The Post-Mobile Era

Twitter followers will know that I've been interested in Chrome OS for a while. Podcast listeners will know that I've been crazily frustrated with Apple's technology since iOS 7 shipped, particularly from a quality standpoint.

Put these two things together and it's time to experiment further with Chromebooks.

When you work in educational technology, you have to be a little like the Roman god Janus and look both forward and backward. You look backward because everyone else is behind you: pupils, parents, colleagues, administrators, regulators, government. These are the people you have to take with you into the new.

At the same time, we have to periodically make very clear judgment calls about what is happening right now - without reference to the past or the future. This is what happens in your summer refresh: it doesn't matter what's coming out in October or at CES and it doesn't much matter what you've deployed in the past - you have to sign your PO in June and the trucks roll up in August with whatever is the best possible decision at the time. Such are the hard scheduling realities of school life.

Like Janus, it's also essential to keep one eye on the future. Trends change, the conversation moves on and, if you want to serve your school community correctly and well, you have to not just be abreast of them but be leading and living those changes well before you expect others to.

This is what keeps me up at night.

When we started with iPad in 2010, the argument was around the appropriateness of "mobile devices" in the classroom. Could we manage without the standard computer tropes that adults of the time had been brought up with?

Douglas Adams:

I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I was 32 when we started with the iPad and, you know what? Douglas Adams was right.

It's odd to think back to those days and remember the heat we took for doing what is now an accepted (if not yet widely-implemented) part of the educational technology stack.

They said children couldn't multi-task on iPads. Wrong. They said children couldn't type on iPads. Wrong. They said children would break their iPads. Wrong. They said children would lose their iPads. Wrong. They said Android tablets would be better and cheaper within a year. Wrong.

What the over-35s meant was that they couldn't multi-task, type on or handle their iPad without breaking it.

Having said that, the move to mobile devices wasn't as much of a paradigm shift as some people thought. An iPad or an iPhone is, after all, a fairly doctrinaire computer of the type that Apple has made since 1984. Many people couldn't see past the introduction of the touchscreen and thought it heralded a completely new era of computing. Many thought that the tablet had to be understood from first principles rather than looking at it as an evolution of the laptop computer. While the touchscreen and the tablet form factor have enabled a number of new and important use cases and contexts, I'm not so sure it represents a completely new era. The smartphone, because of scale, reach and carrier subsidies, is genuinely fundamentally a different proposition but that's another post.

Like every Macintosh before it, an iOS device is essentially a package of processing capability, IO, sensors and local data storage and state maintenance. Later revisions brought some online syncing capabilities with iCloud. Even with iCloud, a user's "suite" of devices - their Mac, iPad and iPhone - remain three distinct bundles of local data and state, some parts of which are synchronised through the cloud but don't live in the cloud.

This distinction is crucial. This distinction is the spring from which all the confusion arises when your colleagues and relatives don't understand that buying more iCloud storage space won't solve their storage space problems on their 16GB iPhone.

Continuity and Handoff in iOS 8 and Yosemite attempts to bridge the divide between devices. While we have had data syncing for some time in OS X and iOS, Continuity is about attempting - at some level - to synchronise state between devices.

You can understand why iOS is built that way. The first iPhone had only EDGE networking and a weak battery. Any software process that depended on constant connectivity to the network was a total non-starter in the mid-2000s. Today, though, we have much more power-efficient hardware in our devices, better batteries and much faster cellular networks.

It seems to me that the prospect of a cloud-only existence is very close. Hence my interest in Chromebook.

I don't wish to reiterate the simplistic arguments about "you can't do this or that on whatever device". When we're looking at longer-term trends, rather than making tactical decisions about the current deployment, we need to think deeper. We need to avoid the human tendency to over-estimate the short term and vastly under-estimate the long term.

What I want to think about more is the idea that we are moving into a post-mobile era. Encapsulated in that phrase "post-mobile" is all kinds of opportunity for misunderstanding and erroneous refutation, so let me be clear: post-mobile doesn't connote that mobile devices are going away. Far from it. They may eventually be the only devices we own.

What I mean by "post-mobile" is that we may be about to move away from the idea of local state and storage, even on our mobile devices. To a certain extent - even possibly to a great extent - most people have already done this on the desktop (and laptop). Every significant application or service that has arisen in the last ten years or more on the desktop has been a web app. The last exception I can think of is possibly iTunes and, in the broad scheme of computing, it's even debatable if iTunes counts as "significant".

