Apple and the great confusion

As we approach the beginning of the new year–measured by Apple fanatics with the January MacWorld–it’s worth reflecting on Apple’s recent past and rapidly-approaching future because it offers a glimpse into deep changes underway.

For the past decade, Apple has served as our visionary guide to the future of personal computing coal.  Apple’s vision took shape in 2001, when Steve Jobs introduced the concept of Apple as the digital hub of our computing experience.  It was a good insight then, made brilliant by the actual products and services Apple created to seamlessly connect us with our new digital cameras, DVDs, and music.  We were at the dawn of a new digital world, and Apple made sense of (and money off) it better than anyone else.

Now, 10,000 photos and 3,500 songs later, we’re at a similarly significant inflection point. This MacWorld, Apple shows they either get the next new world or they don’t.

It all began, as Tim Bajarin wrote in Personal Computer World (Home on the digital range),

At Macworld in early 2001, Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, used his keynote address to introduce what has become a most important concept in the world of personal computers. He unveiled a diverse set of multimedia applications such as Itunes, Imovie, Idvd and Iphoto and told thousands of the Apple faithful that the Mac would become the digital server of their homes – their creative nerve centre.

People with digital tools such as cameras, MP3 players, digital movie cameras and PDAs would use the new software to manage their digital photos, music, movies and data. Later that year, Apple even launched its Ipod MP3 player and later tied it to the Itunes online music store. This made Apple a leader in innovative use of ‘digital lifestyle’ technology.

I remember where I was that day–do you?  No matter, because everyone felt the impact of Apple’s vision and products.  The iPod was released later that year and Macintosh computer sales grew along with its success.  The digital world changed completely and the Mac (and, begrudgingly, the PC) did indeed become our hub.  But some very deep but subtle shifts have taken place since then.

The Great Confusion

While Macintosh (more accurately OS X) has served faithfully as our digital hub over the past decade, we as digital consumers have changed.  We’re the hub now.  Our digital and analog lives have continued to confuse–a term Neal Stephenson reminds wonderfully in his Baroque Cycle trilogy means also the process of mingling two previously distinct alloys.  It may be confusing for those experiencing the mingling in the moment but, ultimately, it results in a single and coherent reality.

In other words, I’m no longer outside the digital world, occasionally choosing to look in on it.  That distinction is gone. Confused.

My experience of news is confused: I read the morning papers scanning for the items I have not already seen online; when I find interesting articles, I go online to send them to someone (or myself); maybe I blog about them; and I learn as much by what others send me.

Music?  Confused again.  iTunes carries my own music collection, but Pandora’s gentle introduction of artists I like but had never heard of before has become as much a part of my Sunday morning ritual as bagels and the New York Times.  And Shazam (thank you, iPhone) allows me to engage with the music streaming around me wherever I go.

Even traditional computing activities–if you’re willing to concede that email and word-processing are now old school–are confused.  I get email on my desktop at the office and at home, on my iPhone and Blackberry, and in an emergency, on any other internet device I need thanks to googlemail and (more clumsily) mobileme. If anything, I miss old days when email was a different world.

The experience of word processing–what others once called writing–is equally confused. I abandoned MS Word for its complexity and insularity, moving to googledocs for its simplicity, availability (whether home, office, or hotel) and, increasingly, collaborative capabilities. This last distinction speaks volumes on the difference between digital and connected. MS Office documents requires constant vigilance to keep versions and edits distinct and separate. But writing is no longer solitary.  Drafts move between authors instantaneously, and between iterations via twitters, blog posts, and essays before becoming published pieces (if at all).

So many other digital and analog experiences have confused as well. Photos moved from digital archives to online and shared instantly with distant cousins. Family calendars are online and updated at the dinner table. Not to mention casual conversation, which email, texting, and social networking has confused completely with real contact–just look at any corporate meeting. You get the point.

And that means my experience of the digital world no longer comes through a single screen–whether a desktop, laptop, or phone.  It comes through more screens than I can count and, in the next few years, than I could imagine. It’s nothing new to say we’re immersed now in the digital world.

Doors in a meadow

What’s new is that there is a titanic struggle underway for control of the hub of that digital world. We’ve come so far since Apple declared themselves the hub that the idea of them as the hub–and us as a spoke connecting, through the PC, to all things digital–no longer fits.

Eight years ago Apple showed us how computer companies could embrace and enrich our digital experiences. We listened. We bought digital cameras, iPods, laptops, smart phones, Chumbies, Sonos, eeePCs, and everything else under the sun.  And, in the process of engaging with them, we evolved.

Anyone who wants to control my access to the digital world today is building a door in the middle of a meadow and telling me I need to use it. Apple’s iPhone has brought me some wonderful apps (including Pandora, Sonos, and Shazam) but it has yet to allow me access to google calendar or googledocs–despite Apple’s insistence that insular iCal and .mac are enough. That’s not a trade-off I’m willing to make.  It’s too easy to see the rest of the meadow, to see where I want to go, and to want to use the shortest path to get there.

For years before Apple anointed themselves hub in 2001, we saw the digital revolution coming.  The same is true today with the great confusion.  It’s anyone’s guess how Apple, or Google, or anyone else will make money when we want access to everything through everything. But that future’s already here, and companies that don’t recognize it are going to keep building doors we’d rather not use.

So Apple now sits with us, on the verge of the next major transition.  Are they going to announce a radical change in strategy?  I hope so, since we did well by them the last time. But that may be asking too much of a company where lightning has already struck twice.  Stay tuned.