Apple, watches, cars and ‘digital hubs’

The Mac-centric ‘digital hub’

In early 2001 we witnessed a rapid proliferation of personal computing devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, camcorders, DVD players, cameras and PDAs. Many commentators thought that this explosion of devices posed a threat to the desktop computer. They believed that these new personal devices would replace much of the functionality previously reserved for the desktop.

Steve jobs, however, believed the opposite. He believed that the new slew of personal computers would make the desktop more valuable. He believed that to get the most out of each device, one would have to lean more heavily on the desktop.

On January 9, 2001, Steve Jobs gave a Macworld keynote presentation that introduced the concept of the ‘digital hub‘.

“We are living in a new digital lifestyle with an explosion of digital devices. It’s huge. And we believe the PC, or more importantly the Mac, can become the digital hub of our new emerging digital lifestyle, with the ability to add tremendous value to these other digital devices.”

The ‘digital hub’ concept positioned the Mac at the centre of one’s digital ecosystem. In Steve’s vision, this central hub would use its screen size and processing power to do the grunt work (the organising and editing), freeing up peripheral devices to do their one job well.

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As an example, iTunes allowed users to rip CDs, add metadata to tracks, apply album artwork and build playlists whilst the iPod made listening to music a joy. iTunes moved the heavy lifting to the ‘digital hub’ which simplified the iPod, making it a better more enjoyable product to use.

The iCloud-centric ‘digital hub’

By 2011, 10 years after Jobs’ ‘digital hub’ keynote, devices had changed significantly. Rather than being peripheral devices that simply pulled files (photos, music, videos etc.) from your desktop, devices were creating files themselves. The iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch all had cameras and music stores. Keeping all of your devices in sync inevitably got messy.

At WWDC 2011, Jobs addressed this problem head on by introducing iCloud.

“So, we got a great solution for this problem. And we think this solution is our next big insight. Which is we’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device, just like an iPhone, an iPad, or an iPod Touch, and we’re going to move the digital hub, the centre of your digital life, into the cloud. Because all these new devices have communications built into them, they can all talk to the cloud whenever they want. We call it iCloud.”

Three big changes to note.

  • The Mac was demoted from being the digital hub to being just a device.
  • iCloud became the digital hub.
  • Device syncing became two-way.

The last point is significant. Rather than the ‘digital hub’ simply pushing content out, now it would push and pull content to and from devices. Notice the double-ended arrows in this updated map.

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Competing the picture

With the benefit of retrospect, however, I believe this vision was incomplete. To complete it, I’d like to add another ring to the ecosystem map.

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Each of the devices that form the secondary ring can project content to a tertiary ring of peripheral screens. That was quite a mouthful so I’ll give some examples.

  • AirPlay enabled Apple devices to wirelessly project content to peripheral screens around the house or office.
  • CarPlay, later, enabled devices to project content to peripheral screens in the car.

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It’s important to note here that Apple doesn’t necessarily make the peripheral screen. That is, they don’t make the TV or car that is being projected to, they simply build hardware and software that enables said projection. They have built bridges between their personal computing devices and your other screens.

Core computing device

Now I think it’s worth noting that whilst, according to these maps, the iPhone is on a par with the Mac, iPad and iPod Touch, it is for the great majority of users their core computing device. Because of this, it is the device that most frequently:

  • Pushes content to the cloud
  • Pulls content from the cloud
  • Projects content to tertiary peripherals

In fact it is so far ahead in terms of interaction frequency, that others have positioned it as the ‘digital hub’. In his article ‘Digital Hub 2.0’ from around a year ago, Ben Thompson argues just that.

“What is your iPhone if not a digital hub? And, if that is true, might we be entering a new smartphone golden age?”

I believe however that this is simply focussing on one branch of the full ecosystem. Rather than being the digital hub, the iPhone is simply the most used device amongst a range of devices that make up an iCloud centric ecosystem.

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In many ways, Ben has highlighted a ‘digital hub’ that sits within the broader iCloud centric digital hub ecosystem. A sub-digital hub if you like.

An Apple TV and an Apple Car

There have been many rumours over the years that Apple are working on a TV and, more recently, a car. I believe that if these rumours are true this would represent such devices being promoted (to maintain Jobs’ parlance) from the tertiary ring of peripheral dumb screens to become stand-alone devices in their own right. Rather than simply having content pushed to them from the devices ring, they would interact with the digital hub, directly from it.

Whilst this isn’t impossible (Apple TV currently acts as a sort of half way house in this respect), it would represent a significant departure from the current ecosystems structure. A significant shift from their current direction. Rather than simply enabling the projection of content to third party screens, Apple would be making the peripheral screens into devices in their own right. This would effectively see the devices ring and the peripherals ring merge into one.

The Apple Watch

I suppose the final question that I’m looking to answer is, “Where does the watch fit in?”.

At its launch later today the Apple Watch will partly be a dumb peripheral, simply displaying content pulled from ones iPhone, and partly be a stand alone device, generating content of its own. It will both pull content from the devices ring and push content back to the iCloud hub.

As such, I would plot the watch somewhere between the secondary devices ring and the tertiary peripherals ring. It will, initially at least, be a product that bridges these two categories.

For many, I think this has been a sticking point. People have wanted to position it within a solid territory in order to make sense of it. They’ve wanted to see it as either a peripheral or as a new stand alone device. To these people, the features that make it stand-alone seem to complicate the dumb-screen-ness of a peripheral and the features that make it a device-reliant peripheral seem to hinder its ability to stand alone.

In truth it is, for now, neither and both.

Over time I see the watch’s reliance on the iPhone decreasing. I see more and more functionality being baked into the watch itself. Over a few iterations I see it becoming a stand-alone device and thus moving from a bridge position, firmly into the devices ring.

This is not without precedent. Upon launch the iPod required a desktop computer to function. The iPhone was the same. The only difference here is that the watch is reliant on the iPhone.

So, what’s next?

At the end of Ben Thompson’s article, he makes an interesting assertion.

“Instead of a phone that uses surrounding screens, like the iPhone does in the car and the living room, why might not our wrist project to a dumb screen (with a phone form-factor) in our pocket as well?”

In this vision, the watch has become the core computing device and the phone has been demoted to a tertiary peripheral. I guess, as the watch moves inwards on our map, the phone moves outwards.

A similar vision is articulated in the film, Her. Here the bulk of computer interactions are done through an earpiece. The protagonist engages with his cloud computer through voice. His phone however has not been replaced. It simply becomes a dumb screen used when anything visual is required.

This will, if it is the way it goes, be a huge epoch in computing history. The next step in the mainframe, desktop, laptop, smartphone narrative. Of course, on the other hand the watch could simply be just another device inhabiting the devices ring, living on par with the rest of the devices.

One things for sure however, we won’t know until a few iterations down the line.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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