Device Consolidation, Technology Ecosystems, and the Internet of Things: Thoughts after Watching “Steve Jobs”

By Michael W. Harris

jobs_posterI first saw Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs during its rather lackluster theatrical run in late 2016, but I just re-watched the film last night and would like to work through a few things in this forum.

To me, there are two big things to take away about Steve Jobs as portrayed in the film (I make no claims as to the accuracy of that portrayal): 1) Jobs was a difficult person to be around. Unwaveringly sure about his vision, refusing to admit mistakes, and uncompromising with his ideas. 2) His vision of the future of computers and technology (his belief in end-to-end control and the closed system) was, in the end, right.

In short, he was high maintenance to deal with but he was also correct in what he wanted, just a bit ahead of the curve. To quote The Dude from The Big Lebowski: “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole!”

The Original Mac
The Original Mac

The film opens in 1984 at the launch of the Macintosh, Apple’s first closed system computer that mostly reflected Jobs’ aesthetic. It was so closed you couldn’t even open the case without special tools. The computer was a flop and Jobs was forced out of the company he helped found less than two years later. However, as computers became more ubiquitous in our daily lives, and more people started using them, Jobs’ vision of what people would want them to be turned out to be correct.

Computers needed to be customizable early on because the market was driven by hobbyists and technology professionals. People not afraid of swapping out boards and writing code. These people still exist and they are the kind who build their own desktops and then install a Linux system on it (full disclosure: I have done this on more than one occasion). But for most people, they just want the computer to turn on and for the thing to work (full disclosure: this is also me).

But Jobs’ dream finally came turn, and the success of the iMac was the proof of the correctness of that vision. And now even Apple’s fiercest competitor, Microsoft, is following suit with its Surface line. We live in a time where we own a vast array of connected devices, sometimes called the “internet of things,” which can include not only the various devices we use for computing and entertainment, but also connected devices like thermostats, lights, and various kitchen gadgets. And increasingly our system of devices and apps are built around but a handful of native OS ecosystems.

Today, for most of the market, there are three/four technological ecosystems: Microsoft, which will soon have a completely unified Windows OS; Apple, which has resisted unifying its OS; Google, which also has a separate OS for Chrome (both the devices and the browser) and the Android system; and Amazon, which bases most of its devices on a customized version of Android. And while we still have options for customization (browsers, etc.), our current moment in technological history is defined by what each one of these ecosystems does best and what each may or may not say about its users.

While you might be able to exists solely in one ecosystem (though Amazon pretty much requires you to use one of the others), most people seem to pick and choose. To wit, Microsoft is best for productivity software—most people still use Office, even on a Mac, for most work applications, and Google Docs, LibreOffice, or even Apple’s own suite have not been able to dethrone it. And you can also use Microsoft for the Xbox (which also brings in most entertainment options), though it has long been lagging behind in the phone game.

The New Windows OS
The New Windows OS (from Ars Technica)
The iDevice family
The iDevice family

Apple is for people want some good creative software to come with the computer, but who are also attentive to what their computer or device might say about them. Apple is part lifestyle accessory (especially the iPhone, which is still consistently one of the best smartphones on the market regardless) while also being fairly easy to use…unless you grew up using PCs and Windows, in which case you just get frustrated…or maybe that is just me.

Google's latest tablet, the Pixel C
Google’s latest tablet, the Pixel C

Google is largely an unknown to me, though it has tried to redefine how we store and use our files and data by getting us to migrate into the cloud. But Google is trying its best to unify the experience of browser and OS, but it still has Android as a separate thing because the platform has come to dominate the non-iOS smartphone market. I barely use Chrome, and only use GoogleDocs when I have to collaborate. I guess I am still old school in that I like to keep all my files stored locally on a myriad of backups and removable storage. Google has its own line of phones (Nexus) and tablets (Pixel) along with the Chromebooks and Chromecast.

Various Amazon Devices
Various Amazon Devices

Finally, Amazon is great for entertainment devices (FireTV, Fire tablets, the Kindle line), and is even starting to lead the pack with creating Echo as a hub for the so-called “smart house.” It has sort of picked up the pieces left on the table by Microsoft, Apple, and Google and is running with them (all the while using its own modified version of Android for their Fire line of devices).

For me, I would love to unify around a single ecosystem, but I can’t because none of them really does everything that I want. Right now, I use each of them for what I think they do best. I have a Surface tablet that is my primary computer and is what I am typing this on right now. For me the Surface is the perfect compromise between computer and tablet as it has a traditional OS and none of the annoying app menus. However, I use an iPhone 6S and along with an iPod Classic, upgraded with a 256GB SD card for more music storage. I still use the iPod, and iTunes, because I want a device that is not tethered to the cloud and I have yet to find an easier program than iTunes manage my digital music collection. At home I use the Amazon FireTV for streaming entertainment along with the Amazon Echo and a Kindle.

I did not list all of these devices as some sort of brag, and I think most people would say that I have an excessive amount of devices, which I would not deny at all. More importantly, though, is that I actually use each and every one of these devices on a daily basis, and many of them are a part of work that I do. I would love to condense into a single ecosystem, but it would require a compromise that I don’t want, nor do I really need, to make. While Steve Jobs vision of a closed system with end-to-end control, and I extend this to mean a closed ecosystem, might be where we are headed, we are not there yet.

Interestingly, I argued for years against the closed system that Jobs so strongly wanted. I grew up around DOS systems and I loved being able to tinker with and upgrade computers—though I never did learn to program. In my 20s and early 30s, I built two desktop computers, installed software, and used them for the better part of a decade. They were my primary machines at home, though I always had a laptop that I could take with me anywhere. And yet, I gave that all up for just a Surface Pro 3 last summer and I regret nothing. Maybe it is because I just want things to work (though Microsoft still seems to be working out the bugs with Windows 10), yet the Pro 3 still doesn’t do all I want (it is a bit slow for intense audio and video editing, which is not helped by the fact that I store most of my files on external drives), but overall I like it and would not return to a machine that I could upgrade and tinker with.

Perhaps I take solace in having devices from multiple ecosystems. Maybe it is my way of maintain my ability to upgrade and tinker. I am not locked into one thing and can mix and match as I want. I am device and ecosystem agnostic. I like my devices like I like my philosophy and religion: mix and match.

Yet, I think that Steve Jobs would probably look at my myriad devices from three ecosystems and just shake his head. But the beauty is that, for now at least, they continue to work together. Hopefully we will never have a day when we have device fundamentalists like we have religious fundamentalists. Wait…wasn’t that the plot of a Futurama episode?

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