What to Watch For
What makes a computer worth wearing?
It’s easy to trivialize wearables by saying things like “their only benefit is saving your hand a trip to your pocket,” but there are vast implications of saving that trip our hand makes dozens of times per day. Not only can it make our existing uses for smartphones more efficient, it could make everything we do more efficient.
In truth, there’s no such thing as saving time — only optimizing how it’s spent. The Apple Watch appears to be the first wearable device that holistically attempts to reallocate our time: from screens that absorb our attention to devices that distribute it. This is a story — a theory — about how the Apple Watch is designed to refocus our attention on the world around us by augmenting our physical-world experiences.
The theory started with Ben Thompson touching on how Apple’s services underpin the Apple Watch in Episode 35 of his podcast, “Exponent”:
What’s interesting about all these services — CarPlay, HomeKit, HealthKit, Siri, and Apple Pay — none of them need a screen. And if they don’t need a screen, what’s the point of a screen? Wouldn’t it be better if you could favor portability and convenience over the screen? […] They [just] need radios, and they need some sort of biometric information — maybe a heartbeat. […]
I actually think the Watch is more suited to these five services than the phone is, and the reason it’s suited is because these five services are all about interacting with your environment, not about interacting with the screen. And if you’re interacting with your environment, something that’s just attached to you and you don’t have to reach in your pocket for — yes it’s a small thing, but it’s a small thing that adds up — and you’ve been looking for a reason to own a watch, […] if these services do pan out, there’s your reason to have a Watch. It’s pretty compelling.
Even if it entails having a phone in your pocket. And of course, once the phone’s gone, then it’s even better. If you’re carrying a load of groceries and you walk up to the door and you can just lift your wrist up to the lock and it will unlock, that’s awesome. If you can go to the store and just hold your wrist up to pay and not fish your phone out, all these things add up. And oh, by the way, for health, you can actually start tracking the health directly because it’s a sensor in its own right.
I find this theory compelling and decided to unpack and expand on it a bit. What does it take to create purpose for a new product?
Creating a market
The pressure is on Apple to “create the market” for smartwatches. Relatively few have been sold to date — about 10 million in 2014, according to Gartner, and only a small fraction of those run Android Wear, the companion software to 1 billion+ Android smartphones in use. When launching any product, it needs to find “product-market fit” — the “market” defined by a broadly held purpose, and the “fit” defined by the product’s ability to fulfill that purpose. Most products aim to provide a superior way of fulfilling an existing purpose that is widely known and established. For example, Airbnb created a new product that fulfills the purpose of convenient lodging. Hotels have already established that this market exists, but Airbnb’s product is positioned as superior in some ways (cost, convenience, experience, etc.). Creating a new market, however, requires a company to not only demonstrate that their product effectively fulfills its purpose, but that its purpose is even desirable in the first place. The market for “augmenting physical-world experiences” hasn’t yet been established.
Horace Dediu outlines one way to delineate computing eras: by their “Revolutionary User Interfaces” (mouse, click-wheel, multi-touch, voice). Interfaces, though, only reflect the effectiveness of a product’s execution. Underlying that execution is the prioritized functionality to execute, and underpinning that functionality is the product’s ultimate purpose. It all starts with a purpose.
New forms follow function
What purpose do computers fulfill? Their purpose is to augment human capabilities. Steve Jobs called computers “the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” Computers make our minds more efficient, and thereby augment our productivity — which became the core purpose of the personal computer. That’s why the dominant applications for desktop computers are Excel, Powerpoint, Word, Photoshop, and Search. Each enhances our productivity.
But when computers became truly personal — with one-person-per-device — and the internet became broadly distributed, a new purpose for computers began developing. PC software started playing a prominent role not just in productivity, but also in keeping us connected (AIM, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail/chat, etc.) — and the PC form factor quickly met its limit for serving this purpose. After all, optimizing a device for staying connected requires very different trade-offs than a device optimized for productivity.
Today, this is what we employ smartphones for: greater connection. Their purpose is not so much to augment our minds but to augment our hearts, to stay connected with the things that are important to us emotionally. That’s why the most popular applications on smartphones are for social media, messaging, and entertainment: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify. These apps fulfill an emotional purpose more than a mental one. What smartphones do better than PCs is keep us connected, and their form factor is necessary to do so.
With powerful smartphones on us at all times and the ubiquitous availability of data connections, another new purpose has begun developing. Smartphone software has started playing a prominent role not just in keeping us connected to things far away, but also in augmenting our real-world experiences with our environment (on iOS: HealthKit, iBeacons, AirPlay, Apple Pay, etc.). But the smartphone is meeting its limit for serving this purpose. After all, optimizing a device for enhancing real-world experiences requires very different trade-offs than a device optimized for keeping us connected.
If the personal computer improves productivity, and the smartphone improves connection, then the wearable computer augments experiences. In the context of the iPhone, Ben Thompson describes Apple’s services as foundational building blocks that extend the company’s importance to your every day life. When he describes those services on his podcast as the underpinning of the Apple Watch, an even clearer thread between them surfaces: They enhance interactions with the physical world. Put differently, with these services, the Apple Watch makes the entire physical world your interface. Simply wear this device on your wrist and you can:
– Open locked doors with your bare hands (HomeKit)
– Pay with a wave of your hand (Apple Pay)
– Navigate the world without looking at or listening to a device (Maps / Siri)
– Optimize your body’s activity (HealthKit)
– Access other devices like phones, computers, and TVs (iCloud / AirPlay)
– Unlock information about the world around you (Notifications)
– Communicate your identity and values to other humans (appearance)
In this context, technology merely unlocks the essence of the physical things around you through your natural interactions with them. This is conceptually straightforward for interacting with objects: The watch instantly confirms your identity to the objects you interact with. When considered through through the lens of communicating your identity to the world, the aesthetics of the Apple Watch suddenly seem to serve the device’s foundational purpose, rather than an additional or frivolous one.
