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Number of iBlogs: 12

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iPhone 4s and iOS 5 Reveal the Mac of the Future

Posted on 10-15-2011 04:27 pm


Plant­ed in your shiny new iPhone 4s and in the iOS 5 are the seeds of tomor­row’s Mac of the future, and indeed the future of all com­put­ers. You can find them if you know where to look. (And I’ll tell you where below.)

It’s not sup­posed to be this way. In the Microsoft world, at least, new tech­nol­o­gy starts at the top and “trick­les down” from big­ger and more pow­er­ful com­put­ers over time to mobile devices and even­tu­al­ly cell phones. If you’re focused on the machines, this makes sense, as larg­er com­put­ers are more capa­ble of han­dling pow­er­ful new fea­tures.

But if you’re focused on the user, as Apple is, this approach doesn’t make sense. Apple has devel­oped what I believe is a unique strat­e­gy: intro­duce new inter­faces and new ways to inter­act with com­put­ers and the Inter­net on the small­est devices first, then scale them up over time, even­tu­al­ly end­ing up as desk­top fea­tures.


This start­ed with the iPhone.

In 2007, both Microsoft and Apple intro­duced the foun­da­tion of tomor­row’s com­put­ers — inter­faces that fea­tured multi-touch, physics and ges­tures (MPG).

Microsoft intro­duced MPG on big com­put­ers because the machine could han­dle it. Apple intro­duced MPG on tiny com­put­ers because the user could han­dle it.

Not just the inter­face, the iPhone ush­ered in the App Store idea and other inno­va­tions that would start on the phone, move up the food chain to tablets and even­tu­al­ly the desk­top. OS X Lion, for exam­ple, has a touch-like inter­face, multi-touch ges­tures and other ele­ments first intro­duced on the iPhone. The next major gen­er­a­tion of iMacs, of course, will be touch screen devices either option­al­ly or exclu­sive­ly.

This is a bril­liant strat­e­gy, and I’ll tell you why: Peo­ple have lower expec­ta­tions on phones, and are will­ing to make sac­ri­fices for the sake of mobil­i­ty.

One con­tro­ver­sial aspect of the all-screen cell phone — well, it used to be con­tro­ver­sial — is the idea of using an on-screen key­board instead of a phys­i­cal one. Had Apple intro­duced this first on, say, a Mac­Book, and had replaced the lower half of the clamshell with a software-based touch-screen vir­tu­al key­board, nobody would have bought it. Apple would have been crit­i­cized, and the idea of screen-based key­boards would have been set back by a decade.

Instead, Apple did it on the small­est com­put­er — the iPhone. The propo­si­tion was that, yes, the key­board is hard­er to type on. But in exchange for that sac­ri­fice, we’ll give you a much big­ger screen than older gen­er­a­tions of phones, with­out the bulk­i­ness of slide-out key­board phones.

There was some grum­bling, but even­tu­al­ly we all accept­ed the idea of typ­ing on screens. When on-screen key­boards showed up on iPads, the com­plaints were fewer.

Apple main­streamed on-screen touch key­boards by intro­duc­ing them on phones first.

Still, nobody likes the idea of using only on-screen key­boards on tablets, clamshell lap­tops and desk­tops. In fact, that appears to be the main objec­tion to the idea of big-screen touch-based desk­top com­put­ing.

What’s miss­ing from this analy­sis is that the touch-screen key­boards of tomor­row will be sup­ple­ment­ed by other tech­nolo­gies that both improve the expe­ri­ence of using the touch key­boards, and also reduc­ing the need to type.

In fact, it will be pos­si­ble to do all your work with­out typ­ing at all.

Here’s what’s truly excit­ing: These sup­ple­men­tal tech­nolo­gies were intro­duced in the iPhone 4s, and also in the iOS 5. Now that they exist, Apple will make them increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed until they become part of the core inter­faces for the iMac of the future.

The tech­nolo­gies are: 1) bet­ter key­boards; 2) arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence; and 3) hap­tics.

1. Bet­ter key­boards

Phys­i­cal key­boards are great. The prob­lem is that they are unteth­ered from Moore’s Law — they don’t get bet­ter over time. In fact, the best key­board every sold, accord­ing to many, became avail­able in the 1980s — the IBMModel M key­board. I per­son­al­ly like the Apple-style flat-key key­boards. But even these rep­re­sent only a minor improve­ment on the old-style key­boards.

In fact, phys­i­cal key­boards are the only ele­ment of desk­top com­put­ers that don’t real­ly improve any­more.

But on the iOS and other plat­forms that have on-screen key­boards, the key­boards can improve con­stant­ly because they’re soft­ware.

You see minor improve­ments to the key­board expe­ri­ence in the iPhone 4s and iOS 5.

For exam­ple, you’ll find a new fea­ture called Short­cuts, which enables you to add your own cus­tom auto-correct words and phras­es.

