tech, simplified.

Computing Power on a Mountain

As a kid, for some reason, I’d add up the combined computing power of all of the computers in our house as a mental game when trying to fall asleep. My own computer, a 1996-era Compaq laptop, had only a 75Mhz CPU and 700Mb of storage, which paled in comparison to the 500Mhz CPU and 20Gb hard drive in the family desktop computer, or the 2Ghz CPU and 40Gb hard drive in my dad’s laptop. At that time, even adding in random mp3 players and flash drives added a significant amount to our family’s total digital storage.

Those numbers are rather quaint today, when we’re carrying around 1.3Ghz ARM processors in our pockets. ARM processors are so common now, they’re among the world’s most-used products, pushing even McDonalds down the popularity ladder. Storage is still at a premium today, thanks to the price increase when you jump to flash memory, but now that there’s a 128Gb microSD card, surely our phones will start having as much storage as a laptop soon.

Computing’s everywhere. It’s rather staggering to think of how much computing power is around you at any given moment. Look around on any mass transit, and there’s almost always at least one computing device—with at least a 1Ghz CPU and 4Gb storage—per person. There’s likely far more than that, even, if just 1/10th of the passengers are also carrying a laptop or tablet. Suddenly my old game feels a lot more fun—imagine what type of supercomputer could be built from the computing devices in a train at a given time.

It struck me most vividly several months ago, after climbing 1,237 stairs up a mountain to see a viewpoint and temple in southern Thailand. It’s torture climbing that many stairs—and almost worse to have to go back down—until you stand in amazement looking at this temple that someone carried bricks, stone, and concrete up this mountain to build. That’s quite the marvel of human ingenuity and determination. And yet, on the top of that mountain, I counted no less than 5 iPhones, 2 iPads, and several other smartphones I couldn’t recognize. There were, as likely as anything, 10 ARM CPUs up there on that mountain, all tagging their photos with GPS and straining for a signal (and yes, there was 3G all the way up there, even if it was faint). Less than a decade ago, it’d have been odd to have any computers up there—who carries a laptop on a nearly vertical hike up a mountain?—and yet, today, it’d be odd to be anywhere without seeing a computing device. That’s as much a marvel of human ingenuity as the temple itself.

We’re carrying around computers in our pockets, to the tops of mountains and the bottom of the sea (at least, in Apple’s latest iPad commercials—but if there’s people selling those iPad cases and accessories, there’s got to be a market for it). There’s so much power there, so much potential.

And yet, look around, and those mini computers are being used to chat, check Facebook, and play Candy Crush. The usefulness of the average app is so low, even Jeff Atwood—the guy who started StackExchange—is questioning the reasoning behind building most apps. The potential is there, but it’s wasted by most.

There’s insanely powerful software for smartphones. Look at the photo editing features in VSCOcam and so many other photo apps, the OCR in Prizmo, the full Office-style features in the iWork apps, the beautiful instruments in GarageBand and the many other music apps, the writing and scripting environment in Editorial, the math power in PocketCAS, and even the offline reading environments of iBooks and Kindle and Instapaper. Download these apps, then go offline, and your device’s CPU will be doing its own work to crunch your data, no server required. As ridiculous as it may sound, even a spreadsheet can be a powerful tool on the go, making it easy to crunch numbers and, say, comparison shop. Maybe there should be a better dedicated app, but the spreadsheet is still quite a killer app.

Most apps out there are pointless. Plenty are just repackaged websites that would be far better as a standalone website anyhow. Plenty more are only an updated version of the old CD-rom demos and catalogs that were more useful as a frisbee than anything.

But we’re carrying around real computers, and it’s about time to treat them as such. Call the best smartphone apps “software” if you must, to differentiate it from the lite junk apps, but there’s no reason those fast CPUs in our pockets are going to waste. It’s a shame to think how many of the devices around us are literally useless to their owners if the internet goes down.

That’s why quality apps are worth paying for—they make your devices do more, make that glass and metal worth more than it’d be on its own. Phones and tablets aren’t dumb terminals, and it’s time apps stopped treating them that way. They’re computers in their own rights, and deserve the powerful software that proves that worth.

When you’re evaluating new apps, that’s the criteria you should test it by. Will this app make my device do more on its own, in a way that’ll actively improve my life? If so, it’s entirely worth paying for. If not, you’re likely better off ignoring it. There’s quality, powerful software for your iPad and iPhone and Mac, enough that it’s a shame seeing how many people stick with the stock apps and some web-powered free apps like Facebook and their favorite chat app and whatever in-app purchase ripoff game is the most popular that day. You’ve paid for a smart device, now give it the software that’ll make it powerful for you. There’s high-quality productivity apps, unique tools, and beautifully creative games that cost up-front, but that’ll make your app something someone would want to show off in a commercial, something that’d inspire someone else to buy that device. Few people would buy an iPhone just for its built-in camera app or email app—and yet, they take their new device home and manage to miss the wealth of quality software for it that can really do stuff.

There’s a common thread in the apps Apple shows off in its new iPad commercial: they’re all powerful software that work directly on the devices without needing an internet connection. They’re making those iPads be used as computers, not dumb terminals. After all, an app that requires a server would be of little use on a windmill in the ocean—or while diving under the ocean. If you’re going to take a computer up a mountain or to the sea, after all, it might as well be a bit useful.

Those apps—nay, software—that are powerful enough to help you get work done and improve your life? They’re the ones I’ll take the time to write about here. The rest are merely a distraction, junk that’s filling up the App Store and making it harder to find the truly powerful and great software that developers labor to craft.

Thoughts? @reply me on Twitter.