Switched On: Back from the Mac

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Last week's Switched On discussed Nokia's quest to help Microsoft create a third mobile ecosystem alongside those of Apple and Google. That word – ecosystem – has clearly passed into the pantheon of buzzwords, leveraging many synergies from purpose-built paradigms. And yet, building and maintaining ecosystems is something few companies really understand. True technology ecosystems are more than just successful platforms or throwing many products together simply because they are owned by the same company. They are characterized by strategically implemented nurturing.

One concept that Apple seems to have adapted from natural ecosystems is the concept of the water cycle you probably learned about in grade school. Apple turns up the heat on the life-sustaining water of innovation that passes between the well-grounded Mac market and the soaring growth of the iOS market. Apple alluded to this cycle in its Back to the Mac event. After inheriting many technologies from Mac OS X, iOS began offering Mac OS X launch screens, full-screen apps, app resuming, and document autosaving. This week's announcements, though, show that the cycle may soon be heading again in the other direction as Apple showed off two Mac technologies that may well wind up strengthening the iOS ecosystem.

The first of these is Thunderbolt, Apple's term for Light Peak: an even faster bus than the one Sandra Bullock drove in Speed. Apple is no stranger to interconnect innovation, having developed the core technology behind IEEE 1394, aka FireWire.

FireWire was the original way iPods connected to Macs, and it provided much faster music transfer than what was available from most competitors using first-generation USB. Now with iPads and iPhones available with more than six times as many gigabytes as that first iPod, Apple is positioned to once again differentiate based on the speed of syncing media. And this time, Intel -- which once championed USB -- will be the Keanu Reeves that moves the bus forward.

Thunderbolt would also do more much more than speed data transfers. It would provide a standardized port for video-out, which would be a boon to the iPad, but could also open the door to features such as USB hosting, which Apple has historically eschewed. It might even replace the 30-pin connector that Apple launched back in 2003.

A second seedling Apple has planted in its ecosystem is AirDrop. Better, more convenient device-to-device communication is a need that Switched On discussed years ago. Promising approaches range from TransferJet to HP's recently unveiled Touch to Share; proliferation of near-field communication chips combined with Wi-Fi Direct should push progress forward on this front.

Still, Apple's approach – while requiring user intervention – represents a great step forward in terms of easing the transfer of files between computers that may physically be inches apart but feel worlds apart without a flash drive or common network at hand. At this point, we know AirDrop will support Mac-to-Mac transfers in Lion. However, Apple could counter Touch to Share with AirDrop if it is willing to lend more support to iTunes for wireless data transfer.

Thunderbolt and AirDrop would both add greatly to the functionality of iOS devices, but it's important to note that both raise challenges to Apple's control of the user experience. That's a tradeoff that has to be considered as any technology ecosystem grows.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.