walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

The Evolution of Apple's Digital Hub

When I was working on the Gadget as Personal Computer Pseudo Peripheral era post, my friend M. pointed me at Steve Jobs’ vision of the Mac as a Digital Hub, and Apple as uniquely positioned (because it still did hardware, OS, applications, connected to the internet, etc) to serve as the glue for the 1990s/early 2000s era gadgetry.

Here is some video explaining it all, in January 2001:


In Jobs’ last WWDC, he explained how the iCloud was the new Digital Hub (or something else. Here’s the whole thing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfj7UgCMsqs). Updates once limited to iTunes (the most successful application from the earlier era) are now over-the-air, and the phone is no longer a pseudo-peripheral of a computer. It is a peripheral of the Cloud. Over time, OS updates tried to smooth the transition from working on something on a phone or tablet, to a Mac computer and back again.

Meanwhile, some customers are clamoring for something else entirely. They would like to flip the relationship between the phone and the computer. By 2011, they were busy jailbreaking their phones and installing BTStack and similar, so they could attach not only a (allowed and encouraged) Bluetooth keyboard, but also a pointing device (never supported). The peripherals once tethered to the computer were now untethered but serving … the phone (or tablet). Whenever the law-abiding ask to do this, this is the usual litany:

Why would you want to?
You bought the wrong tool for the job.
They will probably implement this later/Android already has this.
They _won’t_ implement this later, because it would kill their OSX/computer business.

Arguably, we have been stalled out at 2/3rds of the way to the phone (or tablet) at the center of the New Personal Computer. (Heck, Apple has even worked with printer companies to make it possible to connect printers to mobile devices.) Everyone got a keyboard for their tablet. And everyone uses AirPlay when they can, because a big screen is better for watching movies. It’s just that missing pointing device. Aggravating. Maybe someday, when the monitor was also touchscreen, it would just seamlessly pass through -- but I sort of agree with Jobs’ assertion that vertical touch screens are NOT ergonomic. And that’s kind of a long way off anyway.

In the meantime, there’s a whole lot of excitement about a brand new round of peripherals for the Cloud/smartphone: fitness bands, garage door openers, thermostats, even your car’s infotainment systems (music, maps and traffic, possibly more). Via HomeKit, HealthKit and CarPlay, Apple is hoping to get in on all of these. And with Apple Pay and the Watch, Apple has committed heavily to a payments ecosystem as a peripheral to their mobile devices.

For several years now, people have been predicting the imminent demise of the personal computer. And it is true: the gadgets that were once pseudo peripherals of that computer have all been subsumed by mobile devices connected to the internet and Cloud directly. The laptop especially, and the desktop secondarily (mostly secondarily, because just about everyone runs a bigger monitor and/or keyboard off a laptop, rather than a second computer, because it really simplifies keeping track of which programs and data are where -- and making sure they are with you wherever you go) remain the Biggest Screen, and the place where keyboard, pointing device and screen work together to let us do our most complex work quickly. But honestly, the value in the personal computer is increasingly not in the “brain” or the “tower” or the “box” -- it’s in the peripherals. And the list of reasons why those peripherals can’t be driven directly by a mobile device is increasingly short and implausible.

(1) The graphics card on the phone can’t drive that display.
(2) Bluetooth on the phone can’t cope with all those Bluetooth connections simultaneously
(3) Apple supplies no pointing device support in iOS
(4) iOS is not a “good enough” OS/launchpad for “real work”

The first two are untrue, for most phones, most displays, most peripheral setups. The third, alas, remains the case. The fourth is a judgment call.

With WWDC coming up June 8-12, rumors suggest an A9 chip in new phones and a new generation of Apple TV. Either or both could move us in the direction I’d like to see us go (direct hookup of Apple TV to a beautiful Apple Monitor, say -- currently not possible with the existing Apple TV and Thunderbolt Display; pointing device support without jailbreaking in iOS). But I wouldn’t bet on either one.
Tags: our future economy today

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