A Master Key to the Ultimate Dumb Device

The future of the iPhone could be a way of tethering people to Apple products even when they don't want them anymore.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Lock-in. That's what we call it when you're dependent on a specific vendor for particular services. When you buy a single-serving coffee machine boasting convenient, mess-free coffee inserts, like Keurig K-Cup or Nespresso, you're bound to its brand of coffee pods. When you purchase digital music on iTunes, proprietary formats and digital rights management (DRM) make it difficult to listen to it outside of Apple’s service.

Lock-in works because it produces switching costs, the financial or time burden that makes changing over to another vendor costly or inconvenient. Switching off K-Cups requires you to buy a new coffee machine. When you subscribe to a cable or Internet service, the misery of arranging and installing competing service creates lock-in as effectively as physical incompatibility might do for a packaged good.

In computing, lock-in is usually established through the network effect of popular hardware and software systems. First the IBM PC-compatible, and later Microsoft Windows established dominant positions that made computer users and developers alike hard-pressed not to use or create for those platforms. (In the 1990s, the lock-in created by Microsoft’s platform advantage led to antitrust challenges related to bundling Internet Explorer with its ubiquitous operating system.)

But a new kind of lock-in is on the horizon in computing, best exemplified by two new services from Apple: the Apple Watch and Apple CarPlay. Both rely on an iPhone to make them run, signaling a possible future in which your smartphone is, Apple hopes, the master key for everything else.

Apple’s take on the smartwatch requires at least an iPhone 5, to which it pairs via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Calls, messages, notifications, apps, and other heavy-lifting all take place on the iPhone, while the watch becomes a user-interface for all those functions. For its part, the watch houses its own computational power to drive and respond to the display, the “taptic engine” linear actuator, the pressure touch sensor, the accelerometer, the gyrometer, the heart-rate sensor, and so forth. But all of that electronic effort is mostly invested in the device’s basic function. For running software, transmitting data, and using GPS, the Apple Watch relies on its tethered iPhone.

This design is not without its failings. In the barrage of detailed Apple Watch reviews that appeared the week pre-orders began, many critics complained about the sluggishness of the device. At least some of these delays can be blamed on Bluetooth data transfers between watch and iPhone, while others—like the holdup between raising a wrist and the watch display activating—are likely side-effects of a device that’s doing more than its current electronic innards can easily handle. (This is to say nothing of the delays that are a function of design: An analog watch tells time when you merely shift your eyes to look at its face; an Apple Watch requires movement to light up.)

That’s nothing unexpected. If Apple’s first generation devices have taught us anything, it’s that underpowered, quirky usage quickly gives way to more refinement as smaller and more powerful processors, sensors, and screens find their way into later models. The Apple Watch will surely follow suit, with improved versions rolling off the line annually or even more frequently, clockwork as the seasonal fashion runways. Indeed, I think everyone is assuming that the Apple Watch-to-iPhone coupling is a temporary inconvenience soon overcome by newer, better technology.

But: What if it’s not? What if the tethering of watch to phone is deliberate, intentional, and meant to be permanent—a model for more to come?

Some signs point in this direction. For one, the Apple Watch is competing as jewelry in addition to consumer electronics—it’s possible to spend thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars on one. Apple might (rightly) expect its wealthiest customers will have no trouble treating a wristwatch like a fashion accessory in need or regular replacement. But a $1,000 digital wearable that requires another several hundred dollar pocketable to work might shift the frame of obsolescence from the more to the less permanent device (bizarrely, that’s the iPhone, now). That is, perhaps the Apple Watch is the first salvo in a series of longer term, dumb terminals mated to a smartphone, the new hub for computation.

Apple CarPlay (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

In their first act, smartphones offered easy access to data anywhere. More recently, they’ve evolved into network-connected remote controls, used to operate “smart” devices directly—controlling things like thermostats, doorknobs, and drones. But there’s a third, less considered use of the smartphone: as a passive, secondary computation and networking device that acts as a skeleton key between an individual and the various apparatuses that he or she uses indirectly.

This is a different kind of lock-in than we’re accustomed to: one in which a central device becomes a necessary—if initially desirable—precondition to using other equipment. Wearables like the Apple Watch offer one example of lock-and-key computing, especially via pocket-to-wrist extensions of recent smartphone applications via Near Field Communication (NFC). Apple Pay, which chains one’s wallet to one’s iPhone, is such an application, as are future smart devices like hotel room doors or garages that open with the wave of a wrist. But the same lock-and-key functionality could be ascribed to the more ordinary functions of the Apple Watch itself. It is an adornment that requires another device to activate it, to make it “smart” and functional. Such is the new paradigm the Apple Watch suggests: a shift from interconnected smart devices to dumber devices directed by intermediaries.

The Watch has captured more attention, but another new Apple product might better exemplify the locked-in ecosystem of future Apple products: in-car entertainment. Along with its competitor, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay hopes to replace the unfriendly, non-standardized dashboard controls found in every automobile. Once major manufacturers have integrated CarPlay into their vehicles (all the major brands have committed to doing so), a driver or passenger will be able to connect to a personal iPhone for music, navigation, phone calls, and other services.

The idea makes sense: Like a fine wristwatch, an automobile is a large investment that occurs relatively infrequently. Implementing a bare-bones interface into the dashboard that offloads the majority of its functionality to the more powerful, more frequently updated (and updatable) smartphone offers a better solution than counting on a car’s onboard computer to serve needs five or 10 years out. And eventually, perhaps any computer-controlled function of your automobile—even your windshield wipers and other mechanical systems that are already operated electronically—could be activated via a Siri voice command.

In such a future, keeping your car (or your watch, or your doorknob) running requires keeping your iPhone running, too. And here’s where a lock-in device’s bolt engages definitively. Imagine the switching cost of abandoning your iPhone once your automobile relies on it!

Of course, if the era of iPhone has shown us anything, it’s that we are more than willing to tolerate such updates. Thanks to frequent, aggressive operating system updates and the transformation of personal electronics into fashion, the annual smartphone update has become an accepted—even celebrated—ritual, like Christmas or back-to-school. And new carrier plans offer a equipment rental fees rather than new device subsidies, helping make annual upgrades easier—and, in the process, making device payment an eternal affair.

So, even if the Apple Watch does evolve into a more self-contained, independently adept wearable, the interaction model it embraces might be far more important than the quirks of a first-generation device would suggest. Apple Watch and CarPlay are more like K-Cups and cable than they are like Rolex or Mercedes—but they are also two examples of a future deluge of gadgets manufactured or licensed by Apple that extend and deepen the lock-in of the company’s most valuable asset: the iPhone.

Perhaps the most important innovation of this new era of Apple is that the company is finally doing what Microsoft did in the 1990s and what Google and Facebook did in the 2000s: It is transforming from a computer electronics company into an infrastructure company. Or perhaps more accurately, since Apple is already the world’s most valuable company: It is adding an indispensable infrastructure component to its already lucrative consumer electronics business. The service it provides? A reliable coupling between individuals, networks, and devices, familiar and new. The Apple Watch isn’t a stymied first-generation stopgap—it’s the future of computing: dumb devices in the world, talking through a smarter one in your pocket.

This article is part of the collection of essays, The Geek's Chihuahua: Living With Apple.