Apple kills the optical drive, and other stories

By Jonny Evans

Apple [AAPL] seems set to kill the optical drive when it releases Mac OS X 'Lion' as a downloadable upgrade via the Mac App Store. While this begs questions -- principally how a Mac user can launch a faulty Mac from disk, without a disk -- this isn't the first time Apple's changed an industry. Here's a short -- and necessarily incomplete -- list:

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[ABOVE: The Alto in action, c/o Computer History Museum, copyright Mark Richards.]

Dude, where's the PC

"We started out to get a computer in the hands of everyday people, and we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." Steve Jobs.

Way back when computing was text-based, an Apple team visited Xerox Parc, where it saw the Alto. Equipped with a mouse, keyboard and screen, Jobs seized on the new interface and took the ideas back to the Apple team. There, he told them, "Let’s make a dent in the universe. We'll make it so important that it will make a dent in the universe."

It did: Apple's GUI revolutionized the industry, gave Microsoft the ideas that became Windows, and while Apple is innovating the interface today, introducing touch, it is undeniable that Apple helped invent the computer world. Even though Commodore boss, Jack Tramiel, called the Mac a toy, admonishing Jobs with the advice, "I guess you'll sell it in boutiques".

Looking at the success of Apple retail since the company launched its chain of "boutiques". Tramiel was ahead of the curve.

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From an Acorn an ARM tree grows

Remember the Newton? Apple's mobile solution created its own cohort of fans across its five-year history, and while the project was killed off by Jobs on his return to the cash-strapped company, people who worked within the team went on to help kick-start the mobile solutions industry at Palm, while an early Apple investment in a processor partner for these devices paid long-term dividends, history now shows: after all, Apple was a major start-up investor in today's leading mobile processor company, ARM.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

Originally part of UK firm, Acorn Computers (Acorn's BBC Micro computer was widely-used in UK schools). Acorn was taken over by Olivetti in 1985, with the first RISC-based ARM processor arriving in 1987. ARM was spun-off from Acorn and Apple after they began working on an ARM processor as part of the development of the Newton. Fast forward to the low power demands of 2005, and about 98% of the more than one billion mobile phones sold each year used at least one ARM processor. Apple's own A5 (and the preceding A4) processors are based on ARM reference designs.

Without Apple's investments in the Newton, then Apple would have needed to invest in another chip designer to create its mobile processors.

Objectify me

You have to love Mac OS X. After being on the market for what feels like a billion years, but isn't, there's still no significant virus threats, there's still no significant malware, and despite the constant paranoid carping from security vendors, sensible password management and remaining aware of dangers in opening unknown images or using public wireless points is enough to keep most users safe.

Contrast this with the constant high-level security alert which is using Windows, or the known but criminally-under-reported huge great big yawning chasms of security problems on the so-called open Android OS. (So open Google can delete Apps from your phone if it wants to do so).

It wasn't always so. Way back in time Macs ran a form of OS called, appropriately enough, Mac OS. This quirky operating system was good enough to be fun to use, and charismatic enough that it created its own vast congregation, but it had too many limitations. Apple's own attempt at creating a new OS, Copland had failed --- so the company went scampering to evicted Apple founder Steve Jobs, and his new firm, NeXT, in search of a replacement.

NeXT was acquired for $400 million in 1996. Jobs finally returned to Apple with the deal. "It's perfect," said IDG's Bob Metcalfe in 1996. "The new team at Apple has Amelio and Ellen Hancock (CTO). They are extremely competent, but they lack one thing: charisma. Steve adds that to the mix." Within a year both Amelio and Hancock were out and Jobs had taken over as interim CEO, becoming full CEO in 2000.

And this is significant why? Mac OS X was the starry-eyed offspring of Mac OS and NeXT. Combining user simplicity with graphical features that made it fun to use, this easy-yet-powerful OS had abilities no other OS could match.

