The iPhone OS 3.0 presentation that happened on Tuesday really got me thinking. There were a lot of exciting announcements that are being loudly touted by the press: the arrival of a rather elegantly designed Copy and Paste to the OS, Stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) support, CalDAV support, new application payment models, and device-to-device interactivity are a few favorites. These are all pretty big announcements. But the biggest announcement of the show wasn’t the addition of Copy and Paste, but something Apple is just calling “Accessories.”
Let me explain briefly what “Accessories” means for those who don’t know, and then I’ll tell you what I see in this idea’s future.
Up until now, the iPhone has had only a short list of ways in which it could interact with other devices. You could sync it with iTunes, pair it with a Bluetooth headset for hands-free phone conversations, or plug it into a music speaker system with a dock connector. It’s a simple, highly-focused list.
But what if the iPhone could talk to other kinds of hardware? Any kind of hardware? Apple gave a very safe example for starters: a custom application that would allow the iPhone to control a hardware equalizer built into a particular iPhone-compatible music speaker system. But later in the presentation, Apple showed the idea is much bigger than that. The iPhone could soon connect to things that aren’t necessarily music-related or phone-related at all. They asked us to imagine medical devices being assisted by the iPhone. Like a blood pressure cuff wherein the traditional display (which sometimes requires its own cart and custom computers) is replaced with just a cord and a dock connector. Custom software on the iPhone would display all the relevant readings from the cuff (on a large, high-resolution color screen no less), just like the current stuff does. But since the iPhone platform is so powerful, why stop there? Record the readings over time, advise the patient based on trends, and wirelessly send the collection of reports to a doctor from anywhere in the world with a click of a button. Now we’re talking. None of the blood pressure monitors I’ve ever seen could do that.
Keep in mind, also, that these new accessory connections work with both the dock connector or a Bluetooth connection, depending (I assume) on your application’s bandwidth and latency considerations. The cord doesn’t necessarily have to be there.
So what else could be done with this? I’ve come up with a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours.
Mobile Magnetic Strip Reader
It’s not easy to process credit cards wirelessly. If you want to sell something to people without a big Point of Sale cash register system and store walls around you (like, say, at a garage sale) it would seem you’re limited to taking cash. Not anymore. Hook a magnetic stripe reader up to the iPhone, write some software, and take credit card payments wirelessly from anywhere. I would be shocked if Apple wasn’t using these by November of this year in their stores to increase the number of points of sale and mitigate holiday shopping congestion. I think they’ve previously (embarrassingly) had to use Windows Mobile to do this.
Device Firmware Updates
Ever had a device whose software could be updated, but you never bothered to do it? My TV has an update to its software right now that I haven’t applied. The instructions require you to hook your PC’s serial port up to the thing with a custom cable (note: it’s not Mac compatible), run some software, etc, and you just don’t want to lug your machine downstairs, get out the cable, and go through the whole thing. What if you could just deliver the device firmware over Bluetooth through the iPhone? No portability problems, no cable, and a nice multi-touch experience that trounces whatever they created for the PC. Suddenly, all your devices can add features and fix problems by using the iPhone as the conduit to the Internet. Devices of tomorrow might come with some minimal additional hardware (Bluetooth, a dock connector cable, whatever) that leaves their future functionality a bit more open and flexible, just like the current flexibility of your computer or iPhone. They don’t now, but they will. And when they do, we’ll really start to see how things can change quickly. There’s no reason you can’t update your coffee maker or your toaster.
I understand these things were functionally possible before. But no one does them because it’s a pain and it’s hard. When Apple steps into these kinds of areas, industries change. Why do you think Congress only started to have opinions about locking cellphones to certain networks when the iPhone came out, when it was a practice that was many years old? Buzz is worth a lot, and the iPhone has it by the truckload.
Internet-connected, Highly-portable Barcode Scanner
Remember my old idea about using the iPhone to price compare? Well, the iPhone’s camera isn’t good enough to scan an average barcode in a store. Android has several apps out that do this now, but the iPhone requires that you enter the barcode digits in manually in order to provide similar functionality. Yuck. But that’s over now. Someone will definitely be making a barcode scanner that connects to the iPhone and talks to a specialized piece of software. If it’s cheap and small, it’ll be very interesting. Not because it hasn’t been done, but in part because it’s on a popular device.
Augmenting Standalone Devices
The Canon digital camera we use most around our house doesn’t have GPS built-in. It’s a bummer, because knowing where photos were taken is a powerful and useful feature (supported by iPhoto ’09, no less), but to me, it’s just not worth paying thousands of dollars for a new camera that has built-in GPS. So why not write the camera’s software to tether to the iPhone (wirelessly or not) and get that data from the phone while pictures are taken? I get GPS data on my photos without having to build the cost of GPS into the camera. Everybody wins! Except people who own cameras today. OK, no plan is perfect.