4G + cloud = the death of the PC

03 May 2010

For all the hype about Apple’s status as an icon creator and wireless-internet game-changer, one of its more controversial decisions regarding has been its refusal to support Adobe’s Flash multimedia for the iPhone or the iPad.

Many web users argue Flash is a minimum requirement for any device claiming to support access to the “real” Web.

Last week, Steve Jobs wrote a lengthy open letter explaining the reasoning behind the Flash decision. Many of his objections were technical, but his main gripe was that Flash is proprietary (as opposed to HTML5, CSS, JavaScript and H.264, which Apple supports instead) and, more to the point, creates “a third-party layer of software between the platform and the developer that ultimately leads to substandard apps.

Not unexpectedly, Adobe chief Shantanu Narayen disagrees with Jobs’ claims and flat-out denies some of them (not least that Adobe is not an open technology, as its Creative Suite software is designed to support multiple platforms).

Whoever’s right or wrong, there may be another possibility underscoring Jobs’ reasoning, suggests science-fiction writer and software programmer Charles Stross: the likelihood that the PC industry that Apple helped co-found over 25 years ago is dying.

The basic thesis ties together a number of separate events – Apple’s borderline-obsessive control policies over apps development for its devices, HP’s recent buyout of Palm and its WebOS platform that it could develop into a tablet to take on the iPad at the expense of Windows 7, and the reported death of Microsoft’s Courier tablet project – with upcoming developments for wireless broadband and cloud computing.

Meanwhile, says Stross, PC prices have already dropped fairly close to commodity levels. The profit margins in five years will be mobile/portable devices that leverage the 4G/cloud future and replace the need for a central home computing device with a collection of devices accessing centrally stored apps and content via 50-megabit wireless connections.

Consequently, Stross hypothesizes, Jobs is betting his company’s future on this, and putting a premium on maintaining as much control over the ecosystem as possible, as iTunes and the App Store will be critical platform components of any cloud-based strategy in the future.

He may be on to something here, although I have serious doubts that it will be that straightforward.

For a start, Stross predicts both 4G and cloud computing will be sufficiently up and running by 2015. LTE and 802.16m may be deployed by then in select markets, but not many, and full coverage will be rare.

More to the point, “cloud computing” requires widespread adoption and development of a multitude of technologies and standards in every part of the Interweb value chain, as well as educating end-users on the concept that apps and content are things you pay to access, not to “own”. That’s going to take a lot longer than five years to come together with any cohesion.

Timing issues aside, though, there’s little doubt that both 4G and the cloud are on the way and will transform the way we use the Web, given enough time.

And it’s telling that Jobs explicitly described Flash as a technology “created during the PC era – for PCs and mice”, neither of which have any place in the coming mobile era of “low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards”.

So perhaps Jobs really is intent on laying as much groundwork as possible now to brace his company for the 4G cloud, whenever it arrives. Whether maintaining iron control over the Apple ecosystem is the ticket to achieving that is – and will continue to be – a matter for debate.

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