The future is the velvet ropes

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The last quarter of a century of computing has been like an open, thrilling, and slightly unruly nightclub. It was mostly good for all of us.

Let me explain to you why the half-death of Android smartwatches last week reignites my concerns that the velvet cords are rising outside this party and that new ideas could be stopped at the door. (Yes, I will abuse this metaphor.)

My fear is that the big technologies of the future will be more closed and controlled by the tech giants than the personal computers, web browsers and smartphones that dominate our digital lives today.

Here’s how computing worked: Microsoft (and Apple) made the dominant brains for personal computers, and Google and Apple did the same for smartphones. But these brainwashers recognized – sometimes reluctantly – that they couldn’t do it alone.

They and we were better off because their technologies were gateways to playing games, scrolling through Instagram, keeping tabs on corporate payroll, and doing millions of other things that Microsoft, Google, and Apple couldn’t. do it themselves. That’s why we have smartphone app stores, web browsers that roam the world, and PC software that Microsoft has nothing to do with.

These dominant forms of computing are like nightclubs with lightly polished velvet cords. Everyone knows that the best party brings together a motley and slightly unpredictable group of people.

But now the bouncers are getting strict. Technologies that could be the next big things – including glasses that overlay artificial reality on the real world, voice-activated digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, and self-driving cars – mostly draw people into digital features than manufacturers. devices create and lock. .

Many companies developing self-driving cars design everything from computer chips to the steering wheel. The devices that connect our TVs to video streaming services are almost as tightly controlled by their creators as the old cable TV systems. Outside companies are building apps for Apple Watch devices and Echo voice activated speakers, but we mostly use these gadgets to stay in a world created by Apple or Amazon. If it’s a party, it’s one with the overbearing host who dictates almost everything.

These relatively closed systems could be temporary. And complex technologies can be better, safer, and easier to use if creators control everything about them. But I’m afraid we’ll run out of new ideas if those nightclubs in the digital world get harder to get to.

To see what concerns me, let’s explore Android for smartphones and for smartwatches. (I don’t blame you if you didn’t know Android Watches existed.)

As with its Android smartphones, Google decided to use open technology for watches to allow almost anyone to tinker with it and reshape it. But the open party approach has not worked at all. Google basically admitted this a few days ago by combining its smart watch system with Samsung.

I can’t diagnose why Android smartwatches failed. Smartphones may have simply been a once in a lifetime opportunity for technology like Android that cannot be replicated. Whatever the cause, I fear that this is the beginning of the end of the access ramps open to technologies.

I might be wrong in predicting more velvet ropes in our technological future. I hope I am. Because a lesson from recent history is that messy parties are good for all of us.



  • A public health experiment that is not a success: Apple and Google have collaborated on smartphone technology to let people know how close they are to other people who have subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus. My colleague Natasha Singer is investigating why the exposure warning system has generally not worked and what that says about the limits of tech giants in setting global public health standards.

  • Digital comics and TikTok videos that aren’t frivolous: Social media creators are helping raise awareness among women and people of color about the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, writes Nicole Clark for The New York Times. Please don’t rely on TikTok’s videos for medical advice, but the creators Nicole describes provide accurate and insightful information on a disorder most commonly diagnosed in white boys.

  • This a video call should probably just be a phone call: YES THANKS. Frequent video calls fry our brains out. And you can make high-quality audio calls instead through apps like Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, or Google Meet, writes The Wall Street Journal. (Subscription required.)

Here is a public library keeper perform a safety temperature check on a child’s dragon and his nutcracker named Nutty. (Thanks to my colleague Erin McCann for tweeting this.)


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