Change: Thy Name is Persistence
On June 6 Apple kicked off their World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC ) 2011 and you probably did not pay attention, because it was not about new cool devices. Well, you missed some really good stuff and it is worth going back and checking out the podcast in iTunes. The full impact of the announcement requires some time to digest. There were three major components to the keynote:
- OSX Lion
- iOS 5
Mac OS X Lion is the eighth major release of the Macintosh desktop operating system – with it is packed 250 new features that range from interactive touchpad techniques or gestures gleaned from the iOS and touch screen features of iPads and iPhones. What was not clear is how non-touchpad desktop Macs would make use of this new functionality. Apple has extended the virtual desktop so users can create multiple desktops that are easy to access and group together. A new feature called mission control, which appears to be a more eloquent implementation of Expose, Spotlight, and Spaces (which I personally never figured out how to use) creates organization from chaos providing a snapshot of all open windows and applications in a condensed format. Full screen mode is a much more user friendly option, so that an application can remain open in full screen, but users can go and do other things, while the OS maintains the state of open full screen applications. In the area of file saving and version control, Apple has used the Time Machine format and applied it to version control allowing users to not only have multiple versions of a single document, but the documents are live and users can cut and paste in-between versions. An autosave feature has been built into the OS, so that users no longer have to remember to manually save what they are working on. The resume features functions something like in Firefox where it will remember the state of the desktop and next time the computer is turned on it will resume in the same spot where the user left off. Also, in the area of wireless peer-to-peer networking, a new feature called Airdrop has been added that allows users to share files in a drag and drop fashion on their desktop. Information is encrypted and requires confirmation on both ends. What was perhaps most impressive for a major release is that Apple has dropped the usual price point for an upgrade from $129.00 to $29.00 making the upgrade more appealing to a wider audience.
The upgrades to iOS 5 go beyond feature and function updates to extend to how users will use and interact with their devices. And in case you thought Apple has not had an impact on the mobile market, they claim to have sold over 200 million iOS-based devices of which 25 million are iPads. Other fun facts include that they have open sourced the Safari engine and that it is the heart of the Droid-based browsers. The have added a bunch of fun items such as single sign on for twitter and better use of notifications, as well as keeping and making the information searchable. My favorite addition is the reminder application – it is sticky notes on steroids. You can not only add alarms, but you can use geo location information to make them location sensitive, so for example you need to pick up milk on the way home – so it reminds you when you get near the grocery store. At least that is how I understand it. That alone would be worth the upgrade. The popularity of the camera on the iPhone has prompted Apple to make it more interactive and adopt features found on dedicated devices such as AE/AF lock and some basic one-click editing features. Mail has been updated to include an important enterprise feature – support for public key encryption S/MIME. Finally the most compelling feature and one that has more ramifications than might be readily apparent is that iOS 5 will support WiFi connectivity right out of the box for everything, and iOS 5 based devices will no longer ship with a USB cable. That means all updates, etc. will be done over WiFi for customers who do not have or do not want to connect to another desktop or notebook for updates and synching. This feature by itself might not appear interesting, but it is a key feature when applied to Apple’s iCloud solution.
For me here lies the most significant portion of the keynote: iCloud. iCloud is a set of new cloud services that work with applications on the iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Mac, or PC to automatically and wirelessly store content as well as synchronize and push it to all your devices. iCloud services include new versions of Contact, Calendar, and Mail; iCloud Backup and Storage; Photo Stream; and iTunes in the Cloud. You remember Apple’s first go at this it was called MobileMe? Not even Jobs will argue that MobileMe was a flop. This time it is different. Instead of charging for the service users get the first 5 GB for free. If you think this is “MobileMe, take two,” think again. Apple is taking the cloud model and as usual doing it their way and, by gosh, it really does make sense. You know all those nice little features they added into iOS5 such as the ability to synch using WiFi? Well Apple takes that feature and then makes it an integral part of their iCloud story. They use it to create real time synching of photos through the new iCloud application Photo Stream. For example, say you take a photo with your iPhone, but you really want it on your desktop at home. Normally you have to wait until you get home to connect the USB cord and manually synch the files. But no more – the photos will be uploaded to iCloud without any effort on the part of the end users and waiting on their desktop device when they get home. This particular application works with Windows-based PCs as well. But it is the document in the cloud application that gives you the first hint that this could be a game changer. Using the same new core features, Apple will keep a document current on all your devices. This is more than providing a copy of the document for each device for which you have iWorks installed, but rather it remembers where you left off. It provides a device-to-device persistence. The same this is true of the iBooks application. If you start reading something on the iPad and then later decide to pick up where you left on your iPhone, you can, and the document will open to that page. This is more than a bookmark – this is persistence. To get the feel for the full potential it is really worth sitting through the Podcast and watching the demos so you can fully appreciate what we are talking about here. This is a game changer. It could truly turn the corner once and for all, making tech serve end user needs in a seamless fashion that does not require any technology expertise. And just in case your wondering, Apple has built several new datacenters designed to support iCloud, so it would appear they are not bluffing.
It should be mentioned that there are a few others out there trying dabbling in persistence. A great example is Evernote, which uses cloud persistence to allow you to make notes that are fully searchable and accessible across multiple devices, even simultaneously. Very cool stuff, and a great place to get a feel for how this all works prior to diving headfirst into iCloud.
You have to step back and look at the whole package and then look at all the little bits. This announcement is about changing the game. Desktop virtualization has been around for a while, but that is a very Windows-centric technology approach. The problem with that approach is that the technology is inherited limited by Windows and the legacy that it has riding under the covers. That approach is really not revolutionary, it is just about recreating a Windows environment and pushing it up to a thin client. If you step back and look at all the parts and then how Apple is pulling them together, it is moving towards something new. It is taking the cloud and putting it to use as more than a backend server or storage device. iCloud is providing the orchestration that frees the end user up from being hard wired to any specific device. The focus is on the content – not the mere storage of the content, but actually it is keeping that content persistent across all the end user devices. The content is keeping up with the user rather than the user needing to connect and hunt down the content or recreate the content through a virtual desktop. This is different. The success of the iPhone and the AppStore has created a set of applications and a way to consume them that works. Convergence is happening – not just in big IT shops, but also in the home. Consumers are driving this technology back into the enterprise and this is where Apple may indeed manage to reassert itself in the enterprise market. Not on the backend, but from the end user facing component. Why do you need video conferencing if you can just open Facetime on your iPad? Also, Apple is quietly adding in little hooks to make their devices more enterprise friendly. Never underestimate the power of the end user community to drive technology back into the enterprise.
Apple continues to find ways to make technology serve the needs of end users rather than making end users learn new technology. The idea of taking out manual processes that we associate with using computers and making them (for the lack of a better description) “do the right thing” is so simple, but really is quite unique. Too often vendors focus on the next big technology trend – instead Apple is focusing on taking those trends and making them serve the needs of end users, but not just in their work life, but as part of their everyday experience, so that the lines become blurred. Apple is integrating technology into end users’ lifestyles. The device becomes no more than an accessory and the value is in the content and the ability to keep it in synch and accessible from multiple devices, while preserving the state. Apple has already impacted how users interact with technology. The next generation is not wedded to the classic user productivity suites and these demos make those models seem antiquated by comparison. It will be interesting so see how the Droid development community responds. In any case, I look forward to the developments, because at the end of the day, this is a win for end users and a boon for cloud technology.