Mike Elgan: How Apple is training you for the future

The biggest barrier to tech progress is the user, who doesn't want to change

In business circles, one of the most miraculous success stories of the previous century is the story of Starbucks. The company earned its legendary status not by invention of a new product, but by the rare transformation of human culture.

People have been drinking coffee for centuries. Before Starbucks came along, people made coffee at home, or drank generic coffee at coffee shops, diners, donut joints or wherever. It came in a giant can, and cost pennies, rather than dollars, for a bottomless cup. Coffee was always there, whether you were at home, work or running around town. Everyone had firmly rooted habits associated with drinking coffee that should have discouraged Starbucks.

Starbucks somehow convinced us all to pay $4 for coffee, and to ignore the coffee at hand and drive out of our way, stand in line, then wait again for them to make it. They got us to add all kinds of weird stuff to our coffee, from whipped cream to ice to chocolate. Starbucks transformed a generic commodity into a brand-name experience that people seek out. But the miraculous bit is that they changed American (and later, global) culture.

Coffee is still coffee. They didn't change the product as much as they changed the customer.

Consumer electronics companies face a similar challenge. It's hard enough to invent a better way to do things. But the most difficult challenge is getting consumers to accept the change.

Since the dawn of the PC revolution, for example, a huge number of "better" ideas for doing things have come along, and have been crushed by consumer apathy. Keyboards are a particularly hazardous market. Nearly everyone agrees that QWERTY keyboards don't make sense, and that there must be a better way. Hundreds or possibly thousands of small startups have emerged over the decades to solve the problem of the clunky QWERTY keyboard. Yet all have failed. Why? Because we're all mastered existing keyboards, and we're not going to change.

Visionary companies like Apple have better ideas for how we do just about everything relating to computers and media. They know they can invent and build the products. The big problem is convincing us to use them.

I've written in this space before about how Google is systematically nudging us to accept less privacy. Now I'm going to tell you how Apple is transforming you and me and softening our resistance to the gadget future they envision for us all.

1. Virtual keyboards

People hate the idea of giving up their physical keyboards for on-screen keyboards. But I believe Apple wants to move us all to on-screen keyboards not only for phones, but mobile devices and even "desktop" computers. If Apple were to introduce an all-screen desktop PC today, it would be rejected wholesale by the public. But in a few years, we'll all be standing in line to buy them. How will they do it?

Apple led the first wave of all-screen cell phones with the introduction of its iPhone two and a half years ago. Everybody grumbled about the cramped, on-screen keyboard, but most of us expected in those early days that someone would ship a wireless physical keyboard peripheral for the iPhone. We're still waiting. Where is it?

You can buy iPhone accessories of every description, from iPhone-compatible fireplaces to gaming rigs to telephoto lenses. What you can't buy is a fold-out Bluetooth keyboard, which is a common add-on for other phones.

You may have heard about the iType full-size keyboard, which is billed as the first-ever full-size keyboard for the iPhone (and iPod Touch) when it ships later this year. What you may not have heard is that you can't use it directly in iPhone applications. You have to use the iType application to do your typing, then you can copy and paste the text into another application, or push a button to send it to e-mail. It can't be used to type URLs, fill out online forms, type directly in e-mail, type documents directly in native applications, add items to your calendar or any other task that involves simply using the keyboard with your iPhone.

Don't blame ION, the company that makes the keyboard, and which is trying to satisfy demand for a physical iPhone keyboard. Instead, blame Apple. The company has gone out of its way to block physical keyboards from hitting the market.

Apple could build and ship its own physical iPhone keyboard, and they'd probably make a bundle on it. But they're thinking long-term.

My belief is that Apple blocks iPhone keyboards as part of its user-transformation project. They're forcing those of us who want to use an iPhone to accept the on-screen keyboard. Later this year, when the rumored Apple touch tablet is likely to ship, everyone will be so happy with a larger version of the iPhone's on-screen keyboard. Had they shipped the tablet first, we no doubt would have complained about that keyboard. But since they've lowered our expectations with the iPhone keyboard, we'll love the tablet's.

I think the initial tablet will feature a 10-inch touch screen. The keyboard will probably span the screen. Then they'll ship a 13-inch tablet. Then a 15-inch. By the time they ship a 27-inch desktop touch tablet (used at an angle like a drafting board), we'll be just giddy with excitement about how wonderful the on-screen keyboard is.

2. Mobile cable box and DVR

Right now, those of us who get cable TV and use TiVo or other DVR devices, are used to all that gear being lashed physically to our TVs and walls. Sure, those big, clunky, ugly boxes look like Radio Shack DIY projects, but we don't know anything better.

In the future, we'll use our cell phones and touch tablets to browse, find, record or schedule for recording all our TV and movies -- and often watch them on these mobile devices, as well as on our giant, flat-screen TVs. But when we're not watching them on the mobile devices, we'll use those gadgets to control and store the media.

Apple led the mob that practically killed off the audio CD by getting us all into the habit of shopping for music in iTunes, rather than at Tower Records. Their tablets will lead a similar attack on renting movies at Blockbuster. Instead, we'll download movies from Netflix and iTunes via our tablets. I believe they'll also drive the Huluization of television, which is where TV is something that exists in a searchable online database, and shows will be something you "subscribe" to.

One by one, we'll all wake up and wonder why we're still paying the cable company.

3. Apps on demand

Sure, we've long ago accepted the idea of buying software online and downloading it. But the iPhone, and later the tablet will change our thinking on software even further. Rather than thinking of a software application as some massive, do-everything product, we'll increasingly view software as apps, widgets or small features that are cheap and instantly available all the time.

We're already experiencing this with the iPhone. It's getting to the point where its easier to download an app than find one already installed on your own phone.

Apple's iPhone, and later tablet, will acclimate us all to this model, and we'll come to prefer it for desktop computing as well.

Five years from now, your PC will be an all-touch, no-keyboard giant tablet that replaces your cable box and DVR and facilitates the downloading and installation of software one small feature at a time.

Apple is already working on the technology. And -- don't look now -- but Apple is working on you, too.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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