The Apple Watch is not a watch

It’s one of many upcoming objects meant to enhance our situational awareness.

There have been many articles since the unveiling of the Apple Watch that doubt its potential as a product. While I’m not going to make an prediction as to its success in the market, I will say that people who are evaluating it as a watch are wrong.

The Apple Watch is not a watch, it is a notification delivery mechanism.

The current time used to be the most important information to make readily available. With the current time people could correlate their agendas, maps, travel plans, and so on to help them make decisions. For example, a woman might have internalized that she has a meeting at 1pm—and she knows that it takes 30 minutes to travel there—so the current time is the key piece of information in deciding her actions like when to leave.

Only recently do machines and the software they run have enough information about our lives, routines, locations, and current situations to be able to present information that is more relevant to us than the time. Google Now is probably the best example. It would notify the woman above precisely when she needs to leave without her needing to know the travel time in advance.

The problem is, services like Google Now do not have an unobtrusive way to deliver that number one most important piece of information. That is the problem Apple Watch solves.

The smart phone has traditionally been a device from which the user polls for data. Observe a crowded sidewalk or train and you’ll find that people are constantly pulling their phones out of their pocket to check for updated information. For some it’s a habit, and for others it’s an addiction—but for some people there is a real need to have the most up to date information possible to inform their next decision (when is the next train arriving? when is my next meeting? do I turn left or right?).

People actively check their devices instead of letting their devices notify them for two reasons: either they don’t use an information service (Google Now, Siri, etc.) to proactively notify them, or the service they do use isn’t good enough that they trust it to only provide intrusive notifications (sound or vibration) with truly relevant information. Having your phone vibrate to notify you about something you don’t care about gets annoying very quickly and many people will disable these notifications the first time it happens.

Wearable computing, like the Apple Watch, both lowers the cost of polling for information and lowers the penalty if the information service provides irrelevant information. It’s far easier to glance at your wrist than pull out your phone—and it interrupts your activity far less in case it’s wrong.

Omnipresent notifications systems enable developers to make new ways of enhancing our situational awareness. A commonly used example is scheduling. Glancing at your wrist shouldn’t tell you the time, it should tell you how long from now and what your next agenda item is. But scheduling is really just the start.

My personal favorite use is transit. More and more cities are deploying real-time prediction times for buses and trains. In Chicago, for example, a developer could build today an app that, as you near a train station, displays the minutes to the next train versus the minutes for the next bus in the same direction. Apps like Citymapper have made good progress towards this on phones, but having that information on your wrist at the right time would be far more useful.

Shopping and spending is another huge application. Imagine if your wrist let you know that the product you are just about to purchase at a retail store is available cheaper across the street. Or if it reminded you that you’re over your budget for the month on clothing before you head to the checkout counter (an application I’m working on now). This assistance would materially improve your life.

There are many more potential applications. The way to find them is to look at everyday decisions people make which would be better made with more information. Traveling, spending, eating, exercising, dating, working, relaxing—they can all be improved by lowering the cost of accessing information.

The Apple Watch is not a watch. It is part of the larger trend of objects around us—appliances to clothing to cars—becoming more aware of whatever we need most and presenting that information in a way that assists our lives rather than interrupts them.