Shortly after returning to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs shared his thoughts about the future of the company with attendees at the Worldwide Developers Conference. Here’s part of his speech (which I transcribed), where he clearly describes “the cloud” fifteen years before it would arrive. This is the definition of vision:
Let me describe the world I live in. About 8 years ago, we had high speed networking connected to our now-obsolete NeXT hardware … and because we were using NFS, we were able to take all of our personal data–our home directories, we call them–off of our local machines, and put them on a server. And the software made that completely transparent, and because the server had a lot of ram on it, in some cases it was faster to get stuff off the server than off your local hard disk because in some cases it would be cached in the ram of the server, if it was in popular use.
But what was really remarkable was that the organization could hire a professional person to back up that server every night, and could afford to spend a little bit more on that server, so maybe it had redundant disk drives, redundant power supplies. And you know, in the last 7 years, you know how many times I have lost any personal data?
Do you know how many times i’ve backed up my computer?
I have computers at Apple, at NeXT, at Pixar, and at home. I walk up to any of them and log in as myself. It goes over the network, finds my home directory on the server, and it just, i’ve got my stuff, where ever I am. And none of that is on a local hard disk.
Now what’s really interesting to me is that gigabit ethernet’s coming. With gigabit ethernet, it is faster in every case to talk to the server than it is my local hard disk.
And one of the things I’m really excited about is to look at that personal computer, and take out every moving part except the keyboard and the mouse. I don’t need a hard disk in my computer, if I can get to the server faster. […]
I don’t care how it’s done. I don’t care what box is at the other end.
Now, Managing a network like this is a pain in the butt. Setting it up, getting it all to work, is really complicated. One of my hopes is that Apple can do for this new type of network – it’s not so new, but for the average person it’s new – with gigabit ethernet technologies and some of the new server stuff that’s coming down the pipe, and some thinner hardware clients – hardware clients that are thinner, not necessarily software – that Apple could make that as plug-and-play for mere mortals as it made the user experience over a decade ago.
That’s one of the things where I think there’s a giant hole. And I can’t communicate to you how awesome it is unless you use it. What you would decide, within a day or two, is that carrying around these non-connected computers–with tons of data and state in them–is byzantine by comparison.
Now, let me describe the world I live in. All of my files–every single file I create, work on, or save–is on Dropbox or S3. All of my email is on Google Apps. All of my music is on iTunes Match and Spotify. My computer is a big, expensive cache for the files I’m using right now. You know how many times I’ve lost data? Zero. You know how many times I’ve backed up? Zero.
Steve Jobs described what life would be like fifteen years in the future, and he was pretty damn close to what ended up actually happening. He was only wrong about two things: first, Apple wasn’t part of the cloud, and in fact no computer manufacturer was; and second, the services and benefits of the cloud are provided not by a single centralized server, but by a federated group of specialized services like Dropbox, Spotify, and Gmail.
But the end result of these services, which paves the way for having stateless clients, will be the same. The MacBook Air uses older, less powerful processors, and has small amounts of super-fast storage. It’s the first step in the process of converting from big byzantine computers with state in them to truly mobile cloud-connected devices that will probably look more like the iPad.
Update: Here’s the video (starts at about 14:40):