The phrase “it just works” is one of Apple’s key marketing ideas and it encompasses the concept that users should be able to pick up an iPhone, iPad and use it, without any instructions and if they want to connect it to their Macbook, their Airplay speakers or to another iDevice then that will all Just Work too. They achieve this by having a limited range of products and by using mostly proprietary standards – like Airplay – and because of these two things the technology doesn’t have to deal with the massive variations of hardware encountered by other devices; one Apple device knows what another one is called and how it talks, so to speak, already.
The thing is this illusion, that this is as a result of their products being better designed, is a half-truth – competing technologies only tend to require a couple of clicks to work together, like getting my Sony phone to play music via my bluetooth headset adaptor or hi-fi adaptor – all I need to do is press a button on the adaptor and select the output source on the phone, or my tablet, or laptop even. The thing is that there is an increasing expectation that you shouldn’t need to do anything yourself to make it work, even if it is just pressing a button.
To this ends we see products like a set of £1200 speakers which, instead of connecting via bluetooth, require a dongle to be plugged into the bottom of your phone or tablet like some kind of digital limpet, making your device more cumbersome but meaning that all you have to do is plug it in. A case of making it easy taking precedence over the handling of the technology. And then there’s another side to all this – the ecosystem. Apple in particular make all these add-ons, or licence the technology to other companies to make docks etc, that all work seamlessly together but the same limitation to Apple hardware that makes it possible for it to all work together means it’d be awfully expensive to switch brands later.
The situation in the Android/PC camp though is improving though. Near Field Communication (NFC) tech is allowing speakers and more that connect using bluetooth via a simple tap of the phone on the top of the peripheral, the proximity allowing the two devices to know that they’re compatible and meant to be together, like silicon blind-date, if you like. I have a smart BluRay player that has a companion Android app that automatically found and connected to the player via the WiFi network and on a similar vein modern WiFi routers can even connect to devices automatically using Wireless Protected Setup – although the latter still needs some user input, after all it’s not practical to carry your desktop PC and tap it on the router. Another example is the WiFi printer that only requires a single button press to connect to your PC the first time it’s installed.
The dream of smart appliances all talking to each other via wireless networks is starting to come true but for it to be truly universal manufacturers need to use open standards and as users we need to accept that sometimes we’ll need to read the manual, or on-screen instructions, and push some buttons to help them along.