Over the last several decades, Apple's success has stemmed from
one overriding philosophy: making technology personal. From the
computer that sat on your desk, to the notebook you popped open on
your lap, to the iPhone that you carry in your pocket and the Apple
Watch you wear on your wrist, the company has increasingly fostered
that personal connection between us and our devices.
But more recently, that personal connection has also carried
with it a degree of insularity, of wrapping ourselves up in
technology. In a recent interview with Bustle, Apple CEO Tim
Cook commented on the interplay between technology and mental
… it's how we look at the world. We want people to do things
with their devices, like the photography exhibit that we both
enjoyed, or connecting with family and friends with FaceTime. Not
endless, mindless scrolling.
That prioritization does sometimes seem at odds with the very
nature of the iPhone, iPad, and Mac, these windows into a world
that is at time disconnected from our own, even as it connects us
with other people. But perhaps it hints that the next evolutionary
step for Apple is to find a way to integrate our technology into
the world around us.
The app is for appliance
When it was announced in 2014, the Amazon Echo pioneered the
idea of the smart speaker. In the years that have followed, this
concept of ambient computing has become commonplace. Having an Echo
or a HomePod or a Google Assistant in, for example, the kitchen to
accomplish simple tasks like playing music, setting timers, and
managing shopping lists has proved the benefits of technology that
works more like an appliance than a traditional computer.
The virtue of technology as an appliance is that people's
interactions with it are largely based on tasks. There's no endless
scrolling through social media on a HomePod. You don't (generally)
stand over an Amazon Echo and press buttons for an hour at a time.
Rather, you accomplish a task and then move on—in the same way that
you don't linger over the toaster or the dishwasher.
Smart speakers like the HomePod act as appliances for people.
Distributing more technology with a smaller footprint throughout
our lives has an appeal to it. In that same interview, Tim Cook
said I've always thought that technology should serve humanity and
not the other way around. Right now, people often feel beholden to
their smartphones, tablets, and laptops, in a way that they don't
feel about, say, their dishwasher.
Even though smart home tech has started to proliferate, there's
still room for more applications in this space. While a few
companies have integrated video communications into their smart
home devices, Apple's yet to take that plunge. Over the past few
weeks, I've spent time sitting in front of the television with my
wife and conducting video chats with friends, but it's a sub-par
experience: I prop my MacBook Air up on a stack of books and share
the display on my Apple TV, but it feels like the wrong device for
the job. Surely a tech appliance designed for that purpose could do
the job better.
Of course, one of the reasons that we don't spend more time
interacting with our smart speakers is the lack of the kind of
graphical interfaces we've become used to on our other devices.
Instead, we wrestle with the voice-based interactions via Siri or
Alexa, or the Google Assistant.
Siri, which has just celebrated its tenth birthday at Apple, has
both come a long way in the last decade and simultaneously not come
nearly far enough. Unlocking the full potential of the voice
assistant is one key factor in moving to a future where we spend
less time sucked into our technology, because, again, nobody wants
to have a long conversation with their devices: they just want a
Siri has both improved and suffered setbacks in its
It's curious, then, that recent reports suggest Siri's functionality has diminished
with the release of iOS 15, apparently losing features related to
phone calls, voicemails, and email. It's still unclear if this is a
bug or an intentional: part of me wonders if this might be an
indication of a bigger push on redesigning Siri, but perhaps that's
We're never going to do all of our tasks via Siri, but
it's proved to be useful enough at some interactions that it's one
path towards a future where our technology spends less time making
us work for it.
Too much reality
All of this leads to one big question mark in Apple's future:
augmented reality. It's a technology that the company has spent a
lot of time talking about over the last several years, but one that
remains far from fruition. A large part of that is the lack of a
device to truly take advantage of what AR can offer. Apple is
rumored to be working on head-mounted displays that would integrate
virtual information with the real world, but they're still likely a
few years away if they ever indeed materialize.
But it's the application of augmented reality that interests—a
nd, yes, worries—me. Given Cook's comments, it seems clear that
Apple doesn't necessarily want to promulgate a device that
encourages people to stare off into space, scrolling through an
endless social media feed that hovers before their eyes, and ignore
the world around them. (It's one reason the company has reportedly
eschewed interest in virtual reality.) And yet, with the wide-open
nature of technology, it seems inevitable that this will happen
The key may be in Apple's narrative for these devices. People,
for example, don't scroll endlessly through information on their
Apple Watches—in large part because the form factor makes that an
unappealing experience. Apple could release a device with a more
limited range of functionality, but that comes with its own risks:
if the applications are too niche, it risks the device
never catching on.
It's a tricky needle to thread, not to mention a weighty
responsibility to bear. We stand on the edge of a precipice with
technology: in the last several decades, it's increasingly
empowered what we can do, connected the world, and enabled great
change. But it's also surfaced some of humanity's worst impulses
and behaviors. There may still be a chance to course-correct, but
for a company as significant and powerful as Apple, the question is
whether it's going to continue enabling the problem or actually
fight for a solution.