Touchfrastructure meets the HypePad

Apple's smaller-scale touchware has become so ubiquitous that it's easier to consider it as a foundation, rather than as a building.

Tech Culture

by Fabio Sergio, Creative Director, frog design

Those who know me will tell you that I tend to reflect on things, but the sad truth is that my brain is simply slow: here I am, writing about the iPad months after everybody else has put the microscope down and decided to wait for the thing to finally hit the market for real.

From my vantage point of nonengagement I must admit it was oddly amusing to see Apple for once unable to safely ride out the centrifugal mammoth hype tube they managed once more to build around their latest miracle product. It was similarly amusing to see everyone work themselves up into an overexcited frenzy until moments before Steve Jobs' (second) revelation, and then to see fervent trepidation mostly turn into bitter disappointment.  It was finally amusing to see most everyone criticize the product to death, and to see most criticism targeting the iPad as if it were a product, some analog artifact with functions and features permanently bound by the original arrangement of its atoms. I am sure others have said it before me and much better than I ever could, but the iPad--just like the iPhone before it--is ultimately just one high-performance touch screen with a powerful cardboard-thin computer laminated behind it. In other words it's a service--not a product--it can pretty much become anything developers--or make that Steve--will want it to be.

So, the iPad. Hugely successful in the long term. Why? Medium-size touchfrastructure.

Before we go forward let’s go back in time to 2003 and to a personal memory.

A local Italian carrier had put on the market a “wireless modem” which consisted of a nondescript orange plastic box with a few ports dotting its outer surface. Somebody decided to open the box up, but instead of a custom printed circuit board bearing the usual ordinate microscape of chips and circuits found an off-the-shelf Siemens mobile phone artfully wedged inside it. Talk about surprises.

Business rationale for such a scenario is crystal-clear, of course: why let perfectly capable underselling or slightly outdated mobile handsets sit sad and lonely in a warehouse, when you can have them rise from their ashes as a wireless phoenix of sorts, living the dream they were created for, albeit from within the confined boundaries of an orange plastic cage?

Semiludicrous marketing schemes aside there’s something interesting at work in this case.

You could simply say that at one point technology becomes so cheap and pervasive that it’s easier to re-purpose than to re-engineer. You could probably better say that at one point some products become so ubiquitous that they stop being perceived as products, and start to be relied upon as infrastructure.

Before I explain a bit better what I mean in this context, let me point you to a couple of interesting products; maybe at the end the explanation won’t even be needed.

Only a few years ago a company wanting to play in the area of home automation would have probably started engineering some sort of screen-centric physical product with buttons and dials and sliders to tackle the various home management chores such a system usually facilitates: controlling heating, lighting, alarms, media and the like from a convenient central command post.

In recent times instead of physical buttons such a company would have probably considered – what else--a touch screen, but the process would have stayed the same: engineers and designers busy creating tech spec sheets, sourcing hardware components, developing software, testing the whole enchilada and having some fun all along the lengthy process. Serious R&D investments, and a serious investment for the customer too, who of course found the price tag of the whole development process reflected in that of the product.

These days? Why make such an investment when you can design a custom dock and code up an app for one of Apple’s touchscreen devices? Everybody benefits, including time to market.

Welcome--in essence, not necessarily in terms of current features or even price- to the iPort.

Another example.

If you were a manufacturer of remote controls you’d be probably looking at one point at what the remote control of the future will look like. Of course you’d be soon thinking that it will come with a screen, a touch screen, actually. Touch-screen-based universal remote controls have been on the market for quite a while, and they remain a niche product for their inherent complexity and cost.

Enter Thinkflood’s RedEye Mini, an app-extension physical accessory that uses the iPod/iPhone’s standard headphone jack to turn Apple’s touchware into an infrared universal remote control. In this case what’s striking is that in some way the usual paradigm is almost upturned: removing the Apple-branded portion of the “product” what remains is a small physical device that acts as an extension of its software layer.

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Rather than pointing to other similar scenarios (too many to do so) I'll push the ones above to their extreme consequences.

What if either one of these software-centric products simply ran perpetually in its hosting device with one app acting for all purposes as the OS? What if they actually shipped in this configuration?  In other words: what if the symbiotic parasite co-speciated with its host, giving birth to an independent organism?  In other words still: what if someone ran the "orange box trick" on an Apple device, outdated or not, simply using it as readily available touchfrastructure? You get the point, and my slow and lazy brain is overheating already, so I better stop for the sake of my own endangered neurons.

Apple’s smaller-scale touchware has become so ubiquitous that it's easier to consider it as a foundation, rather than as a building. I am guessing that the same will happen at a larger scale, and the iPad will soon appear as touchfrastructure wherever and whenever a portable, comfortably sized touchscreen will be needed. I can see lots of reasons why such scenarios won’t be rare. Quite the opposite, actually.

Oh yes, I am pretty sure that somebody will also end up buying e-publications or watch the odd video on the thing.

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