Wheels for The Mind

I think the story Apple will tell us tomorrow is about ourselves. About how their devices are extensions of our identity; our proxies for the digital world. And in any experience where our identity is central, Apple can leverage their ecosystem to provide experiences other platforms are unable to match.

Screen sizes, battery capacities, and any other aspect where Apple’s competitors in hardware and software have a comparison are mute. The reasons and functions behind these details aren’t compelling enough to move away from iOS, and they aren’t the droids you’re looking for anyhow. Maybe they were at one point (and may continue to be for a minority of nerds) but I don’t believe the unbiased majority is concerned with specs any longer. I think they use something a little less rational for a means of decision. They see the iPhone as an aspirational device. For some because there’s a specific quality, and for others they believe having one is a way into a perceived identity or lifestyle. It’s the cornering of a psychographic, not unlike what Porsche or Nike have in their respective markets.

The last couple revisions of iPhones haven’t been about utility then, they’ve been about luxury (which ought to indicate the more powerful of those two purchase drivers). It’s easily argued that luxury has always been a strong part of Apple’s positioning, but it is paramount with phones. They are product that no person who is able to afford one will choose to go without. A phone is your conduit to the world; literally by your side at all times. And while there have been some significant functional improvements (we’ll get to that), the more powerful ones are the tangible improvements; making the iPhone appear perfect and flawless (as more than a few of us strive to be). Ask yourself whether Apple produces assembly line videos simply to amuse their loyal fans, or whether Jony Ive makes references to watchmaking in his monologues simply because he’s English…

Apple’s recent technical improvements are paving the way for this considerable differentiation. First, moving to a 64-bit architecture begins the march toward a level of horsepower previously reserved for workstations and approaching the event horizon of usefulness, beyond which only the deep professionals can go; the realm of the traditional computer (an omen we’ll revisit in a minute). Second, developing a biometric sensor that can form a truly unique relationship between the device and its user. These two foundational aspects are going to be a big part of what’s coming.

Authenticating to an experience on the Internet has limped along for the past few decades with an abysmal level of security, and that was fine when most of what we did on the Internet was ‘for fun’. But now we rely on that same abysmal security to authenticate us to the real world. We order lunch with our phones, we board airplanes with our phones, and we get into cars with strangers thanks to our phones. And it’s actually the phone that secures these experiences in a sense; we’re only included because we happen to be the person holding the phone. And we allow this lack of security because having to remember and recite a secret code in order to pay for a sandwich is the definition of a non-starter.

The architecture and engineering behind Touch ID allows the iPhone to store information that is both sensitive and unique to us as users. This allows us to prove our identity in a way that is both more secure and more convenient. Today this technology lets us do two things: unlock the phone and buy an app. And yes, Touch ID will be available to assist in a wider variety of experiences inside the phone with iOS 8. But every day we do hundreds of things that require us to prove who we are in the real world and for the thousands years most of these experiences have required nothing more than handing over a few coins or twisting a key in a lock. Surely we don’t need a whole pocket computer to evolve those experineces? No. Today the stated goal is to extend Touch ID to cover predictable needs; smart door locks and digital wallets. Whatever. The unstated goal is far more interesting: Decouple authentication from the iPhone as a way to put phones out of business.

In order to exchange value for goods and services, or to gain access to something like a train or a building, a phone is complete overkill. When dealing with the real world there’s often not much call for a display or a keyboard or a speaker. Plus there’s a reason phones are secured away in pockets and purses and cases: they’re ugly and fragile. What does it take then to provide the minimal mechanism to prove identity? Something that will stand up to the outside world, always be within reach. and be beautiful and aspirational enough to be drawn to it regardless of rational need. What does it take to make you so dependent on a tool that you literally wear it?

If PCs were the trucks in Steve’s analogy, then iPhones are the cars. No matter how efficient or beautiful or desirable a phone is, there are moments when they aren’t necessary. The wearable represents the next step (and maybe the last step) along a continuum from maximum human augmentation toward zero. With the state of the art where it is today, a wearable is the minimum contact patch necessary to connect you to the Internet. And as more and more of your life depends on the Internet, you need to have that grip for as many hours of the day as possible.

Apple understands that just because something has to put your core product out of business, it doesn’t have to be made by a competitor. And because today’s platform (iOS) and today’s product (iPhone) won’t be the primary revenue drivers for Apple forever, they’ve no doubt been working on what will replace it.

I think tomorrow they’re going to tell us all about it.