October 14, 2015

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The device chain

Steven Levy has a really interesting piece, albeit perhaps somewhat fluffy, on Apple’s new iMacs, as well as the accompanied new keyboard, mouse, and trackpad. It’s well worth a read, and there are a ton of things to quote if one was so inclined.

I’m picking this one, which is Levy’s take on Apple’s Phil Schiller’s view on how the company’s devices add up:

Schiller, in fact, has a grand philosophical theory of the Apple product line that puts all products on a continuum. Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line.

Start at the Apple Watch to keep your phone at bay. Then, on your iPhone, you do all the things that makes sense. Too small? Go to the iPad (and soon the iPad Pro), then to the Macbook. Finally, wrap it up on a 27″ iMac, or possibly a Mac Pro, if Apple would be so kind to release a proper Thunderbolt display with retina screen.

I love this. That’s a brilliant way to look at things. Sure, Schiller wants you to pick up all the devices in the chain, but you don’t have to. Think about it. How many of us really need a desktop computer? In what scenario isn’t a Macbook enough? Lots, but it’s all either pro stuff, or it’s you being greedy for a bigger screen or additional computing power.

Case in point: I loved writing code on my 27“ iMac, it was great, but I can do it just as well on my 12” Macbook.

The Apple Watch has quickly found a place in my daily life. It’s primary purpose is to keep my iPhone in my pocket, or on the desk at the office. I manage my notifications – already kept to a minimum – on my Watch, and have set my phone to silent and non-vibrating. I also use my Watch for telling the time, a task previously appointed to the phone. It turns out I’ve missed that with carrying a time-piece.

The iPhone is my primary computer. I do most of my daily work on it, because so much of it revolves around either communication (Slack, email, Quip, and even the occasional voice or video call), or reading. I do a fair bit of writing on the iPhone as well, not counting things related to communication.

I move to the iPad for longer sessions of the same thing I use the iPhone for. Sometimes I pair it with a bluetooth keyboard, especially when I’m writing fiction or longform articles. I’m writing this on my iPad Air 2, but I don’t deem it necessary to take the few steps to collect my keyboard. That’ll give you a sense of how lazy I am, but also where my limits are in terms of stepping up the device ladder, although adding the keyboard is admittedly a micro-step that Schiller missed. I have no idea where the iPad Pro will fit in, but I intend to find out. Maybe it has no merit at all, maybe it erases the next step in the chain.

The 12″ Macbook is indeed the perfect writing machine, as I envisioned years ago. I’m really happy with it, keyboard and all (although the best laptop keyboard ever made is the original Macbook Air keyboard, nothing has come close since). Because it’s such a great writing machine, I find myself doing a lot of writing on it. Some of that writing used to happen on the iPad, with an external keyboard because it’s all longform, but now the two devices share that task pretty evenly. The only two things where the Macbook clearly is the step up from the iPad in the device chain, are development and testing, and image processing. This piece will need an image at the top, and although I can sort all that out on an iPad, the interface with my CMS of choice (WordPress) is too clunky on a touch screen, and the offical app isn’t good enough.

Surprisingly enough, my device chain stops there, these days. I used to have an iMac (and before that, a Mac Pro with a three display setup), but the need is too small, as is my apartment to be honest. I don’t mind developing on the 12″ Macbook screen, fullscreen has its benefits, although debugging is a bit harder than it needs to be. In fact, the first time in years that I missed having a stationary computer, or a larger screen (we used to have Thunderbolt displays at Odd Alice, until they got stolen – and never replaced), was the other day when I was editing an upcoming novella. It seems I prefer seeing more of the page while editing. Given this, it might very well mean that I’ll get an iMac in the future.

I think Schiller is spot on with his device chain. You use the smallest device as long as you can, sometimes a bit too long, and then you pick the next one in the chain. That doesn’t mean that you need to have all of them though, just the ones that matter to you. Few people not working with computers professionally – as in with development, audio, or video – even needs a laptop these days, a tablet will do. In fact, a lot of people I know, especially the older ones, would prefer to just have an iPad. Some are held back by society’s infrastructure, like banks with bad apps or crazy login procedures, whereas others are just reluctant to take the scary tablet-only step. I get that. If I wasn’t spending some of my time writing (and testing) code, I wouldn’t need a laptop. I’d probably have one, but that’s a different matter.

We’re living in exciting times, if you’re interested in how people interact with computers. The only thing that seems certain right now is that the smartphone is the people’s computer, and there’s no reason that should change anytime soon. What that means for all the other devices in the chain remains to be seen.

Thoughts? Let @tdh know on Twitter, or find me elsewhere. There is also a newsletter.