Geoffrey Long
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Macworld 2008: Something in the Air?

Teh Apple Intarwebs are all aflutter over a handful of photos posted over at Ars Technica depicting the first Macworld banners up at Moscone Center. Written across them in Myriad Light is the phrase, "2008. There's something in the air."

Oooooooh. What could it be? What could it be? So far the smart money's been on the following:

  • New wireless networking tools. At CES, wireless was all the rage. This has been going on for a while now, actually, what with the widespread proliferation of high-speed wireless networking equipment in a range of tasty flavors. 802.11g! 802.11n! Yummy. However, Apple's AirPort line hasn't been refreshed in a little while, and their tiny AirPort Express stations are reportedly out of stock across the country. A safe bet would be a new type of AirPort Express station with either higher speeds or additional content – perhaps an AppleTV Express that is only a dumb streaming terminal from your primary computer?

  • New Apple subnotebook. This has been a rumormonger's favorite for months – the existence of a superslim MacBook with no optical drive and a hard drive consisting of only Flash memory, possibly called the MacBook Thin, the MacBook Touch, or (now) the MacBook Air has been bouncing around the rumor mills since 2006. Most definitely, c'est possible.

  • Extended partnership with AT&T. Last year's partnering with AT&T for the iPhone connectivity might have only been the tip of the iceberg, and the same might be said for the Starbucks iTunes special stores (which, I might add, are taking way too dang long to roll out if we still don't have it around MI freaking T). A 3G iPhone is pretty much a sure bet as well, as AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson pretty much confirmed it back in November, but what if that hardware chipset was extended to all MacBook portables? What if every MacBook came with the same unlimited data plan for AT&T subscribers? Even if it's only the subnotebook with that plan, that would be one pretty spiffy machine if the bandwidth is high enough.

  • Wireless movie rentals. The movie rentals thing is said to be a done deal as well, so if we take that as a given and add that to the new Apple TV, renting movies wirelessly from your living room is nifty, although Pay-Per-View has been doing this for years, so it's not that nifty. Sure be a dang nice thing to have, though.

  • Apple's own wireless network. Another rumor has been that Apple will turn its back on AT&T altogether and introduce its own cellular network service, something that they'd been talking about doing before but I don't see happening, or even being announced, until after the upcoming FCC auction. Further modding this idea down is the fact that as of the latest release Apple wasn't even on the list of 266 applicants.

  • Wireless monitor connections. Wireless monitor connections would be cool, although it would probably require the addition of some new wireless tech (802.11x?) with much hgher bandwidth. More likely is the introduction of a wireless Apple tablet that controls your primary Mac, or – again with the obvious – the addition of some type of Apple Remote Desktop that allows you to remote-control your Mac from your iPhone using some type of screen sharing. I'd be hosed in this setup, since my iPhone screen real estate is a far cry from the three screens I have wired up to my G5 at home, but still – definitely another nice-to-have.

  • Wireless iPod headphones. Better wireless headphones would be sweet, and fairly doable – it's so easy to imagine white wireless iPod headphones that Logitech did it back in 2005, but a set straight from the mothership itself would be pretty sweet. Added coolness would be a set of headphones that used proximity sensors to determine which room they were in, and fade in and out the volume of the source media depending on what it's nearest. That way you could have the radio playing silently in one room and the TV playing silently in another and have your smart headphones determine the source as you're walking around. Hmmm. Even if they don't introduce something like that, that sounds like it would be a neat project...

All that said, the one thing, the absolute least likely thing, that I would love to see Apple announce that I've been kicking around my own head for a while...

  • Apple Cloud Computing.

I'm going to jump out of my bullet-point format here because my thoughts on this last one get lengthy, complete with quoted references – but bear with me, as this possibility is really very cool.

Different geeks define the Cloud in different ways, but the main notion of cloud computing, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Cloud computing is a computing paradigm shift where computing is moved away from personal computers or an individual application server to a “cloud” of computers. Users of the cloud only need to be concerned with the computing service being asked for, as the underlying details of how it is achieved are hidden. This method of distributed computing is done through pooling all computer resources together and being managed by software rather than a human.

The services being requested of a cloud are not limited to using web applications, but can also be IT management tasks such as requesting of systems, a software stack or a specific web appliance.

This simplifies IT management as well as increases efficiencies of system resources. IT administrators no longer need to install software and manually setup all the systems, but instead they have management software do this. Resources are used more efficiently as computers can be consolidated to be used for more tasks. This ensures underutilized systems do not sit idle.