Just find the Key­board set­ting under Gen­er­al in Set­tings. Add your word or phrase, and also the code that trig­gers it. For exam­ple, you could tell the phone that when you type “thnx” to sug­gest: “Thanks for every­thing! Talk to you soon.”

This can save you a lot of typ­ing.

Although new to the iPhone, this capa­bil­i­ty is not all that excit­ing or ground-breaking. How­ev­er, it shows one very impor­tant aspect of on-screen key­boards: Con­stant­ly improv­ing auto-correct can great­ly reduce the amount of typ­ing you do.

In the future, auto-correct will become both more “auto” and also more “correct.” Even­tu­al­ly, you’ll have to actu­al­ly type only a frac­tion of what is writ­ten. Auto-correct will do the rest.

On the iPad, the iOS 5 offers a new key­board trick: The key­board can split in two,  so that when typ­ing in land­scape mode, you can hold the iPad with two hands while typ­ing with your thumbs.

Soft­ware key­boards on desk­tops will be rad­i­cal­ly flex­i­ble, con­fig­urable and cus­tomiz­able, which will make most peo­ple actu­al­ly pre­fer the on-screen vari­ety.

2. Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence

As mil­lions of users are dis­cov­er­ing this week­end, Siri arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence spares you a lot of screen touch­ing. Instead of typ­ing a text, you just say some­thing like: “Text my wife and tell her I’ll be late.” Instead of reply­ing to email, just talk. Instead of writ­ing a long note, just dic­tate it. Instead of typ­ing a long URL to find, say, my online bio, just say: “Open Elgan dot com.”

If you can imag­ine an advanced ver­sion of Siri, work­ing on a full-powered desk­top, you can see how you’d never real­ly have to type any­thing if you don’t want to.

3. Hap­tics

The main rea­son peo­ple don’t like on-screen key­boards is that they can’t feel the keys.

Phys­i­cal key­boards use your sense of touch to learn where the keys are, and also pro­vide feed­back on whether or not the keys were pressed.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, on-screen key­boards can do this, too, using hap­tics.

Of course, all phones have hap­tics. When you turn the ringer off, your phone will buzz instead of ring. And that’s the most rudi­men­ta­ry kind of hap­tic feed­back.

How­ev­er, any­one who’s played “Call of Duty” on Microsoft Xbox 360 knows that an enor­mous amount of hyper-realistic feed­back can be achieved through hap­tics. Xbox con­trollers enable you expe­ri­ence all man­ner of vio­lence, from air strikes to bul­lets to grenades. It’s all quite con­vinc­ing.

The hap­tic touch inter­faces of the future will buzz and vibrate depend­ing on where you touch. They’ll re-wire your brain and enable you to “touch type” with con­fi­dence. You’ll “feel” the edges of the keys, and other inter­face ele­ments. They’ll “click” when you type.

Apple intro­duced improved hap­tics into iPhone 4s and iOS 5, albeit in a typ­i­cal­ly rudi­men­ta­ry way.

iOS 5 offers cus­tom hap­tic alerts that can be asso­ci­at­ed with indi­vid­ual peo­ple. So when your sound is turned off, vibra­tions will not only tell you that you’re get­ting a call or text, but also exact­ly who is con­tact­ing you.

To use the iOS 5’s cus­tom hap­tics fea­ture, Select “Acces­si­bil­i­ty” in the Gen­er­al option of Set­tings. Turn “Cus­tom Vibra­tions” on.

Then, go to Con­tacts, choose a con­tact and touch Edit.

Tap on the word “Default” next to “Vibration.” You’ll be given the option to choose one of the canned pat­terns, which include “Alert,” “Heartbeat,” “Rapid,” “S.O.S.” (actu­al­ly the morse code) and “Symphony,” which vibrates the open­ing of Beethoven’s 5th Sym­pho­ny.

The coolest part is a “Cus­tom” option. By choos­ing that, you’ll be given a fun inter­face for tap­ping out your own vibra­tion pat­terns. When you tap, rip­ples fly out like on the sur­face of a pond.

Note that one lim­i­ta­tion of this fea­ture is that it won’t tell you if you’ve got a text or a call, only who is try­ing to con­tact you.

Over time, all these bare-bones tech­nolo­gies — bet­ter key­boards, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and hap­tics — will become ever more sophis­ti­cat­ed as the wholeiOS 5-style inter­face moves all the way up the Apple food chain to the iMac.

With­in five years, your Mac will be a giant iPhone, set at a drafting-table angle. You’ll be able to use a phys­i­cal key­board if you want to, but you prob­a­bly won’t.

And the rea­son is that typ­ing itself will become simul­ta­ne­ous­ly improved for screens, and also less nec­es­sary. The seeds plant­ed in the iPhone 4s andiOS 5 will grow into mighty trees, enabling a futur­is­tic com­put­ing expe­ri­ence with less point­ing, click­ing and typ­ing and more touch­ing, swip­ing and talk­ing.

Last updated: 10-15-2011 04:33 pm