I’m sure you’ve heard of Steve Jobs but I wonder if you’ve ever heard of Charles Stross. Last week his name came up twice in dispatches, firstly from my TM Forum colleague, Josh Goldfein, and secondly in a TelecomAsia article written by my good friend and global technology editor, John Tanner.
So what, you ask? Well, Mr Stross, a prolific author based in Edinburgh, has pieced together Mr Job’s master plan not only for Apple but for the IT and communications industry as a whole, and he’s explained it in layman’s terms that anyone can understand.
The Stross Theory goes like this – Steve Jobs is gambling the whole of Apple’s future (all $200 billion of it) on an all-or-nothing push into a brand new market. Stross boldly states that companies like HP ‘have smelled the forest fire too late and that Microsoft, mired in a tar put, will be caught in the oncoming inferno’. He does not appear to be an Apple fanatic but his ideas, if correct, will have dramatic repercussions for the existing market leaders in IT and our industry as a whole.
The PC has become a commodity and is about to die. The Internet is the future of computing. We have become dependent on it as our source of information for almost everything. We use it to communicate, buy goods, read books, etc and now we will be using it to store our files and programs. Cloud Computing is not new but it is about to explode and it’s all because of the improvements in communications we have made. We are a hair’s breadth from being connected to the Internet 24×7, anywhere, anytime by any number of means, but most likely wireless.
The remarkable success of the iPhone, not so much the device itself, but its plethora of applications and its ability to connect seamlessly to any wireless infrastructure was a precursor to the ultimate Jobs plan, to supplant the PC with a highly-portable device but one that is easier to read and work with, the iPad. This is a big gamble because Apple itself also produces a wide range of PC products and he will be putting this business at risk.
We know that Google and Amazon, for example, are Investing heavily in Cloud infrastructure, Microsoft is moving towards SaaS replacements for its most popular software products but Apple is also known to be investing heavily in data centers suitable for cloud hosting and there are persistent rumors that iTunes 10 will become some sort of cloud service ‘slurping up’ your music and video libraries, storing them online and then streaming out to any of your registered devices.
Just think about it. No more software updates to download and install, no more backups to worry about and no more viruses to attack your computer – because you won’t have a “computer” in the current sense of the word.
Stross ends by stating rather emotively that there is a ‘stench of fear hanging over Silicon Valley. That’s why Apple have turned into paranoid security Nazis, why HP has ditched Microsoft from a forthcoming major platform and splurged a billion-plus on buying up a near-failure with a brilliant OS suited for a future tablet development and it’s why everyone is terrified of Google.
What Stross fails to pick up on is the value this places on communications networks providing access to all the new Cloud services. We may currently be seeing price pressure on data plans but as the Cloud SPs become more reliant on reliable comms for their survival they may see investment in networks, even acquisition, a good idea. For CSPs this could be the ultimate exit plan.
I should now admit that I recently succumbed to iPad fever and have managed to do everything I needed to research, write and post this piece with the remarkable device. However, without wireless access I suspect it would be as useful as a boat anchor which, happily, it is too light to emulate.
Isn’t this just the turning of an old technology wheel of fortune? The question is whether it is better to have processing power centralized or distributed, or to put it another way, if the power rests in the network or its endpoints. Telephones used to be the thinnest of thin clients. Mainframes used to carry the computing load whilst users sat in front of dumb terminals. PCs turned that architecture around and were the fattest of fat clients. Over time the PCs morphed and doubled-up to become/replace your phone. Technologies like SaaS and iPads mean the clients are getting thinner again.
Whatever the era, the same fundamental principles, the same pros and cons apply to the architectural choices. Put the power in the middle and the end user is reliant on somebody else. Put the power out to the edge and the user has to takes on more of the burden of care and trouble. The suppliers have the mirror burden and benefits, as relevant to the part of the end-to-end chain they provide.
Apple could become a CSP, but do they really want to? I don’t read this so much as a long-term gamble as it is a mid-term disruptive strategy. It further weakens Microsoft’s previously vice-like grip on the end user. But they don’t have to follow through and buy comms providers, especially if those CSPs turn themselves into an excessive number of dumb bitpipe providers competing on price alone. Mix in a little regulatory intervention to minimize the influence of the CSPs and they end up in the worst of all worlds – unable to break out of a limited business model and unable to do anything that might interfere with the plans of the Apples and Googles of the world. In short, why buy, when rent is cheap and the choice is plentiful?
In the final evaluation, I see the strategies of Google, Apple and co not as extravagant one-way bets on the cloud but as sensible each-way bets. Tech businesses have risen and fallen extraordinarily quickly; these guys are displaying the maturity needed to ensure their longevity by keeping their options open and being ready for anything. If the cloud takes off, they will be well positioned to benefit. But if not, they can still aim to make money by selling capability at the edge, irrespective of the network. Indeed, the one thing they should not invest in is CSPs. If traffic is light, buying a CSP looks like a bad investment. If traffic is heavy, the CSP has to invest in the infrastructure to keep pace. CSPs only really win if the volume of traffic meets the Goldilocks test and is just right.
Take an analogy. If the client is your home, and the server is your place of work or recreation, suppliers can make money by selling stuff for use at home, at work or at recreation. If they can make money selling things you want at all three locations, do they need to buy the roads between?