Apple's Particle purchase hints at iPad, iPhone post-PC plans

With all eyes on Apple’s [AAPL] October 23 iPad mini and Mac announcements, it would be easy to spend too little time pondering the company’s acquisition of HTML5 firm, Particle. I think it illustrates a few interesting new elements to Apple’s future plans for mobile devices, apps, software and services.

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Joining the dots

Particle is an HTML5 Web app consultancy firm. Backed by Justin Timberlake, its clients have included Google, Motorola, Sony, Zynga.. and Apple. 

Describing its work with Apple, Particle explains it brings: “...great Apple relationships and execution experience around iAds, iTunes Extras, and Apple.com. We have participated in and piloted much of the technology which will display the next generation of advertising and deliver media content for the next decade.”

In other words, Particle has been involved in developing some of the more advanced HTML5-based elements of Apple’s iTunes/Internet ecosystem. The company's work on iAds has helped Apple seize some presence in the online advertising market; while iTunes Extras introduced a few tasty multimedia features to the iTunes Store.

Apple already offers HTML5 apps via iCloud. This currently enables easy document sharing and editing between a user’s Macs and devices, with apps such as Pages or Keynote also being made available to both platforms.

Surely there can be no doubt that as Apple’s mobile products become more powerful the company will choose to diversify its range of mobile apps to serve the market it builds?

Crucial technology

Particle has this to say about its focus on HTML5, a Web standard the company says it: “Sees as being at the core of the next generation of applications both on the Web and embedded in various contexts.

It adds: “Particle has chosen to focus on this technology so intensely because we believe it will soon be the rendering engine that powers a new universe of light weight and embedded applications from set top boxes to game consoles to Chrome OS and Android devices to portable telephony and media devices of all kinds.”

Particle’s vision embraces solutions which could be implemented within the future Apple television (as and when media firms recognize the time is right to loosen up their control of that medium); but it also suggests new families of lightweight Apple mobile device; as well as future HTML5-based implementations within iOS and the apps it drives.

The focus on mobile is at the heart of Apple’s mission in the 21st Century. 

Company acquisitions in the last few years have bought in expertise in processor (PA Semi, Intrinsity), flash memory (Anobit), app discovery (Chomp), authentication (Authentec), maps (C3 Technology) and online advertising (Quattro) technologies.

All of these feed directly into the vision of a mobile ecosystem: from improving devices running its operating systems through use of state-of-the-art technology to the apps which run on them and ways to create value from within the ecosystem it is building out.

The strategic importance of HTML5 to Apple was made clear not so long ago when then CEO, Steve Jobs, posted his Thoughts on Flash message. He ended this diatribe against all the many faults of Flash saying:

New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.”

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User interfaces and video

Particle’s not a huge acquisition. Through it Apple has bought in several new recruits, who now work as “creative technologists” and “user interface engineers” at the firm.

A look through Particle’s Website shows a little of the kind of work this team has been engaged in, which includes several proof of concept pilot HTML5-based apps/services most of which offer a focus on video: robo.to; Intervue.me and uooo.tv.

Apple’s acquisition may also have been designed as a blow in its battle with Google. Particle appears to have been deeply involved with Google’s efforts on its Chrome OS. 

Google leans on Particle as a leader in HTML5 and open Web standards, involving us in a variety of Google Chrome initiatives & experiments, and often inviting us to speak at Google sponsored events,” the Particle site explains.

Interesting to think that Microsoft recently accused Google of attempting to kill HTML5 video standardization attempts. "The most likely candidate for a video standard, H.264 is subject to patent disputes. On February 22, Microsoft Deputy General Counsel accused Google of trying to kill video on the Web by holding back proprietary patents." That YouTube empire needs protecting after all.

As Apple moves to improve the Mac OS with mobile-friendly elements, it makes sense that the firm hires in some talent with a deep insight into Google’s future OS plans. 

iPad: the next generation

Chrome is a lightweight mobile OS built for portable PCs. 

With the hard drive remaining the biggest point of failure for conventional computers, the move toward solid state drives continues to gather momentum. 

The MacBook Air range shows what’s possible for PCs, while the success of Apple’s iOS products shows another side to the story: the need for online hosted apps, services, and data (documents, or even iTunes purchases).

As Apple inexorably twins the Mac and iOS operating systems, iCloud will emerge as the glue that ties these two platforms together. 

Apple’s move to invest in HTML5 expertise with deep insight both into a competitor’s platform plans and wide experience at the cutting edge of standard development also makes perfect sense as it lays the ground to deliver next year’s much advanced iPad 4. 

This will be the most powerful tablet Apple has ever built, and it makes absolute sense to expect it to offer up some equally powerful applications to underline this message. 

With iMovie, Pages and Keynote already available as apps, what other Apple software exists which could show the value of the next-gen iPad/iPhone as a creative, rather than a purely consumption-focused device?

In a post-PC age, everything is subject to change. The eventual outcome must be that anything you can do on a PC today, you can expect to be able to do on a mobile device. Particle’s experience in developing user interfaces based on HTML5 feeds well into such a vision.

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