The computer as an appliance: Moving beyond the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Siri

 macworld.com  5/19/2017 10:00:08 AM   Dan Moren

Over the past few decades, computing has trended towards the personal. We’ve gone from the age of desktops to the age of laptops to the age of the smartphone. And even though that newfound mobility has brought with it freedom and flexibility, it’s not without its costs.

For one thing, we are, more than ever, entranced with our own personal screens, in the same way that we don our headphones and tune out the world. Computing has become a siloed affair, with each of us involved in our own personalized experiences—even if they connect us with other people across the world, all on their own devices.

But part of me wonders if the pendulum is beginning to swing back to a model where the technology we use at home is linked to a particular location. That’s not to say such a device would supplant the smartphone or tablet, or even the laptop. But maybe the time is finally upon us when the computer becomes a home appliance.

Putting the “home” in “home computer”

What I mean by an appliance is a simpler device, not unlike your toaster or your microwave. It’s not just in your house, but a part of your home. Instead of being cordoned off in an office or a computer room, it sits alongside your other appliances, in the kitchen or the living room, and sits quietly until it’s called on.

Also like an appliance, it’s a simple and streamlined device that doesn’t require you to spend a lot of time hunched over a screen, make you enter your username and password every time you use it, or require cumbersome troubleshooting or maintenance. It doesn’t do everything a computer does, but simplifies certain tasks that you perform when you don’t want to go scrambling to find your phone or sit down in front of a computer. I’m imagining a device that might become a part of the background of everyday life, much like the radio once was—but smarter, of course.

If that sounds a lot like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple’s own rumored Siri Speaker, well, yeah, that’s kind of where I’m heading. I think there’s a space left between the mobility of the smartphone and tablet and the full experience of a laptop or desktop. The computer appliance doesn’t fully replace either of those things; it fills a different niche in our lives.

There’s an app-liance for that

I can think of a few reasons why the time is right for the computer to take up its place as an appliance. For one thing, the technology now exists to pack all the needed hardware into a small device that can fit on a tabletop. We’re also getting used to interacting with technology with our voice.

For another, our computing model has become increasingly distributed in the modern age. We have computers, smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes, and voice-based speaker assistants like the Echo and the Google Home. In some cases, these are devices that are more focused on a single task or a couple tasks—the Apple TV, for example, or the Apple Watch.

But technology is also increasingly being integrated into the other devices that already exist in our lives: our lights, our locks, our coffeemakers, and so on. Managing those from a desktop computer is hardly an ideal experience. Even using a smartphone or tablet can be a pain, compared to using a smart switch or your voice.

That distribution of devices can often be better than having a jack-of-all-trades device—you can watch a movie on your iMac, but isn’t an Apple TV connected to a big screen more pleasant?—but mediating all of those disparate devices is starting to seem more and more necessary.

Computing for the future

Obviously the computing appliance isn’t a device where you’re going to fire up a word processor document and start writing, nor are you going to use it to constantly check your email or manage your finances.

Instead it frees you up from getting sucked into those other devices. Rather than checking your weather on your iPhone and ending up down a rabbit hole of reading Twitter and Facebook, you can have the weather read to you or displayed on a screen. A quick glance to take in the information, and then you go about your day.

In some ways it’s not dissimilar from the computing model advanced by the Apple Watch: short interactions that aren’t reliant on a lot of taps. (Obviously, such an implementation would rely on Siri being even better than it is on the Watch.) Bite-sized chunks of information help you get to the root of what you’re trying to accomplish without distracting you with extraneous information.

That’s one reason I think Apple is so well positioned to take advantage of this particular opportunity. A big part of the company’s mission has been to integrate technology into our everyday lives in a seamless fashion. The idea of moving to a model where computing isn’t a big bulky device that takes up a whole desk seems like exactly the kind of ideal that Apple would put forth.

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