Tweenage Computing

Last week’s Apple event came and went without surprise. The phone is a camera for text messages, work communication, and social media. This is the extent of the vision—for now?

It feels like we are in a tween era for hardware—the in-between years that set the table for an adolescence of great development. That development, I hope, is the integration of the current device sprawl set off by the success of smart phones. Here’s the current situation: each device costs about the same, does mostly the same things, yet doesn’t have comprehensive enough functionality or flexibility to eliminate any of the other devices.

In the Apple ecosystem, I currently own:

I know. Let’s do a price check on a few of these:

Which seems… logical? They’re all slightly different combinations of a few basic ingredients. The devices come together into a black rectangle in the size of your choice, with either keyboard & mouse or touch input. Beyond form factor, they all access the same things: your work, communication, and media. The more consistent that access becomes, the more arbitrary the distinctions between the devices seem. The only significant differentiator is the camera on the phone, which is why it is relentlessly updated.

With each year that goes by, it feels like less and less is happening on the device itself. And the longer our work maintains its current form (writing documents, updating spreadsheets, using web apps, responding to emails, monitoring chat, drawing rectangles), the more unnecessary high-end computing seems. Who needs multiple computers when I only need half of one? Which leads to a couple different thoughts.

First, how long until I can do straight-forward design work on something like a Raspberry Pi? A pocket-sized, $50 computer is an interesting proposition.

Second, isn’t the iPhone now more powerful than the computer I had ten years ago? Why can’t I hook my phone up to a larger screen through a dock, Nintendo Switch style? Some Samsung phones have been able to do this for years by using Dex’s functionality, but in my opinion you need to offer a desktop-like experience, not a super-sized tablet experience. (And yes, I know that Dex can run Linux—hello Linux people.)

That seems to be what Apple is working towards with the upcoming updates to Catalina and Xcode, which will make it easier to bring iOS apps to the Mac using a more unified design language. Microsoft has been working in this arena for ages, but the goal in my mind isn’t to turn a tablet into a computer and vice versa—that only feels like you’re switching between input methods. The magic comes from turning a small device like a phone into a full computing environment. (I’ll stick to the phone. Rumors say Apple is working on AR glasses, but this violates a primary rule of computers: don’t put them on your face.)

My wish is for computing to head towards a more integrated, terminal-based approach—one ur-device that is small yet robustly powerful, that can be boosted up for high key usage by docking it to a larger display and alternative methods of input. If extra processing is necessary for computation or graphics, additional hardware can reside in the dock, or processes can be handled remotely, using—ok, go with me here—a “streaming” concept similar to what Google is doing with its Stadia game streaming service. Doesn’t it make sense to do a trial run on this distributed computation method using a technically complex, but low-stakes environment like games? And, just perhaps, couldn’t the sale of accessories to the ur-device, and the subscription cost for extra computation power partially offset the profits of the 3 or 4 other devices that’d be eclipsed in this situation?

We’ve gladly adopted off-site storage for its flexibility to sync between devices. It’s time to do it with processing so we can keep one device on hand but switch how we use it based on our needs. I don’t want more devices, I want more flexibility with the ones that I have.

Frank Chimero illustrated portrait

Frank Chimero is a designer and writer based in New York City. For the past 15 years, he’s worked at his tiny design studio, Frank, with a few years away to co-found Abstract.