Mac Musings

Way Beyond AirPort

Daniel Knight - 2002.01.06 -

Damien Barrett is on to something - and so is Apple - something so big and so different, Apple can't do it on their own.

Damien reminds us that SkyCorp International launched a satellite in October 2001 with a modified Power Mac G4 Cube inside. Apple's site (see The Wireless Web for Everyone, Everywhere) notes a "modified Apple AirPort Base Station and several antennae" as part of the configuration.

SkyCorp wants to be "the Walmart of the wireless Internet" - and it could happen. The SkyCorp vision is 544 satellites in Low Earth Orbit, each containing a Power Mac running Mac OS X and allowing wireless Internet access from anywhere.

SkyCorp isn't the first to offerer this kind of service, but Iridium went bankrupt in 1990. In the age of cell phones, satellite TV, PDAs, and compact GPS receivers, some incredible ideas come to mind.

Imagine a wireless Internet that's fast, possibly in the range of FireWire speed. Imagine that this service is competitive in cost with DSL and cable modems. Imagine that as of January 7, 2001, every new Mac will be able to link to this service.

Imagine that a new generation of wireless Internet hubs (similar to AirPort) will let any computer anywhere in the world use this service. Imagine being able to access your data anywhere on the planet - even while in flight.

If you can imagine that, you've only imagined the tip of the iceberg.

The full potential of the wireless Internet goes way beyond that. Sure, you'll be able to use iBooks and PowerBooks anywhere with fast Internet access, but what about your Palm? Remember, the hardware to link to these satellites may be about the size of an AirPort card - there's no reason Palms couldn't use the service. Suddenly Palm users could have fast Internet access anywhere, not just when connected to a networked PC or within range of a tower.

And the potential goes way beyond that. Imagine a digital satellite radio that lets you tune into the BBC, National Public Radio, and a host of other services. Better yet, imagine a partnership with Napster that lets this radio link to MP3s (streamed in real time using QuickTime) so you can listen to the music of your choice.

Remember, 90% of the iceberg is submerged. We're just getting started.

Satellite phones will be trivial, moving them from the realm of black ops to the real world faster than we could have imagined last week. That's a market so huge that Apple and SkyCorp will need to team up with companies such as Motorola, Nokia, and others to meet the hardware demand.

Now go back to the wireless Internet concept. This provides the perfect opportunity to adopt the IPv6 Internet protocol, which allows an unimaginable number of IP addresses (vs. 4.29 billion for IPv4). Satellite phones and radios and maybe even televisions would become Internet devices - just like computers are today.

Imagine your digital camera quickly sending your pictures to your personal Internet space.

And there's even more.

Imagine 544 Power Macs in orbit, each with a RAID array of very high capacity hard drives. Let's say these OS X-based G4s or G5s have a half-terabyte (TB) or more of storage space as well as the ability to communicate between themselves (not just with ground dwellers). Imagine 200-300 TB of orbiting server space for email, voice mail, and Web hosting.

Has your mind boggled yet?

Now imagine that each of these satellites is part of a redundant array, sort of like a huge RAID array in the sky. If one satellite gets hit by space debris or falls out of orbit somehow, the others will immediately take up the slack.

For security reasons, data on each satellite could be encrypted. The G4's velocity engine could make encrypting and decrypting data on the fly a quick and transparent process. It would also protect email and voice mail should a hard drive survive reentry or somehow be hijacked in space. (Of course, with a level 5 RAID array, more than one drive would have to survive reentry before anyone would have a chance to read the data, encrypted or not.)

Redundancy would also make it easy to upgrade the network - either retrieve old satellites or drop them into an orbit that will let them burn up in the atmosphere. Since the satellites use off the shelf technology, upgrading from a single G4 to a cluster of G4s or a G5, replacing the hard drives with higher capacity ones, etc., would be inexpensive and easy to do.

Oh, and this would also allow easy OS X updates in space. Remotely run the Software Update control panel, reboot the first Power Mac, then send a signal to the second satellite to update. From the ground we'd never notice the loss of a few computers distributed around the world as they reboot.

This isn't science fiction. The technology exists today - look at what Akami does when distributing Apple's keynote address to users around the world or the way some sites mirror content and balance loads with servers in multiple locations.

And it gets even better.

As I see it, these satellites needn't be American or Russian or Chinese or French. They could be considered a truly international network and not subject to the laws of any nation. Businesses themselves might still be tied to the laws of their headquarters, but if SkyCorp offered a .sky top level domain (TLD), businesses might be exempted from the laws governing national TLDs.

Could it get even better?

Sure! Imagine that these mail servers reject spam by default. Then imagine that spammers have the opportunity to send email to those who want it - but have to pay SkyCorp and the recipient to do so. Imagine the extra minutes you wouldn't waste every day deleting spam. Imagine the extra money in your online bank account if you do choose to receive spam.

And I'm sure this isn't even half the potential of such a system. It's so big, SkyCorp can't do it alone. Neither can Apple. Think of a technology where SkyCorp and Apple could partner with Sony, EarthLink, Nokia, Akami, Napster, and any number of others in the computer and consumer electronics field.

Then imagine that only OS X computers can directly link to the system - and that only Apple wireless Internet hubs will allow other computers (whether running the classic Mac OS, Windows, Linux, or something else) to link to the SkyCorp network.

That would provide the compelling reason for adopting OS X - and a compelling reason for even Windows geeks to invest in some Apple hardware, even if it is just a base station.

That makes any flat panel iMac or GHz+ Power Mac pale in comparison - and it would certainly be enough to justify the hype Apple has been generating.