Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Footprint and the Cloud

I have always loved the idea of doing a lot with a little, of a small footprint, of compact elegance. When I was little, my dad had a sporting goods store (literally, a Mom ‘n’ Pop store) and I used to obsess about backpacking equipment. I was transfixed by the idea of being able to carry everything you need on your back — food, clothing, shelter, tools, maybe even a deck of cards, the whole of Maslow’s hierarchy in a bag. Not that I ever actually went backpacking; I was into the idea of it, not the physical labor, and certainly not sleeping on the ground! I used to load and unload a frame pack with gear, and make lists of everything you could need.

Later, I entered a phase of designing tree houses. This was funny because I lived in the Texas panhandle, one of the most treeless wastes in America, a tabletop of spiky mesquite. I was fascinated by the idea of building all the comforts of home into a space the size of a bathroom. I studied techniques for constructing platforms that fold up into a wall. I dreamed about how to save space without compromising on amenities.

After spending some time in Europe as a young adult, I realized one of things I loved about it was the care that Europeans take in conserving space, energy, materials. Here is a place where they know how to embrace constraints. I think what excites me about this is the idea that ingenuity can overcome scarcity, that better design can turn less into more.

In 2003 I bought my first Mac, a 12” PowerBook G4, because I saw it as the first portable computer that perfected a tiny footprint without compromises. In particular, before that time any laptop that small had opted to leave out the CD/DVD drive, with an optional external drive dangling from it in a rude display of poor taste. Apple’s designers had conquered scarcity with ingenuity. Five years later, our PowerBook has been battered almost beyond recognition, but we still use it every day and I still consider it one of the best-made machines of any type I’ve ever seen.

Rumor has it that Apple is going to unveil an ultra-portable computer next week at the Macworld expo[1]. If the pundits are right, this one will not only forgo the optical drive, but the standard mechanical hard drive as well, opting for a flash-only drive like this 32GB model from Samsung.

32GB? No DVD drive? Isn’t that going to suck? My money says it will rule. Don’t forget that when Apple introduced the first iMac in 1998, it had no floppy drive, and people thought this was insane. But Steve Jobs knew then what we eventually all came to know: floppy disks are lame. Today, the number of applications on my MacBook that I installed from a disc is exactly one (QuickBooks Pro, the only vestige of software’s shrink-wrapped legacy I use), and thanks to the iTunes music store, it’s been a loooong time since I ripped a CD. This means that most of the time I’m carrying around my MacBook’s DVD-ROM drive as dead weight.

But what about that (relatively) tiny flash hard drive? After all, I’ve got 150GB on my lap right now. The secret is the network. Our drives can shrink now because more and more of the data we care about is in the cloud. The new way to think of desktop storage is as a local cache of the things you need right now. Apple is betting that once we can rent movies straight to the Mac, we won’t need to keep a library of them on disk. With all kinds of documents and affordable storage moving online, and the growing ubiquity of high-speed net access, we can live with a smaller, faster, sturdier, noiseless hard drive.

If this new machine is what I hope it is, I’m all over it like white on rice. Less is more, baby.

IKEA makes me swoon. I fantasize about having my office in an Airstream trailer. Sometimes I imagine I’m still a bachelor (no offense, honey) and my only possessions are a few changes of clothes and some toiletries in a bag, my computer, my phone, my mandolin, and the book I’m currently reading.

As the network grows, my computer can shrink. Bring it!

[1] My thanks to Daring Fireball, for setting me straight on the correct spelling of “Macworld”.

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