Tablets, Storage, Cloud Computing — And You!

I know it’s old news, since it came out just over two months ago, but Apple came out with their first high-capacity tablet: an iPad with 128 gigabytes of internal storage. Compared to personal computers, that doesn’t sound like much space, but most tablets and smartphones have wallowed in the 8/16/32/64 sizing mire, where the 8 gig isn’t terribly useful, the 16 utilitarian, and the 32/64 pretty expensive. Needless to say, the big iPad generated a number of articles and arguments before being forgotten after about a day… except by me, who didn’t have time to finish writing this until long after it stopped being news.

Three points I’d like to touch on.

Price

First, the price is definitely high, but not at all unexpected; Apple has a habit of making products as good or slightly better than the competition, months before any serious competitor can match their marketing and promotional machine, much less their supply/demand, and then sell it at a 30% markup. Then, they come out with incremental, yearly updates, and have everything fall into a very specific pricing hierarchy where the next step up is around $100 more than the one below it. $499 for 16gb, $599 for 32gb, $699 for 64gb, ergo, $799 for 128gb.

$799 for a wifi-only tablet is high: you could get, what, three Chromebooks for that price, or a decent Windows laptop, a solid midrange-plus desktop, one of the better Mac Minis, or both a Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 (both 32gb models). Actually, that last option isn’t a bad way to spend a chunk of change. And the Macbook Air is just a short half-step, price wise, above the $929 wifi + cell data 128gb iPad.

But unlike its competitors Google and Amazon, Apple doesn’t subsidize its products to make bank on easy access to an online marketplace—Apple is selling an image, and the Apple Tax helps build that reputation by making the products more exclusive. (Creating both the hardware and software can’t hurt; where else are you going to go but Apple if you want to get upgrades for your Mac? Check those prices on RAM and the new hotness Fusion Drive, please.) Plus, miniaturization of a 128gb SSD can’t be too cheap; it costs $80-140 to get a PC-ready internal SSD, and the tablet model would have to be notably smaller, thinner, and lighter.

All in all, it’s actually cheaper than its competitors ($1,049 for a Acer Iconia W700, $1,299 Razer Edge Pro, the Samsung ATIV price-slashed from $1,929 down to $1,300-something)… but note that all of those are running Windows 8, and desperately trying to be tablets, computers, and gaming consoles simultaneously. If Google/Samsung kept their pricing structure, a 128 gig Nexus 10 would be $699, which isn’t that much cheaper than the iPad pricing, considering the comparative lack of Android apps designed for large screens. (I’ve found plenty of awful looking apps on my 7″ Nexus, and I can’t imagine how bad they’d look on a 10″ one.)

Programs/Platforms

Second, more storage is very much a good thing; in another five years, we’ll all look back and laugh when we think about computers that don’t have a terrabyte or more of Solid State storage. The main criticism about a 128gb iPad, other than the price, was “What are you going to do with all that storage?” which I think is a very backwards-looking question. Yes, I can only see around two types of users who’d have need for that: consumers who want to have their entire music library—or a large part of it—on their tablet; and the few professionals who use the top-end CAD and graphic design software. The release saw quotes from the AutoCAD iOS app developers, and it’s their kind of product that would really shine on a large-capacity tablet.

So, the big benefit I’m seeing is that it opens up the floor for use by more professionals—not just thinking corporate/Enterprise users, but anyone who use high-end software for engineering, graphic design, 3d modelling, etc. Now that there’s more storage, those big apps with big files aren’t as much of a problem. And while I’d personally dread to use most of them on a touchscreen tablet, I can see the appeal of putting CAD, Adobe CreativeSuite, Maya, etc. on a device that’s twice as light and portable as your standard laptop. (Besides, if it works for people in science fiction films, professional tablet computing can work for us, right?)

