In the winter of 2000, Steve Jobs took the stage at the Macworld conference and laid out what we now consider a very forward thinking idea: He said that the Mac would become the center of our digital lifestyle.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Jobs and his team at Apple were secretly working on the iPod and a music store that used the Mac to side-load downloaded music to the iPod. When Jobs introduced the iPod the following year, he literally made the Mac a hub connected to a “spoke” — or cable — that was then connected to the iPod.
For most of the last decade, the idea of the Mac working as a hub that side-loaded content to products like the iPod, iPhone and the iPad played itself out well, making it very easy for consumers to buy digital content and load it onto these devices. Over the past few years, Apple has refined this vision and starting making iCloud more of the hub to wirelessly organize content from its online stores to be downloaded directly to Apple products.
While making the cloud the hub in this scenario is still the best way to think about this idea, it became pretty clear to me while at CES last week that in many ways, smartphones are really emerging as the hub of our digital lifestyles. Yes, smartphones are still connected to the cloud in terms of accessing data and transmitting information, but it seems to me that the smartphone in many ways is becoming the one device sitting at the center of our lives and working more like a hub in its own way.
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A good example of this is the role my smartphone plays in my connected car. My smartphone uses Bluetooth to connect to my car’s digital display, which has channels for music, data and voice. When a call comes in to me, the phone serves as the hub that connects to my car’s screen and tells me who is calling, and even allows me to use the car’s screen to answer the call. My smartphone is also the hub that sends music to the car’s audio system. At CES, GM showed its Malibu Eco connected to a smartphone that actually started up the car remotely.
In smart homes, the smartphone in many ways literally becomes the remote control. We can now turn the lights on and off in our homes even if we are thousands of miles from where we live. Thanks to products such as the Nest thermostat, for instance, we can use our smartphones, tablets or PCs to remotely adjust our thermostats to higher temperatures so our houses are warmer when we get home. If a burglar trips a motion sensor, a person could be instantly alerted of the break-in and immediately call the police. Comcast even has a system that puts cameras in your home and ties them into its network, which lets you see what’s going on in your house from your smartphone while sitting in a restaurant, your office or anywhere your mobile device has a connection.
Interestingly, CES could have been called the “sensor” show because of the hundreds of devices shown containing embedded sensors that tied them to the Internet via smartphone apps, which were used to remotely control these senor-based devices. This was especially evident in the special health exhibit on the CES show floor, where 74 companies had various sensor-based health monitoring products that were tied to smartphones.
As a diabetic, one health product that really interested me was iHealth’s wireless blood glucose meter. It lets diabetics test their blood sugar and then sends that data to a smartphone app so that they can monitor their daily progress. This product is before the FDA for approval and could be on the market soon.
A small start up named AliveCor has created an iPhone case that, when grasped, records an electrocardiogram and sends it to the iPhone screen via its app. And the folks from Nike, Jawbone, Omron and FitBit, to name just a few, were in this smart health area showing off their various health monitoring devices that all have sensors for recording things like steps, sleep patterns, calories burned and more.
When Jobs introduced the Mac as the hub of a digital lifestyle, I doubt that at the time he envisioned the cloud becoming the big hub in the sky or the role a smartphone could play in becoming a hub in our pocket. However, it is clear that Apple has played a major role in defining the concept of a digital hub, which has allowed other major players to learn from the company’s original vision and expand on it exponentially.
Over the next two to three years, I believe we will see thousands of sensor-based products tied to apps on our smartphones, making it even clearer that the real hub of our digital lifestyles may actually be our smartphones. It is the one device we have with us at all times; given its increasing power and capabilities, it could emerge as the command center of our digital activities, becoming even more indispensible than it is today.
Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.