Where others saw nothing beyond a pitched battle pitting peer-to-peer networks selling stolen music versus generic but expensive CDs in hermetically sealed cases, Steve Jobs saw iTunes.
Where others saw smartphones and notebooks converging into hybrid devices that offered nothing new and often failed to match up to the performance of either original product, Steve Jobs saw the iPad.
And now, where others regard the nascent generation of sprawling new data centers as little more than highly automated powerhouses for online operations, Steve Jobs could well be seeing a new broadcasting network.
While others might call Apple's nearly complete $1-billion facility a data center, Jobs might be calling it his all-digital, all-customizable, all-streaming, and all-Apple broadcasting system and network of the future.
That's the opinion of IT-industry big-thinker Nick Carr, who shared some of his thoughts about what Jobs intends to achieve with the sprawling facility in North Carolina during a recent email interview with a website called cultofmac.com.
In an intriguing piece written by cultofmac.com's Leander Kahney, Carr hypothesizes that Jobs and Apple intend to use the 500,000-square-foot facility to begin their transition away from a customer-interaction model based on downloading to the more sophisticated model of streaming.
From the cultofmac.com article:
"Apple increasingly views its mainstream computers, from iPod Touch to iPhone to iPad to MacBook Air, as media players, with "media" spanning not just audio and video but also apps," Carr wrote in an email.
"From that perspective, the North Carolina data center can be seen as essentially a broadcasting system that will enable Apple to make the shift from a downloading model of media distribution to a streaming model. It's a proprietary broadcasting system (not altogether unlike traditional broadcasting systems), which means it's a very different model of the cloud from the open model promoted by Google."
If that's the case, then Apple's new broadcasting-type business will extend the company's zealous efforts to avoid the "open" approach, a hard-line stand that Apple insists results in better experiences for users because it gives Apple and its customers end-to-end control over all aspects of that experience: hardware, software, user interface, iTunes, and more.
That "more" is increasingly perceived by consumers and a growing number of business users around the world as Apple's ability to deliver superior products that, in turn, create fanatical customers who don't view the Apple ecosystem as "closed" but rather as the best approach for them to have the experiences they want.
The concepts of "open" and "closed" are inside-the-industry artifacts that are losing their relevance in the wake of new approaches to applications. If the App Store has tens or hundreds of thousands of products available from tens of thousands of developers, just how "closed" or "un-open" can that be?
And that's a core reason why Carr's theory about the forthcoming Apple broadcasting system is so intriguing:
The move to streaming will certainly expand Apple's ability to continue to charm and dazzle its customers with the latest and greatest media, applications, and services, and it also positions Apple as perhaps the most-sophisticated and powerful media company on the planet.
In that context, Apple's billion-dollar North Carolina data center becomes the ultimate streaming-machine facility for iTunes, seamlessly marrying that rich repository of music and video with Apple's burgeoning roster of devices through which its customers view their worlds.
In the cultofmac.com article, Carr describes Apple's multipronged approach:
"The success of the App Store demonstrates the continuing importance of the local hard drive (or flash drive), with the cloud serving as an extension of that drive rather than a replacement of it. And I think Apple is more than happy to remain in that world for the time being; indeed, one of its great competitive strengths is melding diverse components—hardware, OS, applications, and now cloud—into a unified and seamless user experience.
"Unlike Google, which has a strong economic and ideological desire to move everything into the cloud as quickly as possible, Apple understands that a hybrid environment plays to its strengths, so I don’t think it has much interest in pushing people into a pure cloud model."
If Carr's idea about the Apple data center are on the mark, I think we'll certainly see that hybrid model continue, but we'll also see a marked acceleration in the use of broadcast system or network that he describes because it eliminates a bit of friction in the transactional system and it plays to the real-time, zero-latency mindset that more and more consumers and even some businesses are beginning to demand.
We won't have to wait long before finding out if this assessment is close to Apple's actual intentions—the company hopes to have the North Carolina facility online within the next couple of months (and be sure to check out the great aerial photo of the massive building within the cultofmac.com article).
Whatever Jobs' vision turns out to be for this facility formerly known as the data center, one thing is certain: that vision will radically redefine data-center strategy for some time to come.
Bob Evans is senior VP and director of
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