So, the detractors are saying “too bad there’s not many programs on there taking advantage of all this”—and by that, I also refer to the 4th generation iPad’s processor and graphics, which benchmark high on the current round of tablets but really don’t have anything in the app store to put that much strain on the hardware. On the other hand, there’s the a hopeful “well, it means the doors have been opened for others to develop bigger, more demanding apps to take advantage of the disk size and hardware.” Whether they do or don’t, we shall see. The option is there, but designing those high-end programs to function gracefully on a 10″ touchscreen is a whole ‘nother matter.

Storage Media

Third, thanks to the rapid developments in cloud computing, I do have to question the values of physical media in our age of cloud computing and cloud storage. On the one hand, remember the embarrassing iCloud outage about a month after the 128gb iPad was announced? On the other, something I’ve learned from personal experience:

I have a 32gb Nexus 7 (wifi model), and a 64gb iPod touch 5th gen, both of which I use with regularity. (I wanted devices that were ultra-portable and lacked an expensive cell data contract; the Nexus fit my bill for a combination Android gaming platform, e-reader, and digital RPG assistant; the iPod fits in my pocket, stores most of my music, has an insane battery life, and it’s blue.) Both currently have around 20 gigs of free space, after formatting and loading them down with apps. They both store around 30 gigs of music, a little over half my music library, but in different ways. The iPod is packed because it has to hold all the song files on its drive; meanwhile, you’re probably wondering how the Nexus 7—with only 27.85 gigabytes of storage after formatting—can hold 30 gigs of music and still have other apps installed and 20 gigs of free space.

The answer is cloud computing: Google’s Play service hosts all the tunes you buy through them, uploads the music library off your computer, and stores it in the cloud to stream back down. My 30 gigs of music—plus some things I bought off Play but haven’t put in iTunes yet—take up not a single byte of storage on my device. Free of charge, I should add; Apple has their own cloud music storage system, iTunes Match, but in comparison it’s not very good. It does store more tracks, and in higher qualities, but it doesn’t allow you to stream them back down out of the cloud: instead, it plays them while downloading, and then they’re back to taking up space on your hard disk. So I guess it streams them once, while downloading. Not an ideal solution, especially if you’re the poor sap who thought they could get by with an 8gb iPhone. In short, it stores my songs, I stream them back down to play, and my tablet has both all my tracks and loads of free space.

My gut says physical storage will remain the preference over cloud computing, especially since there’s a number of issues with it—if I’m not at home, or within range of a free wifi network, my awesome Google Play library is worthless. A server outage would wreck me as well, and if Google somehow went under, I’d have to find another service to dump all those tracks into. Part of the reason I picked up the iPod was because of this very same issue: the music is on the device, so I can go for a walk around the neighborhood without worrying about stopping the rock because I went off the network.

But, given the way our technology is developing, I think cloud computing will eventually overtake physical storage when two criteria are met. First is that they’re more stable and secure; they’re no use if they go down for more than ten minutes. The more important second is the prolific and widespread use of wifi. Most restaurants, malls, and even businesses have realized that, in our technological world, it’s considered an essential service to provide free wifi, and do so along with restrooms and free water and decent lighting. You get free wifi at your local library, or in the hospital waiting room. We already have cars that function as wifi hotspots as well; I could use it to connect my Nexus and stream my MOG, Pandora, or Spotify through the car speakers via Bluetooth, a sentence I’m pretty sure would have confused my grandparents. Give it another 10-15 years, and we could see wifi provided as an essential service everywhere: grocery stores, gas stations, you name it. Possibly a replacement frequency of some kind, combining the strength and stability of wifi (or Bluetooth for that matter) with the wide coverage of a cell data network. We’re nowhere near that yet, but if I had to guess about our future, I’d bet it all on ease of access to the internet. The growth we’ll see in the next decades will probably floor us.

When we reach the egalitarian science fictional utopia where our cities beam out free network connections from every streetlight, that’s the point where we can take physical storage out behind the shed. I’d take that over moving sidewalks any day… but the flying cars, now, that’s another story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s