The Digital Hub Now Has Wings

Yes, it’s been more than two weeks since Apple’s WWDC Keynote, during which Steve Jobs & Co. showcased OS X Lion, previewed iOS 5, and described their upcoming iCloud service. Josh was spot on with his commentary of the announcements, while I have instead simmered for two-and-a-half weeks. But rather than discuss the individual merits of the announcements as he did, I want to discuss what I thought was the semi-hidden groundbreaking announcement of WWDC: the rebirth of the digital hub.

The personal computer (PC) has had a lot of ups and downs over its history. When the modern PC era was ushered in by the Macintosh in 1984, the emphasis of the PC was personal publishing. Apps like Microsoft Word, Adobe PageMaker, etc. took advantage of the graphical user interface to make rich formatting and design accessible to the little guy for the first time, and Apple’s ImageWriter & LaserWriter printers allowed users to print their work at home.

By the time the nineties rolled around, the internet started to spread, and the focus of the PC became about serving as the gateway to the internet. In no way was this more ingrained than when Apple introduced the original iMac in 1998, as Steve Jobs famously declared “The ‘i’ stands for ‘internet.'”

But then the internet got a bit stale, and as devices such as digital cameras, camcorders, DVD players, MP3 players, and cell phones exploded, pundits started believing that the PC was dying by the wayside. But Steve Jobs emphatically denied this in a 2001 keynote and declared that in the decade of the 2000s, the PC would become the “digital hub” of our digital lifestyles. From this strategy came apps such as iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iSync, and so on and so forth. These ushered in the age where the content on devices such as iPods, digital cameras, camcorders, and phones would sync back-and-forth with the PC, which served as the hub for our digital information–the ecosystem around which our “post-PC” devices revolved. And this strategy has served Apple very well for the better part of ten years.

But now it’s 2011, and much has changed. Primarily, we now live in a world where our devices are as capable as the PC itself. In 2001, if you wanted music on your iPod, you had to rip it to iTunes on your Mac, arrange your playlists on your Mac, and then sync it to your iPod. Today, you can do all that right on your iPhone or iPod touch, no Mac needed. If you wanted to manage your photos, you’d take them with your digital camera, then manage your library with iPhoto. Now you can do all that on any of your iOS devices. The same is true with movies: no longer do you need to use iMovie on your Mac to edit your raw footage when iMovie now lives on the iPhone and iPad, the very devices that you use to film your movies. And these are but a few examples.

If the true takeaway from WWDC 2011 had to be summarized in a single sentence, it would be this: The PC and mobile devices are now equals, and so the digital hub as we knew it is dead.

Just look at iOS 5, which will feature a number of improvements that Apple has collectively branded as “PC Free.” Essentially, Apple has recognized that the iOS platform has matured to the point that they are indeed suitable replacements for a Mac or PC if users wish to use them as such. So why should these devices still require that they be synchronized with a Mac or PC over USB? iOS 5 finally closes any remaining reliance on the synchronization model so that the devices can be fully used on their own. In other words, it looks like the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch have fully graduated from the “digital hub.”

But for those of us who still need to work between multiple devices, whether that be a Mac and an iPhone, or an iPad and an iPod touch, we still need the ability to sync content between our devices more than ever. After all, our sync needs are no longer one-way with a Mac (as it was in the digital hub era), they are bi-directional and often times don’t even involve a Mac at all. And THIS is where iCloud comes in.

When introducing iCloud, Steve Jobs very briefly remarked that they are now “demoting” the Mac/PC to be “just another device.” Apple’s new strategy says that iCloud is now the digital hub of our lives that all of our devices–Macs and PCs included–synchronize with. Whether it’s our eBooks, apps, e-mails, contacts, calendars, iTunes content, documents, photos, movies, or any other types of files that developers will eventually add support for, iCloud is going to become the master “hub” for all of our content that our devices will automatically synchronize with in the background. That may not seem like much, but it truly is a dramatic rethinking of our digital lifestyles for the next decade.

But then what of our beloved personal computer? What will become of it now that Apple has stripped it of its beloved purpose in the world? Well, its momentum may slow down some more, but I don’t believe that it’s going away. Instead, consumers will now get to choose from a selection of devices, each of which will hold different advantages and serve different needs. After all, iPhones and iPads each have very different purposes despite their similarity, all affected by their specifications and form factors. Similarly, the Mac and PC will continue to serve purposes that these mobile devices simply will not be able to fulfill on a level playing field.

The moral of WWDC then, is that the era of post-PC devices is finally here, ready to coexist alongside our personal computers as equal, first-class citizens. The cloud is the new hub that will allow our content to transcend the physical constraints of these devices, and will ensure that we are in for a dramatic decade of innovation and change.

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About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.