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The Sinus Curve of Life

Certain events in life happen in circles. I think I got this piece of wisdom from my dad, back when I was a kid, and I keep seeing how true it is. The two examples I remember him giving me on different occasions were the recommended way of brushing your teeth and the progression from single-purpose power tools to integrated ones and back.

John Gruber's Maybe Instead of Two Cars, You Just Need a Car and a Bicycle is showing half a period of this sinus curve of life:

Computers started out as a single-purpose device: the calculator. Over the years, they gained more and more power, more and more features, but essentially remained the same general machine: a terminal. Screens got thinner, the devices themselves got smaller, but they're still screens with keyboards and a processing unit somewhere.

Now we're just beginning to get into the downswing of this curve: More and more devices in our lives are beginning to "become computers". Our cars have computers to control how much petrol gets into the engine when, our set-top boxes have computers that decrypt the TV signal and show EPG information, ...

All these devices are specialized single-purpose machines, based on the same generic ARM or even the Freescale chips that used to be in our old Macs. But they've dropped many of the features we know: No keyboard, no windows, no mouse, usually a primitive display ("engine needs service" lamp and fuel gauge) and if you're lucky some kind of input like an IR remote control or the on/off switch in the form of the ignition.

The iPhone is one of the first such devices still recognizable as a computer that's really taken off. It is still at heart an all-purpose device, hence the app store, but it has already been simplified and restricted to make it easier and most importantly more convenient to use in the typical situation you have it with you. Restricted and more convenient? Yes. Think of power tools:

In ye olde days, you had a screwdriver, a drill, a sander, all different devices. Nowadays, you have an electric drill with different drill bits for drilling, driving screws and sanding. It's cheaper. It requires less space. The downside of the all-in-one approach becomes obvious when you move into your new student flat and start hanging the paintings, sanding down that old chair and putting up a metric ton of shelves with a few friends: You're three people, but you only have the one device. Two of you are idle while the third does something.

Also, a real power sander has more strength and stability than a drill with a sanding disk bit attached. More control, better results. Jack of all trades, master of none.

It's a development of refinement: You start heaping more vaguely similar functions onto the same device. Some functions develop a synergy nobody saw before, and become a new unit. Other functions turn out as nonsense and get removed again. Then we go back and try to heap more similar-looking functionality on the device and start all over again.

It's no surprise that Apple is at the forefront of this development: It is what they set out to do from the start. Apple has always been about bringing the computer into people's homes. People who complain that Apple is becoming a consumer electronics company and focusing too much on the iPod, iPhone, AppleTV or whatever overlook that it's the opposite:

From Apple's point of view they've been unnecessarily pissing about with complex tinkerers' devices since 1976. Only now are they finally arriving where they set out to go with the original Macintosh, prepared by the Apple II's success: At a device that people don't see as a computer.

I enjoy being a tinkerer, developing after-market radios for the car that is the Macintosh. But I'm well aware that, is Apple to succeed, the devices will be complete enough that most people will not install any after market extras in them. Third party software is an after market extra. On the other hand, the total number of customers will be larger, a small percentage will probably be equal to my current market. And the app store has made it as easy to install a spoiler on my phone as it is to get a book these days.

We may just be fine in the future.

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Created: 2009-11-26 @384 Last change: 2009-11-26 @430 | Home | Admin | Edit
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