The New York Times' John Markoff discussed cloud computing in the Bits section back in August 2007 in a piece called "Why Can't We Compute in the Cloud?" In it, he writes:

What’s holding back computing-in-the-cloud?

The arrival of increasing powerful and standardized Web browsers has made it possible to think about moving computing and data away from the desktop and the portable PC and simply displaying the results of computing that takes place in a centralized location and is then transmitted via the Internet on the user’s screen...

...For all the activity, however, one thing seems to be inexplicably missing.

There have been almost no credible efforts to design stripped down mobile computer hardware to match the wealth of Web software. There are a number of efforts to design full-featured palm-sized computers complete with small disk drives. And there are a smattering of efforts, such as Zonbu, a maker of a subscription-based desktop computer, or the odd smartphone “peripheral” that will shortly be available from Palm, designed as a sleek ultra-portable Linux-based laptop, but shackled it as an accessory for a Treo handheld.

That said, nobody seems to be ready to really gamble on computing on the Web.

Is anyone else wondering why Palm got a mention here but not the iPhone?

Me, what I'd like to see is a further extension of the cloud computing idea to incorporate the legions of iPhones, cell phones and other devices using a SETI@home model of distributed computing – although it'd be a hell of a battery drain and would, I think, require a much-improved bandwidth scenario, imagine being able to do video editing on your iPhone by distributing the processor load to the swarm of unused mobile devices around you at any given time?

Or, similarly, imagine what would happen if Apple unleashed this distributed processing model by slapping high-powered processors into their AirPort Express wi-fi stations so that the speed of your computing experience was determined not by the number of processors in your computer, but inside of your network? This isn't a far-fetched notion at all – in fact, Apple has already been using distributed computing technology in its own QMaster Services in Compressor, one of the software packages included in the Final Cut Suite since 2005. From Apple's own support documentation:

Compressor 2 can accelerate processing by distributing the work to multiple computers. All you need is access to more than one computer and Compressor 2 installed with either DVD Studio Pro 4 or Final Cut Studio. In addition, Apple Qmaster Services needs to be installed. Apple Qmaster Services can be installed via the Apple QMaster Installer (go to the Custom Install window to install only Services), which is provided with Final Cut Studio 1.0, DVD Studio Pro 4.0.

Compressor 2 and its Apple Qmaster 2 distributed processing system handle all the work distribution and processing for you behind the scenes. They subdivide the work for speed, route the work to the computers with the most available computing power, and direct the processing. For more information on distributed processing, open Compressor and choose Help > Distributed Processing Setup.

The inclusion of these QMaster services at the system level would enable distributed computing power to other applications as well – and other companies might be just waiting to jump on this bandwagon. Adobe CS3 Extended already plays well with MATLAB 7.0+, which includes among its features support for the MATLAB distributed computing engine. While the current model requires full installs of the software on multiple computers, it's likely only a matter of time before we elect to install new software not on our computer, but on our entire computing environment – and with the advent of data standards and systems like XML, system-level integration might not require the installation of 'client' apps onto multiple nodes at all. (Kind of a scary notion, actually – it's extremely easy to imagine malware implementations at this level.)

But, oh, wait, it's already happening: ever since Mac OS 10.3 Panther, Apple's been working on a distributed processing system called Xgrid:

Apple’s Xgrid technology makes it easy to turn an ad hoc group of Mac systems into a low-cost supercomputer. Leveraging the power of Mac OS X Server, Xgrid is an ideal distributed computing platform for individual researchers, specialized collaborators, and application developers.

Plus, Xgrid is already built to support Bonjour, Apple's zero-configuration technology:

Since Xgrid is built into Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server, configuration is easy. Using Xgrid Admin (or the command line, if you prefer), just designate one system as controller, then enable additional systems to act as Xgrid agents. All agents use the zero-configuration Bonjour technology to find the controller and bind to it automatically — no need to manually enter a slew of IP addresses.

So it looks like, software-wise, the pieces are all pretty much in place. This direction would only be accelerated by the transformations of wi-fi extenders like the AirPort Express into small headless computing cluster nodes – and while the iPhone's current 620MHz ARM processor is pretty weak, in a generation or three, it's entirely possible to imagine the scenario I describe above: all of us walking around in a persistent, ever-operational, ever-present ad hoc cloud of data-crunching, art-making and future-building processing activity.

We're very rapidly entering the age of ubiquitous computing, what my SXSW friend Adam Greenfield describes in his book Everyware (which, by the way, is a steal at less than twenty bucks, one-click now, operators are standing by). Some might argue that we're already there – I count myself among them. If Steve Jobs happened to agree, Tuesday's speech could be a very jaw-dropping experience indeed.

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