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As expected, on Wednesday Apple released Mac OS X 10.7, (s aapl) also known as Lion. Particularly unique to this operating system upgrade is the distribution method, because there are no discs to buy. Instead, upgraders will pay $29.99 through the Mac App Store on their computer and then download the 3.74 GB package for installation. I followed the process this morning, and thanks to both my 25 Mbps home broadband connection and Apple’s new data center filled with servers, I had the file in 25 minutes. Then I realized: The LTE mobile broadband connection I tested when Verizon launched its 4G service peaked at speeds close to my home wired connection. In theory, mobile users could get OS X Lion over 4G in a few hours.
Surely it would take longer than 25 minutes for me to download Lion on an LTE connection. I don’t have LTE service to test this idea, but having used it before, my educated guess is that in an area of solid coverage, the Lion install files would take two hours or so to download over 4G, assuming Apple’s servers don’t buckle. My estimate halves the peak speeds I saw on Verizon’s network, which is around the top end of the range Verizon (s vz) says its LTE customers can expect: 5 to 12 Mbps. That alone doubles the 25-minute download to 50 minutes in perfect conditions, not accounting for any peak boosts. Mobile connections aren’t as consistent as wired ones, however, so speeds fluctuate. Doubling the estimate again to account for that gets me to 1 hour and 40 minutes, which I’ll round up to two hours for other variables.
Forget the fact that most people won’t do this but will instead upgrade their operating system at home or in an Apple store. Dismiss too the data plan tiers that Verizon now offers, giving LTE customers a limited, set amount of monthly mobile bandwidth. I’m surely not recommending that people use 75 percent of their 5 GB LTE plan this month to download an operating system. Instead, I’m simply amazed that the possibility to do so even exists and that it could even be an option in areas with slow wired broadband.
Think back to when Mac OS X Cheetah launched in March 2001; it was a far different cat back then, and so too was the mobile broadband landscape. It wasn’t until seven months later that the first commercial 3G network launched by Japan’s NTT DoCoMo. And it would take years before 3G networks were deployed in a majority of the world, some of which are still in progress. We’re now in the beginnings of the 4G age, just as operating systems are no longer packaged on plastic discs but instead are piped through broadband.
No, most people won’t use mobile broadband for this download, but the idea that it’s a feasible option, particularly for those with slower DSL connections, simply amazes me. And while I agree that this distribution method is the biggest test yet for digital downloads, it also shows how fast broadband technologies are changing, partially why Apple spent billions on its data centers, and how we might use mobile broadband networks in the future.