Bionic Citizen

Apple WatchWearables are the hot topic in technology today. What once seemed like something out of a Star Trek episode is now reality. And whilst Samsung, Motorola and others are veterans (if you could call more than two years in the product category “veteran”) I truly think that Apple’s design and brand-respected clout will be the final tipping point in solidifying this curious new niche as a distinct product line.

The Apple Watch’s gutsy move in positioning itself as a piece of haute couture is indeed a bold move; I have many questions about the longevity of such a device when the ephemeral (technology) is juxtaposed with the eternal (high-end watch design). It seems like a product conceived of contradiction as much as it is a device seeking to bridge two seemingly disparate factions of society (fashion and technology). However, it represents a progression of technology. A powerful progression, I might add: we are on the cusp of transcending the notion that technology exists as a realm separate to the organic body that is us. The Apple Watch’s ideal of being a fashion piece means it encompasses the design traits distinct of fashion: personality, individuality, intimacy.

But even more than that: wearables are a step closer to the assimilation of the inorganic — the world of binary code and cold, calculated lines of coding — with the organic: us, human beings, sentient creatures who have created these strange contraptions. Are we on the brink of becoming bionic? Is it possible that, by following this progression to its logical destination, we can assume that there will be a convergence: that these two worlds will properly collide; that we will become bionic creatures, beings made just as much with technology as we are with blood and muscle?

The singularity theory postulates a point in time in the distant future, called an event horizon. Beyond this point, we cannot predict, using the cognitive skills we have honed over millennia, what will occur next. The idea that we are assimilating ourselves with the technology that we use can be considered as an event horizon. The current state of technological development suggests that this is the case, but I think that if we examine the nature of our current society, we can further understand why this might very well be the eventual outcome of our species.

We live in an increasingly connected world. The Grid rules our lives: we are beings that connect to it daily; it is what provides us with a large amount of our daily intellectual sustenance. We cannot function without the Grid. Our society is hyper-connected, and devices like smartwatches illustrate how reliant we are on the Grid. That such a device exists signifies the ever-encroaching grip our digital lives have on us. Our lives are lived as much in the virtual sphere as they are in the realm of reality. When technology begins to disappear yet exert an even more potent force upon our existence, we begin to step closer towards that event horizon of the bionic being. Technology is beginning to disguise itself. It is no longer taking the visage of a “device that looks like a computer” — that traditional aesthetic is being challenged as microchips get smaller and more powerful, thus making it possible to insert them into devices that we are accustomed to for centuries.

As design becomes invisible, it will allow technology to ingratiate itself far more easily into our daily lives, slowly tightening the grip the Grid has on our psyche. As microchips become smaller and their power more potent, we will begin to subconsciously slip into a symbiotic reliance with the devices and the virtual networks we’ve created. This is going to change society in incredible ways. Everything from culture to politics to economics to the built environment will be affected. One area I’m particularly curious about is, of course, the urban architectonic. How will our bionic beings navigate an architecture of the future? How will our built structures evolve to support the new lifestyle that will emerge? How can virtual reality coexist with the concrete and steel that is so intrinsic to maintaining our human existence at the base level?

One simple device, oft derided and questioned for its very purpose, can have the potential for a significant sociocultural impact. For now, though, we play the waiting game: watching, patiently, as the progression of technology and society slowly merge, an intricate dance orchestrated by a plethora of parameters and the organic ebb and flow of time…

 

Celestial Jukebox in the Sky: The Life and Death of iPod

My iPod Classic

The first Apple device I owned was an iPod. Specifically, the iPod with Video (fifth generation, 60GB). It’s dead now; its hard drive failed some years ago and prompted my “upgrade” to an iPod Classic. It’s the shiny evolution of the device that changed the trajectory of Apple’s fortunes. The quirky click-wheeled ‘pod launched the company on a hyperdrive trip of success that has eventually led to last month’s announcement of Apple Watch, the latest darling to enter a strong lineage of beautiful industrial design from this Cupertino behemoth.

iPod is effectively dead right now. Its death occurred on June 29, 2007 when Steve Jobs announced iPhone, a “revolutionary” device touted as a “wireless communicator, Internet device and windscreen iPod – all in one.” iPhone, and the modern smartphone revolution it inspired, led to smaller device storage capacities and thus the emergence of streaming: instead of keeping music onboard, music could be – had to be – streamed from this mystical thing called the cloud. No longer are we compelled to maintain ginormous music libraries on iTunes, no longer do we have to carry our entire collection in our pockets: now, we can have the entire world’s music library beamed to us wherever we are (provided there’s network). The future is here, folks. This is the stuff writ in science fiction lore for decades: life in the connected network.

