The end of the digital device age – and the beginning of the era of the digital everything
By Adam Tinworth
25/09/2014 | Could we be at an inflection point? Is the world of technology about to shift again? It feels like several diverse technological developments are all drawing together in an interesting way - one that says goodbye to the era of the digital device, and hello to the era of the digital everything.
John Gruber's Apple Watch piece of a week ago highlights what I suspect few people have grasped just yet - conceptually, this is not a phone in a watch format, but this is technology reinventing what the watch could be. The is tech both as fashion statement and useful device. This is what happens when markets become more sophisticated. You push beyond utility into aesthetics and design.
But, at its heart, the Apple Watch is still a watch, It straps to your wrist and tells the time. It looks far more like the thing it's replacing than, say, the iPhone looked like the phones that came before it. And that may well be the point.
The end of the digital device era
Look at it this way: we're probably coming to the end of the era of "new" digital devices. The laptop, the desktop, the tablet and the phone are all products of the digital era. They are new things in of themselves. Certainly, in some cases, they replace something that was there before. The desktop PC marked the death knell for the typewriter, however nostalgic some people get about it. The tablet is eating away at the reasons for print books and magazines to exist.
But there's a limited potential for these sorts of things. As everything digital becomes smart glass, to some degree, there's a limited range of these pieces of glass that we'll want to be lugging around with us. People are already trying to winnow the three down to two: can a big phone act as a tablet? Can a bit iPad act as a laptop replecement?
The potential in that area, of portable glass screens, is approaching tapped out. So where next?
Digital absorbs everything
Well, this is where the Apple Watch is different - this is tech hollowing out something that existed before, and replacing and extending it. It's a fuller version of the vision Apple has been working with on the Apple TV and CarPlay - bringing technology into something that already exists, and changing it profoundly. The nearest equivalent is probably Google's self-driving cars, which aren't yet as commercially ready. But they too hold the promise of taking something familiar and changing it utterly. Once a car become self-driving, what potential does that open up for it as a space, once the needs of controlling it depart? What does this vehicle look like? The interior - and maybe the exterior - could end up very different from the cars we know today.
Lurking in the background of this is the internet of things. For too long, it's been struck in the experimental "cutesy" phase of its development, but if it's to become comeplling, it has to dramatically transform the way we use our buildings. Initiatives like Apple's HomeKit and the growing momentum around the consortium that Google's Nest and Samsung are pulling together suggests that significant work is happening behind the scenes that we've yet to see the results of. Maybe next year's CES will be an interesting thing to watch, as companies start showing off their products that can work with these systems - if the commercial launch of the Apple Watch doesn't suck all the attention oxygen from the room.
And even if it does - well, the watch itself might be part of a wider "software eating everything" play. Tim Cook has mentioned a few times that he controls his Apple TV with it. That makes perfect sense - don't hunt for your phone or remote control, use the device that's on your wrist anyway. How much truer does that become when you start thinking of the wrist computer as the front end to the digital world around you?
A watch isn't in your bag, or in your pocket, or maybe on the table in the hall. It's there. On your wrist. Ready.
The interface you have everywhere
Suddenly, hunting for the phone to fiddle with your lights, or open your garage seems like an effort. Just tapping something on your wrist - something with a biometric connection to you for security - to control things? That looks like our default interface of the future.
So, do we find ourselves with a vision of software genuinely eating the world? Because in this vision of a wrist-controlled digital building, it's not the device that matters - it's how it plays into a network of connected devices and controllers, which almost certainly won't all be from one manufacturer. Much of Apple's keynote played on the ability of the watch to unleash intimate, personal communication between people. But I can't help wondering if that's a reassuring message - a sales message - that belies what the watch will really do for us: be the trojan horse that opens up the possibility of a truly connected digital environment around us.
I hope so. That sounds like a vision of a digital, connected future I could buy into.