Why Tuesday’s Apple Event is One of the Most Important Ever



Ho-hum. Another iPhone. Tuesday’s Apple event is going to be boooo-ring, right?

Well, not so fast. I think that from a milestone perspective, Tuesday’s announcement may be among the most important Apple has ever made. 

(You’ll notice I said iPhone, singular, not iPhones, plural. I know this because as an Apple invitation Kremnologist, it’s clear that the little 1 on the phone icon means Apple is launching only one phone. I think.)

The reason the event will be so important is that history judges such moments not so much by the product announced, but by the revolutions they start.

For example, when the iPod was first announced, it was just a cool new music player, Apple’s entry in a crowded market. But that moment in history is now seen as a giant event, because it represented a change in direction for human culture. The iPod made possible iTunes, and the universe of electronic downloadable music as a replacement for the old CD model. The recent Facebook-as-a-media-center announcement, the cell-phone-as-an-entertainment-hub habit and much more can be traced directly back to Apple’s announcement of the iPod.

When the iPhone was first announced, it was cool, to be sure. But the iPhone’s importance once again is that it changed culture, opening the way for a transformation for how most people use a phone, for the app store concept as a mainstream way to get software and eventually a transformation in how all mainstream computers will be used. For example, the awesome new gestures, Launchpad and other features in Mac OS X Lion can be traced back to the 2007 iPhone announcement.

So from a milestone-that-leads-to-culture-changing technology perspective, Tuesday’s announcement will be ginormous.

Of course, we don’t know for sure what will be announced. But it’s possible that Tuesday’s event will usher in not one, but two, new eras in consumer technology.

The Social Tablet Era

Facebook on iPad. Big deal, right? I think it is. At post time, none of the major social networks has a native tablet app for any of the major tablets. We have never seen social networking optimized for touch tablets.

Rumor has it that Facebook will release its long-awaited iPad app Tuesday at the Apple event.

The lead engineer for Facebook’s iPad app, Jeff Verkoeyen, says on his blog he worked 80 hours a week to get that app done months ago — that it was “feature complete” in May. (He’s since left and moved to Google.)

Facebook or Apple or both have apparently been delaying the app for months for some reason. Now they’re launching together, according to rumors. And Facebook’s “Project Spartan” HTML5 development environment is also rumored to be on the menu.

Here’s the thing. Apple agreeing to host Facebook’s iPad app rollout makes absolutely zero sense unless one of following two things is planned: 1) Facebook will release a tablet version only on iPad and on no other tablets; or 2) Apple’s iCloud content will be jacked into the Facebook matrix.

Of these two, the second one is far more likely. In the same way that Facebook’s new services will enable the discovery, playing and sharing of music via Spotify and many other streaming music services, I think they’ll also enable you to do the same thing with iTunes music, to be served up via iCloud.

Regardless, Facebook’s iPad app will probably be incredible.

But app quality isn’t what makes social networking on a tablet so compelling. Two years from now, I predict social networking will be the main thing people do with tablets — especially now that media consumption and gaming are becoming social networking activities. Social networking will be what drives the next massive wave of iPad and tablet purchases. Social networking will drive iPad sales to a whole new level.

There are two reasons why I say that. First, if you map “prime time” for iPad use and overlay it on “prime time” for social networking, they both occur at the same time: Evenings, breaks and weekends. And they both take place at the same locations: The couch, the dining room table and Starbucks.

The second reason is that both social networking and touch interfaces, the iPad being by far the most compelling example of today’s touch experiences, tap into our homo sapien hardwiring for how we want to spend our time. People are designed to socialize with other humans, and also to explore the world with touch.

Nobody will be able to explain why using Facebook on an iPad will “feel” really, really good. But it will.

Right now, a Facebook app seems like a minor upgrade from just using the iPhone app or logging into Facebook via Safari on iPad. But this is like saying that building a digital camera into a cell phone is only a minor change from carrying both devices. But history shows that the cell phone camera changed how people live and interact. Social networking optimized for tablet computers will prove to have a similar culture-changing effect.

Anyway, the Social Tablet Era starts Tuesday, if the rumors are true.

The Artificial Intelligence Phone Era

While the main use for a tablet will become social networking, the main use for a cell phone will be interacting with our personal robot assistants.

Within three to five years, we’ll talk to our phones, and our phones will talk back. Special software, either residing on the phone or off in some distant data center, will use artificial intelligence to gather reams of data about us, and our present circumstances and proactively suggest things to us.

When we want something, we’ll just tell our phones to do it:

“Call Steve, and if he doesn’t answer leave a message that I called.”

“Where’s the nearest good Chinese restaurant?”

“Postpone my three o’clock meeting for some time next week.”

The software accessible from our phones will figure out what we meant, interact with our calendars, contacts databases, social networks, favorite e-commerce sites, booking services, and the people we know in order to do our bidding.

In the third example above, our phones will notify other people I’m meeting with, find out when they are available, confirm all attendees for the new time and then put it on my calendar — all without my involvement.

This Star Trek-like capability will become expected and commonplace. But we’ll all trace it back to Tuesday, when Apple rolls out the Assistant.

In quintessential Apple style, the artificial intelligence agent that will appear in the next iOS release will be strictly feature limited to only the parts that work really well. The rest will come later.

Yes, Siri, the app upon which Apple’s Assistant technology is based, which itself is based on a Pentagon artificial intelligence agent technology program, has been around for a while. So have other similar attempts.

But the Apple rollout will instantly mainstream personal artificial intelligence agent technology. And that’s a huge milestone, the stuff of science fiction — until Tuesday.