Big tech's convenience trap

When tech companies are so focused on making things seamless and convenient, they also make them harder to escape

A woman tries the iPhone X.
(Image credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

If there is one clear rule in the tech world, it is that everything Apple does, no matter how minor, is news. So last week, when it surfaced that Apple is planning to unify iPad and iPhone apps with Mac apps, the usual flurry of analysis followed — despite the fact that the story is a bit obscure.

The Bloomberg article that broke the story suggested that starting next year, developers can choose to make apps that worked with both touch on iPhones and iPads and with a trackpad and keyboard on Mac. Though it sounds like a technical detail, there is a certain inevitability to the move. As the smartphone becomes not just the dominant computing platform but also the guiding principle of the technology world, forces both economic and cultural align to place mobile at the center of everything. In that sense, Bloomberg's report suggests Apple recognizes this shift and is thus trying to entice mobile developers to improve Mac apps.

But Apple's new approach also reflects a desire on the part of the big tech companies to become the one-stop shop for all of a consumer's needs. For the people using the apps, it's about presenting a unified experience wherever they are — that if they use one app on their iPhone, when they switch to a Mac, things look, feel, and work the same. Yet simmering underneath this clear attempt at user convenience is also a symbol of a growing schism in tech between Apple and its competitors — and with it, a growing popular anxiety about tech's place in our lives.

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The point of a unified experience is ease of use, but also about portability — that you can carry your experience everywhere, regardless of device. This is shared by all the big tech companies. But the division lies in the fact that Apple continues to focus on a siloed experience on its own hardware — a kind of separate Apple universe — while its competitors try and spread themselves across any and all areas. Apple's approach works only if you own all Apple products. When you do, however, you can generally rely on them to work seamlessly together.

Apple's model is of course wildly successful — but also incredibly difficult to replicate. So rather than directly compete, other organizations are taking a different approach to being a one-stop shop for users.

In one corner there are Google and Microsoft. Each have made significant moves into hardware and unifying it with their own software. Google has its Pixel line of smartphones and its smart home speakers, while Microsoft has its Surface line of computers. But for each company, these forays into hardware represent the bleeding edge of an ecosystem that exists everywhere. Google's Android is on billions of devices across the world, and its various software and service products like search, email, and more can be used from almost any device. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Windows and Office products are everywhere, and surprisingly, some of their iOS and Android apps are now amongst the best, as Microsoft aims to be the company users turn to in order to be productive.

In the other corner, however, are Facebook and Amazon, each of which have now evolved into multi-headed hydras who focus less on being an ecosystem than an intermediary layer between users and everything they do. Facebook, for example, becomes not only the place its billions of users get news or talk with family and friends, but also how many of them organize their social lives, watch video or ads, post photos, or look for work.

For its part, Amazon is not just an e-commerce site, but the purveyor of all kinds of things: e-readers, smart speakers, cloud computing, a delivery infrastructure. Amazon builds out superficially disparate businesses, and unifies them with its own strange, hybrid business structure that sees it as comfortable making tablets and selling widgets as creating drones to deliver packages. As analyst Benedict Evans put it, Amazon is less a traditional company than a machine that specializes in making other machines. While other companies' expertise is in building products, Amazon's is in building businesses.

The schism in tech is thus between traditional tech — that is devices, software, cloud services — such as is seen with Apple, and an array of services and platforms that spread through all the varying dimensions of life evinced by its competitors. Yet despite that split, underlying all of the big tech companies is a singular drive: to become the default mode of apprehending the world for its users. Whether it's in what tech you use, what apps or websites your turn to, or how you get your groceries or run your business, the root idea is still to become a single company that meets a customer's many needs.

In no end of ways, this is a boon. It is infinitely convenient to have a webpage from your phone seamlessly appear on your laptop, or be able to ask your smart speaker the status of the shoes you ordered yesterday. In building seamless silos, basic tasks have undoubtedly become a lot easier.

Yet simmering under this convenience is also the source of unease. In the past year in particular, we've seen a growing sense that tech is not just ambivalent, but the source of a host of problems we are yet to grapple with. From bubbles of political polarization and fake news, to the possible foreign influence on elections, to hate and harassment online, tech is responsible for as many problems as benefits. And no small part of that is the fact that the very convenience we seek is inseparable from the troubles tech creates — that is, the seamless experience of Facebook or Apple is also what contributes to fake news, smartphone addiction, and so much more.

This is the profound ambivalence of all technology, and as the tech we use becomes increasingly inescapable, the problem only compounds. After all, you can choose not to use Facebook or Amazon or a smartphone, but at some point, the social consequences of doing so start to add up. You get left behind, or you get a lesser experience. And that's why every small little bit of news from Apple becomes such a big deal: because it signifies socio-cultural change as much as the technological sort.

The difficulty is that when tech companies are so focused on making things seamless and convenient, they also make them harder to escape.

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