I started to notice this when I started describing my iPhone as " a remote control for cloud services". It seemed that every app I touched regularly on my iPhone was an app that more or less totally depended on networking for its function. Let's look at the main ones:

  • Mail
  • Safari
  • Twitter
  • Music streaming (iTunes Match)
  • Google Drive
  • Maps
  • Feedly (RSS)
  • Pocket
  • Travel apps
  • Instagram
  • Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, Plex
  • Evernote

It seemed, ultimately, that my iPhone was becoming a stateless device. This hit home to me when I upgraded to my latest iPhone. Instead of restoring my backups, I set the phone up as new. There was almost no data loss: everything I had access to on that phone came back from cloud services almost immediately.

I think this is largely a function of the use cases that a smartphone is put to: communication and entertainment-oriented tasks that depend on up-to-date information. It can be done but it's not comfortable to write a Keynote presentation on your iPhone.

The iPad, however, is a different story. There, I do build movies in iMovie, work in GarageBand and create in Keynote. There is a lot of local state on the iPad and it can be quite difficult to manage at times.

So, where does my interest in Chromebook arise from? Well, ChomeOS has always felt to me like it really had the soul of Google in it, in a way that Android never did. Google is all about the web and ChromeOS is all about the web.

My interest in ChromeOS definitely also waxes and wanes along in inverse proportion to my frustration with Apple. Right now, it waxes strongly as Apple's ability to ship reliable software appears to be disappearing like snow off a dyke, as we say in Scotland.

ChromeOS isn't interesting because it's got better apps than iOS. Generally, it doesn't. It's not interesting because Chromebooks are nicer tools than Apple computers; they're not. I won't lie: Chrome OS is partly interesting because Chromebooks are 20-50% of the price of Apple computers.

ChromeOS is really interesting, though, because it's a computer whose entire existence is built around the idea that neither state nor data is local to the machine. In some ways, we had this before when we used OS X Server to manage OS X machines with auto-mounted home directories and so forth. Auto mounted home directories barely worked across a LAN, however, far less a WAN. Software just wasn't designed to talk sparingly to storage in those days.

The total decoupling of state and data from the machine and coupling it to the user's account has a number of interesting implications. The device becomes essentially disposable or at least highly fungible. It becomes secure, since there's little or no local data to attack and even logging into the computer can require 2-factor authentication.

When I first started looking at Chomebooks, they were cheap and quite weak computers. They were slow and made of poor plastics. Today, though, they are much faster and much better built and have achieved this without the kind of price increases that we have seen from the once-cheap Android tablets not trying to compete with iPad on performance and quality. Chromebooks are reaping the dividend of 30 years of development on PCs.

At its heart, though, a Chromebook is a computer built around Google Drive and Google Docs. The Drive suite is the killer app for Chromebook, and the rest the rest. It is interesting, though, that there increasingly exists a class of software that is "synchronised local state" and another class that is "cloud state accessed locally". This is the difference between Pages and Google Docs or between OmniFocus and Todoist or between iMessage and Slack.

The long-term strategic part of this is that it appears to be much harder to build a robust cloud-coordinated back-end to previously local-state software than it is to make a cloud-backed application work offline. Witness the rather sorry state of collaboration tools like iWork's iCloud collaboration, OneDrive or even Dropbox.

The flipside of this coin is that it's not just about having your state and data in the cloud; it's also about having your applications running continuously, even when you're not actively using them. There's no IFTTT channel for Microsoft Office. I'm very interested in what happens when our tools are no longer tools that we start and stop using but rather are processes that operate continually in the cloud working on our behalf and which we check in with from time to time as we need. This is the difference between Google Now and Siri: Google Now works for you when you're not watching; Siri works only when you whistle.

Phase one was about adopting "mobile" technology in schools. It worked and it's embedded now. iPad is the workhorse tool and I appreciate that very much. It just means it's no longer particularly intellectually interesting. For me, phase one is over.

To my mind, phase two - the next five years or so - is about making full use of the cloud in schools. I hope Google moves ChromeOS beyond the laptop form factor, so that we don't lose some of those benefits of mobility. I sure hope Apple decides to be part of that conversation at all.