Many of our interactions with the world happen through objects, but even more happen through people. This explains why Apple put such care into the aesthetics of the Watch — because its appearance communicates your identity to the people around you. Apple will offer 16 different bands made from 3 different materials and 6 different cases made from 3 different metals, to let you match your device to your identity. Depending on your choices, it could reflect a subtle, athletic personality (the space gray case with a black rubber band), something more sophisticated and refined (steel case with brown leather band), or even a taste for the luxurious and fancy (rose gold with red leather band). Even the prices, which are yet to be formally announced, could indicate a lot about you. The mutual knowledge of these prices mean an attainably priced aluminum case identifies you very differently than a substantially higher-priced gold version. While entry-level Apple Watch models are likely to be priced on their utility, the gold cases may be classified with other luxury watches as a Veblen good — a product whose “demand is proportional to its price, for which a decrease in price decreases demand because it is no longer perceived as exclusive or high-status.” It’s easy to imagine even more customization options being added over time to help people even more effectively communicate their identity.
Being constantly on display gives wearable devices the chance to enhance your interactions with the people around you — similar to other jewelry, but unlike other computing form factors.
There are also functional characteristics that are unique to wearables that make them more capable of augmenting real-world experiences than other device classes:
(1) Tactile communication: Smartphones can show you things and speak to you, but they can’t tap you on the wrist with nuanced meaning like the Apple Watch’s “Taptic Engine” can. This is what enables eyes- and ears-free navigation, as described by Matt Sundstrom on Backchannel.
(2) Awareness of surroundings: With GPS, a smartphone is aware of its location but has no sense of proximity to you. After authenticating your identity when you put it on, the Apple Watch can represent your identity for as long as it maintains contact with your skin — meaning there’s no need for you to reauthenticate, even for highly secure services like Apple Pay. Further, smartphones can feel general movements but can’t detect your precise activity level, heart rate, or the sounds around you (since the microphone is often inside a pocket or bag).
(3) Hands-free usage: PCs and smartphones require your direct attention, while wearables leave your hands and eyes available to focus first on the world — augmenting your focus rather than capturing it.
Together, these three attributes and the device’s appearance enable you to interact with the world around you in ways the human body alone could never achieve.
Famously, Apple creates “integrated” experiences for consumers, represented first by their integration of hardware and software. Steve Jobs pointed this out often, as early as 1980 when he said, “The line between hardware and software is going to get finer, and finer, and finer.” In 1982, Alan Kay, one of the fathers of modern computing, reiterated the importance of this integration saying, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”
To create cohesive experiences, Apple integrates primarily the elements of its products that people directly interact with. To serve this goal, they have recently introduced “services” as an important component of holistically designed computing experiences. In October 2012, Apple even overhauled their organizational structure to reflect this, publishing a press release titled “Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services.” Tim Cook reiterated the importance of this three-way integration when he closed the 2014 WWDC Keynote with:
Apple engineers platforms, devices, and services together. We do this so that we can create a seamless experience for our users that is unparalleled in the industry. This is something only Apple can do.
Or, as he said in a September 2014 Bloomberg interview, “the lines between hardware, software, and services are blurred or are disappearing.” Interestingly, Tim Cook began employing this mantra and reorganizing the company around it during the same period when Apple Watch development began in early 2012.
The Apple Watch is the first device that would not have been possible without the addition of services to the elements Apple integrates. Without the services diagramed above — iCloud, HomeKit, HealthKit, Siri, Maps, AirPlay, Apple Pay — the Apple Watch would not have a purpose beyond telling time. Together, these services create the purpose: to blur the lines between the digital and the physical.
To date, the moments when we interact with our devices and the moments we are interact with our surroundings have been distinct. The services underlying the Apple Watch enable us to blend these, to create moments in which technology invisibly enhances our interactions with the world.
The value of time
By enhancing your existing real-world experiences, the Apple Watch does save time — or at least allows you to reallocate it, and that’s anything but trivial. Through seamless experiences, it eliminates a range of daily headaches and wasted time. Here’s how Steve Jobs described the importance of saving even small slices of time from our daily routines, in the context of boot time for the original Mac in August 1983:
Well, let’s say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users, and that’s 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that’s probably dozens of lifetimes. So, if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you’ve saved a dozen lives. That’s really worth it, don’t you think?
Can you imagine how many lifetimes would be saved by eliminating the 5 seconds it takes to grab your phone 110x per day? For an individual, eliminating just half of those 5-seconds-to-grab-your-phone moments saves 4.5 minutes per day. Multiply that by 100 million users and that’s 450 million minutes every day. Over a year, that’s thousands of lifetimes. And even more time saved if you keep your phone in your bag or purse.
Those calculations reflect just the time saved by enhancing interactions with your phone. There are countless daily interactions with the world that each require seconds or minutes of our lives, every single day: rifling through your bag to locate your keys after your commute, pulling a payment device from your pocket multiple times per day, even reopening the Maps app at every corner as you navigate the city. All of these headaches and wasted moments can vanish with the services that underpin the Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch doesn’t demand your attention for itself, in fact it attempts to deflect your attention onto the world around you.
It’s about time.