My Turn

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Distributed Apple

2001.02.06
Steve Sarrica

Companies like Popular Power, Parabon, United Devices, and Distributed Science are currently trying to entice Internet users who own PCs, Macs, and Linux boxes to download their client software (a Java-based distributed multiprocessing application wrapped up in a screensaver that fires up when the user is not actively using the computer) by offering small payments, gift certificates, or warm fuzzies.

The companies that pay for the use of that otherwise untapped computing power appear to budget around $5-$15 per month per client. What if Apple picked a player in this emerging industry, anointed it the chosen one, created an Apple-only version of the client software, and made it part of the default installation on some future revision of the OS? Certainly that would be worth a few bucks a month to Apple per client.

Companies in this space currently crow about having anywhere from 40,000 to 160,000 clients operating - it seems that Apple could pretty quickly pump those numbers up into the realm reserved for the great granddaddy of distributed computation, SETI@home, with over 2 million client machines. Even at a lowly buck per month per client kicked back to Apple, the dollars could quickly get fairly interesting. Mac users might like the ability to subsidize the cost of their connectivity. Corporations, universities, and school systems with lots of Macs might not mind the unexpected revenue stream, either.

The Mac OS currently offers limited support for Program Linking and other applications, primarily graphic rendering applications, already allow Mac users to make use of several computers linked together to solve large, complex problems. Imagine this mostly unfulfilled promise scaled up, designed for TCP/IP, able to work through firewalls, multiplied by a couple of million times - you start to get the idea that some pretty big things might get accomplished much faster than anyone thought possible.

Take it up a notch: what if Apple could reserve a portion of the distributed computing capacity for its own use in lieu of a portion of its income stream from the service? The company would have access to a distributed supercomputer inconceivably more powerful than the Cray supercomputer Steve Jobs bought back in the 80s during his first turn at the helm.

Take it up another notch: what if Apple could reserve a portion of that distributed computing capacity for its users? What if the OS did sophisticated load balancing and was able to "call for help" and tap into the distributed supercomputer on the fly? Mac users could be helping fellow Mac users without even knowing it. It would make benchmarking the Mac against other computers even more difficult and would be another arrow through the heart of the "megahertz war" between Macs and PCs.

Granted, the logistics of all of this are daunting, but one of the toughest parts of the job, designing and implementing the distributed computing system, has already been solved by several companies. Apple should pick a partner among the players and, to paraphrase Jobs, "prepare to blow another hole in the universe." Of course, if Apple isn't the first major computer manufacturer to implement this concept, someone else surely will.

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