Is the Watch the Next Big (Tech) Thing

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Lots of buzz about the Watch, as we quickly approach Apple’s official entrance into the wearable tech market. I know they’ll sell tons of the devices right away and depending on whether you’re a fan or a hater, it’ll either be a complete disaster or proof that Apple can do no wrong. Alas, this will be the first time, due my current employment status (or lack thereof), that I won’t be joining in on the fun with the first gen of this device. Damn. I’m not used to this, but it gives me a chance to look at things from a bit more distance than my normal “early adopter” vantage point.

So, is the Watch the next big thing? Great question. Alas, if I had that information, I think I’d be in a position to buy one of the more expensive models of the watch, instead of viewing it all from the sideline. Truthfully, such things aren’t really knowable before the fact. But as a technologist who’s studied the trends for decades I can say that the watch, like the original Apple ][ and the Macintosh and the iMac and the iPod and the iPhone and the iPad, is another step by a device manufacture to do more than just make gadgets and techno-boxes.

To the general public the watch is another shiny new thing to vaguely lust after, because we naturally want it but we don’t know why we want it. While the tech press wants to ride the buzz and report on this device, many a commentator suffers from the inability to see beyond their own tech bubble. It’s kind of like only appreciating the kind of music you grew up with. I know of a few pundits who think that anything without a full keyboard, mouse AND USB port is little more than a toy. So, they may have some difficulty understanding the future use of these devices because it doesn’t fit into their own current lifestyles. Honestly, we all look at reality based on prior experiences. So when Apple does something wacky, like getting rid of floppy drives and going USB for all connectors (1998), or introducing an overly expensive MP3 player (2001), or introducing a phone (2007) and tablet (2010) without a physical keyboard and no USB (the Horror!), or removing CD/DVD drives (2012), these pundits tend to soil their pampers and long for the security of “the way things used to be.” “Just give me my punch cards,” or “let me have a device that I can tweak the hell out of and put any ol’ theme/UI I want on it,” they seem to be calling for. In the meantime, technology companies become consumer companies and the world moves on. There’s a famous Henry Ford quote about innovation, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” So, let’s let go of prior consumer technology assumptions and look a bit further down the road.

The next big thing… PCs (keyboards/mice/USB) aren’t going away, but they will be the much more niche device used by professionals who need desktop iron to get things done. Right now typing is a hell of a lot faster to input new information than voice or gestures, but what happens when voice-recognition gets into the 99% accuracy range or when most of us are searching for data and not needing to create giant documents? It’s a much different skill to be able to compose by voice versus typing/writing but imagine if composition happened at the speed of thought and wasn’t dependent on fingers on keys?

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A second limitation/challenge is how we get visual feedback from our devices. Bigger is better? Back in the 1980s I used a 9-inch monochrome CRT on my Kaypro computer and I loved it. Now I watch my friend, Maggie, use her 11-inch MacBook Air and shudder to think about having to work with such a small screen for everything. But what if you could get a high-resolution projection that wasn’t limited to how many monitors you could fit on your desk? Google Glass was an interesting public experiment, but it was little more than getting “pager” level visual feedback, and maybe Watch will have the same problem of not quite delivering the information in a way that is really useful. That is a problem when we think of visual UI as just how many pixels we can fit on a slab of technology. Ultimately we’ll need some wearable heads-up apparatus that isn’t any more obtrusive than a normal pair of glasses, or even contact lenses. But until we do have full-high-resolution virtual heads-up devices, we have to recognize that the real challenge is understanding how we differently use these various classes of devices. For example, when we’re looking at our large computer screens we tend to quickly scan the full screen but rarely do any long form reading. Interestingly, and possibly because of their book-like size, we do reserve real reading behaviors for tablets. And with our phones (and future smartwatches), according to Evernote CEO Phil Libin, these are single glance devices. You get a notification, you look, you act on the notification and you move on. In a sense the smartphone/smartwatch combo will fulfill that just-in-time notification. But what you don’t want is to have to stare at the little screen endlessly. Yes, you can read books on your smartphone, and the experience shouldn’t be much different from reading a paperback, but I wouldn’t write this blog entry on my phone. It’s doable, but I like to see more than a few lines to help me with my composition. There’s a limit to how much you can cram onto a small screen. But all of that goes away with virtual heads-up screens.

The third limitation/challenge is the strength/speed of ones connection. These are connected devices by nature. It’s not unimaginable that future devices will have enough memory/raw power to handle everything on-chip, but in the meantime nothing meaningful is stand-alone. The point and the power is to connect. Part of what frees us from the tyranny of having to type everything into a PC is that there already is a vast collection of data out there and the fun is making something new from what already is, or adding one’s voice to the collection of experiences. Also in this equation is how natural the user-experience is to connect. Connection beyond the device should be as simple as connecting to the device. Just put it on and go.

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So, in many ways the era of measuring things in terms of speeds and feeds, more megahertz, faster, cheaper has passed. Apple has proven that sometimes a lower powered device that has a better designed user-interface is much better than a “more powerful” device that pays less attention to user experience. Steve Jobs said that the desktop PC is like the pick-up truck in that it can do a lot that a car can’t do, but most of us get along quite well without a truck. And for most of the world their only computing device is their smartphone, which has way more computing power than my old 1980s Kaypro Computer did (with a way better interface and network connectivity!). I’m reminded that much of what my mom does on her aging Mac-Mini, mostly email, could be done with an iPad from any room in her house. But I got her her first PC long enough ago that she thinks of using the computer as something you do in that spare room sitting at a “computer desk” with a keyboard and mouse. I wish that she could adjust to the iPad I gave to her, but she got along quite well most of her life without it. No point in pushing something that doesn’t seem too important to her now. I wonder at what point in the future will I settle in on what I’m comfortable adjusting to and what I decide isn’t for me. Some pundit seem to have already put the Watch in that category, sight unseen.

I’m interested in the fitness-tracking aspect of the Watch. I am at an age where any incentive to live a healthier lifestyle is a good thing. At the same time, I am one those who stopped wearing watches once I started using my iPhone. So, we’ll see.

I’m forced to conclude that by itself, the Watch isn’t the next big thing. But it does represent where technology is going, connecting to the things we’re doing, partially disappearing from focus while being a beautiful piece of design and engineering. This won’t work for those looking for something cheap. There’s an aspirational aspect to the device. It is expensive. There will be plenty of “me too” vendors out there who will promise to give the user something similar but less expensive than the Watch. In many decades of using technology and consumer tech, I’ve yet to see that be the case. The following video, by The Verge’s Nilay Patel seems to be the most complete review of the Watch. Enjoy.

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