The Internet of Very Small Computers Masquerading as Things

I’ve been a long time skeptic of the “Internet of Things” in the consumer context. Industrial applications made a lot of sense, where simply tracking conditions (place, temperature, status) could increase efficiency and output.

But for consumers, the “Internet of Things” felt much like the “Quantified Self”– a great and interesting concept in theory but with limited value for users. The Quantified Self boiled down to a Fitbit answering a simple question: “have I exercised enough today or not?”

Where, in this “Internet of Things”, was the value for the consumer? And I finally have my answer, slowly, and then all at once.

Apple is making a series of very small connected computers: the Pencil, the Airpod, the Watch and the Touch Bar. What’s important here is that each of these computers is something else first (pencil, headphones, watch), and only a computer to make that object function better.

This is what the “Internet of Things” missed… the important part wasn’t the internet, but the “thing.” The “internet” is grabbing the telescope by the wrong end: what’s important is that this very small computer has the affordances of a pencil but is making its own decisions and is now orbiting my phone.

The AirPods are better headphones because they aren’t simply dumb conduits for sound, but contextually aware earpieces that adjust to your usage. They pause when you take them out of your ears, filter out noise when you begin talking, and seamlessly switch between your Mac and phone when you do. The Pencil understands varying degrees of pressure and different angles, while filtering out your palm. It’s just a better digital pencil.

Each of these devices ships with an ARM processor, but you may never know it. They barely register as computational devices at all, because we’re so unaccustomed to their modest form and function. A pencil with a computer inside sounds nearly as stupid as an internet connected toaster until you try it– and that’s because to understand the Pencil you need to forget the computer.

Apple is quietly getting very good at shipping very small computers that charge very rapidly, and thus can be unanchored ––unlike Google Home or Amazon Echo. Over time, as power and size requirements decrease, a direct internet connection might add value. But for now, Bluetooth allows a connection to your phone (which is still quite obviously and self-consciously a computer) and that’s enough.

Now, for the first time, I look across my desk and see a collection of dumb objects. Not because they’re not connected to the internet, but because they have a single state: off, dumb, unthinking. In a few years, each of these objects will be a thinking machine, in a small orbit circling my phone.

Apple is unleashing its fourth revolution in typical Apple fashion but it is atypically quiet about it. Like with the Apple I, the Mac, and the iPhone, Apple has started with shipping a great product by creating technological innovation in service of a better product, and an entire industry learns.

Apple’s very small computers will unlock a supply chain revolution that will enable a whole wave of others to create their own very small computers, too. It won’t be called the Internet of Things. Just very small computers making very great Things.

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