Apple has a history of breakthrough products, sometimes cannibalizing others in spite of their success or popularity. Not many companies can afford to do that just to produce at the peak of their technical abilities with limited time, resources and people. As a result, culture can be hesitant to make the switch, sometimes rightly so.
Apple’s product line over the last couple of decades have become increasingly personal, and seamlessly integrated devices. Each step of the way, they’ve improved on the design and technology to high degrees of quality. Every so often those advances transformed product categories, or created new ones that changed the way humans use computers and live their lives.
They’ve moved from desktop computers to laptops, smartphones, and most recently smartwatches (and a few other things we’ll mention later). The iPod was a breakthrough product, albeit not the first pocket MP3 player, but also served as a test bed for the iPhone, something that couldn’t have been made at the time the iPod was released. Both technology and culture needed to catch up, and we still see that today.
The Apple watch has been out for 3 years now, most recently offered in a model with cellular capabilities. The tone of the conversation around this development seems to center around what the watch can’t do that the iPhone can. If you think you’d have to read or write large amounts of text or consume media through a watch, then you might not see the puck Apple is skating towards. More likely, Apple doesn’t want you to read that long-form New Yorker essay at all, but rather to listen to it, and it might be for the better.
Airpods, the newest product line from Apple, are complete computers, each containing its own system-on-a-chip. With improvements to Siri, interacting with anything other than voice could wind up extremely burdensome in comparison, sending the touchscreen keyboard the way of the typewriter. Conversing with a computer while you can get up and move around is much more ergonomic than being glued to a glowing LED screen, holding your arms and head just so to avoid RSIs. I doubt I am alone in my instant recognition of the freedom Airpods afford when I was able to cook and clean while listening to music, a show on Netflix, and taking phone calls.
Let us turn to the rumor mill for two more things:
Glasses could visually replace a phone by placing the exact same image in your field of view, and spacial gestures could handle touch input. But why stop there? Realistically, the interface and UX would differ substantially from iOS running on a phone. There is a lot more space to work with in human vision than a little rectangle. Apple’s commitments to accessibility and design gives them a solid foundation on which to build, and I have faith that they would get it right more often than not. ARKit–Augmented Reality–is a new and promising tool kit for developers, showing they’re extending their thinking beyond the iPhone itself. In terms of the road ahead, Airpods could themselves be the precursor to Apple glasses, the same way the iPod paved the way for the iPhone.
What we know as a personal computer was born out of a terminal to a mainframe server–the hub for data and calculation. Apple’s desktops and laptops serve as the hub for the iPod, iPhone and iPad. The iPhone is now the hub for the watch. People still aren’t ready to wear smart glasses yet, so the tech still has a few years to catch up again and allow Apple to refine the watch, Airpods and Siri in preparation for the next personal computing paradigm: a modular wearable device network. A personal Internet of Things.
The applications and possible next steps are both exciting to think about. Imagine a sensor network in your home that allows you to “see” through walls, or IKEA furniture with interactive instructions that points out all the parts you have scattered around on the floor. Looking forward, what could the watch/Airpods/glasses become a hub for? Is there anything left before we break the skin barrier? Is there a need for another paradigm at all, or to go that far?