2008: It was the best of times, it was the best of times

David Braue
29 December, 2008
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Ten years from now, those whose business it is to watch the fortunes of Apple will likely look back on 2008 with particular fondness. It was, after all, a time of extraordinary financial upheaval across the world; record petrol prices; financial uncertainty; a significant, game-changing US election; political instability; and through it all, Apple showed that it can still make money better than anybody.

Looking back. After what can only be described as a limited-release test run for the iPhone in 2007, Apple unleashed the 3G variant of the device on the world this year, extending it to most continents and legitimising a smartphone market that had been slowly stumbling to its feet under the unsteady guidance of Microsoft and Research In Motion. As it has done many times before, Apple simply innovated its way into teaching bigger players that they just don’t get the average consumer.

And where has that gotten us? Microsoft, RIM, Google, and even Palm are now offering their own App Store clones, formalising an application distribution model so fundamentally obvious that it seems a wonder that it took Apple to think of it. The App Store has already pushed out over 300 million applications, and is well on the way to replicating the runaway success that is the iTunes Music Store.

Is the rest of the industry really that thick, that delivering properly integrated services just doesn’t seem to have occurred to them? Or is it just a case of Microsoft’s typical thickness, in which it overengineers everything and throws in a liberal dash of proprietary formats and ever-hopeful product lock-in? Apple is the master of lock-in, with the singular exception that its strategies – and products – actually work.

Well, most of the time. While the iPhone 3G was a runaway success, Apple’s MobileMe launch fiasco showed that the company is not totally infallible. MobileMe’s flaky performance was a major blow to Apple’s credibility when it comes to new, game-changing things like cloud computing, which also took off during 2008. Well, ‘took off’ might be an overstatement, but the idea has certainly caught on as the spread of broadband and ever more-solid application platforms make using cloud computing less like self-trepanation and more like actual productivity.

By all accounts, MobileMe is improving – it could only get better, after all – but Apple’s stumble on that account highlighted an area for improvement at the company during 2009. I earlier suggested that Apple’s cash reserves, the casualties of the sharemarket disaster and its need to expand its business into new areas would make the long-rumoured purchase of Sun Microsystems a potentially good idea; Sun, after all, does know how to do enterprise-level technology even if it can’t run a business to save itself.

Somewhere in between the great highs of the iPhone 3G and the lows of MobileMe, 2008 also presented some new facets to Apple’s ongoing success story. A relatively ‘meh’ reception to the business-as-usual September iPod updates confirmed those products are, well, business as usual.

The long-awaited MacBook refresh produced slick-looking machines with updated specs and faster graphics chips that run games better but can do nothing for the tendency for games publishers to leave Mac ports until months or years after the games have proved themselves on other platforms.

Fortunately, the iPod touch and iPhone have sparked an entirely new wave of innovation in gaming, producing games that are often less comprehensively sophisticated as simply fun to play. As proof in the pudding: Apple somehow managed to legitimise the grammatically repulsive word ‘funnest’, marketing its iPod touch with a catchy Danish pop song in a somewhat successful effort to position the device against the erstwhile PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS.

Looking forward. In a phrase, 2008 was the year in which Apple shifted its focus from what its products are, to what they do. The fact that the iPhone had a touch screen made it a standout in 2007, but with every man and his dog now sporting a touch screen Apple has moved well past that.

In a similar vein, MacBooks are more sophisticated than their predecessors, but the focus in 2009 will be on what they do better. And, for my money, I would say the most important technology by far during 2009 will be OpenCL – the recently ratified standard that is going to form part of Snow Leopard when it’s released in a few months.

It was only a few years ago that the possibility of using graphics processing units (GPUs) to run normal calculations was first floated; canny developers had noticed the ever-more-demanding game developers had produced highly capable chips that could do myriad complex computations at incredible speeds. If one could concert a conventional mathematical problem into a format that could be processed as 3D graphics are, then convert it back, well, the speed would be significant.

OpenCL is the realisation of this goal. By providing a standard set of libraries onto which conventional calculations can be framed, this amazing standard will provide a massive performance boost to computers handling computationally-intensive tasks – video encoding, graphics handling, and so on. It may not run Word any faster, but a whole host of applications will get a stratospheric performance boost by simply tapping into the GPUs they already have in place. It’s like those people that say we humans only use 10% of our brain power, and offer ways to help us tap into the other 90%. Only this works.

Taking a leadership position in OpenCL will let Apple, which has a fondness for bragging every time it boosts the speed of the Mac Pro, brag handily and enthusiastically about the knock-your-socks-off performance of its new systems. Expect lots of this during 2009, starting with Macworld where Apple will demonstrate a Mac Pro running a Snow Leopard beta and OpenCL-powered high-end graphics card doing something incredibly complicated, very quickly.

The long-awaited iMac and Mac Pro updates won’t come until Snow Leopard is released, probably mid-year, but that won’t stop fanboys from going crazy with enthusiasm.

As for the iPod? Business as usual, with apps selling by the millions and competitors vainly trying to replicate Apple’s success.

As for Apple? Money, and lots of it – but also some uncertainty. Once starry-eyed observers are starting to ask why Apple isn’t targeting enterprises more directly, and Apple may need to answer them in some way – or just stick to its knitting. The absence of Steve Jobs from Macworld signals the end of an era, which has left Apple well-positioned to both continue its magic and stretch its wings even more than in the past.

Netbooks or no netbooks, updated minis or no minis, Apple is firing on all cylinders and should continue to do so through 2009. And no matter where the ride takes us, it’s certain to be a blast.

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