Thursday, January 24, 2008

Michael Calore interviews Paul Saffo

I just got off the phone with Paul Saffo, one of Silicon Valley's leading technology forecasters.
I presented to Paul the same premise that I discussed with Opera's Jon von Tetzchner earlier today: Apple's iPhone as the first shot in the "invisible computer" revolution.
Wired News: The iPhone has the potential to run real applications, and it has a browser that can run web-based software. In a few years, it's likely you'll be able to just carry one of these around as a replacement for the traditional PC. When you sit at your desk, it will connect wirelessly to your keyboard, mouse, display and speakers. All of your data and files will be stored within a web service, retrievable from everywhere. At that point, who needs the computer?
Paul Saffo: I think this is a very big deal. Cyberspace was a wonderful thing, but the only place you could enter cyberspace from was your desktop. We've had some brain damaged ways of accessing it from the places that we actually live our lives, but until now, they've all been compromised. If the iPhone works as advertised, it's a no compromises node, and that's a huge deal.
It not only means that we get to do more on the web while moving around, but it means that the nature of the web is going to change because of what people can do when they're not at their desks.
With his usual élan, Jobs is breaking the tyranny of the keyboard and trying to break the tyranny of the cursor as well. We've been able to get computers into our pockets for a very long time, but the issue has always been, 'what do you do with it?' You don't have a keyboard, you don't have a stylus and your thumbs are too big to type. This is the first serious attempt to break the tyranny of input. Until now, everybody's always focused on output -- is the screen big enough or sharp enough -- and the screens are high-resolution and bright. We've conquered that. Now the limiting factor is input.
Over time, what has been the limiting piece that has kept us from doing this? It used to be processor speeds and energy demands, then it was screens. Now, the only limitation on the size of the computer is the input device.
WN: Still, there are some significant limitations we still need to overcome before this becomes reality. Namely, bandwidth and processing power.
PS: Yeah, well those are constants -- You can never be too thin or too rich. But they're more of a soft wall than a barrier in the sense that they're always getting better. Our expectations are always one step ahead.
Apple's sister product may actually play a key role here. I thought it was no coincidence that three things happened at the same time: The iPhone was announced, Apple TV was released and Apple changed its name. Apple started as a really good computer company, then it was a really good computer company that also made really neat consumer electronics. They dropped "Computer" from the name and the timing's perfect, because now they're a consumer electronics company that also makes killer computers.
The scale of the market in consumer electronics dwarfs the computer market, and not just in the number of potential customers. The essence of consumer electronics is not devices, it's fashion.
One major consumer electronics company I know very well has over 300 engineers whose full-time job is to sit around and figure out new kinds of material science to get a new kind of finish on cell phone skins. That's fashion! They're as much of a fashion house as Pierre Cardin, or who ever the hot fashion designer is these days.
WN: I think that was also reflected on the Macworld Expo floor. It seemed like every other booth this year was selling a skin or a case or some sort of accessory for your iPod. Accessories for your accessories.
PS: Yeah, and in that sense, this isn't the next computer. This is the next home for the mind. Computers have had a nice long run, and laptops will always play at least some role. But the center of gravity is now slowly shifting from the desk to the device in your pocket.
WN: Today we got confirmation that Apple is not allowing third-party developers to build software for the device. Any software that appears on the iPhone that wasn't created by Apple is only going to be the result of a partnership. There's some heavy criticism here, and some are even saying that closing the device will kill it. Do you agree?
PS: Absolutely not. They have no choice. When you constrain things in one dimension, you get freedom in another. The freedom the iPhone gets from that relationship is the freedom from crashes. Let's face it: Microsoft can't solve its Windows problem. There are too many third parties. Apple can solve it by keeping tight control.
The difference between the device that sits on your desk and the device that sits in your pocket is your expectation of reliability. If the computer on your desk crashes, you roll your eyes and go, "Goddamn it," and you try to solve it or call tech support or take it down to the Genius Bar. If your phone crashes, you're going to be ripping mad. You're going to throw it out of a window. That's another reason why that thing in your pocket isn't quite the next computer, because our expectations of our computers are too low to put them in our pockets.
The moment a device goes in your pocket, connectivity is like oxygen. After 30 seconds without it, you're feeling dizzy. After 60 seconds you're unconscious and after 2 and a half minutes, you're brain dead.
WN: So if the iPhone is not the next computer, what is it?
PS: Well, your premise is still absolutely right. This really is the next computer in that it's the next home for our minds. It's the next indispensable tool.
I'm old enough to remember when personal computers were a revolution. Suddenly, the fact that processors were so cheap we could put one on everyone's desk was a sign of abundance. Today, that desktop machine is a hangover from the days when computers were so scarce, you could only have them on your desk. Now, computers are so abundant that they are absolutely everywhere.
So the iPhone... this is your device in the age of computing abundance. It's your personal diplomat into cyberspace, it's all the things that your desktop computer wished it could be. But since your desktop could never leave the desk, it just couldn't do it.

No comments: