After listening to a recent episode of The Talk Show in which John Gruber and Dave Wiskus discussed the potential future for an iWatch, I started wondering what has pushed the general consensus this far to begin with. We know from sources that Apple has been working with wearable devices and that one of the natural places to start is the wrist. But that’s more or less all we know.
Then, shortly after Gruber and Wiskus, Casey Liss posted some thoughts addressing an angle similar to my line of thinking. Apple’s products, especially in new markets, tend to bring the baseline features that the audience expects, designed in particular Apple style, with something extra added that very few people anticipate. The iPhone is the mother of all examples for this strategy (see The Prompt’s excellent dissection of the original keynote for more details than most could ever want). There were so many features that completely surprised huge segments of the audience. Things like accelerometer rotation, proximity detection, Mac OS X, that scrolling, and on and on.
The iPad had many of the same features as the iPhone, which was the expected part of the announcement. The surprise? The price, for one. But it wasn’t only that. The presenters spent a large portion of the keynote demonstrating how this little slate of aluminum and glass could accomplish productivity tasks in an intuitive way (though they dropped the ball on text-selection and document management). Very few Apple watchers foresaw a (truly) ten-hour tablet that not only ran iOS but did so with an eye on instigating the post-PC movement and did that starting at $500.
I could continue with examples from across the Apple history board (iPod, iTunes, TiBook, iMac, OS X, Cylindrical Mac Pro), but the two iOS devices give us enough to understand the picture as it stands today for wearables, and the seemingly inevitable iWatch. Apple’s greatest hits do something surprising, and their primary use cases tend to be different from the expected. The iPhone is for most people clearly not a phone but a tiny computer with a calls feature. The iPad is a great media device with the potential to replace the primary computer of those who don’t require advanced features (I personally have several friends and family members who only use iPads while their PC’s gather dust) all at the price of a Windows laptop. So how does a wearable fit this picture?
To come to any reasonable conclusion, we have to ask what this device will be for? It’s unlikely to replace the smartphone. UI and current interaction technology preclude this. Our fingers are too big, voice is too inaccurate and distracting to others, and a physical control (think modern day click-wheel) would seem dated regardless of functionality. However, if it doesn’t replace the smartphone, what does it do? The Android solution is that these things are little notification buzzers that dangle from your arm, making glances at incoming information quicker and easier.
This could be the center of a good product if the notifications carried more weight than those on current smartphones. Imagine a screen (LCD or a more static technology) that only showed the most important of your notifications. Our phones have dozens (sometimes hundreds) of notifications that build up over the course of the day. Do we need to look at all of them? No. Do we tend to look at all of them? No. In that case, it stands to reason that surfacing important notifications on a wearable would make sense (think missing a flight, an important meeting, or an insulin shot rather than something like your most recent @ reply on Twitter). Unfortunately, the software and human reality of choosing what is important is an incredibly difficult problem to solve. Unless this is Apple’s surprise, it seems that technology precludes wearables as critical notifications devices.
One of my examples—and with HealthKit, the example that’s on many minds these days—concerns monitoring health, fitness, and medical information. Sensors to do such monitoring are either too invasive or too sensitive to be reliable all day on a wrist device. It isn’t out of the question (in fact, I would be surprised if Apple released a wearable that didn’t address health in some way) but true medical monitoring is better left to the pros, at least as the tech stands today.
If it isn’t notifications and it isn’t health, then what is it that this new device will do or allow us to do that isn’t blatantly obvious? Payments could certainly be easier on a device that is already out and accessible. Though few of us need to shave a couple seconds off a notification check, many have felt the pressure of fiddling with our phones in line at a coffee shop. It’s a bit like being the guy who pays cash in those credit card commercials. And though one usually has to reach into a pocket for a credit card, there’s no unlocking, fingerprinting, app finding, navigating, and so on with a card. Between some of Apple’s new proximity features and a wearable, the payment process could be smoothed considerably.
Or, perhaps the device is passive, hanging there from your wrist “listening” for a number of factors that could aid your smartphone or tablet or Mac to show useful data later. If so, it stands to reason that price would again (as with the iPad) need to be a major factor. For a passive device with no outward dazzle to be successful, customers would need to impulse buy it in addition to their new phones, tablets, etc.
In any case, the Android version of a smartwatch looks less and less like something Apple would bring to market. Even so, there’s a lot of noise around Apple and wearables in general, this post included. For those who like to speculate, and there are a great many of us, the most interesting question is not what Apple’s wearable will do but what Apple’s wearable will do that we don’t expect?