Years ago, Apple promoted the Mac as a “digital hub” for media. Today we take for granted that computers can be used as hubs for media.

Two of the numerous points covered in Apple’s recent demo of version 3.0 of the iPhone OS was that Apple was finally giving developers access to the port, as well as unblocking bluetooth. These points have largely gone unremarked, but in the long run, I suspect they’ll be especially significant. I think Apple is positioning the iPhone to be a mobile hub.

Right now, the iPhone/iPod Touch has a sharper display, more processing power, and better input affordances than many of the gadgets that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. I predict that some manufacturers will take note of this and start producing headless products that will only work with an iPhone snapped onto the front to take care of these functions and/or provide new functions. This could be a nice moneyspinner for Apple, because of their “iPod tax” on products marked as compatible, and because it would make the iPhone that much more appealing, thus increasing demand for it. It could also be a profitable niche for manufacturers to exploit, since they could sell a product that is more functional than conventional equivalents but cheaper to build.

For example:

  • Car stereos: A car stereo with no faceplate, but simply a bracket and plug for an iPhone strikes me as the most obvious category. Many aftermarket car stereos already have detachable faceplates anyhow, and this would be a logical extension of that idea. Giving direct access to music on the phone would be the obvious benefit, but it would allow tidier integration of phone functions into the car, and add navigation as a lagniappe. A custom app might give simplified access to phone, nav, and music, and perhaps would have a radio controller that communicated with an actual radio in the car stereo over the port.
  • Bike computers: There are already a number of interesting apps that can use the GPS chip on the iPhone to track performance and routes over a bike ride, but these are hampered by some of the phone’s limitations. One is that there’s no way to continue logging GPS data when the app is not running, for example, when answering a call. I’m not sure if 3.0 will change that. (A friend who works at Apple suggests it will, but I’m skeptical. All that would really be needed would be a simple background daemon that logged GPS data at regular intervals, allowing the actual app to pick up where it left off.) Apart from that, a bike-mounted cradle for the phone would permit wheel and heart-rate monitor data to be fed into the phone through the jack and could provide extra battery power to the phone—so far, the only way to get heart-rate monitor data into the phone has been through a specialized product that uses wifi. This is a clever hack, but bluetooth or some kind of low-power radio communicating with the cradle would be more appropriate.
  • Cameras: I’m not the first person to observe that serious cameras could use an interface more like an iPhone’s. Snapping an iPhone directly onto a camera back would be ungainly, but tethering it over a wire could make a lot of sense, making it a tool for managing captured photos, backing them up, appending metadata (including GPS), and transmitting them.
  • Trackpads: Again, there is already an app for the iPhone that allow it to function as a trackpad (or as a tenkey input, etc), but again, these work over wifi. Apple has done a lot to make the trackpad on laptops not only a tolerable alternative to the mouse but in many ways a superior one. I can imagine a keyboard with a snap-in slot for the iPhone that turns it into a trackpad, giving those advantages to people using desktops.

What is not clear so far is whether a new port connection can trigger an app on the iPhone. This would be helpful—if not necessary—to create a seamless experience. Ideally one would simply snap one’s phone onto one’s car stereo in order to put it into car-stereo mode—the phone would recognize what it was connected to, and an application would have been registered to automatically launch when that connection is made.

Later: Looks like I’m not the only person to think about this. See iPhone 3.0 As the Accessory to …? and PC 1.0, iPhone 3.0 and the Woz: Everything Old is New Again