Take video handling, for example. iMovie bought movie editing to everybody's computer, but the secret reason Microsoft couldn't match it (until it finally got to grips with creating a truly competitive OS in the form of Windows 7) was because its systems just crumbled and died when trying to handle video. (I'm not saying Windows systems couldn't handle it, just that they couldn't handle it while doing something else).

Now of course, Apple's about to introduce a new UI within its new OS. And the industry waits to see what the future of computing might be.

Farewell Floppy drive (hello Wi-Fi)

That Bondi Blue iMac. Introduced in 1998, this all-in-one Mac was the perfect machine for the Internet generation. It had an utterly eye-catching design. It didn't have a floppy drive....this caused huge consternation at the time, but now, well, let's say, no one misses the media, it was always the data it held that mattered most....

Historically, Apple sold one million iMacs in the first year, 43 percent to people new to Apple's platform. 1999 saw the release of the iBook, a revolutionary laptop on account of its inclusion of a new technology people chattered about but had no idea how to bring to market, and one which no one can live without today -- Wi-Fi (AirPort). This was a big deal, and the first time a consumer computer carried what has now become a standard fitting in any digital hub.

Please don't steal

1999 saw the arrival of Napster. Easily defined as an industry dominated by lawyers and second-rate imaginations, the music industry didn't see Napster coming. Approached to arrange permissions for music sales via Napster at per-track rates which really would make the online streaming services the industry feebly supports today look like the artist exploitation machines they actually are, industry chiefs responded by attacking Napster in the courts. They killed the company.

Jobs meanwhile had a secret team developing the iPod and once that diminutive but really quite amazing music player shipped, quickly followed this with the introduction of the world's first half-way decent (and 100 percent legitimate) music store, iTunes.

"We're keeping honest people honest," Apple said, pointing out that the competition wasn't other music shops, but file-sharing. Of course, there's still millions of people who don't value artists but want their music, but iTunes is now the world's most successful music store. It keeps a precious line of income coming into a music industry which continues to be led badly into its own incineration. Though people will always love music.

The iPod, of course, has become synonymous with personal music, and its introduction created new heights of interest in the company and its products, and, in conjunction with Apple's range of retail "boutiques" helped foster a scenario which Apple was able to use to introduce the iPhone...

This is science fiction

It is. Think about it. FaceTime is the communication protocol that enables a Star Trek-like experience on your iPhone. Apple has already promised to make its video calling standard available as a standard, and if it isn't Apple who achieves it, someone somewhere will invent a video calling standard which can be carried at incredibly low bandwidth, theoretically enabling laser-based and crystal clear video communications with people floating around in space -- all on an iPhone (or iPad, or Mac, or...)

The iPhone has transformed the mobile phone industry. It has knocked Nokia off of its perch, driving it into unholy matrimony with long-term foe, Microsoft, and more recently a loving hug with another benighted member, Research In Motion (RIM). Android borrowed ideas from the iPhone team in a dodgy exchange while Google boss, Eric Schmidt, sat on Apple's board. (I really cannot wait to read what Jobs has to say about Schmidt in his biography next year -- any chance of an advanced glance at that book, Mr Jobs?)... All of this is relatively recent history.

Apple's disruptive affect has led to new negotiations between software, device and carriers for a new paradigm for the smartphone age. In other words, Apple turned the mobile world upside down. And we, as consumers, get the benefit.

And then of course, there's the iPad, which IDC today seems to be moving toward counting as a PC. And in its way, for this list at least, the innovation goes all the way back to the beginning....because history, which tends to repeat itself whether with, or without, understanding, has gone full circle. Full circle? Yes, because from the PC, Apple has moved to the Post-PC...

And what's next?

Regular readers will know I've been writing about what might be coming up next from Apple for some time. Cast your eyes through a year's worth of posts here. And before you say it, I know I've missed many successes and failures today (there's probably a book in it). Never mind, there's certainly people out there who want to make a contribution, so please, please, please share what you know in comments below.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.   

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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