Everything Changes

Today everything starts to change. None of us know yet whether it all changes for good or for bad but I feel fairly certain that the discussions we have about computing won't be like the discussions we had last year. The change won't be overnight, but it will come.

Amit Gupta wrote an interesting post comparing laptops to point-and-shoot cameras. His point being that the rank amateurs for whom they were intended are gravitating towards camera phones and the serious amateurs are being creamed off by low-end DSLRs.

Amit draws the parallel between desktop computers (DSLRs), laptops (point-and-shoots) and the iPad (cameraphones). The only wrinkle, I'd say, is that laptops aren't as squarely aimed at amateurs than P&S cameras, but I am aware that everyone I know who owns only one computer owns a laptop.

The analogy works for me because the power of desktop computers is edging downwards in price. Witness the 27" Core i7 iMac that I use daily for all my development work. People who provably need computing power can get it in a cheapish desktop machine. Those who need serious computing power can move up to the Hasselblad of desktop machines, the Mac Pro.

I'm a photographer of sorts too and, for years, I scoffed at camera phones. I was even more contemptuous of those who seriously claimed that a camera phone was "all they wanted". How could that be, when you couldn't fix colour balance, crop, retouch, etc.

It wasn't that cameraphone users didn't care, they didn't even care to learn enough about photography to know that such things were available to care about.

Today, I shoot more pictures with my iPhone than my EOS 30D.

An example which, I argue, may generalise quite well

At the moment, my family stock of computer hardware is as follows:

I use a 27" Core i7 iMac for development, photography and most of my computing life. I have a 15" MacBook Pro that I take to school and on trips and an iPhone 3GS.

The MacBook Pro is little more than a data cache: it has a copy of my Dropbox, a few cloned Git repositories, my synced OmniFocus database and that's it. I could recreate that setup in under 10 minutes on any Mac.

Carolyn, my wife, uses a 20" Core 2 Duo iMac and an original iPhone (her 3G met, shall we say, a watery end). She uses it for using the web, email, watching BBC iPlayer and producing the occasional flyer for her Mothers & Toddlers group.

April (age 5) has an iPod touch. I didn't exactly give it to her - it was at one time a development device - but it seems clear that it's now regarded as hers. She adores audio books and is quite partial to a game of Pickin' Time.

I can easily see us becoming a one-Mac, three-iPad family by the end of 2010. Carolyn's iMac will be gone. My 15" MacBook Pro will be gone. We'll both have iPads.

At School

When I go to teach, what do I use? The tools are surprisingly simple. I use Pages, Keynote, Safari, Preview to read PDFs. The only big thing I'll miss on the iPad is Apple Remote Desktop, but I can find an admin machine for that.

It'll be fascinating to see where the rough corners show up in using the iPad as a day-to-day teaching tool. I'll be writing it up here for sure.

On The Road

The iPhone has already changed my entire travel experience. In the Olden Days, the laptop was the most important thing to take, and everything was geared around finding ways to hook it up to power and internet during layovers between Glasgow and San Francisco. Those days have been gone for a while.

In the past year, I've found that I carry the laptop "just in case something happens", where that something rarely does.

I've needed a laptop in cases where I have to give a presentation. The iPad will handle that.

I've needed a laptop in cases where I have to reply to a lot of email. It certainly seems like the iPad will stand up to that better than the iPhone.

I've needed a laptop in cases where I have to code on the road. The iPad definitely won't handle that.

In all honesty, as my children have grown up, my trips are growing shorter. As my products and development processes have matured, I'm doing fewer emergency bug fixes. When I'm travelling, I'd really rather spend my time relaxing, hanging out with My People and occasionally keeping up with the world than holed up in a hotel hacking away.

The only time I've done Serious Work on the road in the past four years was during WWDC '08 when I was rushing to get Darkslide 1.0 finished for the opening of the App Store.

The one thing that I didn't have an answer about until today was The Photography Question. It turns out, though, that the iPad supports RAW images from digital cameras (I presume the same files as Mac OS X supports).

My most data-intense photography trip of the year is when I shoot the Scottish Ruby Conference. This year - last weekend - I came home with 873 RAW images from a Canon 7D and 30D. The 7D at full-bore produces RAW images around the 24MB mark. That's about 21GB of RAW images. That's not a huge chunk out of a 64GB iPad, and many modern DSLRs will now record a reduced-resolution RAW file that's more than fine if you're just going to Flickr (where 99% of my photos end up).

