Mobile Computing at a Different Level

There are many ways in which people use computers. (I’m talking about all sorts of computers here, including smartphones and tablets.) Some people’s needs are very simple; they may use the machines merely to stay connected with their world. Other people have more complex needs. You can organize these various uses on a continuum that ranges from least to most powerful. Consider at least three levels:

  1. Accessing Content: Computer is used primarily to find information on the internet. Users at this level interact with others through email or social networks, but do so lightly. They spend the bulk of their on-device time accessing content created by others. Many casual users are on this level; it’s also where they have the least power.
  2. Creating Content: In addition to the previous level, computer is also used as a content-creation device. While users at this level may spend a considerable amount of time accessing content created by others, they also produce lots of content of their own. Many people who use computers professionally are on this level.
  3. Tweaking Workflows: In addition to the previous two levels, the computer is also used to modify how the computer works. This includes enabling new workflows through programming or scripting. This level affords most users the most power.

(There’s an even higher level, which is closer to the machine’s metal and affords a very small subset of people tremendous power. I’m not going to get into that here; I’m concerned with how most of us interact with these devices.)

Consider a transportation analogy. On level one, you are a passenger in public transport. On level two, you are driving a car. On level three, you are a mechanic, capable of making modifications to the vehicle to fix it or improve its performance. As with transportation, the higher the level, the more complexity the user must deal with.

Which level are you? If you’re like most people, your at either levels 1 or 2. This is OK; very few people take advantage of level 3. Learning to program requires great effort, and for most uses the payoff may seem to not be worth the investment of time required.

I was around eight years old when I first interacted with a computer: a TRS-80 Model I. As with most machines of this vintage (late 1970s), when you sat down in front of a Model I you were greeted by a command prompt:

Image: https://picclick.com/TRS-80-Radio-Shack-Tandy-Model-1-Video-Display-323191180180.html
Image: https://picclick.com/TRS-80-Radio-Shack-Tandy-Model-1-Video-Display-323191180180.html

The computer could do very little on its own. You needed to give it commands, most often in the BASIC programming language. (Which incidentally just turned 50.) So level 3 was the baseline for using computers at this time. We’ve come a long way since then. Most computers are now like appliances; you don’t need to know much about how they work under the hood in order to take advantage of them. However, knowing even a little bit about how they work can grant you superpowers.

Level 3 has come a long way from the days of the TRS-80. I’ve been messing around with the new Shortcuts functionality in iOS 12, and am very impressed with how easy it is to string together several apps to accomplish new things. For example, the Home ETA shortcut strings together the Apple Maps, Contacts, and Messages apps. When you install the shortcut, you configure it with your home’s street address and the contact information of the person you want notified. When you activate the shortcut (which you can do through various means, including an icon on your home screen), Apple Maps figures out your current location and uses it to calculate how far you are from home. Then it passes that information to Messages, which then sends your estimated time of arrival to your selected contact.

It’s not a mind-blowing functionality, but the fact that iPhones and iPads can do this at all is impressive. iOS users can now create arbitrary connections between components of the system, opening up possibilities that were previously difficult or impossible. Shortcuts also promises to make these much better as productivity tools. It’s the old Unix “small pieces loosely joined” philosophy — but in a platform designed to be less of a computer than an appliance. It opens up level 3 possibilities for level 1 and 2 users, without asking that they become mechanics.