December 7, 2012
It's a great comfort to live in a world filled with plenty of people who focus more on the future than the past. We obviously have a lot to learn about from the past, but the one thing we never can do with the past is change it.
I'm sure you will be greatly surprised that I am inspired to write this after watching Brian Williams' interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook on "Rock Center." If you have read two of my blogs, you probably saw that coming.
One thing I realized is I like sticking to the products in Apple's catalog because they have this familiar lack of feeling stuck in the past in them. It's mostly a thing that you just feel instead of can describe. However, I shall list a few instances of decisions that give me a warm, fuzzy feeling all over.
• Removing optical (CD/DVD) drives. If you're like me, you really don't use an optical drive much. I mean you still need one from time to time, but more and more there are options that keep you from needing one. When it comes to mobile computers, the optical drive had held back computers getting thinner, lighter and faster. So with the initial release of the MacBook Air, Apple began removing the drives. Now every product Apple makes has a model without an optical drive aside from the Mac Pro, which almost nobody buys any more and which hasn't been updated in forever. Apple did this with the floppy disk in the late 1990s. I think optical drives will stick around longer than floppy disk drives did, but I can't imagine them being much more than a novelty -- think LP players -- in a decade or so.
• More reliance on flash memory for storage. Flash memory, the kind in those little portable sticks you use to transfer files using USB ports, is continually making inroads into the spaces that were always taken up by a hard disk drive. The hard disk is kind of like an optical drive with its spinning platters, inability to be shrunk past points we now need and its relative slowness. Most Macs now have an option for flash-only storage. It's a nice way to boost speed, but it's still very expensive compared to the old hard disks and it's not available in huge capacities. The Fusion Drive, a new method Apple rolled out that combines the best of flash and hard disks, may bridge the gap for us until everything can go flash. I sit here with three external hard disks saying they will be around for a little while, but think of how fast your smartphone or tablet is and realize how awesome that would be for your big boy computers.
• Death to the 30-pin iPod connector. No latest-generation Apple product uses the 30-pin iPod connector that is part of a bazillion accesories for iPods, iPhones and iPads. The only new object you can buy from Apple with the old connector is the iPad 2. This was one of the things Brian Williams asked about in the interview. I'm sure everybody at Apple knew people would hate either not being able to use a new product with an old accessory or needing an adapter. I understand the short-term frustration. But it was a port that had lasted for nine years. Apple is in the business of making stuff thinner. The old port was getting in the way, so a new one was developed. The jury is still out on whether the Lightning port was a better move than one of the smaller USB standards, but kudos to ripping off the bandage.
After watching the interview, I was reminded of another I read with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. If you're not up to speed on SpaceX, it's the company that has sent two capsules to the International Space Station this year, a first for a private company anywhere.
Musk sounded a lot like Steve Jobs when he mentioned the insanity of popular rocket technology using methods from the 1960s when he saw better ways of doing it. Musk described a whole industry that is basically just messed up because of how much legacy technology keeps getting used and companies not being in a rush to reduce cost because of how they get paid through government contracts.
It's one part insightful, but another part stupidly obvious. We had some great engineers who developed the most powerful rocket to date, the Saturn V, in our race to reach the Moon. But go out to your car and take a look at it. Aside from the wheels being round, exactly how much key technology in there is what you would find in a top-notch car from the 1960s?
I have a 2007 Toyota Camry. It has fuel injection, a digital odometer, a bazillion different gauges, a port that can export data to a computer, a CD player, an auxiliary audio input, back seats that fold down, anti-lock brakes and halogen headlights. None of that -- check me on that, mechanics -- existed on cars in the 1960s. Yet many rocket developers are standing pat with a lot of key technology.
Meanwhile, Musk said SpaceX's original Falcon 1 rocket's price to customers was $7 million. Compare that to the cost to build Space Shuttle Endeavour -- $1.7 billion -- and the cost per shuttle mission -- $450 million.
Now to be fair this is comparing a rocket meant to launch just cargo with one meant to launch people. But at no point does Musk say, "We're going to have to spend 100 times as much to get humans safely to the ISS." I'm no rocket scientist, but I'm assuming this means he's going to get it done much cheaper than ever before just based on the material costs he does describe.
So we sit here on our little planet with two leading technological companies looking to the future and not being stuck on old ways of doing things. One thing I have also noticed about these companies is they don't believe in the old suit-and-tie way of dressing, which I find to be about the best thing ever. You walk into an Apple Store and you find a bunch of helpful people in T-shirts and jeans. The SpaceX mission control team dresses about the same. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg famously upset Wall Street people before the company's IPO because he addressed them in jeans and a hoodie.
One of the things I remember most from the youth minister at my church growing up was him not wearing shoes during his lessons on Sunday nights. His reasoning was that Jesus often went barefoot and managed to accomplish great things. Jesus also wore basically a bed sheet, yet that didn't stop him from being a good role model. I think that's something people of all faiths and beliefs can learn instead of trusting in people because they wear a suit worth more than a car.
So the future seems to be in good hands. Well, in a few areas. Unfortunately we have plenty of people who don't look to the future, and somehow they always end up in Congress. Maybe instead of the old trend of acting like 6-year-olds they could try changing things and acting a little more like people running ultra-cool tech product and rocket companies. Can't hurt, right?
Michael Buckelew is a contributing writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. Follow him on Twitter @michaelbuckelew.