What is a ‘device’? – A response to Stratechery

A few days ago I read a post on Stratechery. Since half the traffic to this site comes from its author Ben Thompson’s Tweets, you are probably familiar with the site. If you are not, go sign up, it’s one of the best strategy sites out there. Ben writes things that I wish I could write.

His post entitled Digital Hub 2.0 takes a look at Apple’s evolving digital media strategy. It is a great analysis and has generated a lot of discussion in the blogosphere. A few ideas at the end of the post resonated with me, topics I have touched on in the past, and rather than e-mail Ben with my thoughts, I decided to publish them here.

Put simply, Thompson’s point is that a putative iWatch from Apple could become the next hub of their cloud-based media streaming efforts. I have no idea if that is what they will do, but it is an interesting argument. However, I think it opens up a very important subject that goes beyond any single OEM. It now seems inevitable that all our digital content will be cloud-based in some way. I think apps will be with us forever, but even today most apps are just fronts for web-based content. In the Stratechery post, the idea is that the ‘iWatch’ serves as the gateway to the content, which then streams it to larger screens or connects to a keyboard and mouse if needed.

Again, I have no idea if this is what Apple plans, but I do think that eventually all devices head this way. There is no reason that our interaction with digital data has to come through a ‘phone’ or a five-inch device made of silicon and glass. My guess is that in the future, we will no longer have ‘computers’. Instead, we will have mobile devices that connect to input and output devices wirelessly. You will take your mobile device to work, plug it in to a power dock which will then connect to a larger monitor and keyboard. Take that same device home and it will stream movies to your TV. Take it on a plane and you can stream to a larger, tablet-sized screen. We will completely abstract the input and output (I/O) functions from the hardware we carry around.

Of course, we are not there yet. There are still a lot of issues with this vision, but none of them are technical. From a hardware and silicon standpoint, we could do all of this today. The real trouble will be user interface (UI) issues. The UI for a five inch screen has to be very different than the UI for a 42″ monitor used for work with a keyboard, or a 70″ LCD Ultra HD screen used for lean-back video watching. This issue will take a few years to sort out.

But then once we reach that point, what is that device that we are carrying around with us? What is it really providing? Often, we tend to describe these devices as ‘mobile’, but that phrase becomes almost meaningless if all content is web-based. We will not need five inch screens, except for a small set of uses. We talk a lot about smartPHONES, but the phone part can be handled with a watch-sized device and a bluetooh earpiece. Really, a smartphone is a computer. And we are pretty close to the point where all that computing power can fit in an even smaller footprint than a smartphone. If we completely decouple computing and I/O, this means the key piece of hardware we carry with us is not a phone. It is not an app machine either, nor a media consumption or creation device.

The most important device we carry with us will be our Identity Hardware. Smartphones are incredibly personal devices already, because the real value of the device is that it authenticates who we are and what mobile networks we can access. The actual computing power can reside anywhere – in the cloud, in five inches of glass and silicon, in a ring or a pair of eyeglasses. The device just lets the Web know who we are (or who we choose to be on the Web).

That opens up all kinds of doors to new devices and new usage models. We have to solve the UI problem, and we will always have to be close to a power source, but the real value of a mobile device is identity – the rest of it will be abstracted away.


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