Switched On: Why the digital hub died

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

A decade ago at Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs provided a rare look into the vision guiding Apple. Breaking with naysayers foretelling the demise of the PC, Jobs said that the PC was now entering a third golden age of "Digital Lifestyle," following those of productivity and the Internet. In this era, the PC would serve as a digital hub.

The presentation was rife with references that are amusing with a decade of hindsight, one in which Apple has received more attention for its work in advancing popular digital spokes. For example, in pointing out some peripheral devices that will connect to the digital hub, Jobs showed the Rio flash-based MP3 player as well as the Palm V, both of which would succumb to Apple' own iPod and iPhone.

Jobs also devoted two slides to farsighted quotes from the executives of companies that have ironically faded into the past along with Apple' presence at Macworld Expo itself. The first was a quote from Compaq CEO Mike Capellas saying "we don't think of it in terms of the PC business anymore." Six years later, Apple would drop the "computer" from its name. Even more prescient was Gateway' CEO Jeff Weitzen, quoted as saying, "we're clearly migrating away from the PC as the centerpiece."

The four reasons Jobs gave for the strength of the PC as 2001's digital hub demonstrate why it is no longer relevant in that role a decade later. He cited the PCs ability to run complex applications, its big screen, its ability to burn discs, and its large, inexpensive storage.

Although the screen of today's iPad is not as large as the original iMac, its resolution is greater. When it comes to applications, it turns out, many consumers aren't necessarily interested in running complex ones. They want engaging, connected applications -- the kind that Apple has been promoting for the iPhone. As for storage and discs, the original iMac had a 4 GB hard drive while the lowest capacity iPod touch has 8 GB of flash memory, and the cloud has stepped in to serve not only as ancillary storage, but as a way to transfer files and media, taking over many former tasks of optical media. In 2001, Jobs noted that the small screens on portable electronics did not allow for good user interfaces, while here 2011 Apple has released a multitouch user interface on the new iPod nano's 1.5-inch diagonal display.

The recent Apple TV reboot clearly demonstrates the shift away from PC-centricity to cloud-centricity. At its introduction, Apple TV was an iTunes peripheral, much like the iPod. It synced with a computer (albeit over a network connection as opposed to a USB cable), which was responsible for procuring or managing the media. In its latest iteration, though, AppleTV has moved from the iTunes ecosystem to the iOS ecosystem of mobile devices. While it can still stream media from a PC, it doesn't require one, and its video acquisition model is based on rental so as to be free from the rigors of managing storage. Meanwhile, iOS devices can send music, photos and video to the Apple TV on an ad hoc basis using AirPlay.

In the 2001 presentation, Jobs argued that the Mac and iMovie software made the camcorder 10 times more valuable. But a decade later, it's clear that YouTube has done far more to promote the value of personal video than iMovie, which Apple has now also brought from the desktop to the smartphone. The cloud has increased the value of portable devices by another order of magnitude beyond the PC.

The digital hub concept may be fading (or transitioning to the smartphone), but that doesn't mean that PCs are doomed or irrelevant. However, Jobs now likens PCs to "trucks" carrying the heavy task loads of things like extensive video editing. This begs the question of whether there will be a next era of evolution for the PC or if it will become a victim of natural selection, pushed aside by a new breed of leaner, more nimble devices.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.