Assuming the iPad can actually handle that kind of load, performance-wise, then it could become a serious tool for review in the field.

The Future's Bright

As a user, I'm extremely bullish on the iPad. The iPhone turned into more than we ever thought it could be. The iPad will be the same.

Be Your Own Cloud

I wrote, a while ago, about how unhappy an experience it is to have to sync data between computers. I haven't changed that view much in the intervening period.

What has turned my head are the new Core i7 iMacs. Man, they're so nice, so fast and, comparatively speaking, really quite cheap. I can't pretend that I don't want one.

I've always liked desktop computers. The most power and the biggest screens for the least money seems like a no-brainer proposition to me. The only thing is that mobility issue. I just end up wanting to have it all with me, all the time.

I sincerely hope that the future is a place where I can have it all. I suspect that this future is not close, but neither is it terribly far away. My relationship with my laptop is changing fast, and the reason for that is the iPhone.

The question of "what do I do with my laptop?" is not as interesting as the intersection of "what is my work?" and "where do I do my work?".

Well, I have two jobs. I'm a teacher and a software developer. Sometimes, I travel.

The things I need from a computer to teach at school are extremely minimal:

  • A browser
  • A text editor
  • Access to some PDF files

I have a 'presentation' laptop I use at school, with a configuration similar to the one the kids have in front of them. I don't use my MacBook Pro in the actual act of teaching a lesson, but I do use it for web access and email during the school day.

Software development happens, for the most part, in my home office. It's pretty rare that I get serious work done in any other room in the house. It's also fairly rare that I get much work done outside the house. I'm not a big coffee shop worker.

When I travel, I find that the MacBook Pro gets dismantled from the home office, carted to the hotel and set up as a 'remote base' in the hotel. Once I'm actually in the flow at the conference, I'm almost totally living off the iPhone. Unless I'm actually giving a presentation from the laptop, it's rare that I'll take the MacBook Pro out of the hotel room.

All that said, the key thing is that I never want to have to say "oh, I can't do that thing here - it'll have to wait until I get home". I think there are three technologies whose time is almost nigh, that might start to make this really interesting.

The first technology is screen sharing. It's been built into Finder since Leopard and improved upon in Snow Leopard. If you have Apple Remote Desktop, as I do, there are some very low-bandwidth modes that you can put the remote connection into, in order to increase the performance.

What if you could have a fast desktop machine at home and get a good, solid Remote Desktop session to it from anywhere? That day isn't here yet, but it's not a million years away either.

The second technology is Mobile Me's worldwide bonjour DNS service, generally known as Back To My Mac. This is a vastly under-appreciated technology, but it essentially lets you have a permanent DNS name for your machines that may even be behind a suitable NAT gateway, such as a Time Capsule. Anywhere I go in the world, I can resolve machinename.fraserspeirs.members.mac.com to the current IP address of the machine, even if the gateway was given a new IP address lease by the ISP.

I know there remain many issues with Back To My Mac under several network architectures, but the principle of the thing is there, if not actually the practice yet.

Finally a technology, new in Snow Leopard, called sleep proxies. Sleep proxies are a technique for another network device to 'stand in' for a sleeping Mac that provides a network service. Say, for example, you share your iTunes library over the network but the iMac goes to sleep. The bonjour broadcast of those serivces is migrated to another device on the network - most often an Apple wireless device like a Time Capsule - and the iMac remains asleep. When the service is resolved by another machine, the sleep proxy wakes the actual server which resumes its serving duties.

One of the big issues with running an always-accessible home machine was the energy cost of running it 24x7. With sleep proxies, you no longer have to. It's a very smart technology. You can read more about it in Apple's support article HT3774.

I'm pretty sure the day in which all this dances together well enough to make it dependable is a bit further off. Regardless, I'm looking forward to a day in which the capabilities of smartphones grow upwards and the network accessibility of home desktop hardware grows downwards to such an extent that they meet somewhere in the middle. Laptops are horribly expensive and horribly compromised just to reach that goal of "everything with you, all the time".

You say it'll never happen. I'm almost inclined to agree, but part of what makes us geeks is relentless optimism about technology. I'm optimistic. I'm not wholly buying into the current Cloud Craze, but what if you could be your own cloud?