The Appliancification of Computing

NetBSD on a toaster

There’s a movement underway to transform the way we interact with personal computers. As computers become more automated and more intelligent, consumers are losing access to the software that makes them tick. The emphasis is moving away from computers as a platform and closer to computers as an appliance. What does this mean for end-users, and what does it mean for the future of our digitally dependent society?

(Featured image courtesy of NetBSD and Jeff Rizzo)

“Appliancification” is the process of packaging a relatively complicated process into a simple, easy-to-use, and completely obscured interface. The person using the appliance doesn’t know how the process works or why it works, just that it does work. Personal computers are on a long and winding road to appliancification, having gone from obtuse terminals to intuitive graphical and multimedia-rich interfaces. With the development of personal assistants such as Cortana and Siri, computers no longer need to be told how to function: they can make decisions and act based solely on the user’s desires.

Our increasing tendency to treat computers as appliances has a twofold impact: while it allows users of different skill sets to access computers more easily, it makes it harder to understand and tinker with the systems that drive our daily lives. In this post, we’ll look at three particular trends caused by the appliancification of computers.


1. Computers Are Becoming Harder to Modify

This is, of course, a generalized statement. Desktop computers can still be assembled, dismantled, reconfigured, and repaired almost as easily as before. However, with the explosive popularity of mobile devices and tablets, the desktop PC market is barely clinging to life: in 2013, consumer PC sales experienced their deepest decline in history, dropping by about 15%. The volume has since stabilized, but remains at a relatively low 308.6 million units in 2014.

Laptop PCs, on the other hand, have become increasingly difficult to modify. Technologies such as soldered RAM, proprietary connectors, glued-on components, and built-in batteries make it difficult if not impossible to change the physical capabilities of notebooks. This becomes most apparent when software is released that the device can’t support simply because it doesn’t have the power to run the new software.

This contributes to the idea of planned obsolescence, where companies intentionally design their products in a way that makes them obsolete after a certain period of time. The term originated during the Great Depression where it was meant to encourage consumer spending by imposing legal “end-of-life” dates on clothing, cars, and even buildings. While it’s no longer a legal requirement, we still see similar practices in the computing industry with bi-yearly product releases, incremental performance upgrades, and payment plans that allow for less-than-full-price upgrades. This constant swapping of ownership gives users fewer incentives to modify, tweak, or expand the devices they already have.

While devices may be harder to modify, we’ve seen steady improvements in capacity, performance, and battery life. Many of these accomplishments wouldn’t be readily available without the appliancification of computing. However, this shift also implies that the ownership of the hardware we use is shifting from the user back to the manufacturer.


2. Services are Moving to the Cloud

Before the days of high-speed Internet, we stored our documents, media, and emails on locally. This was a perilous way of storing data: a power surge, a forgotten password, or a dying hard drive could destroy years of memories, financial records, and personal notes. As the use of high-speed broadband and mobile Internet spread, so did the use of online storage services such as DropBox, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, and Microsoft OneDrive. We now had ways of storing our data in locations that were far less susceptible to losing it, yet kept it easily accessible.

Since then, we’ve begun moving other resources to online services. We use Office 365 and Google Docs to edit documents, Pandora and Spotify to listen to music, and we use Skype and Google Hangouts to communicate. Our devices have become gateways to services, rather than hosts. The result is a user base dependent on third-party programs and websites, compared to a user base capable of installing and maintaining software itself.

The shift to cloud computing comes with many benefits. Users are no longer responsible for maintaining the software installed on their system, making it harder for malicious users to exploit vulnerabilities in older software. Companies no longer have to spend thousands of dollars in bandwidth costs distributing new versions of software to users. Manufacturers can sell devices with less storage space, resulting in lower costs and smaller devices. However, as with hardware, the inability to manage the services on our devices gives us less control over how those services allow us to work and live.

The appliancification of computers can easily be seen with the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, Windows 10. Compared to previous versions of Windows, Windows 10 takes a much less hands-on approach to computing by essentially maintaining itself. Users can spend less time worrying about upgrades, defragmentation, virus scans, or malware detection – the operating system is designed to take care of these by itself, allowing you to focus on using your computer to perform tasks. However, this means you can no longer control when or how updates are installed, how the operating system detects and handles malware, or even what it does with your personal data. Our increasing dependency on the cloud means that more and more data will travel between our devices and third-party servers, whether we choose it or not.


3. Mobile Devices are Transforming the Way We Live

Talk a walk outside in any developed nation and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t staring at a smartphone or tablet. Mobile devices appeal to us partly because they allow us to engage in content that might be relevant to us at any time of day. Whether it’s an email, a response to a statement we made, or an update on our friend’s day at the beach, mobile devices grant us instant access to ideas and events that (somehow) enhance our daily lives.

Smartphones are a textbook example of appliancification. They’re designed as a single, unified package that’s not meant to be open, prodded, or pried apart. Users who modify their smartphones by installing third-party operating systems or software are faced with voided warranties or – in some cases – locked devices. Unfortunately, while smartphones share only a few of the benefits of appliancification, they suffer many of the drawbacks.

Apple successfully managed to turn the smartphone into an appliance by creating one version of one phone with one operating system. You can be sure that any iPhone you come into contact with has (roughly) the same interface, the same look and feel, and the same services available to it. Android devices, on the other hand, are all over the map. Two otherwise identical phones can be two or even three major versions apart, with completely different manufacturer-specific interfaces and multiple incompatible app stores. They can have different shapes, sizes, features, logos, screen types, charging ports, buttons, textures, antennas, and storage options. Android suffers from fragmentation in part due to manufacturers who put their own spin on the operating system. In many ways, this leaves consumers feeling confused and anxious, especially over something they’re going to rely on every day for the next two years.

Enterprising developers have opened up the smartphones somewhat through the use of custom ROMs and third-party apps. These steps go far beyond the bounds of what carriers and manufacturers intended, but they have the intended goal of making smartphones easier, safer, more accessible, and more usable.


Looking Inside the Appliance

Appliancification is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’re developing technologies that let us do more work for less effort by requiring less input and less knowledge. On the other hand, we’re sacrificing our ability to understand technology by transferring ownership to third-party manufacturers and developers.

No one person can know every detail about how a laptop, smartphone, or tablet works. The technologies are intricate, the code is billions of lines long, the algorithms are complex, and the documentation is poor. What we can do is gain a basic understanding of how hardware interacts, how software is developed, and how third-parties make use of our data. Even if we can’t see inside the appliance, at least we can begin to think about the magic behind it.

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