Apple’s quest for the disappearing computer
Image by Divya Thakur on Flickr

Last Wednesday, Apple presented its latest software developments at the WWDC18. Its announcements, ranging from new digital well-being features and an updated AR development kit to improved performance, seem to further highlight Apple’s ongoing quest to get the computer out of the way of the user. In review, we try to understand Apple’s design principles and strategy from the perspective of the disappearing computer, a human-computer interaction paradigm in which the computer practically becomes invisible.

Observations

  • The term “the disappearing computer” was coined by Bill Gates, who envisioned a future in which computers are practically invisible, because they will be embedded in our everyday objects. Other terms that also refer to a computing paradigm where computers have dissolved into our everyday environment for the purpose of creating the best user experience, are “ambient computing”, “pervasive computing” and “ubiquitous computing”.
  • At the WWDC, Apple presented the new ARKit 2.0, which provides developers with improved features in creating AR applications. AR can be seen as one of the ways in which the disappearing computer will manifest itself, as AR allows the computer to become a transparent window through which it can convey the virtual experience as though it was there in real life.
  • In 2017, Walt Mossberg, tech journalist and longtime friend of Steve Jobs’, wrote his very last blogpost about the idea of the disappearing computer.
  • The disappearing computer can also be understood through Bolter’s theory on hypermediacy and immediacy. Hypermediacy refers to the qualities of a medium/interface that make it apparent to the user, whereas immediacy refers to the qualities that allow the medium/interface to become transparent.

Analysis

In the history of personal computing, Apple has al- ways been a front-runner in determining how the everyday consumer interacts with computers; the graphical user interface and mouse were introduced with Apple’s Lisa, the multi-touch interface found its way through the iPhone and iPad and lately, wear- ables such as smart watches and wireless earbuds have mostly gained traction through the Apple watch and Airpods. Reportedly, in a secret project code- named “T288”, Apple is also currently working on an augmented reality head-mounted device, which is expected to launch somewhere around 2020. In an- ticipation of that moment, Apple already seems to be expanding its developer base and content library. Interestingly, if we take a step back, we see that these design improvements have consistently been about rendering the computer more and more transpar- ent, whether it be through design principles such as hardware miniaturization, through using intuitive de- sign metaphors to obfuscate the underlying complex technical processes (e.g. graphical user interface, skeuomorphism – objects in software mimic their real-world counterpart, such as the trash can, touch screens), through product design that highlights aesthetics and immediacy, or through making the computing modalities increasingly immersive (e.g. big displays, earbuds, glasses). Speculatively, following this trend, a combination of AR glasses, wireless ear- buds (both mainly responsible for machine output) and a smartwatch (responsible for machine input) could become the new personal computing paradigm that could replace the dominance of the smartphone.

“Interestingly, if we take a step back, we see that these design improvements have consistently been about rendering the computer more and more transparent…”

However, Apple also seems to pursue aspects other than the interface technology itself to bring about the disappearance of the computer. First of all, in order to make the computer more transparent, their devices should be allowed to become more intimate, whether it be by embedding computers in our everyday objects (e.g. speakers, television, lighting) or by wearing them on our bodies (e.g. wearables). Therefore, Apple’s advocacy of privacy, even explicitly attacking other tech companies, does not come as a surprise. Their application of differential privacy and embedding of independent privacy watchdogs within their organization seem to emphasize this.
Another consequence of the disappearing computer, is that people should be willing to embed computers in their everyday life from a meaning and esthetics perspective. Thus, it is no coincidence that Apple has always tried to associate itself with lifestyle, whether by joining forces with fashionable brands like Beats, Hermès and Nike or by putting emphasis on aesthetic design. These strategies camouflage the computer, while actually making us more aware of it, albeit as something fashionable and not so much as something technical.

Lastly, in order to make computers less apparent, it is important to be able to follow the mental flow of the user, and to adapt to it, so that the computer can show and obfuscate itself when necessary. Here, it seems that Apple is not leading the competition, as painfully demonstrated by its voice assistant Siri. Interestingly, the design principle of valuing privacy seems to be in conflict with efficiently optimizing their algorithms here. Nevertheless, it seems that Apple wants to solve this issue by moving a lot of data-processing to the personal device, thereby keeping personal identifiable information away from the cloud. In this respect, Google and Apple are on a collision course, both improving where the other excels (Google is launching its own consumer hardware line, while Apple is working hard on AI).

Implications

  • In the age of the disappearing computer, personal computing will rely increasingly on privacy and lifestyle as it blends more and more with the daily life of the user. Consequently, personal computing companies will have to internalize these characteristics in order to become relevant.
  • The disappearing computer will, in part, have to rely on artificial intelligence, as it allows for automation of a lot of manual hypermediate interactions. The company that is able to successfully solve the tension between AI and privacy could become dominant.