Blog Archive: Snap Together Computers

Note: Originally posted April ‘12.

Looking back on this idea I think it still needs a lot of work. But I was flicking through a magazine the other day and came across Dave Hakken’s Phonebloks Project.

Its neat to see that someone else had a similar idea, actually developed it, and got some glowing coverage in Forbes

Phonebloks by Dave Hakkens

Edit 2 - and now google also has an extremely interesting product along these lines!

I often think about the future of Apple computers. I am a self confessed apple fanboy - but what would I do if i was placed in charge of the company?

Thankfully thats never going to happen (and hopefully it never will happen to anyone who has done anything less than devote their entire life to the problem of industrial design + computing).

Also - as much as I believe in the capabilities of Tim Cook as CEO and the design skills of the Apple team I think the company’s world changing status was tied to the persona of Steve Jobs.

Apple will endure and mature, but what ever the ‘next big thing’ is it will probably not be Apple, and it will have an ideology at is core different to the ideology of Apple.

For the record, I am pretty certain that the future of computing is seamless AR - contact lens displays, gesture recognition based on video tracking of our hands and eyeballs, high speed super low latency networks, and remote storage / processing.

In the future hardware will disappear.

But thats a while off. What might the next 10 years of physical hardware look like?

One thing that started me on this train of thought was thinking about whether or not people’s tendency to add ugly covers to their iPhones was a design fail.

On one hand it is a response to the fact that the aesthetically beautiful glass material appears to be fragile (and is).

So Apple’s intention to create a beautiful piece of industrial design is thwarted by the fact people feel the need to wrap it in something of much lower quality.

The other aspect of this trend is people’s desire to personalize.

Part of the reason Apple is so wildly profitable is that they have a low number of product lines - there is still essentially only one iPhone.. each new model has just been an incremental development of the previous one, and there have never been different product lines in tandem.

Apple focusses all their efforts on making a single best product to serve a task, and reaps the benefits in terms of reduced costs for R&D, production, and marketing.

Apple doesn’t market to a specific demographic - they market to people who want ‘the best’.

But the downside of this is a feeling of homogeneity amongst people who use their products. On one hand Apple products can be a status symbol - the distinctive white earbuds of the iPhone, or the slim profile of the macbook air that has become the tool of choice for hackers everywhere (even Linus).

On the other hand with something as everyday as a phone it is inevitable that a large core of your users will not identify with the slick almost zen like exterior of the iPhone.

For example I saw a couple of midwestern tourists and they had these very bulky, durable, ‘outdoors rugged’ cases - clearly for them it was important that their phones appear ready for an adventurous lifestyle.

Then of course there are the crazy patterns, the fun fur, and the bling. Is this something Apple could do more to facilitate?

If its inevitable then maybe you should make the process smoother? What if it was easy to pop out the glass on the back of your phone and replace it with a range of other high quality options.

Yes I am aware that you can do exactly this via some third party services - but what if this was an immediate non hackish option at the point of sale?

Does it seems like something Apple would do? Not historically - unless you count the flower power iMac shells as a step in the direction.

But maybe the modularity of an idea like this is not entirely offensive to Apple’s design paradigms. Or maybe they have an e-paper style shell for their phones in the works that will ‘solve’ this problem of customization in a clean one button kind of way.

Theres something I like about the idea of ‘snap together’ computing - and it is entirely counter to Apple’s core - which is to create products and systems that are basically hermetically sealed.

Apple retains a level of control over their whole ecosystem and thus are also able to offer a high quality user experience. This is the devils deal we accept when using Apple products.

From an early stage Steve Jobs was against the idea of tinkerers messing with his Macintosh by adding extra boards & components.

But now hardware and software have further evolved perhaps it is possible to create ecosystems that are modular, expandable, tinkerable, and yet still elegant and functional.

(UX especially is evolving to the point where you really have to be a douche of a company now to make an interface thats hard to use)

An interesting idea for a hardware company would be to create a number of modular components - I imagine them as thin slices in rectangular shapes with a smooth cleanly finished exterior.

There might also be a system for locking the components together that would allow wired transfer of power and data (to some extent you could use conductive power and wireless data).

A phone might consist of:

Or maybe rather than design the exterior its simply that the components are available, but its simple to assemble them and drop them into a 3-d printed case.

But the idea would be that the phone would not stop at the components you attach to it.

Like with the pebble watch your phone (or tablet) might become a hub for other devices.

In the office? maybe now you can pull out a larger screen component and stand it up on your desk, grab a flat keyboard and away you go, you have a larger work station.

Once you get home maybe you have other screen components that can wirelessly receive video / images.

Maybe at home you have a couple of larger processing / storage modules that the phone is going to interface with and delegate processing needs to.

Gear keeps getting smaller and lower powered. It feels like we are already close to a point where scale is as much dictated by other usability concerns (screen / input area size) as it is by hardware.

As this trajectory increases it should be possible to cram a lot into a small space without such complex product engineering considerations as would go into the iPhone today.

So here we are - your computer isn’t a single product. its a number of bits that can talk to each other, and spread through environments where we live and work, united by networks and cloud storage.

There goes my vague idea for ‘the next apple’ and an intermediate state for hardware before it dissolves into AR.

Its not wildly different to how things are right now, but it would be cool to see someone tackle the problem holistically.

 
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