Apple Announcement Today: Mobile Devices at a Crossroads

ipadminiApple is making a product launch announcement today, and, as always, there’s not much more than educated guesses about what they’re announcing.

Still, unless Tim Cook jumps right out of character, what we’re probably looking at is: a new and improved iPad, a new and improved iPad mini, maybe a new operating system called Mavericks (for Macs of all kinds), and maybe some tweaks to the Macs themselves.

Probably not a watch or a TV or a waffle iron. (Ooh, put me on the wait list on iWaffle!)

Assuming Tim’s demo doesn’t include golden brown breakfast treats, some people are going to say that this announcement, coupled with a similar announcement for the iPhone 5s and 5c a month or so ago, lacks the pizzazz of past announcements. They’ve been called incremental tweaks and nothing to drive people out to the store to buy. Except, of course, that millions of people did, virtually or otherwise, drive out to buy the iPhone 5s.

Partly, we can explain this using Star Wars. Star Wars is a franchise that has a lot of fans, and some of the movies in the franchise have been truly outstanding, epoch-making, culture changing works. Others have been less like that and more like The Muppet Show.

Still, whenever something with the Star Wars imprimatur hits the marketplace, the army of fans show up and buy. Apple (and even to a lesser degree, Samsung and Google) has this same power now when it comes to devices and software.

But I think there’s more to it. We’ve been in the smartphone era for nearly five years now. Call this the Adoption phase, a phase that could be ending about now, at least in the U.S. and other developed countries. Next phase? I think we can take some clues about that from Apple’s recent product announcements.

Thinner, lighter, faster, longer battery life, easier to access (with the thumbprint login) — I like where Apple is going here, and maybe not everyone gets it. Some people are complaining they’re not packing tons of new features into the new stuff they announce today or the iPhone 5s, but those critics have missed the point. Apple is making the devices “disappear” as much as possible. They should be tools we use just to get to the things we want. Google’s first draft of this is Glass. If you were to ask Tim Cook or Sergey Brin how they’d feel if, in seven or eight years, people were still staring at glossy rectangles they were holding in the palms of their hands, I bet they’d feel disappointed they’d failed to take “mobile” where they’d wanted it to go.

Maybe we’re at a junction right now when it comes to the future of mobile devices, where one road leads to devices that you barely notice and whose purpose is to help you get what you want, and where the other road leads to ever more complex, demanding devices that tell you what you’re going to get.

If I were the traveler at the two roads diverging in the tech woods, I’d pick the former road, where the machine quietly goes away and serves my needs better and better.

Apple’s announcement today suggests they might just agree.

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