But here’s the thing: iPod was personal. iPod reflected who you were – because music is intrinsically personal, emotional, something that appeals to us all on the most base level. iPod was a tiny mirror of your personality. But with this shift to the cloud, the rise of iPhone and streaming services like SoundCloud, Spotify, Rdio and iTunes Radio, maintaining large libraries is a chore. The very purpose of iPod for the mass market is obsolete. I guess all technology has a shelf life – a fairly short shelf life at that – and it’s impressive that the iPod Classic remained in Apple’s lineup for so long. Its last refresh was in 2009, a mere consolidation of storage capacity to 160GB (that’s the iteration of iPod that I still own).

When Tim Cook announced 1 Infinite Loop’s new creation, Apple quietly pulled the iPod Classic from its lineup. This is a logical move for the company; earlier this year Cook even said in a quarterly earnings call that the iPod business was declining rapidly. Hell, even their accessories category is doing better than the iPod business. And the shift to streaming has caught Apple fumbling to maintain their dominance in the music industry – an industry it helped reinvent over a decade ago with this very device. Apple’s acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics is indicative of their yearning to pull themselves back into the game. iTunes sales are growing disproportionately to the sales of streaming subscriptions from rival services. The message from the consumer couldn’t be clearer: people don’t want to own music anymore. Small storage capacities on beloved smartphones – space that is hotly contested by a multitude of media, from apps to videos to music – justifies the raison d’être for streaming services. Streaming music means more space on devices for more apps. And add to that the notion that you can listen to a catalog far greater than the capacity of your device, and the idea of owning an iPod Classic seems unreasonable.

This shift is reminiscent of the music industry’s transition from vinyl to tapes, the Walkman to the Discman and CDs, to MP3s and the iPod. An industry susceptible to change, at the mercy of the never-ceasing flow of technological invention will always face the challenge of maintaining its emotional connection to the human spirit – emotion is at the core of music, after all. And emotion is what many designers of music services and technologies try to imbue in their creations, creations that by their very nature are ephemeral.

iPod changed the game. It reflected who you were through something intangible: music. It did the impossible. It created magic. In a way, devoid of myriad features, the infinite possibilities of a canvas-like multitouch interface and a massive app store – devoid even of any network connections – iPod was the most magical device Apple created. It forged invisible yet strong connections between people through music. And its death, its yielding to a far more exciting, intense era of technological possibility, signals also the death of this singularly beautiful experience: the idea of the focussed technological device, the product that does one thing, but does it insanely great.

So, where to now? What is to become of the iPod line with the death of its last great ancestor, its direct line to the original iPod? Apple still has one more event left for this year, its October event that was historically dubbed the “music event” – the one that was reserved for announcing new iPods and a new version of iTunes. In recent years that has been replaced with iterative updates to the Mac line, and new iPads. The only iPod getting any love is the Touch – and rightly so. It is the only iPod that bridges the origin line (iPod) with the newer kids on the block (iPhone and iPad) through iOS. I don’t think iPod as a brand is dead. A new iPod Classic with a solid-state drive and support for high-fidelity music files has been talked about a lot on Apple forums. But only by diehard audiophiles, because that is exactly to whom this kind of device would appeal. It’s a highly-focussed segment of a small marketshare, and hardly anything that a behemoth like Apple, already deep in existing and well-performing product lines and ventures into entirely new industries (high fashion with Apple Watch) would even bat an eye at. It is for this reason – a pragmatic one, coldly looking at the statistics of market share – that I think iPod Classic is dead; iPod nano, shuffle and touch will continue on to ride out the ever-diminishing sales of a brand that brought a struggling company back from near-extinction, as Apple focusses on pushing people onto iPhones and the iOS ecosystem.

Tony Fadell, “father of the iPod”, put it succinctly when he said in a recent interview with Fast.Co Design:

“It was inevitable something would take its place. You know, in 2003 or 2004, we started asking ourselves what would kill the iPod […] And even back then, at Apple, we knew it was streaming. We called it the ‘celestial jukebox in the sky.’ And we have that now: music in the cloud.”

Like many people, I love music. It’s an incredibly important part of my life. iPod was – no, is – still a fundamental part of my personal tech setup. I am sad to see the Classic go, and have (begrudgingly) come to accept that, logically, there cannot be another Classic; that’s not the direction that the world is moving in. But I hope that the experience, the magic that Apple created with iPod, remains coursing through its DNA as it shifts focus from a consumer electronics company into a lifestyle one.

