Monday, January 17, 2011

An idea I see pop up from time to time in science fiction as well as in discussions of technology is that sufficiently advanced technology will look more and more like magic, for lack of a better term.

Paul Graham comes up with a much better term as he attempts to conceptualize what smart phones and tablet computers really might be, and what is going on as they become ubiquitous.

After a few seconds it struck me that what we'll end up calling these things is tablets. The only reason we even consider calling them "mobile devices" is that the iPhone preceded the iPad. If the iPad had come first, we wouldn't think of the iPhone as a phone; we'd think of it as a tablet small enough to hold up to your ear.

The iPhone isn't so much a phone as a replacement for a phone. That's an important distinction, because it's an early instance of what will become a common pattern. Many if not most of the special-purpose objects around us are going to be replaced by [software] running on tablets.
Later, Graham turns from the type of object to the type of innovation involved in creating it:
The advantages of doing things in software on a single device are so great that everything that can get turned into software will. So for the next couple years, a good recipe for startups will be to look around you for things that people haven't realized yet can be made unnecessary by a tablet app.

In 1938 Buckminster Fuller coined the term ephemeralization to describe the increasing tendency of physical machinery to be replaced by what we would now call software. The reason tablets are going to take over the world is not (just) that Steve Jobs and Co are industrial design wizards, but because they have this force behind them. The iPhone and the iPad have effectively drilled a hole that will allow ephemeralization to flow into a lot of new areas...
Among the things Graham suggests could be done with a tablet and software rather than dedicated hardware is the venerable bathroom scale. Personally, I'd wash my hands right after finding such an app on a borrowed tablet, but you get the idea.

It can be an interesting exercise to consider what can be done in this way. For example, the car I was driving last night had engine trouble. Wouldn't a car diagnostic app on such a phone have been nice? Ah, but someone has thought of that already. That and web access would have been nice to have last night, as a backup to my own guess as to what the problem was, based on past experience and a look under the hood.

-- CAV

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