Apple’s quest for the disappearing computer

August 7, 2018

Last Wednesday, Apple presented its latest software developments at the WWDC18. Its announcements, ranging from new digital well-being features and an updated AR development kit to improved performance, seem to further highlight Apple’s ongoing quest to get the computer out of the way of the user. In review, we try to understand Apple’s design principles from the perspective of the disappearing computer, a human-computer interaction paradigm in which the computer practically becomes invisible.

Our observations

  • The term “the disappearing computer” was coined by Bill Gates, who envisioned a future in which computers are practically invisible, because they will be embedded in our everyday objects. Other terms that also refer to a computing paradigm where computers have dissolved into our everyday environment for the purpose of creating the best user experience, are “ambient computing”, “pervasive computing” and “ubiquitous computing”.
  • At the WWDC, Apple presented the new ARKit 2.0, which provides developers with improved features in creating AR applications. AR can be seen as one of the ways in which the disappearing computer will manifest itself, as AR allows the computer to become a transparent window through which it can convey the virtual experience as though it was there in real life.
  • In 2017, Walt Mossberg, tech journalist and longtime friend of Steve Jobs’, wrote his very last blog post about the idea of the disappearing computer.

Connecting the dots

In the history of personal computing, Apple has always been a front-runner in determining how the everyday consumer interacts with computers; the graphical user interface and mouse were introduced with Apple’s Lisa, the multi-touch interface found its way through the iPhone and iPad and lately, wearables such as smart watches and wireless earbuds have mostly gained traction through the Apple watch and Airpods. Reportedly, in a secret project codenamed “T288”, Apple is also currently working on an augmented reality head-mounted device, which is expected to launch somewhere around 2020. In anticipation of that moment, Apple already seems to be expanding its developer base and content library.Interestingly, if we take a step back, we see that these design improvements have consistently been about rendering the computer more and more transparent, whether it be through design principles such as hardware miniaturization, through using intuitive design metaphors to obfuscate the underlying complex technical processes (e.g. graphical user interface, skeuomorphism – objects in software mimic their real-world counterpart, such as the trash can, touch screens), through product design that highlights aesthetics and immediacy, or through making the computing modalities increasingly immersive (e.g. big displays, earbuds, glasses). Speculatively, following this trend, a combination of AR glasses, wireless earbuds (both mainly responsible for machine output) and a smartwatch (responsible for machine input) could become the new personal computing paradigm that could replace the dominance of the smartphone.However, Apple also seems to pursue aspects other than the interface technology itself to bring about the disappearance of the computer. First of all, in order to make the computer more transparent, their devices should be allowed to become more intimate, whether it be by embedding computers in our everyday objects (e.g. speakers, television, lighting) or by wearing them on our bodies (e.g. wearables). Therefore, Apple’s advocacy of privacy, even explicitly attacking other tech companies, does not come as a surprise. Their application of differential privacy and embedding of independent privacy watchdogs within their organization seem to emphasize this.Another consequence of the disappearing computer, is that people should be willing to embed computers in their everyday life from a meaning and esthetics perspective. Thus, it is no coincidence that Apple has always tried to associate itself with lifestyle, whether by joining forces with fashionable brands like Beats, Hermès and Nike or by putting emphasis on aesthetic design. These strategies camouflage the computer, while actually making us more aware of it, albeit as something fashionable and not so much as something technical.Lastly, in order to make computers less apparent, it is important to be able to follow the mental flow of the user, and to adapt to it, so that the computer can show and obfuscate itself when necessary. Here, it seems that Apple is not leading the competition, as painfully demonstrated by its voice assistant Siri. Interestingly, the design principle of valuing privacy seems to be in conflict with efficiently optimizing their algorithms here. Nevertheless, it seems that Apple wants to solve this issue by moving a lot of data-processing to the personal device, thereby keeping personal identifiable information away from the cloud. In this respect, Google and Apple are on a collision course, both improving where the other excels (Google is launching its own consumer hardware line, while Apple is working hard on AI).


  • In the age of the disappearing computer, personal computing will rely increasingly on privacy and lifestyle. Consequently, personal computing companies will have to internalize these characteristics in order to become relevant.
  • The disappearing computer will, in part, have to rely on artificial intelligence, as it allows for automation of a lot of manual hypermediate interactions. The company that is able to successfully solve the tension between good AI and privacy could become dominant.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
Read the article
2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article

About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Arief Hühn headed FreedomLab from 2018 until 2023, directing our research and business endeavors with a special emphasis on the impact of emerging digital technologies on the economy, politics and society. He holds a master's degree in communication sciences from Radboud University Nijmegen and a doctorate degree in human-computer interaction from Eindhoven University of Technology.

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