Technology’s Disappearing Act: Apple Watch and the Next Big Tech Era

A curious thing is happening in the technology sphere. As we crave mobile devices with larger screens, a consequence of the ever-deferring nature of content to the smartphone that our hands are seemingly glued to, the very nature of technology is becoming… invisible.

As a long-time admirer and fan of Apple’s work, you might expect me to be raving about the new Apple Watch CEO Tim Cook unveiled this week. Here’s the thing, though: I’m still skeptical about this category. Apple has successfully redefined several categories in the past, but the problem with smartwatches – with wearables, in fact – is that we don’t exactly know what it is we want from them just yet. This product type is still largely in its infancy. And thus, can Apple truly change the game when its rules are still being debated?

But with Apple Watch we see this idea of “technology’s disappearing act” come alive. Here is a device that, unlike its competitors (Samsung Gear and Moto 360), actually seeks to address the nature of a watch in this connected age. Apple hasn’t merely taken what works at one scale (the UX of iPhone) and resized it; rather, they’ve first decided to probe the sociocultural implications of what timekeeping means. This, in essence, is what design is all about: understanding a move, critically examining your position and its effect, before executing it.

Our technology is increasingly becoming invisible, permeating almost every facet of our lives – not just for entertainment, but work, play, health, fitness. Thus moves like Apple Watch, the entire smartwatch category, wearable tech: this is an exercise in disrupting a logical path. It’s about re-imagining the way technology fuses with how humans have been living for centuries, because these devices are inherently intimate. They will be more connected to your physical being than any bit of tech before. Following a logical trajectory of design will only result in technology that is trying to solve problems that don’t actually exist: this is the conundrum I’ve been facing when thinking about this next paradigmatic shift in tech.

Wearable technology, in order to justify its raison d’être, will need to tackle this very issue: how can it enhance human life, rather than try and solve unnecessary, non-existent problems? This is where I think Apple Watch excels. Whilst I am not entirely blown-away by its industrial design, I think that particular design decisions made by Jony Ive and his crew set this device apart. The digital crown, deep connection to the art of timekeeping through fun digital watch faces, and the tactic engine that gently pulses on one’s wrist, providing a distinctive tactile dimension, are elements that will significantly add to the user experience. I understand the digital crown as a new interaction model that will define the smartwatch, just as the click wheel defined iPod. And, of course, wearable tech is intimate; it’s personal. Watches are a reflection of one’s taste, style, and fashion sense. How can digital technology, ephemeral in nature, with an ability to rapidly skin new themes and change experiences through the dynamic essence of software, be used as a conduit to channel this idea of enabling personality to surface?

The Apple Watch is pretty, and it tackles some serious issues that others have lacked to do so in favour of getting their products out first. But justification for its actual existence is what bothers me, and what I found lacking in Tim Cook’s delivery of his first significant product as CEO. The thing is, unlike iPod, iPhone and iPad before it, this device faces a critical challenge: that of actual necessity. Why would I want a tiny screen strapped to my wrist when a larger iPhone (which I have to carry with me anyway, since Apple Watch is highly dependent on this) can provide a less-frustrating experience when doing things like showing photos or sending messages? I think that where a device like this will truly excel is in the fitness category, and that itself is a fledgling arena.

When Steve Jobs introduced iPad, he spent a significant amount of the keynote before the unveil to explain the iPad’s purpose: as a device to fit a gap between smartphones and notebooks; Apple’s response to the then-burgeoning “netbook” craze. But with Apple Watch, Tim Cook launched straight into it after an ode to his predecessor (“one more thing”). After the slick video intro, he returned to stage, arms held up in triumph. No explanation of the watch’s purpose, its reason – it felt like he was relieved to finally release his first defining product as new CEO. It’s a problem, I think, if we cannot understand the Apple Watch’s significance: what makes it unique and not just a response to the strong competition from Samsung, LG, Motorola and the others? What purpose does it serve that will define it, apart from its innovative user interface design and complexity of customization options?

So, invisible tech…

Today, software defines our mobile experience. When the hype around new hardware dies, it is the software that remains as the defining experiential aspect of a device. And this is where technology is beginning to shrink its physical appearance and maximize a more intimate, invisible force. A device that is as personal as a wearable offers the opportunity to craft products around experiences that augment daily life, where the physical object moves to the background, providing subtle feedback on various operations. Apple Watch’s tactile engine and digital crown are two elements that come to mind here.

Wearables are going to be the next decade’s smartphone: as content gets bigger and more mobile, the opportunity for daily tasks to be augmented or replaced by digital variants will be great. It is in this sphere that wearable tech and the permeability of software into daily objects will enable technology to effectively disappear as it transcends from objects that exude “tech”, to more mundane guises that are powered by clever engineering and sleek industrial design.