May 14th, 2015

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9046oXrm7f8

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.

Messing with Bluetooth

When I set up my home office back in the summer of 2013, as part of a massive decluttering, rearranging, decorating project (we got the interior painted and replaced a bunch of furniture, among other things -- looking back, it was a massive amount of work, but I did it in pieces and the pace wasn't crazy so it didn't seem that big. There's a lesson here somewhere), I decided to replace my laptop and then create a sort of docking setup in the office that it could connect to. That way, I could work on my laptop wherever, but when I was at home and wanted to do something complicated, I could have the Big Monitor experience with the laptop as a second screen, the optical drive that was no longer available on Appple laptops, etc. I'm very happy I did it that way, but even while I was setting that up, I kept wondering:

Why Can't I Make This Work With My iPad? Or my Phone? Or a Chromebook?

In any event, whether it was because of graphics card weaknesses or the engineering tradeoffs in shipping bits between a device with a graphics card and a monitor (it is amazing how important those annoying cords really are), I recognized that I was not gonna be hooking that display up to anything other than my laptop and maybe somebody else's laptop from Apple and bought at around the same time. I'm not sure _why_ I wasn't very focused on the Magic Trackpad not connecting to the mobile devices. Basically, once I knew the monitor was a no-go, I sort of gave up, and tried to maximize the shared functionality of the parts I knew could work with mobile devices: the keyboard and, later, the printer.

I got the Logitech Easy Switch, made sure it worked so I could bring it with my iPad in a backpack -- and then never moved it away from the monitor (probably there is a lesson there, too). When I started thinking about this again, I had different devices, so I had to re-pair them with the keyboard, and at first, the iPad mini didn't want to switch with the one button push, but making the device "forget" the keyboard and re-pairing fixed that. In the back of my head was the idea that I really ought to have a keyboard in the adjoining room, because it sort of sucks using the Apple TV remote to do a search. In the end, I didn't use the Easy Switch for that purpose, but instead found the case/cover Logitech bluetooth keyboard that went with my original iPad. I paired it and stashed it on top of the stack under the guide I'd written for using the system.

I can't help but think that iOS 8 was simultaneously really brilliant in its basic themes (start working on something on a mobile device, walk up to your computer, continue it there) and unbelievably kludgy. Wouldn't it be better if you could start working on something on your mobile device, _walk up to a bunch of dumb peripherals_, _have those dumb peripherals pair based on permissions and/or proximity_, sit down and continue working using the Bigger Screen, Better Keyboard and Pointing Device -- but still, ultimately, on your mobile device, that you will ultimately walk away with?