Steve Jobs Secret Gems and the Connection to Woz and the iCloud

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs may be known for his brand genius but his secret gems have always rested deep in the hardware of Apple’s simple, wondrous creations. It’s Jobs attention to beauty, elegance and performance that have made him such a leader and reason why his resignation means so much to this tech generation. His stature is mythic due to the simplicity of Apple products and what he has driven his team to achieve.

Do you remember when the iPad was introduced?  In that original release, Apple revealed that it would be creating the A4,  a system-on-chip (SoC) design with unbelievable speed. It was a gem that would have an astounding impact on the iPad, the most successful product of our time.

Apple Insider included this quote from Jobs at its unveiling:

“We have a chip called A4,” Steve Jobs said on stage at the iPad event, “which is our most advanced chip we’ve ever done that powers the iPad. It’s got the processor, the graphics, the I/O, the memory controller — everything in this one chip, and it screams.”

Jobs knew that for the best possible experience, people needed great responsiveness and simplicity. The view ties historically to Apple Co-Founder Stephen Wozniak’s (Woz) passion for eliminating complexity. It also reflects upon Apple’s future as a services company in a post-Jobs world.

Apple is attempting to bring that same elegant engineering to its iCloud infrastructure. That’s evident in its decision to use Fusion-io,  a storage platform for flash memory. That’s my own theory but it lines up when you analyze the correlation between Apple’s A-series of mobile chips, the company’s drive for simplicity and the Wozniak connection.

For perspective, I turned to Rich Miller, a long-time Silicon Valley technologist, executive and investor who is now the CEO at Virtual Vehicle, a startup that is developing ways to combine mobile platforms, cloud computing and big data. Rich is also part of my extended family.

Rich says a way to look at Apple is by understanding the apps that will be in the cloud and how they may need to use storage. The next generation of apps will use big data, requiring some form of distributed data caching.  Sophisticated messaging fabrics will be needed to glue these apps together. That will usher in the need for more sophisticated storage management on the server and the device.

The question is, what will Apple do?

Dropping Demand

Until now, the most significant bill of materials for an iPad or iPhone is the NAND flash. Apple seems to be betting in the long run that it can reduce the costs per device by moving processing power to a multi-tenant, cloud-based infrastructure while also eventually eliminating any software on the device itself.

The Cult of Mac writes it is estimated that the iCloud will decrease the need for flash memory by as much as 100GB per user. That’s according to analysts at IHI iSuppli, which bases its estimate on 4MB per song and Apple’s cap of 25,000 songs stored on iCloud.

SSDs in the Cloud?

But what about solid state drives (SSDs) fo the servers? They’ve been getting a lot of attention. The cost for server side SSDs is dropping and are viewed as a viable option.

The reality? Apple represents about 20% of Fusion-io sales. It’s a safe bet that Apple is embracing the concept that Fusion-io is evangelizing. And that means eliminating the need to make NAND flash imitate disk drives in the form of SSDs and placing into a storage infrastructure. Apple is avoiding putting constraints on how servers access data. The engineering team wants to avoid squandering the efficiency improvement potential that flash provides. It would also mean investing in storage systems that take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money. That hardly represents Apple elegance.

Talking about the value of SSDs compared to other means is a religious debate in some respects. But it does raise questions about how SSDs will be deployed in the cloud, which also leads us back to Apple. Is flash-based, server attached memory the better alternative?

The Woz Connection

Fusion-io is the pioneer in developing flash-based, server-attached, storage-class memory. And who is Fusion-io’s chief scientist? No other than Wozniak, the man most associated with Steve Jobs and Apple.

Fusion-io CEO David Flynn recounted in an interview this week about meeting Wozniak for the first time. In Apple’s earliest days, Wozniak wanted to go to the Computer Electronics Show (CES). It was 1978 and the first year CES allowed home-built computers. Wozniak wanted to show this floppy drive he built for the Apple II. Flynn said Wozniak told him that he realized that it would be far easier to pass electrons than matter so he went about creating software that was able to bypass the layers needed in a standard, hard disk drive. He eliminated the fixed logic. The  hardware complexity had been integrated into the software. That allowed for more density and sophistication. More data could be passed simply by adjusting the algorithm.

Retro Thing detailed the story two years ago:

Floppy drives were complicated and expensive devices in 1977. They required large controller boards to encode the data and write it onto the disk in the appropriate place. Designing one for the Apple II was a formidable task.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak didn’t have much experience with floppy drive controllers, but he had a few ideas he decided to try. His solution was revolutionary and relied heavily on software instead of an expensive board crammed with logic circuits.

The rest is history:

The Apple Disk II shipped in mid-1978 at $595, including the controller, a single drive and DOS 3.1. While that might seem an outrageous price for a floppy drive, it was dirt cheap by 1978 standards. And Wozniak’s ingeniously simple design eventually cost Apple less than $100 to produce, generating massive profits.

The availability of a speedy and affordable floppy drive made the machine incredibly attractive to business and home enthusiasts alike. Thanks to the Disk II, millions of users adopted the Apple II as their first “serious” computer, while the Commodore PET and TRS-80 Model I simply faded into history.

After listening to Flynn, Wozniak realized that Fusion-io had done something similar for servers. The company had created software that removed the complexity of the storage infrastructure pieces. Fusion-io had transferred the hardware complexity to the software. Without the storage infrastructure, the software could be used to increase the amount of data that passed through the server.

“We attach flash into the server like a memory device,” Flynn said. “To make that happen – you have to build sophisticated software in the OS.”

That takes us full circle, doesn’t it? Apple is extending its core, engineering belief structure to iCloud by eliminating hardware complexity and placing it in the software. And one of the chief architects is no other than Woz himself.

Services Angle

Our theory is that Apple’s data centers are filled with Fusion-io technology that allows for data to be served to millions or even billions of devices at  fairly low-cost. Just look at Fusion-io’s financials and you see a correlation. Fusion-io’s revenues have scaled in context with Apple’s iCloud infrastructure development.

Jobs may be leaving Apple but his beliefs live on, a spirit shared by Woz, his longtime colleague and friend.

Jobs has been driven by his belief in simplicity. But more so, I think Jobs has always been a guy who loved to make beautiful things. People will talk all day about the elegance of the products he has shepherded over the years.  But beneath it all are the secret jewels that have made Apple one of the most successful companies of modern times and Jobs a mythic character whose presence will be felt for generations to come.