In the pre-PC era, we built dedicated tools to fit different purposes. In the PC era, we learnt how to shift some tasks over to a single, centralized tool called the “personal computer”; we started exploring the concept of “ecosystem” through “digital hubs”, although we didn’t see the PC – whether “desktop” or “portable” – as a meaningful replacement for objects we depended upon in our daily lives. With mobile devices from the Post-PC era, we’re seeing tremedous growth in one particular aspect: that software can do (almost) anything. We’re in the process of learning how to use a single tool to fit multiple purposes at once.
This is especially true with the iPad. Following yesterday’s news of Cargo-Bot, an iPad game made on the iPad using Codea, I had yet another example of how software is changing the way we think of the distinction between tools for “work” and “entertainment” – and how it’s blurring the difference between computers for “production” and devices for “consumption”. John Gruber calls it “a glimpse of the future”. He’s right: here we have a device that is now capable of programming a game for its own platform, and it seems totally obvious in retrospect.
I never quite got the argument that devices like the iPhone and iPad were made for “consumption”. In the past five years, we have seen people making music on tablets, writing novels on them, and film-makers using iPhones as solid alternatives to their mobile capturing needs. The portability of the camera reinvented citizen journalism and revolutionized mobile photo sharing. I have seen doctors pulling out iPhones to do quick calculations and compare MRI images. I have been increasingly using my iPad as an “anything device”; on the other hand, I may have played no more than 4 games on my iMac since 2008.
It’s not just about “niches” or “bloggers” who want to find a way to do more on tablets than “normal people” would think is feasible. While the App Store has certainly seen a surge in popularity of text editors, Twitter clients, note-taking apps, and other kinds of apps writers and bloggers use on a daily basis, we shouldn’t forget about Final Draft, Procreate, Paper, the Business category, Apple’s Cards app, travel guides, books…just to name a few.
Software can do anything, but sometimes it is the combination of hardware and software that yields new, unexpected results that take advantage of the interplay of bits and guts. Apple based its mobile business on this. And third-party developers, too, understand that, in some areas, Post-PC hardware needs to be “extended” to address more specific needs. The Jawbone JAMBOX is a fantastic portable speaker that can augment your music listening or gaming sessions. The Nest thermostat is proving to be a hit among early adopters. Ten One Design is working on a Bluetooth-enabled pressure-sensitive stylus with an SDK for developers. Note how, even when extra hardware is needed, Post-PC devices leverage one thing to make these additions more natural, powerful, and connected: software.
It’s not just Apple. Other companies are making smartphones and tablets (and glasses), and some of them also recognize the importance of an ecosystem that fosters innovation and a stable business model for all the parties involved. It appears to me – and the numbers speak clearly for themselves – that only Apple, though, has so far acknowledged that a third-party software ecosystem needs to be nurtured, carefully encouraged, and educated about the latest technologies available to consumers and developers. And then again, Apple can do better.
The Times They Are a-Changin’. The multi-purpose, constantly evolving nature of software has changed us: most people don’t want to upgrade their devices every six months anymore, but they are always looking for new ways to unify the “things they have to do or want to do” into a single, intuitive, affordable experience capable of changing context and functionality with just a few taps.
In the Post-PC era, we are promoting software.
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