch screen. The PC looks likely to continue to perform the function of gas station for a while longer, before it finally fulfils Jobs's vision and becomes a truck.


  1. You answered your own question when you said that these things will be addressed in time. Steve was talking big picture, not details.

    I'll kind of agree with Steve. I can see, five years out, most of our digital activity will be conducted with phones and tablets. There will be much more use of the cloud for storage. Businesses might supply some employees with tablets and phones but not desktops or laptops.

    The hardest thing to imagine is how tablets will change our lives. We're stuck on trying to figure out how we can entirely reproduce our current activities with a tablet. Maybe we won't. At some tipping point when enough people use tablets standard practices will adapt to conform to that reality.

  2. PCs are support trucks for experimental solar-powered, robot-driven vehicles.

  3. To be fair, he was talking about the future, not now.

  4. The "Connect to iTunes" screen is obviously not Steve's vision for what the iPad should be long term.

    I hope that they fix it during the keynote on Monday. They easily could. A decently functional free MobileMe account would give them a platform to start competing with the strengths of Android.

    Turning on an iPad should be a bit like turning on a new Mac. First you connect to a network, either WiFi or 3G, and then you sign in to an existing account or make a new one.

    You should be able to connect to a PC to accomplish the same thing if you don't have WiFi for some reason, but it should be optional.

  5. I agree Stets - that sounds like the way to go. But since iPad OS 4 is not coming out until the Autumn, I suspect that's the earliest we're likely to see the demise of the "Connect to iTunes" screen.

  6. It will be interesting to see whether OS 4.0 for iPad gets mentioned at all during the keynote. I wouldn't be surprised if they stay silent until September.

  7. “…he said people didn't want to watch videos on MP3 players, only to release a video iPod 12 months later.”

    And how much of a big deal was that? How many people buy an iPod Classic for the opportunity of carrying hundreds of hours of video…viewable at 320X240 on either a 2.5" screen, or blown up to a blurry TV-size screen? That's NOT an acceptable answer for movie-watching for 99% of people. Even the iTunes store serving video to laptops, iPads and iTouches — all decent quality — is still probably a tiny fraction of the numbers that Netflix puts up.

    I agree you have to listen carefully, but when I've watched, he is pretty clear about what's “not anything we have any immediate plans for,” what's “in the labs” (and who knows if it'll ever see the light of day), what's “interesting.”

  8. PCs are like Horses: They require constant feeding and are full of crap.

  9. I could not agree more with you. The iPad requiring iTunes and a computer is weird and it shows the lack of completeness of the iPad as a form factor in hardware and in software form.

  10. Welp, looks like Apple isn't going to be combating Android's cloud integration this time around.

    Maybe September?


    Next WWDC?